notes on the paperback release

This is the paperback edition of Underground Airlines, which  came to my house today and which can be in your house, if you’re interested, on July 18.

hot off the presses, currently on my floor

There is generally about a year between the publication of a book and the arrival of the softcover, and for any work that deals with political or other time-sensitive themes, one only hopes that you have not been mooted by subsequent events.

For Underground Airlines, the themes and ideas have, tragically, only become more relevant. My novel, as I’ve written elsewhere, was an attempt to dramatize the ways that the legacy of American slavery still informs our lives today; how we are still living with this brutal inheritance.

This is not a truth that has changed since I wrote the book. 

With black Americans still routinely dying at the hands of police, and with those police still routinely escaping consequence; with Jeff Sessions at the head of the Justice Department, rolling back civil rights legislation and ramping up the racist “war on crime”, it is clear we are in a period of retrenchment, not progress.

I said when the book came out that it was “an alternate history that wasn’t alternate enough.” Now, sadly, a year out from publication, that is even truer than it was.

So, anyway—though obviously I would love it if everyone would go out and buy the book, I thought I would use this space and time to highlight some institutions, related to the novel’s themes, worthy of continued attention and support. 

  • The Movement for Black Lives  is an umbrella group, comprising a wide range of organizations fighting for equality and justice for black Americans. 
  • At publication I got some shit on the internet for being a white man writing a novel about slavery with a black narrator—especially after a NYT profile called me “fearless” for doing so. The silver lining, for me, was that I ended up having a lot of thoughtful conversations with a lot of very smart people, many of whom pointed to the work of We Need Diverse Books, addressing systemic racism in the publishing industry. 
  • Finally, crucially, give to the Democratic party. Support your local progressive candidates. And look, I know, we liberals aren’t perfect either, and ending the Trump era will not usher us into the utopian future we deserve, but it sure will be a step in the right direction.
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you should read this

Anyone who has read Underground Airlines and wants more elucidation of the book’s prime underlying thesis — that the institutions and attitudes formed during the long years of American slavery still inform our treatment of black citizens (to often brutal and deadly effect) — should read this article, by Jamelle Bouie in Slate.

 

“Before the Civil War, Southern whites held a pathological fear of slave revolts, despite lauding slavery as a ‘positive good.’,” he writes. “That fear led slaveholding states to create patrols, made up of white men in the community, who would enforce slave codes, with legal authority to capture runaways, interrogate enslaved people, and punish them if necessary. Scholars see these slave patrols as one forerunner to modern police departments…”

You should read the whole thing.

Where we come from is who we are; what we become is up to us.

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2017/06/why_fear_was_a_viable_defense_for_killing_philando_castile.html

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Nomination news, and a quick Q&A

Underground Airlines was nominated for the

2017 Chautauqua Prize ,

the Thriller Award from the International Thriller Writers,

the 2017 Southern Book Prize from the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (in the “thriller” category),

and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year (where other finalists include Nisi Shawl’s Everfair and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, both of which I can heartily recommend).

***

The below is an edited version of a Q&A between myself and a group of high school students in Katy, Texas:

Was [SPOILER REDACTED] kept a secret intentionally (planned from the beginning), or did the story develop in such a way that his death made sense?

It was always my intention, once I knew [SPOILER REDACTED], to delay the revelation of that truth until pretty late in the story. I played around with where exactly the reader would encounter this piece of information, but I was aware of it from pretty early on in my process, and I always knew I was going to hold off and let it be something that the reader encounters somewhere late in the story.

This is actually an interesting aspect of fiction writing.  In terms of catching and holding the reader’s attention, the specific details of your story often aren’t as important as how you go about revealing them. (There is a smart short essay on this subject by the thriller writer Lee Child, from the New York Times — https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/08/a-simple-way-to-create-suspense/)

Paperback: out July 18

 

How did you plan the book?

My process tends to be that when I first get an idea, I write a whole bunch really fast, when I still have the big fire of it burning hot, and then when that fire starts to cool a little I spent some time outlining, so then when I go back to the draft I have given myself a road map. But then as soon as I start writing again a bunch of new stuff happens I didn’t anticipate, so the outline becomes moot, so then I go back and re-do the outline; the whole process repeats over and over again as I go. There is a lot of false starts and doubling back and rethinking and re-writing, even before I get to a coherent “first draft”.

What were your intentions when writing this book?    

To use my ability as an artist—and specifically as a thriller/mystery novelist—to approach what is a longstanding and widespread national crisis, i.e. systemic racism in a wide variety of American institutions. I’ve said this elsewhere, but I hope people understand this the book is not me creating this terrible dystopian version of America just to use as an interesting backdrop for a mystery. To the contrary, the goal is to use my skill as a mystery writer to approach what I consider to be our most pressing national issue; a way to ask why the hell are we still living with these institutions and attitudes that were born in the time of slavery? 

In earlier drafts, how did the story end?

There were drafts of this that continued past the existing ending; there were drafts that ended much earlier. There were a lot of drafts.

How much of the story was planned before the first draft was written?

Not much—see my earlier answer.

In your own opinion, do [REDACTED REDACTED]

God, I certainly [REDACTED]!

How would you respond to criticisms that say that this is not your story to tell, as a white person?

I absolutely understand and respect those readers who view a work like this with skepticism, given A) a long and ugly history of white artists representing black characters in gross ways, and B) a long and ugly history of people of color not being afforded the opportunities to tell their own stories. I only hope that if people do actually read this book, they discover that A) I approached my characters and my story with as much knowledge and research and respect as I was able, in order to NOT be one of those gross voices; and B) this book is not me as a white person trying to “pretend to be black”, or claim authority on black history, but rather me as a white person trying to be honest about American history—to do what all white Americans should do more of, which is to reckon with and take responsibility for a long history of systematic racism against nonwhites.

I do take deep exception to the idea that I, as a white person, could never possibly credibly write a black character—to suggest that whites and blacks are so different that the act of fictional empathy could never bridge the gap is an insult both to fiction and our common humanity. 

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Slate fiction project

[I worked with Slate.com to collect and edit a collection of short stories all about what life will be like during the Trump Era, and they will run on the site over the next ten days or so. What follows is my introduction to the project, which you can also read here.]

At some point during the murk of the 2016 presidential campaign, somewhere after the Judge Gonzalo Curiel affair but before the Hunger Games–themed Republican National Convention, I sat down to write an essay about rereading The Plot Against America in the age of Trump.

Alas, a quick Google search told me that the territory had already been covered. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The plot of Plot, in which the fascist sympathizer Charles Lindbergh ascends to the presidency on tailwinds of celebrity and America First populism, speaks with vivid and distressing clarity to the present moment. Philip Roth is not a science-fiction writer, but his novel is part of a long and sturdy tradition within sci-fi: the “alternate history.” Take some crucial moment in history and undo it or do it differently. The South wins; the Allies lose; the Black Death wipes out Europe and European influence. In Nisi Shawl’s sweeping Everfair, the history of the Belgian Congo is rewritten by the early discovery of steam technology; in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union the Jews are given not Palestine, but a slice of Alaska.

Whatever the particulars, the authors of these novels are interested in what the world would look like—what it would feel like—if X had happened instead of Y.

For many of us, X happened on Nov. 8 of last year. Somehow, while we were refreshing Nate Silver and wondering how Biden was going to do at the State Department, we fell through a trapdoor into an alternate dimension. Some fiction writer, cackling at her keyboard, invented the “Comey Letter” and unwound the real true history of the Clinton administration.

Even as it begins, the Trump presidency feels like an absurd and highly unlikely counterfactual. “Yes, this is really happening, I’m becoming president,” said Alec Baldwin as SNL’s sour-faced POTUS, while a Scottish newspaper listed the upcoming inauguration as the first episode in a reboot of the Twilight Zone. But as long ago as last March, the Boston Globe editorialists offered a mock-up front page from “Trump’s America.” A warning message from a bad future.

Well, the future is here. We are about to find out—we are already finding out—what the world would look and feel like if Donald Trump became the president.

Since the election we’ve all read 100 think pieces about what the next four years might hold, but fiction has a special power to clarify, galvanize, prophesy, and warn. I asked some of my favorite writers to offer visions from the alternate history we are now entering, and over the coming days Slate will publish the resulting pieces: ten short stories, all set at some point during the Trump administration.

The full list of writers is as follows:

Héctor Tobar
Ben Winters
Edan Lepucki
Saladin Ahmed
Lauren Beukes
Jeff VanderMeer
Elizabeth Bear
Nisi Shawl
Kashana Cauley
and J. Robert Lennon

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A list of lists I’m on

Underground Airlines found a place on many lists of 2016’s best novels, including Amazon’s 100 Best Books of the Year, the BBC’s 10 Best Books of 2016, the 10 Best Books list from Maureen Corrigan of NPR’s Fresh Air, as well as speciality lists from literary websites like BookChase and LitReactor. Publisher’s Weekly has the book on their list of 2016’s best mysteries, and it was nominated for a GoodReads Readers Choice award in the science-fiction category. Not only did Slate critic Katy Waldman pick the book as one of the year’s best, but a second Slate critic (Laura Miller) picked the audio version, read by the extraordinary William DeMerritt, as one of the year’s best audio books, and the Slate writer Dan Kois listed my nameless hero (best known as Victor) among the best pop-culture characters of 2016.

And speaking of the audiobook, Audiofile magazine picked Underground Airlines as the best mystery of 2016.

James Fallows at The Atlantic listed Airlines among his favorite novels of 2016, and Ann Patchett listed it among hers in The New York Times Book Review.

I’ll leave you — for now, for the year — with this interview I did for The Undefeated, a sports and culture website run by ESPN. I’m honored by what the journalist, Jesse Washington, had to say about my work in his introduction, and I think my  answers to his very smart questions are my clearest articulation of my intentions in writing the novel: tu-logo

“Like most white Americans, I am not forced to face those facts on a day-to-day basis — the violence and fear of violence reflected in high-profile police shootings of unarmed blacks, but also just the day-to-day inequalities and indignities: housing discrimination, employment discrimination, mass incarceration. All of it. There is no way to untangle these contemporary evils from our historical evil…” 

[please check out the whole interview, here.]

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Slate Audio Book Club takes on Underground Airlines

Last night I posted a link to a piece by Jamelle Bouie on Slate, whose commentary I have found so smart and powerful in the last few weeks. This morning Slate posted their new Audio Book Club podcast, which is a discussion of Underground Airlines and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. The three participants in the conversation are Laura Miller (who reviewed the book originally on Slate), Katy Waldman, and Bouie himself.

The conversation is in-depth (about race and the economics of slavery), fascinating, and shadowed by recent events. (And by the way, I’m honored once again to share a spotlight with Whitehead’s near-miraculous novel.)

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On empathy

As a white man, and as a white author who has tried to reckon with the history of racism and racist violence in America, I feel moved to share this Jamelle Bouie piece from Slate on the  repeated suggestion that we all need to “empathize” with the white Americans who chose to vote for Donald Trump. Bouie, who in my opinion has been essential reading before and since this catastrophic election, is persuasive.  

With so many Americans deserving of our empathy right now — from the immigrants now fearful of deportation to the Muslims facing a rapid rise in hate crimes to the women whose reproductive rights are soon to be curtailed by Supreme Court appointments — should those who with their votes created those crises be first on the list? 

Here’s Bouie, although I encourage you to read the whole thing:

“Millions of Americans are justifiably afraid of what they’ll face under a Trump administration. If any group demands our support and sympathy, it’s these people, not the Americans who backed Trump and his threat of state-sanctioned violence against Hispanic immigrants and Muslim Americans. All the solicitude, outrage, and moral telepathy being deployed in defense of Trump supporters—who voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes—is perverse, bordering on abhorrent.

I  also strongly recommend this piece by Masha Gessen in the New York Review, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” which I think everyone should print out and tape to the fridge, and hope — really hope — that four years from now we laugh at how much we were overreacting.

But today, Stephen Bannon is on his way to the White House, so go ahead and tape Gessen’s article to the fridge.

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An Underground Conversation

A few weeks ago I paid a visit to one of my old haunts, Concord, New Hampshire, to do a joint appearance with the great American novelist Colson Whitehead, whose latest work The Underground Railroad has deservedly earned him great heapings of praise, not to mention a spot on the shortlist for the National Book Award.

My book Underground Airlines is obviously very different (i.e. it’s an alternate-history mystery/thriller), but I feel comfortable saying that the two works share some themes and areas of interest: like The Underground Railroad, Underground Airlines is a book about the Underground Railroad, the history of American slavery, and the connections between that history and contemporary structural racism.

colson-and-ben-on_stage
Host Virginia Prescott, Colson Whitehead, and Ben Winters on stage at the Capitol Center for the Arts.

The event was hosted by NHPR, and you can hear our conversation here.

For more on the two books, and other works of American literature that have taken in the extraordinary history of the Underground Railroad, you could (and should!) read this long smart essay by Kathryn Schulz, in the New Yorker. 

For another long, smart essay, try this piece by from Vox about Underground Airlines and one of its most important antecedents, Octavia Butler’s Kindred. 

Meantime, Publisher’s Weekly named Underground Airlines one of the top ten mysteries of 2016; GoodReads nominated it for a GoodReads Choice Award in the sci-fi category; and Hudson Booksellers named it one of the best works of fiction (of any kind) of 2016.

 

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Appearances (and one disappearance)

In the next couple months I will do my final appearances in support of Underground Airlines.

One place I am no longer available is Twitter. After becoming anxious I was spending too much time on there, including a lot of good time that otherwise would have been committed to writing or, I guess, life in general, I did a cost benefit analysis and discontinued my account. They told me I have a year to change my mind, so who knows. For now you can contact me the old-fashioned way: by email, or Facebook, or by commenting on this post or any other post. Or come to one of the events listed above…or when the paperback comes out….or when I tour behind my next book, which I’m going to get back to work on.

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Underground Airlines a NYT bestseller

Last week Underground Airlines debuted on the NYT Hardcover Fiction bestseller list at #20. It also entered the Indie Bestsellers List (compiled by the American Booksellers Association) at #11.

I am honored and grateful to everyone who bought the book; everyone who recommended it; everyone who is talking and keeps on talking about it.

PRAISE

There have been some extraordinary reviews. On the NPR program “Fresh Air,” Maureen Corrigan says it’s “an extraordinary new novel of alternate history” that “jolts readers to a heightened awareness, making us see just how much of the nightmare of what could have been is part of the all-too-familiar reality of what is.” The novelist Ken Kalfus noted in the Financial Times that “The carefully worked-out politics and mores of Winters’ fictional America mock our own, slyly satirising our blind-spots and compromise,” and says that “What distinguishes Underground Airlines as literature is the acuity and penetration of Winters’ moral vision.” Entertainment Weekly says “Winters crafts his thriller so deftly that the ingenious details of his sideways timeline often fly under the radar, blurring the line between Victor’s world and ours,” the Washington Post says “Winters has written a book that will make you see the world in a new light,” and USA Today calls it “a swift, smart, angry new novel” with a “vibrant imagination [that] never slackens.”

CONCERN

New York Times piece on me and the book drew some criticism, some about the appropriateness of me (a white person) writing with the voice and from the point of view of a black man; and even more so about the high profile offered to me for writing about this subject when there are many writers and artists of color who have done so before (some, like Octavia Butler and Steven Barnes specifically in a science-fiction or speculative context) who were left out of the conversation. These are important issues, and I take them very seriously. I responded to the controversy on Slate, I offered a piece on LitHub about black mystery authors who have inspired and influenced me, and I spoke at length about the whole tangle of issues at the Free Library of Philadelphia last week — here is the podcast.

APPEARANCES

  • Tuesday July 19, from 1 – 2 PM EST I was on the Colin McEnroe Show on WNPR (Connecticut).
  • Saturday July 23, from 10 – 1 AM PST I will be at San Diego ComicCon doing a panel about book-to-screen adaptations. (http://sched.co/7gHV)
  • Tuesday, July 26 I’ll be on the CBC Radio Program “Q”, which is also syndicated in the United States. Will post airtime when I have.
  • Tuesday, August 2, at 6:30 PM PST I will be at Diesel Books Brentwood, in  Los Angeles, reading and signing.
  • On Sunday, September 18 I will be at the Brooklyn Book Festival.
  • On Sunday, October 16 I will be at the Capital Performing Arts Center in Concord, NH, for an event with Colson Whitehead.
  • On Saturday, October 22 at 6 PM EST I will be at IndyReads Books in Indianapolis.

Thank you again for your support.

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