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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On the actual act of writing a book

(Hey, I wrote this a couple years ago as a guest post on Pub Crawl) and lately I’ve been seeing a couple quotes from it posted around, so I’m reposting the whole thing so it can live here on my site).

 

I am not the kind of writer, in general, who goes around giving advice to other writers, because I feel like I have no idea and am making the whole thing up as I go along, every day. (It is my impression, by the way, that most writers to some degree feel this same sense of day-to-day fraudulence, which I call writer’s blech—as opposed to writer’s block—but I think a lot of other writers are better than I am at hiding it).

I shall break my self-imposed prohibition on writerly advice to release this single, probably useless, pearl: if you’re writing a trilogy of increasingly bleak detective novels about the end of civilization, try also to be writing a series of spooky poetry books for kids ages eight to twelve. (The corollary rule, which you may have inferred, is that if you’re writing scary poem books, be sure also to also be writing apocalyptic mysteries.)

This might actually be terrible advice. There are writers who would say that working on two books at once—especially if one of them is poetry and one is prose, especially if one is for kids and one is for adults—will muddy the mind, slow your progress, and confuse your style.

But what I find, what I have found throughout my working life, is the opposite. I like to be doing two things at once. I sort of need to be. One thing in active motion and one in the starting gate, warming up, ready to come out swinging—something else I’ve started to play around with, to make notes on, maybe done a wild first pass on.

Because as any writer will tell you, an IDEA for a book is like falling in love, it’s all wild emotion and headlong rush, but the ACTUAL ACT of writing a book is like building a relationship: it is joyous, slow, fragile, frustrating, exhilarating, painstaking, exhausting, worth it. So when I get through the lovey-dovey stuff on Project A and I’m deep into the difficult and complicated part, it is sheer anticipatory pleasure to have Projecet B, still in the pure-joy IDEA phase—waiting, patient, a temptation to which I can look forward.

See what I’m getting at here?

(And yes, I recognize that if I extend the love/relationship metaphor much further, what I get is a new lover waiting for me to get done with the current one. That’s why I switch over to a new metaphor right about now).

I call this The Theory of Rotating Dessert. Because you do, no matter how excited you are about your book when you first set out, you reach a point where you feel like it’s murder, it’s killing you, you hate it and you wish you’d never started. But there! There in the distance, far but not too far, is this other project, your delicious dessert, and the sight of it, the knowledge of it, will keep you going, maintain your excitement and your inspiration and your diligence until you get to the end.

And then when that Project B is actually underway, when you’re deep into it, banging your head against the wall trying to conjure up clever ways to rhyme with “ghoul”, you know you’ve got a whole new detective novel waiting for you: the part of your writing life that was active is now in beautiful abeyance, gleaming under lights in the magic part of your mind, like a slice of diner pie in a rotating glass case.

Hopefully I haven’t mixed my metaphors too terribly. And hopefully the books themselves—which, let’s face it, are all that matters—are satisfying and delicious.

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the last part of it

The last bit of writing a new book is like when you’re assembling a bookshelf or something, and they’ve been telling you throughout not to tighten the screws all the way, to get everything in the right place and make sure it’s all on correctly before going back, at last, and doing those last final irreversible turns.

I’m sure this is an in-apt analogy in a lot of ways, but I’ve been using most of my figurative-language crafting ability in writing my new book, which is why I haven’t been active on this space at all this year. I’m coming to the point now where I’ll soon have to tighten those final screws, step back, and see if it looks like a beautiful bookshelf or not (and then turn it over to my editors, who’ll have their own round of sanding and painting and packaging and so on). Promise I’ll try and blog more after it’s done.

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NaNo for a cause

NaNoLogoHey, are you doing NaNoWriMo? (If you don’t know what that is, you’re probably not—It’s National Novel Writing Month, a collective-inspiration program where people try to write a whole 50,000-word novel over the course of November.)

If you are doing it, if you are in the throes of it as we speak, and might even need a little extra kick in the butt, I’ve got an offer for you: I’d like to read your finished manuscript, and give a you a detailed critique.

All you have to do (besides finishing the thing!) is make a donation of $25 or more to my favorite charity, Doctors Without Borders, the international medical organization that as we speak is doing crucial and ridiculously brave work in West Africa, and all over the world.

TO ENTER: make a donation to Doctors Without Borders ($25 or more) before November 30, and forward the confirmation you get to winters3000@gmail.com. (Feel free to redact your address & phone, if you want; their confirmation email does not include any credit card info).

THE PRIZE: I will randomly select ONE ENTRANT AS THE WINNER (out of all those received by the end of November). If you are that winner, then by December 31, author Ben H. Winters (uh, that’s me) will carefully read your NaNoWriMo manuscript, and offer a detailed written critique to help you get it from first to second draft.

WHY YOU MIGHT WANT THAT (you’re reading my blog, so you probably know who I am, but just in case someone forwarded this to you): I’m the author of eight novels, including the Last Policeman trilogy (which won both an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction), as well as The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, a novel for kids, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, a New York Times bestseller. I teach creative writing in the MFA program at Butler University, and I’ve taught novel writing (and mystery writing in particular) through the auspices of Boston’s marvelous Grub Street. I’ve also done plenty of one-on-one consultation with aspiring/emerging writers, and at least two of my clients have subsequently sold those novels to publishers.

Good luck, and keep writing!

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