Ben H. Winters’s new novel Underground Airlines is the product of seasoned storytelling skills and thoughtful reflection. As the writer of several musicals, a novel about bed bugs, and two parody novels (including a New York Times Bestseller), Winters evolved his clever and witty writing style to include more serious themes with The Last Policeman trilogy, his award-winning science fiction detective novels. Underground Airlines promises this same combination, but elevated to greater heights.
In this work of speculative fiction, we find the timeless struggle for human equality illustrated in such a way that provokes reflection on both the past and the present. Enter an alarming version of present-day America in which the Civil War never happened and slavery still exists. With such a masterful balance between thematic depth and narrative tension, explored through his provocative narrator, Victor, it’s no wonder the New York Times has named Underground Airlines as one of the twelve must-reads of the summer.
The Rumpus: I’m intrigued by your broad writing repertoire. For example, you created two parody novels, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina. You’ve also written a series of books containing scary poems for children and an off-Broadway musical. More recently, you wrote the mystery trilogy, The Last Policeman, and finally, Underground Airlines.
Ben H. Winters: Yes, it is a broad repertoire, but it is also kind of a winding career path. I think that many authors have somewhat of a complicated background until they arrive at “the thing that will be their thing,” for lack of better phrasing. You know, some authors will get an MFA, publish a novel and then that’s it. But I think I had a somewhat non-traditional path and my first opportunities, in the good luck way of the world, were somewhat random.
But I reached a certain point when I finished The Last Policeman novel. It was my first work of mystery fiction, and I think that, while I am proud of most of the writing I have done, in a way I see The Last Policeman as the start of my real career. That’s because, with that book, I discovered what I really want to do—which is mystery and suspense fiction—and that I want to do it in in a broadly-defined way. I want to do lots of different kinds of mystery and suspense, but I also want to use the genre to tell interesting and thematically rich stories. So, The Last Policeman and its two sequels, and now, Underground Airlines, reflect where I feel like I am formally going with my work.
Rumpus: When you look at The Last Policeman trilogy and then Underground Airlines, what does your most recent novel get at, in terms of themes and social commentary, that reflects your journey as a person and as an artist?
Winters: If I were to trace my evolution as an artist, I think that I definitely started out assuming that I was more of a comedic kind of writer. That I was more like a goofy, zany, jokester of an artist. I did stand-up comedy, and wrote a couple of zany novels for kids.
Originally The Last Policeman book—it was never going to be funny, but the idea was very plot-driven. I thought, here’s this cool idea for a detective novel that we’ve never seen before. In this sci-fi-detective sort of mashup, the world is going to end! How clever!
But I think that as I was writing it, I very quickly realized that this sort of thematic idea, whether I had intended it this way or not, was there. I realized, this novel is about death. It’s about the fact that we are all going to die one day, so how do you forge your life given that fact?
And I was like—whoa! That’s cool and that’s interesting. And I think stumbling upon that idea slowed me down a little bit and made me into a more reflective and contemplative kind of writer. And I guess it inspired me to not be so worried about things like jokes and plot twists. Because those things will take care of themselves. I realized that I’ve had the interest—and hopefully the ability—to mine a richer layer in my storytelling. And I think I brought that new interest and excitement in me for more serious and meaningful ideas with me as I began writing Underground Airlines. As a hopefully thoughtful and attentive American, I also felt that the persistent racial inequality we’re dealing with is the most important thing for us as a country to be thinking about and trying to make better. You can’t even keep up with the cell phone footage of people being shot with their backs turned. And that’s, of course, the tip of the iceberg. There’s still the area of housing, and education; its everywhere.
So I think that what I was seeing in my world as a person—as an artist, as an American, as someone who gives a shit—combined with my new excitement to use my chops (for lack of a non-cheesy word) as a detective writer, and caused me to look into the world a little bit. Those two things came together in Underground Airlines.
Rumpus: This book looks at racism from a fresh angle. As I read it, I noticed that there was more allusion to slavery’s history than racism’s present in the book. Was that a purposeful choice on your part?
Winters: Well, I think the big choice I made was to set the novel in the north—to set the book (for the most part) outside of where slavery is actually happening. For us now, in real life, a lot of people would prefer to think about slavery as something that is happening sort of long ago and far away. It’s a consoling idea for us as Americans living in 2016 to think, “Well, slavery was a couple hundred years ago!”
And what goes along with that is a certain amount of an attitude that says, “Oh c’mon, ‘Black Lives Matter!’ What are you complaining about? People living in public housing need to just pick themselves up by their bootstraps, et cetera.” All of that stems from a purposeful amnesia of the history of this country, and how African Americans actually came here. We forget the conditions—not only in slavery—but after slavery, when there was this purposeful locking out of African Americans from economic opportunity. Or we forget today’s incarceration rates, and educational and housing discrimination; all of these things. We pretend that everything that has happened happened long ago, and then we act as if we all now just treat each other equally, everything will be fine.
So I think that, by analogy, in the book, the characters who live in the north, where there is no slavery, allow themselves to think that they’re not part of it and that it is far away because its in another part of the country. I guess the idea is that we need to rethink the extent to which this needs to be part of the conversation of the world we are in, because it is a part of the world we are in.
Rumpus: In the book, one of the slave owners insists, “I never did anything to harm any Negro person.” The takeaway from that phrase in its context is huge. There are so many issues in our society, in the real world, where those of us who are able to can choose a kind of detached attitude—from the neglect of the rights of people of different ethnicities in our society, right down to the way our whole economy works. That detachment applies to so many things, and you can find it throughout the book.
Winters: It is really something, the extent to which we allow ourselves to live without thinking of things that we know, in the abstract, are bad, and are going on right now, somewhere far away. We think, “Well, what are you gonna do?” In a way, that little instinct, that “What are you gonna do?” is the most dangerous thing in the world.
As you can imagine, I read a lot of books researching this novel. I discovered that same attitude was prevalent. During the years of slavery there were a lot of people in the free states who were like, “Oh yeah, it’s terrible what’s going on down there. But what are you gonna do?” They’d say, “I’m not doing it. I’m not profiting from it.” And many people in the south didn’t own slaves, but nevertheless profited from the practice. As did many people in the north. In fact, I read a great book called Complicity written about how New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island built their economies on slavery in ways that have never really been talked about. Like the ship building industry or the early days of Wall Street.
There is no shortage of ways that people profit indirectly from the misery and cruelty in other places. Even now, the shirts we wear and the tomatoes we eat. There are unfortunately unfair and inhumane conditions—including literal slavery—all over the world. Like sex trafficking. As I first started working on this, my wife brought an article in the Indianapolis Star to my attention. It was about a group of women from Thailand who were being prostituted in a truck stop in central Indiana. They literally didn’t even know where they were. Stuff goes on all the time that’s just easier not to think about.
And I think that became for me one of the ideas that’s present in the book. That, God, how easy it can be to close our eyes to problems! And for those of us who are white people in America now—even those of us who are progressive or liberal, who consider ourselves to be anti-racist, to go, “Well hope those ‘Black Lives Matter’ folks can figure that out.”
Surely it isn’t the responsibility of African Americans to end racism against African Americans, as if they are the perpetrators instead of the victims. The question, “Why am I writing this book as a white person?” is one of the things that I’ve been anxious about, and remain anxious about. I wonder, “Is that okay?” And I expect that that there might be some people that will think that. But then, it would also be unfortunate, perhaps, if issues about slavery and racism, and books about discrimination and history and inequality, would only be written by black authors, and somehow should be shelved in the “black interest” section of the bookstore. As if it is the responsibility of the African American community of artists and authors to deal with and think about this, process it, and to heal it. As opposed to it being the responsibility of all of us. Or even primarily those of us who aren’t black, to deal with it, process it and heal it. You know what I mean?
Rumpus: I’ve never heard it put that way before. That is a very important difference.
Winters: I read an interview with Chris Rock from a year ago. He said something about how, when President Obama was elected, people were saying, “It’s so great for the blacks, that they’ve come so far.” But he argued that, it’s not the black people that have come so far, it’s the white people who have come so far. A black person could have been president 200 years ago. There were plenty of African Americans who could have been president. What changed is that finally there were enough white people willing to vote for one. And that was a really interesting and important point. The journey toward a more equal and just country has not just—or even primarily—been African Americans who have made the journey. It’s been all of us.
Rumpus: Your main character, Victor, has a lot of depth, starting with his self-awareness. What inspired this very insightful characterization?
Winters: Thank you. Boy, it took awhile to get to Victor. You know the initial inspiration for this story came as I was contemplating the terrible incidents that keep on happening, particularly with the shootings of black men and women by the police, beginning with Trayvon Martin in 2012. With those stories turning over in my mind, I started to read a lot about the history of institutional racism in America and where it comes from. You know, the lineage of it. It isn’t like the racism of today is disconnected from a certain origin story. We—in this generation—are the inheritors of a legacy of slavery.
So the initial idea for the book was, what if we take this metaphorical idea that, in a way, slavery is still with us—and make it literal? And present the world that way. But, having done that, I never just wanted the book to be a clever conceit. It had to be driven by my character. If it was going to be meaningful to me and to the reader, and was going to be a page turner on a meaningful level, then it had to be driven by my character.
So it took me a while to realize that the lead character had to be someone who, at least initially, was deeply compromised. One who was both a victim of institutional racism, and who also had the potential to be heroic. So I think all of those things were sort of turning in my mind as I realized where the crux of the storytelling could be. And at some point I thought that, from a plot perspective, the fugitive slave law was really interesting. It allows for a sort of cat and mouse game. The bounty hunter thing. And somehow those defined strands came together.
Victor was a tough character to write on a certain level, because I guess its hard to imagine someone who’s more different than me! But my process of inventing him, and trying to understand him, and give him voice required a lot of empathy. And I hope what this book has within it is a lot of empathy, because it is really a struggle to understand what it is like for him, and also by extension anyone who is dealing with day to day racism and structural racism, and what it means to be black. Or what it means to experience anti-black racism. It became a process for me of crafting a novel and sort of living in a world that I, as an American, and as a white male, don’t have to engage with if I don’t want to. And so, I know that that’s a long answer to your question, but living in that world is sort of where this characterization came from.
Rumpus: Through Victor, I saw this too as a book about personal redemption.
Winters: Yes. I don’t think its much of a spoiler to say that my character is deeply morally compromised. Essentially, he doesn’t feel that he has a choice but to keep on doing the wickedness to which he has been consigned and to continue along his dark path. And the book, if you put aside everything else that it is about, it is the story of this one man’s kind of awakening to the possibility of living with integrity. That’s kind of the classic literary story: he’s on a journey, and we want to route for him and see him get better. He is damaged, hurt and sad, and as readers, we hopefully long for his healing.
Rumpus: Victor’s redemptive process includes facing a struggle we discussed earlier. He seems to routinely decide, “Well, I could help this person, but since we are all screwed anyway, I might as well just help myself. I don’t know if the agency that I do have will make a difference.” Basically, his attitude is, as you described it, “what are you gonna do?” It comes back around.
Winters: Yeah, and in Victor’s world, where there is slavery, and where some people are slaves, some people are freed slaves, some people are runaway slaves, and some people are “neutral”—it’s like it is in any oppressive regime. Ultimately everyone has to choose whether they are going to put their head down and go along with everything, or choose to help other people. It’s the difference between the heroic impulse and that impulse of self-preservation. First of all, I think that dilemma is narratively really interesting. But it does hook up with what we were talking about earlier. In the world we currently live in, there is bad, bad stuff going on. And it might not affect me directly, because as I’m driving my car, no one is pulling me over because of the way I look. And so I can go through my life, if I choose to, not giving a shit. Or, I can try to help. And we all make that decision everyday, whether we think we are making it or not. We are all making that decision all the time. To what extent do we live in complicity, and to what extent do we do something? About lots of things. We are talking about racism, but there are plenty of other issues where the same thing holds true.
But, while I do think these issues are important, and they do need to be talked about, I didn’t write the book as an argument. If you do set out to write a book as an argument, then you end up with a 400-page pamphlet, and not a very good book. So I hope that the storytelling and the characters, and the emotional grip of it, are at least as strong, and fully fleshed, as any kind of thematically resonant stuff. I hope it’s all there. That’s my hope.
Rumpus: Certainly. I have to ask about your book tour, just because the last one you did was for the trilogy, and apparently lots of fun, with prize moustaches and ukulele playing?
Winters: Ha! Yeah, I played my ukulele.
Rumpus: What can we expect from this next book tour?
Winters: I’m not sure what all we are doing yet, but I definitely think it will be a more low-key affair. Certainly the goofy aspect, like ukulele playing, would not feel entirely appropriate. I might budget more time for Q and A, because the people who have read the book, or whom I have discussed the book with, definitely want to talk about it. Which is good! So yes, maybe less ukulele playing, more engaged discussion.
Author photograph © Nicola Goode.