Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead

I Have to Know the Destination

“I became a writer once I realised no one liked my stuff.” Watch Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey’s favourite author, Pulitzer Prize-winning Colson Whitehead, on how rejections of his first stab at a novel made him realize that he wanted to pursue writing.

As a child, Whitehead read a lot of Marvel comic books and initially wanted to work within that genre. It wasn't until he started working for the New York newspaper The Village Voice that he began writing, and being a freelance journalist furthermore allowed him the time to write fiction. However, his first attempt at a novel was rejected several times – he was even dumped by his agent – but this only made him want to continue writing: “I had no choice than to keep going and start another novel, and that was ‘The Intuitionist’, which came out in 1999.”

“I figured if you know how to do a certain kind of story, why do it again?” Whitehead likes to switch genres, “moving from pseudo-detective novels to non-fiction to horror novels” to keep it interesting – and challenging – for him as a writer: “If there’s an element of fear involved in not knowing how it’s going to work out in terms of execution, that’s always good.” If Whitehead is unsure about which direction to take a story, he writes his ideas in two different notebooks, going with the one where the ideas seem to flow more freely. He takes notes for up to a year before he starts writing, figuring out the characters as well as the beginning and the end: “I have to know the destination before I set out.”

Colson Whitehead (b. 1969) is an award-winning American novelist. He is the author of several novels, including his debut ‘The Intuitionist’ (1999) and ‘The Underground Railroad’ (2016), for which he won the prestigious 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He has also written the non-fiction book ‘The Colossus of New York’ (2003). Whitehead is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (2002) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (2013). He lives and works in New York City.

Colson Whitehead was interviewed by Tonny Vorm in August 2017 in connection with the Louisiana Litera-ture festival at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.

Camera: Klaus Elmer
Edited and produced by: Roxanne Bagheshirin Lærkesen
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2018

Supported by Nordea-fonden

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