Got a question? Click here!

The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

printable version
You are viewing a sample edition of The BookBrowse Review for members. To learn more about membership, click here.
Back    Next

Contents

In This Edition of
The BookBrowse Review

Highlighting indicates debut books

Editor's Introduction
Reviews
Hardcovers Paperbacks
First Impressions
Latest Author Interviews
Recommended for Book Clubs
Book Discussions

Discussions are open to all members to read and post. Click to view the books currently being discussed.

Publishing Soon

Novels


Historical Fiction


Short Stories/Essays


Mysteries


Thrillers


Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History


Biographies/Memoirs


History, Science & Current Affairs


Travel & Adventure


Young Adults

Novels


Thrillers


Extras
  • Blog:
    6 Books That Help You Talk About Death and End-of-Life Care
  • Notable:
    Recycle Book Club
  • Wordplay:
    Y Can't M A S P O O A S E
  • Book Giveaway:
    If the Creek Don't Rise
  • Quote:
    The only completely consistent people are the dead
Ben H. Winters
Ben H. Winters

Ben H. Winters Biography

Ben H. Winters is the author of eight novels, including most recently World of Trouble, the concluding book in the Last Policeman trilogy. World of Trouble was nominated for the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Countdown City was an NPR Best Book of 2013 and the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction. The Last Policeman was the recipient of the 2012 Edgar Award, and it was also named one of the Best Books of 2012 by Amazon.com and Slate.

Ben's other books Literally Disturbed, a book of scary poems for kids; the New York Times bestselling parody novel Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and a novel for young readers, The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, which was a Bank Street Best Children's Book of 2011 as well as an Edgar Nominee in the juvenile category. In the spring or summer of 2016 published a new novel, Underground Airlines

Ben has also written extensively for the theater, and was a 2009-2010 Fellow of the Dramatists Guild; his plays for young audiences include The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, A (Tooth) Fairy Tale and Uncle Pirate, and his plays for not-young audiences include the 2008 Off-Broadway musical Slut and the "jukebox musical" Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, which is produced frequently across the country and around the world. Ben's journalism has appeared in The Chicago Reader, The Nation, In These Times, USA Today, the Huffington Post, and lots of other places.

Ben grew up in suburban Maryland, went to college at Washington University in St. Louis, and has subsequently lived in six different cities—seven if you count Brooklyn twice for two different times. Presently he lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, with his wife Diana, a law professor, and their three children.


This biography was last updated on 07/01/2016.

A note about the biographies
We try to keep BookBrowse's biographies both up to date and accurate. However, with over 2000 lives to keep track of it's inevitable that some won't be as current or as complete as we would like. So, please help us - if the information about a particular author is out of date, inaccurate or simply very short, and you know of a more complete source, please let us know. Authors and those connected with authors: If you wish to make changes to your bio, please send your complete biography as you would like it displayed so that we replace the old with the new, including your website URL if relevant.

Interview

Ben H. Winters discusses his novel Underground Airlines set in a contemporary version of the USA in which the Civil War never happened and slavery is still legal in some parts of the country

Ben H. Winters is white, and the narrator of his new novel, Underground Airlines, is not. In fact, the narrator, Victor, is African-American, an ex-slave in a contemporary version of the United States with a speculative-fiction twist: the Civil War never happened, meaning that slavery is still legal (in portions of the country, anyway). Victor is a bounty hunter tasked with finding runaway slaves, which puts him in an understandably awkward (if that understatement will do here) position: he uses his race to ingratiate himself into the lives of other African-Americans whom he will eventually betray. This leads the character—and the novel—toward much soul-searching about what it means to be black in America. And once again, Ben H. Winters is white.

How do you feel about this basic fact of Underground Airlines? I ask, in part, because this issue arose in a conversation I recently had with a white bookseller who felt uncomfortable recommending the book in a store newsletter because of the author's—and the bookseller's own—race. This is a version of an old question that haunts writers: how do you gain the authority to tell the story you're telling? And, in this particular case: can a white author create a convincing portrait of what it feels like to be in the head of a man who experiences racism every day? This question—at once complicated and attention-grabbing—is one I imagine Winters will get asked a lot as Underground Airlines enters the world. And here I am, myself a white bookseller and author, asking it.

"I approach the possibility of concern with great respect and humility," Winters tells me, "and with an understanding that there has been a history of white artists appropriating black voices and black works for their own ends. All I can do is stand behind the work." For Winters, Underground Airlines comes from a place of empathy rather than exploitation. "I hope people will see that my intentions are good," Winters says. Then he pauses. "Also," he adds, "intentions aren't necessarily enough."

What were those intentions? Well, it helps to understand where Winters was coming from at the time he began Underground Airlines. He had just finished the Last Policeman trilogy, in which he used the trappings of genre fiction to explore broader philosophical ideas—something he felt very proud of. As he wrote Underground Airlines—which takes the form of a mystery novel, with Victor a sort of hard-boiled detective—he was thinking about the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and numerous other victims of racially motivated violence. "We forget how close we still are to slavery," Winters says. "I thought I would take a metaphorical idea—that slavery is still with us—and transform it through fiction into a literal idea."

An example of how Winters literalizes this idea is the way Victor has to move through Indianapolis on his mission to find a mysterious runaway named Jackdaw. He has disguises and fake identities; he becomes different people depending on whom he's talking to. This is a familiar convention in detective fiction, but in a racially charged context, it takes on a deeper level. Winters mentions the term "code-switching," invoking Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a novel "explicitly about what it takes, in terms of shifting identities, to live as an African American in this country." Here, the disguises and fake identities are not merely generic tropes; they are essential to Victor's survival.

On a craft level, this is an interesting aspect of Underground Airlines: Victor is a narrator who seems forthcoming with the reader while also donning so many different guises that he himself becomes unclear about who he really is. When I ask Winters about this, he tells me, of course, it's a fun challenge; but, with the book barely into the world, he also seems attached to Victor in a way far more fundamental than issues of craft. "I love this character so much," Winters tells me. "I love him, I love him."

Winters does have his own personal connection to prejudice. "I had ancestors who were Jews in Czechoslovakia in the 1940s, and you always needed to have your papers on you." This notion of papers shows up throughout Underground Airlines—Victor frequently has to show his own, proving he's a free man—and I thought about another piece of recent history, especially potent to me a few years ago when I was living in Arizona: the passage of SB 1070, giving authorities the right to stop you and ask for identification if you seem like you might not be a citizen. Of course, how to judge this? Well, let's say the law, in a state along the Mexico border, did not target many white people who were maybe in the United States illegally from, say, Sweden.

For Winters, all these forms of prejudice are connected, and Underground Airlines, in that sense, becomes more than just a book about one particular race. "We can be so proud of this country," Winters says, "but we can't pretend its legacy doesn't also include generations of violence and subjugation, and we can't pretend those things aren't still playing out." For evidence of this, he looks no further than our current election cycle, which "is demonstrating to us vividly how close to the surface racial animosity is."

So, again, those good intentions? "I wanted to explore a painful history and a painful present. And I wanted to ask white readers to think about these things as deeply as black people are forced to think about them." He acknowledges that he can, in the abstract, be outraged by racism but that he will never know the feeling of being subjected to it. But for him, "part of the idea of fiction is living in somebody else's shoes for a while—or trying to." At the end, he hopes that somebody reading Underground Airlines "will have something akin to the experience I had [writing it], which is this: as much as I thought I knew about my nation's history and the pervasiveness of racism in our present day, I had a lot to learn." Through writing the book, he discovered a level of engagement he hadn't previously had. "I found it very moving," he tells me.


Benjamin Rybeck is the author of The Sadness. His writing appears in Arts and Culture Texas, Houston Chronicle, the Literary Hub, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, the Seattle Review, and elsewhere. He is marketing director at Brazos Bookstore in Houston.


Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Books Featured at BookBrowse

Also at BookBrowse

If you enjoy Ben H. Winters's books, try these!


Michael Chabon

Novelist, screenwriter, columnist and short story writer Michael Chabon was born May 24, 1963 in Washington, DC.   He grew up in the suburbs of Columbia, Maryland with his parents Robert, a physician, lawyer, ... (more)

Philip Roth

Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933. He attended Rutgers University before receiving his B.A. at Bucknell and his M.A. from the University of Chicago. He served in the U.S. Army from 1955 to 1956. He has ... (more)

Guy Saville

Guy Saville was born in 1973. He has lived in South America and the Middle East and is currently based in the UK. The Afrika Reich is his first novel. He followed it in 2015 with The Madagaskar Plan, also a work of alternate ...

Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is the author of the novels Sag Harbor, a PEN/Faulkner award finalist; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf ... (more)

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.