Next time around, Colson Whitehead says, he may try that thing young novelists usually do -- write something that comes out of his own life.
The 36-year-old author of "The Intuitionist," "John Henry Days" and, most recently, "Apex Hides the Hurt" is explaining his creative method during a recent Washington visit. The pattern so far, he says, has been to start not from life but from an abstract idea: "Then I have to think up a story and characters and situations."
Take "The Intuitionist," the metaphysically intricate whodunit about (of all things) elevator inspectors that had critics comparing Whitehead to writers as varied as Dashiell Hammett, Ralph Ellison and Thomas Pynchon when he published it in 1999.
That first book originated, he says, when he found himself imagining what would happen if someone with the seemingly mundane job of making sure elevators stay safe had to investigate a serious crime. To write it, he found himself inventing a whole elevator-inspection subculture. It includes a corrupt hierarchy of racist, sexist good old boys and is riven by infighting between two lovingly imagined philosophical camps: the Empiricists, who inspect elevators by the scientific book, and the Intuitionists, who can just feel it when an elevator's overspeed governor, say, is on the fritz.
Or take the new book he published this spring.
"Apex Hides the Hurt" began with Whitehead contemplating the notion of a corporate "nomenclature consultant" being brought in to rename a town. At the same time he found himself meditating on the cultural significance of Band-Aids. These ideas got him started on a novel that -- while it feels radically different from "The Intuitionist" -- nonetheless shares its abstract origins.
The writer is tall and thin, with dreadlocks that somehow make him seem younger than the unsmiling, crop-haired guy who stared out from the back cover of his first novel. When he laughs, which is often, his voice cracks upward into a not-quite-giggle. There is an intensity to Whitehead, however, that's camouflaged by his easygoing manner and often satiric prose.
He likes to take on ambitious writing problems, solve them, then move on to different challenges.
The one he's set himself now is: Can he find a language that will make his real-life experience compelling for others? To be more specific, can he write about growing up in New York City in the 1980s without having it be just "Hey, one time I had this big adventure"?
Reality-based fiction: What a concept!
For a huge talent who's still maturing, it could be the most ambitious project yet.
He was unaccustomed to normal speech, having grown more acquainted with the dingy dramas of afternoon television, and their dispiriting cadences. The world of afternoon television astounded and delighted in the sheer breadth of its humiliations.
You could say Whitehead's reality began with New York, where he still lives, in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood. His father ran an executive search firm where his mother also worked. They lived in Manhattan; the apartment he remembers most fondly was at 101st and West End.
Or you could say his reality began with popular culture.
A "pretty nerdy" kid who didn't like sports, he recalls being "always in the house, watching TV or reading comic books." He wanted to write "Spider-Man." He read a lot of Stephen King. In that company, realism hardly looked like a cultural priority.
Meanwhile, the TV comics he favored, George Carlin and Richard Pryor, had their own way of dealing with the real world: "They're making jokes and then they sneak in something terrible when you weren't looking," Whitehead says. "And then you're like: Oh, am I supposed to laugh? What's going on?"
In college, he majored in English and caught up with contemporary fiction. Nathanael West and Pynchon were favorites, along with Ishmael Reed, who wasn't taught at Harvard, "but I'd go to the library and check him out." He had an idea he was a writer, but hadn't done much about it: "In college, I wrote maybe three short stories."
"Teenage depression," he says, and laughs that upward-cracking laugh. He tried to get into a writing class. Got turned down.
A few months after graduating, he went to work at the literary supplement of the Village Voice, opening packages and answering phones. Someone told Jeff Salamon, then the Voice's television editor, that this kid named Colson was interested in TV. Salamon asked if he wanted to try a review.
"He was just a young guy who came right out of the gate with a lot of sass and attitude," says Salamon, now an editor at the Austin American-Statesman. Whitehead did that first review, then another and another. One time Salamon asked him to write about TV weatherman Al Roker. Back came "a really insane, over-the-top" piece that ran under the headline "Al Roker: God of Thunder."
"I remember sitting there slack-jawed as I read it," Salamon says.
Whitehead ended up doing a TV column for a couple of years. "There's not a lot of good TV," he says, "so it became a humor column over time." He used it to try out different voices and to write about whatever caught his fancy. He also started a novel on the side. It was, he says, "a pop-cultural satire about a former child star, like Gary Coleman, on a sort of bad '80s sitcom" who grows up and turns into "this new sort of Shaft figure."
Lots of publishers turned it down.
His agent dumped him.
Whitehead just assigned himself another problem and kept writing.
That first attempt, he says, had lacked a strong narrative line, so "I figured I should probably learn about plot." He'd been reading detective fiction, which he thought could help him: "If you read 10 Elmore Leonard books in a row, you can really see the strings." He decided to do "a joke detective novel" -- and started writing "The Intuitionist."
At first he wrote it with a hip male protagonist, in "a voice I'd used at the Village Voice." He quickly realized it wouldn't do. In the same way he'd decided to think differently about plot, he auditioned a totally different kind of lead character. He made elevator inspector Lila Mae Watson "not like me. And so: female, no sense of humor."
It worked. Big time.
"I just started reading it and I was completely enthralled," says Tina Pohlman, then an editor at Anchor Books, who remembers being upset that she had to put the manuscript aside to go to a barbecue in Brooklyn. Pohlman had read and rejected Whitehead's first attempt ("The less said about it the better -- he was just warming up"). This one she bought, for what she calls "not one of those huge six-figure advances, but not a tiny one."
"Literary reputations may not always rise and fall as predictably as elevators," Gary Krist wrote in the New York Times when "The Intuitionist" came out, "but if there's any justice in the world of fiction, Colson Whitehead's should be heading toward the upper floors."
Whitehead wasn't waiting around to find out. He was already halfway through "John Henry Days."
New writing problem, different approach: This second book is less tightly plotted and more expansive than the first. Built around the legend of the heroic steel-driving man, it asks the abstract question: How do we update this industrial-age myth for the information age? It also boasts a protagonist -- junketeering Web journalist J. Sutter -- who has a bit more in common with his creator, at least on the wisecracking surface, than Lila Mae Watson.
"John Henry Days," published in May 2001, established Whitehead as more than a one-novel wonder. He was halfway through his third, the book that would become "Apex Hides the Hurt," when -- on the morning of Sept. 11 -- the phone in his Brooklyn apartment rang earlier than it should have.
Whitehead and his wife made it outside, to a nearby park on a hill, just in time to see the second tower collapse.
Dressed, she's in front of the mirror. Armed. She puts her face on. In her case, not a matter of cosmetics, but will. How to make such a sad face hard?
Everyone in New York had their lives changed by 9/11, writers no less than anyone else. In Whitehead's case, he put aside his novel in order to write something -- but what, exactly? -- about the city.
He had done a couple of impressionistic essays already, about Central Park and the Port Authority Bus Terminal (which was really "about your expectations of a new place"). They weren't fiction, but they weren't reported fact, either. Much of the action took place inside people's heads.
"In my perfect world I would just call it writing," he says.
After the attack, the Times Magazine asked him for a piece. He used the opportunity to try to figure out "what's up with me and the city," and the result became the first essay in the collection eventually published as "The Colossus of New York."
Our streets are calendars containing who we were and who we will be next. . . . When the building falls, we topple, too.
He says it was "much more personal" than his writing usually is. But "it felt really good to do it."
In 2002, he won one of the so-called "genius awards" from the MacArthur Foundation. "It gave us this ability to say, 'Oh, maybe we should have a kid,' " he says gratefully. His daughter, Madeleine, is now a year and a half old.
A year later, when he went back to working on "Apex," he found that the world had changed but his "know-it-all, master of the universe" protagonist had not. "I can't relate to this guy," he thought -- and proceeded to rewrite him.
The original version of Whitehead's nameless "nomenclature consultant" had had a mysterious accident, "but it didn't really have any meaning, it was more like a comic sort of mishap." The revised version has a serious toe wound, festering under a flesh-colored bandage, that he refuses to look at -- and that simply will not heal.
What does this mean, this metaphor of unexamined hurt? Surely it would be reaching to suggest that the author, too, has been refusing to see himself whole -- that the real Colson Whitehead has been hiding beneath the Band-Aid of his fantastic fiction, which he's filled with characters who resemble him only superficially, if at all.
No. All we can know for sure, for now, is that real life has become another writing challenge -- another problem he's given himself to solve.