Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

One of these days he might be in your town

Inexplicably, über-famous author, Colson Whitehead, came to nearby Auburn, California, for a reading and moderated discussion last Monday. For a guy like that, Auburn is definitely off the beaten track, a good forty minutes out of Sacramento, which is itself kind of out there.

Whitehead, you probably know by now, is the author of The Underground Railroad, a novel of slavery that, among other things, imagines the fabled metaphorical Underground Railroad as an actual piece of infrastructure of subterranean tunnels and tracks. It also nods at Gulliver’s Travels, taking the protagonist, Cora, through a series of different realities on her way to liberation.

I was stunned at the size of the crowd there in the Placer High School auditorium — easily 350 people, maybe more. And when asked for a show of hands, a majority had already read The Underground Railroad. It seems a sign of progress that so many people in this rural county have read a genuine literary novel, but that could be because Oprah selected it for her book club, the first in four years. The audience was 99.8% white, by definition, so it’s even more mind-boggling that a novel about slavery written by a black man could appeal to this kind of readership. There’s hope.

But at least one interviewer has asked Whitehead about the theme in the novel of “the performance of blackness and black experience for a white audience,” and I couldn’t help think that Whitehead was feeling that as he read to us. He is an Ivy League scholar, a MacArthur Fellowship winner, and a National Book Award recipient, yet race is always a big de-equalizer. He cited, as an example, Malcolm X’s singeing bon mot: “What do you call a black man with a Ph.D.? Nigger.”

As my wife and I left the venue, an older white man in jeans and a Pendleton shirt said to us, “That’s a pretty fast-talkin’ fella, eh?” As if the author were trying to sell us a bill of goods or something. And it wasn’t that he was fast-talkin’ at all. He wasn’t. But he spoke like what he is, a brilliant, well-educated, talented writer. The man might not be too used to that, coming from blacks or whites.

It was fascinating to me to see what sudden success breeds in a writer, because although Whitehead has published seven novels before TUR, he had not taken off till this one. Oprah helped. And the moderator revealed in the course of the interview that Whitehead’s book has been snapped up for a TV miniseries directed by Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins of Moonlight. Success causes more success, and the six-month book tour Whitehead has been on is a sign that he is now in the Big Time.

From my point of view as a writer, it was interesting to hear that he does a large measure of outlining his novels and revises as he goes along. He’s always starting each day a couple chapters back and adding two or three new pages, refining with each pass through recent sections. Also that he got the idea for this book sixteen years ago but didn’t feel like he was good enough at the time to pull it off. Finally, he ran it past his agent and editor a couple years ago, and the editor said, “Giddy-up, mofo.” Which, he told us, means in editor-speak, “That sounds like an excellent idea for a fine book.”

Check out The Underground Railroad, with its more than 2500 Amazon reviews. And, apparently, look for Colson Whitehead at a reading near you, no matter how far out you live.

10 comments on “One of these days he might be in your town

  1. pinklightsabre
    March 21, 2017

    Good, there’s hope. Sounds like it was inspirational for you too, I hope. Giddy-up, mofo. That’s good advice.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 21, 2017

      Yeah, that was his best line of the night. It applies to more than writing too …

  2. kingmidget
    March 21, 2017

    The things Oprah can do for a writer. I’ve seen that book all over Amazon as well. Good for him.

    I have some sympathy for the view that reading the book for a lot of us white folks is “the performance of blackness.”

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 21, 2017

      It drives me insane that America doesn’t read much more than what Oprah recommends. At least literary. And that skews the market so that people write stuff that might attract her attention. Vicious cycle.

      • John W. Howell
        March 21, 2017

        I agree with you on the Oprah thing, Kevin. Excellent post.

      • Kevin Brennan
        March 21, 2017

        Thanks, John. It’s a two-sided coin, I guess. Who wouldn’t want to get picked by Oprah? (Aside from Jonathan Franzen, that is …)

      • John W. Howell
        March 21, 2017

        I certainly would.

      • kingmidget
        March 21, 2017

        Yes. One mention from her and you sell a million books. Otherwise, plenty of other good work gets ignored.

  3. Audrey Driscoll
    March 21, 2017

    That’s the thing — literary fiction becomes wildly popular only when someone well known endorses it, or it wins a newsworthy award. Writing well is only the first step, and often doesn’t take a writer very far. (Not to take away from this book, or Oprah, for that matter).

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 22, 2017

      I had an agent once who, when there was a nibble from an editor, asked me, “So what’s special about you? What’s your hook?”

      So you have to write well and have a hook. I knew I was toast.

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