In the essay collection White Girls, New Yorker critic and famed provocateur Hilton Als analyzes “the white shadow” in American literature, art, and culture.

What unified all the “white girls” in the book?

Generally in American literature, there has always been, as Toni Morrison points out, the “black unfamiliar,” the “black shadow.” I thought I’d write something about the white shadow in American literature. The title came to me first. When I thought of those two words together, I thought of the places where that white girl had appeared, and I wrote the book’s first long section—a semi-fictionalized story of affection. That woman [the unnamed subject of the essay], who unfortunately died, was a significant person in my life. For a long time, she really did not see race at all. Even though she was primarily attracted to men of color, she would be horrified if you pointed that out. The book really begins and ends with her. I want it to be read as a whole, like Faulkner’s Go Down Moses—those seven stories that he called a novel.

You had to rewrite some previously published material for this book.

Yes, like the shorter [profiles]. Weirdly, I think I was writing about “Sir or Lady” [in the opening essay] and in the Richard Pryor piece and his relationship to Jennifer Lee, his widow. I saw how this character kept appearing, whether it was Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor not wanting to have lunch with James Baldwin. They had all used race as a significant thing, in their writing and their lives.

You admire Richard Pryor because he didn’t cater to white audiences.

He failed miserably when he tried to do that—when he tried to be Bill Cosby and when he tried to be in Vegas. It was when he became a writer that he became himself, when he went to San Francisco and holed up in the hotel room. That’s where he found his voice. One of the things that were touching when I talked to Lily Tomlin [Pryor’s collaborator on Lily, a TV special] is how much they identified with each other. There’s a lot of mirroring based on race here, like Truman Capote with white female writers, and Eminem’s mother with her son.

You went to the Performing Arts High School in New York City?

I was an actor for a little bit. That’s when I started to understand fiction—and that one of the great things about fiction is that you’re dependent on the characters as much as they’re dependent on you. I think that shows in this book.