Skip to Main Content

Colson Whitehead and Isaac Fitzgerald

Buzzfeed's Isaac Fitzgerald interviews Colson Whitehead about his book, "The Underground Railroad," chronicling a young slave's desperate bid for freedom, and a heroine's flight that serves as a powerful meditation on both history and the present day.
Season 19 Episode 2 Length 56:33 Premiere: 01/16/17

Colson Whitehead and Isaac Fitzgerald

[Editor’s note: It was announced April 10, 2017, that Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel, “The Underground Railroad”.]

Author Colson Whitehead recalled as a child when he first understood that the Underground Railroad was not a real railroad, but a network of safe stops for African-American slaves to escape to the North. As an adult 16 years ago he mused upon the idea of a real underground railroad as the premise for a novel. But he didn’t think he was ready to write it then.

“I knew if I tried it then I would mess it up. In terms of who I was as a writer, as a person, I was a little bit immature.”

Winner of the National Book Award, Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” chronicles a young slave’s desperate bid for freedom on a real underground railroad. Whitehead was interviewed by Buzzfeed’s Isaac Fitzgerald on Dec. 5 for the Kentucky Author Forum. The program was taped at the Kentucky Center for the Arts for KET’s Great Conversations.

The book takes place in 1850 and follows a young girl named Cora as she escapes slavery in Georgia via a real underground railway. As she moves from state to state, “she enters alternative America, alternative history of how things might have been, what still could be,” Whitehead said.

To prepare to write the book, Whitehead said he re-read “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” the landmark novel of magical realism by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. “The way he deals with fantastic elements in that book are useful in parts of ‘The Underground Railroad,’” he said. Slave narratives like those of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, who spent years in an attic in North Carolina waiting for passage, also inspired him.

Another inspiration was “Gulliver’s Travels.” “It borrows from that old structure that goes back to the Odyssey, of the hero going on a journey through a series of allegorical episodes, state to state, adventure to adventure, trying to get home,” he said. “In case the case of Cora, trying to escape.”
Whitehead said he didn’t base the alternative histories on actual state histories. For example, “I’m not drawing from South Carolina history in particular for that section. It really is an alternative creation drawn from different parts of history that aren’t necessarily tied to South Carolina,” he said.

Fitzgerald continued, “But are tied to us as a nation, and also to humanity as a whole, this idea of sterilization,” Fitzgerald said. “So you take on this magical realism and you’re taking on these very real concepts but you’re using them in these different ways.”

Whitehead noted that the book is not a historical novel. “I guess my motto is that I won’t stick to the facts, but I’ll stick to the truth,” he said. “I have a very realistic Georgia plantation then I go to the more fantastic South Carolina, alternative North Carolina, I’m playing with history and time, for example, to get to a larger truth.“

Whitehead said he wanted to create a larger conversation about oppression. Fitzgerald said Whitehead’s depiction of Cora’s attic was intense. “When Cora got out of that attic, I breathed a sigh of relief,” he said. “For myself as a reader, there was just a claustrophobia to reading those sections.”
Fitzgerald noted that the book is a suspenseful read. “You’re talking about such large themes. But I mean, really, I just read it so quickly because it’s such a page turner too,” said Fitzgerald.

At the beginning of the book, the reader learns that Cora’s mother has escaped slavery, abandoning her daughter. “There are elements of this book of a coming of age [story],” Fitzgerald said.
Whitehead said a traditional coming of age novel has a young person becoming an adult. “With this book you have an object becoming a person. A slave is an object, a tool, has no agency, is not recognized as a human being in the slave system,” Whitehead said. As she journeys north, he said, she becomes a real person who tests her ideas of herself and freedom.

Confronting Slavery
Whitehead said the key difficulty with writing this book was in confronting the material. “Part of putting off the book for 16 years was not wanting to address slavery. It’s just so huge and sort of terrifying, I think,” he said. As a writer, he said he had not put his characters into such terrible situations before.

“They’re just characters. But if just you think about the 10 million people who actually went through the system, my anonymous ancestors who lived and died in Kentucky, Florida, Georgia, I don’t know, they lived and died in the void of slavery. And I can trace my family history back about a hundred years, but before that, I have no idea what their slave experience was.”

He read slave narratives and research collected in the 1930s. “The hard part was just realizing, contemplating the true face of slavery in that kind of meaningful way that you have to [in order] to make a story about it.”

Fitzgerald said confronting those horrors daily in writing sounded like something an author would want to abandon. Whitehead said that’s why he delayed writing the book for so long, but he ultimately felt compelled to return to it. “You should do the book that scares you, scares the crap out of you,” he said. “If you’ve been putting it off for so long, why are you putting it off? And maybe that’s something to look at.”

Cora’s antagonist is the slave catcher Ridgeway and his band of bounty hunters. “Because the book is being rebooted every 60 pages as she goes to a different state, there’s a big cast,” Whitehead said. “And so I get to look at different aspects of slavery,” from slave masters to abolitionists to people who were indifferent to the issue.

In the book, Whitehead created a relationship between Ridgeway and a child named Homer, a freed slave who decides to join Ridgeway in his slave catching. “The master-slave experience is really complicated,” he said. “There were slaves who after the Civil War stayed on the plantation and worked for the masters for free because they have no idea what else to do. … There are slave masters who would swear that they love — ‘I love my slaves’ –- you know, beat, rape, torture them -— ‘But they’re like family, Bessie’s like family.’

“So that’s a complex corner of that experience. So Homer and Ridgeway’s dynamic hopefully illustrates a corner you don’t necessarily think about.”

Language of Oppression
At one point Cora arrives at a cooperative farm where runways find safety, modeled upon utopian communities of the day. “There were separate black towns. … But really I was trying to think of what is the best case scenario for free people in 1850,” Whitehead said. “On the farm, abolitionist thinkers and artists come by and debate the issues of the day, their next move, and the future of the black race. Many of the issues debated then are still debated in much the same language today,” Whitehead said.

“The language of former slaves describing the slave patrols is the same language I would use to describe ‘stop and frisk’ now,” he said. “And I’ve been stopped and handcuffed and interrogated by police. So guess what, being oppressed by law enforcement in 1850, when you’re just minding your own business, some people demand your I.D., whether you’re a free person or a slave, and now, if you’re walking down the street and stopped by a cop and you have to show your I.D., whether you’re an 18-year-old or president of the United States and Trump is demanding to see your birth certificate, you know, let me see your papers,” he said. “The language you use to address those humiliations is the same.”

Fitzgerald said “The Underground Railroad” was particularly needed in 2016. Whitehead said that when the book came out in August 2016, he talked about parallels in the use of hateful language between the 1850s and extremists today. “On the one hand, my daughter, who is 12, only really knows a black president. And the black president is followed by a white supremacist president. And that process, you know, America. We make advances, we retreat, we move a little forward and back,” he said.

Fitzgerald asked if Whitehead had advice for artists in the Trump era. Whitehead replied that people have asked him if his work as an artist is political. He said he has many interests, and he believes artists should do the work they feel called to do. “But if you feel you do have to address what is going on as an artist, it’s a challenge, and it does give you that sense that you’re doing something.”

Wanted Ads
In his book, Whitehead inserted actual classified ads from North Carolina newspapers in 19th century for runaway slaves. Slavery touched everyone, he said, from the man whose job it was to typeset the ads to the man who made nails for houses in new communities built on the cotton industry. The ads, Whitehead said, represent the idea that everyone was touched by the system of slavery.

“As a writer I like making things up, that’s the fun part,” he said. “But I couldn’t really beat the sort of succinct, terse language of these ads.” Four of the ads are real slave ads, but Whitehead said the ad about Cora toward the end of the book is made up. Whitehead said he saw the ad as his gift and tribute to Cora.

“It sort of breaks the walls of the fiction, which is me, Colson, talking to her, but I wanted to– it comes after various things that happened to her, and I wanted to make it as a gift from me to her.”

Sponsored by:

Season 19 Episodes

Tom Friedman and John Yarmuth

S19 E5 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/12/17

Joseph Stiglitz and Rana Foroohar

S19 E4 Length 56:32 Premiere Date 05/29/17

P.J. O'Rourke and Robert Siegel

S19 E3 Length 56:32 Premiere Date 04/26/17

Colson Whitehead and Isaac Fitzgerald

S19 E2 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/16/17

Sebastian Junger and Joe Klein

S19 E1 Length 56:35 Premiere Date 10/16/16

See All Episodes

caret down

TV Schedules

Jump to Recent Airdates

Upcoming

Renee Fleming with Richard Powers - S23 E4

Acclaimed soprano Renee Fleming discusses her book, "Music and Mind: Harnessing the Arts for Health and Wellness," which contains essays from preeminent experts about the powerful impacts of music on health, with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Richard Powers, author of "The Overstory." Recorded at the University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum.

  • Sunday May 26, 2024 5:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Sunday May 26, 2024 4:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Sunday May 26, 2024 1:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday May 26, 2024 12:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday May 26, 2024 10:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday May 26, 2024 9:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday June 2, 2024 5:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Sunday June 2, 2024 4:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Sunday June 2, 2024 4:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday June 2, 2024 3:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday June 2, 2024 10:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday June 2, 2024 9:00 pm CT on KETKY

Steven Pinker and Neal Conan - S15 E1

Premiered On: 11/18/2012

Harvard Professor Steven Pinker is the author of "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined". He is interviewed by Neal Conan, award-winning journalist and host of "Talk of the Nation" on National Public Radio. With the panache and intellectual zeal that he is known for, Pinker calls for a rethinking of your deepest beliefs about progress, modernity, and human nature. The interview was recorded at the University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum. A 2012 KET production.

  • Sunday June 9, 2024 5:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Sunday June 9, 2024 4:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Sunday June 9, 2024 4:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday June 9, 2024 3:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday June 9, 2024 10:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday June 9, 2024 9:00 pm CT on KETKY

Ray Kurzweil and Jim Fleming - S15 E2

Premiered On: 12/16/2012

Ray Kurzweil, author of "How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed", is interviewed by Jim Fleming, Peabody Award-winning host of Public Radio International's "To the Best of Our Knowledge". In his book, Kurzweil presents a provocative exploration of the limitless potential of reverse engineering the human brain. The interview was recorded at the University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum. A 2012 KET Production.

  • Sunday June 16, 2024 5:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Sunday June 16, 2024 4:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Sunday June 16, 2024 4:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday June 16, 2024 3:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday June 16, 2024 10:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday June 16, 2024 9:00 pm CT on KETKY

Elaine Pagels and Gustav Niebuhr - S15 E4

Premiered On: 04/15/2013

Religion scholar Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and author of numerous books including "The Gnostic Gospels" and "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation", is interviewed by Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor in religion and the media at Syracuse University. The interview was recorded at the University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum. A 2013 KET Production.

  • Sunday June 23, 2024 5:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Sunday June 23, 2024 4:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Sunday June 23, 2024 4:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday June 23, 2024 3:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday June 23, 2024 10:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday June 23, 2024 9:00 pm CT on KETKY
Jump to Upcoming Airdates

Recent

Michio Kaku and James Canton - S14 E3

  • Sunday May 19, 2024 10:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday May 19, 2024 9:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday May 19, 2024 1:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday May 19, 2024 12:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday May 19, 2024 5:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Sunday May 19, 2024 4:00 am CT on KETKY

Renee Fleming with Richard Powers - S23 E4

  • Thursday May 23, 2024 1:00 am ET on KET
  • Thursday May 23, 2024 12:00 am CT on KET
  • Tuesday May 14, 2024 1:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Tuesday May 14, 2024 12:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday May 12, 2024 10:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday May 12, 2024 9:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday May 12, 2024 1:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday May 12, 2024 12:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday May 12, 2024 5:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Sunday May 12, 2024 4:00 am CT on KETKY
  • Thursday May 9, 2024 4:00 am ET on KET
  • Thursday May 9, 2024 3:00 am CT on KET
  • Sunday May 5, 2024 2:00 pm ET on KET
  • Sunday May 5, 2024 1:00 pm CT on KET

Rosanne Cash and Nick Spitzer - S14 E1

  • Sunday May 5, 2024 10:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday May 5, 2024 9:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday May 5, 2024 1:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday May 5, 2024 12:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday May 5, 2024 5:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Sunday May 5, 2024 4:00 am CT on KETKY

Geraldine Brooks and Jacki Lyden - S12 E3

  • Sunday April 28, 2024 10:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday April 28, 2024 9:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday April 28, 2024 1:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday April 28, 2024 12:30 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday April 28, 2024 5:00 am ET on KETKY
  • Sunday April 28, 2024 4:00 am CT on KETKY

Maggie Haberman and Laura Coates - S12 E2

  • Sunday April 21, 2024 10:00 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday April 21, 2024 9:00 pm CT on KETKY
  • Sunday April 21, 2024 1:30 pm ET on KETKY
  • Sunday April 21, 2024 12:30 pm CT on KETKY
Top

Explore KET