When asked what we all need more of in our lives, Colson Whitehead pauses. “I’m ready,” he says, “to make the transition to these fake meat hamburgers.” But as the author of eight books and the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction and a Pulitzer for his last novel, The Underground Railroad, that’s not all Whitehead is getting ready for. His hotly anticipated new book, The Nickel Boys, will be released in mid-July, and he makes his only Canadian stop at the AGO on July 17. After all, “the best part of a book tour,” he says, “is the event, when people take time out of their lives to show up. That means a lot.”
Tickets for Colson Whitehead’s conversation with Jael Richardson are available now. In the meantime, you can get a sneak peek of his new book here, and read more of our conversation with the acclaimed American novelist below.
AGO: Your new novel, The Nickel Boys, is set in a now infamous segregated reform school in Florida in the 1960s. The story is fiction, but the setting is all too real. How did you come to this story?
Whitehead: The school closed down in 2011. In 2014, they started excavating the site and while they were doing that, they found dozens of people buried around the property in unmarked graves. It made the mainstream news. It was a story I had not heard before and is still not that well-known. It seemed worthy of taking up. I think if there is one place like this, there may be dozens and maybe hundreds…Anywhere bad people can exert their power, they will.
AGO: Your work moves effortlessly across genres – your new book is a gripping piece of historical fiction, but you have written about poker, zombies, essays, humour. Are there any genres that you aren’t interested in?
Whitehead: I have not written a romance novel yet…but I think growing up as I did watching Stanley Kubrick movies and listening to David Bowie – artists who in their own way jumped from one genre to another – they helped me internalize this idea of the artist as always doing something new next time around.
AGO: Is choosing cover art for your books something you enjoy or dread?
Whitehead: Neither. Honestly, by the time I hand in the book to the publishers, I am done. But I’ve been very lucky – Oliver Munday has done several of my book covers and he always nails it, usually on the first rendering. But in terms of book covers I love, it’s hard to distinguish my feelings about the book from its cover. That said…the cover of Underworld by Don DeLillo I really enjoy, and there is a paperback version of Gravity’s Rainbow that’s gold with a rocket on it that I find very striking. It’s very much in that ‘70s book cover tradition that is making a return…whatever they were smoking back then, they did some good work.
AGO: How would you describe your work to someone who isn’t familiar with you?
Whitehead: As obviously produced by some weirdo.
Tickets to see Colson Whitehead in conversation with author Jael Richardson on July 17 for the launch of his latest book, The Nickel Boys, are available now on our website.
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