Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle (Doubleday, Sept.) follows a furniture salesman with one foot in the criminal world.
Ray Carney owns a furniture store and is a genius at assessing value in furniture. You somehow make all of this mesmerizing. How did you settle on used furniture?
In an illegal enterprise, a “front” is very helpful. In The Intuitionist and John Henry Days, I sort of have a thing for weird, esoteric jobs. I try to figure out ways to build them up and make them interesting, and so I think the sheer randomness of Ray Carney owning a furniture store appealed to me.
Did you feel a thrill when you were creating the villain Miami Joe?
Compared to the villains in The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, Miami Joe’s pretty small potatoes. Coming down from those other books, it was a relief to have normal-size villains. I think all the supporting cast was really fun to come up with: their language, their idiosyncrasies.
In the last three books, you use tight third-person limited narrators. What does that approach give you as a storyteller?
I think a first-person narrator is appropriate when it serves a story. Sag Harbor is first-person; having access to that narrator’s thoughts takes the place of a really tight plot. In The Underground Railroad, the book would be very different if limited to Cora’s point of view. In Harlem Shuffle, the book really told me to stick with Carney.
You recreate civil rights–era Harlem as vividly and meticulously as Joyce does with turn-of-the-century Dublin. Was there a challenge for you when researching 1950s and ’60s Harlem?
I found going to the archives of the Amsterdam News or the New York Times was always helpful—a lot of newspaper research was great for this book. Also, looking at materials from the 1961 mayoral campaign. And, because of Carney’s job, furniture ads and the language of advertising. A lot of the language in the book is drawn from real ads. On one page of a newspaper you’ll find an article about the 1964 Riots, and on the facing page is an ad for a furniture store.
Your fiction has turned to the past to address many of the questions we face in our present. Do you see your novels as belonging to a larger project?
Yeah, I don’t really want to articulate it. Apart from the common themes of American history and race and the city. Pop culture. Technology. If I step back I can probably see the design, but I’d really rather just focus on the next book.