Colson Whitehead Returns To His Home Turf With 'Harlem Shuffle'

Sep 15, 2021

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead does extensive background research whenever he works on a book. For his latest novel, Harlem Shuffle, that meant learning how stolen items get "fenced."

"There's not a lot of literature about fences," Whitehead says. "But there is actually a book ... [that's] a sociological a study about these guys in the Midwest in the '60s, and one of the first things that struck me was their description of [the fences] being a wall between the straight world and the crooked world."

In Whitehead's novel, the main character, Ray Carney, is that wall. Carney owns a furniture store on 125th Street in Harlem, but he has a sideline trafficking in stolen goods. Whitehead says inspiration for the story came to him a few years back, when he was deciding on a movie to watch.

"I was just thinking about how much I like heist movies and thinking [about] how much fun the directors and writers must have put it all together," he says. "And asked myself ... can I do that?"

Whitehead's two most recent books were historical novels set in the South. The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys focused on the brutality of slavery and institutional racism. Writing them back-to-back exacted a heavy emotional toll.

"As I was finishing The Nickel Boys and bringing the boys closer to their tragic fate ... I felt very depressed and depleted," Whitehead says. "I finished the book and then just played video games and barbecued for six weeks and that's how I came back into myself."

Working on Harlem Shuffle was different: "Having fun with this crime genre and some of the supporting cast who are kind of colorful was a relief," Whitehead says. "From the first page of writing the book and getting back into writing a book set in New York, I felt I was on my home turf."


Interview highlights

On choosing to set his heist novel in Harlem between 1959 and 1964

Doubleday

The first thing I thought was [that] crooks might exploit some big New York event. So I tried to think of [ideas]: Should I use the blackout of '77 and then use that for cover for a heist? The riot of the early '40s, which happened when a cop abused a Black person in Harlem? And then I thought, Ralph Ellison kind of owns that because Invisible Man, so I can't really go there. [Then, I thought of] the riot of '64, after a young Black teenager was killed by a white policeman. And so once I had '64, it all flowed from there. And I split up into three sections, 1959, '61 and '64 and try to find different pegs for what's happening in New York that could serve the story.

On learning about "fences" (the people who resell stolen goods)

I decided to have a fence for a hero because I always find it appalling when I watch a heist movie and the criminals have stolen their $2 million in jewels and half the gang is dead and the cops [are] looking for them, and then they go to the fence and the fence says, "I'll give you 10 cents on the dollar." And it's always so appalling and I'm so mad, and I figured that would be a good person to figure out for a book. ...

Things come in stolen, slightly "previously owned" and then they go out into the world ready for the next owner cleaned up. And ... I immediately mapped [that divide] onto Carney's personality. He has this part of himself that wants to leave the life that he grew up in and have a business and go to college and have a nice family. But there is that call in his blood ... and that struggle going back and forth is paralleled by the fence's role and speaks to so much of how I think a lot of us live. I think there are a lot of us who have different parts of us, reconciled, unreconciled, and sometimes that's the drama of our lives.

On how fencing stolen goods works

When I was reading these sociological studies of fences, one thing that was made apparent very early was that they often have fronts, front stores. And so the main guy in this one study reupholstered furniture. In the front of the store, he has these used armchairs that he's refurbished and where does he get them? He goes to the swap meet, and at the swap meet, there's like a rare coin guy over there. And so a criminal has given the fence these jewels and coins and other things to watch, and he'll find other dealers at a swap meet. He'll sell them at his store. But you're connected in this shadowy underground of people who specialize in this or that particular thing. If you put your diamond necklace in the hands of your jewelry connection, that person who has connections to the legit broader marketplace, and so something that is stolen on Tuesday could re-enter the supply chain on Friday. And it's very fluid and the idea of a front, the front that you have out to the world with the sort of bad business in the back is applicable, definitely, to Carney's personality.

On recognizing a front business when he sees one

I still continue to be a failure to know what stores are fronts and what is not. When I lived in Brooklyn ... in the '90s, I would go to the store to buy a six pack of beer and the store is completely empty except for like S.O.S and Brillo pads, two Twinkies and a six-pack of Corona. And I go to pay for the beer and the guy is like, "What are you doing in here? Like, don't you get it?" And so then my friends would tell me, "Oh, that's a weed spot." Like, it's not really legit. So I'm very oblivious.

On tracing the migration of people in Harlem and in his fiction

One hundred fifty years ago, Harlem [was] farmland, and then speculators put up buildings, and then the tenements and townhouses were filled with all these refugees from Europe. And it's Italians and Irish, Jews from all over Europe, and they come to make their way in this new country. They cross the water, they enter the middle class and move away to the suburbs, to downtown different neighborhoods in Manhattan. They're replaced by a wave of Black migration from the South, from the Caribbean. My grandmother came through Ellis Island in 1920, from Barbados.

What I love in doing the research is walking through these different neighborhoods and seeing these old brownstones and townhouses and imagining that churn. I mentioned the churn of stolen goods and out of people's hands. And there is this churn inside these humble townhouses, all those different lives and those different rivers and oceans that they've crossed to come here, and they enter the middle class or they don't. In the same way there's all this the secret history behind the storefronts, the bakeries and crooked stationery stores, it's this whole secret history of these townhouses.

On his 2011 novel Zone One about a plague that turns people into zombies and if COVID made him think about that book again

I was always thinking about it in a very depressing way, just being locked down and remembering this or that passage from the book. But mostly I was angry about the things I didn't get right. The characters in the book are called "sweepers," and they go door to door, retrieving dead bodies and taking out the last of the zombies so that they can restart civilization. So I didn't realize how much toilet paper they would find when they went into these different folks' apartments. So that was a failure of my imagination.

And then secondly, I had no idea that people would say, "Oh, the zombie virus is just like the flu. It doesn't really matter," or "I'm not going to get the zombie vaccine," the depths of the denial and psychosis around vaccines I couldn't foresee. So if I did it over again, definitely there'll be people who would resist the zombie vaccine and suffer the consequences, which would be unfortunate.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Colson Whitehead, won a Pulitzer Prize for each of his last two novels, "The Underground Railroad" and "The Nickel Boys." "The Underground Railroad" is about a 15-year-old enslaved girl who escapes a brutal Georgia plantation. It was adapted into an Amazon TV series, which is now nominated for multiple Emmys. "The Nickel Boys" was based on the story of the Dozier School for Boys in northern Florida, a reform school infamous for its mistreatment and brutal punishment of the boys who were sent there and for the buried bodies discovered on its grounds.

There's many sides to Colson Whitehead's writing. He also wrote a novel about a plague where everyone who's infected becomes a zombie and wrote a memoir about playing poker. Now he's written a crime novel, called "Harlem Shuffle," set in Harlem between 1959 and 1964. The main character, Ray Carney, owns a furniture store on 125th Street in Harlem, but he has a side line trafficking in stolen goods as a fence or, as he prefers to think of it, he was a middleman, part of the natural flow of goods in and out and through people's lives from here to there, a churn of property that he helped facilitate. In his mind, he was nothing like his father, who was more of a full-time crook with crooked friends. Ray is also a family man. He and his wife are expecting their second child when the novel begins. The novel is about his dual life, class divisions within Harlem and the crimes of the elite compared to the crimes on Ray Carney's level.

Colson Whitehead, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love this novel. Thanks for writing it, and thanks for coming back to our show.

COLSON WHITEHEAD: Yeah, thanks for having me back. It's very exciting.

GROSS: I want to start by asking you to do a reading. And just to set this up a little bit - so, you know, Ray Carney is a fence, and he basically deals with pretty small-time stuff. But his cousin, who's more of a full-time crook - and this is a cousin who Ray has bailed out all of the cousin's life - the cousin Freddie comes to him and says, look; we're doing a heist of a safe at the Hotel Theresa. And you describe this as the Waldorf of Harlem, and it was a real hotel. And Ray thinks, wow, robbing that is kind of like pissing on the Statue of Liberty. And he thinks this is a - this job is just, like, too big for him. It's, like, wrong for him. So I'd like you to do a reading about Ray Carney's reaction to his cousin's proposal about fencing the stolen jewels from this heist after the heist is done.

WHITEHEAD: All righty.

(Reading) Even if he were crooked enough for his cousin's proposition, he didn't have the contacts to handle a haul from the Hotel Theresa. Three hundred rooms, who knows how many guests locking up valuables and cash in safe deposit boxes behind reception - he wouldn't know what to do with it. Neither would his man Buxbaum down on Canal - have a coronary if Carney walked in with that kind of weight.

Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked, in practice and ambition. The odd piece of jewelry, the electronic appliances Freddie and then a few other local characters brought by the store he could justify. Nothing major, nothing that attracted undue attention to his store, the front he put out to the world. If he got a thrill out of transforming these ill-gotten goods into legit merchandise, a zap-charge in his blood like he'd plugged into a socket, he was in control of it and not the other way around, dizzying and powerful as it was. Everyone had secret corners and alleys that no one else saw. What mattered were your major streets and boulevards, the stuff that showed up on other people's maps of you. The thing inside him that gave a yell or tug or shout now and again was not the same thing his father had, that sickness drawing every moment into its service, the sickness Freddie administered to more and more.

Carney had a bent to his personality. How could he not growing up with a father like that? You had to know your limits as a man and master them.

GROSS: Thanks for reading that. That's Colson Whitehead reading from his new novel "Harlem Shuffle." So after writing novels with really big social themes, "The Underground Railroad" and "The Nickel Boys," why did you want to write a crime novel set in Harlem in 1959 to '64?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, well, I usually do mix it up - you know, write a serious book or most - more sober book and then something lighter with more jokes. I originally was going to follow up "The Underground Railroad" with "Harlem Shuffle," but then after the last election - presidential election, I had to sort out my feelings about being in America. Are we heading in the right direction? Am I optimistic or pessimistic? And so the philosophical dilemma of the two boys in "The Nickel Boys" was more compelling. But that meant when I finished that book, I had all these notes for "Harlem Shuffle," and I was eager to get back to it. As for the why, about seven years ago, I was trying to think of a movie to rent that night, and I just think about how much I like heist movies and thinking how much fun, you know, the directors and writers must have putting it all together. And I asked myself, you know, why can't I do that? And the answer is, you know, no reason at all. Why not?

GROSS: Now, you set it in a period of the civil rights movement, '59 to '64. It ends a year before the Voting Rights Act. Carney is pretty oblivious to the civil rights movement, but his wife works for a Black travel agency that books people into places that are safe for Black people, which is especially important in the South. Then the agency becomes involved in booking travel for civil rights groups. And I found it really interesting that the civil rights movement is way in the background for him, whereas it's kind of forefront for her.

WHITEHEAD: Well, I think - look; like many couples, you know, some people (laughter) - someone is paying attention, and the other person isn't. You know, I didn't feel any need to make Carney more political than he probably would be. You know, he's half crook. He's preoccupied with his store and isn't as clued in as the teenagers and college kids who are marching when there are - you know, there are various protests. He - you know, he hopes that he's not going get a brick thrown through his window, and that's what he's concerned about. And his cousin Freddie, you know, who's, you know, more of a freewheeling type, likes to go to marches so he can talk to pretty girls - you know, these teenagers. So I didn't feel the need to make them more political than they would have been.

GROSS: So as you've described, the main character has a dual personality. He's part legit businessman with his furniture store. His side line is as a fence. What interested you in a character with those dual sides?

WHITEHEAD: Well, I always start with, you know, these abstract propositions or questions like, why can't I do a heist novel? - and then have to actually make it into a story. So it's a heist. When is it? Where is it? Going to be in New York. And the first thing I thought was the - you know, the crooks might exploit some big New York event. So I tried to think of, you know, should I use the blackout of '77 and they use that for cover for a heist? The riot of the early '40s, which was - happened when a cop abused a Black person in Harlem. And then I thought, Ralph Ellison kind of owns that because "Invisible Man," so I can't really go there, which left the riot of '64, after a young Black teenager was killed by a white policeman. And so once I had '64, it all flowed from there. And I split it up into three sections - 1959, '61 and '64 - and then tried to find different pegs for what's happening in New York that could serve the story.

GROSS: So in the book, Ray's father, who is dead when the book begins, he's someone who occasionally had to break somebody's knees. He was the muscle, the guy who had to follow through on the threats. So this is how Ray grew up, with a father who was out all the time doing God knows what. And Ray becomes a fence. Did you have to do a lot of research into how fences operate or how they operated back in the '60s?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, I mean, the research is fun 'cause it feeds the book. So I decided to have a fence for a hero because I always find it appalling when I watch a heist movie, and, you know, the criminals have stolen their $2 million in jewels and half the gang is dead and a cop's looking for them. And then they go to the fence, and the fence says, I'll give you 10 cents and a dollar. It's always so appalling, and I'm so mad. And I figured that would be a good person to figure out for a book.

And so there's not a lot of literature about fences, but there is actually a book called "The Fence," and it's a sociological study about these guys in the Midwest in the '60s. And one of the first things that struck me was their description of being as a wall between the straight world and the crooked world. You know, things come in stolen, slightly previously owned, and then they go out into the world, ready for their next owner, cleaned up.

And that dividedness, I immediately mapped onto Carney's personality. He has this part of himself that wants to leave the life that he grew up in and have a business and go to college and have a nice family. But there is that call in his blood, which I, you know, sort of put in that reading that we started the show with. And that struggle going back-and-forth is paralleled by the fence's role and speaks to so much of how I think a lot of us live. You know, I think that a lot of us have, you know, different parts of us reconciled, unreconciled, and sometimes that's the drama of our lives.

GROSS: I love the way Carney describes some of what he sells as gently used (laughter).

WHITEHEAD: He - you know, he's - he lies to himself. He's not necessarily as clued in to how crooked he is at the start of the book. And in the three different sections, you know, there's three different jobs or capers, as I call them, and he gets more comfortable with his criminal side. He rejects it. So the start of the book, you know, Freddie comes up to him and says, we're doing this heist, and Carney is like, that's ridiculous. Like, I'm not a fence. You know, I'm just a humble businessman, and I sell some lightly-used merchandise. And Freddie, of course, calls him on it. And so part of that internal drama, you know, I have a lot of fun with. How much can Carney admit to himself who he actually is? And then when he does admit to it, what does he do with that knowledge?

GROSS: Carney could put what he was doing in a more kind of sociopolitical economic context and say things like in a world where my business degree means nothing because I'm Black, this is the work I have to do to fulfill my ambitions 'cause doors are closed to me. But he doesn't think in those larger tones. He just thinks, like, it's really hard to make a living in a furniture store selling on the installment plan because I barely have the money to pay rent, and I want my family to move to a nicer home. And so I think it's interesting, since you are so socially, politically, economically aware and have written novels that show that, that in this character's mind, that doesn't really figure into it.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, well, I think that's what I sort of find lovely about him, is that he's complicated. And as the book goes on and the years pass, he's not hurting as much for money. You know, his wife, Elizabeth, has a good job and things are going well, but he still does dabble and then do more than dabble in the criminal world. So what drives him? And I think that perplexing situation was very tantalizing.

In my last two books, I had an enslaved girl, Cora, who runs North, and she's very much defined by slavery, the social order of the times. And the two kids in "The Nickel Boys," too, are very much defined by Jim Crow and the racist world around them. And so immediately, once I started writing Carney, I knew this was somebody who was going to win. You know, he was going to win sometimes - not all the time, but he has a different sort of engagement with the forces around him. And maybe he's not as socially conscious, and maybe I don't find him admirable all the time, but I have great affection for him and putting him in these different positions where he's tested was quite a lot of fun.

GROSS: All right, let's take a short break here. My guest is Colson Whitehead. His new novel is called "Harlem Shuffle." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Colson Whitehead. He won Pulitzer Prizes for his novels "The Nickel Boys" and "The Underground Railroad," which was adapted into an Amazon TV series that's now nominated for multiple Emmys. His new book is a crime novel called "Harlem Shuffle," set in Harlem between 1959 and 1964. I want to get back to being a fence. So could you describe in a little more detail how fencing goods works? I mean, it's kind of like laundering money, but with goods.

WHITEHEAD: Sure. Well, it's different things. You can - it's jewels, it's rare coins, TVs. So in the case of Carney, when we first meet him, Freddie and other local hoods have stolen televisions, radios, and Carney has a little spot in the corner of his store where he sells used TVs, and no one really asks where they come from. When I was reading these sociological studies of fences, one thing that was made apparent very early was that they often had fronts, front stores.

And so the main guy in this one study reupholstered furniture. And so in the front of the store, he has these used armchairs that he's refurbished. And where does he get them? He goes to the swap meet. And at the swap meet, there's, like, a rare coin guy over there. And so a criminal has given the fence these jewels and coins and other things to wash, and he'll find other dealers at a swap meet. He'll sell them at his store. But you're connected in this, you know, shadowy underground of people who specialize in this or that particular thing.

If you put your diamond necklace in the hands of your, you know, your jewelry connection, that person has connections to the legit broader markets, marketplace. And so something that is stolen on Tuesday, you know, could re-enter the supply chain on Friday. And it's very fluid. And the idea of, like, a front, you know, the front that you have out to the world with the sort of bad business in the back is applicable, definitely to Carney's personality.

GROSS: When you were writing this novel, did you develop an eye for stores that you thought might be fronts?

WHITEHEAD: Well, I was always, you know - I still continue to be a failure to know what stores are fronts and what is not. When I lived in Brooklyn in, I guess, what they call a changing neighborhood in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in the '90s, I would go to, like, the store. You know, I'd buy a six-pack of beer. And the store was completely empty, this bodega, except for, like, S.O.S Brillo pads...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHITEHEAD: ...Two Twinkies and a six pack of Corona. And I go to pay for the beer, and the guy's like - he's like, what are you doing in here? Like, don't you get it? And so then my friends were telling me, oh, that's a weed spot. Like, you know, (laughter) it's not really legit. So I'm very oblivious. But I have to get into character. And Carney, as he enters more deeply into the criminal world, starts to see things he didn't know before. And so he's riding along with this corrupt cop who's picking up his envelopes, his cash from all the people he's shaking down. And he passes the bakery that he's walked by for decades. And it's actually - has a craps game in the back. And the stationery store is a front for a numbers operation. And so as he awakens to his own criminality, he awakens to the corruption that's been invisible to him his whole life but has been omnipresent.

GROSS: One of the ways he protects himself from thinking of himself as being a criminal is that he sees the goods, but he never sees the people who were robbed or the businesses that were robbed. And if there's no victim that he knows about, it's less of a crime. It really made me think about how much - how easy it must be to protect yourself from thinking about the victim. If you don't know who the victim is, you don't know who's been hurt and how they've been hurt.

WHITEHEAD: I think that's definitely true. I don't think I explored that enough in the book, so I'll take that (laughter). I'm going to write that down for future inquiry.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHITEHEAD: Thank you. Thank you for that point. But also, you know, I - in each section in the book, you know, from '59 to '61 to '64 - I keep pulling back, and we start with, like, a street-level view of crime in Harlem. And then we pull back and meet some well-to-do African American bankers and insurance agents, the sort of upper class of Harlem. And there, you know, it turns out they're pretty crooked, too. And a lot of their victims, they can't put faces to because they're signing paper, calling in mortgages on people who've never seen. And then in the third section, I pull back even more, and we see more of the power structure in the city. We visit Park Avenue and Wall Street. And those guys on the 34th floor have no idea who they're harming in their machinations. And so, yes, Carney is luckily - is in a position where he doesn't - doesn't get to see who's the actual victim of his crimes. And then there are people who are operating on a scale so much - of such a bigger magnitude.

GROSS: You told the New York Times that you think everyone has a criminal side even if it's just stealing a pack of gum. So of course, I have to ask, do you feel that way yourself?

WHITEHEAD: Mostly when I was stealing Wi-Fi before everyone had passwords.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHITEHEAD: Like, 15 years ago, so I'm (laughter)...

GROSS: That is truly a victimless crime unless you're hacking the person you're stealing from (laughter).

WHITEHEAD: But their, you know, their...

GROSS: You're freeloading.

WHITEHEAD: ...Their streaming is slowing down 'cause I'm, you know, stealing their bandwidth. No, I'm very much a Boy Scout. So I have to use my - the powers of my imagination to figure out Carney and these other characters.

GROSS: We need to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Colson Whitehead. He won Pulitzer Prizes for his novels "The Nickel Boys" and "The Underground Railroad." And his new book is a crime novel called "Harlem Shuffle." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Colson Whitehead. He won a Pulitzer Prize for each of his two previous novels, "The Nickel Boys" and "The Underground Railroad." "The Underground Railroad" is adapted into an Amazon TV series that is now nominated for multiple Emmys. His new novel, "Harlem Shuffle," is a crime novel set in Harlem between 1959 and '64. The main character, Ray Carney, is the owner of a furniture store on 125th Street, which also traffics in stolen goods. He's a fence.

You set the novel in Harlem. It's a Black world in Harlem and in your novel, except for the cops, who are white. Was it a relief to write about Harlem after writing about an escaped slave who runs into every imaginable problem after escaping?

WHITEHEAD: I think doing "Underground" then "Nickel Boys" back to back definitely took its toll. I mean, I think I had done all my emotional heavy lifting before I wrote "Underground Railroad." And so I knew what I was getting into. But then having another setting where innocents are being brutalized and are searching for their freedom really demoralized me. And so as I was finishing "The Nickel Boys" and bringing the boys closer to their tragic fate that I had mapped out, you know, two years before, I definitely felt very depressed and depleted. And I finished the book, and then just played video games and barbecued for six weeks. And that's how I came back into myself. So having a project that has the capacity for joking and humor - and I do see making jokes as part of my project and why I write. It's one of my, you know, avenues of exploration. So having fun with, you know, this crime genre and some of the supporting cast who are kind of colorful was a relief. And from the first page of writing the book and getting back into writing a book set in New York, I felt I was on my home turf after writing two books set in the South. And the challenge of recreating a New York before I appeared on the scene - I was born in '69 - was a nice challenge to put before me.

GROSS: Do you see a through line between, say, "Underground Railroad" and your new novel in the sense that after slavery and once Jim Crow started, and when, you know, lynchings and other forms of attacks against Black people were so common and so many people from the South moved to the North. And that's probably one of the ways Harlem became Harlem, you know, how Harlem became Black as opposed to Jewish and Italian, which it was before that. You write Harlem was desegregated in 1940 after the neighborhood tipped over from Jews and Italians and became the domain of southern Blacks and West Indians. I love this line. Everyone who came uptown had crossed some variety of violent ocean.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I mean, you know, there's this churn of immigrants in Harlem, which I found very fun to explore. The - 150 years ago, Harlem is farmland. It's pastureland. And then speculators put up buildings. And then the tenements and townhouses are filled with all these refugees from Europe. And it is Italians and Irish, Jews from all over Europe, Irish. And they come to make their way in this new country. They cross the water. They enter the middle class and move away to the suburbs, to downtown, different neighborhoods in Manhattan. They're replaced by a wave of Black migration from the south, from the Caribbean. My grandmother came through Ellis Island in the 1920s from Barbados.

And so what I loved in doing the research is walking through these different neighborhoods and seeing these old brownstones and townhouses and imagining that churn, you know? I mentioned the churn of stolen goods in and out of people's hands. And there is this churn inside these humble townhouses, all those different lives and those different rivers and oceans that they've crossed to come here. And they enter the middle class or they don't. But there's so much - in the same way there's all this secret history behind the storefronts, the bakeries and crooked stationery stores, there's this whole secret history in these townhouses.

GROSS: As we've mentioned, Ray Carney is the son of a crook, of a full-time crook. And Carney's wife is from a middle-class family. Her parents live on Strivers' Row in Harlem. Her father is a successful accounting for successful businessmen, politicians, doctors and lawyers in Harlem. Her father brags about his collection of loopholes and dodges. And he belongs to this club for the elite Black community in Harlem called the Dumas. Am I pronouncing it right, Dumas Club?

WHITEHEAD: I think if you - it's named after Alexandre Dumas. But I figure these guys say Dumas. That seems like the mid-century...

GROSS: Right (laughter). OK.

WHITEHEAD: ...Harlem way to say it. So I - mentally, I think of Dumas.

GROSS: Yeah. And so you describe it in the book as a paper bag club. Would you explain what that means?

WHITEHEAD: There were various social clubs for well-to-do Black folks in the 19th and 20th centuries. And you could only enter them if you had a, you know, upstanding job, and also if you were lighter than a paper bag. And so the paper bag test meant that if you were darker skinned, you were not accepted. And you're not going to join their little club.

GROSS: So there was that much colorism in the elite Black clubs?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. And, you know, I mean, I can't speak for all of them. But that was definitely a real force, that sort of social stratification. Where are you from, you know? Are you first-generation college or third generation? Do you come from a long line of free Black folks? Or have you just come from Alabama, you know, last year and now you're trying to make it and try to be one of us? And so colorism and class stratification exists everywhere. And part of - you know, the second part of the book is pulling back to see these other social forces that are affecting Carney. You know, he has a bad background. He's darker skinned. And how does he navigate this hoity-toity, privileged world?

GROSS: Can you talk about how Harlem has changed from the time the novel is set, '59 to '64, to now, because I imagine you spent a lot of time in Harlem while you were writing the novel even though it has changed?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I mean, you know, location scouting and, you know, finding places for Carney to live. You know, it was a great, fun thing to do. I lived in Harlem until I was about 6 on 139th and Riverside. So my first New York is a very gritty, dirty New York.

But for research, I would, you go back to newspapers, and there are books about the Hotel Theresa. And then also, you know, if you go to YouTube and put in 1960s Harlem, some amateur filmmaker from the - you know, from back then has uploaded his reel of walking down 125th Street and - in '64 or '67. And for me, I look at all the signs in the background. I'm like, oh, OK, a hamburger was 35 cents. Or what kind of hat is that? And then I research what kind of clothes they're wearing.

And so when I compare the footage of just some guy walking around with his camera to what I see now and those tiny storefronts are now big box chains. It's Chuck E. Cheese, big Nike Store, Magic Johnson Theatres. The footprint of retail is quite different. And as in a lot of different places in the country, you can see in the background those painted signs, like, on the fifth floor of a building, you know, like, you know, Sammy's Shoe Store. And so if you look up at certain tall buildings, you can see that old sort of vanished New York in the same way you can see that old vintage Chicago or Seattle. But on a street level, it's, you know, that very shiny retail we have now. And so it's very stark when I'm walking around thinking of what Carney's going to do next and then there's a reality of 21st-century retail staring me in the face.

GROSS: Tell us about the Hotel Theresa and its place in Harlem.

WHITEHEAD: So a lot of - you know, a lot of the things in the book, I had no knowledge of. And so I'd walked past that building, you know, many times in my life. But I hit upon some references to the Hotel Theresa and its importance in Harlem culture in the '40s and '50s. So it was a whites-only hotel and then had to be desegregated because the neighborhood changed. And it became the place to stay. If you were Joe Louis or Billie Holiday or Cab Calloway, you would stay there if you were in town, be seen at the cocktail bar. You'd maybe keep an apartment upstairs. When a big band came to town, you know, they'd alert the media, and there'd be this big group of paparazzi, and all the folks from the neighborhood would come to see who was stepping off the bus.

And I read that and thought, that's a good place for a heist. You know, it just seemed - (laughter) it was such a holy place that it could be a site for some of the action in the book. And you know, I had to think of these different robbers' reactions. And so Miami Joe, who plans the heist at the Hotel Theresa, he's come from the South. He's a new arrival. People look down upon him. It's not necessarily 'cause he's from the South. I mean, he has a bad personality. But he takes it personally. And so robbing the Hotel Theresa would be, you know, sticking his finger in the eye of this Harlem elite who looks down upon him.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Colson Whitehead. His new novel is called "Harlem Shuffle." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF INCREDIBLE BONGO BAND'S "APACHE (GRANDMASTER FLASH MIX)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Colson Whitehead. His new novel, "Harlem Shuffle," is set in Harlem between 1959 and '64. It's a crime novel.

Mount Morris Park, which is now called Marcus Garvey Park, is a place where bodies are buried (laughter)...

WHITEHEAD: Yes.

GROSS: ...In the novel. Like, if you've killed somebody, that's the place to hide the body. And a lot of our listeners who aren't familiar with Harlem might know Mount Morris Park, now Marcus Garvey Park, from the Questlove documentary about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival because that festival was held in Mount Morris Park. So what do you know - I mean, was it really - is this part of, like, the park's lore? Or is it, like, really true...

WHITEHEAD: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...That bodies were buried there? What's the story?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. Not buried, but dumped - and so...

GROSS: Dumped, yes.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, yeah. So I went to newspapers for what's happening in the city. And, you know, starting with "Underground Railroad," primary sources are really just great for me to, you know, suck up slang and culture. So whether it was William Burroughs, who has a book called "Junkie" - and it's about being a junkie and small-time hustler in Harlem, all over Manhattan, in the '40s and '50s - giving me the language of the small-time white hustlers or the wife of Bumpy Johnson helping me out. Bumpy Johnson was a big Harlem mobster. I actually wanted to put him into the novel and wrote a scene or two of him in it, and then I realized that he was actually in Alcatraz, which is unfortunate, so I had to take him out.

But his wife, you know, to correct the record from all these lies about Bumpy Johnson, described the culture at the time, the criminal culture. And so that's how I learned about how numbers rackets worked and numbers banks versus no runners and stuff like that. And she talks about how if you beat someone up but didn't necessarily want them to die, you would drive past Harlem Hospital, dump them on the foot of the emergency room doors and keep driving. And if you killed them, you would dump them in Mount Morris. And basically, it seemed like so many people were dumping bodies there that you had to, like, take a number every Saturday night to find space to dump the person you killed.

GROSS: You wrote a novel called "Zone One" about a plague. And the people infected with the plague become zombies. And after this kind of plague and zombie apocalypse, the survivors have to kind of remake the world. Did you think about that a lot when COVID started? 'Cause it's a plague (laughter). And we're not turning into zombies, but, you know, we're certainly having our share of problems.

WHITEHEAD: It is a plague. And definitely, I was thinking about it in a very sort of depressing way, just being locked down and remembering this or that passage from the book. But mostly, I was sort of angry about the things I didn't get right. You know, the characters in the book are called sweepers, and they go door to door retrieving dead bodies and taking out the last of the zombies so that they can restart civilization. So I didn't realize how much toilet paper they would find when they went to these different folks' apartments. So...

GROSS: (Laughter) The hoarders.

WHITEHEAD: So the hoarders - yeah. So that was a failure of my imagination. And then secondly, I had no idea that people would say, oh, the zombie virus is just like the flu. It doesn't really matter. Or I'm not going to get the zombie vaccine, you know? The depths of the denial and psychosis around vaccines I couldn't foresee. So if I did it over again, definitely there would be people who would resist the zombie virus - the zombie vaccine and suffer the consequences, and - which would be unfortunate.

GROSS: I hope you've managed to stay well through the pandemic.

WHITEHEAD: Yes, very - you know, the early part of lockdown was, are we safe? Is everybody psychologically safe? And then how can we sustain a consistent Wi-Fi signal for the kids? And then how can I find an hour to work and finish off "Harlem Shuffle"? So, you know, I count myself as very lucky that we made it through the way we did.

GROSS: In one of our previous interviews, you told me that you almost saw yourself as a shut-in because you were always writing and reading (laughter).

WHITEHEAD: Yes (laughter). So, yes, on social media - so writers would say lockdown's not that different than, you know, the way things were before, you know, writers proud to have been training for lockdown life for decades and decades, which was true. But also, you know, some of my writer friends have younger kids, you know, 1-year-olds, and it was different sort of corralling them and finding the time to work. And so everyone had their own accommodation with the problem.

GROSS: You also told me that you had zombie dreams for about 30 years and - not constantly, but it was a theme of some of your dreams for 30 years. And at the time we spoke, which was a few years ago, you were having those dreams about once a year. Are you still having zombie dreams, and did COVID kind of make them more frequent or more crazy? Yeah.

WHITEHEAD: Yes, I was a big horror fan. And so I saw "Night Of The Living Dead" and "Dawn Of The Dead" very early. And depending on my psychological weather, I would have dreams where zombies catch me, they're slow, they're fast, they talk, I escape, I don't. And that really did end with writing "Zone One." They went from monthly to, like, to once a year. And they're still once a year. I mean, I have this thing where if I write about something, I definitely kind of exorcise it. And so - which is good in some ways, like zombie dreams. I wrote a piece about fried chicken last year and cooking fried chicken. It was very detailed. And then since then, I haven't been able to eat fried chicken. So the...

GROSS: That's too bad.

WHITEHEAD: ...The writing cure - sometimes good and sometimes bad. Can I tell you about this weird thing, Terry?

GROSS: Yeah.

WHITEHEAD: So, you know - so obviously, the FRESH AIR interview is revered around the world, and so whatever I say to you now becomes the template for other people's interviews for years and years. So whatever you ask me, you know, will come up. They'll steal the question, but also any tangent. And so, you know, if I'm like, oh, and then in the summers, I used to ride my bike and it was great, you know, three years from now in, like, Finland, some journalist will be like, Colson, tell me about the bike you had.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Really?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah, see, they just go through the transcript, and then they'll steal your questions and then - but they'll also steal, like, you know, stuff that just comes up in conversation. So I'm like, I haven't - what bike? What are you talking about? And then they'll, you know, they'll come clean. It's the first draft of history.

GROSS: (Laughter) Colson Whitehead, it's been really great to have you back on the show. And I want to say again, I really love your new book. So thank you.

WHITEHEAD: Thanks for having me. It was great.

GROSS: Colson Whitehead's new novel is called "Harlem Shuffle." After we take a short break, film critic Justin Chang will review "Blue Bayou" about a Korean-born man who was adopted by a Louisiana couple when he was 3 and has learned he may be deported. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHUCHO VALDES'S "OCHUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.