Colson Whitehead on Historical Heists | #computerhacking | #hacking


Your story “The Theresa Job” is set in Harlem in 1959, and it revolves around a holdup at a ritzy hotel. How did the idea for the heist come to you?

Photograph by Russell Hart / Alamy

I was staring off into space and thinking about how much I like heist films and how much fun it would be to write a heist. I always hate the moment when our crook-heroes have gone to all the trouble of pulling off the job and then it comes time to unload the goods on a fence, who looks at the $2 million in gems and says, “I’ll give you ten cents on the dollar.” It’s infuriating! I hate the fence, so it seemed obvious that I should make the Reluctant Fence my protagonist.

You recount the job in minute-by-minute detail. Did you research similar crimes from that era or is this pure invention?

The “tick-tock” element is inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s classic “The Killing,” which features a dispassionate, omniscient narrator who counts down the heist and the robbers’ doomed fates. Pop culture provides familiar structural elements for a bank robbery (deactivate the alarm, subdue the patrons and the staff, attack the vault), but I couldn’t think of any hotel ripoffs. The New York Times archive led me to the 1972 Hotel Pierre robbery, which suited my purposes. Newspaper articles and Daniel Simone’s nonfiction account “The Pierre Hotel Affair”—written with Nick (the Cat) Sacco, one of the crooks—provided the logistics of that twenty-eight-million-dollar heist. How do you know which boxes to hit and how do you spring them open?

The story is adapted from your novel, “Harlem Shuffle,” which comes out in September. Is it strange for you to see this piece of the larger plot standing on its own?

No. It’s a strange world, generally.

The framing of the story involves two cousins: Carney, who’s trying to make it as an upstanding citizen with his own furniture store, and Freddie, who is becoming more and more involved in the criminal underworld. Carney is sucked into the heist by Freddie, who has pulled him into other illegal schemes in the past. Carney resists, but then he always gives in. What is it that makes him so susceptible?

You know—the divided self, the compartmentalized self, the fractured self, whatever you want to call it. There’s a you with family, a you at work, a you with friends, a you when you’re alone. Same with Carney. There are a few capers in “Harlem Shuffle” besides the heist that opens the novel, and each dismantles in some way the walls that separate Carney’s different selves.

The novel follows these two cousins through five years, from 1959 to 1964. What drew you to this setting and time period?

It knew it would be the fifties or sixties because I wanted the crimes to be low-tech affairs, before electromagnetic pulse machines and computer hacking and laser-guided acetylene torches. My initial idea was to have a heist unfold against the background of a city calamity—blackout, riot, police strike. I picked the ’64 riot in Harlem, but kept coming up with more capers for Carney to get embroiled in, and eventually decided to work on a bigger canvas. The book’s set in New York because when I had the idea I was about to start writing “The Underground Railroad” and figured that when I was done I’d want to get my New York on again.

You started working on “Harlem Shuffle” before writing your last novel, “The Nickel Boys.” Why did you put it aside, and then why did you go back to it?

In the spring of ’17, when I was ready to get back to work after the publication of “The Underground Railroad,” I had two workable ideas for books. I’d been taking notes for “Harlem Shuffle” here and there, and I’d plotted out “The Nickel Boys.” I usually mix it up between heavier books and lighter books, so “Shuffle” seemed like the obvious choice after a book about slavery. . . . But our country was so fucked up—or, rather, had entered in a new phase of fuckedupness—that it made sense to tackle “The Nickel Boys,” as a way of working through my feelings about where America was headed (down the toilet). When I returned to “Harlem Shuffle” I found I had more notes than I remembered, so I was totally psyched.

Quite a few of your novels are set in the past and draw on real historical events (albeit in a reimagined way). What’s, for you, the appeal of writing historical fiction?

At the moment, I’m writing novels set in the past because I don’t have anything interesting to say about the present, so I should shut up. A bunch of my early novels—“John Henry Days,” “Apex Hides the Hurt,” “Zone One”—take place in contemporary America, and I’ve said my piece for now. If something else occurs to me about How We Live Now, I’ll get cracking. When “The Nickel Boys,” or another one of my books that’s set in the past, ends up commenting on our current situation—with regards to police brutality or institutional racism—it’s because so little has changed, the past is never past, wheel in the geriatric Faulkner cliché, etc., etc. I say “set in the past,” because to me “historical” means that Napoleon or a member of the inbred British monarchy shows up at some point.



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