Thursday, September 29, 2011

Colson Whitehead on "Apex Hides the Hurt"

(This may have been one of the worst interviews of my career...I do not know if Whitehead was having a bad day, but his answers were mostly monosyllabic. I had trekked out to his section of Brooklyn. I had read the book well and had done significant background research on Whitehead. After 13 minutes of trying to interview him, I left in disgust. Maybe his refusal to work with me was some kind of performance art. "Apex" is a lesser novel, one that probably should have been a novella. The mantle for the biggest dickhead I have ever interviewed, though, will most likely remain Jonathan Lethem...I can see why he was beaten up in elementary school.)

Here is my first and last Whitehead interview:

In his new novel “Apex hides the Hurt (Doubleday, $23), Colson Whitehead tells the story of a nameless nomenclature (or naming) consultant whose job is to go to small middle American town with a tortured history and rename it. Whitehead uses his satirical wit to explore America’s troubled racial history, the willingness of its citizens to cover up what is rotting and a preference for new starts in life.

Whitehead’s anonymous consultant is a man adrift, whose high-flying career as the namer of Apex Bandages, adhesive strips that come in all racial hues, has crashed and burned. He has also wound up with a mysterious limp. His shot at redemption comes with the project to rename the postindustrial town of Winthrop in the central United States. The stranger comes into town and is immediately pulled by special interests--Lucky Aberdeen, the Internet millionaire who wants to remake the old town into New Prospera, a New Economy gem; Albie Winthrop, the bankrupt scion of the town’s old industrialist family who thinks Winthrop is a fine name, and Regina Goode, the town’s black mayor and descendants of it’s ex-slave founders, who wants the town to be called by its original name Freedom. The eccentric, addled consultant, however, may have some naming plans of his own.

Whitehead, 36, was raised in New York City and educated at Harvard University. He is the author of two previous novels, “The Intuitionist” and “John Henry Days,” and the nonfiction book, “The Colossus of New York.” Whitehead spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a cafe near his home in Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

Q. How did you begin to create your nameless consultant?

A. About eight years ago, I read an article about the naming of Prozac. Over the past few years, I was also thinking about residential and commercial zoning, and how we try to regulate where people live. I generally start with an an abstract idea. In this case, it was how to combine a story about a corporate namer with something about zoning laws and how communities develop. Eventually, I came up with the idea of a man being forced to name a town. I try to find characters and a story to talk about the things I am interested in.

I couldn’t really make the town New York City. I had to make it someplace unknown. As a New Yorker, everything west of here is the Great Unknown. It is a blank slate that I can fill up with things.

In “Apex,” the consultant is the master of his world and he coasts on his talents. He has an accident, but he doesn’t do anything with the knowledge that he gains from being outside of the loop. His interactions with the people in the town move him along. He starts to take the reins and does a powerful act.

Q. Do you think that renaming the town obliterates its history?

A. It is obliteration, but it is also a rebirth. What Lucky wants is the new stage, which is New Prospera. It is the assertion of power over the thing you are erasing. I’ve written about gentrification or change in New York City. Renaming a neighborhood is about marketing and hope, and these grand ideas we have for a neighborhood.

Q. Does Apex, the super bandage, act as an unhealthy covering on the problems of race?

A. That’s what I am getting at. Does a product like Apex solve anything? Does it end racism because with different colored bandages, people can look at themselves and see themselves? Does naming your new home Freedom erase your 200 years in slavery here?

Q. Where do your influences in satire come from?

A. I come from a TV-watching family. We had cable from the day that it was invented. I watched the Richard Pryor and George Carlin comedy specials from the time that I was eight or nine. My family also has a sardonic sense of humor. In terms of the uses of satire and also the uses of the surreal, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed and Nathanael West, particularly his “Day of the Locust,” were also important to me.

Q. Why do you use satire to examine race in America?

A. It is the way I see the world. I can’t help it.

Q. “Apex” is about half the size of your last novel. Why?

A. This one becomes an antidote for the last one. Because there were so many voices in “John Henry Days” and there were jumps in time, I wanted to do something more compact and make the canvas a lot smaller. I wanted to focus on the protagonist.

Q. In the new novel, you do a biting send up of corporate culture. Why?

If you look at “John Henry Days” and “Apex,” I find the machine, whether it is the publicity machine or the corporate machine, including its rules and codes, very interesting. I’ve never had a corporate job, but I did have a drone job at an Internet startup company in San Francisco for three months. I find Midtown (New York City business) culture amusing and keep going back to it.

Q. The New Prospera of Lucky Aberdeen seems to be a soulless place, where content people in golf shirts and khakis seem to be constantly jumping on and off buses heading towards various retreats. How do you view Lucky’s new world?

A. In describing Lucky’s new corporate town, I am describing the modern culture. It is not satire as much as it is a straightforward observation. I’m definitely less judgmental than I used to be. That “stick it to the straights” humor was more present in “John Henry Days” than in “Apex.” Maybe it has run its course for me. It’s been six years since I wrote “John Henry Days.” A lot of stuff has gone on. I’m married now and have a 17-month-old daughter. I’m not the snide hipster anymore.

(This interview appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in April 2006)

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