Chris Close / Penguin Random House
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead does extensive research every time he works on a book. For his latest novel, Harlem Shuffle, it meant learning how stolen items are “closed”.
“There isn’t a lot of literature on fencing,” Whitehead says. “But there is actually a book … [that’s] a sociological study of these guys in the Midwest in the ’60s, and one of the first things that struck me was their description of [the fences] being a wall between the righteous world and the twisted world. ”
In Whitehead’s novel, the main character, Ray Carney, is that wall. Carney owns a furniture store on 125th Street in Harlem, but it has a secondary traffic in stolen goods. Whitehead says the inspiration for the story came to him a few years ago, when he was deciding on a movie to watch.
“I was just thinking how much I love heist movies and I was thinking [about] how much the directors and writers must have had fun putting everything together, ”he says. “And I asked myself… can I do this?”
Whitehead’s two most recent books were historical novels set in the South. The Underground Railroad and Nickel boys on the brutality of slavery and institutional racism. Writing them back to back took a heavy emotional toll.
“As I was finishing Nickel boys and bringing the boys closer to their tragic fate … I felt very depressed and exhausted, “Whitehead said.” I finished the book and then just played video games and barbecued for six weeks and that’s how I came to myself. ”
Work on Harlem Shuffle was different: “Having fun with that kind of crime and some of the supporting actors who are a bit colorful was a relief,” Whitehead said. “From the first page of writing the book and back to writing a book in New York City, I felt like I was at home.”
On the choice to define his heist novel in Harlem between 1959 and 1964
The first thing I thought about was [that] crooks could exploit a big New York event. So I tried to think of [ideas]: Should I use the ’77 blackout and then use it to cover up a burglary? The riot of the early 1940s, which happened when a cop mistreated a black person in Harlem? And then I thought, Ralph Ellison owns this because Invisible Man, so I can’t really go. [Then, I thought of] riot of 64, after a young black teenager was killed by a white policeman. And so once I got 64 it all went from there. And I split into three sections, 1959, ’61, and ’64, and tried to find different connections to what’s going on in New York that might help the story.
About “fences” (people who resell stolen goods)
I decided to have a fence for a hero because I always find it appalling when I watch a heist movie and the criminals stole their $ 2 million in jewelry and half the gang is dead and the cops [are] looking for them, then they go to the fence and the fence says, “I’ll give you 10 cents to the dollar. “And it’s always so dreadful and I’m so angry, and thought that would be a good fit to find for a book. …
Things arrive stolen, slightly “held before”, and then they come out into the world ready to be cleaned up by the next owner. And … I immediately mapped [that divide] on Carney’s personality. He’s got that part of himself that wants to quit the life he grew up in and have a business and go to college and have a beautiful family. But there’s this call in his blood … and this two-way fight runs parallel to that of the fence role and talk so much about how I think a lot of us live. I think there are a lot of us who have different parts of us, reconciled, not reconciled, and sometimes it’s the drama of our lives.
On how stolen goods fencing works
When I was reading these sociological studies on fences, one thing that came out very early on was that they often have storefronts, storefronts. And so the main guy in this one is studying the reupholstered furniture. On the storefront, he has these second-hand chairs that he refurbished and where does he get them? He goes to the exchange meeting, and to the exchange meeting, there is like a rare guy there. And so a criminal has given these jewels and coins and other things to watch out for at the fence, and he will find other dealers at a swap meeting. He will sell them in his store. But you are connected to this dark underground of people who specialize in this or that particular thing. If you put your diamond necklace in the hands of your jewelry store, that person with ties to the larger legitimate market, and therefore something that is stolen on Tuesday, could re-enter the supply chain on Friday. And it’s very fluid and the idea of a facade, the facade that you have to the world with the kind of bad stuff in the back, no doubt applies to Carney’s personality.
On recognizing a front company when he sees one
I still continue to be unable to know which stores are fronts and what aren’t. When I lived in Brooklyn … in the 90s I would go to the store to buy a six pack of beers and the store is completely empty except for the SOS and Brillo tampons, two Twinkies and a pack of six Corona. And I’m going to pay for the beer and the guy says to me, “What are you doing here? Like, don’t you understand? And so my friends would say to me, “Oh, this is a weed place.” Like, it’s not really legit. So I am very oblivious.
In the footsteps of the migration of people to Harlem and in its fiction
One hundred and fifty years ago, Harlem [was] farmland, then speculators built buildings, then buildings and townhouses were filled with all these refugees from Europe. And they’re Italians and Irish, Jews from all over Europe, and they’re coming to make their way to this new country. They cross the water, they enter the middle class and move away to the suburbs, to the downtown areas of different parts of Manhattan. They are replaced by a wave of black migration from the South, from the Caribbean. My grandmother came to Ellis Island in 1920 from Barbados.
What I love about my research is walking around these different neighborhoods and seeing those old brown stones and townhouses and imagining this churn. I mentioned the rolling of stolen goods out of people’s hands. And there’s this churning inside these humble townhouses, all these different lives and different rivers and oceans that they’ve been through to get here, and they’re going middle class or not. In the same way there’s all this secret history behind the storefronts, bakeries and twisted paper mills, it’s all this secret history of these townhouses.
On his 2011 novel Zone 1 about a plague that turns people into zombies and if COVID made him rethink this book
I always thought about it in a very depressing way, just being locked in and remembering this or that passage from the book. But most of the time, I was angry with things that I didn’t quite understand. The characters in the book are called “sweepers” and they go door to door, collecting corpses and taking out the last of the zombies so they can restart civilization. So I didn’t realize how much toilet paper they would find when they entered the apartments of these different people. So it was a failure of my imagination.
And secondly, I had no idea people would say, “Oh, the zombie virus is like the flu. It doesn’t really matter ”or“ I’m not going to get the zombie vaccine, ”the depths of denial and psychosis around the vaccines I couldn’t foresee. So if it had to be done again, there will certainly be people who would resist the zombie vaccine and suffer the consequences, which would be a shame.
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.