Photo: Bryan Anselm/Redux
Before Colson Whitehead wrote his first novel — 1999’s The Intuitionist, a mystery following a Black elevator inspector — he was a music and television critic at The Village Voice. (“To alter a little Ralph Ellison,” Whitehead’s 1993 review of rap group Digable Planets’ debut album Reachin’ begins, “jazz will make you, and jazz will unmake you.”) A little over two decades later, he’s preparing to attend the prime-time Emmy broadcast he used to write about for work, where the director Barry Jenkins and his beautiful, harrowing adaptation of Whitehead’s 2016 opus, The Underground Railroad — which follows a Georgia slave through a long, arduous trek toward freedom across a string of grisly scenes — are up for awards.
The magnitude of this reversal of fate is not lost on Whitehead. The New York native and two-time Pulitzer winner is a history buff and pop-culture obsessive. His wide-ranging interests have manifested in his novels, which shift wildly in tone and subject matter from one to the next without abandoning the hallmarks of the author’s storytelling: the intricate narratives, the colorful ensemble casts, the historical accuracy, and the grappling with social-justice and racial-power dynamics. He might write a zombie story set in a fictionalized metropolis resembling New York City (Zone One), and he might publish a coming-of-age story about Suffolk County youth loosely based on his own time there (Sag Harbor), and he might track abuse of Black teens in a Florida reform school (The Nickel Boys). The inspiration comes by hook or by crook, from local news reports, essays, and Pinterest pages.
Whitehead’s latest novel, Harlem Shuffle, which is out September 14, ponders the life of Ray Carney, a furniture salesman trying to grow his showroom and move his expanding family to safer lodging uptown. Meanwhile, his dealings in business and in crime — he’s a fence, a reseller who acts as intermediary between thieves and interested buyers — congeal into a double life that he strains to conceal from his wife and her parents. Through Carney, Colson examines the plight of mid-century Black entrepreneurs, the endless struggle for power in New York City, the history of Harlem, and the vast spectrum of ideological grays separating law-abiding citizens and criminal masterminds. Dropping in on Carney’s story at various points between 1959 and 1964, Shuffle maps key junctures in the slow decay of Harlem, tracing the genesis of the dilapidated tenements and abandoned streets of the ’70s and the ’80s. You can tell it’s a personal undertaking for the author: Shuffle surveys the Harlem streets Whitehead’s parents traversed. He spent much of his childhood living walking distance from Carney’s dream home on Riverside Drive. He’s already working on a sequel tracking Carney’s travels in the ’70s, a first for a novelist reluctant to cover the same genre twice.
We spoke during the last big summer heat wave — about the creation and significance of Ray Carney, the book’s analogues to the modern landscape of New York City politics, and whether or not the author is using America’s grisly past to hold a mirror to its present. Whitehead’s got a solid, self-deprecating sense of humor, but get him talking and his chops as a researcher kick in. He insists that he’s no specialist, no polished political thinker. After a while, you find it hard to believe.
It feels fortuitous for this conversation to be happening during a 90-degree week in New York City. Most of Harlem Shuffle is set between July and August. Why was it important to set this story in summer?
If you look at a heist movie like Dog Day Afternoon, there’s something about New York in the summer where people go crazy. The first decision when I decided to write a heist novel was trying to figure out a New York moment, a moment in New York history, that the robbers could exploit, like the blackout of the late ’70s, the anti-police riots of the 1940s, the 1964 riots. I picked the ’64 riots thinking that my robbers could use that disturbance to hide what they were doing. That happened in July of ’64. It all sort of flowed from there.
Your main character, Ray Carney, is a furniture salesman with an eye for finer things he’s unable to access because it’s the late ’50s and early ’60s and he’s a Black man in America and power’s stacked against him. What made Ray the vessel for this narrative?
I was doing some research about fences. The original inspiration was low-fidelity heist movies. There’s a moment in some of these movies where our robber heroes have stolen $2 million in gems, half the gang has been shot by cops, and they go to the fence, who’s going to move the gems onto the next stage of their journey. The fence is always like, “Oh, I’ll give you ten cents on the dollar.” And it always seems so appalling. So I decided to make the fence a hero. A lot of fences, I found out in my research, would have front organizations. So they might reupholster furniture in the front, and in the back they’re selling stolen goods, or they sell used appliances like TVs and radios while they’re doing the dirty business in the back. I settled on a guy who sells both new furniture and used furniture on the side, whose front business slowly starts to thrive alongside his illicit business.
When I was a kid, there was a laundromat in my neighborhood that had a secret back room that functioned as a gambling spot. I get it.
When I was in my 20s and living in Brooklyn, I was totally oblivious to all the weed spots. I’d go in, and they’d always sell S.O.S steel-wool pads, Corona, and Twinkies. And they’d glare at me when I would buy beer. And my friends were like, “That’s a weed spot. Don’t you know?” And I was like, “I don’t know.” I’m always oblivious to fronts in the city.
Photo: Courtesy of Publisher
There’s a moment in the book when Ray starts to realize where all the front spots and the secret dens are, and the city suddenly opens up to him in that same way. What’s fascinating about the character is that his dream is not to “get out of the hood,” per se, but to move to the geographical edge of Harlem, where his view can show him the water. He’s not a dreamer. He’s a pragmatist and delegator. It’s a story about the Black imagination and the slow moving ceiling of what’s possible.
There are different segments of the Black population represented. There’s his wife’s parents’ generation, bankers and lawyers and accountants. They’ve made it. They’ve entered into the upper-middle class as much as they can in the ’60s. Then there’s Ray, who comes from a family of criminals and claws his way up into the middle class. Class mobility, and a lack of class mobility, is part of it. I moved around a lot growing up in the city. There’s always a better apartment waiting for you. If you just get it together, maybe you can get a two-bedroom or move to a better block for more sunlight. Whenever I moved to a new place, I’d get there, and I’d be the same person, wanting another apartment down the block. It’s a New York novel, and people here invest so much of their psychology in real estate. I wanted that to be a feature of the book.
What creates the spark for a period piece for you? Are you just always spelunking through history and taking notes?
I am always making notes. I’ll read an article and think, Oh, that’s interesting. Or I’ll see something on TV. With my first book, The Intuitionist, I was watching Dateline, and they had a story about the hidden dangers of escalator inspectors. I thought, Oh, that’s a weird job. You don’t think about it, but someone does that. I was thinking, Oh, elevator inspector. It came from that. There’s a section in Harlem Shuffle about dorveille, segmented sleep. The New York Times had an article about it a couple of years ago, and I was thinking, “Maybe one day I’ll use that.” If something catches my eye on TV or in a magazine or newspaper, I’m always filing things away for later, and if I’m lucky, I get to figure out how to use them.
What kind of research did it take to get all the furniture stuff down? Ray’s very attentive to styles and woods and finishes. Were you visiting showrooms and casing cross streets uptown for the best locations and most accurate descriptions of things?
In terms of furniture, whatever subculture you’re curious about, there’s a Pinterest page about it. And so I’ll just plug in ’50s furniture catalogue and then some super mid-century modern fan will have scanned the pages of the pamphlet, this catalogue. And so all the language that Carney uses to discuss his furniture is from period advertisements and the period pamphlets and corporate literature.
For locations, I did a lot of location scouting. I was just walking around Harlem, aimlessly, up and down, crisscrossing. I hadn’t really hung out there in years, so it was a revelation to see how much had changed and all the gentrification. I was walking around, taking notes, thinking, Oh, maybe that’s Carney’s office. Maybe that’s where Carney grows up. Then I’d look at the history, like, “Was that actually around 30 years ago? If there are projects, when did projects go in? Before or after this section?” That changes so much of the geography of Harlem. So most of the buildings are real, and I gave myself 5 percent permission to change a tenement to a brownstone if I needed it.
I noticed! Shuffle taught me some history. I’d only ever known the Hotel Theresa as the White Castle on 125th Street, for instance. Something I love about the novel is the trickle of New York lore. You work your way through Seneca Village, Hart Island, the Tombs — it feels like a love letter to the city. I’m wondering, because you’ve written stories set in other states over the last few years, how long you’ve been itching to write another one set exclusively in New York.
In 2014, I had committed to writing The Underground Railroad and thought I definitely wanted to be back in New York with my next project. It was that year that I came up with the idea to do a heist book. The Nickel Boys sort of put me off the path, but even in that book there are a few New York passages in the ’70s and ’80s. I was itching to get back to writing about the city. I keep coming back to it. The Intuitionist has a more allegorical, nonspecific city like Gotham or one out of noir movies. I wanted to make a real, authentic period piece, as much as I could pull off. My mother, it turns out, used to go to that Chock Full o’ Nuts at the Hotel Theresa because she and my father were young newlyweds at that time, living in Harlem. It’s been fun to do this research and run it by my mother. She was like, “Oh yeah, I used to go there all the time.”
I would’ve guessed that the ’64 riot section of Harlem Shuffle was a reaction to the unrest of last summer. To hear the book was finished in May 2020 feels almost clairvoyant. You telegraphed the story of June.
It’s never clairvoyance when you talk about police brutality.
If you write about a white cop killing an unarmed Black man, wait a month, and another incident happens. The riot in the book is that same situation in ’64, and in the early ’40s, the same riots and protests erupted after a white cop abused a Black citizen of Harlem. Unfortunately, you’re never predicting the future when it comes to police brutality. You’re just waiting for the next high-profile incident.
Knowing you were born in New York in the late ’60s, I couldn’t help but feel like you were writing a prelude to the city as you knew it. I’m just old enough to have faint memories of what New York looked like in the ’80s, uptown, in the Heights, and the Bronx. To me, Shuffle felt like the story of the birth of that decay, that city that I knew at the beginning of my life. Am I projecting?
No. I was born in ’69, and we lived on 139th and Riverside until I was in kindergarten. Some of my early memories are of the gritty, tense early ’70s. Everything’s really dirty. Subways are a mess, and crime’s at an all-time high. The seeds of that are planted in the rise of the heroin trade and the rise of whole blocks of empty tenements burned down for insurance money. I’ve actually started writing another book about Carney in the ’70s.
I read through your nonfiction book The Colossus of New York this week. There’s something you said that I think is so true to the experience of being a New York native, but also, I think, to the latest novel: “You’re a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.” Change is coming, and Carney clearly hates it, for good reason. Drug dens are ruining everything and will continue to in the next decade. But he also hates the next generation in the way everyone always hates the next generation. You hear it from people in their 20s and 40s, from people in their 80s.
I think we’re always superimposing our old city over what’s there now. And I think the reason people related to that essay in Colossus is because, whether you’re from New York or a small town, you’re always projecting that previous version onto the present street, the same way you’re always walking around with your old self inside your present self.
I was trying to capture the dynamism of the city. Harlem — before the Great Migration, before the influx of Caribbean immigrants in the ’20s — is a neighborhood of German, Italian, Irish, and Jewish people from all over the Earth. They came to America with nothing, and they entered the middle class and moved away, and then the next group came in. Maybe that’s Black Americans from the South, maybe it’s Black folks from Barbados and the West Indies, like my mom, like my grandmother was. She came through Ellis Island in the ’20s from Barbados. Harlem stays the same, but behind all that, the population in the townhouses, the people who own the streets and the buildings, is always turning. I definitely wanted to capture that. Then, of course, people rise up and down the economic ladder. Carney rises, and the people in Dumas Club have entered into the upper-middle class. It’s precarious because that’s the nature of Black success.
I came back to Colossus in part because the narrative voice in Shuffle is really funny. You’ll pop into a character’s head, and then they’ll be telling us how dumb they think everything is, which is really different from the tone of Nickel Boys, and I think maybe closer to you as we see you in interviews and on social media. What created that contrast?
You pick the right tool for the job. So the voice of Underground is different from the voice of Nickel Boys, and the voice of Nickel Boys is different than the voice in Harlem Shuffle. So how can I best serve this story? Is it realism? Is it fantasy? Is it humor? Is it compact senses? A linear structure? Before I start, I think of all that. I write about the city a lot. I write about American history a lot. But humor is an important part of my projects. Can I tell some jokes? Definitely, with Underground, I couldn’t tell as many jokes. Nickel Boys, not so many. Having a story that allows me to let that part of my personality out is important to me. Not in every book, but over time.
Is it disorienting to balance that impulse for humor with a reputation as a storyteller who sends our gaze toward the challenging and prickly points in our history?
If you just heard of me five years ago, sure. I’ve been writing novels for 20 years. Some people know me from Sag Harbor, which is a realistic coming-of-age story, sort of humorous, a very different tone. Some people know me as the guy who wrote a zombie book. Some people will come to this book not having read my other books, and this is their first exposure to what I do. Because I switch genres a lot, I assume I’m losing people and gaining new readers, if I’m lucky, from book to book. I don’t think so much about other people’s reactions. There’s not much I can do about where you started reading my work, you know?
Fair! Something else I enjoy about Shuffle is the attention to the different kinds of crime, the grays between the straight and crooked characters, how power is consolidated by maintaining a balance and keeping contacts on both ends. I think there’s a thread to that in modern day New York. We lost a governor this summer.
There’s so much terrible stuff going on in the world that the Cuomo story was almost … such a small … I’m glad he was driven out as fast as he was. He didn’t hang on crazily, like some of these people. Definitely in Shuffle, there’s small-time crime, like the people who rob the Hotel Theresa. Then there’s the people on Park Avenue that we end up with. Those petty crimes are nothing compared to the institutional corruption on Wall Street, on Park Avenue, and the book keeps pulling back further and further so that we see the true criminal scope of New York City.
What’s your read on Eric Adams?
I remember him being, for so many years, at this or that press conference. We’ll see. That’s all I’m going to say. We’ll see.
Okay, but how would Carney feel about Adams?
He and his father are definitely very skeptical of people in politics: You only go into politics if you’re trying to run con. That’s where the Carney family sees things, so I think Carney would wait for Adams to do something that proves he’s not just another con man.
There’s a sentence in the 1964 part of Harlem Shuffle that says, “Harlem had rioted — for what?” It made me think about Derek Chauvin, the feeling that the trial was only the serving of a pound of flesh, and the last year in striving toward meaningful change in policing and ending up close to square one.
It’s super-rare for a white cop to be found guilty of killing an unarmed Black person. Is that the start of a new phase in police brutality and reform? I have no idea. I do know that under the Obama administration, there were some reforms put in about how they investigated police shootings and bad precincts, and they were thrown out the window when Trump came along. All these advances we make are really precarious, because bad actors or a bad administration can undo all this stuff we fight for. The same way the Voting Rights Act appears to protect the voting rights of many different groups and then a Supreme Court justice 40 years later can undo them. Fifty years later, someone can step in and gut those protections.
I like to compare American politics to a kid building sandcastles at the beach, just praying there’s anything left after the tide turns.
It’s very difficult to become aware of how everything works. You can have laws about prosecuting people who don’t pay taxes, but if you don’t enforce them against the rich, then what’s the point of having them?
In recent years, there’s been pushback against certain stories set in slavery days or that deal in the iconography of Black oppression, especially in film. I wonder if you — as someone whose stories really dig into the roots of those dark histories — are ever thinking about how they land with people.
I just write the books I need to write. But I think it’s interesting that there is that backlash or reluctance to read or view content, films, or books about slavery. If you actually look at the percentages of films that are about slavery, it’s, like, 5 percent. There’s one or two a year, and everything else is documentaries and romantic comedies and action movies. But those slavery movies loom so large in the imagination. So when people say there are so many, there are actually not. I think that speaks to how much it affects you when you see those movies and read those books, how much we don’t want to think about how our ancestors suffered. Always, I just think if you do it well, people will come. If you execute it poorly — whether it’s a novel about slavery or an action movie or a romantic comedy — people are going to hate it. So I just try to write the stories that I need to, to address my artistic concerns, my personal concerns.
I’m interested in this concept of stories that you “need to write.”
I had the idea for The Underground Railroad in the spring of 2000. I kept putting it off. At a certain point, 14 years later, I was like, “I keep putting it off. Why? Why is that?” If I’m so reluctant to write about slavery, maybe I should do it to grow as a person and as an artist. Sag Harbor is a novel about kids growing up in the ’80s, and it was more autobiographical than the stuff I’d done in the past. At that moment in my career, if I wanted to become a better writer and a person who understood himself more, I had to write this book to do that personal excavation and figure out my adolescence. So I’m writing these books because I think they’ll be fun, and I think the investigation is worthwhile.
Is jumping around genres something you do to challenge yourself?
I think partially. Then I don’t get bored. Also, I like these different stories. I like fantastic novels that deal with history, like One Hundred Years of Solitude. How can I investigate that for my own purposes? I like heist movies. I like zombie stories. I like detective novels. And there’s no rule what I have to do. And life’s pretty short, so if I like these things, I should do them while I have the chance.
I’m thinking about Carney and his cousin Freddie, Cora and Caesar in The Underground Railroad, and Elwood and Turner in The Nickel Boys. Across genres, you write a lot about pairs of friends, personalities that clash on the surface but grind down each other’s edges until both are changed.
I think it’s definitely true in The Nickel Boys. [Elwood and Turner are] like brothers, and at that time, my brother’s health was in decline, and I was very much thinking about our relationship. We are a year apart. We’re basically twins, and we have very different personalities, so that definitely got into The Nickel Boys. What I liked about Harlem Shuffle is that the cast is bigger, and so Freddie and Carney had that dynamic of brothers, but then another character comes in, and he and Carney have a different dynamic, and we see a different part of Carney when he’s around. Then Elizabeth, his wife, is a strong character. So instead of having two characters bumping up against each other as in Nickel Boys, Carney has a much bigger cast of foils, of people who bring out different aspects of his personality.
Carney in that respect reminds me of Tony Soprano, who needs to have the know-it-all veneer but who is always picking people’s brains for advice he quickly puts to use. This made it ring true as a kind of mob story to me. Ray’s putting a family together, in a way. What other stories inspired you while writing him?
The Sopranos and The Wire and Breaking Bad are in there just because we have a protagonist who gets a lot of screen time, and they’re often quite evil and doing terrible things, so how do we excuse the actions of a sociopath? Carney is not that bad. But in The Sopranos, we’re meant to see the human part of Tony, so we stay with him and start to excuse the terrible things he does. That’s true when you have a protagonist who’s a serial killer, like in fucking Dexter, or a mobster. They’re doing terrible things, but you still root for them.
With Harlem Shuffle, I was thinking more of crime movies: Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Rififi, Charley Varrick, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. In Ocean’s 11, they can afford a million-dollar electromagnetic-pulse machine to knock out all the security in Las Vegas. My guys don’t do that. So I wanted a low-technology, low-fidelity heist background. For books, Richard Stark has this series about a sociopathic safe cracker named Parker. Chester Himes, the great Harlem crime writer, definitely provided some inspiration. Patricia Highsmith with her Ripley character. Ripley is a murderer and in constant denial about his homicidal impulses and his queerness. He’ll never address them on a page to the reader, but we see him do these things, and he has no reaction. That divided self is hopefully in Carney as well.
It feels like you’re sympathizing with Ray while dissecting the validity of his politics. There’s a point where a crooked detective tells Ray, “I know you’re not political,” as he explains how to infiltrate a Black protest movement. Another time, you have a guy talking about “getting in the room.” I started to wonder whether there was tacit critique of Black capitalism happening.
It’s more about realism. I think if there’s a critique about capitalism, it’s in the second section, when we get to the Dumas Club and we meet the banker and the corrupt upper-crust people. Ray is in his late 30s in ’64, and he has a different reaction to the rights struggle than the college kids and high-school students. Freddie, for example, joins the anti-police protests in ’64 mostly so he can talk to girls. They’re older, and they have different orientations to all these changes happening than 20-somethings and teenagers. So I’m trying to have them act appropriately, not be paragons of political virtue. Some people are not political, and criminals are not the most activist types that you’ll find.
We’ve been talking about heists and jewels. I have to ask about Beyoncé. She and Jay-Z did an ad where she’s wearing the Tiffany yellow diamond, with all its origins, and he’s displaying a never-before-seen Basquiat. There’s been discourse about historically charged pieces as displays of wealth and some criticism of modern Black capitalism. When you’re good at something, there’s an expectation for your ideas and actions outside work to be just as good. Does that stress you?
I just do my work, and I try not to make it suck. If I have something to say about society, about capitalism or institutional racism, it’s in my books. I feel no urge to write an op-ed for the Times. That time is better put to working on another book. There are sociologists, historians, people who actually study things like incarceration rates who are more fluent and knowledgeable than me. I’m just a fucking writer.
In Europe, there are so few Black writers being published. When I go there, I’m the Black explainer. There’s one question about the book, and then the rest is like, “Why is Obama Black when he has a white mother?” It’s like, “Ask a Black guy a random question.” That’s really annoying. But in terms of talking about issues that come up because of what I’m writing about, I’m happy to. But I’m not half as knowledgeable as I should be to be pontificating everywhere.
That’s … extreme modesty. The further we get into this awful moment, this time of cultural amnesia and misinformation, the more I feel like the mission of a writer is just to remember things and how they went down, to have receipts and to maintain a certain record. I feel like you might relate.
Yeah, and I think I took that on in different books — in Underground Railroad and John Henry Days early on, and The Nickel Boys. When I heard about the Dozier School, which was the inspiration for The Nickel Boys, I was appalled that I’d never heard about it and also by the knowledge that if there’s one place like this, how many other places like this were there that we never hear about? Part of that book was testifying for kids who went through that and the anonymous kids at the other institutions who are unnamed. And then, the work in Harlem Shuffle and Sag Harbor are documenting a certain kind of place — Harlem in the ’60s, my version of it, or Sag Harbor in the ’80s — before these places disappear. For research, I would go to YouTube and try to find footage of Harlem in the ’60s, and of course it’s great that there are amateur photographers and filmmakers who digitized their home movies, and you can see what it was like.
If you go to 125th Street now, you see the big-box stores that have taken over the small storefronts. You’ve got Magic Johnson Theater, Chuck E. Cheese. I have nothing against those things, but the landscape changed. The south side of 125th Street is incredibly different than it was 40 years ago. So that documentary urge was fun for me.
There’s a scene in Shuffle where Carney is staring into a gaping hole in the ground in a Manhattan construction site. Such things have specific significance to New York now. Did you have any inkling that this book would land within a week of the 20th anniversary of 9/11?
I did not. But that devastation to the city, and the resilience afterward, is in the book. Researching that New York City history — and definitely in light of what happened in the last year and a half, when the city was so dead — reminded me of the days right after 9/11, the tension in the air. Also, the ’70s. Are we going to go back to the terrible period of the ’70s?
But New York always bounces back. If you look at the ’70s — if you read a book like Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, by Will Hermes — that’s the birth of punk, disco, hip-hop, New York salsa. Out of this ruined city came this incredible cultural laboratory. And ’72 to ’76 is just a great moment where artists are doing a lot of work finding new forms. In the city, the buildings fall, whether they’re burnt down for insurance money or destroyed by bombs, and we rebuild. It might not be as pretty as the previous building, but we rebuild. I think that’s New York, that resiliency.
The resiliency in the South Carolina settlement in Railroad, in the Seneca Village and Strivers’ Row stuff that comes up in Shuffle, and in the historical Black community of Sag Harbor feels like you’re poking around through history not just to talk about oppression but to show how the Black spirit endures and what all people are able to achieve in the midst of difficult times.
That’s Black history. We survive. Many of us are lost in the journey, but for what it takes to survive slavery, Jim Crow, the various legal inequities in American society right now … you have to be a survivor. So there are different ways of doing that. In terms of, say, Underground Railroad, it takes incredible courage to run north, like Cora. It also took courage to stay on the plantation and take care of your kids. There are many different forms of heroism. So by tapping different historical periods, different segments of Black life, I get, over time and over ten books, to create this bigger portrait. But it’s not a mission. It just comes from being interested in these things, then making the world and making the characters, and then you end up talking about these things as you bring in real people, or the experiences of real people, into your books.
It’s been a minute since you set a story fully in the present — and the present has gotten to be very strange and awful. I’m curious if there’s a reason for that.
With John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt and Zone One, I was dealing with contemporary society. John Henry Days chronicles early internet culture and the rise of the word “content.”
I think I had an idea before Underground Railroad that was very contemporary. It was about newspapers in a new media age. I was plotting it out. It was 2012, 2013. And I was just like, I’m too old. There’s a really angry 26-year-old who knows more about this culture than I do, and I don’t fucking have to pipe up about it. I’ll leave it to the people who actually know how things are going down, not some middle-aged guy with kids and a mortgage who’s tired after 7 p.m. My orientation to critiquing contemporary society has changed. I can’t speak to what I’ll be doing ten years from now, but the stuff I have in the pipeline is historical stuff not set in America at this moment.
Do you really feel there are stories that your age and perspective cross you out of telling?
I think anyone can write about anything. But there’s certain fire that somebody of a younger generation can bring to a story. People who grew up completely in the internet age, people who grew up only knowing Obama as president and then meeting Trump, they have a different perspective on where America is headed than I do.
I don’t want there to be anything I feel I shouldn’t write about. Maybe that’s a very late-30s culture writer way to feel.
Well, I think critics and fiction writers, nonfiction writers of all kinds, shouldn’t shy away from what they’re interested in. We’re talking about fear, and if you’re scared of something, maybe that’s the thing you should be doing. And if you’re writing about a new subject matter or a new kind of music, and it’s a challenge, that’s a worthy thing to take up, as a person and as an artist, as a writer.
How does it feel to go from being a critic to being on the business end of critical acclaim?
I mean, I liked being a critic in my early 20s. I always wanted to write fiction. I always admired long-form nonfiction by people like Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer. I had older sisters and parents who brought those books into our house. I was a teenager reading The Executioner’s Song or Joan Didion.
As someone who was raised by pop culture, becoming a TV critic was an incredible job. At that point, in the early ’90s, it was basically degrading to be a TV critic and … everybody was sort of embarrassed for you, that you were writing about TV.
We’re still getting some of this energy now.
Oh, really? I think people take criticism so much more seriously.
People take it seriously, but the tone sometimes is, “You’re writing about this because you can’t do it,” which is not necessarily true when you consider all the people who pivot from writing online to working in the industries they covered.
It’s not true at all.
Jenkins’s adaptation of The Underground Railroad premiered in May. Recently, we learned that Sag Harbor’s being adapted for HBO Max. How hands-on are you able to be, or do you want to be, in a situation where your work is being visualized?
I don’t want to be that involved. I mean, I’m in the middle of a book right now. I don’t want to stop to work on a TV show about something I wrote. I can only write Cora so many times in a lifetime before I get sick of it. I trusted Barry, and we had a few conversations: “Why’d you do this, why’d you do that?” “Here’s the solution to, say, Cora being very static in the attic in North Carolina. What if I had this other this person in there to join her?” Whatever I contributed, I’m happy for.
Growing up, I saw so many bad adaptations. I hope it goes well, and hopefully the team that’s taking it on is capable. But in the end, the book is the book, and the show is the show. That said, obviously Barry did genius-level work, and it’ll be tough to top that in terms of adapting something else of mine.
How does it feel to see your characters come to life?
I see them more as personalities. I never really picture their faces. So, the first day I’m on set, I’m seeing Ridgeway. I’m seeing Homer. They all look perfect. I felt like all of them were immediately who I described in the book, so that was magical. I respect the care and the sheer industry it takes to make a miniseries. I saw the sound stage where they made the houses, Martin and Ethel’s house, the saloon, the tunnel. Somebody made that. I wrote the words five years ago: “She’s in the tunnel.” And then somebody makes the tunnel after 200 hours, out of papier-mâché and metal, and it looks incredible. The attention to detail, whether it was the set designer or the costume designer, it was like a heist. They put an incredible crew together and they pulled it off.
I love this idea of the heist not just as a criminal enterprise but as this coming together of varying intelligences to the greater — I don’t want to say “good,” necessarily, but to the greater advantage of each of them.
There’s the safe cracker. There’s the wheel man. There’s the muscle. They all come together to do this thing, pull off this incredible feat, which is the defeat of their crappy lives. If they get this score, they can change everything. But at the same time that they’re gifted, they’re also incredibly flawed. So you know somebody will get arrested for some minor thing, and they’ll rat to the cops. The viewer or reader knows that it’s going to go to hell. It’s a setup, but the members of the gang don’t know. Usually, the heist goes terribly wrong.
It has to, or it’d be a newspaper clipping instead of a novel. I want a Harlem Shuffle series so bad.
Perhaps one day. There’s been some people approaching, interested. But I’m still writing it. I don’t want to answer anybody’s questions about it. I want to write it and have fun with it and enjoy being in Carney’s world. So if, when I’m done, someone’s still interested, that’s great. At the moment, I am feeling very selfish and miserly, and I just want it just to be mine. And I don’t want people saying, “Where do you see Carney in 30 years?” It’s none of your business, you know? It’s mine.
What music are you listening to this year?
I’m in a rut, but my big band for Harlem Shuffle was Thee Oh Sees.
I wouldn’t have guessed.
They’re a California neo-garage band. They’re fast. They put out a record every six months. I’d just have three hours of Thee Oh Sees I listened to.
I made notes of every song you mentioned in Harlem Shuffle and was tickled that Carney’s a guy who does not get jazz. It’s so typical to the kind of crank he is that he wouldn’t.
Jazz was pretty hip, and Carney’s not hip. He’s a square.