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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interview with Kirkus Reviews

[The book comes out today (July 5). This is an interview from the publishing trade paper Kirkus Reviews]

Ben H. Winters is white, and the narrator of his new novel, Underground Airlines, is not. In fact, the narrator, Victor, is African-American, an ex-slave in a contemporary version of the United States with a speculative-fiction twist: the Civil War never happened, meaning that slavery is still legal (in portions of the country, anyway). Victor is a bounty hunter tasked with finding runaway slaves, which puts him in an understandably awkward (if that understatement will do here) position: he uses his race to ingratiate himself into the lives of other African-Americans whom he will eventually betray. This leads the character—and the novel—toward much soul-searching about what it means to be black in America. And once again, Ben H. Winters is white.How do you feel about this basic fact of Underground Airlines? I ask, in part, because this issue arose in a conversation I recently had with a white bookseller who felt uncomfortable recommending the book in a store newsletter because of the author’s—and the bookseller’s own—race. This is a version of an old question that haunts writers: how do you gain the authority to tell the story you’re telling? And, in this particular case: can a white author create a convincing portrait of what it feels like to be in the head of a man who experiences racism every day? This question—at once complicated and attention-grabbing—is one I imagine Winters will get asked a lot as Underground Airlines enters the world. And here I am, myself a white bookseller and author, asking it.

“I approach the possibility of concern with great respect and humility,” Winters tells me, “and with an understanding that there has been a history of white artists appropriating black voices and black works for their own ends. All I can do is stand behind the work.” For Winters, Underground Airlines comes from a place of empathy rather than exploitation. “I hope people will see that my intentions are good,” Winters says. Then he pauses. “Also,” he adds, “intentions aren’t necessarily enough.”

What were those intentions? Well, it helps to understand where Winters was coming from at the time he began Underground Airlines. He had just finished the Last Policemantrilogy, in which he used the trappings of genre fiction to explore broader philosophical ideas—something he felt very proud of. As he wrote Underground Airlines—which takes the form of a mystery novel, with Victor a sort of hard-boiled detective—he was thinking about the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and numerous other victims of racially motivated violence. “We forget how close we still are to slavery,” Winters says. “I thought I would take a metaphorical idea—that slavery is still with us—and transform it through fiction into a literal idea.”


On a craft level, this is an interesting aspect of Underground Airlines: Victor is a narrator who seems forthcoming with the reader while also donning so many different guises that he himself becomes unclear about who he really is. When I ask Winters about this, he tells me, of course, it’s a fun challenge; but, with the book barely into the world, he also seems attached to Victor in a way far more fundamental than issues of craft. “I love this character so much,” Winters tells me. “I love him, I love him.”

Winters_cover

 

Winters does have his own personal connection to prejudice. “I had ancestors who were Jews in Czechoslovakia in the 1940s, and you always needed to have your papers on you.” This notion of papers shows up throughout Underground Airlines—Victor frequently has to show his own, proving he’s a free man—and I thought about another piece of recent history, especially potent to me a few years ago when I was living in Arizona: the passage of SB 1070, giving authorities the right to stop you and ask for identification if you seem like you might not be a citizen. Of course, how to judge this? Well, let’s say the law, in a state along the Mexico border, did not target many white people who were maybe in the United States illegally from, say, Sweden.

For Winters, all these forms of prejudice are connected, and Underground Airlines, in that sense, becomes more than just a book about one particular race. “We can be so proud of this country,” Winters says, “but we can’t pretend its legacy doesn’t also include generations of violence and subjugation, and we can’t pretend those things aren’t still playing out.” For evidence of this, he looks no further than our current election cycle, which “is demonstrating to us vividly how close to the surface racial animosity is.”

So, again, those good intentions? “I wanted to explore a painful history and a painful present. And I wanted to ask white readers to think about these things as deeply as black people are forced to think about them.” He acknowledges that he can, in the abstract, be outraged by racism but that he will never know the feeling of being subjected to it. But for him, “part of the idea of fiction is living in somebody else’s shoes for a while—or trying to.” At the end, he hopes that somebody reading Underground Airlines “will have something akin to the experience I had [writing it], which is this: as much as I thought I knew about my nation’s history and the pervasiveness of racism in our present day, I had a lot to learn.” Through writing the book, he discovered a level of engagement he hadn’t previously had. “I found it very moving,” he tells me.

An example of how Winters literalizes this idea is the way Victor has to move through Indianapolis on his mission to find a mysterious runaway named Jackdaw. He has disguises and fake identities; he becomes different people depending on whom he’s talking to. This is a familiar convention in detective fiction, but in a racially charged context, it takes on a deeper level. Winters mentions the term “code-switching,” invoking Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel “explicitly about what it takes, in terms of shifting identities, to live as an African American in this country.” Here, the disguises and fake identities are not merely generic tropes; they are essential to Victor’s survival.

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Influences

I often wonder when I’m reading something what the writer was reading while she or he was writing it. Sometimes it’s because I suspect the influence of a certain earlier work, sometimes it’s because the period or procedural details suggest a lot of research. 

So in case anyone gives a hoot, this is a list of things I read or re-read during the period I was writing Underground Airlines (divided into a few different categories and using some sort of vaguely correct-looking bibliography format.)

Category 1: history of racism and slavery

Baptist, Edward A. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism 

Blackmon, Douglas. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

Coates, Ta-Nahisi. “The Case for Reparations,” from The Atlantic Monthly, June 2014

Cover, Robert. Justice Accused: Antislavery and the Judicial Process

Farrow, Anne; Lang, Joel; & Frank, Jennifer. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery

Genovese, Eugene. The Political Economy of SlaverySlavery and Social Death

Genovese, Eugene. Roll Jordan Roll: The World The Slaves Made

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death

Various. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938

Category 2: speculative/”alternative-history” fiction

Martin, George R.R. (editor). Wild Cards anthology (volume 1)

Chabon, Michael. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

YPUHarris, Robert. Fatherland

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle

Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America

Category 3: classics of African American literature (fiction and non-) 

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Mancover-Ralph-Ellison-Invisible-Man

Morrison, Toni. Beloved

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye

Rankine, Claudine. Citizen

Category 4: classics of African American literature which are ALSO speculative/”alternative-history” fiction (i.e. books that are literally sui generis, “of their own category”):

Butler, Octavia. Kindred

KindredCover

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Indie NextList Choice

I am very honored and very excited to announce that IndieBound, the national association of independent booIndieBoundlogok shops, has picked Underground Airlines to be on their “Next List” of great reads for the month of July — and not just on the list, but the number one choice.

This is the full text of the recommendation, written by Kelly Justice from the Fountain Bookstore in  Richmond, VA. 

 

Winters has managed to aim a giant magnifying glass at the problem of institutionalized racism in America in a way that has never been done before. This Orwellian allegory takes place in the present day but in a United States where Lincoln was assassinated before he ever became president, the Civil War never took place, and slavery still exists in four states, known as the Hard Four. In agile prose that manages to convey the darkest of humors, Winters tackles the most sensitive of issues such as the motivations of misguided white liberals involved in racial politics, the use of racial profiling, and the influence of racism on the very young. Underground Airlines is the most important book of the summer. Read it.” —Kelly Justice, The Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, VA

I hope you get a chance to pre-order Underground Airlines, and I encourage you to do so from your local independent bookstore

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