When giving a Calhoun College Master’s Tea yesterday, author Colson Whitehead immediately tackled what he said was sure to be an issue.
“I guess the question I always get first is, ‘Why elevators?'” he said to begin his talk, referring to the elevator inspector protagonist of his debut novel.
In front of about 30 people, Whitehead discussed that novel — “The Intuitionist” — as well as his career and his development as a writer.
Calhoun Master William Sledge praised Whitehead, a 1991 Harvard University graduate, for having created “a magnificent body of work at such an early age.”
Sledge was not the only person Whitehead impressed, as the author received praise for both his first book and “John Henry Days,” published last summer.
Austin Riter ’03, who said he is a fan of Whitehead’s work, said that based on the prologues to Whitehead’s novels he expected the author to be “someone you’d want to get to know.”
“I think I was right that he is a cool guy,” said Riter. “He can relate to everybody’s questions about what to do with a career.”
Whitehead spent much of the talk discussing “The Intuitionist,” which won a Whiting Writers’ Award in 2000. One audience member asked Whitehead if he agreed with the blurb on the book’s cover that calls the novel a racial allegory.
“I think it’s a lot of different things,” said Whitehead. “Pretty much whatever you take away from it is fine with me because that’s the way it was designed.”
Whitehead credited a television special on “The Hidden Dangers of Escalators” with giving him the idea to write about an elevator inspector. He said he researched the topic so some of the jargon he used is real, but he said that some of it is “just me having fun.”
“Writing books is very boring, so you kind of have to juice it up,” Whitehead said.
During the talk, Whitehead answered a number of questions about the writing process. At one point he said an author must break away from the styles of the writers who influence him before he can develop his own style.
“You have to sort of burn off your influences — the people who are sort of pressing down on your neck,” Whitehead said.
He credited Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed and Ralph Ellison as being his own main influences. But he said he feels them losing their hold on him with time.
“I don’t fight against them any more and they’re sort of disappearing,” he said.
Whitehead also reflected on his progress as a writer, which included a rejected novel about a “Gary Coleman character”-turned-Blaxploitation hero. Whitehead described the book as “pop culture riffing.”
“Looking back on that [first] book,” he said. “It would take a lot of gutting to bring it up to current standards.”
After publishers rejected the book, Whitehead began working on a mock detective story that became “The Intuitionist.” He published his second novel this summer and is now working on a “New York book of weird essays about the city.”
Whitehead said he tried to write fiction in college but his style was somewhat ‘juvenile.’
“[I wrote] ‘I’m a depressed guy, I walk depressed streets’ kinds of stories,” he said.
Whitehead lives in New York City, and before writing fiction he wrote for the Village Voice as a television critic and was a freelance journalist. Whitehead is at Yale as a Schlesinger Family Visiting Writer.