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Colson Whitehead's latest book, Crook Manifesto, is the second instalment in a planned trilogy that started with last year’s Harlem Shuffle.DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images

Though his name has lately been associated with the serious historical novels that made him a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner – in 2017 for The Underground Railroad, and in 2020 for The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead has always been a restless dabbler in genres. The first of his eight novels, The Intuitionist, used mystery and allegory to tell the story of elevator repairmen from competing schools of thought in a future dystopia. Zone One (2011) gave us a pandemic and zombie apocalypse. To find his latest, Crook Manifesto, you’ll need to amble over to the crime and suspense shelves. Set in the author’s native New York, the book is the second instalment in a planned trilogy that started in the 1960s with last year’s Harlem Shuffle, in which otherwise upstanding Harlem furniture salesman Ray Carney is made an unwilling fence by the local criminal element. When Crook Manifesto begins, in the early 1970s, New York is beginning its death spiral, but Ray is mostly clean – until, that is, he allows his old police contact, Munson, to pull him in on one last job. His motive, however, is as pure as it is irreproachable: securing Jackson 5 tickets for his young daughter.

Unlike Harlem Shuffle and many of your previous books, this one takes place in a time and place when you were alive.

Yeah, it ends in ‘76, just as I was becoming aware as a person. That dingy New York vibe is my first experience. Everything is terrible. People are afraid of getting mugged. The trash is piling up …

But you were young – a child – so I’m presuming you didn’t just rely on memories?

I’m always getting into character, whether it’s about elevator inspectors or an escaped person running north. I have to build up the world. Get the nouns and the adjectives that make me feel comfortable. It was the same with this book even though it was about a time period that I experienced, and about my hometown. There’s a lot of Who’s Carney? Who’s Munson? How do they feel in this world? I was much more comfortable with the slang in this book than in some of the earlier ones. I could hear my sisters and their friends in the late seventies saying stuff like, “I can dig it.”

I understand you moved a lot.

Yeah, always in the city, but to different neighbourhoods. I was in Harlem until about kindergarten, then we were in the Midtown. High school and college on the Upper West Side. I couldn’t really use my Harlem memories since I was very young, so it’s really a Harlem that comes out of research and then walking around as an adult looking at buildings: Maybe that’s where someone’s held hostage? Or that weird warehouse district in the 130s – maybe that’s a good setting?

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Why all the moving?

Fortunes rising, falling. Kids going to college, need more rooms, need fewer rooms. My parents were just restless. I definitely inherited that – every couple of years I think, ‘Oh maybe a different apartment on a different block will cure me,’ and of course that never happens [laughs]. We lived in one place on 101st Street and one day I came home from school and there was an ambulance outside. My dad said, “Somebody jumped out the window, I have to call the superintendent and see if we can move up there.” He didn’t even wait until they closed off the sidewalk – he was already scheming. And then three months later we were upstairs.

The trope of the parent bending over backward to get concert tickets for their kids feels even more salient today with prices and availability being so insane. Did your parents do this kind of thing for you?

No, I was the third of four kids, so they were pretty checked out by the time I came along. It was more like, here’s a VCR: you can watch some horror movies and we’ll see you later. My daughter’s an avid concertgoer. I did take her to see Chance the Rapper five or six years ago. And for a brief period she liked Harry Styles, so I thought I’ll go see if I can get tickets. But then the pandemic happened. On the one hand I wish I’d had that experience, but she was actually not into having me come along anyway [laughs].

Making Carney a furniture salesman is a nice way of tapping into the culture and changing trends. There’s a lot of interesting stuff about the actual furniture here – were you already an aficionado?

I didn’t know I had such a weird fetish for mid-century modern furniture. I picked the profession because it made sense. A lot of fences will have a real storefront and then the back is for doing their criminal business. On Pinterest you can find furniture pamphlets from the early sixzties, so it wasn’t hard to find a language. I grew up watching The Brady Bunch, The Twilight Zone, and all these sixties and seventies sitcoms, so I internalized mid-century modern as my platonic furniture. There’s this jet-age optimism embodied in those sleek lines. By finding a way into different cultural artifacts I can speak about what’s happening around Carney.

Shortly after 9/11, you wrote in a piece in The New York Times Magazine, “You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.” Is that even truer now for you, 22 years later?

It’s a phrase that applies everywhere. It’s Toronto and it’s Paris and any place you love. I’m living 10 blocks from where I lived in high school and college, so a lot of the architecture is the same, but the stores have shifted. One bodega has the same dingy yellow and red awning it’s had for 40 years.

I love the city. Talking about it in Harlem Shuffle and Crook Manifesto has been very fulfilling. I was writing Crook Manifesto during lockdown so I was walking around with my mask and taking notes on where Carney would have his adventures. The city was very depleted. The streets were empty, but it did connect me, I think, to mid-seventies New York and how artists were dealing with that period. We talk about crime and the city being bankrupt, but out of that time we also got hip hop and disco and punk. Philip Glass was having concerts in SoHo. So it’s a time of great distress but also a time where artists are being inspired in different ways. I felt I was connecting with that when I was writing Crook Manifesto.

Ray makes it through the seventies. How will he survive chintz sofas and salmon-hued drapes in the next book?

He does go to the eighties, and to what I think they call the Miami School of Design. I’ve started. He’s in 1981, so it’s before that stuff comes. I haven’t figured out what’s going in, what’s not, but I’ve never wanted to follow a character or a world in a second book, let alone a third. If I step back, it’s a 1,100-page story about a guy in his 30s, 40s and 50s. His kids are babies and then they’re in high school and college. They leave the nest, and the city is also changing, and his fortunes are going up and down. It’s been a really invigorating project.

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