Sitting Next to a Famous Author in Class

Humanities6 MIN READ

Colson Whitehead shares insights about writing with the College community

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead talks with a fan while signing books after an event at the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts.
By Abigail Curtis Photography by Gabe Souza
March 8, 2024

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead shared wide-ranging, often hilarious stories about writing and his life with a rapt audience this week at the Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts. 

“I always like it when you read a biography of someone like James Joyce and it says he was a sickly child and forced to retreat into a world of imagination. It always sounds so wonderful to me,” Whitehead joked about his childhood. “Instead, I just didn’t like going outside. Other kids left their houses, did sports, played in the great outdoors. I liked to hang around my living room watching The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.” 

Whitehead, who also received the MacArthur Fellowship in 2002, colloquially called the “genius grant,” came to the College as this year’s Kristina Stahl Writer-in-Residence. The annual program brings a nationally recognized prose or poet to Colby to visit classes, lecture on craft, give a reading, and meet with creative writing students. 

He’s only the fourth writer to win two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction, the first for The Underground Railroad, which also won the National Book Award, and the second for The Nickel Boys, set in a fictionalized version of the Dozier School for Boys, a Florida reform school that was notorious for abusing children for more than a century. 

One of the nation’s most important novelists, Whitehead was funny and candid as he spoke to the students and others who attended his Tuesday evening reading. 

The audience laughs while listening to author Colson Whitehead give a wide-ranging talk and reading.

“When I began writing 20 years ago, I sometimes got anxious about whether something I was putting down on the page would make sense to other people. A description of a place, or an emotion, or a way of looking at something,” he said. “I’m such a weirdo, frankly, that it seemed unlikely that other people could relate to what I was talking about. But of course, that’s the writer’s job: to find the right words so that other people will see things the same way you do.” 

An alumna long-remembered

Finding those words is something the author has a gift for doing, said Cedric Bryant, Lee Family Professor of English, who is teaching a course on Whitehead this semester. It is Bryant’s last semester teaching at Colby before his retirement, and it felt significant to have Whitehead come to the College and spend time with the students who are reading five of his 11 books right now. 

In addition to the reading, Whitehead attended Bryant’s class on Wednesday and returned to the Gordon Center for a question-and-answer session that evening. 

“In my view, it should be something that becomes standard practice, that when we invite distinguished people, we try to put them together with students in as many ways as possible,” Bryant said. 

Colson Whitehead spent time on campus with students this week along with giving a reading and participating in a question-and-answer event.

During his introduction to Whitehead, the professor also shared some appreciative words about the alumna for whom the writer-in-residence series is named. Kristina Stahl ’99 was an English major, a women’s studies minor, and a star athlete who played lacrosse and soccer. At Colby, Stahl, who died in 2002, loved frequent interactions and seminars with authors and all genres of writing. 

“It has been almost 30 years since Kristina Stahl was a student in my African-American literature course in the fall of 1996,” Bryant said. “But memory recalls her passion for social justice and racial justice clearly. The most precocious students over 35 years of teaching at Colby are not easily forgotten.”  

A writing life

For Whitehead, writing sounded like the perfect career for a kid who loved reading comic books and science fiction and adored Stephen King. 

“It seemed when I was in seventh or eighth grade that being a writer could be a great job,” he said during the reading. “You could work from home. You didn’t have to wear clothes or talk to people, and you could just make up stuff all day.” 

As with the best kind of fiction, however, Whitehead’s trajectory was not quite that simple, and his works are not, either. He has become a singular literary voice who writes across genres and whose stories span centuries of American history. So far, they’ve included detective fiction, science fiction, allegory, neo-slave narrative, historical fiction, and more. He’s currently working on both a science fiction work set in the Star Wars universe and a love story set on the eve of the Russian Revolution.  

“There are a lot of white people in it, so for research, I’m watching reruns of The Golden Girls,” he said as the audience guffawed appreciatively.

Colson Whitehead signs a copy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Nickel Boys after giving a reading on campus.

No matter the genre, Whitehead’s works showcase his imaginative powers, dazzling skills as a wordsmith, and commitment to finding a way to show people events and realities that can be hard to see. His inspirations come from all kinds of places: dreams, Twitter (now X), a 1990s report on NBC’s Dateline about an escalator inspector, or the way that as a child the phrase “Underground Railroad” made him think there was a real train running beneath the ground. 

“If you can find the right combination of words, maybe thousands and thousands of people can see it the way you see it,” he said. 

A meaningful visit to Mayflower Hill

Alayna Blier ’26, an English major who is taking Bryant’s course, said that meeting and listening to the author this week was inspirational. 

“Meeting such a famous author reminded me that he’s just another person with an inner life of his own, who happens to be a very talented writer,” she said. 

Blier described Whitehead’s reading Tuesday night as “very real and relatable,” and said she felt even more connected to the books she’s reading in class because of the experience of meeting him. 

“It is so cool that Colson Whitehead has acknowledged and attended the class that studies him and appreciates how we are appreciating his talent,” she said. “I am endlessly grateful for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I will definitely be bragging about sitting next to a famous author in a class about him for years to come.”