Dallas is the sort of places where Colson Whitehead stops on book tour for his latest novel The Underground Railway, which was selected as an Oprah's Book Club Selection for 2016. For me it means a lot to be able to write this, since the Pennsylvania town where I lived before would most definitely not have been on the schedule of a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow like Whitehead. So I was happy at the opportunity to hear him speak Monday night - and to chat with him at the author's reception, where he showed himself to be kind, thoughtful and generous in his praise of fellow writers such as Garth Risk Hallberg - but I was also very impressed by the excellent questions from the audience, for instance about his choice of a female protagonist, about whether non-African-Americans should write about the African-American experience (Whitehead is African-American and his answer was yes, and I'll paraphrase but basically what matters is to have a good story that the reader believes in at the end), the plantations he had visited to research for the book, his choice to write a book about alternate realities (the book starts as a realist book and becomes more imaginary when his protagonist escapes the plantation, which he justified through the ability this allows him to better reach the depth of a topic) and also the connection with events in this day and age involving the local police.
The audience members I chatted with were all polite, cultivated and enthusiastic to greet Whitehead in Dallas. The turnout, in the large congregation hall of a big church right next to SMU, was excellent. Yet, the evening contained a surprise when the conversation veered to the question I mentioned above, about the connection to today's local police. Apparently, patrollers who looked for escaped slaves were the precursors to the police force we know today. Whitehead spoke in very measured, thoughtful and mild terms about the situation African-Americans face today and he must only have spent 2 or 3 sentences on it but the elderly Caucasian gentleman seated two seats away from me - a gentleman I had chatted with before the beginning of the program, who had been kind and articulate and a pleasure to talk with - said audibly under his breath: "Get over it." (I have to mention he's not a Dallas native but relocated to the Dallas area several years ago from the North part of the United States to be close to his children and grandchildren.) That shocked me, since Whitehead had been touching upon current facts that are well documented in the media and had been so vague and cautious in his answer there was absolutely no way to antagonize anybody. But I felt we still have a while to go in terms of race relations. A few African-Americans were in attendance too but very few, although Whitehead could serve as a great role model for students who'd like to write and worry they don't have the background. Whitehead didn't write a historical novel. His protagonist hops on an underground railroad train that runs on a schedule and brings her to many different states in an exploration of what slavery meant in those states at that time. Whitehead is not afraid to be original and get off the beaten path.
I bought his book at the event and am about halfway through. I absolutely love his style, concise and to the point. He reminds me of my writing instructor who keeps saying to be specific and to the point and end the scene when it has served its purpose. His prose has a spare quality that is almost hypnotic. He won't waste pages setting up a beautiful scene because there are so many heart-wrenching moments in this book its length would balloon to unfathomable proportions if he had to write everything in detail. His writing packs so much of a punch when it's spare, in my opinion. Every sentence sounds carefully chiseled - yet he also mentioned at the reception that once he had the idea clear in his mind (and it took him years to have a clear idea of how to turn a vague thought into a full story line), he spent one month on it then set aside to teach for a semester and then after that wrote the book in six months. This should give courage to all of us writers out there.