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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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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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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Roundup of Roundups

Late spring is the time of year when newspapers and magazines put out their lists of hot books to read over the summer, and I’m very pleased with how many have chosen to include my new alternate-history mystery, Underground Airlines.

Those include (so far):

The New York TimesThe Chicago Tribune, The St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Cosmopolitan Magazine, and Publisher’s Weekly.

Speaking of Publisher’s Weekly, they also gave the novel  a starred review that (what the heck) I’ll just go ahead and reproduce in full below. I hope you’ll consider placing an advance order of Underground Airlines from your favorite local bookstore, and telling your friends.

***

From Publisher’s Weekly:

“Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man meets Blade Runner in this outstanding alternate history thriller from Edgar-winner Winters (The Last Policeman). Victor, an African-American bounty hunter for the U.S. Marshals Service, possesses a supreme talent for tracking down runaway slaves in a world in which there was no Civil War and slavery still exists in four Southern states. He’s a master of disguise and dissembling. Victor tracks a runaway slave code-named Jackdaw to Indianapolis, Ind., where he ingratiates himself with Father Barton, a purported leader of an abolitionist organization called Underground Airlines, and succeeds in penetrating the group. But soon thereafter Victor impulsively befriends Martha Flowers, a down-on-her-luck white woman traveling with her young biracial son, Lionel, a kindness that soon jeopardizes Victor’s carefully constructed cover identity. The novel’s closing section contains several breathtaking reversals, a genuinely disturbing revelation, and an exhilarating final course of action for Victor.”

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My next novel, available to be judged by its cover

Winters_Underground_Airlines

My new novel, Underground Airlines, won’t be in stores until the distant date of July 5, 2016, but I’m now allowed to show you what it will look like, courtesy of the good people at Mulholland Books/Little, Brown.

I started writing this novel late in 2013, while I was still wrapping up  World of Trouble, the last book in the Last Policeman trilogy. So it’s been a good long time that this story and this world have existed in my head. Showing you the cover, though it is still many months until the actual book is released, feels like a kind of dividing line between the terrifying/exciting period of writing it and the exciting/terrifying period of sharing it with the world.

This beautiful cover was designed by Oliver Munday. The art director at Little, Brown is Keith Hayes.

You can read a bit more about Underground Airlines here or here.

If your appetite is well-whetted by the picture, feel free — in fact, feel encouraged! — to mark the novel as a “to-read” on Goodreads, to share this page and the Goodreads page with your friends, and of course to pre-order from an online retailer or your favorite local bookseller.

I’ll be posting more about this novel as we get closer, obviously. July is still a long, long way away.

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Work in progress

There was an item in Publishers Weekly yesterday about my new book. It’s called Underground Airlines, and it will come out probably in spring of 2016. The publisher is Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown.

It probably goes without saying that I am super-excited about this news, not least because I’ve been working on this project for quite a while already—over a year at least, moving slowly from mulling to drafting to writing—and it’s a relief to arrive at a moment where it’s real, it’s happening, it’s going to actually be a book.

The big concept of Underground Airlines is that it’s a crime drama that takes place now, in present-day America, except the Civil War was never fought, and legal slavery still exists in pockets of the South. You can already tell, if you know the Last Policeman books, that there are some familiar elements: it’s speculative fiction, it’s a counterfactual, it’s the that world we know except for this one thing that changes everything.

But I can tell you that the hero of Underground Airlines is seriously about as different from Detective Palace as you can imagine, both as a person and as type of hero. And while the  Policeman series was about the end of the world, about death and how we live with death, this book is about race and racism, it’s about grief, it’s about the horror of American slavery (and in particular the Constitutional nightmare of the Fugitive Slave Law), and it’s about compromise.

Well, I mean, I think that’s what this book is about—that’s what it’s about so far. I’m not done. It’s a big book—it’s going to be a big book—so I hope you’ll read it when it’s done and we can talk about it then.

***

P.S.  The only blue note in this happy news is that Underground Airlines will not be published by Quirk Books, who did the Last Policeman trilogy and my earlier novels, too. A kinder and more hardworking group of humans you will never meet, in or out of the publishing business. You should buy their books—although if you’re one of the billions who read Ms. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, or William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, you already have.

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