Books

Colson Whitehead Is Still Just Doing His Weird Thing

With Harlem Shuffle, the Underground Railroad author moves from heavy historical fiction to a heist, but it’s no departure.

A Black man with dreadlocks and glasses.
Colson Whitehead in Berlin in 2017. Odd Anderson/AFP via Getty Images.

Colson Whitehead’s two previous novels, 2016’s The Underground Railroad and 2019’s The Nickel Boys, earned him Pulitzer Prizes and a much wider audience than he’d enjoyed before. Those new readers, who know him for his depictions of harrowing historical atrocities, may find his latest novel, Harlem Shuffle, a startling departure. For Whitehead’s longtime fans, it’s something of a return to form: a cool, funny, slyly elegant genre outing that deftly weaves in weightier themes around the edges of a story about crooks and schemers in mid-20th-century New York. Whitehead’s main character, Ray Carney, owns a furniture store on Morningside Avenue and 125th Street, a bid for middle-class respectability that repudiates the legacy of his criminal father. But Carney can’t quite leave the underworld behind, not when some of the most profitable merchandise in his shop is “gently used” items that come to him via unconventional sources. I spoke with Whitehead by phone about the inspiration for Carney and Harlem Shuffle. The last time I interviewed him—in 1998, on the publication of his first novel, The Intuitionistwas also the first interview Whitehead, formerly the TV critic for the Village Voice, had ever given, and he was visibly skittish about the whole process. He’s gotten more comfortable doing interviews since, even if his obsessions haven’t changed. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Laura Miller: In writing Harlem Shuffle, were you deliberately trying to get away from the heavy historical novels that you’d been doing?

Colson Whitehead: I usually switch up more between projects. So it was an aberration to do two more sober books back to back. The Noble Hustle, my [nonfiction] book about the World Series of Poker, was a book of humor. And before that, the zombie novel [2011’s Zone One], and before that, Sag Harbor. So, I generally am trying to have the next book be an antidote to the one before. I’m so sick of that world when I’m done with it. I had originally thought I was going to do Harlem Shuffle after Underground, but then, like a lot of people, after Trump got elected, I had to wrestle with where are we going as a country, and The Nickel Boys seemed to be a project that addressed that.

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So I did two books that dealt with institutional racism in a row. Carney’s story felt different. I knew that he was going to win sometimes. Cora in Underground and Elwood and Turner [in The Nickel Boys] are so determined by their circumstances that they don’t get to win as easily. I was able to tell more jokes, because of the switch in genre, and that made the tone different immediately. I like heist movies, and so I was sort of having fun with this kind of genre I’ve liked since I was little.

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So basically, Trump messed with your comfortable writing pattern?

Yes. Many people’s.

I’m not sure I’d quite call this a heist story because Carney’s so peripheral to the heists. He’s never part of them. How did you settle on writing about a guy who is not actually part of the team of crooks?

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From watching heist movies and being appalled at the figure of the fence. You know, you follow our crew, and half of them are dead. The cops are looking for them, they’re hiding out, and then they have the $2 million in jewels and they go to the fence, and he’s like, “Ten cents on the dollar.” It’s always so appalling. So I started thinking about, who are these guys? And I got a sociological study called The Fence, about fences in the Midwest in the 1960s. A lot of these guys have front operations. They reupholster furniture in the front of the store, and in the back is all the stolen merchandise.

So there are different ways of accessing the underworld. I needed a front for my guy, and he became a store owner. I didn’t realize how much I liked midcentury-modern furniture before. I guess I had an inkling, but obviously, something drew me to that. A fence is a middle man between the straight and crooked worlds, this liminal figure. I liked the idea of someone who is a reluctant fence, trying to reconcile his straight-world side and his crooked side. Immediately, all sort of meanings began to accrue to the idea of the fence, and I went with it.

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Your work is always rich in influences from other novelists. Ralph Ellison was a literary touchstone for The Intuitionist, the story of an elevator repairperson who is the first Black woman in her union. Stephen King was a big author for you as a kid, and Zone One is a like a tip of the hat to him. I’m guessing that with Harlem Shuffle, it’s Chester Himes?

You could call it my Mod Squad. It was Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, and Richard Stark. Richard Stark being the primary one. I was like, “OK, I’m going to write this heist novel and I should see what’s current these days in crime fiction.” Maybe I’m some weirdo, but all the detective cop stories I realized I was not interested in. And then, I started reading Richard Stark and immediately saw, this is the guy who is doing the kind of work that I like. His Parker [a professional thief] is a sociopathic perfectionist. He knows what he’s doing but is always being dragged down by the losers he’s forced to work with. Which is sort of like a quintessential heist dilemma. Chester Himes, I came to after that. And his Harlem is a sociopathic landscape. I can’t even tell where people are half the time, because they’re either being conned or conning someone. And no one is particularly good; everyone is just sort of out for themselves. That kind of chaos was appealing. And then, Patricia Highsmith and the divided self. Because Ripley, in those three Ripley books, he won’t own up to being homicidal, or to being queer. So knowing who you are, rejecting it, embracing it, I feel Carney’s in the same position where he disavows his criminal side but keeps doing these criminal things.

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What appeals to you about that kind of character?

I think most people are one thing with our loved ones, with our friends, with our co-workers, and then there’s who we are after midnight. After midnight, everyone’s asleep, except the criminals, alcoholics, insomniacs, and writers, you know? We’re plotting away with our little schemes, and seems like we’re the only people in the world who are still up. There’s this fraternity of weirdos. So Carney is one person in his store at noon, a different person at midnight. And I definitely have … I’m a different person in my office than when I am on the road or trying to be a good dad or something. Carney’s dilemma is a little more stark than usual.

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He’s trying to be a certain kind of person, pretty hard. At one point he says that it’s not where you came from but where you decide to go that matters. Yet obviously he doesn’t have the control over it that he thinks he does. This novel is not what I’d call a love letter to Harlem. How did you hit upon the title?

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I didn’t have a title. Then a friend came over and played that song from the early ’60s. And I thought, this is it. The lyrics are very light, but the music is very menacing. There are these horns that open up the song, and then the rhythm section, it’s really full of foreboding. And that mix between the light and the grim stuff that’s going on seemed to speak to how the Harlem in the book was shaping up.

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And New York at large. One thing I love is the depiction of Radio Row, the part of the city where radios and record players and other electronics were sold, in the opening chapter. That’s part of the city that has vanished. By the end of the novel, it’s been torn down to build the World Trade Center, which will itself be blown up. But even when Radio Row is still around, it’s already disappearing due to the advent of television. You write about this fading neighborhood so vividly from the perspective of a time that has itself passed away. This really brought home to me how much you are a historical novelist, even though people don’t really talk about you that way.

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I heard about Radio Row years ago, and remember thinking, “What is this place? It’s totally gone. And it’s not part of my New York, but my mother or dad might remember it.” I try to find different ways to attack the problem of New York, that constant churn. That’s Carney’s word for the circulation of envelopes [of bribe money], the circulation of goods. But it’s also people and neighborhoods. Harlem was pastureland and farms. And then they start building speculative housing, and it becomes the home of Germans, and Italians, and the Irish, and Jews from all over Europe, who come to this new country to make themselves. And then they enter the middle class and move away. And so, then Blacks come in, and West Indians, and make it their own. I feel very attuned to and have a fascination with those former personalities of New York that existed before I got here. The same way I am obsessed with my own New York, and “Oh, that used to be that movie theater, and now it’s this.”

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The whole city is a shifting thing over decades and generations. Even when it emptied out last year because of lockdown, my feeling was, is this what it was like in the ’70s? The city’s all messed up. And then it bounces back. Or those first couple days after 9/11, and the city comes back. In the Radio Row site, you get creation, all these people coming together to work on their radios and their TVs, and it’s this teeming beehive. And then it’s destroyed. And then something even bigger is built, and then that’s destroyed. And then built up again. The same way that our personalities, as we move through life, we’re burying parts of ourselves and erecting new selves. That echo of who we are as people and how cities are, I feel, is very interesting.

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It’s sort of exciting and horrifying at the same time. I’m curious to hear you talk about the problem of New York. You wrote The Colossus of New York, which was this almost trippy, polyphonous journey through the city with all the people that you bump against and the little bits of their lives that rub off on you. Not all of your books are set in New York, of course, but what, for you, is the problem of New York that you’re trying to sort out?

I wish I knew, because I can never really articulate it. And I guess if I could, I would stop writing about it.

This is the most strictly realist book you’ve written in a while. This is your gritty urban crime novel.

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Yeah. I mean, there’s a sleek heist, which is like Ocean’s Eleven, which is fun. And then there’s the grubby heist: The Taking of Pelham 123, The Outfit, Charley Varrick. I was going for a low-tech approach, where you have to work for it and not just wheel in the million-dollar electromagnetic pulse generator. You have to sweat a little more.

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The Intuitionist was a noir. This is a heist. You’ve done horror with Zone One. Do you approach your genre riffs differently from some of the other books that you’ve written?

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It’s asking, what do I like from this tradition, what do I want to throw out? Zone One, I’m going to do a zombie novel and I was thinking Romero and various ’60s, ’70s, end-of-the-world sci-fi. What do I want to keep from how they do it? What do I want to make my own? Harlem Shuffle plays it straight and each section is plot driven, whereas Zone One, it’s about recovering from trauma and it’s much slower. … Even though there’s zombies walking around and you can get bit at any moment, he is trying to come back psychologically from the apocalypse. So it’s very mediative and doesn’t have that same kind of forward momentum that you’d expect, I think, in a more traditional horror novel. Which is what I wanted.

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If there’s an abiding theme of your work, or a thing that you always seem to come back to, it’s work.

Weird jobs. Yes.

Weird jobs and how people feel about their work. You got the idea for The Intuitionist from all of the time we spend in elevators looking at the card that the inspectors have to sign after they check it out. The seed of Harlem Shuffle is “What is a fence all about?” With Apex Hides the Hurt, it’s “What’s it like to be a guy who renames things for a living?” What is it about work that interests you as a novelist?

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It starts out more intellectual, and then I have to make it real. So what actually does an elevator inspector do all day? If the apocalypse is over, somebody has to clean up, so who’s that cleaner? And then, building it out: What do they talk like, what do they wear? I start with that curiosity, and then, once I’ve thought about them, what can I make them do that’s interesting? I think all these different jobs provide existential questions about how the world works and how they work, how they function, I guess. I don’t want to repeat the word work, work, work.

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It’s OK. It’s an interview, not writing, so you don’t have to worry about word repetition.

When I decided to have Lila Mae be an elevator inspector, I thought that was a funny pun on “inspector.” I was going to write a detective novel that came at it sideways and har-de-har, she’s an inspector who’s an elevator inspector. And then, all these different metaphors and analogies kept creeping in. Rebuilding the city. So cities wouldn’t exist without elevators, that’s crazy. And then, that becomes a plot or a line of inquiry.

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Each book can be totally different that way.

Yeah. Although Underground and Nickel Boys don’t have that element. But “weird job” has been my shorthand for a while, though I’ve never actually said it out loud.

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Cora, in The Underground Railroad, she’s just trying to live a normal life and have a nonweird job. And the fucked-up-ness of the nation and racism just keeps thwarting her. She doesn’t even have a chance to get a weird job. I do wonder how Bill Thomas, your editor, feels, because your two non-weird-job novels have been huge successes, and now you’re going back to your weird-job theme?

You know, with Doubleday, my first book was about Black elevator inspectors, so they sort of signed on. And I remember when I told him about Zone One, before I’d even really conceived of it, I said, “It’s like Night of the Living Dead meets Black Hawk Down.” And Bill said, “I don’t know what that is, and I’ve never read a horror novel. But you do it, and then we’ll figure it out.”

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I have to say, I love all of the stuff about running a furniture store. And how he thinks about where to put things and how to sell things. As a fence, he has a weird job, but there’s nothing more normal than running a furniture store. It’s so respectable and middle class. Tell me a little bit about writing about a furniture store owner. You get into it.

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Well, yeah. I think if you’re going to do it, you have to make it credible. If I’ve committed to that character or that setting, I have to make it real. And so, from The Intuitionist on, I’m trying to fill in the premise. Hopefully, it’s not just filling, but it’s lively and in terms of the story, it makes his criminal activities even more stark in such a square. He has all this lingo, he goes to conventions, and wants to just get that big account for his furniture company. It adds this banal, nerdy aspect to him.

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You don’t depict it as a boring job at all. It becomes interesting the way you describe it.

Because he likes it, and so why does he like it?

He comes across as a person who has a valuable role in his community!

Sure. Yeah. He does.

He does remind me a little bit of Cora in The Underground Railroad in that she just wants to be able to do a job. It doesn’t have to be anything special. That’s all she wants is to get a decent job and have neat clothes that are clean. It’s just so little for someone to ask, but the world keeps denying it to her. In all of your novels, you take whatever type of narrative you’re working with and you find a fresh way of dealing with the question of race and racism. In Harlem Shuffle, it’s somewhat at arm’s length because all of the major and most of the minor characters are Black. They only interact with white characters occasionally, like the cop who’s coming to collect the envelopes.

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They go about their world in Harlem and their community. And then, if they stray below 96th Street, they’re defined in different ways in white neighborhoods, in white domains. This book isn’t as preoccupied with institutional racism in the same way as the last two novels, but race is there because they’re African American. The [1964] riots [in response to the police shooting of 15-year-old James Powell] become this interruption of racial reality into the book. In most Black folks’ lives, it’s shading everything that’s happening.

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Then there’s the character of Wilfred Duke, a banker who is part of a private club of Harlem’s elite. You have this interesting line where Carney looks at him and thinks he’s “the white system hiding behind a Black mask.”

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He’s the local representative of the larger company.

The branch manager of white supremacy. The main characters that you focus on don’t really concern themself with the riots, except as an opportunity to do a job. I’m assuming you were writing this during a period when basically everybody was thinking about the same issue, police brutality.

They’re a bit older. They’re not high school and college activists. They’re crooks. You know, I don’t feel I have to make them race men or have a super-elevated consciousness. They are crooks, and that’s how they see things. There is that diversity of thoughts in the Black community and especially in the early ’60s, when you haven’t actually seen the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights acts come through. A lot of what Dr. King is talking about has not been realized. And so, what does someone who’s 60, 50, 40, 30, feel about these young folks? I want to be truthful to who they are and not to our idea of what a race-conscious person is.

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There is this idea out there that you have to make your main characters exemplary in their values and behavior. Obviously, that’s not your approach, but …

I mean, I could just write some essays about what to do. But I’m not an essayist. I write fiction.

Do you ever feel, like, ambient pressure to write in a certain way? The atmosphere’s changed a lot since we last talked about this.

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The atmosphere’s changed a lot, but even in the late ’90s, I felt that there were clichéd topics and ways to talk about writing, and I was really self-conscious about not wanting to do them. I didn’t want to write an autobiographical first novel. I joke that I saved that for my fourth novel, Sag Harbor. There was a brief Gen X moment of sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and that seemed really boring. There was the Southern Black novel, which I couldn’t relate to; I was from New York. I felt liberated by the examples of Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison and Ishmael Reed. There’s no one way of being Black. No one way of being a Black writer. And I definitely felt that when I was trying to find my voice in the mid ’90s. And it’s even more true now. Everyone’s just doing their weird thing.