back to top

14 Facts You Probably Didn't Know About Colson Whitehead

The The Underground Railroad author's first book was rejected 25 times.

Posted on

Colson Whitehead came to BuzzFeed New York on Thursday where he was interviewed by Shani Hilton as part of the company’s new Breakfast at BuzzFeed speaker series. Here are some interesting facts we learned about the The Underground Railroad author during their conversation:

1. Being a journalist taught him how to write — his first job out of college was writing for the books section in The Village Voice.

instagram.com

He loved the people who worked there, who he thought were "cultural gurus, interdisciplinary samurais tackling culture."

2. Comics in the late 1970s and early 1980s made him want to write comics. He also wanted to write fantasy for many years.

Marvel

"Like Chris Claremont's run of the X-Men from #120 up to The Dark Phoenix saga, Marv Wolfman writing about the freelancer life of Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man, Frank Miller stuff."

4. The first book manuscript he wrote was rejected by 25 publishing houses.

Kate Bubacz / BuzzFeed News

"I had written a book before The Intuitionist and had an agent and sent it out, and it got rejected by 25 publishing houses."

6. Many of his early books started from asking "what if" questions.

Anchor

"What if an elevator inspector had to solve a case? What if we updated this Industrial Age anxiety myth of John Henry for the Information Age? And those are premises, but not really stories, so I'd have to come up with characters and situations and figure out how to make a vehicle for the idea, the 'what if' story. And a world ends up happening over time."

7. He's still proud of his debut novel, The Intuitionist, though his writing style has changed a lot over the years.

Anchor

"I go back to it once every couple of years, and it seems like I was a different person. My style changed and I have a different way of going about things now (like, do we need so many adjectives?) but I'm proud of that book and the protagonist seems to have stayed with people the way Cora is staying with people. The Intuitionist is the book that taught me how to write a novel."

8. He believes male and female characters are equally difficult to write.

Kate Bubacz / BuzzFeed News

"I think it's just your job to make credible characters. I think all characters are hard to write."

9. He got the idea for The Underground Railroad in 2000.

Doubleday / instagram.com

"I first had the idea in 2000. I was in Brooklyn on my couch and heard some reference to The Underground Railroad and thought about how when I was a kid, I thought it was a literal railroad. So I guess I was still in my 'what if?' mode — what if it was actually a railroad? And pretty quickly I came up with a Gulliver's Travels-type structure, where the protagonist sets out from the plantation and each state represents a state of possibility. But I didn't feel up to it — I didn't want to do the research as I had just finished a research-heavy book. And I thought that if I waited I might be a better writer. Every couple of years I would go back to the idea and think I wasn't ready, but two-and-a-half years ago I thought it was time."

10. While writing The Underground Railroad, he kept his home life and writing life separate.

Saeed Jones / instagram.com

"My office is in the basement of the house, and I would work down there and then come up around 3 PM to go shopping for food, cook for my family, then have dinner together. So I kept it very separate. When I was younger and had more energy, I worked at night but I can't do that anymore. Instead, I just watch cooking shows and drink wine and go to sleep."

11. The fugitive classified ads in The Underground Railroad are real ads taken from newspapers in North Carolina.

The Louisiana Courier

"The ads provided a window into how mundane and complicated the system of slavery was."

12. The slave narratives collected by the WPA in the 1930s were a major influence for The Underground Railroad, as well as the stories of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.

14. When he's done writing a book, he becomes bored of the topic he was working on. (In this case, slavery.)

Audra Figgins / instagram.com

"When I'm done with a book, I'm really bored with what I've been working on, I don't want to think about it at all. So the next book becomes an antidote for what I worked on before. I'm pretty slavery-ed out at the moment."

You can watch Colson's entire interview here.

Every. Tasty. Video. EVER. The new Tasty app is here!

Dismiss