The 36th Printers Row Lit Fest, which is scheduled to kick off Saturday, will include novelist Colson Whitehead’s first public appearance since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whitehead, who has written 10 novels including the Pulitzer Prize-winning works “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys,” is co-headlining this year’s event with award-winning journalist and novelist Dawn Turner. (Other panelists and speakers include Sun-Times editorial board member Lee Bey.)
“I’m excited,” said Whitehead. “I’m excited for the new book, and being in Chicago. I love Chicago for a lot of events, but I haven’t been in the last couple years, so I think it’s a great place to return to doing events.”
Whitehead’s latest creation, “Harlem Shuffle” (Penguin Random House, $28.95), comes out Sept. 14. It’s set in 1960s New York, where a furniture salesman named Ray Carney, who is descendant of a thief, is involved in a crime saga.
Whitehead says that era in New York seemed like a “convenient jumping-off point.”
“I don’t know what readers will get out of it; ‘I hope it’s not a waste of time’ is the usual thing I hope for when a reader reads my books,” said Whitehead. “[‘Harlem Shuffle’] is so much different than my last two novels. Usually, I’ll do a more serious book, and then a lighter book. Definitely ‘The Underground Railroad’ and ‘Nickel Boys’ were both heavy books, so I’m glad I found in ‘Harlem Shuffle’ a forum that allowed me to get some of my weird jokes in, and have a bit more fun, and present the character as not so defined by institutional racism and Jim Crow as in the last two books.”
As for the lit fest, for programs in tents and indoor venues, masks are required and guests over the age of 12 will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test result from the previous 48 hours, along with a valid photo ID. The requirements do not apply at outdoor events, but the festival encourages guests to adhere to CDC-mandated social distancing or to wear masks whenever that is not possible.
In terms of his novel-writing research process, the New York City native says he tries to be as meticulous as possible.
“I go back to New York City newspapers’ archives like The Amsterdam News — a Black newspaper — or the New York Times to try to figure out moments in 1959, 1961 and 1964,” said Whitehead. “In terms of slang, I pull from books and movies of the time whether it’s [novelist] Chester Himes, or a heist movie like ‘The Killing’ or ‘The Asphalt Jungle.’ There’s a way of doing a heist novel story.
“The main character sells furniture, so hopefully he’s a good salesman, and I went back to furniture catalogs in the ’50s and ’60s and got the language of mid-century modern furniture. So all the stuff that Carney — the main character — talks about when he’s waxing enthusiastic about his inventory comes from real-life furniture advertisements and promotional catalogs.”
Whitehead also says he spoke with family members who provided nuance on the era he’s writing about, while being intentional about his approach to crime novels.
“My first novel, ‘The Intuitionist,’ came at crime fiction sideways through an elevator inspector who was to solve a crime,” said Whitehead. “In this book, I’m attacking the genre head-on straight without irony, so it’s a different way of doing the genre and thinking about these kinds of stories. It was fun to go back to a thriller narrative and figure out how I can bring different changes on it.”
And how does Whitehead spend his publication day?
“Usually just exhale, and I’m glad most of it is over,” said Whitehead. “These days most of the reviews are out by publication day so they start coming out; the bigger ones will come out this weekend. And so by pub date, you know whether people have embraced it or rejected it. At that point, I’m ready to start hitting the road and talking about the book, and having some beer and relaxing. The week before is the hardest week. By the time it comes out, most of the dust is settled.”