By Mike McCurry
Harvard prepared author Colson Whitehead for his Pulitzer Prize-winning career–though not in the way you might think.
As a junior, he applied to two writing workshops. He was rejected.
“It was good training for being a writer,” the novelist joked to 300 listeners at Drew University on Wednesday, “because when you are a writer, everyone hates you and no one wants to read your stuff. So if you internalize that hatred early, you will be prepared for the real world.”
Whitehead, 48, won his Pulitzer and the National Book Award for The Underground Railroad. He came to Madison to address the Drew Forum lecture series.
The Manhattan native’s six books span an array of genres, from his 2001 zombie novel Zone One to his 2009 bildungsroman, Sag Harbor.
He began his lecture by recounting how he preferred watching the Twilight Zone or reading comic books to playing outside as boy. Whitehead contrasted his upbringing with James Joyce’s. “I wish I had grown up a sickly child, but sadly things didn’t work out that way.”
Whitehead’s interest in writing began with Stephen King novels in the 7th grade. At the time, “being a writer seemed like a great gig,” he recollected. “You get to work from home, and you don’t have to wear clothes or talk to people, and you can just make up stuff all day.”
Whitehead got his start in 1991, as a writing apprentice for the recently closed alternative newspaper, The Village Voice.
His 2016 New York Times best-seller, about a runaway slave in an alternate history where “Underground Railroad” is a literal meaning of the phrase, was conceived on a couch nearly 20 years ago.
“I remembered when I was a little when I first heard those words, they were so evocative, and I imagined it being a real train, until my teacher explained how it really worked,” he said. “Though sadly, people grow up and they still think it’s an actual train.”
Whitehead was the second speaker in this season’s series. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were featured last month. The Drew Forum will continue in the spring with yet to be announced guests.
Mike McCurry is studying political science and French at Drew University (’19). The Ogdensburg native is an editor at the Drew Acorn.