Something strange happened the morning after Colson Whitehead finished his forthcoming novel. “I put the book to bed, and then I got up the next morning and Minneapolis was on fire,” he says. It was 26 May 2020, the first of three days of riots last year after the murder of George Floyd. Whitehead had chosen to conclude his latest novel, Harlem Shuffle, against the backdrop of the Harlem riot of 1964, which erupted after a 15-year-old black boy, James Powell, was shot dead by police lieutenant Thomas Gilligan. What were the odds that the day after he wrapped up a fictional contemplation of “how we pull ourselves together” in the aftermath of such an incident, there would be another one? As Whitehead himself observes, the coincidence was proof of a point he’s always making: “If you write about fucked up racial shit, wait five minutes and something else will happen.”
Long before our conversation, I’d resolved that I wouldn’t let the topic of race dominate it. For a start, it’s the subject (often the only one) that black writers are always asked to offer opinions about – an architecture of expectation that builds itself up around us. But also, it has never dominated Whitehead’s work, which has ranged in nine previous books over areas as diverse as elevator inspection, the World Series of poker and the zombie apocalypse. And there’s plenty else to talk about. Music: “I’ve done homework, college papers on Ice Cube’s first record and I’m still listening to it now. I’m brought back to other moments in my life when I’ve been writing really hard and Radiohead’s been there, Public Enemy’s been there.” Lockdowns: “I guess the cliche is that writers’ lives didn’t change that much, I’m pretty much sitting right here all day.” Whether he regrets chickening out of accepting Toni Morrison’s invitation to coffee several years ago: “When I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of my idols at conferences, I’m very reserved.”
As he puts it, via video call from his holiday home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, “When race is important, it’s there. Sometimes I’m focused on it, when it’s part of what I’m trying to figure out in writing the book, and sometimes it’s not important at all.” His two most recent novels took aim at the topic more directly than he’d ever done in the past, chronicling the stifling horrors of chattel slavery (The Underground Railroad) and an abusive Jim Crow-era reformatory (The Nickel Boys). They won him back-to-back Pulitzer prizes (he had previously been awarded a MacArthur fellowship and the National Book Award, among a host of others), and led Time magazine to describe him as “America’s storyteller”. They also resulted in requests for public commentary. (He responded to a bookshop’s invitation for a “frank talk about race” by saying: “I’m not a representative of blackness, I’m not a healer.”)
Does he feel the weight of this responsibility as a public figure? “My commentary is in the novels. If you want to know what I think about racial issues in America you can read The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. I’m not going to write an opinion piece reiterating that in 900-word form.” He is curious when people say writers have a duty to be political: “Why do I have more of a duty to be political than a plumber or a teacher? We’re all engaged in this thing called society and we all have a duty that we embrace or reject or are just too busy working to engage with in any public way. I’d rather be working on my next book than trying to get a deadline for the New York Times on the end of Trumpism.”
Harlem Shuffle is billed as a crime novel, charting the adventures of Ray Carney, a furniture salesman whose unwavering pursuit of upward mobility means he occasionally serves as a fence for stolen jewellery and electronics: “There was a natural flow of goods in and out and through people’s lives, from here to there, and Ray Carney facilitated that churn.” Carney’s cousin Freddie ropes him into a plan to rob the Hotel Theresa, and the novel expands from there into a character study that Whitehead describes as “a portrait of Carney in three different phases in his life as he gives in more and more to his criminal side”. If you’re among the millions who only discovered Whitehead after the game-changing success of The Underground Railroad in 2016 (or the recent TV adaptation by Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins), this may seem like a surprising foray into genre territory, but those who have followed his entire career will be familiar with his gift for fiction that slips in and out of the usual constraints.
When he’s “trying to figure out a story”, he always asks himself: “How can I obey the rules while departing from what people expect?” In this instance, writing about a heist has allowed him to assemble a group of people who are trying to control their own destinies, characters who, as Whitehead says, are always telling themselves: “If you can pull off this heist, you can reverse your fortune; if you just plan enough, you can transcend your frailty.” It’s a stark contrast with the hopelessness of many characters in The Underground Railroad, yet both novels indulge in a kind of fantasy about the possibilities of escape, demonstrating how Whitehead’s fiction can reveal “the strangeness of the familiar and the familiarity of the strange”, to borrow the New York Times’ description of the effect of his zombie-apocalypse horror, Zone One.
Did his experiences of the global disaster of Covid chime with the ones he imagined when writing Zone One? “I had no idea that toilet paper would become the currency,” he deadpans, “that the sweepers in Zone One would be getting rid of the zombies that are locked up in apartments, but next to the zombies would be just piles of quilted toilet paper; that people would say: ‘Oh, the zombie disease, it’s just like the flu, we’ll survive it if we have a good immune system, I’m not going to get the zombie vaccine, that’s crazy.’”
He is also often asked about the parallels between his historical novels and current events. When it was published in 2020, he described The Nickel Boys as his “Trumpian” novel, perhaps because the debate it embodies, between idealism or cynicism as a response to injustice, is often read as a reflection of the concerns of many in the US after the election of the 45th president. As he has said: “How do you find hope for the future, when so many of us are compelled and driven by our own worst natures?”
Does this mean Harlem Shuffle should be viewed as post-Trumpian? He laughs. “It feels sort of divorced from contemporary concerns,” he says. “It just seems like its own thing.” He describes it as the product of a childhood spent “watching TV all day”, speaking fondly about his early fascination with classics such as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (“where a bunch of robbers steal a subway train”) and The Return of the Pink Panther (“where Christopher Plummer steals the Pink Panther diamond”). Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 noir film The Killing was a big hard-boiled influence. “I’ve always had an affection for those kinds of stories where very flawed people try to outwit fate.”
Like many of his earlier novels, Harlem Shuffle is infused with ironic humour. Even in tragic moments, people are capable of absurdities. Laughter chases sorrow. In one scene, Freddie recounts how he navigated his way through the riots, desperately trying to get a sandwich: “I’m like, how am I going to get my sandwich in all this mess?” It reminded me of the people taking selfies during the 2020 BLM protests, I say. “When we talk about the civil rights movement in the mid 60s,” Whitehead responds, “there were people who felt threatened by these young folks who were messing with the order. There were young kids in high school or in college who were engaged and then there were people like Freddie who just wanted to get a sandwich.” He wanted to show the “panorama” of people who would have been caught up in a riot like that, he says. “It’s not like all of Harlem was marching with Dr King. There were different factions.”
Having written two books that deal with the intractability of racism, Whitehead also alludes in this one to the idea that justice is never done. In the aftermath of the riot, when discussing whether Gilligan might ever be imprisoned, a local bartender remarks, “Put a white cop in jail for killing a black boy? Believe in the tooth fairy.” Yet in April, almost a year after Whitehead had finished writing his novel, Derek Chauvin was convicted of the murder of George Floyd and sentenced to just over 22 years in prison. “Suddenly there was a little bit of hope,” says Whitehead, though he cautions against taking anything for granted: “All gains are so precarious and have to be preserved. Once Obama was elected we took for granted that we had sort of moved along, and you can’t take it for granted, you have to vote, you really have to protect these meagre freedoms or they will be taken away.”
There’s that subject of race again. But Harlem Shuffle is not a novel “about” race. “There’s the engine of racial injustice in Underground Railroad and Nickel Boys,” Whitehead says, “but in this book the big bad is New York real estate. The overriding concern, the overriding force that warps people’s lives is where do you live, can you get a better apartment, how do you get it, who is building the apartments? As the book progresses we get a different point of view on who actually runs the city and who builds the city.” Among other things, it is also a powerful evocation of mid-century Harlem, which Whitehead felt drawn to write about as the “centre of black life in the 60s”, as well as the site of some of his earliest memories – of “being a very tiny person, walking up Broadway”. Until kindergarten he was “at 109th and Riverside, Riverside being a Carney sort of avenue”. But he hasn’t lived in the neighbourhood since then, having grown up in Manhattan, where he moved as a child and lives now, and therefore he relied more on research than nostalgia. He enjoyed long afternoons spent location scouting, “just walking around and taking pictures”, before going home to figure out which landmarks had existed in the 1960s and which had not.
I’m so excited about what I’m working on that I’m not really thinking about other people
I ask him whether the tremendous success of the last few years created a weight of expectation that felt daunting when he turned his attention once again to the blank page. “I’m so excited about what I’m working on that I’m not really thinking about other people,” he replies. Whitehead loved writing Carney so much that, at the moment, he’s thinking of revisiting his world again. Which means that, although he was “blown away” by Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of The Underground Railroad and has seen it “2.5 times”, he isn’t ready to hand this latest novel over to anyone for adaptation just yet.
As a self-described movie fan, would he ever adapt one of his own novels himself? Whitehead laughs, citing his experience of writing The Intuitionist, speculative fiction about an elevator inspector, and saying to himself: “How many times can I bear to write the word elevator?” Carney aside, this has always seemed to be his golden rule: when he’s done with a subject he tends not to revisit it. As he says of one of his favourite directors, Stanley Kubrick: “He did The Shining, he did Clockwork Orange, he did Dr Strangelove and they’re all very different. He picks a genre and a story that appeals to him and he figures out how to do it. He was always switching it up, you know – if you do it once, then why do it again?” Words he lives by.
• Harlem Shuffle is published by Little, Brown (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.