It Has Always Been Thus: A Q&A with Colson Whitehead by Keaton Patterson

National Book Award. Pulitzer Prize. The cover of Time. Colson Whitehead is undeniably one of our finest and most important contemporary authors. He is a consummate storyteller. A true American original able to illuminate our nation’s darkest aspects with his incredibly vivid imagination. Over the last twenty years, he’s addressed racism with a story of elevator inspectors, gentrification with a zombie apocalypse, and taken a tour through the history of slavery on a literal underground railroad. But for his latest novel, The Nickel Boys, Whitehead found all the material he needed in the horrific true account of a notorious reform school in Florida. What emerges is a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Jim Crow, as two young boys (two among countless others) find themselves at the mercy of a sadistic system. The Nickel Boys is a harrowing tale that only Whitehead could tell. I had the chance to ask him some questions on the eve of its release. 


KEATON: The Nickel Boys comes closest to nonfiction of any of your novels so far. So much so that the dark saga of the Dozier school is still developing with more clandestine graves having been recently uncovered. When did you decide that this was a story you wanted to tell? Did the proximity to actual events affect your approach to writing? If so, how?

COLSON WHITEHEAD: I first heard about the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in 2014. I was shocked at how long the abuses had gone on, how the government had failed generations of young boys, and that fact that if one place like that exists, there are many more. I started working on the novel in spring of 2017, when my travel for The Underground Railroad ended. The proximity to actual events had no effect on the work. I had my own story to tell, one that took off from the true story.

KP: Elwood and Turner seem in many ways two sides of the same coin--one kid is bookish, naive and idealistic, while the other is streetsmart, tough and thoroughly cynical. Yet, they feel naturally a part of each other. Who came into being first for you? Did one character lead to another or did they spring up as separate individuals from the get go?

CW: Elwood came first – a boy swept up in the criminal justice system for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But of course his personality summons his opposite number, and Turner began to take shape. 

KP: While reading The Nickel Boys, I kept thinking about the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, Lorenzo Carcaterra’s memoir, Sleepers, and the brutality and exploitation of inmates of the American prison system. It made me wonder how the Adorno-esque authoritarian tendency to degrade and brutalize those deemed lesser and the institutional racism of Jim Crow work together to perpetuate the horrors of a place like the Dozier school/Nickel Academy. What are your thoughts on this intersection?     

CW: The powerful prey on the defenseless and escape any punishment or reckoning. They set up any number of systems – slavery, Jim Crow laws, gerrymandering – to preserve their power. I don’t know anything about Adorno or Sleepers, but it has always been thus.

KP: Your rousing acceptance speech when you won the National Book Award for The Underground Railroad implored people to “be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power.” The Nickel Boys seems to check all those boxes. With that in mind, what kind of positive effect do you hope this novel has on American readers and culture at large?     

CW: I don’t know that novels have the ability to effect change; the flaws are too deep in society. My hope for my work is that I execute my idea to the best of my ability, and try not to screw it up page by page.


Colson Whitehead’s Three Items of Interest:

1. “Slippery People” by The Staples Singers

2. Shirts made by Beams Plus

3. AmazingRibs.com

The Nickel Boys: A Novel Cover Image
$24.95
ISBN: 9780385537070
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Doubleday - July 16th, 2019

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