You needn't write down Whitehead's writing tips

10/17/2008 12:00 AM

10/17/2008 10:56 AM

From his Brooklyn home, novelist Colson Whitehead can see the Empire State Building.

One day, he imagined working there with his writer friends. Then he imagined the skyscraper filled with writers.

Next thing you know, he had written an essay describing a building with floors for realists, experimental writers and allegorists.

In this building, an alarm goes off every couple hours, an alert that someone has started a new literary journal. “The mad stampede you hear immediately afterwards is people looking for stamps.”

And what happened the time the furnace broke? “We burned a hybrid fuel made out of MFA students and novels of linked stories. This was an abundant energy source and kept us warm until spring.”

Whitehead's original mind has served him well. He got enthusiastic reviews for his first novel, “The Intuitionist,” set in a fictional world where elevator inspectors are split into two philosophical factions, the Intuitionists and the Empiricists.

His second novel, “John Henry Days,” was a Pulitzer finalist. In 2002, he won a MacArthur Foundation genius award. And when critics name some of nation's best young novelists, Whitehead, 38, is often on their lists.

On Saturday, Whitehead makes his first trip to Charlotte. He'll speak at 7p.m. at ImaginOn as part of the Novello Festival of Reading. His topic: how to be a writer in 10 easy steps.

Note: This won't be serious advice.

Whitehead recently finished a novel, to be published in April. Usually after he completes a novel, he told me, “I sort of sit in the house and brood.” But he still had some creative energy, he says, so he began parody pieces on writing instruction.

Whitehead's own instruction began on the job, at the Village Voice, where he wrote music, book and TV reviews. His first attempt at a novel “was really plotless,” so he read detective fiction to learn linear plotting.

“Sag Harbor,” his upcoming novel, is less high concept than previous works, more drawn from his life. The book is set in the 1980s in Sag Harbor, a vacation enclave for black professionals in the Hamptons on Long Island.

Whitehead says he enjoyed depicting the era, which included early hip-hop, acid-washed jeans, big radios and the rise and fall of New Coke.

You can hear him discuss the book on his Web site, www.colsonwhitehead.com. “It's been a real joy,” he says, “to see people respond to this reintroduction of crappy '80s culture.”

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