While kicking off the 2017 Bexley Community Author Series, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Colson Whitehead shared how he became a writer and read from his acclaimed novel "The Underground Railroad."
Whitehead's appearance April 28 at Bexley High School's Schottenstein Theatre marked the first year that the Community Author Series was coordinated by the Bexley Public Library, which announced last year that it was taking over from the Bexley Community Foundation.
Whitehead's diverse body of work made him a perfect fit for the series, BPL Director Rachel Rubin said.
"His genre-defying writing was perfect for our voracious readers," she said.
Throughout his presentation, Whitehead shared funny anecdotes and, while explaining his cultural influences, led the soldout crowd in a sing-along of Donna Summer's disco classic "MacArthur Park."
He related that growing up in New York City, he was a horror and science fiction fan but didn't develop an interest in writing until he entered Harvard University in the late 1980s.
"I started reading the classics, the modernists and I liked the equivalency I saw between science fiction and horror and the magic realism of [Gabriel] Garcia Marquez, the absurdity of [Samuel] Beckett," he said.
"They played with the fantastic as much as the genre writers who inspired me as a kid."
Whitehead said he didn't attempt creative writing until he wrote short stories as audition pieces for college English classes.
"I was turned down each time. It was good preparation for being a writer" and dealing with rejection, he said.
After graduating from Harvard in 1991, Whitehead became a reporter for the Village Voice, reviewing books, television and music.
"That was my introduction to the world of writing," he said.
Whitehead eventually went on to write a series of award-winning books, beginning with his debut novel "The Intuitionist" (1999) and continuing with "The Underground Railroad" (2016). His most recent novel has won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and was an Oprah's Book Club selection.
Whitehead said he got the idea in 2014 for "The Underground Railroad," which follows the journey of a fugitive slave named Cora in 1850s America.
"I thought that would be a great idea for a book if the Underground Railroad was a literal set of trains," he said.
"I added the complication of each state that Cora goes through ... mirroring a different possibility like 'Gulliver's Travels,' Homer and 'The Odyssey' -- a hero undergoing a series of trials on the way to safety and enlightenment."
Following his presentation, Whitehead took questions from the audience during a conversation with journalist Fred Andrle and signed books.
Before the event, Whitehead conducted a master class at the BPL auditorium with students from Bexley High School, Columbus School for Girls, St. Charles Preparatory School, Columbus Africentric and Hartley.