By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online reviewed alternative history/speculative fiction novel Underground Airlines in June 2016, describing it as “a powerful, often uncomfortable novel that isn’t always easy to read, but is never anything less than utterly engrossing.” Written by the award-winning author of the Last Policeman trilogy (The Last Policeman, Countdown City, World of Trouble), Underground Airlines is set in the present day with one key difference to the world as we know it – slavery still exists. It’s yet another bold and exciting premise from a hugely talented storyteller. AMO is therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview (following our previous interviews in 2012, 2013 and 2015) with Ben H. Winters!
Hi Ben, thank you for your time and welcome back to Alternative Magazine Online – it’s great as always to be speaking with you!
You’re quite welcome. Sorry it’s taken me a beat to get back to you.
You recently released your latest book Underground Airlines, which I described in my review as “a powerful, often uncomfortable novel that isn’t always easy to read, but is never anything less than utterly engrossing.” For those who haven’t read it yet, what’s the premise of the book?
Underground Airlines is set in a version of the contemporary United States in which the Civil War was never fought and slavery is still legal under the federal constitution, and still in practice in four Southern states. The hero of the story – anti-hero, really – is a black man who works undercover as an enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Act. As it was in actual American history, this law requires that enslaved people who escape from the South be captured and returned, even if and when they make it to free states.
Where did the idea of slavery still existing come from?
Unfortunately, tragically, shockingly, there are many aspects of contemporary American life that reflect the lasting influence of attitudes and institutions formed under the time of slavery. I, like so many of my countrymen, black and white, have contemplated with horror the unending string of incidents in which African-Americans are shot by police – or, in the case of Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012, by a civilian acting as a self-appointed “watchman.” These incidents remind us, again and again, of old attitudes about black people, about the black body – attitudes all held over from the several hundred years in which the ownership of humans was the law of the land, and the question of whether you were property or a person was determined by skin colour.
You mention in the book’s introduction that you had some fears and reservations about writing the book. Can you elaborate on this?
Well, on the one hand, your grandest hope for a book is that people read it and talk about it. At the same time, I was aware – and have been even more so since the book was published – that entering into the conversation on race and racial violence draws passionate responses from many quarters. I have had thoughtful, intense, and personal responses from African-American readers, some glad to see a white man choosing to reckon with this grave history, and others questioning my intentions or my decision to write in the voice of a black man. In some cases, I am honoured to say, I’ve heard from readers who came to the book sceptical but left feeling I honoured the subject matter. I must say I have also had angry, stupid emails from racist white people calling me a liberal sap or what-have-you; these were a great pleasure to delete.
What has the feedback been like from reviewers and readers?
Very positive, thanks very much! We’ve had terrific reviews across the United States, including in Time Magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today, as well as in the Independent and the Financial Times in the UK. I’m gratified that almost all of these reviews noted that this is not just a thriller set against a backdrop of slavery – it’s entertaining, I hope, but my intention was not just to entertain, but to illuminate our nation’s history and to ask important questions about the relationship between now and then.
What were you intentions when writing about racism and slavery in Underground Airlines?
People forget, I think – not all people, but many people – they forget, or they choose not to know, the extent to which slavery is mixed up in the origins of America. It wasn’t a matter of years, nor of decades, but of centuries. Centuries of theft and cruelty and rape. By bringing that dark past into the present, by flattening the time between the past and the present, I wanted to foreground that history. And, not incidentally, I wanted to make people think about all the horrifying realities that ARE really going on right now – sweatshop work and sex trafficking and forced labour – that we (like Americans in the free north during the time of slavery) might prefer not to think about.
I loved the character of Victor, he felt very real to me. How would you describe him?
Thank you. I love him. I love him so much. Victor is a guy who buries his real self, his real history, his real human feeling, under layers of identity. He knows damn well that what he does for a living is not only wrong but utterly evil, but he has decided that, in a compromised land, in a compromised moral universe, he has no choice but to be compromised as well. I think the real journey of the novel is in Victor’s struggling toward a way out of this compromise.
He spends so much of his life pretending to be different people. Do you think he knows who he really is?
Oh, yes. He isn’t amnesic, and he isn’t crazy. Indeed, he’s haunted by memories of his past, and that’s a big part of what makes it so hard for him to stop doing what he’s doing; the terror of being restored to slavery, his specific memories of it, keep him on his wicked path. Aside from all that, he’s very good at his job, which makes him fun and challenging to write: he’s a spy in the John Le Carré sense, and he’s a shapeshifter and self-hider in the sense of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.
Was it hard to get inside his head?
It was hard at first to get inside his head, but once I locked in to his voice and his patterns of thought he began to come more easily. It was a similar experience writing The Last Policeman – a lot of the work is at the front end, when the character is still finding himself, but once he’s found you can just go.
How much research was involved? Do you believe a world like this could actually exist?
I did an enormous amount of research, yes. I read several histories of slavery, including Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told, and Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name, which is all about the way that slavery-like systems perpetuated themselves in the years and generations about the Civil War. Ta-Nehasi Coatess did a long article in The Atlantic about reparations, and the long-term economic and sociopolitical effects of slavery, that was quite influential.
Is this a character and world you’d like to revisit?
Not for now.
I have to ask, as always – is there any news on The Last Policeman being turned into a TV series? 🙂
No, but there might be soon!
What’s next for you Ben?
I am working on a new novel, tentatively called The Prisoner, which is a kind of legal thriller which is about family and identity and the mysterious workings of the human brain. But it’s very early days, so all the information in that sentence might change.
Thank you for your time. I love how your writing continues to entertain and surprise me and I can’t wait to read your next novel!
Thanks so much.