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Colson Whitehead waited 16 years to write The Underground Railroad

The best-selling author opens up about the story he waited years to write.
Bestselling author Colson Whitehead's new novel, The Underground Railroad, chronicles a young slave's journey to freedom in the South. (Erin Patrice O'Brien)

This article was originally written on Nov. 7, 2016. The interview was re-broadcast on May 7, 2020.

Colson Whitehead had an idea for a book in 2000, but was too scared to write it. He eventually published it in 2016.

"I was sort of a callow gen-Xer," he explained, of why he delayed writing The Underground Railroad for over a decade. "I think in order to do the book justice, I needed a little more maturity and just a few more books under my belt." 

The bestselling author's new novel is a tale of a slave named Cora who decides to flee her plantation in Georgia. For Whitehead, this story stretches beyond its literal meaning.

"I think it's about American history and how different ideas about race have changed or stayed the same over the last century and a half, so it's not strictly a historical novel," he explained.

With just a flip through the news today it's easy to see what Whitehead means.

"Descriptions of slave patrollers are eerily similar to the way we would describe being policed in our neighbourhoods today," Whitehead pointed out. "I don't really have to force those comparisons, they're there in the language."

WATCH | Trailer for the series adaptation of The Underground Railroad

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