Ben Winters’ unsettling new novel, Underground Airlines, takes place in an an alternative United States where the Civil War never occurred and slavery still exists in four states. The book centers around Victor, a former enslaved person who took a job as a Federal bounty hunter in exchange for his freedom. Tasked with tracking down a recently escaped slave known only as Jackdaw, Victor travels to Indianapolis in order to insinuate himself into the the local chapter of the Underground Airlines. the abolitionist movement. Yet as he untangles Jackdaw’s flight to freedom, Victor realizes that none of the people around him—from Jackdaw to Victor’s enigmatic boss—are what they seem. NPR dubbed Underground Airlines “indisputably a winner” and Ann Patchett praised it in Time, noting that it “kept me up at night and changed the way I saw the world once I was finished.” Ben Winters spoke to Brendan Dowling via e-mail on August 16th. Photo credit: Nicola Goode.
Public Libraries Online: Your novel follows in the tradition of works by Octavia Butler and Philip K. Dick, where you use genre fiction to tackle very serious issue. How does using the tropes of science fiction and mystery help you engage with such a provocative topic?
Ben Winters: Thanks for the comparisons; both of those authors were big influences on this book. (And I’ll give you a fun fact, which is that the “K” in Philip K. Dick stands for “Kindred,” which is also the title of one of Octavia Butler’s most famous novels. Coincidence? Yes, probably, but still.) The tropes of science-fiction are incredibly valuable tools for engaging with real politics, real social issues, and real emotional/interpersonal issues, as everybody from Isaac Asimov to the Star Trek writing staff can attest. Mystery fiction is seen less as a tool of social or political commentary, because without aliens and mind melds and so on you don’t have allegory—you only have real-life stories of real-life crime and crime solvers that touch on or get wrapped up in larger issues. But there are plenty of examples of important mysteries that get deep in issues of (for example) race relations, like one of my favorites, Richard Price’s Clockers.
PL: Part of what makes the novel come alive is all the little details that make up this dystopian society, like the enslaved people (and their supporters) wearing tattoos. What went into the world-building of your novel?
BW: What went into it was a lot of reading. I wanted to know as much as I could about how slavery functioned, not just as an interpersonal system (slave and master) but as an economic and political system (the plantation and the state, the enslaved person and the law). You can look at a quick look at some of the things I read here, although since I wrote that I keep remembering more things I read while I was writing this book. Like a book called Escape from Camp 14, about the North Korean gulags, and Slavery and Social Death, by Orlando Patterson, which is this massive, encyclopedic study of slavery through history. I read constantly when I’m writing, in search of new facts and new information, new pieces of detail that I can thread into the thing. Actually, at some point in writing this, I don’t remember when, I hired a research assistant to find out all that she could about how cotton clothing is made—all the steps in that process. She submitted it to me a few days later, like a report, and I just went through it in search of interesting and useful details.
PL: Your Last Policeman Books centered on a meteor making its way to earth, and here you have a version of the US where slavery is still the law. What intrigues you about exploring the world as it doesn’t exist?
BW: I like to look at the world as it does not exist, except that it does exist: in The Last Policeman, everybody is going to die sometime soon, I’ve just broadened (or narrowed, I should say) the definition of “soon.” In Underground Airlines, the characters live in an unequal world defined by brutal, repressive attitudes toward people with dark skin—and sadly, so do we. I started writing this book after Trayvon Martin was killed; when I was working on it, Michael Brown died on the street in Ferguson and Tamir Rice was shot holding a toy gun; the week this novel came out Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed in separate incidents on opposite sides of the country. These incidents are a continual terrible reminder that we still live with attitudes and institutions shaped by our nation’s long opening chapter as a slave state. We also live (as the characters in the book do) with a willful blindness towards a whole range of injustices from which we indirectly benefit—who is making your iPhone screen? Who is sewing your clothes? Where were your tomatoes picked and by whom?
PL: Victor is adept at changing his personality and he plays a variety of roles depending on who he is talking to, even to the reader. What was the challenge of writing a narrator who is constantly shifting his identity?
BW: It was a challenge but it was also a pleasure. Writing someone who is always changing who he is means I, as the writer, get to try on a lot of voices, try out a lot of strategies. It’s a challenge related to that Patricia Highsmith had in The Talented Mr. Ripley, or that John Le Carre had in his great undercover novels, or that Ralph Ellison had in The Invisible Man. I became intrigued by the notion of code-switching, a subtle recalibration of tone or diction undertaken by some African-Americans when moving between different conversations. Thinking of that code-switching as a kind of undercover work, a constant challenge, was one of the sparks that got me going on this character. (You should talk to the audiobook reader, William Demeritt, about that—he handles Victor’s voice(s) beautifully in his work).
PL: You’ve talked about how reading influences each of your novels, and how what you read funnels into what you’re working on. What authors were influential to you during the writing of this novel?
BW: I think I covered my influences a bit above, but I’ll double down on Octavia Butler’s Kindred (especially because after the Times profile of me didn’t mention her, the internet decided that I didn’t know who she was), on Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union (another alternate-universe detective novel) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I think I’ve said this somewhere else, but for me, Beloved is the great American novel. It is so sad, so hard to read, and yet it shimmers with empathy and grace.
PL: What are you working on next?
BW: I am writing a kind of weird magical legal thriller about human identity and the way we are changed by the passage of time. I think it is called The Prisoner, although just this morning I decided it might have a new title. It’s early days! I’ve got a couple TV/film projects in the works, too, including (hopefully, fingers crossed, hold your breath) The Last Policeman.