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Pulitzer-Winner Colson Whitehead on His New Novel ‘Crook Manifesto’ and the Writing Life

We talked to the ‘Underground Railroad’ author, 53, about his book, horror movies and why artists are outlaws

spinner image left author colson whitehead right book cover for crook manifesto by colson whitehead
Jai Lennard/Contour RA by Getty Images / DOUBLEDAY

Colson Whitehead reached stellar literary status with his Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning 2016 novel The Underground Railroad, later adapted for an Amazon Prime limited series. Then he received a stunning second Pulitzer for his 2019 book, The Nickel Boys.

His next novel, Harlem Shuffle, which had a lighter tone than those earlier works, was a bestseller that racked up the kudos (it was one of President Obama’s favorites of 2021). Set in the late ’50s and early ’60s in New York City, it featured cash-strapped Ray Carney — the son of a crook — who runs a struggling furniture store on Harlem’s 125th Street. Though he’s trying his darndest to be an upstanding family man (he’s “only slightly bent when it [comes] to being crooked”), Carney is lured into a criminal underworld. The book’s new sequel, Crook Manifesto, is another wild romp, with salesman Ray Carney again trying (and failing) to stay legit in crime-ridden 1970s New York.

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We talked to Whitehead, who was born and raised and still lives in New York City, about his latest book, literary influences and more.

Whose work inspired you when you were starting out as an author?

Stan Lee, who invented Spider-Man. I would say Stephen King. I would say Toni Morrison. I was very lucky when I got out of college to work at [the alternative newspaper] The Village Voice. It was idiosyncratic, cranky and weird, but if you were in the building, they would give you a chance. I still feel very fortunate for all those people who gave me work.

Did your parents support your goal to write?

No, not particularly. They’re perfectly nice people, but there were no artists in either family line. It was their hope I would study economics in college and become a lawyer or get my MBA. They thought writing was a low-paying job with no security that no one should go into. Obviously, they put me in the path of some nice teachers and some nice books.

No one had ever won Pulitzers for back-to-back fiction books as The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys did. Does that create pressure from people to be “the great artist”?

No, I mean that’s their problem really. I don’t have a boss. Other people’s expectations are other people’s expectations.

It had to change you.

When Underground took off in that crazy way, I just thought I should probably put away some money for my kids’ college and retirement. “I’ve never had savings before; I should explore that concept.” Whether your career is going up or down, however, doesn’t make the day-to-day work of writing any easier. It shouldn’t get easier. If it’s easy, it’s not worth my time.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I’m a stay-at-home writer. If I’m in a café with my laptop, I can’t break down weeping or take a nap. At my house, I can walk around, lie down, make a ham sandwich. I don’t write every day. I try to write eight pages a week. As long as I make my eight pages a week, I feel pretty good, like I’m putting a dent in it.

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Your new book is titled Crook ManifestoWhat does that mean exactly?

That’s the term [a main character] uses to describe his rules. He has no aspirations to have a family or a nice house or a nice lifestyle. He just lives for the job. But he has a moral code. There are some things you will do and some things you won’t do. You may rob a bank but not kidnap somebody. Sticking true to your code, whether you’re a crook or not a crook, is important. It’s what divides you from other people and gives you a rulebook to live by.

It took you several years to get up the courage to write The Underground RailroadWhat was holding you back?

I thought I wasn’t accomplished enough as a writer to pull it off. But later, that became an impetus for me: to do the thing that was scary. If you doubt that you can pull it off, maybe that’s the thing that you should be doing.

Did any of your illusions about slavery get debunked in the process?

I had no illusions about slavery. But going through the material as a middle-aged man with kids, as opposed to a college student studying slave narratives, I understood the gravity of having your kids beaten and sold off, your spouse, the generational trauma. As you get older, you understand the devastation of slavery in a more clear, compelling way.

You’ve written about how you were obsessed with horror movies as a kid. How did that influence your writing?

It was the joy of being immersed in a fictional world, the power of fantasy. The Underground Railroad has a fantastic engine at its heart. I got that from reading horror and science fiction and from Gabriel García Márquez and his magic realism. You’re taking the recognizable and making it unrecognizable.

You say that “a writer or an artist is a monster hiding out as a human.” How so?

Artists are outlaws. We have a monstrous way of looking at the world. We fit in on subways, on city streets, but if you go a little deeper, you’ll find something wonderfully strange.

When I read Crook Manifestowhich is set in 1970s New York, I felt that the city itself was a character. Was that intentional?

I wrote the book during the pandemic, when everyone was locked inside. And there were a lot of articles then about New York being dead and never coming back. But New York always comes back. When I was writing Crook, I felt like I was part of the process of the city remaking itself. Whether it’s terrorist attacks, yellow fever or the British fighting the colonists, New York is always getting beaten up, but it always gets back on its feet. That’s what I love about it.

What gives you hope right now?

Not much really. [Laughs.] The Gen Z teenagers and college kids seem to be a lot more aggressive, open and about making the world a better place. I’m glad they are more engaged than we are. That’s hopeful, but we’re leaving a lot of stuff on their plates.

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