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Author Colson Whitehead on 'The Nickel Boys' and fantasy vs. realism


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead's newest book is out today. It's a work of fiction, but one based on a brutally real place in the Jim Crow South.

Jeffrey Brown sat down with Whitehead recently in New York.

It's part of Canvas series on arts and culture.

Jeffrey Brown: It was a grim finding. In 2013, a team of archaeologists at the University of South Florida dug up unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida's Panhandle.

News reports detailed how the reform school, which closed in 2011, had been notorious for the physical, sexual and mental abuse imposed on its young students.

The writer Colson Whitehead remembers first hearing the stories.

What was it about the story of the reform school that grabbed you?

Colson Whitehead: The fact that I'd never heard of it. And if there's one place like this, there's dozens and dozens. I hadn't read a story about black kids and Jim Crow in this particular kind of setting before.

So, as an artist, there's material there, and just as a human being, living in America, trying to make sense of where we're going and where we came from.

Jeffrey Brown: Three years ago, Whitehead won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his novel "The Underground Railroad," set amid the horrors of the slave South, but imagining an alternative universe in which the railroad, in reality a series of escape routes and safe houses, is an actual subterranean train.

His new novel, "The Nickel Boys," is a fictional account of the Dozier School, a segregated institution that opened in 1900, touted itself as an enlightened center for wayward boys to avoid prison terms, but secretly coerced labor and meted out horrific punishments in its so-called White House, allegedly leading to the deaths of dozens, whose disappearance was unaccounted for.

Colson Whitehead: I first came across the news reports that a lot of the survivors and the survivors groups had gotten together and were talking about what happened to them in the '50s and '60s were white, but the majority of the students were black, as I started doing more research.

And I thought, what's their story?

Jeffrey Brown: How did you tackle it? Because you have real facts, many things known about it, many things unknown still.

Colson Whitehead: I had the place, a real place, Dozier School, the facts of the campus, how discipline worked.

And then I wanted to come up with my own characters. And, obviously, historians have to stick to the facts, but, as a fiction writer, I like making things up, and I like coming up with my own characters and seeing how they operate in these different worlds.

Jeffrey Brown: "The Underground Railroad," which -- your last book, which we talked about, also grounded in very harsh reality, but with a real twist, a bit of fantasy thrown in.

This is much more direct.

Colson Whitehead: You pick the right tool for the job, and sometimes fantasy is a way to open up a story and convey a universal truth, and sometimes realism.

And I grew up reading comic books and science fiction and Stephen King, and so fantasy has always been part of my toolkit.

Jeffrey Brown: Why did you choose realism, brutal realism in this case?

Colson Whitehead: I wanted to be concise. I wanted to stay on the boys. I really wanted to focus on my two main characters, Turner and Elwood. I think they have a compelling dynamic.

And the closer I could stay to them, the closer I would stay to the truth, it seemed.

Jeffrey Brown: The two main protagonists, very different personalities. Right? Part of what's going on is, they're having a kind of debate about how to survive.

Colson Whitehead: Sure.

We have Elwood, who's a straight-A student. It's '63. He's been raised reading about Martin Luther King, the great protests, and he thinks that we can effect change in the world. Turner is an orphan, and he's lived by his wits, surviving any way he can.

They get together at the Nickel Academy, my version of the Dozier School. They start their debate about how to live and how to survive in this world.

Jeffrey Brown: That makes for an interesting sort of novel of ideas.

Colson Whitehead: I was wrestling with my own ideas about where we are as a country.

I started writing in the spring of 2017, after Trump's election, and I found myself wondering how much progress we're making as a country. Can I believe that the world we're making is a place -- a better place for my kids? Or are we regressing into division and hatred?

And so Elwood and Turner speak to different parts of me. I mean, I'm having an argument with myself through them.

Jeffrey Brown: In fact, Whitehead's books have long explored the world through a variety of voices and genres.

Colson Whitehead: "And no matter what he did the rest of the year, the day of the fight, he was all of them and one black body, and he was going to knock that white boy out."

Jeffrey Brown: Including satire, a more personal coming of age story, zombie horror, and a nonfiction romp about poker.

Colson Whitehead: If you do something once, why do it again? I love Stanley Kubrick.

Jeffrey Brown: The director, yes.

Colson Whitehead: And he would do his war picture. He would do a science fiction. He would do his dark comedy.

When I approach a zombie novel, historical fiction, my short book about the World Series of Poker, how can these different forms allow me to evolve as a storyteller, but also attack different parts of the world?

Jeffrey Brown: I don't know if you started out with some kind of sense of purpose or mission. Do you see a story that Colson Whitehead has been writing?

Colson Whitehead: It's about race in America, me sort of stepping back and trying to figure out how things work.

And maybe it's capitalism, and maybe it's race. And maybe it's just the weird places our heart takes us.

Jeffrey Brown: So, with "Underground Railroad," Pulitzer, National Book Award, more than a million copies sold.

Colson Whitehead: Sure.

Jeffrey Brown: That puts you in a different category of writer, right?

Colson Whitehead: Well, I take now like one depressive nap a day, as opposed to two.

Colson Whitehead: You know, definitely the year after all that great stuff happened, I was in a really good mood. I have been working for 20 years, and I have had books that did well or were received in a nice way, and books that were ignored.

And I like to appreciate "The Underground Railroad" for what it brought to me. I know it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing of a lot of things coming together. And then, when it's done, you start the next book.

And there's the day-to-day, page by page. Is this working? Is Elwood a good character? Is my writing improving? Am I doing things in a better way than I could have done it 20 years ago?

So, all those doubts remain. And if they weren't there, you wouldn't be putting the work in.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, "The Nickel Boys."

Colson Whitehead, thank you very much.

Colson Whitehead: Yes, thanks for having me.

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