Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor draws on his childhood vacations on Long Island.
What place does Sag Harbor hold in your own life story?
I came from a family of renters. We moved every two or three years. The one stable place in my life was our family's house in Sag Harbor. We started going out there when I was born up until I went to college. So even though it's a summer home, it's more of a real home than any place I've ever lived.
Do you still go out in the summers?
I didn't for a long time. I think when you hit college, you're sort of like, “Oh, it's this bourgie rich place.” In the last five or six years, though, I started staying at my aunt's place for a couple weeks every summer.
Are the patterns in the novel—people leaving, being replaced, coming back—still happening?
I think so. Most of my friends don't come out there any more, but there are new people. So there's this constant circulation of people.
How is your protagonist Benji like you or not like you?
He's made up of a lot of tiny details that lead a character to play a certain role, so where I've drawn upon is my dorkiness and the facts of my upbringing. A lot of my life really isn't that interesting in terms of fiction.
Benji's sister is notable for her absence. Would you say there's another story going on outside the novel?
He is semi-aware of a lot of the emotional dynamics around him. But he doesn't really understand the adult world very well. I wanted the narrator to be someone who is older looking back, to have that perspective. So having this remove allows me to describe some of the dynamics of the book with a bit of a distance.
At the same time, though, you do anchor the book in a lot of pop culture references of the '80s.
I think most kids have a deep stake in their favorite movies or favorite bands. So he's very into hip-hop, and later hip-hop will change. It's sort of a very innocent time for the music and also an innocent time for him. There are points where I was trying to use pop culture to talk about his emotional life.
Did anything like the BB incident happen to you?
The one thing that's pretty much an incident from real life was the BB gun thing. That was just too stupid to embellish. You can't get dumber than a BB gun fight at dusk.