By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Language-arts classes filled the WSHS Theater this morning to hear him talk about the writing life.
Teacher Sean Riley, who invited us too, said introducing Whitehead was “like a dream come true,” recalling speaking at a conference last year and getting stuck in a “real rant” of cynicism until he transitioned into a line from Whitehead’s award-winning novel “The Underground Railroad“: “Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and real.” Riley explained that he feels that “critical thinking paired with hopeful action is a type of freedom.”
Then Whitehead took the podium, telling his own story, wryly.
He was born and raised in Manhattan, describing himself as kind of a shut-in yet not a “sickly child” as the stereotype goes – he “just didn’t like going outside.” He adored Stephen King. He said he hoped to write “the black ‘Shining‘” or “the black ‘Salem’s Lot‘.” But he grew into “more high-brow stuff,” speaking of discovering, for example, Samuel Beckett. In college he “considered myself a writer but I didn’t actually write anything” – he “wore black and smoked cigarettes” – then he tried writing, two 5-page stories, and encountered rejection.
Whitehead eventually found himself at the Village Voice, as a TV critic, and then his trajectory turned into books. And his presentation at one point involved a clip from the ever-mystifying twice-a-hit song “MacArthur Park” (“I grew up with the Donna Summer version”) – “the song poses an enigma, who left the cake out in the rain and why?” He said it wasn’t until he started “getting all these rejection letters” that he understood it was “an investigation of the artist’s journey … someone left my cake out in the rain,” and he read the lyrics from there. He spoke the names of publishing companies that rejected his work – “why did you leave my cake out in the rain?”
So, Whitehead continued, he started trying to think “what else I might be able to do” – saying he wasn’t fit for physical work, with physical characteristics more like that of, say, a pianist. He noted that a man with similar characteristics had recently served as president “so if that was our time, I pretty much missed it.” Maybe he could be a surgeon, “but then I heard about how long operations are … 10, 15 hours on my feet.” He joked that he’d gone into writing “so I could sit on my a** all day.”
The average successful book sells 5,000 copies. Even if those readers each convince 10 others to read it, with 5 billion people in the world, you’ve still barely made a ripple, he said dryly – noting he didn’t really want to scare the writers in the audience, but … the search for an audience could be daunting. “What about life on other planets, you might naturally ask yourself next … I hate to burst your bubble but scientists say the nearest planet in the solar system is 10 and a half light years away, and that’s quite far. …” and could there be a planet with a taste for what he does?
That led to a musing on evolution – how a friend of his “who’s a jerk” came to be. Neanderthal jerks falling in love and reproducing … all the way to the first Neanderthal existentialist (“hunting and gathering, gathering and hunting, is that all there is in this life?”).
As he “sat in my dirty apartment surrounded by rejection letters,” he realized he had to “start again,” so he did, and it “went better this time.”
Whitehead then invited questions. After a long instant, a student finally asked one. Why did he write a novel about a TV show first?
“Kind of a dumb idea,” he smiled. “I can write some genres – others are beyond my ability.”
Another student asked Whitehead to define an essay. He says he mostly writes fiction now, though maybe once a year or so he’ll write something nonfiction. The word comes from “to try,” he said, so he tries. He likes “the argument” of a short nonfiction piece. The novel-writing process takes a long time. “An essay is compact and short and when successful, has a complete linear argument … to try to capture something about the world.”
Another student: “What is your process when you write?”
Whitehead said he starts with an outline, while knowing that’s just a start. “It’s hard enough to find the right words each day …” let alone know what’s going to happen, so he knows what the outline sets out might change. “If I can get 8 pages a week, that’s 400 pages a year.”
Another student: “How did you actually get one of your pieces published?” Whitehead talked about the collaboration between writer and editor – sometimes not much interaction is needed, sometimes it is.
Referring to “Underground Railroad,” a student requested: “Can you give us a little insight into your personal connection to the book?” Whitehead said he was thinking about it for many years – in 2000, he thought about when he was a child and first heard the phrase “underground railroad,” and thought maybe it was a train. It wasn’t so much about slavery, he said, as “what can I get out of this kooky idea?” He said he also felt that he needed to be more experienced, more mature, to really do the subject justice. “So I waited.” Personally, he said, he realized, thinking back to Africans being kidnapped, enslaved, and abused, it’s “a miracle” that he’s here at all – that his ancestors survived.
Next: “You said you were depressed when people trashed your work …how did you get over that depression?” he was then asked. He said he realized he wasn’t going to get a job of the kind his parents hoped he would – lawyer or veterinarian – so he had no choice but to try again. And he realized nothing else would fulfill him like writing, so he had to keep going.
What kind of reaction does he hope his work will evoke? Some of his books have “more ambiguous endings,” he said, “open to interpretation,” so it’s really up to the reader.
“What was high school like for you?” He said he went to a “small friendly touchy-feely elementary” but then a bigger high school, where he was “a dork.” He said he found “my crew I liked to hang out with,” and some books he liked to read – he said his fourth book addressed that to some degree – “in short I was pretty miserable, also kind of happy; I survived.”
How did pop culture change between his newspaper days and now? “25 years have passed,” he noted. It’s much easier to find something you might hear about – track down a record, etc. “I kind of liked those days of foraging.” The cultural writing back then was “innovative,” he added, “you could talk about anything” – and now, “that’s taken for granted.” … “All the things that made me, 30 years ago, are available to everyone.”
“Do you feel connected to your characters?”
His reply distilled to “sometimes,” although with “Sag Harbor,” he said, he felt connected to the character, and from there, he has focused on characters. Overall “you move on to the next project – so you can’t really dwell on (the last ones).”
Where is his favorite place to write? At home – more freedom to wear what you want, do what you want.
Have rewards and attention changed him? He said he’s been in a good mood the past year … he used to wake up at 5 am “and be seized by terror and anxiety,” now he wakes up cheery (said sardonically).
Where do you get the names for your characters? He said Cora – the protagonist of “Underground Railroad” – was the name of the daughter of friends he was visiting. Sometimes it’s random … sometimes it’s research.
When you’re reading a book, how do you analyze what other authors are doing? “Sometimes I read for pleasure and go ‘oh, this guy is a real page-turner,’ but there are some books I read that are more meditative, constructed around voice, and you can admire someone” for what they’re doing. “If it’s really good I’m like, ‘note to self, I don’t have to do a five=page flashback’.”
What’s the most difficult thing to write (in terms of format)? For a newspaper, for example, you are somewhat constrained by someone else’s style, but for a novel, it’s your own. He doesn’t write short stories, he said.
What does he enjoy about writing? “The surprise” – when things deviate from his outline, “when characters appear, sometimes they do something different.” Having a breakthrough. “Some days it’s really hard, some days you realize you’re on this kind of weird journey with your brain about how you put things on the page, and you’re surprised.”
After his speech/Q&A, Whitehead was off to autograph books in a WSHS classroom. At noontime, we heard him on KUOW’s “The Record” (listen here). He appeared at WSHS as part of the Seattle Arts and Lectures Writers in the Schools program. More than 6,000 students in 28 schools, kindergarteners through seniors, are part of the program.