Authors IRL: A Quick Quiz with Colson Whitehead and Yaa Gyasi

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No one, not even the most prolific artist, makes art constantly. Everyone needs a little time to rest and take things in, to balance producing with consuming. And that makes us wonder: What do great writers read, watch, do, eat, and daydream about — not when they’re working or researching, but in their downtime? Getting back to the name of this column — “Authors IRL (In Real Life)” — we’ve developed a little quiz to find out.

The first creators to take our Authors IRL quiz have written two of the most arresting books of 2016 — novels that you read, sit with, think about, then pass to a friend with instructions that they must read them, too, so you can discuss afterwards.

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Colson Whitehead (photo: Madeleine Whitehead)

You’ve no doubt heard about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad lately. Ann Patchett and our team of booksellers loved it so much when we read the galley that we selected it for our First Editions Club for September. Then — surprise! — Oprah’s book club selected it, too, and its publication date got moved up by a month. The New York Times even ran a lengthy excerpt as a standalone section in the Sunday paper’s print edition. Is it worth all the hype? Absolutely. Our booksellers are wild fans of Whitehead’s writing (the novels Zone One, Sag Harbor, Apex Hides the Hurt, John Henry Days, The Institutionist, plus nonfiction The Colossus of New York and the book with a name as delightful as the experience of reading it, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death). With such wide-ranging work, it’s hard to compare his books to one another, but it’s not hard to see how this one — the tale of slaves on the run through an underground railroad (not a metaphorical one, but actual trains running underground) — might just be the book that reaches the greatest audience.

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Yaa Gyasi (photo: Michael Lionstar)

Yaa Gyasi, on the other hand, is a name you may not know yet, so let’s make sure you do: The debut novelist went big for her first book. Homegoing is an epic story that spans eight generations and stretches from Ghana to America. The novel begins with two half-sisters, Esi and Effia, one who marries a British officer and lives a life of privilege in Africa, the other who is sold into slavery and sent across an ocean. The chapters read a bit like linked short stories, following the sister’s descendants as the relations between their families grow more and more distant. With a first book like this — published when she was just 26, no less — we can only wonder what Gyasi will do next. (Find out more about Gyasi and the book in any of its many rave reviews, including that by The Wall Street Journal; read a little excerpt online at Poets & Writers magazine; and be sure to catch her lovely interview on BookPage.)

So, when they’re not creating art that entertains and enriches, what entertains and enriches these artists? Here’s what they said:

I’ve been listening to . . . 
Whitehead: Early Misfits and the first Ramones record, to awaken long submerged memories of 70s New York/New Jersey.
Gyasi: Lemonade by Beyonce, Anti by Rihanna, and Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper

I love to watch . . .
Whitehead: Clouds drifting in a blue sky, especially if they look like cute animals, and Peaky Blinders on Netflix.
Gyasi: Jane the Virgin, Being Mary Jane, How to Get Away With Murder, Veep. Game of Thrones. I could go on. I watch way too much TV.

Something I saw online that made me laugh, cry, or think . . . 
Whitehead: YouTube has some clips from Battle of the Network Stars and it doesn’t hold up as well as you’d think.
Gyasi: I love Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s work.  Her recent piece on James Baldwin in Buzzfeed was wonderful. She’s also written beautifully about Toni Morrison, Dave Chappelle, and Kendrick Lamar. I also think the work Nikole Hannah-Jones is doing around segregation in American schools today is absolutely vital. Every piece she writes makes my skin feel charged.

Best meal I’ve had in the past month or two . . . 
Whitehead: I made a barbecue rub from Meathead by Meathead Goldwyn, put it on some ribs I smoked over July 4, and it was pretty good!
Gyasi: My friend Nikki had a 4th of July potluck and people really brought their A-game. Ribs and biscuits and a homemade salted caramel ice cream! [Ed. note: We would like to meet Yaa’s friend Nikki.]

A creator who’s doing something I envy . . .
Whitehead: He’s passed away but his work lives on: Richard Stark’s Parker series has been fun to zip through this year.
Gyasi: Every time I see Kara Walker’s work, I wish that my art skills went past stick-figure drawings.

A book I recently recommended to someone else . . .  
Whitehead: Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc.
Gyasi: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. It’s one of my favorite books. My boyfriend and I talked our friend’s ear off about it at a wedding recently. A week later he saw us and said, “I wasn’t ready,” which felt like exactly the right response. Is anyone ever ready for a book that good?

The last event I bought tickets to was . . .
Whitehead: I bought my daughter tickets to Hamilton and she went with my wife, and now I can’t afford to go any more!
Gyasi: The Lonely Painter Project’s song cycle, MAKE.

Most meaningful recent travel destination . . . 
Whitehead: Louisiana, to do some research for the book.
Gyasi: I just got home a few weeks ago from my summer tour for Homegoing. It was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I know I’ll never get another first book, another first book tour, and I so cherished the opportunity to meet so many wonderful, eager readers.

I wish I knew more about . . . 
Whitehead: How to use those machines in health clubs — they look so crazy complicated!
Gyasi: The human brain, the bottom of the ocean. Everything really.

My favorite thing about bookstores . . . 
Whitehead: When you see a new edition of a beloved book and you remember what it was like to see the old cover for the first time.
Gyasi: There’s so much to love, but my favorite thing just might be when I’m browsing and someone sees the book I’m holding and goes out of their way to tell me why I must buy it. The writer of that book will never see this moment, but what a gift it is to her nonetheless.

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Lucky for Nashvillians, we have the chance to meet these authors in person this fall. Colson Whitehead will speak and sign books right here on September 20. (If you’d like a signed first edition, you can also reserve yours now.) Yaa Gyasi will appear at the Southern Festival of Books, held downtown at the legislative plaza October 14-16, 2016.

The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club) Cover ImageThe Underground Railroad