SUBSCRIBE NOW

Colson Whitehead says he felt 'very defeated' after 'Nickel Boys,' talks self-care

Rasha Ali
USA TODAY

Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad" and "The Nickel Boys" earned him multiple prestigious accolades, but it didn't come without a price. 

Whitehead, 50, became the first author to win Pulitzers for consecutive works of fiction. During a Q&A session for the Library of Congress' National Book Festival Saturday, the author shared that writing those two books back to back took a toll on him.

"I usually write a more serious book and then a lighter book with more jokes, Whitehead said. "I followed up 'Underground Railroad' with 'The Nickel Boys' and those are two books that deal with heavy topics so that was new for me, and definitely towards the end of 'Nickel Boys' I felt very defeated."

His 2016 best seller "The Underground Railroad" was about a runaway teenage slave in 1850s while "The Nickel Boys" chronicles the abuse experienced by Black boys at a juvenile reform school and is inspired by horrific stories from the real-life Dozier School for Boys. 

"I think if I was angry or sad every day I couldn't create art. So the subject of slavery and the subject of the abuse in the reform school had to be held at a distance on a day to day basis," Whitehead said.  

The author, who is also a winner of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, added that he tried watching "12 Years a Slave" while writing "Underground Railroad" for some references he could add to his story, but he was unable to finish the movie due to the horrors the enslaved people experienced.

"I couldn't watch it," Whitehead said noting that he could write about the abuse and plantation brutality. "I could put it on the page every day, but I couldn't see actors going through what I was describing it was too painful."

Whitehead said the last six weeks of "Nickel Boys" were "very hard" because he was so invested in their story and though the book isn't a direct historical representation, he felt a duty to the "real-life survivors of the school not to mess up their story."

"I did feel very exhausted and depressed," Whitehead said before sharing how he was able to deal with those emotions.

The author said his form of self-care includes playing video games, cooking, grilling and smoking meat, and goofing off. 

And though both "The Underground Railroad" and "The Nickel Boys" were about heavy topics, Whitehead said all books come with their own difficulties when it comes to writing them.

"They're all pretty hard. This book is hard because you're broke. This book is hard because you're depressed. This next book is hard because you're broke and depressed," Whitehead said noting that he tries to "adapt to whatever the conditions are on the ground."

More:'The Nickel Boys' author Colson Whitehead to be honored by Library of Congress