In Winters’s Underground Airlines, a black bounty hunter named Victor pursues runaway slaves in an alternate contemporary America where slavery remains legal in four states.
What was your intent in writing an alternate history in which Lincoln was killed in 1861, the Civil War was never fought, and slavery abides?
I wanted to create a dystopian vision of America, of racism in America, that’s harrowing and sorrowful but also in some ways distressingly recognizable. Rewriting American history was an exciting narrative challenge, but I tried to make sure the backstory remains backstory. I didn’t want the puzzle-making and the cleverness to overwhelm the moral center of the novel, which is Victor and his particular struggle.
Did Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man influence the characterization of Victor?
I don’t think it was intended per se, but several early readers have seen a connection between Underground Airlines and Invisible Man, which is thrilling to me. That was one of several classics of African-American literature I read or reread while getting going, and it’s such a mesmerizing and idiosyncratic and beautiful book. So yeah, you can probably feel the influence of Ellison’s hero on Victor’s identity crisis, on his pain and alienation. Victor is, like Ellison’s protagonist, a shape-shifter. My guy does what he does for a living because he’s an undercover operative, but also for the same reason the Invisible Man does: to survive in a world that insists on his inferiority and subjugation.
Did you worry that you as a white person might be criticized for taking on this theme?
My anxiety about being a white guy writing a slavery novel was probably worst early in the process, when I had the idea and the ambition but not yet the character or a deep understanding of my story. I wondered, “Is the legacy of slavery appropriate narrative territory for me?” At this point, I think the answer is yes. Surely, it can’t be right to consign the topics of race and racism only to black authors.
In one bold speculative leap, you have government officials using a skin color index for African-Americans to help ID escaped slaves.
Textural details are part of what makes a novel like this satisfying to write, and hopefully to read. A concept like the federal government using a pigment-based identification system may be shocking or upsetting, but nevertheless it resonates with our real world, in which a person’s appearance can very much affect the way he or she is treated by law enforcement.
Was Octavia Butler’s SF novel Kindred an influence?
Anyone who has read that book (and everybody should) will see how indebted I am to her use of a high-concept narrative device as a way to think about race and the legacy of slavery.