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New Novel Takes 'The Underground Railroad' Beyond The Metaphor


Colson Whitehead has brought a metaphor to life - the Underground Railroad. His novel of the same name is both magical and real with dreamlike passages delivered with savage, searing detail to tell the story of a teenage woman named Cora who escapes a Georgia plantation with another slave who's been named Caesar as they head north but must keep looking back for an army of slave catchers who are in pursuit.

"The Underground Railroad" is the latest novel from Colson Whitehead, a MacArthur Fellow, who's been one of the most acclaimed young writers in America. And this book is one of the most highly anticipated of the year. Colson Whitehead joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

COLSON WHITEHEAD: Hey, howdy, thanks for having me back.

SIMON: So what made you say to yourself, why don't I put the Underground Railroad on real tracks?

WHITEHEAD: I was just thinking of that, you know, childhood notion of the railroad being a literal subway. I think, like, when you're in school and you first hear those words, you imagine a literal passage beneath the earth and train cars. And then of course you find out that that's not the way it worked, and you're disappointed. So really, I was just sitting on my couch, and I thought, what if the Underground Railroad was a real railroad?

And then I thought, well, what if each state that our protagonist goes through as he or she travels north, each state is a different state of American possibility. And so South Carolina became a sort of paternalistic white state, North Carolina a white separatist state, and so on. And each time our protagonist gets out of the station in a new place, we sort of rebooted America in a different sort of way.

SIMON: When Cora first beholds the railroad, it's, you know, it's carved out by human hands, mile after mile as far as she can see. She asks, who built this? And she's told by the white man who's showing her around, who builds anything in this country? Is that a kind of theme of the novel?

WHITEHEAD: I think, you know, unearthing some of the secret histories was fun, you know, when I was conceiving of the book.

SIMON: Yeah.

WHITEHEAD: Once I make the leap of making the train literal, I've already committed to not sticking to the facts. And so I could bring in different parts of American history. And so as Cora runs north, she runs up against Tuskegee-style blood experiments. There's echoes of the Holocaust when she comes to North Carolina and there's a white supremacist state. So that, you know, initial whimsical choice to play with the metaphor allowed me to mix and match and explore different areas of American history.

SIMON: What sense of responsibility to history do you feel when you start mixing and matching that way?

WHITEHEAD: None, except in the first section to depict a plantation with as much realism as possible, which is an unfortunate choice because then you actually have to depict the brutality and ruthlessness of the slave system.

SIMON: You have people on the porch watching a slave being put to death in a slow and painful manner for so-called entertainment.

WHITEHEAD: Well, occasionally I would check myself and think, am I going too over the top with some of these tortures? And then I would go back to the books and think maybe I was letting off slave masters easy.

SIMON: You write about the different venues, if you please, to which Cora goes on this Underground Railroad. And let me get you to talk at some greater length about just one of them - South Carolina. What does she and Caesar think when they first get to South Carolina?

WHITEHEAD: Well, the first thing she sees is a skyscraper, a 12-story building. And of course, she's never seen something like that before, having never left the plantation. And that's really the first indication to the reader that I'm straying from the historical record. In South Carolina, the government has purchased former slaves and set them free and given them jobs, homes, education and given them a new start. And so they're committed to a program of black social uplift, and it sounds very great society until what's underneath is revealed slowly in that chapter.

You know, I guess the obvious model is "Gulliver's Travels." And so she's going from island to island. And each island has a different sort of perspective or take on American history. It was fun just to hit the reset button every 60 pages and give a new world for Cora to explore and navigate and usually escape because they turned out not so nice.

SIMON: I say this respectfully, I didn't expect the word fun to enter this conversation.

WHITEHEAD: Well, it's a (laughter) writing is a terrible job, and it's also fun when you have - you finish a great sentence that you think is great or have a good day or figure out something about a character. Otherwise, it wouldn't be worth doing frankly. So, you know, in general when I'm done with the book, I'm pretty sick of it and don't want to go back to it. But this book is different. And I know I still feel very strongly about Cora and her family and her friends. And I can go back to different passages and relive what it was like that day in this town or that town where I was writing and get back into the thrill of the process. And that is fun.

SIMON: There's a line toward the end I can't get out of my head - sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.

WHITEHEAD: That first step off the plantation is a courageous step. And you have to believe that there's something better out there or else you'd never do it. If you can only believe that the plantation, the slave system, is everything and you're going to die on the land you were born on, you don't run. You stay. And so the useful delusion takes you away. And maybe if you work hard enough, or if you go far enough north, it's no longer delusion and something that's actually useful.

SIMON: Yeah. In this book, though, you cause the reader to always ask, are we inhabiting a delusion?

WHITEHEAD: Will Cora make it? What happens to her and her friends is always in doubt whenever she finds a safe place. Reality intrudes, and she has to keep going further north. And hopefully, if the book works, you're on that - the reader's on that journey as well. And all the pitfalls and wrong turns she takes, you know, hopefully you're there with them.

And I feel bad about many things that happened to her. And also I feel they're sort of necessary to the truthfulness of the slave experience. I didn't stick to the facts. I guess I tell myself I stuck to the truth.

SIMON: Colson Whitehead - his novel, "The Underground Railroad." Thanks so much for being with us.

WHITEHEAD: Man, it was a real pleasure. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.