A new book from MacArthur Genius and award-winning author Colson Whitehead guarantees three things: a beautiful, snappy, and surprising prose style; a full-hearted commitment to the author’s subject, whether that be poker, the Deep South, or teen angst; and a reading experience cocooned in Whitehead’s seemingly limitless imagination and intelligence. The Nickel Boys
, Whitehead’s new novel about a boys' reform school in Jim Crow Florida, offers all this and a heartbreaking, galvanizing reckoning with the consequences and reverberations of slavery. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly
writes, “Inspired by horrific events that transpired at the real-life Dozier School for Boys, Whitehead’s brilliant examination of America’s history of violence is a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.” We couldn’t agree more, and were thrilled by the opportunity to speak with Whitehead about his approach to writing and the joys and challenges of creating The Nickel Boys
. We're equally thrilled to present The Nickel Boys
as Volume 81 of Indiespensable
Rhianna Walton: The Nickel Boys
feels structurally different from many of your previous books — the plot is firmly rooted in the real, and the prose structure is simpler. How do you determine the style of your books — is it an organic development, or do you sit down with a formal structure in mind?
I've written realistic novels before, like Sag Harbor
, Apex Hides the Hurt
, and John Henry Days
; of course, I've written books that have some level of fantasy in them too. You pick the right tool for the job. That's also in terms of sentences and tone.
I ask myself: Is the outlook of this book comic? Is it tragic? Is the story best served by a first person narrator who's telling his or her story? Is it best served by an omniscient narrator who can stand above and make connections about the characters and society and politics?
Part of figuring out how to tell the story is tone and voice, the same way I'm picking characters and places.
Do you outline your books?
I do. I would say it's like 60 percent outlined. I know the beginning and the end. Definitely with the last couple of books, I've been writing towards that last page, knowing what it is before I start writing. The middle can be fuzzy.
Definitely, I've learned that it's better to be open to where the book takes you. Characters become more or less important. I don't have to solve all the problems, such as where does Elwood live when he comes to New York or what his wife is like, is he married. I have to know what's happening on the last page. I have to know the main characters and most of what's going to happen.
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Sometimes when I speak to authors, they mention this almost magical thing that happens where their characters take over the narrative. Is that something that happens for you — do your characters ever begin to determine the trajectory of the novel?
They don't take over, but there are definitely days. They're the really good days. When you, say, have to describe the schoolhouse and then in writing the schoolhouse section somebody does something that you didn't know was going to happen when you got up that morning.
In getting them to the page, they may do something at 2 p.m. that you hadn't determined when you started working at 10 a.m. Through a different kind of sentence or different way of sketching a scene, you've found a different way of telling a story in a way you wouldn't have five or ten years before.
For me, that's the real magical thing that happens: you're always changing. The book, in coming together, is not always what you think it will be when you sit down to write that morning.
You've mentioned in other interviews being an avid reader of horror, and your novel Zone One
is a zombie horror story. You’re very skilled at depicting violence. I was wondering if the horror genre has stylistically influenced the way that you depict historical atrocities, like those in The Underground Railroad
and The Nickel Boys
Again, I think the story determines how you tell it. The violence in Zone One
is gorier. It's more flamboyant than some of the stuff in The Underground Railroad
and The Nickel Boys
. In those two books, I think the horrific brutality that they experience speaks for itself. They don't have to be dramatized.
This kind of language, I borrowed from reading the slave narratives. You don't have to dramatize or sell to the listener or the reader how terrible everything is that is happening because it speaks for itself. If the violence is speaking for itself, I can concentrate more on the characters and what they're feeling.
Several of your books incorporate themes of race to varying degrees, but both The Underground Railroad
and The Nickel Boys
suggest a more direct engagement with the politics of race, especially how the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow inform the present.
In your advance letter to booksellers about The Nickel Boys
you write in reference to Dozier, Eric Gardner, and Ferguson: "No one it seems was being called to account." Did it feel like an artistic choice to write The Underground Railroad
and now The Nickel Boys
, or more like a moral imperative?
I didn't feel an imperative with Underground Railroad
except to get the story of slavery right, as opposed to how it's depicted in Gone With the Wind
or something like that. With Nickel Boys
I did feel... do I want to say a moral imperative? Sure.
My compulsion to write the story was from seeing so many people go unpunished, and so many innocents' stories being untold. I felt there was a need for a version of the Dozier School story to get out. I did feel a compulsion to get the story down in this case.
If you don't have that hope, what's the point of going on?
Do the issues of race and racism ever feel to you like narrative burdens that black authors are expected to bear regardless of their literary interests?
I've never felt that, but I think it was definitely true for, say, Richard Wright
or Ralph Ellison
, where I think the media could anoint one writer every 10 years, with each person being replaced by the next — James Baldwin
My first book was about elevator inspectors. It wasn't about some conventional idea of what black experience is. I've written books that have nothing to do with race such as my book about poker or my book about New York.
is about black teenagers, but it's really about teenagers; it's sort of incidental that they're African American. It's really about identity formation and being a teenager. Race enters very minimally into Zone One
It may be that the media or the critical apparatus expect black writers to write in a certain way about certain subjects. I never felt I had to, and why would you follow someone else's idea of what you're supposed to write?
Civil rights leaders and direct action campaigns, especially the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., are central to The Nickel Boys
’ protagonist Elwood's coming of age, both to his perspective of the world and his actions within it. What kind of research did you do into the civil rights movement and life in the Jim Crow South to prepare for writing The Nickel Boys
I knew a lot about Jim Crow just from over the years. I reacquainted myself with some of the more ridiculous, arcane laws like those about bumptious contact. Apart from all the illegal ways that Jim Crow worked, the laws restricted black life to the most ridiculous extremes. It's not just colored water fountains, it's actually who gets to move first on a sidewalk. In terms of this book, it was figuring out what aspects of Jim Crow laws would work for Florida and for Elwood's story.
Even before I went back to my Martin Luther King and James Baldwin, I knew that Elwood would be a young kid who was very much influenced by them, and that they would be part of how I wanted him to see the world.
Then, I had to find the right Martin Luther King speech for each situation — which record, which LP would he own for him to listen to in 1963 — so it was more about timing and fact checking which things I already knew about would work for Elwood in the story.
Is the research process something you enjoy?
I find research usually enjoyable, because it's serving something that I’m engaged in and entranced by. It always makes the work better.
In terms of Martin Luther King, I hadn't read his speeches or listened to his voice for a long time. Going back and reacquainting myself with the mystery of how he came to be, and the magic of what he was engaged in, was enjoyable.
After finishing The Nickel Boys
, I decided to check out the White House Boys website, which is where Dozier survivors post testimonials. I was struck by the total absence of African Americans on the men's stories page; at the very least, there are no photos of black students. Were you able to find black survivor narratives, or did you had to imagine them all into being?
Part of it was imagining them into being. There are families or relatives who have been quoted in various newspaper reports, like “My uncle was there in the ’50s, we’re looking for his body” or “his body's been identified.” I think the White House Boys website is 95 percent white students.
Yes, I was struck by the absence of black voices. It was a predominantly black campus and most people they interviewed were not black. That was part of the impetus to write the book, imaging myself into their stories and imagining what black students went through.
The week before I finished the book, I wanted to see if anything else had come out about Dozier, and there was a black survivor who wrote a memoir. I haven't read it, but in between hearing about it and now, some more black students have come forward.
You've mentioned in past interviews the idea that, across your novels, your characters are motivated by the “impossible hope” of finding refuge from brutality. One of the persistent tensions in The Nickel Boys
is between MLK’s, and by extension Elwood’s, insistence on retaining a sense of personal significance and a moral code and many of the other characters' equation of those qualities with having no common sense. Is the novel positing that there's an element of impossible hope in MLK's beliefs, and in Elwood's clinging to them?
I think, certainly. That “hope” was in reference to The Underground Railroad
and Zone One
, two novels that are built around finding a place of refuge. But, yes, in some ways it's impossible to hope that the kind of civil rights advances that Martin Luther King was fighting for, and that Elwood wanted to fight for, are achievable, or possible, or long lived.
On the other hand, if you don't have that hope, what's the point of going on? I think that tension is in all those novels.
That tension is so striking in this book, especially when you introduce the character of Turner, who takes a much more cynical view of civil rights and humanity in general. Is it okay to ask — are you more in agreement with Elwood or Turner?
I would say they're both aspects of my personality, definitely. Although, hearing Elwood speak and Turner speak, Turner seems more convincing on first listen, to me personally.
Why would you follow someone else's idea of what you're supposed to write?
He felt more convincing to me too, as did Elwood when he reflects, "But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap....What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing." Because how could you get there?
Without giving anything away, the end seems to suggest that survival is predicated on both internalizing that “impossible hope” and maintaining a cynical world view.
Certainly, yes. A lot of people would argue that a sane person integrates the chaos of the world and also some idea of order. The ending is open to the reader's interpretation, but I think most people I know who seem to get through the world in a semi-functioning state have both the optimistic and pessimistic aspects of their personality integrated.
Whether that's the right way or not, I have no idea.
Towards the end of the book, there's a chilling passage about inherited brutality. It reads, in part: "Their daddies taught them how to keep a slave in line, passed down this brutal heirloom....The state outlawed dark cells and sweat boxes in juvenile facilities after World War II. It was a time of high minded reform all over, even at Nickel. But the rooms waited, blank and still and airless....They wait still, as long as the sons — and the sons of those sons — remember."
It's just one of several places in the text — the secret graveyard, the Richmond Hotel, New York City — to raise the ideas of erasure and memory. It reminded me a little bit of Walter Benjamin
’s angel of history. We keep moving into the future, often blindly, either consciously erasing the past or thinking we’ve resolved problems that still exist and so ignoring them.
I know it's an everyday occurrence for minorities in the U.S., but it's also like something out of a horror film, to be trapped by historical evils that a lot of people claim not to see or believe have been resolved. Was that on your mind at all as you were writing?
I haven't read Benjamin, but as a human being, I am thinking of the injustices that we're blind to and our self-delusions, our ideas of ourselves versus how we actually are.
In terms of the inherited hatreds that some people embrace or reject, we're disposed to hatred. We're disposed to demonize or otherize people of different religions, skin colors, sexualities, genders.
We find it very easy to make villains of other people, which doesn't mean that we can't work against that. It doesn't mean that your nature or your environment can’t counteract that, but we do easily fall to cruelty. It takes a lot of energy to fight against that, particularly a lot of social reinforcement.
Do you find that history makes an especially effective literary tool for examining the present?
It's one of many. Writing a contemporary novel provides some material and a different way of thinking about society and how we are. History, with the distance that we have, provides a different way of accessing who we are as a country, as a people, as individuals.
I don't think history has a corner on the market. You can find inspiration for all the things I'm talking about in The Nickel Boys in contemporary life as well.
As an adult, Elwood makes his home in Manhattan. In your nonfiction book about the city, The Colossus of New York
, you write, "No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey's, or That used to be the Tick Tock Lounge...when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now."
Is it that quality, being a place where the erased evades invisibility, that made you choose New York as Elwood's refuge?
No. The quality in that section from Colossus
applies to anywhere we live. For me, that book is about New York, but it's also about any place you love, where you're seeing your elementary school even though it's been razed, or the place where a movie theater or your barber shop used to be.
All those places still persist because you're still here to record them and superimpose them. For me, that's more of a universal feeling, not necessarily just tied to New York. In terms of Elwood coming to the city, that is because I'm a New Yorker. It made sense. I wanted to write about New York in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
I've learned that it's better to be open to where the book takes you.
I was really struck by the Christmas lights spectacle at Nickel and the comparison Turner makes to Funtown, which is a location that’s mentioned repeatedly throughout the novel. It's a really complicated moment that packs a lot of meaning into a short narrative space.
It does, yes.
I was just thinking about it when you started talking about it. Yes, that was a hard section.
It's an incredible section. Was the festival drawn from your research? How did you decide to include it?
There was an annual Christmas pageant. When I was trying to organize the book, I asked myself, what arenas do I want to pick for Elwood and Turner, and that one made sense. There are pictures of it online I could draw from. Then there was the question of what kind of story could I get out of the two weeks they're making the displays.
I thought: Martin Luther King has a Funtown speech. Let's have Elwood be attached to it. Then it's part of the book. [I’m always thinking about] how I can use different things I’ve introduced later on in the novel. It's not necessarily conscious, but as I was writing I was thinking about how I could bring Turner into Elwood's Florida and Georgia, and how I could contrast them.
When you're working on something and introducing different variables, eventually when you think about them a lot, they come in and influence each other and converge, hopefully successfully, as I hope they do in that section.
They absolutely do.
You write beautifully evocative and surprising sentences. For example, when Turner reflects on how ice cream is often used to assuage adults’ guilt and appease children, the narrator remarks, "Had the flavor of that fact in his mouth when he ran away from his aunt's house that last time." Another phrase I particularly loved, about institutional neglect: “the pitiless constellation of negligence.”
What's your writing process like? Do you spend a lot of time crafting each sentence?
Sure. They don't come out in the way I want them to be. I do a lot of revising. I go forward and back and forward and back. I'm constantly going over what I worked on six months ago, or three months ago, or a week ago, or this morning.
If something new emerges, like the narrative changes or I realize something about Turner or Elwood, I don't just keep going. I go back to page one so I can see that through and make sure it's all working. Some sentences come out fairly easily. Some, it's nine months before you realize you have that extra comma or you've inverted the clauses.
One of the narrative strategies you employ is to shift perspective somewhat suddenly between characters or voices in the text. The novel mostly moves between Elwood and Turner, but it occasionally introduces other characters. How do these fluid transitions in perspective play into your approach to world building?
I set up a rule for the narrator. It's going to be mostly Elwood and Turner. Then I ask: Do those sections where the perspective changes earn their shifts and their space on the page? It's funny. I'm working on something now. I gave it to my editor. I wrote the first 100 pages. I was trying out something like that. It didn't work, giving a paragraph to somebody or half a paragraph to somebody.
You're always calibrating your effects. It serves The Nickel Boys
. It doesn't necessarily work in a different kind of book. In the case of The Nickel Boys
, I had 95 percent. I guess I allowed myself to break the rule five percent of the time if it served the story.
I loved it. It expanded the world of the novel.
In The Underground Railroad
, there are what I call the biographical chapters. Those are short, from Caesar's point of view or the mother’s, and they open up the world to places where Cora can't go. They serve the book in that instance, but they don't always work.
A coworker who read The Nickel Boys
said that one of the things she really loved about it was feeling like you were holding her hand throughout the narrative, bringing her with you to bear active witness to what happens to the characters. Do you envision or anticipate the reader's experience as you write?
It's always filtered through: Is this paragraph working? Is the rhythm right? Is that one sentence shift to the woman watching Clayton through the window working? It's more about: Are my choices serving the work? Am I going too fast or too slow?
I don't think of an audience personality, really. It's more like an invisible nudge pushing me in a certain direction or asking me if a sentence or a paragraph works.
It seems like it would be emotionally exhausting to write story like The Nickel Boys
, and then to tour with it. How do you decompress after writing a book like this?
Writing The Underground Railroad
and The Nickel Boys
back-to-back was definitely draining, and for the last two months of working on Nickel Boys, I was very depressed. I had set out a course for the two boys and had to follow through with it.
Of course, as I followed through page by page, it was left abstract. I left it abstract and it came into being. That was depressing. After a day of working on it, I couldn't read anything more about it.
What I did do, when I completed the novel, is play video games for six weeks. XCOM 2
on my Mac. I just played that for six weeks. I totally stared off into space, cooked, and didn't do any work, and it was very helpful.
I spoke with Colson Whitehead on June 6, 2019.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Underground Railroad
, which in 2016 won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the National Book Award and was named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review
, as well as The Noble Hustle
, Zone One
, Sag Harbor
, The Intuitionist
, John Henry Days
, Apex Hides the Hurt
, and The Colossus of New York
. He is also a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a recipient of the MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships. He lives in New York City.