A Conversation with
Special Feature for the Spring/Summer 2019 Issue
Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Nickel Boys, dives into the secret world of an all-boys school in the 1960’s American South, giving readers a harrowing look into a time period that many would like to forget.
In the novel, we follow the young Elwood Curtis into the halls of the fictitious Nickel Academy. Firsthand, we witness the ways in which racial terror lives in the closed mouths of victims and aids those that turn a blind eye for the sake of greed and power. Based on the real-life atrocities documented at the Arthur G. Dozier School in Florida, The Nickel Boys questions how Black youth found their humanity in the face of the dehumanizing, racialized conditions of the Jim Crow South.
The Nickel Boys comes after Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning novel The Underground Railroad. He is also the author of the novels The Intuitionist, Sag Harbor, Zone One, John Henry Days, and Apex Hides the Hurt. Our contributing editor, Matthew B. Kelley, caught up with him to talk all bout his latest offering.
The Nickel Boys (Doubleday).
Release date: July 16, 2019.
Matthew Kelley: First of all, congratulations on publishing your new novel, The Nickel Boys. It’s so stirring and beautifully written.
Colson Whitehead: Oh, thank you.
MK: I can imagine how busy you are, so let’s jump straight in. This novel is set in Florida during the Jim Crow Era. I’m wondering as a native Northerner, what’s your perspective of the American South?
CW: There’s no one set idea I have about it. The South is as variable and dynamic as the North. Both places have their pockets of racism. Both of them have troubled histories. I have no great theory of what the South is now. The first time I was invited to bookstores and universities in the South was for the release of The Underground Railroad. I’ve been to North Carolina and Georgia a lot. Not so much Alabama and Mississippi. You can make of that what you will. Some parts of the South are more receptive to my work than others.
MK: You’ve talked about how the fictional Trevor Nickel Academy is modeled after the Arther G. Dozier School in Florida. How was the Dozier School’s history brought to your attention?
CW: I was on Twitter and it was the Summer of 2014. Someone retweeted a story about the graves that were being exhumed there. The school closed in 2011. In 2014, they started excavating the site so they could sell the land when they found the unmarked graves. That was the summer of Michael Brown being killed in Ferguson; it was also the summer of Eric Garner being killed in Staten Island. Both were killed by white policemen. It seemed that there were many crimes against Black people where no one was held accountable. Everyone looks the other way and no one goes to jail. No one is punished. It seems that a lot of the survivors [from Dozier] who came forward were white and the school was mostly African American. I wondered what was happening on the African American part of campus and what story I could generate out of two kids who were there during the 1960’s.
MK: Much of what went on at the Nickel Academy in shown through so many beautifully unflinching scenes throughout the novel. There’s this gaze that just doesn’t look away, like when Elwood is taken to the White House for the first time—the designated building where the boys were beaten. I was wondering if there was anything you do to prepare yourself for writing these scenes.
CW: No, I mean I know these scenes are coming up and I’m thinking about them before they happen. With The Underground Railroad, when I was doing the research, I realized that the book would be brutal in telling the true story of how slavery worked. I was fooling around with a phantasmic element. So before I, sort of, got it wrong, I wanted to get it right. Before I started writing, I prepared myself with what I had to do to Cora and the supporting cast to be realistic. In terms of this book [The Nickel Boys], I felt fine for most of the writing and the last stretch was hard, the last six weeks. I had this idea for what happened to the two boys and I had to implement it. I was unaware of how much of it would affect me. For the first time, I was writing a book and I was depressed and felt very low for the last six weeks each time I sat down to work.
MK: Did you have any rituals to come out of that writing experience every time you went to the page?
CW: I just hang out with my family and cook dinner, drink wine. When I was done with the book, I just goofed off and played video games for six weeks and that’s how I, sort of, cleared my brain.
MK: Oh, nice. Before we go any further, I want to say congratulations on the 20th anniversary of releasing The Intuitionist. It’s a very innovative novel. With Lila Mae, the novel’s protagonist, you’ve talked about how you’d never had a female protagonist until that story. I’m curious to know what decisions you made in The Nickel Boys that were new or unfamiliar.
CW: With The Intuitionist, to become better as a writer, I wanted to have a third person narrator. I wanted to have a female protagonist. I wanted have more of a linear plot and all these things I’d never done before in my fiction. So I thought to become a better writer, it was good to take these things on just to learn. In terms of Nickel Boys, I felt very confident in the story. I had a strong idea of who the two characters were and I was ready to dive in once I committed to having it as my next project.
MK: In the book, the friendship between Elwood and Turner inspired me to think about literary friendships and how they take shape. In Acknowledgements for The Intuitionist, you share that the poet Kevin Young gave the book its name. I was hoping you could talk a bit about literary friendships, particularly between Black men, and what that has meant to you.
CW: I’ve known Kevin Young fairly long. I was a junior in college, he was a sophomore and he was reviving a campus literary magazine called Diaspora. He was just trying to find Black writers on campus and he approached me. Since then we’ve both supported each other’s work. He was definitely on the right track from the beginning and I had many, sort of, false starts and it took me a while to find my way. But having someone whose on the same road, who has the same practical approach—we weren’t posers, we did the work—we weren’t so much concerned with fads and what other people were doing. We sat down at the desk and kept working. It’s been great to see all his varied successes and incarnations and we both cheer each other on. It’s been nice to have a comrade in the trenches for the last couple of decades.
MK: That’s wonderful. You mentioned “false starts” and I was wondering what you mean by that.
CW: Well in college, trying to get in creative writing workshops and getting turned down. And then finding the confidence to start writing fiction. I was a journalist for a couple of years and I didn’t have much time to write. I don’t write short stories so I jumped into a novel. With the first novel I finished, I got an agent and I was very excited, but then I was turned down by twenty-something publishers. So finding the energy to come back when my agent dumped me and then trying to write a second novel after not getting a lot of validation was hard, but if you want to write the book, you have to pick yourself and do it again.
MK: In a recent interview, you mention that in high school, you wanted to do what Ralph Ellison did. Could you talk a bit about what that looks like for you and your work now?
CW: Sure, I grew up reading Marvel comics, Stephen King, and a lot of fantasy literature. I remember in seventh grade, we had an anthology that had short stories and it had the “Battle Royale” chapter from Invisible Man. The story was so uncanny and weird: the fighting and the electrified mat, a blond woman with an American flag on her stomach throwing coins to kids. I saw that there’s a link between the fantastic literature that I was reading on my own time and the so-called classics that were being taught in school. I thought, here’s this weird Black guy and maybe I could be a weird Black guy in my stories, too.
MK: Do you find that comics still influence your work?
CW: Not so much. I don’t keep up like I use to. If something gets great reviews, I’ll pick it up. So the last couple of years, I’ve seen Tom King’s Vision and Mister Miracle and Batman runs, Matt Fraction has done great things with Marvel in the last decade. I don’t go to the store but I’m happy to download stuff when I come across a review that is very compelling.
MK: In thinking about your body of work, are there any moments that stand out for you?
CW: Each book is hard in its own way. With The Intuitionist, I was really broke and bummed out that no one particularly cared for my work, but I kept going. With Nickel Boys, it was in the reverse. I had a lot of success with The Underground Railroad so I didn’t have time to work so I had to start writing on trains, on planes, in hotel rooms. It was a different kind of discipline than I usually bring to work. Sometimes you can’t find the time or you’re tired, sometimes you’re teaching a lot. What I remember fondly are those moments of creation when I come up with something like the Museum of Natural Wonders, or The Underground Railroad, or the solution to what’s going to happen in chapter five of The Nickel Boys. Those moments when, at the end of the day, you did something you had no idea you were capable of that morning are pretty exciting days.
MK: You were saying before how for your novels you see the beginning and you see the end. How does this excitement fit into those particular caps?
CW: Well there’s always the ultimate page. Definitely for the last couple of books, I’ve always had the last page in my mind before I start writing and I’m writing towards it the whole time. Each day, you’re getting closer and closer to realizing your idea for the book, your ambitions for the book. There are, of course, a lot of pitfalls and days when you’re not sure what you’re doing. But ultimately having faith in the idea and then trying not to screw it up page by page.
MK: The characters in your novel are navigating an all-boys environment. I would think one’s understanding of manhood seems to be an invisible through line throughout the piece—sort of like how Elwood grapples with his sense of racial duty and how the character Corey yearns to be sexually dominated in the scene with the two school bullies. Could you talk a bit about how you imagined the narratives in the novel challenging aspects of Black masculinity?
CW: I don’t think of it that way. I think the book challenges their humanity. Just as in The Underground Railroad, slavery challenged Cora’s femininity, Jim Crow and slavery are both affronts to the self and personhood in both of your examples. We follow Elwood once he gets out of the Nickel Academy, tries to make a life for himself, and tries to find an identity away from his upbringing and what happened to him. And so I think of it more as a journey towards a coherent self where you know who you are in the world, despite all of the obstacles and impediments that the world throws at you.
MK: Thank you so much for speaking with us. We really appreciate it.
CW: It was a pleasure. I’ve seen the journal and it does really great work and so I’m excited to be a part of it.
MK: Thank you so much, Colson.