What came first, Colson Whitehead says, was an idea to consider the Underground Railroad as a literal metaphor, to write a novel about black people who escaped slave plantations by literally riding on hidden trains.
In imagining such an underground railroad, Whitehead heeded the advice he often gives his writing students: Write the book that scares you.
Whitehead will read from and discuss his acclaimed and groundbreaking novel, “The Underground Railroad,” in Salt Lake City next week in three events, including one Thursday evening at the Salt Lake City Main Library auditorium.
The idea for the book struck him around 2000, after finishing his novel “John Henry Days,” a comic investigation of manhood pegged on the story of a freelance writer attending a festival for the launch of a postal stamp for the black folk hero.
Whitehead said he knew such a novel would take in-depth research. At the time, the 48-year-old said he didn’t think he had the maturity or the craft to pull off such an audacious idea.
Several books later, after publishing his jokey, down-on-his-luck memoir, 2014’s “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death,” Whitehead returned to the idea of his slavery novel. He began his research by reading 19th-century slave narratives and Works Progress Administration oral histories from the 1930s.
“The Underground Railroad,” his seventh book, won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In a New York Times review, Juan Gabriel Vasquez called the novel “carefully built and stunningly daring; it is also, both in expected and unexpected ways, dense, substantial and important.”
More than a year and a half after its publication, Whitehead said he’s still surprised and pleased at its reception. That attention has translated to him generally being in a much better mood, he said with a laugh during a recent phone interview.
He hasn’t visited Utah on previous book tours, although he has fond memories of accompanying a filmmaker friend to the Sundance Film Festival in the early 2000s.
What propelled the writing of “The Underground Railroad” was its point-of-view character, Cora, a teenage runaway. She risks her life as she escapes from a Georgia cotton plantation, just as her mother had years earlier.
“Her idea of her mother’s abandonment shapes so much of her psychology, shapes her idea of what her freedom will be, shapes her hopes of what she’ll find in the north,” Whitehead says.
In a journey that recalls a twisted “Gulliver’s Travels,” she and other escapees experience different varieties of evil in each state along the way. No matter how harrowing the events, even as she is pursued by a vicious bounty hunter, “the narrator never breaks character,” Whitehead says.
That matter-of-fact tone — which Whitehead says was inspired by rereading Gabriel García Márquez’s “100 Years of Solitude” — makes it easier for readers to emotionally identify with her, despite the story’s painful subject matter. Whitehead said he wanted the novel’s tone to reflect the slave narratives he had read, where horrible things were recounted in a straightforward manner.
It’s the novel’s blend of realism and fabulism, anchored by how skillfully Whitehead grafts disparate events onto the timeline of an 1850 story, that brings to life the reality of slavery. Its unusual fictional approach unfolds a story that seems truer than what’s typically labeled “historical fiction.”
“There is Whiteheadian weirdness,” writes New York Times culture writer Jennifer Schuessler, “hints of strange eugenics experiments; Friday night lynchings staged like vaudeville shows; and a kitschy ‘living history’ museum, where Cora re-enacts a sugarcoated version of plantation life — but it creeps in slowly, with a subtlety that may send some readers to Google to check their memories of high school history.”
Whitehead conjures the ghosts of slavery, but the novel “also has these amazing leaps of imagination that help us think about slavery not just in the past, but in the present,” poet and friend Kevin Young told The New York Times last year.
The book is important in its difficulty, and reading it offers “the biggest punch to the gut,” says Becci Dean, an associate librarian who led a discussion of the novel at Salt Lake City’s Sweet branch. “If I could, I would make everyone read it,” she said, as a springboard to the kind of messy, painful conversations about race that Americans often avoid.
To Dean, the novel ends on a hopeful note: Cora is in St. Louis, heading west. “She is ultimately going to be successful at staying free,” Dean says.
The writer’s visit is sponsored by the citywide Hivemind book club, Utah Humanities and United We Read, a joint initiative of the Salt Lake County public library system.
Q&A and discussion • Thursday, March 15, noon at the Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South.
Reading and book signing • Thursday, March 15, 7 p.m. at the Main Library auditorium. Doors open at 6:15 p.m. The event is free, but space is limited.
Q&A and discussion • Friday, March 16, noon at the Finch Lane Gallery, 54 Finch Lane, Salt Lake City.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story misstated the time of the Friday, March 16 event. It will take place at noon at Finch Lane Gallery. 54 Finch Lane, Salt Lake City.