Colson Whitehead’s bewitching first novel, “The Intuitionist,” is certainly not autobiographical. A Manhattan native and Harvard graduate who went to work as an editorial assistant at the Village Voice and eventually became that paper’s TV critic, Whitehead has never inspected an elevator or belonged to an old-time union, like Lila Mae Watson, the beleaguered heroine of his book. Perhaps it was his early penchant for Stephen King novels that gave Whitehead’s fiction a decidedly imaginative bent. In that case, readers have more to thank King for than several million sleepless nights.
“The Intuitionist” is a stylish, highly original mix of detective story, Borgesian metaphysical puzzle and portrait of pre-Civil Rights race relations, set in a place almost, but not quite, like New York City. Its soft-spoken author — still nervous enough about publishing his first book that he glanced away after spotting a stack of fresh copies at a local bookstore — recently stopped by to talk with Salon.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a novelist?
When I was a kid. I read Stephen King and I thought he was really cool. I wanted to write novels with monsters in them. It was kind of funny, this year, to see the rediscovery of Stephen King.
Did you learn things from being a TV critic that helped?
I think I got a lot of stuff out of my system. I learned some good habits from having to produce every other week and trying to make it fresh. Village Voice style back then encouraged the first-person — that sort of me-me-me stuff — and I worked through various preoccupations with pop culture. Some of the pieces were very satirical and over-the-top, and I would go overboard sometimes and think, “Oh, that didn’t work very well,” so I’d come back with something better. You can’t just make ’70s references all the time. After the 10th “Good Times” joke, it’s not fresh.
There’s a lot of people who need to learn that. I don’t know if I’d want to give them all TV columns to get them over it. Where did the idea for the elevator inspector in the “The Intuitionist” come from?
My whole life I’ve seen those elevator inspection certificates. I’d go to school, when I was a kid, and come back and the person had been there, the exact same guy for 10 years. The elevator seemed perfectly fine, so what’d he do? I was thinking about what would make a funny detective story. Well, why not put this person in a situation where he actually has to apply his esoteric skills to a straightforward mystery? But then I had to actually make up what kinds of skills he had, and it became all about elevators and not so much this chase-the-McGuffin sort of story.
Did you do a lot of research into elevators?
Yeah, I just went to the library. Sadly for me, a lot of it was reference, so I had to troop around. But, yeah, there’s engineering manuals, there’s state guidebooks, actual code books of elevator inspection. They tell you what violation 3.04a(d) is, whatever.
And where did the idea of Empiricism vs. Intuitionism come from?
I had a book called “The Evolution of Useful Things.” I looked through the index, didn’t see “Elevator.” [Author Henry Petroski] did have a chapter on how inventors come to create improvements on various objects. Like, why does a fork have four tines instead of five? It was so over-the-top — it was well-written, but impractical. He wrote, “Our objects are weak, they drink like fishes, they cuss like sailors, you have to keep control of them.”
He was personifying them.
Yeah. And so, from that, it became this absurd doctrine of how we can treat elevators, how we can tend to them and nurse them.
I’m assuming that you always meant your main character to be black. Did you always mean her to be a woman, too?
No. I had the bare bones of the plot, and I was starting to get the voice of the book down, and it was just coming out the same, like my stock ironic black man character I’ve always used.
What are the characteristics of your stock ironic black character?
He’s hard to describe, but I guess he can be kind of tedious at times.
Is he wisecracking?
Yeah, sort of wisecracking — he knows what’s going on. I guess the book would have been perfectly fine with him in it, but I was doing the same old thing, so I thought, “Let’s just switch it up.” Of course, that changed the entire book. I had to throw out a lot of the plot I had before, and it became a lot more … it was harder but it became more interesting. I was struggling through the first chapter, and when she takes that bribe in the beginning, I was “OK, this is who she is.”
The building super puts the money in her pocket, and she just ignores the fact that he’s done it. She still gives him the citation, but she doesn’t say, “No, take that back!” or “How dare you?” How did that form your sense of who she was?
She is incorruptible, but she has her own set of rules. She’s not giving back the bribe, and she’s not doing what she’s supposed to do in that situation. She’s in this middle ground. For me that fed into her responses later on, with the intrigues with the Empiricists and the Intuitionists.
Another unusual thing about your book is that often, when black writers are writing about race, they feel it needs to be very realistic. Do you feel you have more freedom than previous generations?
Yeah. Definitely, decades ago, there was the protest novel, and then there was “tell the untold story, find our unerased history.” Then there’s the militant novel of insurrection from the ’60s. There were two rigid camps in the ’60s: the Black Arts movement, denouncing James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison for being too white, and Ralph Ellison calling the Black Arts writers too militant and narrow, not universal enough. Now I think there are a lot more of us writing and a lot more different areas we’re exploring. It’s not as polemicized. I’m dealing with serious race issues, but I’m not handling them in a way that people expect.
You’re using elements of a style that people associate with white men — the Thomas Pynchons and Don DeLillos of this world. People who don’t like that kind of book tend to dismiss them for being white men. By writing these big novels that make big statements about society they’re supposedly showing a bogus sense of entitlement.
I love all those guys. And I certainly don’t feel that way. I think they’re great writers and I think they’re attacking, grappling with, the culture in a way that interests me. I think if it’s a good book, it’s a good book.
You are in this literary territory that isn’t usually associated with black writers, though.
I think Ishmael Reed has done it — “Mumbo Jumbo” and “Flight to Canada” are in the same sort of vein, I think he’s overlooked as a groundbreaking voice in black fiction. And Jean Toomer’s “Cane,” a ’20s novel. He’s a Harlem Renaissance guy. I think it’s always been there, it’s just that mainstream critics, maybe even readers, don’t see the linkages.
They don’t see that there’s a tradition of the black intellectual novel?
Yeah. This guy Charles Wright, not the poet, had some very crazy books that came out in the ’60s, and Clarence Majors, his book “All Night Visitors,” which came out in the early ’70s. You could say it’s been ghettoized. No one’s really picking up on experiments that were going on in the late ’60s.
And what’s your new book about?
It’s about John Henry, the steel driving man. It takes place in 1996.
But how does John Henry, who died a long time ago, come into it then? I take it this is not the literal 1996 that we all lived through?
It’s the special Colson Whitehead version.