Creative writing major Mackenzie Doherty ’18 had a couple of questions for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead when he spoke at Hamilton recently. And she didn’t have to walk up to a microphone in a lecture hall to ask them. Doherty was among the students and faculty who attended an intimate question-and-answer session with Whitehead, who won the 2017 Pulitzer and the 2016 National Book Award for his most recent novel, The Underground Railroad.
Whitehead spoke at Hamilton March 1 as the 2018 Tolles lecturer. He is the author of six novels and two books of nonfiction. One thing Doherty wanted to know was if he had collected a small group of people to read his work before his editor sees it. When you are writing long-form, Whitehead responded, if you asked your friends to read 500 pages over and over, you’d lose them.
Doherty attends all the visiting writer events she can at Hamilton, among them Zadie Smith, Claudia Rankin, Chris Abani. She suspects it may be the only time in her life that she’ll be in proximity to writers of that stature. “I’d say a big part of being here for me has been being able to interact with writers,” Doherty said.
She says Whitehead was funny in the small group and laugh-out-loud funny in the lecture, titled “Revisiting the Underground Railroad.”
He spoke of pondering different careers for which his long, skinny fingers would be useful – pianist? No, how could he sit in a chair with no lumbar support, no hand rests? Hand model? Free washes, free hand cream, but how could he indulge in the model lifestyle? Finally, he considered becoming a surgeon... but then he heard how long operations were, so that was out – Whitehead realized he had no choice but to become a writer.
He recalled how he came up with the concept of the “underground railroad” as an actual underground train 18 years ago but that he never pursued it. Finally, four years ago, he decided to get started.
“I was thinking about writing these two different novel ideas at the time, and I pitched both to my agent, who said both sounded good,” Whitehead said. “Then, she did something she never does, which is email me on a Sunday and said, ‘I can’t stop thinking about that underground railroad idea.’”
In his Q&A before the lecture, he answered students’ queries about how he became interested in pursuing writing as a career, how he came up with the idea for his book The Underground Railroad, what contemporary authors have inspired his writing, and techniques he uses to edit his own.
“From an early age, I wanted to be a writer,” Whitehead said. “I was a kid who didn’t do sports and read comic books all day. It seemed like writing for Marvel would be the perfect job when I was a kid.”
After college, Whitehead worked at the book section of The Village Voice newspaper, where he began writing book, television, and film reviews, which allowed him to become a freelance writer and begin writing fiction.
“Failing as a writer was important for me,” Whitehead said. “I wrote a book in my ’20s and everyone hated it so I had to start over. I realized no one’s going to write the book for me. I have to do it. It’s something I’ve always known, but even now, when I get stuck, I think, no one else is going to write it for me, so I have to figure this out.”
The Winton Tolles lecture series was established in 1991 by members of the class of 1951 in memory of Winton Tolles, class of 1928 and dean of the college from 1947 to 1972. It brings distinguished writers in the fields of literature, journalism and theater to campus to lecture and meet with students.