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Colson Whitehead On 'The Nickel Boys'


Elwood Curtis is a brilliant and earnest young African American man growing up in Florida during the civil rights movement. His most treasured possession is a recording of speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King.


MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: He loves a person and hates the evil deed. And I think this is what Jesus meant when he said love your enemies. And I'm happy that he didn't say like your enemies because it's pretty difficult to like some people.

SIMON: Elwood will see plenty of evil deeds during the course of Colson Whitehead's new novel, "The Nickel Boys," when he's sent to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, which turns out to be a house of horrors. And Colson Whitehead, author of "The Underground Railroad," which won just about every award in existence, and a book called "The Noble Hustle," the only good book about poker I've ever read, joins us in our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

COLSON WHITEHEAD: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: This novel is inspired creatively, at any rate, by a real place, the Dozier School.

WHITEHEAD: It was a reform school in Florida. And they would take in juvenile delinquents. They would take in orphans, wards of the state. And the idea was that, instead of, you know, locking up kids with grown-up criminals, give them an education, have them do some work on a farm. And after 18 months, they might be set on a better path. As happens in places like this where people are unsupervised and there's a culture of impunity, there's a lot of abuse, physical, sexual. Some kids were killed. And they finally ended up closing the place in 2011.

SIMON: What did it set off in your mind to read these accounts of the Dozier School?

WHITEHEAD: It was horrifying. You know, it was summer of 2014. It came up into my news feed. And I think I was struck by the fact I'd never heard the place. It dawned on me, if there's one place like this, there's dozens and dozens. And where are those places? And what happens to the kids afterward? And immediately, I felt like I wanted to write about it.

SIMON: Tell us more about Elwood. His favorite record isn't Martha and the Vandellas, Motown in the '60s but a recording of speeches by Martin Luther King.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. He's been raised by his grandmother who's very strict and thinks that's, like, the devil's music. He's - now he's very studious. He works in a stationery store and has been reading accounts of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. And he sees himself as joining them. He wants to protest. He thinks that he can, like the people he admires, change the world. And that's where you find him, in the state of wanting to make the world a better place.

SIMON: I liked him so much. He believes in goodness, in practicing goodness. And then you wince when acts of goodness - he stops a shoplifting against the old man who owns the store where he works. He hitchhikes to get to his first day of college classes. And those acts of goodness put him in harm. The reader wants to shout, Elwood, don't be so good.

WHITEHEAD: You know, he's an impossible creature. And I think, you know, when I was trying to figure out which King speeches to use for the book, it seemed like Martin Luther King was an impossible person, too. Like, how could this person sort of be among us? His voice and his words was so stirring and so unlikely. So King and Elwood are these, you know, people who ignore the facts and think that they can change the facts, actually.

SIMON: I don't get a vote in the matter. But wasn't the point of what Dr. King was talking about the power of I think what he called soul force, that African Americans would gain a special power and wisdom from their history?

WHITEHEAD: It's a very lovely notion. Do we have that? Can we achieve that? And what is it worth when you're pushing against the forces of centuries of cruel treatment, the machinery of the world? What is soul force? I don't have an answer. And definitely, Elwood is searching for that in the book.

SIMON: Your previous novel "The Underground Railroad" received - by force of habit, I was going to say nearly universal acclaim. I can take out the nearly.

WHITEHEAD: (Laughter).

SIMON: Universal acclaim and success. Is it intimidating to say, well, I've got another novel ahead of me and maybe 10 more, 20 more after that?

WHITEHEAD: You know, I've been writing for 20 years. I've written nine books. And sometimes, a book comes out, and people get what you're trying to do or critics do and readers don't or vice versa and books where, after the first week it came out, no one really wanted to talk to me. Whether it went well or poorly, it's never easy. This book was hard because I was depressed. This book was hard. I was broke. This book was hard. I was broke and depressed. And you'll just find the time and hope not to screw it up page by page.

SIMON: When you say you were broke and depressed, can I get you to talk about that?

WHITEHEAD: Oh, you know, when I started out as a freelance writer working for the Village Voice making 35 cents a word...

SIMON: Thirty-five cents a word would encourage you to put in the...

WHITEHEAD: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...Subordinate clauses that - now that you're a big successful author, you would say, well, get rid of that.

WHITEHEAD: Long quotes from the book I'm reading, stuff like that and, you know, plot summary - and then, you know, things are happening in your life, like having kids. And then you're just too tired to work at the end of day. And you lose a year here and there. But no one else is going to do the work, so you find that afternoon.

SIMON: Did you go to sleep having nightmares about what you were writing about that these young men are - that you created were living through?

WHITEHEAD: This is the first time I ever had, like, an extreme emotional reaction to working on something. And definitely the last six weeks of the book, I was bummed out a lot because, you know, I can't actually hang out with these boys all day and then continue to imagine what's happening to other people in the world. And when I was done, I handed my book in and just played video games for six weeks and thought about nothing and cooked. And, you know, that was my healing, just take my mind completely off of what I've been living with for the last year.

SIMON: Well, thank you so much. Colson Whitehead - his novel, "The Nickel Boys" - so glad you could be with us now.

WHITEHEAD: No. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 12, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier headline on this story misspelled the title of author Colson Whitehead's latest novel. It is The Nickel Boys, not The Nickle Boys.
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