Pulitzer Prize Winner Colson Whitehead Speaks At Drew

October 19, 2018

On Wednesday, Oct. 10, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead came to Drew University to speak as part of the Drew Forum Lecture Series.

Whitehead has authored six books, spanning a wide array of genres, including his 2001 zombie novel, “Zone One,” and his 2009 coming-of-age story, “Sag Harbor.”


A Manhattan-born New York native, Whitehead began his lecture by recounting his childhood as an indoor kid, who preferred watching the popular TV series “The Twilight Zone” or reading comic books instead of going outside. He jokingly compared his upbringing to that of author James Joyce, saying, “I wish I had grown up a sickly child, but sadly things didn’t work out that way.”


According to Whitehead, he first got his interest in writing when reading Stephen King novels in middle school. As he put it, “In seventh grade, being a writer seemed like a great gig.” He continued, “You get to work from home, and you don’t have to wear clothes or talk to people, and you can just make up stuff all day.”


Though he had an early interest, Whitehead didn’t begin writing until his junior year at Harvard University, when he decided to apply to two writing workshop classes, both of which he was declined entry to. Whitehead joked to the crowd of 300 that while those experiences were depressing at the time, in hindsight, “It was good training for being a writer, because when you are a writer, everyone hates you and no one wants to read your stuff, so if you internalize that hatred early, you will be prepared for the real world.” It wasn’t until 1991 when Whitehead says he got his break while working as a writing apprentice for the since closed down Manhattan-based paper, “The Village Voice.”


Whitehead concluded the lecture by talking about his  2016 New York Times best-seller, “The Underground Railroad,” a novel about a runaway slave set in an alternate history where  “Underground Railroad” is the literal meaning of the phrase.“I remembered when I was little, when I first heard those words, they were so evocative, and I imagined it being a real train until my teacher explained how it really worked,” he said. “Though sadly people grow up and they still think it’s an actual train.”


“I really liked the lecture,” said Sydney Quinn (‘21), a student in attendance. “He is a very down to earth guy and I really like that he isn’t afraid to write in whatever genre he feels.”

Whitehead was the second speaker in this year’s edition of the Drew University Forum Lecture Series following September’s lecture hosted by MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. The series will continue in the spring with yet to be announced guests.


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