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History Maker

In his new novel, The Nickel Boys, COLSON WHITEHEAD illuminates the past to expose horrors of the present.

COLSON WHITEHEAD IS SITTING IN a booth at City Diner, around the corner from his Upper West Side apartment. In between sips of Coke, he’s recalling his process writing Sag Harbor, his semi auto biographical 2009 novel. A dreamy coming of-age saga, Sag Harbor pulses to the beat of ’80s hip-hop; it’s sprinkled with nods to his childhood faves, Star Wars and The Cosby Show. “My earlier books were detached; this was a real breakthrough for me, in terms of letting it all hang out.”

So, was preparing for the book, his fifth, more difficult than others? He considers the question, then laughs, softly—a tart contrast to the weighty literary persona his work fosters. “Googling Run-DMC is different from reading the autopsy report of people exhumed from the Dozier School,” he deadpans. He laughs again, knowingly this time.

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