The author talks about his book set among small time crooks in 1960s Harlem, the joy of switching it up – and why he looks up to Stanley Kubrick

Something strange happened the morning after Colson Whitehead finished his forthcoming novel. “I put the book to bed, and then I got up the next morning and Minneapolis was on fire,” he says. It was 26 May 2020, the first of three days of riots last year after the murder of George Floyd. Whitehead had chosen to conclude his latest novel, Harlem Shuffle, against the backdrop of the Harlem riot of 1964, which erupted after a 15-year-old black boy, James Powell, was shot dead by police lieutenant Thomas Gilligan. What were the odds that the day after he wrapped up a fictional contemplation of “how we pull ourselves together” in the aftermath of such an incident, there would be another one? As Whitehead himself observes, the coincidence was proof of a point he’s always making: “If you write about fucked up racial shit, wait five minutes and something else will happen.”

Long before our conversation, I’d resolved that I wouldn’t let the topic of race dominate it. For a start, it’s the subject (often the only one) that black writers are always asked to offer opinions about – an architecture of expectation that builds itself up around us. But also, it has never dominated Whitehead’s work, which has ranged in nine previous books over areas as diverse as elevator inspection, the World Series of poker and the zombie apocalypse. And there’s plenty else to talk about. Music: “I’ve done homework, college papers on Ice Cube’s first record and I’m still listening to it now. I’m brought back to other moments in my life when I’ve been writing really hard and Radiohead’s been there, Public Enemy’s been there.” Lockdowns: “I guess the cliche is that writers’ lives didn’t change that much, I’m pretty much sitting right here all day.” Whether he regrets chickening out of accepting Toni Morrison’s invitation to coffee several years ago: “When I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of my idols at conferences, I’m very reserved.”

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