Yesterday morning as I took care of my online class teaching duties, I listened to Terry Gross interview Colson Whitehead on the NPR show Fresh Air*. What a delight!
The interview revolved around Whitehead's most recent book, The Underground Railroad, which envisions slavery through a variety of lenses. As Whitehead explains, "And I thought, well, what if every state our hero went through as he or she ran north was a different state of American possibility? So Georgia has one sort of take on America and North Carolina - sort of like "Gulliver's Travels." The book is rebooting every time the person goes to a different state."
His process in writing each chapter--the inspirations, the basis in history, the insights into our current age--that part was plenty interesting. But the part that heartened me the most was the fact that it took him so long to actually write the book after he had the original idea back in 2000. He explains: "I - you know, it seemed like a very huge topic for me at the time. I wasn't sure if I was up for writing it in terms of my talent, I guess. I figured if I waited, I might become a better writer. And if I waited and became a more mature person, I might be able to actually take it on. So there was no one thing that made me want to do it and many factors that made me not want to take it on for all those years."
I like the idea of a book/inspiration that waits for the writer. So many artists believe that if we don't act on an idea, the universe will give it to someone else. Or maybe we simply believe that we'll forget the inspiration. Or maybe we have so many ideas that we do forget.
I believe that even if I have an idea that someone else explores, no one will explore it quite the way I do, so I've never worried about that. I do love the idea that we are growing as writers and artists--I also know many artists who feel like they have a narrow window of time to get the work done. I cling to the hope that if I don't have time right now, the work will be waiting for me when I do have time--and I cling to the larger hope that the fact that I took more time may result in better work.
Listening to the interview made me both want to write and to read Whitehead's book. I tried reading John Henry Days long ago and couldn't plow through it. But then I read Zone One and loved it. So I'll likely give Colson's latest book a chance, although the reviews that talk about the brutality of slavery depicted do give me pause. The imaginative approach and the writing process that Whitehead describes makes me want to read the book right away.
I recently finished Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winter's inventive approach to slavery--with its alternative history that has as its basic premise that the Civil War never happened, and thus we have 4 states (North and South Carolina joined into one of those 4) who still have slavery in our current time. I'm wondering what grad student is about to toil away on some dissertation that will explain this current moment in literary time--why this focus on escape routes, and the Underground Railroad in particular? I understand our fascination with slavery, which in so many ways undergirds our current racial conflicts. But 2 books, released in the same quarter of the year, exploring the Underground Railroad in such interesting ways--just a fluke?
And my writerly brain wonders--should I write some poems of my own? Can I do something as imaginative in a different genre?
*Go here to hear the interview and/or read the transcript.