Underground Airlines was nominated for the
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/)
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.