If controversy begets book sales, then Ben H. Winters had a great week. When his latest novel Underground Airlines was published last Tuesday, The New York Times made sure the moment didn’t go ignored. The internet’s reaction was swift; some readers damned Winters for writing about slavery, while others lauded him for taking on the topic.
The novel, you see, is about racial injustice in a world where the Civil War was never fought, where slavery still exists in a few states, and where the rest of the nation doesn’t ask and doesn’t tell. Runaway slaves are routinely packed up and returned to bondage. The protagonist, sometimes known as Victor, is a slave turned slave-catcher in order to earn his own little bit of freedom. Victor is black. Ben H. Winters, though, is white. And last week—when Underground Airlines launched—was kind of a terrible week for humanity but especially for race relations in the United States.
In fact, the past week has demonstrated that Underground Airlines isn’t just a book about alternate history, but also a book about real history, where we ended up right here, right where we are. I recently spoke with Winters about writing Underground Airlines.
Lori Rader-Day: Underground Airlines is at times hard to read, but of course it shouldn’t be anything else. What has it been like to write it, promote it, spend all this time in it?
Ben H. Winters: It was hard to write, but one can’t really complain about writing a book—writing is only hard compared to every other job in the world. Promoting the book was really exciting and fun until the second it came out, and there was a New York Times piece on me and the novel that focused a lot on how exceptional and interesting it was that I, a white man, would be so “bold” as to write such a thing.
Many people, at least on Twitter, found this to be at best tone-deaf and at worst an act of cultural erasure—given that many people of color, for many years, have “dared” to write about racism and slavery, and even to use science-fiction to do so, most notably the great Octavia Butler, who went unmentioned in the Times piece. I had always known this novel would be controversial, but of course it was hard to see it land that way. Boo-hoo. Poor me. The point is, I should have been more clear—I’ll be as clear as I can with you: it is incumbent upon white people in this country to be engaged with these issues, to think about and wrestle with the brutal facts of slavery’s long legacy and institutional racism. This book is me, as a writer, a white writer, trying to do that.
Lori Rader-Day: I discovered your work because you wrote a series of sci-fi-esque detective novels (The Last Policeman series), and looking at your past publications…well, let’s just say the word “variety” is an understatement. Can you talk about how each story finds you and why you like to be a such a moving target?
Ben H. Winters: I know; it’s crazy. I think it’s hard for people to get their heads around the fact that the same person wrote Underground Airlines and Android Karenina, let alone a musical based on the songs of Neil Sedaka. But like a lot of writers, I had no clear path; I experimented, I bounced around; I took work where I got work. I was in Chicago doing comedy stuff, and then New York doing theater stuff, and eventually I was in Philly for a year and I happened to fall in with Quirk Books, the publishing company based there. It’s definitely with The Last Policeman (which I still don’t really think of science-fiction, although I don’t mind if others do) that I mark the beginning of my serious career, although if you still want to buy Bedbugs or my two novels for 8-to-12-year-olds, don’t let me stop you. I raise my glass to the late great Russell Hoban, who I love for his astonishingly inventive far-future sci-fi novel Riddley Walker, and who my kids love for Bread and Jam for Francis.
Lori Rader-Day: Underground Airlines is a difficult novel to categorize. It’s been called post-apocalyptic, but that’s not right. It’s more of a revisionist history that speaks to the present. How do you talk about the book in terms of genre?
Ben H. Winters: I don’t really see post-apocalyptic at all. It’s also been described as sci-fi, but I don’t really see that either, not in the traditional sense. It’s a work of speculative fiction. Alternate history. Maybe you could call it a “dystopian” novel, but only in the sense that our current reality in the United States could be called dystopian also. A society founded to be equal and democratic, a society founded specifically in reaction to monarchical overreach, a society which trumpets its democratic ideals, but in which one set of people, because of their skin color, faces housing discrimination, education and job discrimination, vastly higher rates of incarceration, vastly higher risks of being subject to arbitrary arrest, and a lower life expectancy. This could be a pitch for a dystopian novel.
Lori Rader-Day: You were writing Underground Airlines during the Michael Brown shooting and similar incidents across the country. How did they affect the story?
Ben H. Winters: They didn’t just affect the story I was trying to write; they are the story I was trying to write. I was trying to write a story about our nation right now, about how and why these incidents of racialized violence are still happening, now, today. Just before I sat down to answer these interview questions I read the Time magazine article about Philando Castile, who knew the names of all the kids he served lunch to and memorized who had food allergies, and who the police shot in his car while he was following their instructions.
Lori Rader-Day: As a white writer, how did you approach writing an African-American protagonist?
Ben H. Winters: Yes, Victor is African-American, and especially in this novel his experience is hugely defined by that fact, but he is also an individual with individual experience and individual conflict and an individualized voice and way of looking at the world. I didn’t have to get some generic, generalized black experience right, I had to get this man, what made him tick and the patterns of his thought. He’s a human being; I’m also a human being. That’s our connection.
Lori Rader-Day: There’s a moment where the main character (whose name moves around so much that he begins to seem nameless) can’t understand why a group of slaves doesn’t just leave a situation they could easily have escaped, and the answer is disheartening and very contemporary. What do you think you gained an understanding of the real racial issues we face while writing this novel?
Ben H. Winters: I don’t think that I, as a white man, will ever understand what it means to be black in America. I can empathize—and writing this book was, for me, a deep, extended exercise in empathy. But I’ll never face the risk of the kind of police violence we keep seeing; I will never face the countless other forms of day-to-day racial discrimination that black Americans face. What I learned in writing this novel—in researching it, really, as much as in writing it—was how interwoven these problems are with the fabric of the country. It is easy for we goodhearted progressive white people to think that everybody just needs to be individually not-racist, and racism will go away. I think what African Americans understand more fundamentally is that the problems are systemic; they are institutional; they go beyond interpersonal relationships and simple solutions.
FICTION – SPECULATIVE, ALTERNATE HISTORY
Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
Published July 5, 2016
Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated (and multi-award-winning) author of The Death of Us, Death at Greenway, The Lucky One, Under a Dark Sky, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' event Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing for Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies.