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.
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.
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 thiswith 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.
[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:
and J. Robert Lennon
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 myanswers to his very smart questions are my clearest articulation of my intentions in writing the novel:
“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…”
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.)
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 therepeated 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?
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
A 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.
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 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.