Colson Whitehead talks about his new book “Harlem Shuffle”
let’s go and start. Welcome to Sacramento. Have you ever been to Northern California? Northern California. Yeah, I was in San Francisco for *** years, living in the height of the dot com era. So it was interesting. And now, of course, when I go back, you know, the city changes so much from year to year and this is my second stop in Sacramento. I was here *** a few years ago talking about college *** a little north of here, I was snowed in, well the plane was snowed in. So I had to, I had two extra days here and uh, I had to walk around the city *** heaps. It’s good to be back. Yeah, well welcome, we’re glad to see you again. So your last two books that you know were so well claimed they were wonderful. But they also dealt with really heavy stuff and systemic racism and really big stuff, but heavy stuff. Your latest book feels like a total *** detour in a really delightful *** way. Was it intentional to go in such a different direction and as a writer, is it important to do that sometimes? Well, I always changed places. So, uh, it’s weird for me to do serious back-to-back books. I usually do *** a book that’s maybe *** heavy a bit, then something lighter and put out maybe *** a short book and a *** long book before the path of clandestine iron. I did a *** zombie novel and a *** poker memoir and a *** coming of age novel. So if I’m jumping like kind of my style, I think if you can do something, why do it again. And I’ve always tried to reflect my interests in my books and I like serious books, I like more comedic material. And so the great thing about this job is that if I keep going, I can write about all these different topics in different ways, wherever your imagination chooses to take you. Let’s talk a bit about the Harlem shuffle and where the character of Ray Carney comes from. Well, I had the, you know, the kind that I wanted to write a heist novel first and then who’s gonna be and I decided that my main character be offensive, someone who sells stolen goods. And I was doing some research and I found that a lot of the fences have real, you know, a front operation, they sell used furniture or appliances and in the back they have, you know, all the dirty business and their stolen goods and talking to *** me divided. Someone who has Ray Carney, my main character, is someone who, you know, embraces these different directions. He’s an upstanding citizen, it seems, but he’s got this dark side, a part of him that says, let’s commit a crime. And he juggles both. There’s this wonderful thing about the heist. I mean, I love, I’m *** he was a huge Oceans 11 fan, you know, I love the concept of the heist, as *** as *** trope the thing that’s awesome at About *** heist and someone like that is that you fall in love with the character and really support him all the time, even if he’s a little flawed. Of course, I mean there are, there are criminals. Yes, there is that, but it can go both ways. They can, you know, plot and plan and pull off the heist and transcend the fate of their destiny by bringing together this caper or another, you know, like, Another subgenre of the heist story, Anything goes wrong, they plot and plan and the safe crackers back to heroin, the man behind the wheel fights with his wife. And so all these little kinds of human elements come in and destroy their attempt to transcend their filthy lives. And what I love about, you know, Cardi and Harlem shuffle is that he puts the planning in place and you know, sometimes he pulls it off, he transcends where he comes from. The book is set in 1960. Harlem, what attracted you to that time? Uh, I think, you know, the Underground Railroad was 18, America, uh, the nickel boys were in Florida in the ’60s, I just wanna be near my *** bit, not as hard, I don’t have to imagine what kind of clothes they wear. Uh and I love, I love New York, I love writing about it in different ways. Uh, I wasn’t alive in the sixties. Um so much imagining my parents in New York was fun and and going to the New York Times archives and newspaper archives and uh uh understanding the language, the political atmosphere of the city and of course since Carney is a *** salesman furniture, what kind of stuff he has in his showroom, there’s all this really fun research. One thing we share in common is that our parents were in this area at the same time, my parents were immigrants from Ireland and ended up in New York in the late 50s and early 60s and it’s interesting to hear that the stories that they had from that time on what a magical place *** it was whatever your brother you were in it was nothing but the hope of an opportunity for many people. No sure I mean in the late 18’s Harlem was, you know, pastor and was starting to become buildings and communities and it was *** a rotating cast of Irish Italians, Jews coming in , trying to make it the city, then they move to the suburbs. They’re actually moving up the economic ladder and then the southern and Caribbean black Americans are coming in and so what I love about walking around Harlem is it’s going to be an 1870 *** townhouse and so many different types of people have been through there one, this one property with their dreams in motion, starting a *** family rising in the system and then leaving and and it goes on, you know, Harlem always has this big ride of, of people trying to do it in the city. I read that your mother had thoughts on some of the things you mentioned in the books. You have to check the facts, you are talking about real. Yes. Well I didn’t, I didn’t realize it was actually his New York and so I would do this research on Theresa’s hotel or that ice cream shop that was in the 60s, then I’d tell my mom and she’s like, oh yeah, I was there the whole time, you know, chock full of nuts. I would go there before I go to work and I should have asked her instead of doing the real, real work. Isn’t it funny to think of the resource you actually had their Yes, Yes, Yes. How important is fact checking. Even if you’re writing about a relatively recent story people love to criticize you for, don’t miss this little detail. So yeah, I mean you’re trying to get it right and it’s, you know, it can be anxiety-provoking. Turns out some of the people who were alive in the 60s are still around and I have opinions on different things. So, uh, I haven’t gotten too many letters, but I’m sure there are upset people saying, no, actually this restaurant was closed or not, no. One of the ***, you know, *** good kind of good black people with integrity would never live on this street. So, uh, I’m waiting for the letters to come in, you’ve won two Pulitzer Prizes, how’s that? And how has it changed the way you work? And maybe some of the opportunities that come your way, the main thing is that I don’t teach, you know, I can really write, that also means I travel more, so I learned to write in the bedrooms hotels and planes as I visit foreign publishers in Norway, Finland and China. So, uh, but having time to really think about my wacky ideas was really nice, so that’s the main thing, but it’s still, you know, hard work. And so I was trying to figure things out about my new project today this afternoon And it never gets easier and you know, if it got any easier, it wouldn’t be worth doing. Does it surprise people that it doesn’t get easier? Is there an assumption by some that I keep saying people don’t normally believe me? I mean, and after 25 years of writing, sometimes people get the book and sometimes they don’t, and so I’ve been writing books, because nobody particularly cared about it coming out and I know that can always happen . So I try to do my best with each book and not take it for granted. What’s the best thing about writing these days, uh, I think there’s always the quirky joy of finding a *** character or a *** phrase or an image that you didn’t know that you were going to create that morning. And so there’s a *** breakthrough in terms of, oh, stories should go this way or this, you know, three those three words perfectly sum up this character in a *** certain way. And all of that is just a very nice surprise. You never know what you’re going to discover during the day or what’s going to click and what’s going to sort of fix the book. What a great way to still look at life in general, in the books, not life, but yeah, but in the books it seems to work. I’m not sure of the rest. Great, well, thank you very much. I appreciate it. I can’t wait to be tonight. It will be funny. Thank you
Colson Whitehead talks about his new book “Harlem Shuffle”
They say good things come in threes. And many people suspect author Colson Whitehead of becoming the first person this century to win three Pulitzer Prizes in fiction. Only three other novelists, William Faulkner, John Updike and Booth Tarkington, have won two Pulitzers for fiction. Whitehead received recognition for “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys”. Both books use prose to bring attention and insight to systemic racism in America. But Whitehead’s latest novel “Harlem Shuffle,” his eighth, takes a detour and tells the story of Ray Carney, a lovable con man in 1960s Harlem. Deirdre Fitzpatrick serves as moderator and sat down with Whitehead to talk about what it’s like to write a crime story and why listening to our parents can save us so much time.
They say good things come in threes.
And many people suspect author Colson Whitehead of becoming the first person this century to win three Pulitzer Prizes in fiction.
Only three other novelists, William Faulkner, John Updike and Booth Tarkington, have won two Pulitzer for fiction.
Whitehead has been recognized for “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys.” Both books use prose to bring attention and insight to systemic racism in America.
But Whitehead’s latest novel “Harlem Shuffle,” his eighth, takes a detour and tells the story of Ray Carney, a lovable 1960s Harlem hustler.
Whitehead is the featured speaker at this year’s closing Sacramento Speaker Series. Deirdre Fitzpatrick serves as moderator and sat down with Whitehead to talk about what it’s like to write a crime story and why listening to our parents can save us so much time.