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NEW YEAR, NEW BOOK! (and some old books, back again!)

GOLDEN STATE, my latest novel, comes out on Jan. 22…

…but you can preorder it today! (Scroll down for a FUN PREORDER CONTEST)

GOLDEN STATE is a mystery novel about the dissolution of objective reality, set in a place that is like California but not exactly California; a place where lying is against the law; a place where the maintenance of mutually understood and accepted reality is the paramount objective of political and civil life.

Our hero is Laszlo Ratesic, an agent of the Speculative Service, the elite agency with special license to bend the truth when necessary to solve crimes.


“GOLDEN STATE is a prescient, devastating commentary on humanity’s disintegrating attachment to reality and truth, expertly told through the prism of a police-procedural, dystopian nightmare. Winters has written a 1984 for the 21st century. Not just a thrilling book, but an important one.”—Blake Crouch, author of Dark Matter

“A perfectly poised ontological-thriller-comedy-dystopian-allegorical-page-turner, yet with tenderly real characters in its chewy center, this turned out to be just the thing I was looking for.”—Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn

“Not many writers would take on Orwell, Ray Bradbury, the nature of truth, and the current administration all at a blow. Big shoes to fill–and they fit Ben H. Winters just fine. Golden State grabs notions of disinformation and literalism and brilliantly turns them on their head to see what falls from their pockets.” —James Sallis, author of Drive

“Another fine novel from a writer whose imagination knows no bounds.”—Booklist


All three books in the Last Policeman trilogy are being reissued, with gorgeous new covers like this one:

I’m going to GIVE AWAY the complete set — all three Policeman books with the cool covers, all signed by the author (i.e., me.). To win the signed set of Last Policeman books, all you have to do is preorder GOLDEN STATE. Any time between now and January 21, order the book online or at a bookstore, and email me at with whatever proof of purchase or confirmation you get. (I’ll totally accept a note from your favorite local bookseller if a pre-issued receipt is not available).

I’ll pick a winner at random on Jan. 22 and send you three signed books!

I am so grateful to everyone who has read my work over the years, and I hope you dig this one, too.

— Ben


2/2/2019, 2pm, Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego

2/5/2019, 7pm, Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona

2/6/2019, 6:30pm, Diesel Books in West Los Angeles


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.

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.

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 —

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. 

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.)

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.

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.

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 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.


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