Talcott, West Virginia, is the site of the first annual John Henry Days festival, celebrating the U. S. Postal Service's new Folk Heroes stamp series, among whose four figures is none other than John Henry, the nineteenth century black laborer reputed to have defeated a steam engine in a steel-driving contest here only to die from exhaustion before he could celebrate the victory.
J. Sutter, junketeer extraordinaire, has come to cover the event for a new travel web site. Jaded, road-weary, and hyperconscious of his race among hillside Confederate flags, J.'s weekend adventure supplies the primary forward track of Colson Whitehead's second novel, as well as a platform from which to satirize the American media's servitude to capitalist enterprise and the public's eagerness to swallow its pitches whole.
Yet perhaps only half of the novel follows the events of the festival weekend. The balance is built upon short sections wherein Whitehead confronts the John Henry myth directly, via both recreations of work scenes on the C&O Railroad's Big Bend Tunnel project and brief portraits of lives somehow touched by the legend: a Chicago bluesman for whom the hero's ballad provides a first opportunity to record on vinyl, a crack addict eighty years later deliriously singing the chorus, a reclusive collector of John Henry memorabilia whose museum boasts the largest collection of pieces in the world yet never once attracts a visitor.
"Whitehead's accomplished debut, The Intuitionist (1998), earned him a Whiting Writers' Award, and he now presents an even more sagacious tale, an inventive, funny, and bittersweet inquiry into the significance of folk hero John Henry," Donna Seaman of Booklist wrote. "Masterfully composed and full of myth and magic, Whitehead's great American novel considers such dualities as nature and civilization, legend and history, black and white, and altruism and greed, while deftly skewering the absurdities of the information age."
The highly anticipated follow-up to Whitehead's revered debut, John Henry Days is either a remarkable historical novel, an illuminating counterpoint of Reconstruction Then and Now, or the year's most spot-on contemporary satire, depending where you look.
Dave: Why John Henry?
Colson Whitehead: I always liked him. I first heard about him as a kid, and there weren't a lot of black superheroes growing up. Marvel Comics had their Falcon and Luke Cage, but the story always struck a chord with me.
When I finished The Intuitionist I had this vague idea that I'd write about John Henry, but no peg. So I thought, update for the information age, and I took it from there. I knew I wanted to talk about the myth, and as I did more research I started to compose an outline. Different things would allow me to address different parts of the myth. Dave: It's a lot more than John Henry's story.
Whitehead: I was trying, over the course of the book, to explore the idea of John Henry, to attack it from different angles, different ways people interact with the myth. The blues singer trying to get on vinyl. The sheet music guy working for Tin Pan Alley publishers. And, indirectly, J.'s aunt, Jennifer Sutter, who comes across the sheet music. For her it raises class issues, the new black bourgeoisie in the forties.
John Henry becomes a way to talk about different things and different things become a way to talk about John Henry. It goes back and forth.
Dave: You mentioned elsewhere seeing a cartoon about John Henry as a child. Your teacher showed a film in class.
Whitehead: It was the multicultural seventies, and he was trying to show how different cultures are woven into the American fabric. I was in fourth grade. I wanted to recreate that scene because it was my first John Henry exposure.
Dave: The John Henry legend intrudes on characters' lives in completely different ways. Some of the intrusions become meaningful in the character's life, others don't stick at all.
Whitehead: There's a chapter where J. is writing in Brooklyn, and he meets this crack head stumbling around his block. The crack head, in his delirium, is singing the ballad.
A popular song can, as if on the radio, come into the room, hit the back of your consciousness, and float away. J. has no solid tie to John Henry until he goes to West Virginia and begins to remember how it's linked up with his life.
Dave: I'm not sure when I first heard the story. A couple years ago here at Powell's, I came across a children's book about it, but I'm sure I'd heard of it before.
Whitehead: When I talk to people now, it's interesting to hear their reaction. Oh, John Henry...was he a President? I make a steel-driving motion with my hands, and they might remember the song. "There's a song about him, right?"
Dave: Who won the race? Did John Henry flat-out win? Or did he not win because the exertion killed him? What's the moral? Did you have any kind of opinion about that as you began writing? Did your perspective change as you wrote?
Whitehead: When I started, I hadn't really thought about it for a while. I thought it was a triumph. But as I did more research, I started to recall the central ambiguity of the story, which I think is why I gravitated toward it. Different characters espouse their point-of-view, whether or not it was a triumph of the individual. For me, I still have no idea what the hell the John Henry story means, even now.
Dave: Do you read what people are writing about your books?
Whitehead: The first few reviews, I'm anxious to see how they're going to fall. After that, it's easier to wait. But the first couple days I'm feverishly going on the web to see what people are saying.
Dave: I stumbled over a couple points John Updike made in The New Yorker. In his conclusion, he refers to a line in the novel where you say that J. stands there "as if choices are possible."
Updike wrote, "If choices aren't possible, why is [J.] taking up space in the middle of a work of fiction?"
What about that?
Whitehead: Choices might be possible. The novel, itself, has two possible endings, and readers fall into one of two camps deciding whether J. can galvanize himself and move on.
J. is not really a Hamlet-like character, but to be or not to be, people have posed that question before. I'm not inventing a new sort of character. Inertial characters, since World War II, are pretty common. What a character isn't doing is as important as taking action.
Also, in the last line of his review, Updike writes that J. Sutter "is no John Henry." That's a line from the book, actually. I don't think he remembered it. I'm opposing this jaded, late twentieth century journalist with the super-dynamic John Henry. Yes, that's the opposition set up from the very first chapter.
Dave: I do feel like there's a certain divide? I didn't feel like Updike read the story as you were writing it. At one point he complains that "J. need not be black at all."
Whitehead: He didn't really grasp certain things about the book. He says a lot of nice things - I'm not trying to slag him - but there's stuff he didn't get.
Dave: It's clear that each reader is taking a somewhat different story from it. Is it a story about J.? Is it a story about John Henry? Where is the center of this story exactly? Was there any particular item you used as ballast?
Whitehead: No one set thing. Some people gravitate more toward J. as an anchor for the book, and others like the John Henry historical parts more. My ideal reader sees how both play and interact.
Dave: Some reviewers have called this book's structure "fragmented"; one called the digressions "vignettes"; someone else called them "filaments." No one seems to agree what they are, but clearly there's no center into which they can easily settle.
Whitehead: As opposed to The Intuitionist, which has a solid plot, structurally a take-off on the detective novel: an elevator crashes, how did it happen? This has a more thematic plot. I'm advancing the story by advancing various points-of-view of John Henry, going back and forth between the story of the weekend and the story of the dissemination of the John Henry legend.
Dave: One thing that really impressed me were the swings in tone. Historical, then contemporary. Dry, then really funny.
Whitehead: There's a lot more comedy in the book than I think one would gather from reading the reviews.
Dave: We've already used one funny clip on the web site: J. eyeing the prime rib at the weekend's first buffet dinner. But other scenes, too: Pamela's temp job for an Internet start-up, the New York publicity parties, the whole junketeering conceit and the idea of The List.
One of the fundamental undertones J. brings to the novel is that he distrusts narrative completely. It's all contrived. Every written document is formulated to produce an effect. I found his worldview hysterical in that respect.
Whitehead: He's a sad character, but he has a funny take on the world. The problem is to reel in the cynical, sarcastic person and try to make him sympathetic as the weekend goes on and his dilemma becomes more apparent. I find it compelling, but I can see how people initially wouldn't like him much.
Part of the problem for me was to figure out how I'd act in these scenarios, a black New Yorker going down South for the first time. There was such a thing as slavery at one time, and there are those Confederate flags waving in the wind, so I use his paranoia of lynchings and so forth, exaggerations of how I'd feel down there.
Dave: I took to J. as a character almost immediately - not that I liked him, but I enjoyed him. I wanted to read more about him. For me, the John Henry pieces only became more meaningful later, by accumulation.
Whitehead: That's what I was going for. The first chapter is all about J., getting the characters to the town. Then it starts spiraling off. Each bit about John Henry, hopefully, advances your idea of him a little more, bit by bit, until you've taken him out of the heroic role of racing a steam drill and reduced him to human scale. Meanwhile you've elevated other characters to something like heroic status, the blues singer or the Tin Pan Alley guy.
Dave: Characters appear and suddenly withdraw four pages later. As a writer, that means you're allowing yourself four or five pages to create a meaningful, memorable character, starting from scratch over and over again.
Whitehead: It's fun in a way. I don't have a knack for writing short stories. Maybe some chapters could stand alone, but a lot of those vignettes need the others to make them shine.
I don't write from start to finish. If I know who a character is, I can write that chapter when I get to it. If I don't, I can wait six months and, hopefully, at that point, I'll know who the person is. There were times when I wasn't ready to tackle a character and I had to wait. That was the hard part. I knew what function they had to serve for the story, but I didn't know their dialogue or what made them tick.
Dave: Lucien is one of my favorite minor characters. There's actually quite a lot of build-up - characters talking and speculating about him - before we meet him. His chapter was hilarious.
Whitehead: Thanks. I've started reading his monologue at events. Writing that monologue was really fun.
Dave: Before The Intuitionist, you worked at The Village Voice as a television critic. That seems funny to me in the context of your literary success. Appropriate, maybe, but funny.
Whitehead: I loved doing the t.v. column. The way I ran it, t.v. became a way to talk about anything. During an election, you could talk about election coverage, then talk about Democrats and Republicans. If Flight 800 goes down, you can talk about media coverage, how catastrophic events create a certain kind of discourse, a viewership over the course of a news cycle.
After two years, I burned out. There weren't enough new shows to keep me enthusiastic. But I don't really see a division between high and low. I think The Sopranos is up there with any Hollywood product. I find t.v. very interesting. I still avidly watch my favorite shows.
Dave: Are you interested in writing for other venues? Stage? Film? Television?
Whitehead: I started writing a play, actually, last month, coming out of the Lucien monologue. And there are some chapters in play form in John Henry Days. I like having that back-and-forth play of dialogue.
I was in the middle of another novel when I started doing this publicity stuff, so I figured, Well, if I can't really work, I'll start writing a play. It'll be fun.
Dave: Is that novel you mention the book about Band-Aids I heard you were working on?
Whitehead: It is, yes. The play is too bizarre to talk about at this point.
Dave: Okay, but the Band-Aid one sounds pretty normal, so maybe we can talk about that. What are you writing about Band-Aids?
Whitehead: It's probably too early to talk about it, but I think it kind of links up with The Intuitionist, taking a mundane thing and thinking about it too much. After a while, you have something to work with.
Dave: The Intuitionist is a great book to recommend because all you have to tell someone is that it's about warring schools of elevator inspectors. Not many books are so easy to sum up in such an intriguing way. How did you wind up writing that?
Whitehead: I'd written a manuscript that didn't go anywhere. It meandered too much. So I wanted to see if I could write a plot, and a detective story has a lot of real backbone to work with. I thought it would be a parody of a detective novel, having an escalator inspector solve a crime. I'd seen a bit on t.v. about escalator inspectors and thought, What a weird job. Being in New York, I turned it into elevators instead.
Doing more research, I began to make up a culture for them. Once you make up a school, there's naturally going to be infighting and opposing philosophies, so I created the Empiricists and the Intuitionists. It evolved by trying to create an elevator world. There would be a father figure who laid down a founding philosophy - well, who's that? How does he fit in? How does Lila Mae fit into the prevailing wisdom as a rebel? It really just evolved from trying to write a fake detective novel.
Dave: It gained an incredible cult stature within the book industry. Almost immediately, it seemed to be the underground title everyone was talking about.
Whitehead: It's strange, really. It was a first book, you know? Any notice whatsoever I thought was great. It was in bookstores! But I thought it was too bizarre an idea. Maybe some weird freaks would be into it, right?
The Sci-Fi people latched onto it first, when no one had read it yet and people were just going by reviews. Then I read for audiences, and it was a really broad spectrum of people who showed up. It was a young audience in some places, then in others I'd have older crowds. It was strange how people came to it.
Dave: Do you think your audience will change at all with John Henry Days?
Whitehead: I'm not sure. It's great to see people that I recognize from earlier readings. Someone will ask a question, and I'll realize, Oh, you came back! It's totally nice. The crowds are larger, but the first book just came out two years ago so it's still reaching people. I don't know. It's strange. The readings are always really fun. The people come out - or, sometimes they don't! - but you get to meet your readers, and they're the people you're writing for, not the interviewers or critics.
Also, I'm in my house all the time, and it's nice to get out, to tell you the truth, get some sun and fresh air.
Dave: You'd written half of John Henry Days before The Intuitionist was published. Now you're well into your third novel as the second one is hitting stores.
Whitehead: The production lag-time working with these big conglomerates is pretty long, so I had a whole year to write half of John Henry before The Intuitionist came out. Once I finished promoting that, things got back to normal and I picked up where I'd left off.
In some ways it's irritating because you've finished a book and you want it to come out the next day. But on the other hand, you're not stuck thinking, What do I do next? You're not totally lost like that because you've had the time to move forward.
Dave: Do you sweat much over individual sentences? It's not so much your vocabulary that's different, I think, but the way you use the words. All sorts of different verb usages, for instance. Familiar words in unfamiliar surroundings. It's active, and it reads fresh. Is that natural - are you just one lucky son of a bitch? - or is there a concerted effort to achieve that effect?
Whitehead: I'm not the kind of guy who spends an hour on a paragraph. I do hit-and-run revising: I'm bored, so I pick up a chapter and take out a word there, move a clause around. Over the course of six months I've slowly changed everything around to where I like it. There will be some chapters, when I'm copy editing, I'll be thinking, Oh, I really hate that chapter, I don't want to fix it but I have to fix it, then I look at it and some time six weeks ago when I was bored I fixed it, it's done.
That works for me. People always talk about doing twenty drafts, but I do mini, drive-by drafts, I guess. By the end, I've revised a chapter twenty times, but piecemeal.
Dave: Is there any particular writing experience you're especially thankful for?
Whitehead: Being at The Voice, writing for different editors - there's a book editor and a music editor and so on - they all have things they like and don't like. You become aware that you do have readers with particular tastes. And they call you on your weaknesses, like, "Never use the word infectious in a music review." You become acutely aware of words you overuse, that kind of thing. The Voice, back in the day, was very hands-on editing. The editor would go through it, then you'd go through it together, so you see your mistakes in bold type. You become aware.
Also, you have immediate feedback. If you write a good piece, people will say, "Cool, man, I really liked the article!" And if you write a dud, no one says anything. Just deafening silence.
Dave: In reviews and articles, you're constantly compared to about eighteen other writers, some dead, some living. Do you read these writers whose names regularly appear in reviews of your books?
Who do I read? It's sad, but I have a hard time reading fiction. I'm generally working on something, and I find fiction distracting. I read more nonfiction.
The people who influenced me a lot in college, when I first started reading the non-Dickens kind of Victorian novel of manners they foist on you in high school, were people like Ellison and Pynchon, stuff like that. Ishmael Reed. I like those guys, but they have a finite amount of books and I've read them. I like Richard Powers.
Dave: What do you want to do now?
Whitehead: The other half of the novel. I'll write this play, and maybe someone will want to produce it. That would be a new kind of creative experience. It would get me out of the house and collaborating with people.
I feel pretty optimistic right now, but I'm superstitious so I half-think that ten years from now I'll look back upon this conversation, pushing a mop somewhere, daydreaming about tattered clippings of good reviews.
I just want to try different things. Mix it up. I'm sure I'll try to do a nonfiction book in the future, but I'm not sure what. I'm not a good reporter, but I read somewhere that Joan Didion hates talking to people, she's really shy, so that's a great example of someone who doesn't like to talk to people but does and it works out okay.
Dave: Why are you not a good reporter?
Whitehead: I've never mastered the art of the follow-up question. The few interviews I've done have been with musicians, five or six years ago, and I'd ask a question like, "Growing up, you must have listened to a lot of James Brown." "Yeah," the person will say. Well, I guess the logical next question is "How did it inform your musical choices later on?" but I'd just say, "Okay," and flip to the next question.
I have to work on those skills, I think.
Dave: In the interviews you've been giving to promote this new book, has anyone asked a question that's caught you off guard?
Whitehead: Someone asked, "Where do you and J. Sutter intersect and diverge?" I was like, "Uhhhh?" I was stammering for a while.
Obviously, I have experiences in common with J., but I think he's an exaggeration of my worst qualities and entirely made up in a lot of different ways. But you're always like that: "It's not me!" You over-protest.
But it's not me, so just chill, you know?
Dave: "It's not me. Though I did see the film of John Henry in the fourth grade, it's true?"
Whitehead: "And I did work at The Voice? but there's nothing else! There's nothing else!"
I forgot to ask Colson Whitehead to sign the office wall, and I've been kicking myself for it ever since. Time was short, the reading was scheduled to begin across the street in just a few minutes - but, still, how lame: I had the permanent black marker in my pocket as we walked together down the stairwell past a dozen authors' names recently scrawled on the wall. And I entirely forgot.
C.W. visited Powell's City of Books on June 14, 2001. Certain members of our staff suggested that his dapper good looks would only benefit our Home page. Thus, Whitehead's is the third face to represent our Interviews series in the form of a Home page icon.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State