The Confession Book: Colson Whitehead

Noah Charney interviews great writers about the writing life.

/ by Noah Charney

Tell me a scent, sound or taste that you associate with your childhood.

Okay, well I guess it would be my dad’s grilled pork chops. He was obsessed with grilling. They weren’t always as moist as you’d like, but sometime around seventh grade he started doing these thin-cut pork chops with barbecue sauce. They remind me of the freedom of summer, my father finally finding a hobby. It helped me become the amateur griller/smoker that I am today.


Ah-ha! Do you have any Colson Special recipes?

Sure. My lemongrass wings with Thai Bird chili, fish sauce, ginger, cilantro.


Oh man, you’re not messing around.

Oh yes. I may like them more than anyone else, but I make them once a month or so.


Tell me about the first time you played poker and thought to yourself “Hey, I really like this.”

In college I drifted between Hearts and Bridge. Senior year of college, after dinner my roommates and I would play Bridge for about four hours and drink a case of beer. We did that all Fall and Spring semester. In terms of finding a real connection with poker, it was in my early 20s. My friends and I started a weekly, Sunday game. Five or six people. A great way to keep in touch with everybody. The host usually cooked. That’s where I was introduced to Hold’em. It took me a few years, though, before I realized I didn’t actually know how to play Hold’em properly.


Do you ever watch televised poker matches? I’m wondering if those are interesting for people who really know poker, like you do.

I’ve cut back since finishing the book. It’ll probably take me awhile to get back into watching poker for fun, as opposed to work. The great innovation, about twelve years ago, was when they started to show the down cards, with a camera that would allow viewers and the commentator to see how the person was playing, cuz you could see their down cards. That contributed to the explosion of televised poker and the popularity of the World Series. Before that it was quite boring to watch, but this allowed for a more packaged experience.


There are some games that seem like good conduits for allegory and exploring the human condition. In your hands, poker is certainly one of them. Chess is an obvious example. Bridge. Whereas Checkers, for instance, doesn’t seem to work. What is it about certain games that make them good vehicles for exploring ideas and people, while other games don’t function at the same level?

I think the money helps! If you keep losing money in poker, you want to get better, you start understanding the deeper physics of the game. It’s a good lure. I’ve always been interested in board games. I’m very fond of Monopoly. I’m a pretty mellow guy, but for some reason Monopoly tends to bring out my character flaws. No one will play with me anymore, because I turn into a different person! In terms of the metaphor of Monolopoly… The Capitalist drive to build, wipe out your enemies, make the most money. It’s probably the only place where I allow myself to be a proper American Capitalist.


Which figurine do you use?

Always the shoe. I like to come from humble origins only to have my group of reds and yellows take over the board.


Describe your morning routine on a day you’d be writing.

At some times I’ve had that one hour to work a day. When you’re busy, if you have kids. My preferred way is a full day open, until 3 or 4 when I pick up the kids. If I have a doctor’s appointment at 1, say, then my day may be over before it’s started. But ideally I’ll get to the computer at 9, 930. Do emails, read the papers. 1030-230 is my most productive time, then I start to flag and need lunch. Coffee can take me to 230, but then I need some food. If I’m free in the afternoon I’ll do another stint of revising, an hour or so, and knock off til the next day. In the past I’ve had a second shift, say 8-10 or 11 at night if I wasn’t going out. But I’m too old and tired for that.


Do you have a preferred daily word count you aim for?

Not a daily one but for each week. I think that if a novel’s a marathon, 8 pages is a good productive week. If I can do 7-9 pages a week, that seems like a good accumulation.


What do you snack on while writing?

Stella d’Oro breadsticks, Triscuits, and barbecue potato chips.


I’ve now done over 100 of these How I Write interviews, and so I occasionally like to ask several authors the same question, if their work runs parallel. I asked this of Ben Percy and Peter Straub, and I thought I’d ask you, too. What do you think it is about certain archetypal monsters, like zombies, that allow us to see in them an allegory for the human condition? And why are some monsters too specific or generic to function in this way?

Well, take the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It was a big hit when it came out, but it hasn’t had staying power in the popular consciousness. It’s just a scary monster from the darkness, without anything larger behind it. In terms of zombies, they are a recent archetype, over the last forty years. I can’t say why it appeals to other people, but for me the act of transformation of a loved one, a friend or family member or neighbor, into the monster they’ve always hidden… I guess that’s the transformation into the monster they’ve always been but kept hidden from you is very profound for me. My zombies are the Romero zombies, people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They look like humans but then a switch goes off and they stop being humans. That animates Zone One and is based on my early exposure to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead.


What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

It’s always the first page. Some startling arrangement of words, a new perspective, a kind of authority that says “You’re going to keep going,” or “You have no idea where this is going,” or “This book is exactly for you.”


What was the last book you read where you thought, “Yeah, this book is exactly for me?”

Just recently Authority by Jeff van der Meer. It just came out this spring. A mixture of Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Lovecraft. A really cool fusion of the two kinds of stories I like. The authority that Van der Meer establishes on the first page is astonishing.


What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

I gravitate towards absurd humor. I can think of an example, but an image or a joke that captures what is both funny and tragic about the human existence.


What is guaranteed to make you cry?

Now that I have two children, anything involving danger to kids. Something that activates an emotional reaction that I’d rather suppress for most of my days, but it’s kicked into gear by an image or something.


This is perhaps a funny question for a writer who has touched on zombies, but if you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

Huh. I’m gonna go with Steve Jobs. The Apple line has gotten a little predictable in the last few years and I need some new toys.


What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

It’s a hard job, a terrible job, and it doesn’t get any easier. All you can do is find whatever sort of delusion works for you to keep going.


What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

There’s a private detective agency next to my old apartment in Brooklyn. We had to call them one time, because of some neighborhood issues. The slogan for this detective agency was “At Best We Tried.”


That’s underwhelming.

Maybe it wasn’t totally thought out, but their heart was in the right place. So “At Best, He Tried.”


I wonder who their PR agent was who came up with that one. And last question, Colson. Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

I really love Jolly Ranchers. Cherry. Sour Apple. But they keep cracking my teeth. But I’m a big cruncher and it’s taken it toll…


Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.