When I got to college and started reading different kinds of fiction, I liked the equivalency I saw between the science fiction and horror I grew up adoring and the magic realism of Garcia Marquez, the absurdity of Beckett, the mythical landscapes of Borges. All these writers from the canon played with the fantastic as much as the genre writers I grew up inspired by.
I was very self-conscious as a 20-something. So, when the rejection slips began to arrive and accumulate, I started thinking about what else I might be able to do. My parents were of a generation that if you were an able-bodied black person, it was your duty to make something of yourself, uplift the race. The average book of literary fiction sells 5,000 copies—if you’re lucky. Assuming everyone who loves the book makes 10 other people read it, then the book has 50,000 readers. There are 7.5 billion people in the world. You’ve made an impact in the lives of .00000001 percent of the population. You’re a microbe on the butt of a gnat trying to catch the attention of an elephant. The population of Earth is very intimidating. But, you might naturally ask yourself next, what about life on other planets? Perhaps they have a taste for language, poetry, creative nonfiction, coming-of-age novels. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but scientists say only one in 100 million planets is capable of supporting life, and what’s the chance they would like your crap, anyway? They could be all about the haiku up there, some 5-7-5-based civilization, and then you’re out of luck.
I got very depressed thinking about this. Then it occurred to me: maybe it’s out of my hands. An artistic temperament must go back to the Neanderthals. There’s a Neanderthal who paused while beating in the skull of another Neanderthal from the next cave over, and he said to himself, “Hunting and gathering, is that all there is to this miserable life?” He was the first Neanderthal existentialist. And he found a female Neanderthal of melancholy temperament who liked to draw nonrepresentational doodles on the cave wall, and she was the first abstract artist. And they made a kid who didn’t like to hunt or gather but just tell stories all day. He found a suitable mate and so on throughout the centuries, spawning moody arty kids. In the 1600s, one villager says to another, “Hey, did you see that new puppet show last night?” The artistic villager says, “No. I don’t watch puppet shows. I don’t even own a puppet show set. I only listen to NPR.” And so on to the present day, that artistic DNA surviving. I realized, it didn’t matter if no one liked what I was doing. I had no choice.
When I first had the idea for The Underground Railroad, it was 19 years ago. I had come across a reference to the railroad, and I remembered how, when I was a kid, when I heard those words—“underground railroad”—they were so evocative that I thought it was a literal train beneath the earth, which is very impractical. We have seven miles of track in New York City, and we can barely keep that going; 3,000 miles beneath America is quite the task. But I wasn’t the only person who thought that, and my teacher explained how it actually worked. So I wondered: Wouldn’t it be a weird premise for a book to make this imaginary train, this metaphor, into a literal train? What kind of story could I get out of that? Then I added the element that each state our protagonist goes through is a different state of American possibility, like Gulliver’s Travels.
People ask me, “Why not tell a realistic story? Why make the metaphor into a literal train?” Because that’s the fanciful genesis of the book: what if ? It’s fantastic from its very conception, and if I’d stuck to realism, I couldn’t have the play with history that I think makes the story compelling. In the North Carolina section of the book, for example, I mention the writer Harriet Jacobs, who hid in an attic for seven years before getting passage to the North. You think, “hiding in an attic,” you think, “Anne Frank.” How can I take this story, which is partially about the oppression of black people, and bring in the oppression of Jewish people? The Nazis took their ideas about racial purity and eugenics from 19th-century American scientists. They got their idea of controlling the Jewish population from lynching culture and Jim Crow laws that restricted black movement. They took all the terrible ideas that Americans came up with in the 19th century to control black people and then used them to control and destroy the Jews in the 20th century. If I’d stuck to a realistic story, I couldn’t have that sort of play with history that makes the book interesting.
People also ask why I decided to make the protagonist a woman. I always try to do different things, and I’d never done that in fiction before. Another reason is that, when I was reading slave narratives, one that stayed with me, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was written by Harriet Jacobs, the woman who ran away from her master and hid in an attic. Jacobs writes very movingly about the dilemma of the female slave. When a slave girl becomes a slave woman, she enters into a new, more terrible form of slavery. She’s now subject to her master’s sexual desires, if she wasn’t already. She’s also supposed to pump out babies, because more babies mean more property, more slaves for her owner. It’s just a different predicament than the male slaves faced, and it seemed worthy of taking up. Is it hard to have a female protagonist? Yes. It’s always hard. If it’s going too easily, you’re probably not putting the work in. My protagonists have bits of me in them. Cora, in The Underground Railroad, has the least amount of my personality in her, which is probably why people like this book more than my others.
Finally, folks want to know if I am concerned that some people will be confused about what’s real and what’s fake. You know, “Fake news! Fake news!” They say, “Aren’t you worried that people could be confused? Don’t you have a responsibility to the reader?” The answer is no. I have no responsibility to the reader. I trust the reader knows the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Fiction, for example, is made up. Nonfiction is true. That’s one difference. The cover says, The Underground Railroad: A Novel. That’s a tip-off that some fictional stuff is going on. Another tip-off is that, on page 78, there’s a literal train beneath the earth for a thousand miles. But I understand that fake news has become a big part of our lives, and there could be terrible, sometimes lethal, consequences. Every year, we lose a couple of people, who are killed because they step into a tornado thinking it will take them to the Wizard of Oz, and that’s very tragic. But in general, I think people can keep up.