Sag Harbor: Colson Whitehead Answers Your Questions

Colson Whitehead, author of the club’s July read, answers questions that ranged from why he paced the book as he did to why he went the semiautobiographical route to what sort of adult life he envisioned for the book’s main character.

Q. Why were the kids left so unsupervised? Do you think it was a different time back then?

A. I think the book describes a situation of neglect, wouldn’t you say? It was a different time, but it wasn’t quite normal then. Nowadays it’s safe to say Children’s Services would have been brought in, or at least Jerry Springer.

Q. Some readers weren’t used to the pacing of the story, that there aren’t really obvious plot points. What was your reasoning behind that?

A. I wanted to be true to the essence of summer. Have you been chased by a giant shark? Chased by the KKK? Found a dead body in the woods? Me neither. I didn’t want to inject artificial melodrama into the proceedings; I think the average summer contains enough conflict and drama, if you look for it.

Q. So after having written your previous novels (such as The Intuitionist, which is, very briefly, about an elevator inspector), why did you decide to do a semiautobiographical novel now?

A. I’m older. I’d avoided drawing directly from my experience, and it seemed time. If it seems hard, that’s probably the thing you should be doing.

Q. Do you still go to Sag Harbor? Did you ever stop? If so, what made you return?

A. My parents moved out there full time in 1990, so I went out to visit them, but I didn’t start spending parts of my summer there until 7 years ago. I had settled down, and the mellow atmosphere appealed; I’d spent my 20s running around New York City, but those days were over.

Q. How would you describe Benji now?

A. I can’t—he doesn’t exist. I think from his voice, he’s gained a little more confidence over the years, and some perspective. That’s safe to say!

Q. How does the author envision Ben’s life after those years? Did he keep going back to Sag Harbor? Did he inherit his parents’ house and keep it in the family?

A. What do you think? You know as much about him as I do now! Thanks for reading.