David Remnick: Colson Whitehead's creation, the Harlem fence and furniture salesman, Ray Carney is one of the great crooks in modern fiction. Ray isn't big-time, he's not a kingpin. He's not even a particularly bad guy. He sells Barcaloungers and out the back door, he fences stolen goods. He's a guy looking to pay his bills and get by. Ray was the hero of Whitehead's Harlem Shuffle. He returns now in a sequel, the hilarious sequel Crook Manifesto. In Crook Manifesto, Carney has retreated for a while, but then he gets drawn back into crime as a way to come through for his daughter.
She's dying to get tickets to see the Jackson 5 who are playing a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden.
MUSIC - The Jackson 5: ABC.
David Remnick: Colson Whitehead won Pulitzer Prizes for his novels, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. This book Crook Manifesto is the very first time that he's written a sequel. How did you envision it in the beginning? You started with some journalism, and awfully good journalism too. Was it difficult to make that leap into imaginative literature into writing fiction?
Colson Whitehead: I always wanted to write fiction. I love The Village Voice growing up and it was my dream job to start off there, that worked in the book section. It was my job to open the 40 books a day we got from bookseller, from publishers. At that point, if you're in the building, you can get work and so I hit up the TV editor for my first piece, my big break. Now TV criticism is very accepted and it's a real part of the Arts section, but back then it was the saddest. Why are you writing about TV? It was really embarrassing so I figured I would fit in.
My break into journalism was I think piece about the series finales of the shows Growing Pains and Who's The Boss. [laughter] 30 years later, I think it holds up. Does it? [laughter] The definitive think piece about those two.
David Remnick: You've used genre all throughout your writing career, all kinds of them. There's zombies, heists, and fantasy in a way and you've been questioned sometimes in reviews about why you skip around from one thing to the next and it's left to Chester Himes maybe to explain this. I just found this quotation began a piece about Chester Himes in The New Yorker by Hilton Als. It's Chester Himes in 1970 writes, "I think the only function of the Black writer in America now is just to produce works of literature about whatever he wants to write about.
At least the world would be more informed about the Black American subconscious." Now, that's not to say that you're only writing about race, God knows but it's a liberating notion that whatever your subject is whatever the hell you want it to be, and not to just dig one trench your entire career.
Colson Whitehead: Well, I'm not thinking about what a Black writer should be doing. I'm not thinking about what a literary writer should be doing. I was inspired to become a writer when I was very young by comic books and Stephen King. I wanted to write fantasy so that's part of my makeup. If I keep doing this I get to write in all these different modes that I enjoy. In the end, we're not here for a long time on Earth and I should probably not worry about some abstract critic and what they think I shouldn't be doing. I should be doing the work that's compelling and interesting.
If I like all these different modes, why not write my heist novel? Why not write my zombie novel?
David Remnick: Do you feel some kind of pressure from outside from wherever, from academia, from critics, from other writers to do this or that to be more X or Y?
Colson Whitehead: I feel pressure from myself not to screw up the idea. I think in terms of those external pressures you're describing, they're really secondary and small to my own inner voice that is saying, "Don't slack, keep working hard, don't coast. Use this sentence the best it can be, use this paragraph the best it can be." When will this book be finished? When I've made sure that it's the best book I can write at 52 at 27, at 35. My internal pressures are so much more intense than anything outside.
David Remnick: What's been your biggest disappointment along the way?
Colson Whitehead: I think Zone One my zombie novel has people who like it a lot. I thought that horror fans would embrace it more, but it is actually pretty slow and cerebral and necessarily doesn't have all the pleasures when one associates with a horror novel. There's definitely some gore and exploding people and stuff and people getting bitten by zombies. It's about trauma. We're recording this across the street from the former site of the World Trade Center. That definitely is in the book.
How do you come back from a personal catastrophe, a societal catastrophe? How do we remake ourselves after a disaster? I thought maybe some hardcore core hounds might appreciate some of those musings.
David Remnick: And they didn't.
Colson Whitehead: Not so much. I had to go back to The Intuitionist for many, many years last year.
David Remnick: This is your first novel.
Colson Whitehead: My first novel. I went back and read it and I was like, "Ah, I shouldn't be so hard on myself, the books aren't that bad."
David Remnick: You recognize that is you. You could hear yourself.
Colson Whitehead: Yes.
David Remnick: Your habits of mind, your language.
Colson Whitehead: The preoccupations and conditions of this creation are so remote.
David Remnick: How so?
Colson Whitehead: I was such a loner and so broke. I would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to save money on a subway. I would shake my fist at the skyline like, "You can't break me, I'm writing this book." Things are so different now. I have a family and I'm not such a loner. The most recent book is the one that's closest to me and I recognize where it comes from. In this case, I'm excited to continue that story.
David Remnick: Colson, I'd like you to read if you don't mind, just the opening of Crook Manifesto. You're describing Carney and his furniture business, which is not quite profitable enough, it turns out to keep them out of crime altogether. Would you read that for us?
Colson Whitehead: From then on, whenever you heard the song he thought of the death of Munson, it was the Jackson 5 after all who put Ray Carney back in the game following four years on the straight and narrow. The straight and narrow. It described a philosophy in a territory, a neighborhood with borders and local customs. Sometimes he crossed 7th Avenue on the way to work and mumbled the words himself like a rummy trying not to weave across the sidewalk on the way home from the bars. Four years of honest and rewarding work in home furnishings.
Carney outfitted newlyweds for their expedition and upgraded living rooms to suit improved circumstances, coached retirees through the array of modern recliner options. It was a great responsibility. Just last week, one of his customers told him that her father had passed away in his sleep with a smile on his face, while cradled in a sterling dreamer purchased at Carney's Furniture. The man had been a plumber with the city for 35 years, she said. His final earthly feeling had been a luxurious caress at that polyurethane core. Carney was glad the man went out satisfied.
How tragic for your last thought to be, "I should have gone with the Naugahyde."
David Remnick: [laughs] Talk to me about research. I have to think that in order to do these novels and really other novels of yours, but let's concentrate on these Harlem novels, what's the depth of research? How does it work?
Colson Whitehead: From its primary sources, memoirs of gangsters, Bumpy Johnson he was a Harlem gangster in the '50s. His wife wrote a memoir trying to set the record straight. I'm not sure what [unintelligible 00:08:24] what was wrong in the public record.
David Remnick: What do you get from Bumpy Johnson's widow's memoir? What are the kinds of specific details you might get?
Colson Whitehead: She broke down how numbers operation works. Numbers operation is an unofficial lottery in different neighborhoods. She broke out how the numbers runner works and the bank and how they transfer the money and where else do you go but to the source. A lot of it is slang. I love getting authentic nouns and verbs, whether it was from slave narratives for Underground Railroad or for this, William Burroughs' first book Junkie is about being a hustler in Harlem, Upper West Side, and downtown in the '50s.
There's this great underworld slang. For me, different kinds of slang, whether contemporary or old, is this real gold mine. I'm assembling a vocabulary and a sense of atmosphere.
David Remnick: You also have a tremendous knowledge of furniture. Maybe since reading about the glove factory in American Pastoral by Philip Roth, have I seen such attention to a kind of seemingly banal thing as furniture? Our main character, of course, runs a furniture store and we've learned all about not just Barcaloungers, that's nothing. I mean real detail about furniture.
Colson Whitehead: I like to get into character. I started doing research into fences, the main character Ray Carney is a fence. He takes stolen goods and recirculates them into polite society. A lot of them will have a front business, and in the back is where they do their illegal shenanigans. I picked furniture and then I had to sell it. That means finding furniture pamphlets from the '50s and ' 60s. All that stuff is on Pinterest, weird furniture fanatics.
David Remnick: You're going on Pinterest? I pictured you at the Schoenberg Library, something deep in the archives. You can get all this online.
Colson Whitehead: I never leave the house. Too many people outside. Yes, whatever your interest is, someone has put it on Pinterest. I can put in a '50s furniture catalog and find somebody's scanned in a Sears catalog. It's just great language that I steal the same way I steal language from a memoir.
David Remnick: Give me an example of language that you pluck off of Pinterest.
Colson Whitehead: Champagne finishes on the arms of couches and chairs. I think looking back, my first furniture from watching The Brady Bunch or The Twilight Zone '60s, '70s sitcom is this very sleek, mid-century furniture. In some ways, I'm describing my platonic ideals of what furniture is. Book is a journey. I was doing some personal journeying into how I feel about furniture.
David Remnick: Now, your parents spent some years in Harlem before they moved elsewhere in Manhattan. Were they a help in terms of research, in terms of just make sure you're not screwing up in terms of status detail?
Colson Whitehead: My mom would have been great if I'd actually gone to her for help. [laughter] It did occur to me that I was describing in the first book, Harlem in the '60s, and Carney is starting a family, and that's when my parents were starting a family in Harlem. I do a lot of research and all this great work, and then I would tell my mother, "Oh, did you know that there's this old chock-full of nuts and this place to Hotel Theresa?" And she's like, "Yes, I worked around the corner. I was there every day."
Blumstein's was a famous department store in Harlem. I found that out, put it in the book, told my mom. She's like, "Oh, yes, your dad worked there for two summers during college." What? As usual, I have to do it the hard way. I have to do it the hard way when the easy way is right there.
David Remnick: It seems almost uncanny, but not only out these books, but others that they are written at moments in time that are extremely evocative. For example, you just finished writing when the protests came out after the killing of George Floyd. Did that have any effect on the work?
Colson Whitehead: No. The end of Harlem Shuffle ends with an anti-police riot in New York in Harlem, which actually happened.
David Remnick: In '64.
Colson Whitehead: In '64. I conceived of that time period years before George Floyd was murdered. I finished the book the day before the first day of the riots and the protests, so it was really strange. At that point, it was in the can, and I changed maybe one line that occurred to me. I was not inspired by that. Turned out if you write about police violence and atrocities, if you wait a month, it'll happen again. That's America.
David Remnick: How do you mean it's America?
Colson Whitehead: I mean that when I was writing Underground Railroad and describing slave catchers, the way that people were writing slave narratives would describe slave catchers were the same way that I would use to be stopped by police. There's the same language of humiliation, outrage, or this abstract horror of being stopped in that way. I grew up in New York in the '80s, where you hear about Michael Griford, Eleanor Bumpers. Every year, there was some high-profile police brutality case. There's a big conversation, and then it fades away. Then something else happens and we talk about it, and then it fades away.
David Remnick: Is that where we are now, vis-à-vis George Floyd in the summer of 2020?
Colson Whitehead: We're in between atrocities, and I think we usually are. Perhaps something's being recorded on somebody's pocket cell phone right now, and we'll hear about it next week. We don't actually put the effort into change policing. A lot of the country is pretty racist, and we're going to have these eruptions, big or small until we change that. Nobody seems really that interested.
David Remnick: Particularly now or just eternally?
Colson Whitehead: I think eternally.
David Remnick: Colson, what sense of political responsibility do you feel as a writer of fiction?
Colson Whitehead: None. In terms of fiction writers in general, do what you want to do. If you want to write about gardening, do that. If you want to write love poetry, do that. For me personally, I like writing about politics and institutional structures and also the city and also pop culture and all these different things are in different books or non-different books. I don't feel a responsibility except not to make the book bad.
David Remnick: You feel pushed on the sense of responsibility. You did a very sly and funny thing, I think in a lecture, you started reciting the first lines of the timeless movie, The Jerk by Steve Martin, in which he describes himself as-
Steve Martin: It was never easy for me. [laughter] I was born--
Colson Whitehead: -a poor Black child singing and dancing on my porch in Mississippi.
Steve Martin: I remember the days--
Colson Whitehead: I think sometimes when I walk in front of an audience, there are different expectations of what a Black person is, a Black writer is, if it's a mostly white space.
David Remnick: Which is what?
Colson Whitehead: I think definitely if you came to my work from Underground Railroad, here's this guy who talks about institutional racism and American history. [crosstalk] Yes. Then I come out and I'm just like a weird random guy who's really lucky. People likes his books and he's glad to be out of the house and makes weird jokes and talks about these different things.
David Remnick: One of the things that I sense in these novels is a certain sympathy with the criminal and the criminal activity. In other words, it's not presented as just pure horror show and cruelty and all the rest. It's presented as something that's done out of a certain sense of necessity, desperation, and that it's very difficult to do. This is a clinical view of the criminal act. How did you come to that? I think I'm getting this right. Maybe I'm not.
Colson Whitehead: I think there are different kinds of criminal activity. There's robbery, there's being offense, and then there's political corruption, all kinds of graft. I'm exploring different ways of being a criminal and trying to think about who actually is bad. I think Ray Carney has this secret self, this criminal self, but I think all of us have these different uncivilized impulses in us that we have to tame in order to function in society. I think when people connect with Carney, part of that connection is recognizing their own secret life in him.
I think back to your question, I'm definitely not judging them. It never occurred to me that Carney would be a bad person. He's a guy that's trying to-
David Remnick: Get over.
Colson Whitehead: -get over, have a nice apartment with enough bedrooms for his kids and be a good husband and sell some furniture. When we think about the main character, Carney or Pepper, the secondary main character, it's okay because everyone else is worse. All their adversaries and all the people they're forced to deal with are so much worse and engage in so much deeper corruption and thorough corruption that a murder here and there is not bad compared to the moral bankruptcy.
David Remnick: New York City is a huge part of your books, many of them, including The Colossus of New York City which is a portrait of the sea. I love that book. You say at one point there that talking about New York is a way of talking about the world. New Yorkers think of themselves as somehow outside the world, a 51st state, maybe a separate country, exceptional. Is New York the same as talking about the world?
Colson Whitehead: There's public persona, me, and then there's a private Colson. I think New York is special, and it's one of my big subjects. I come to it. I keep coming back to it. I think the snob in me wants to say that New York is special, but it is just another place when you get down to it. If you walk in the subway in Paris or in London, it could be New York subway. If you get lost in the tall buildings in Sao Paulo, downtown Los Angeles, it could be New York. I think what I was trying to do in Colossus of New York where that quote is from, evoke how we feel about our home no matter how big or how small it is.
We're always walking around superimposing what used to be there over what's there now.
David Remnick: And bemoaning what's being lost.
Colson Whitehead: And mourning that and being a bit unfair to how the city changes.
David Remnick: You have been compared to the most disparate writers I can imagine of anybody I can think of. It ranges from Stephen King to Thomas Pynchon, and I think you take both as a compliment.
Colson Whitehead: Yes, I do. I think maybe not a writer, but you're a reader, but you can enjoy Mad Magazine and you can enjoy Dostoevsky and you can enjoy--
David Remnick: But usually, Dostoevsky is not writing Mad Magazine and Alberg is not writing Crime and Punishment.
Colson Whitehead: I guess not. It seemed natural to me that if you like something, why not do it?
David Remnick: Who's got the versatility like that that you admire? Who's a model for that?
Colson Whitehead: Well, I think an early model for me would've been Stanley Kubrick. His war movie, his Black comedy, his horror movie, his sci-fi movie. What can I get out of this genre? I'm throwing everything out that I did last time and starting new. Then David Bowie in his '70s and early '80s Run, he always had a different persona. Ziggy Stardust, Thin White Duke. It seemed like if you knew how to do something, why do it again? Of course, I'm doing a trilogy now, so I'm doing the same thing, but for me, if I step back it's one big story.
One 1100-page story about one guy in three different decades and the city in three different decades. I think I internalized that idea of being an artist early. If you can do something, why do it again? If you like something, why not try it?
David Remnick: Is there a genre that has gone untouched so far by you that you're dying to try?
Colson Whitehead: I think the obvious is a romance. I'll joke that I am trying it now and it's a love story set on the eve of the Russian Revolution. For research because there's so many white people I'm watching Golden Girls reruns. [laughs] Just like binging--
David Remnick: Oh, wait time out. Golden Girls reruns in order to research the Russian Revolution.
Colson Whitehead: How do white people act? Taking notes. [laughs] Blanching the girls.
David Remnick: How do white people act? Colson Whitehead, thank you so much.
Colson Whitehead: Sure. It's a pleasure.
David Remnick: [laughs] Why didn't I think of that?
Colson Whitehead: A Russian Scholar.
David Remnick: B. Arthur is Anastasia. [laughs]
David Remnick: That's Colson Whitehead. His new novel is Crook Manifesto.
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