Colson Whitehead is still surprised by fame, like having his face on the cover of Time magazine this week when his new novel, The Nickel Boys, was published.
"It's surreal," he said in a phone interview. "Whenever really good things happen to me, or bad things, I pretend they happened to somebody else, so I don't have to process them."
The headline on that cover is "America's Storyteller," and the story Whitehead tells in The Nickel Boys is straight out of Florida. He will appear at Tampa Theatre to talk about the book on July 25.
The title refers to a fictional reform school, the Nickel Academy, in the Panhandle where boys are unthinkably abused by staff members.
The novel was inspired by the real-life history of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys, which operated from 1900 to 2011 in Marianna. In 2009, the then-St. Petersburg Times published "For Their Own Good," a series about the school that revealed a long history of beatings, rapes and unexplained deaths. The series by reporters Ben Montgomery and Waveney Ann Moore and photographer Edmund Fountain was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Several investigations by state agencies followed.
Whitehead said he first heard about the school in 2014, when a team of archaeologists from the University of South Florida excavating the cemetery on the grounds discovered a number of unmarked graves. He was already writing an unrelated book but put it aside to work on The Nickel Boys.
This is the eighth novel and 10th book by Whitehead, 49. Born and raised in New York City, he graduated from Harvard and published his first novel, The Intuitionist, in 1999. He's the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as the "genius award"), among other honors, and lives in New York with his wife, a literary agent, and two children.
Whitehead's last novel, the 2016 bestseller The Underground Railroad, received the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Carnegie Medal and was an Oprah's Book Club 2.0 pick.
An imaginative and moving novel of alternative history, it starts with the premise that the titular escape route from slavery was a real railroad, its tracks running through tunnels. The plot recounts the flight of a teenager named Cora from a plantation in Georgia as she makes her way through several Southern states seeking freedom. Whitehead's employment of magic realism heightens and rivets attention upon the grotesque nature of the institution of slavery.
The Nickel Boys is not a sequel to The Underground Railroad, but it follows those tracks into the 20th century. Set in the 1960s and the near present, it too focuses on race in America.
One of its main characters, Elwood Curtis, is a teenager in Tallahassee in the '60s, being raised by his loving but strict grandmother. His most treasured possession is a record of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermons. Although Elwood deals daily with the persistent oppression of Jim Crow laws, he dreams of protest and believes in a better world. He's hardworking, polite, studious and, as Whitehead writes wryly, "a credit to his race."
Yet he ends up, through bitterly ironic coincidence, at the Nickel Academy. Named for its Klansman founder, it houses both white boys and black ones — in separate dormitories — some of them not yet in their teens. General neglect is the least of their problems; many boys undergo horrific physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the school's staff, and not all survive.
Elwood becomes friends with Turner, another black teen who is as disillusioned as Elwood is idealistic. It's a friendship that will change both their lives.
Whitehead talked about the book in advance of his Tampa appearance.
How did you first hear about the Dozier School, and what was your reaction?
In 2014, they were exhuming the grave sites. It was covered a lot in Florida. Then Ben's stories finally made a blip in the national media. When I found Ben Montgomery's reporting, it was the summer of Ferguson, of Michael Brown being shot, of Eric Garner being killed in Staten Island. It was the same indifference to black lives, to the poor, to people with no power who cannot defend themselves.
The first thing that struck me (about the Dozier School) was that I'd never heard of it. I thought, if there's one, there's many. It was part of a whole network of reform schools. Is Dozier special? No.
That kind of brutality occurs whenever powerless children are failed by the system that's supposed to protect them.
To research the book, did you visit Tallahassee and the Dozier School?
I've been to Tallahassee before for personal reasons. I thought when I started working on the book that at some point I'd head down to Dozier. But the more I wrote about it, the more I felt depressed. I felt revulsion and rage. I decided I could not actually go there. If I went it would be with a bulldozer, with dynamite.
Why did you choose to set most of the story during the civil rights era of the 1960s?
Elwood grows up in segregated Tallahassee, he goes to a segregated school. Even after the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act are passed, a lot of things don't change. We still see today voting is being restricted — by gerrymandering, by voter ID laws, by closing voting places.
After Reconstruction, Jim Crow was a way to extend the restrictions on black life after slavery ended. You make some progress, then you take a step back.
Are Elwood and Turner meant to mirror each other in their attitudes?
Elwood and Turner do represent two different sides of one personality. There's the hopeful side and the side that's disappointed and disillusioned. It grows from my own sense of confusion about where the country is now.
Can you talk about the continuity between The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys?
The Underground Railroad goes from 1850 to the late 19th, early 20th century. This picks up about a hundred years later. Many things are transformed, but the struggle continues.
You're known as an experimental writer; many of your books are satirical, surreal and/or genre bending. The Nickel Boys is traditional in its form. Why did you make that choice of style and structure?
I'm not really handy with my hands, but I know you should pick the right tool for the job. Sometimes it's an expansive, encyclopedic voice. Sometimes it's pared down and compressed. For this story, linearity and realism seemed like the right tools, so I'm wedding them in this book.
My first couple of books, I was exploring. Like, in John Henry Days the problem was how do you update a mythic figure for a technological age?
As I wrote more, I learned that having the focus on character first made my work better. The people come before the story.
Although there is terrible violence in The Nickel Boys, the descriptions of it are restrained, with a few shocking details rather than overwhelming force. Why did you choose that austerity?
The violence in Zone One, my zombie book, is very pulpy, very vivid, even kind of jokey. In this book, I'm letting the violence and brutality speak for themselves.
In The Nickel Boys, and in The Underground Railroad, terrible things are happening. But we want to think about Cora, we want to think about the boys. Also, when people are decades removed from a horrific experience, they tend to describe it flatly. (The restrained style) produces that effect.
What are you writing next?
I'm working on a crime novel set in Harlem in the '60s. It's very different. It's about crime, but it's not so much about violence. It's about the institutionalized terror I've been dealing with the last few years. It allows room for more jokes, and for some more colorful characters.
The Underground Railroad is being made into a TV series for Amazon by Barry Jenkins (a Florida State University graduate), who co-wrote and directed Moonlight. How is that going?
It's proceeding. They're actually scouting sets and locations in Georgia. They're supposed to start shooting next month. I'll be touring then, but after that I'm hoping to visit the set.
I didn't do a lot of Southern travel before The Underground Railroad, so I'm glad parts of the South received the last book. I think they will with this one, too. I hope it's started a conversation. I'm very much looking forward to coming out there.
Did you hear the recent news that even more unmarked graves have been found at Dozier?
Yes. Hopefully some families will end up knowing what happened to their uncle or their brother. Some will never be identified. There are so many untold stories, there and at other schools.
I have to tell you that when I got to the end of The Nickel Boys, those last few pages when everything comes together, I sobbed. I'm usually a pretty cold-eyed reader, but you made me cry.
It made me cry, too, when I wrote it.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
The Nickel Boys
By Colson Whitehead
Doubleday, 213 pages, $24.95
Meet the author
The Oxford Exchange presents Colson Whitehead, in conversation with Tampa Bay Times book editor Colette Bancroft, at 7:30 p.m. July 25 at Tampa Theatre, 711 N Franklin St., Tampa. Tickets $38 for one admission, $48 for two admissions; all ticket packages include one presigned copy of The Nickel Boys. (813) 274-8286. tampatheatre.org.
This excerpt from the prologue of "The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday) describes a discovery by a college student working on a forensic excavation at the fictional Nickel Academy.
Boot Hill released its boys one by one. Jody was excited when she hosed down some artifacts from one of the trenches and came across her first remains. Professor Carmine told her that the little flute of bone in her hand most likely belonged to a raccoon or other small animal. The secret graveyard redeemed her. Jody found it while wandering the grounds in search of a cell signal. Her professor backed up her hunch, on account of the irregularities at the Boot Hill site: all those fractures and cratered skulls, the rib cages riddled with buckshot. If the remains from the official cemetery were suspicious, what had befallen those in the unmarked burial ground? Two days later cadaver-sniffing dogs and radar imaging confirmed matters. No white crosses, no names. Just bones waiting for someone to find them.
"They called this a school," Professor Carmine said. You can hide a lot in an acre, in the dirt.
One of the boys or their relatives tipped off the media. The students had a relationship with some of the boys at that point, after all the interviews. The boys reminded them of crotchety uncles and flinty characters from their old neighborhoods, men who might soften once you got to know them but never lost that hard center. The archaeology students told the boys about the second burial site, told the family members of the dead kids they'd dug up, and then a local Tallahassee station dispatched a reporter. Plenty of the boys had talked of the secret graveyard before, but as it had ever been with Nickel, no one believed them until someone else said it.
The national press picked up the story and people got their first real look at the reform school. Nickel had been closed for three years, which explained the savagery of the grounds and the standard teenage vandalism. Even the most innocent scene — a mess hall or the football field — came out sinister, no photographic trickery necessary. The footage was unsettling. Shadows crept and trembled at the corners and each stain or mark looked like dried blood. As if every image caught by the video rig emerged with its dark nature exposed, the Nickel you could see going in and then the Nickel you couldn't see coming out.
If that happened in the harmless places, what do you think the haunted places looked like?