© 2024 New England Public Media

FCC public inspection files:
WGBYWFCRWNNZWNNUWNNZ-FMWNNI

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact hello@nepm.org or call 413-781-2801.
PBS, NPR and local perspective for western Mass.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Colson Whitehead channels the paranoia and fear of 1970s NYC in 'Crook Manifesto'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Colson Whitehead won Pulitzer Prizes for two consecutive novels. The first Pulitzer was for "The Underground Railroad," an allegory about race in America told through the stories of an escaped slave and a slave catcher. It was adapted into an Amazon series. The second Pulitzer was for "The Nickel Boys," based on the true story of a state reform school for boys in which the boys were physically abused and dozens died. A film adaptation starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and Daveed Diggs is expected to be released in October. After writing about those grim subjects, Whitehead started writing crime novels set in Harlem. These novels gave him the chance to write snappy dialogue laced with witty observations, while writing about class and race, as well as crime and corruption at every level from petty criminals to cops, city politicians, and Harlem's Black elite.

"Harlem Shuffle," the first novel in his projected Harlem trilogy, was set in the '60s. The following novel, "Crook Manifesto," takes place 1971-76. It was published last summer and came out in paperback this week. "Crook Manifesto" brings back the main character, Ray Carney, the owner of a furniture store on 125th Street in Harlem, who takes pride in upgrading his customers' living rooms with comfortable quality sofas and recliners. But it's the money he's earned fencing stolen goods that's enabled him to move from a cramped apartment to the home he owns on Harlem's Strivers' Row. But fencing got him deeper into crime than he was prepared for. In the opening of "Crook Manifesto," he's been retired from crime for four years. But when his daughter insists that she needs tickets to the Jackson 5 concert, but he learns they're sold out, he goes to the person he's confident can get him a pair - a corrupt white cop. By asking for a favor, Carney is forced to perform one in return, which leads him to become the unwitting accomplice to a murder. The novel's characters include a leader of the revolutionary group the Black Liberation Army, the producer of a Blaxploitation film, and a groundbreaking comic who seems to be based on Richard Pryor. Sirens from police cars and fire trucks are the background noise throughout the book.

We recorded our interview last summer when "Crook Manifesto" was first published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Colson Whitehead, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's so great to have you back again, and I'm so glad you wrote a sequel (laughter) to "Harlem Shuffle" because it's really such an enjoyable series. So I want to start by asking you to read a section from the first chapter of the book. Just to set it up, why don't you explain the scene? Set the scene for us.

COLSON WHITEHEAD: Sure. It's the opening of the book, 1971, and Ray Carney, our furniture store owner/part-time fence is having a normal day of business, which means there's a lot of noise and crazy activity outside on 125th Street in Harlem. He has a sales assistant named Larry, who is trying to reel in a customer named Mr. Foster.

(Reading) Another siren. Business, orderly business, unfolded inside the walls of Carney's Furniture. But out on the street, it was Harlem rules - rowdy, unpredictable, more trifling than a loser uncle. The siren zipped up and down the aves as regularly as subway trains, all hours, per calamity's timetable. If not the cops on the mayhem mission, then an ambulance racing to unwind fate, a fire engine speeding to a vacant tenement before the blaze ate the whole block, or en route to a six-story building kerosened for the insurance, a dozen families inside.

(Reading) Carney's father had torched a building or two in his day. It paid the rent. This was a radio car siren. Carney joined Larry and Charlie Foster at the window. On the other side of 125th, two white officers hassled a young man in a dark denim jacket and red flare trousers, their vehicle beached on the sidewalk. The cops pushed him up against the window of Hutchins Tobacco, known for its cigarettes without tax stamps and for its vermin problem. The 125th Street foot traffic bent around this obstruction in the stream. Most did not stop. Nothing special about a roust - if not here, somewhere else.

(Reading) But the manhunt had people edgy and off their routines. They lingered and muttered to one another, sassing and heckling the policemen, even as they remained at a distance that testified to their fear. The taller cop swept the man's feet apart and patted the inside of his legs. What'd he do? Carney said. They pulled up, tackled him like he robbed a bank, Larry said. Acting crazy, Charlie Foster said, looking for those Black Panthers. Black Liberation Army, Larry said. Same thing. Carney didn't want to interrupt when there was a fish on the line, but the disagreement between the Panthers and the offshoot Black Liberation Army was about more than names. The philosophical dispute encompassed the temperament of the street, law enforcement's current posture of vis-a-vis Harlem, and all the sirens. Step back, and maybe it contained everything.

GROSS: That's Colson Whitehead reading from his new novel "Crook Manifesto." It's interesting that you get in, like, the Panthers versus the Black Liberation Army, like, by page nine (laughter). And the impression I get, you know, from that passage is that the Panthers and the BLA - they're making headlines. But to the people in Harlem and the people who work at Ray Carney's store and to Ray Carney himself, it's confusing what the difference is and their revolutionary politics isn't meaning very much to the people in Ray's world.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, I mean, it's 1970, 1971, and there's this rift in the Black Panther Party. How do we actually get things done? Can we work within the American system or do we want revolution? And so the Black Liberation Army has splintered off. They're robbing banks, allegedly. They're taking credit for shooting at policemen. And there's a manhunt sort of disturbing the rhythm of people's lives. What's going on? Why are all these policemen sort of cruising around our neighborhood even more than usual? And it's in this moment of rupture that I pick up Carney's story a couple of years after the first book, "Harlem Shuffle," and he has to navigate this mess.

GROSS: Why did you want to pick it up there?

WHITEHEAD: I had a system where the first book would be about the '60s and the second about the '70s, and I'm trying to find moments that - of opportunity, you know, for storytelling that speak to Carney's dilemma in this world. What's next for him? Which way is he going to jump? The same way the Panthers are at this moment of inflection. Where is the city going? Crime is at an all-time high. We're looking down at a fiscal crisis that's coming down the pike. So New York is in a place of change as well. And so I picked 1971, 1973, and 1976 because each offers a different sort of opportunity to drop Carney and his supporting cast in a different place.

GROSS: The Black Liberation Army, in your novel, is in with some corrupt cops in terms of expropriating (laughter) money from businesses and banks. So, were they together in the real world - members of the Black Liberation Party (ph) and corrupt cops who were willing to steal money or get payoffs in order to do what they wanted to do?

WHITEHEAD: Well, there're incredibly corrupt cops in New York in 1971. It's the year of the Knapp Commission, a big police corruption investigation that people might have heard of through "Serpico." Is there a documented link between police in real life and the Black Liberation Army? I invented it. I think different points in the lives of different cities like New York and Los Angeles, you do get that sort of more direct collusion. The crime in this book that Detective Munson, this sort of white corrupt cop, is engaged in is invented, as far as I know.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're smearing the BLA by doing that?

WHITEHEAD: (Laughter) I think, you know, they're sort of cagey about what they were up to in the early '70s - even still, even after they've - you know, some of them have fled to Cuba or served their prison sentences. So I'll let their - I'll let them sort of speak for themselves.

GROSS: Ray Carney's son asks him about the difference between the BLA and the Panthers. And, you know, the father says, well, the Panthers are about reform, and the Black Liberation Army is about revolution. It's kind of the difference between, you know, like, the sofas and the recliners that I sell on the store and the Castro convertible, which was a revolution. And the Castro convertible was, I think, like, the first couch that converted to a bed. And the father says, you know, Castro convertible. You open it up and, poof, you know, like, your living room is a bedroom. It's a revolution (laughter). And I think, like, what a hilarious way of explaining it.

WHITEHEAD: He's always bringing things back to furniture, you know? And I think that's one of the fun things about the book, is that he's not your typical criminal. Everything is filtered through his work, his needs, his idea of what an upstanding member of the community is. And definitely if he's looking for a metaphor, it's going to be drawn from his showroom. And that's something that repeats a lot, and it's the filter for his world.

GROSS: The way he gets back into crime is that his daughter says, you promised you'd get me tickets to the Jackson 5, but there are no tickets left. And she says, but you promised. So even though they're sold out, he knows that Munson, this corrupt white cop, knows how to get things that are ungettable. So he leans on Munson to get the tickets, but in return, Munson wants him to fence some jewels, like $2,000 - no, I'm sorry, $200,000 worth of jewels. And that's what gets Carney in over his head.

WHITEHEAD: He's retired. And I think one of the tropes of this kind of story is that when the criminal retires, forces conspire to bring him back in. And in this case, it's the Jackson 5, who are at the height of their early fame. They're going on tour with the Commodores, playing Madison Square Garden. And like any good father, Carney wants to get those tickets for his daughter. And then, of course, complications ensue. And he's caught up in this Knapp Commission hysteria, the Black Liberation Army's criminal shenanigans. And we take it from there.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guess is Colson Whitehead. His new novel is called "Crook Manifesto." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "OUT OF THIS WORLD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Colson Whitehead. He won Pulitzer Prizes for his novels "The Underground Railroad" and "The Nickel Boys." His new book, "Crook Manifesto," is a crime novel set in Harlem in the '70s. It's a sequel to his novel "Harlem Shuffle," which was set in Harlem in the '60s. Their main character, Ray Carney, is a furniture store owner in Harlem who also fences stolen jewels, and more, and keeps getting deeper into crime.

Clothes figure prominently in the new book. This is, after all, the 1970s, the era of big collars and big hair (laughter) and jumpsuits and the color orange. And you wrote, the flamboyant quotient in Harlem was at a record high. The line between the stylish and the pimpified was unstable, ill-defined. The men on the corner were pimps, no doubt (laughter). So, and then - yeah, talk about that line between, you know, what pimps were wearing and what everybody was wearing.

WHITEHEAD: Well, I mean, I think, you know, that stereotypical image of the pimp was actually real. If you, you know, go back and look at photographs of people in the lifestyle, anything that was crazy and outrageous that teenagers and hip young 20-somethings were wearing was taken to synthetic-fabric extremes in pimp style. So I am trying to recreate an early 1970s that I recognize. You know, I think when I was 5 or 6 and look at pictures of me when I was 5 or 6, I really think, what was I wearing? Like, the colors are so crazy. It seems like such an otherworldly costume. And, of course, you know, the pimps took it to a different extreme.

I find myself, in trying to recreate the '60s and '70s, finding different ways to bring the reader in. I think the reader remembers that period of time and their own excesses, and hopefully they're, you know, painting themselves in these different scenes.

GROSS: I was glad you worked in blaxploitation films of the period, and one of the characters is making one, and one of the small-time criminals becomes the security guard. So you had to figure out what was the plot going to be for the blaxploitation film that you were creating. So talk about doing that.

WHITEHEAD: Well, yeah, there are, you know, different strands of blaxploitation films. There's the criminal. There's the Shaft-like private detective. And then there's a whole genre of secret agents, Black secret agents who can take down the Aryan industrialists, but also talk the language of the street. And my protagonist, Nefertiti T.N.T., falls into this last category.

There are different kinds of blaxploitation crime stories. There were private eyes like Shaft. There are criminals on the rise, as in "Superfly" and "Black Caesar." And then there were Black secret agents who could karate-chop German industrialists with Nazi sympathies and also talk the language of the street and save the community center. So my - the hero of my blaxploitation film in this book is Nefertiti Jones, Nefertiti T.N.T. And she works within a system, which sort of nods to our earlier talk about reform but is also fighting for revolution. She's a Black sleeper agent in the white power structure, and so that theme of reform and revolution sort of swims through different parts of the book and the blaxploitation movie within the book.

GROSS: What are some of the films you watched again or watched for the first time to get in the spirit?

WHITEHEAD: I mentioned "Black Caesar," which is a crime lord's rise. "Blacula" was very important to me as a young kid. There weren't a lot of films with Black actors growing up, and so I gravitated, as a 7-, 8-year-old, to a lot of blaxploitation films, and I remember Blacula, with his, you know, incredible Afro, his incredibly stylish digs, biting the necks of young LA unfortunates. A lot of the stuff doesn't hold up. You know, I think I sort of adored it as a distorted reflection of Black life when I was a kid, lacking other depictions. In my 20s, I thought that - you know, I found it very campy and loved watching old blaxploitation. And then I had to figure out what I could use for my book, and I find that - maybe just older, but a lot of pleasure has gone; or, you know, there's so many other Black actors, writers doing great work that I didn't have to, you know, heap all my hopes upon this early-70s run of Black exploitation fare.

GROSS: So give us an example of what made you cringe in "Blacula" or any of the other films that you watched for the book.

WHITEHEAD: I think any time they bring in, like, saving a community center from the white industrialist. I mean, there's a whole thing about - "Cleopatra Jones" is a famous blaxploitation movie with a high-kicking, kung fu secret agent who works for an unnamed government organization, and she moonlights taking down supervillains and then goes and works in the - and sort of pitches in at the local community center.

And there's this need to represent sort of Black consciousness and positive ideals and wedge them into this exploitation frame. You know, the idea of this kind of film is to get people into the seats, to give people a reason to cheer to seeing Black people beat up white people, and then there's also this kind of social impulse that they feel the need to insert, and it ends up being very, sort of, absurd and ridiculous in a way that, you know, I once found sort of amusing, but now it just sort of seems, you know, a bit sad. Let the exploitation be exploitation; let the politics live on their own in a separate sphere, but then trying to be everything for people who are just trying to forget their cares on a Saturday evening - it gets a bit too complicated.

GROSS: Part of the blaxploitation section of the film is set in Greenwich Village, and there's a Black comic performing at a club there who I think is modeled a little bit on Richard Pryor.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. Richard Pryor was important to me growing up - you know, his sort of cultural commentary. And at this period, 1973, he's already sort of broken away from his square persona in the early '60s, doing this kind of straight Bill Cosby stuff, and has really - and has broken through and has come up with his, you know, fiery, bombastic persona, and he's about to break into the national consciousness. His concerts are starting to blow up, but he is doing exploitation movies, like "The Mack, " at this time, and we catch him at this moment where he's uncontrolled and has all this promise - but, you know, looking back from our contemporary perch, we see him flaming out literally, you know, six years later. So I wanted to put him in there. I wanted to sort of tackle Black genius. A lot of the figures in the book are corrupted - the crooked policeman, various politicians and then Richard Pryor. He has this moment of promise and possibility, and his own demons do him in, like so many other characters in the book.

GROSS: What did he mean to you when you were growing up?

WHITEHEAD: You know, a favorite activity in my house was watching HBO, whether it was George Carlin or Richard Pryor, and both of these guys would veer between the tragic and the absurd. You know, from minute to minute, their bits would rove over the human condition and, you know, turn between these different extremes. Definitely, in my book, I think there's a lot of terribleness on display about the human condition - and also, I think, a lot of humor and a lot of human absurdity, as well. So I'm trying to tackle with those extremes of the human experience in my work, and then people like Richard Pryor and George Carlin were the first people to articulate that for me when I was, like, 10 or 11 and watching their concert films with my parents.

GROSS: Well, let's take another short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Colson Whitehead. His new novel, "Crook Manifesto," is a sequel to his novel "Harlem Shuffle." "Harlem Shuffle" was set in Harlem in the '60s, and "Crook Manifesto" is set in Harlem in the '70s. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEME FROM SHAFT")

ISAAC HAYES: Who's the Black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTISTS: (Singing) Shaft.

HAYES: Damn right. (Singing) Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTISTS: (Singing) Shaft.

HAYES: Can you dig it? (Singing) Who's the cat that won't cop out...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Colson Whitehead. His latest novel, "Crook Manifesto," is a crime novel set in Harlem in the years 1971 to '76. It's out in paperback this week.

The main character, Ray Carney, owns a furniture store that specializes in comfortable recliners and sofas. But he's also a fence, laundering and selling stolen goods like expensive jewelry, and he keeps getting pushed deeper into crime. He's part of the underworld that includes corrupt cops, Black revolutionaries, city politicians, and professional criminals. One of the characters in the novel takes a job as the security for a Blaxploitation film.

"Crook Manifesto" is the second in Whitehead's projected trilogy of Harlem novels. The first, "Harlem Shuffle," was set in the '60s. The third will be set in the '80s. Whitehead won back-to-back Pulitzers for his novels, "The Underground Railroad" and "The Nickel Boys."

Your novel ends in 1976, before hip-hop makes it onto the radio. So I'm assuming that hip-hop, rap, will make it into your third book in your trilogy, which will be set in the '80s?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I mean, I kept coming up with different capers and adventures for Carney. And so the first book, "Harlem Shuffle," became three different stories. This book's had three different stories. And now I'm working on figuring out how he fits into the '80s. Carney is a real square. So I almost see him hanging out with Afrika Bambaataa at the early...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHITEHEAD: ...Bronx sound system extravaganzas.

GROSS: Yeah.

WHITEHEAD: But I did feel a connection, you know, writing this book during the pandemic. I was in New York, and the streets were empty that first year before we sort of opened up again. And I was writing about the time in New York history where the city was under siege - the 1970s. But at that time, you know, artists are making new forms of art, and that's hip-hop, that's punk, early bits of disco, New York salsa. And so I felt like part of this tradition of artists that work in the city. Things are terrible outside, but maybe we can make something new. And so hip-hop is on the horizon. I don't think Carney will be break dancing, but I'm sure maybe his son or daughter might attend something.

GROSS: Was that a motivation for you? That things are really terrible outside, but maybe you could make something new?

WHITEHEAD: I got a second wind of work because I couldn't go anywhere. And so usually I stopped work around 3 or 4. But during the pandemic, I had a second shift from 4 to 7. And it was just a very productive time. I was so enthralled with the work and Carney's story. So it kept me going. And I think we all found different ways to sustain ourselves during the early part of this pandemic. It was a way for me to make sense of my day, you know, with my family. We have food. What else can sustain me? And it was work.

GROSS: So let's talk furniture for a minute, since Ray Carney, your main character, owns a furniture store. What are some of the differences between the '60s furniture that he sells in "Harlem Shuffle" and the '70s furniture that he sells in "Crook Manifesto"? I think it's, like, kind of the cusp between the '60s and '70s when fiberglass chairs come in, those molded fiberglass chairs, that were often, like, orange (laughter).

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, if - when we go to Martin Green's apartment, the hipster jewel broker, he's definitely outfitted his place with cool hifi stereo and that kind of plastic furniture from Europe. Carney, you know, tries to sell it, but it's not really making a dent with his Harlem clientele. In "Harlem Shuffle," we get this kind of jet age, sleek lines in the couches, boomerang coffee tables. There's this idea of '60s optimism, New Camelot, that I think is embodied in a lot of the furniture. In the '70s, we got these more sort of boxy plush designs, a lot of earth colors. I'm sure we remember the brown, mustard, dark green couches. The carpeting gets different. We had the rise of the conversation pit in our living rooms or some people's living rooms.

GROSS: A conversation pit?

WHITEHEAD: Yes, it's like a little (laughter) a sunken living room and seating arranged where you're sort of on the floor. You might have a little fondue pot on the coffee table in the center. It was a thing, apparently (laughter). We didn't have it in our house. But the conversation pit was the thing.

GROSS: OK. So did you start collecting 70's furniture to write the book? Like, where did you go to see it? Or did you just look in books?

WHITEHEAD: Sometimes, you know, I try to get into character and sometimes I'm faking it. Definitely my affinity is with '50s and '60s midcentury modern furniture. I did not go out and populate my home with boxy, earth-tone furniture. But I love looking at the catalogs, and I hopefully recreated them faithfully in the book. You know, you see these people with white cable turtle necks, drinking hot chocolate on this very plush, fuzzy couch, seems very warm and inviting. And even if the streets in Harlem are going sort of crazy, you can come into Carney's Furniture and buy - assemble your cozy oasis.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Colson Whitehead. His new novel is called "Crook Manifesto." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE T SONG, "O.G. ORIGINAL GANGSTER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Colson Whitehead. He won Pulitzer Prizes for his novels, "The Underground Railroad" and "The Nickel Boys." His new book, "Crook Manifesto," is a crime novel set in Harlem in the '70s. It's a sequel to his novel "Harlem Shuffle," which was set in the '60s. Their main character, Ray Carney, is a furniture store owner in Harlem, who also fences stolen jewels and more and keeps getting deeper into crime.

Since the Panthers and the Black Liberation Army figure into your novel, what was your introduction to them?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, I mean, I think probably in a very cheesy way, like on bad TV shows, like "Good Times" or "The White Shadow," I think. You know, I was coming of age in the late '70s and consuming TV and movies. And that was, like, you know, plenty of time for the revolutionary fervor, Black national thought of the late '60s, early '70s to trickle into, you know, pop culture. So it's somebody on a sitcom, and their dashiki-clad uncle, who's very militant and walking into this very sort of bourgeoise household. So it's through pop culture. And obviously, the history of the Black Panther Party was not being taught in my high school, I think - I assume most high schools. And now it's, you know, I think, illegal to teach Black history in certain states and cities. So it wasn't until college, I - you know, got sort of more grounding on some of the real arguments and what different aspects of the civil rights movement actually meant and what they did.

GROSS: Was your family involved in any aspect of the civil rights or post-civil rights era?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, I love, you know, hearing the story about my mom and dad going to the March on Washington. They weren't activists. They were people trying to raise a family in an incredibly racist country and finding their own way of changing things, changing the status quo, which was, you know, I think, family and their business.

GROSS: So growing up, seeing the Panthers as described in sitcoms or "The White Shadow," did you not take them seriously or did they seem foolish because of their portrayal on sitcoms? Was that your first impression?

WHITEHEAD: Well, no, I think there's this - you know, they were holy. The rift that I described in "Harlem Shuffle" between people who were more revolutionary-oriented versus reformist was not part of, you know, the sort of pop cultural depictions. But in the way that my parents would talk about that time, my friends' parents, it was very serious. It was deadly serious. No matter what you thought they ended up achieving or what their legacy was in 1982, 1984, 1985, they were, you know, these holy warriors.

GROSS: You've said in an interview that you retreated into pop culture in part to escape your father's alcohol-fueled rages. Can you talk about that a little bit? Is that too personal?

WHITEHEAD: It is a bit personal. But I think being able to close my door and retreat into these imaginary worlds, whether I was 7 years old or 8 years old, and think about what the war against the Empire would be like, you know, if I was in it or "Star Trek" or Spider-Man or even trying to outrun zombies in "Night Of The Living Dead." You know, I think the imaginary worlds of all these different writers I adored provided escape, you know, the same way that, you know, people have always, you know, found release and escape, and nurturing in storytelling and fantasy.

GROSS: One of your novels, "Sag Harbor," is inspired by the summers you spent in Sag Harbor. Can you describe Sag Harbor and its significance in your life?

WHITEHEAD: Sag Harbor is a town on the east end of Long Island, sort of better known as the Hamptons. And there's a town in that Hamptons constellation called Sag Harbor. It was an old whaling town, and there's a long-standing Black and Native American neighborhood, about three-quarters of a mile outside town. And Black folks from New Jersey and New York started vacationing there in the '30s and '40s. And the little community sprouted up by word of mouth. And my family started going there in the '40s. I spent all my summers there until I went to college. And it was this neat little community, nestled in this improbable place, and there are other places like it, and you know, I hear people talk about how it reminded them of their childhood in Michigan, another sort of Black town, Black beach community, or in Baltimore. And I wanted to - I had to sort of shake up my writing career. I had to find a new way of telling stories.

And so I picked this really autobiographical story to tell about growing up in the 1980s and, you know, changed how I approached characters and writing. And so it's not only a place that sort of formed my identity in many different ways, but also, you know, who I am as a writer in the last 15 years.

GROSS: In the novel, the main character has a brother who's - I don't know, like, 10 months apart in age, something like that. And so it's as if they were twins when they're very young and they go their separate ways. Did you have a sibling who is that close in age to you?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. My brother, who passed away a couple of years ago.

GROSS: I'm sorry to hear that.

WHITEHEAD: We were 10 months apart, and everyone thought that we were twins because we were a little unit, sort of inseparable. And part of the book is capturing the beauty of that twinhood. And then also the separation that happened when we became teenagers, and we had to sort of, you know, find our different paths in high school and in the world. So I'm writing about that time, but also at a time in my life, that was, you know, very, very formative.

GROSS: Did you like having somebody, like having a brother who was so close in age to you that people thought you were twins?

WHITEHEAD: You know, now, you know, sort of - we broke up in high school. But it was, you know, it was a very, very special thing. You know, we did everything together, whether it was reading Fangoria Magazine and reading out part of John Carpenter's interview about "Escape From New York" and "The Fog" or in "Halloween," his movie "Halloween," or renting David Cronenberg movies by the armful from Crazy Eddie's, which was an electronic store in New York City. So yes, I mean, it was, you know, I hope I got - I did some justice in getting him into the book and telling our story.

GROSS: Was your break up acrimonious?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, I mean, it was just - you know, in high school, I think the burden of being a semi-respectable teenager was a bit much for us. You know, I think we each had to find our own different way of being out in the world. So no, you know, we were close, but never as close as we were before the high-stakes game of puberty started.

GROSS: Did your brother's death make you think about your own mortality?

WHITEHEAD: My brother, you know, was in sort of bad health for many years, and definitely in "The Nickel Boys" and "Harlem Shuffle," I was trying to figure out that relationship. Both of those novels have, you know, Black men who are very close and go in different directions - one person makes it out; one person does not make it out. One person finds their way in the world, and one - and the other doesn't. And so even though those books don't necessarily seem to have a very, sort of, autobiographical element, in those two core relationships, you know, I was definitely trying to figure out me, figure out my brother, and how we ended up splitting apart after being twins.

GROSS: So while we've been talking about the '70s, has your head really been in the '80s, 'cause you're working on that new novel now?

WHITEHEAD: I'm trying to figure out what of the '80s will work for Carney and his gang. So New York has come out of the fiscal crisis, Wall Street's booming again and we're getting that, you know, boom-and-bust action in terms of the city's fortune and Carney's fortune. They're mirroring each other, so what do I use from the glitzy '80s? You know, Donald Trump, no; you know, I'm not going to befoul my book with Donald Trump, so...

GROSS: He's not going to read it. If he's not in it, you know, he's not going to read it.

WHITEHEAD: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: You've just lost one reader.

WHITEHEAD: (Laughter) So yeah, so is New York in 1981 fruitful territory; 1984; 1986-87? New York does, you know, find its footing financially, and then in the late '80s, the AIDS crisis, the crack epidemic is sort of waiting to spoil the party again, and that's - you know, that's definitely the city I know. It's going through a bad period, being laid low and then trying to figure out how to come back from it, so I'm trying to figure out what moments in '80s New York will serve the story and also are interesting to me. I, you know, sort of found my identity in alternative music - college radio, as we used to call it. Carney is probably not hanging out at CBGB - he's probably not doing the things I used to do, so I have to figure out what a 50-something Carney is going to seek out and interact with.

GROSS: Just one more thing. I know that you've said that when you walk around outside, you often have, like, an expressionless face or you look sad, 'cause you're thinking, and I think people ask you, like, what's wrong?

WHITEHEAD: Sure, yeah (laughter).

GROSS: That always used to happen to me when I was growing up.

WHITEHEAD: Oh.

GROSS: Like, people would come up to me and say, oh, honey, what's wrong? Are you lost? What's your reaction when people do that to you? Do they still?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, and I just say, you know, I was thinking about death, or something.

GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, I wish I'd thought of that.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'll remember that the next time if somebody does that to me.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, there you go.

GROSS: (Laughter) Colson, thank you so much.

WHITEHEAD: Sure. (Laughter) Take care. Thanks a lot.

GROSS: Colson Whitehead's latest novel, "Crook Manifesto," has just been published in paperback. We spoke last summer, when it was first published. After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review "Blackgrass," the new recording by Jerry Williams - the R&B soul and funk artist who performs under the name Swamp Dogg. "Blackgrass" is a country album - Ken says it's one of the best country albums of the year. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUDU PUKWANA & SPEAR'S "CHURCH MOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.