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Why Colson Whitehead waited 16 years to write The Underground Railroad

The best-selling author opens up about the story he has waited years to write.
Best-selling author Colson Whitehead's new novel, The Underground Railroad, chronicles a young slave's journey to freedom in the South. (Erin Patrice O'Brien)
Listen15:35

Colson Whitehead had an idea for a book 16 years ago but was too scared to write it. Now, all these years later, it's finally being published.

"I was sort of a callow gen-Xer," he explains, of why he delayed writing The Underground Railroad. "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 best-selling 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.

He explains, "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."

And just a flip through the news today and 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 clearly points out. "I don't really have to force those comparisons, they're there in the language." 

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