Escapist reading: `Underground Railroad’ author discusses ‘life-changing’ run

As proof of Colson Whitehead’s diverse influences, consider that his latest novel, “The Underground Railroad,” won not just the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, but also the Arthur C. Clarke Award, named after the noted science fiction writer. Or consider the breadth of his books, which cover everything from a zombie apocalypse (“Zone One”) to an elevator inspector trying to solve a mystery (“The Intuitionist”) to African-American teenagers summering in the Hamptons (“Sag Harbor”). “The Underground Railroad” is based on the notion that the network of routes used by Southern slaves to escape was an actual train. It follows one slave escaping Georgia in a story that explores human rights, racism and slavery.

Whitehead will be a keynote speaker at the Las Vegas Book Festival on Oct. 20 (vegasvalleybookfestival.org).

Is “The Underground Railroad” historical fiction, alternate history, fantasy?

A novel. I have fantastical elements in it, and I think readers can decide where it should go. I’m just happy anybody’s reading it at all.

What was the genesis of the book?

It started with sort of what-if. And I guess a lot of people, when they first learn about the Underground Railroad, envision
a literal railroad before the teacher corrects them. So, really, it was saying, “What kind of novel comes out of this?”

You wrote a nonfiction book about the World Series of Poker (“The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death”).

I did, and I haven’t been back (to Las Vegas) since 2012. So I’m looking forward to coming back.

What’s it like to have a book become so successful?

It’s been life-changing. I’ve had books that got a lot of attention and books that didn’t get any attention, and I’m definitely trying to remember all the good stuff that has happened the last year, so 10 years from now, when things are quite different, I can be heartened by that.

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