02.19.09

The Great Summer Read Is Here

The acclaimed novelist and MacArthur Fellowship winner Colson Whitehead talks about his new book, Sag Harbor—and offers an intimate tour of the elite Hamptons community where it’s set.

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Colson Whitehead’s fourth novel, Sag Harbor, reads like summertime in a book. Whitehead, 39, blunts his usual wild imagination and satiric edge (familiar to readers of The Intuitionist, John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt) and goes all autobiographical on us. He evokes the season’s glories of the Hamptons of his adolescence, from the sweet anticipation of arrival at the beach house (leaving early to avoid traffic) to the letdown of that Labor Day party (it’s 1985, and the summer’s end anthem is “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now”).

“When we were kids, we knew we’d biked too far from our territories when we saw a jockey on someone’s front lawn.”

Even those who know the Hamptons may be surprised by Whitehead’s portrait of Sag Harbor’s decades-old African-American resort colony of professionals—doctors, lawyers, teachers, CEOs. Azurest, where Whitehead (and his novel’s protagonist, Benji) spent summers in the 1980s, was founded in 1947, when Maude Terry arranged for the subdivision and sale of 20 acres on the east end of Sag Harbor. "In the days when I came out, we didn't envision these as year-round homes," Helen Logue Aubry, one of Azurest's founding residents, told the Sag Harbor Express when the community celebrated its 50th anniversary. "We came so our children could have a summer out of New York City. It was close enough for husbands to commute. This was really a community of women and children from Monday through Friday. Then on Friday the husbands came. We all knew each other from the city. If there was one mother on that beach, we knew that every child regardless of whose family it was was well taken care of. The women chatted, read and knitted. On Friday night it took on a different atmosphere."

Most novelists excavate their individual archeology right off; Whitehead hasn’t exposed his more realistic vein until after a decade of sophisticated postmodern risk-taking.

His first novel, The Intuitionist, out in 1998, seven years after he graduated from Harvard, was a genre-blender about the first female elevator inspector in a place not unlike New York City (he has said he started out to write a fake detective novel, and that Stephen King was an early inspiration). The Intuitionist won the QPB New Voices award and was a finalist for an Ernest Hemingway/PEN award (it also set him up for a Whiting award in 2000). Whitehead came back in 2001 with John Henry Days, an extended riff on the legendary steel-driving man yoked to a pop-culture set piece in which a twentysomething press junketeer visits a West Virginia burg where John Henry is being honored with a stamp and a festival. That novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle award. Whitehead’s MacArthur “genius grant” came the next year. His brief satiric 2006 novel, Apex Hides the Hurt, concerns a “nomenclature consultant" hired to rebrand a town (his claim to fame is concocting the name “Apex” for a Band-Aid competitor that comes in various skin shades).

What triggered the emergence of Whitehead’s autobiographical vein in his new novel? Fatherhood? Creative comfort? Surely it helped that Sag Harbor was written during a period when Whitehead had a newborn daughter and that MacArthur grant. “I got it in 2002,” he says. “It’s five years. In installments. It’s great, no strings attached. The way I took it was, ‘You’re a weird guy, we like your weirdness, so keep on doing it.’ That was my mandate. It really helped with this book. Having a newborn and working on this book, it allowed me to be around the house and take care of her. It allowed me to get this book where I wanted it to be before I sent it out.” Early starred reviews portend a hit when the book comes out in late April from Doubleday. (He talks about Sag Harbor here.)

We took a virtual tour of his Sag Harbor over a few winter days when the balmy weather made Memorial Day seem just over the horizon. He was at home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. (More on that here.) I was at my house on Lighthouse Lane in Sag Harbor, a couple of blocks from Richards Drive, where he sets the novel—or, as he put it, “So you’re just around the corner from where the shenanigans take place!”

When did you first learn about Maude Terry, the founder of Azurest, and about the rest of Sag Harbor’s history?

Growing up, my knowledge of the history of the community was limited to “black people started coming out here in the ‘30s and news spread by word of mouth” and “Terry Drive and Richards Drive are named after people who came out here in the early days.” We didn’t have, like, Founder’s Day, where the lore was passed down. We took the uniqueness of the place for granted. I’m glad she has her own memorial now, on Azurest Beach. Most of the Sag Harbor history in the book comes from reading up on things, digging here and there.

Part of growing up there is you don’t appreciate there aren’t a lot of black enclaves like Azurest around the country. Summer communities. You don’t appreciate that Sag Harbor was a stop on the underground railroad, and its earlier whaling history. Part of the challenge of the novel was getting the history down and the atmosphere right, in ‘85—what it was like to be out there before what we know as the Hamptons encroached upon the place, and to preserve that quaint era. I brainstormed with my younger brother Clark to remember all the stores I used to go to, how quiet it used to be.

You write of Benji walking to his job as an ice-cream scooper on the Long Wharf, along the beach at Azurest, Havens Beach, the Corner Bar—all still there. So is Big Olaf’s on the Long Wharf, the model for Jonni Waffle, the ice-cream shop with the “waffle-cone aroma” where Benji works. Your descriptions are deliciously stomach-turning. (Read the precursor to that chapter, “Eat Memory, I Scream,” from the July 16, 2006, New York Times Magazine, here) Do you really hate ice cream now?

I washed dishes at the old Sandbar restaurant on Main Street—it was a fried clams and hamburgers and cod and flounders—and now I hate washing dishes, and I scooped ice cream at Big Olaf’s and now I hate ice cream…there’s a trend! So yes, I still hate most sweets, after gorging myself on ice cream every shift.

The Bay Street Theater used to be a disco. You write about that in the chapter you call "Breathing Tips of Great American Beatboxers." Any “real” memories?

In real life, the club was called Bay St.—and before it was a club, it was a roller disco, although I can’t remember the name of it. The club booked some great acts, and the crowds spilled over into the ice-cream store where I worked, so it was a bit of a pain. In terms of music, I was mining a more Smiths-Birthday Party-Sonic Youth sort of vein back then, but it was hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of my friends when people like Steel Pulse or UB40 came through. When UB40 played in ’86, the club was short-handed, so they recruited some of our gang to be bar-backs for the night, which allowed me to spill gin and tonics on people and snatch their drinks before they were finished with them. It’s a hard job!

It was a strange location for a club, because the town was so quiet back then. When there was a big concert, the whole wharf and Main Street became transformed. Now it’s hard to picture how those big trailers showing up and Tina Turner coming out could change the town. Because we were underage, the club was an endless source of fascination. Our older sisters would tell us how great it was. We’d scheme and try to get in, roughriding the bouncers for months to get inside. All we had to bargain with was ice cream, our only luxury good. Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam and U.T.F.O. did come in, and we gave them free ice cream. It was such a weird and lovely time.

You mention in the novel that Benji avoids a corner where a truck with a Confederate flag was parked. Were there areas in Sag Harbor where you did not feel comfortable growing up? How about now?

Well, when we were kids, we knew we’d biked too far from our territories when we saw a lawn jockey on someone’s front lawn! Nowadays, we know we’re in the wrong place if the menu says it’s $20 for a burger.

So, how does it feel to come back to Sag Harbor now that you're older?

In 2002, I started coming out again, for a few weeks here and there. We moved around Manhattan a lot when I was a kid, but Sag Harbor was there every summer, and I’ve come to appreciate it as crucible and crib. Certainly it has become the one constant in my life.

Are you a barbecuer now, like Benji’s dad was?

I have become a griller. There—I said it! Last summer I purchased a Big Green Egg, which is a brand of smoker, and all I do when I get out there is try to figure out what kind of big chunk of meat to slow-cook for hours…and hours…and hours. It passes the time.

So your daughter is a third-generation Sag Harbor baby?

Fourth generation, if you count my grandparents. It’s quite a marvelous thing to see her play on the beach that I used to play on, that my mother used play on. To see her become friends with the children of my friends, the children of my siblings’ friends. With a little luck, the last chapter of Sag Harbor captures how I feel about the dance of the generations.

How did the shift toward a more autobiographical, realistic novel come about? Was there something in the writing process that changed? Perhaps impending and then palpable fatherhood?

I try to keep each book different from the ones that went before. The protagonists of my first three novels are “writers” in different ways—so I was drawing from my life in that way, but I’d avoided borrowing from my own experiences so directly. It seemed a bit tacky or something. Why dilly-dally with teenage angst when you can bring on the Giant Robots, that was my motto. But one weekend I had some friends out to Sag Harbor for the weekend and as I tried to explain the community to them, I realized that I had a lot of good material to use. Material that was too good not to use. I find the thing that you are avoiding writing about, what you are shying away from, is probably a good avenue to explore in the end.

As for the father thing, I have noticed that if someone has to get shot in one of my books nowadays, they’re probably more likely now to get “just a flesh wound,” as opposed to “their cranium exploded.” So maybe something has changed!

You mention Moby-Dick in the novel. When you were spending summers in Sag Harbor, were you aware of the village's literary tradition? Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Steinbeck, Gloria Naylor, Doctorow—and earlier, Langston Hughes, others from the Harlem Renaissance coming out to visit?

Not really. For some reason, I got taught a lot of Steinbeck in elementary school, so I thought it was neat that Travels With Charlie opened in Sag Harbor, but apart from him, I wasn’t really aware of that kind of stuff.

Where do you fit yourself in Sag Harbor’s literary pantheon?

Pantheon? God of Slouches. Umm, I’d say I fill the “Scorpio born in ’69, likes Keats and long walks at sunset” slot.

Jane Ciabattari’s work has appeared in The Guardian online, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire . Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, and Literary Mama.