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.
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.