Interviewing Bestselling Author Colson Whitehead

Bernard Charbonnet, Jr. (New Orleans Public Library Board Chairman), Colson Whitehead, Sheba Turk

Bernard Charbonnet, Jr. (New Orleans Public Library Board Chairman), Colson Whitehead, Sheba Turk

The novel, The Underground Railroad, tells the story of a young slave girl named Cora on a cotton plantation in Georgia.  A new slave to the plantation convinces her to run away on the Underground Railroad.  The big twist for this novel is that the Underground Railroad is in fact a railroad.  Yes, the slaves make their great escape on a train. 

The 2016 novel has received lots of recognition.  It is a New York Times Bestseller.  It won a 2016 National Book Award, and it was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. 

I was very excited when the New Orleans Public Library invited me to moderate a discussion with the novel’s author, Colson Whitehead.  It was really cool to be able to interview someone about such a highly regarded novel after reading it myself.

Anyone can read the book, but I wanted to share some of the things I learned while chatting with Whitehead.

REVISITING AN OLD IDEA

My favorite fun fact was that Whitehead had the idea for this novel 16 years ago but pushed it aside.  He wanted to wait until he was a better writer to tackle it. He went on to write several other novels before bringing the idea to his wife and agent, who convinced him to follow through with it.

HE DID SOME RESEARCH IN NEW ORLEANS

Whitehead says he based some parts of the novel off of Harriet Jacobs’ story.  Turns out, he also visited some plantations in the New Orleans as part of his research.  He mentioned Oak Alley and Southern Oaks specifically, making the audience laugh as he described feeling awkward about being the only black person on the tours besides the bus driver.

WHITEHEAD IS FUNNY & SARCASTIC

Despite this novel being a fictional account of slavery, it is still a very gruesome and dark story, which I appreciated because slavery was horrendous.  Whitehead has a quirky humor and sarcastic wit that readers would never sense in the novel.  He had the audience cracking up for the first half hour of the lecture until he moved onto reading from the book.

AMAZON MINISERIES ON THE WAY

The news wasn’t officially out yet, but as a treat to his audience, Whitehead revealed that the book is in the works to be turned into a miniseries for amazon.  Congrats to Whitehead!

 

My signed copy of The Underground Railroad!

My signed copy of The Underground Railroad!

My Reading Style

OWN THE BOOK

I live in my books. I eat while I read. I throw them on the side of the bed when I am done reading for the night. I toss them in my bag where they live amongst all the junk I carry around.  The pages get bent, stained, and ripped. And I am ok with that. When I am done reading a book, I can look at it and see it has gone through some things.  I hate borrowing books because I know what they will look like if I am able to enjoy them like I want to.  Also , if I really like a book, I want to have a copy to refer to later.

“A PAGE A DAY” RULE

I have always loved to read but I went through a time when I first started working that I wasn’t reading books. I just felt too busy. The lies we tell ourselves.  A few years ago I decided I would get back in the groove by vowing to read a page a day.  Some days that page turns into 20 pages. Some days I don’t read at all.  Some days, I literally read that one page. The rule wasn’t really about reading a page.  It was more about mentally working reading books back into my daily life. I was reading newspapers, magazines…etc. But nothing beats a good book.

DON'T WAIT FOR QUIET TIME

When I first implemented the “A Page a Day” rule, I would wait until I was going to bed to try and read a page.  I never go to bed as early as I should, so I am usually exhausted and completely done by the time I finally decide to give in and actually go to bed. So many nights I was not even opening the book.  Then, I started reading a page while I waited in the doctor’s office, at the car wash…really anytime I had a spare moment.  Those moments add up and usually get me excited about reading again later in the day.

AVOID TRENDS

In a perfect world, I would move away to the beach, sit back, and have an immortal life so that I could read every book ever written.  In real life, I am sad just thinking about how many books I simply will never get too. I have a long running list of things I plan to read, and while I switch it up to read something that may be more prevalent at the time to what I am working on or feeling, I never switch books on my list for the hot book on the shelf.  If I stopped reading from my dream list every time the world was fawning over some new hot book, I would miss out on a lot of things that I know would be more interesting to me.

EXPLORE NON-FICTION

When I was younger, I didn’t even think about picking up a non-fiction book. I am a fiction girl at heart.  J.K. Rowling is my queen for the genius that is the Harry Potter series.  I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by not reading non-fiction.  It took for a friend to recommend, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” for me to understand the beauty of a story based on facts.  I started reading more non-fiction, and nowadays, that’s mostly what I am reading to makeup for my years of overlooking the genre.

Book Review: Magnolia Story

Recommend: Yes

Synopsis:

Chip & Joanna Gaines are the stars of HGTV’s hit show, Fixer Upper.  They renovate homes in Waco, Texas.  This book takes us through their journeys as individuals and as a couple. We learned how they got into the real estate business, the hardships they went through, and how they landed their HGTV show.

My boyfriend always watches this show, so I ended up seeing a lot of it by accident.  When I found out they wrote a book, I had to get it for him for Christmas, turns out he bought it for me too.  It is one of my favorite reads ever.  I have never laughed out loud this much reading a book.

They are all about being a team.

I could really relate to Chip’s personality.  He is goofy, spontaneous, optimistic, always happy, and didn’t hesitate to take risks when it came to business.  Joanna is the complete opposite- reserved, cautious, and more serious.  They are the perfect example of opposites attracting.  They both had imagined they would end up with partners much different from each other, but it worked.  I appreciated that they talked about their relationship struggles early on.  They are a picture perfect family on TV, but it was cool that they were honest about having issues like everyone else.  At the end of the day, it didn’t matter that their personalities were different because they supported and encouraged each other and that came over every thing.

There is a higher power guiding us all to our destiny

Chip and Joanna’s story is filled with miracles and inexplicable moments that saved them.  And Joanna looks for signs in life like I do.  I do believe that the universe speaks to us and guides us in the right direction.  I have felt many times in my own journey that things must be working out because of some divine intervention because there is no logical explanation for it.  This book reaffirmed that when something is meant to be it will be.

Keep adapting & evolving 

Joanna dreams of having her own little shop, gets a great building thanks to one of their many miracles, and is extremely successful and then she closes it down.  Joanna is disappointed again and again when she makes whatever property they are currently in feel like home, and then Chip tells her they are moving.  If they would not have kept moving, they would not be where they are today. They never got stuck on one idea of success or happiness.  They did what was right for their larger plans and what would be best for them.  It is inspiring to see such a beautiful story that has its share of rocky roads. 

Book Review: Orange is the New Black

Even though I’m on TV, I don’t watch a lot of TV. I do not keep up with any of the hot shows, including Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison.  A few months ago New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu invited me to moderate a discussion with himself and Piper Kerman the author of the memoir, Orange is the New Black.  I had no idea that the show was based off a true story.  After I interviewed her, I was interested in reading the book. It was my first read of 2017.

Recommend: Yes

Summary:  

In her early 20s, Piper Kerman dated a lesbian who was caught up in an international drug trafficking ring.  Piper agreed to carry a suitcase of drug money for her girlfriend at the time.  She eventually leaves the woman, ends up in New York, meets her future husband and lives a normal quiet life.  Ten years later her old life catches up with her, and she is sentenced to a little more than a year in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut for carrying the suitcase with the drug money.

Thoughts: 

THE OTHER SIDE OF DISPARITY IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world.  As a journalist, I have found myself drawn to stories about people caught up in the criminal justice system, especially since poor people and minorities are treated drastically different from others. I have heard first hand accounts from people who had one non-violent offenses but couldn’t get out of the system because they didn’t have money.  They end up with a public defender, a criminal record that they can’t afford to expunge, and then it’s difficult to find a job because they have a record.  That’s one side of the story for people in jail.

The other side is told in this book.  Piper makes it clear on several instances that she is being treated better because she is a white woman with blonde hair.  She also has many advantages that the other women in prison don’t.  She has tons of support from the outside, so she gets lots of mail and regular visitors.  She has a good lawyer, a short sentence compared to many of the other women who are serving years of time, and she has a job waiting for her when she gets out from a friend with a company.  

I believe everyone should tell their story and I do appreciate that she seems to tell hers honestly and unfiltered.  When she feels like she’s being favored, she says it.  But I must admit that after a while, the blonde hair references got old.  I didn’t need to keep being reminded why she was being treated differently at times.  It’s America. We get it. I also think it’s great that she said hey my story is different from the women I am in here with, but I see what they are going through. It’s not right and the prison system is flawed.  She could have done her time and carried on with her life, but I get a sense part of her motivation for writing the book was to expose the injustices she witnessed even when they weren’t impacting her.

With that being said, even the fact that she ends up in prison, writes about it, and becomes a New York Times best seller screams privilege.

IT'S GREAT TO SEE WOMEN SUPPORTING WOMEN

Take away the jail cells, and some of the moments in this book could be set in my all-girls high school.  The holiday celebrations complete with crafts and dishes made from contraband food, the gossiping, the time spent on styling hair were all so normal. It was nice to see that prison could not erase that basic human instinct to bond with other people.  Piper goes through a range of emotions in the book- shame over her situation, hostility towards the ex who got her wrapped up in the drug deal in the first place, depression when her grandmother passes away while she is behind bars, but the most emotional parts for me were her goodbyes to the women who accepted her and made her feel like part of a family.  

WHAT IS THE APPROPRIATE PUNISHMENT FOR NON-VIOLENT OFFENDERS?

Piper brings up about the lack of rehabilitative services in prison and she questions if prison is the best option for non-violent offenders like herself and many of the other non-violent offenders that she is in jail with.  She feels tearing people away from their families and children and locking them up even though they pose no threat to society seems all wrong, and the book would make many people question if shutting off these women from society is best for anyone.  At the same time, Piper does seem to downplay her actions. She writes them off as a silly phase in her younger years. She seems to feel like she should not be punished for that.  I love that this book makes people think about prison and it’s benefit to society as a whole as opposed to just accepting that “bad” people should be locked away.  For me, the takeaway from this book is the way it humanizes the women in prison and shows that circumstances aside, they are more like us than we might think.