Sometimes it takes years for an author to feel ready to write the story he or she is yearning to tell.
It happened to Harvard Arts Medalist Colson Whitehead ’91, the novelist behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Underground Railroad,” as he explained Thursday to an audience at Sanders Theatre.
It was the spring of 2000 when Whitehead first had the idea of writing a novel about the slavery-era Underground Railroad, a network of secret escape routes and safe houses, as if it were an actual subterranean train. More than a decade would pass before he judged himself able to create and narrate the life of Cora as she escapes to freedom and travels north by way of an underground railroad.
“Making this metaphor of a human network into a literal train seemed like a good idea,” Whitehead said. “But every year or so for 14 years, I would check to see whether I was ready or not. I felt I needed to become a better writer.”
When “The Underground Railroad” was finally published, in 2016, it received wide acclaim. The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani called it a “potent, almost hallucinatory novel that leaves the reader with a devastating understanding of the terrible human costs of slavery … with echoes of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved,’ Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables,’ and Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man,’ and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, and Jonathan Swift.”
In addition to the Pulitzer, the best-seller won the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the Heartland Prize, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It has been translated into 40 languages and is being developed by Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins into an Amazon TV series.