Q&A with Hoosier Transplant Author Ben Winters
Though Winters recently left his creative writing post at Butler ahead of this month’s release of his latest novel, Underground Airlines, he’ll take a bit of Indiana with him to California. There, Winters will write for a new medium: television.
You recently moved to Los Angeles after teaching at Butler for four years. What will you miss most about Indianapolis?
I’m going to resist the urge to be funny and say the cost of living—although I really will miss the cost of living. But I’ll miss the people. We met a lot of really good people while we lived in Indianapolis. Not just friends and colleagues, but the people who work at Indy Reads and the people at the public library and the people at the Jewish Community Center. Never in my life have I lived anywhere with that kind of public accommodation. People go out of their way to be useful and helpful in a way that is unusual. There’s this base-level courtesy. After being in Los Angeles for an hour, I was like, “How come everyone is a jerk?” Not a jerk exactly, but everyone is really busy and brusque.
The State Fair is coming up. Maybe that’s an opportunity for you to return?
Yeah, especially if you have young children, the State Fair is unbelievable. There’s the butter statue and the John Deere farmer land. The whole event is great. It’s a down-home America thing that, if you’re from Indiana, you might not realize how special it is.
Underground Airlines takes place in present-day Indy. The conceit is that the Civil War never happened, slavery continues in a few states, and Indiana exists as a destination on a latter-day underground railroad. What inspired the idea for the book?
I came into my own as a writer with this series of books called The Last Policeman trilogy. In writing those books, I discovered the kind of writer I wanted to be. That specifically involved writing mystery fiction, and imbuing it with, I guess, thematic resonance. You know, finding interesting ways of tackling a mystery so it’s more than just a puzzle and a solution. And like most progressive and engaged people, I found myself increasingly distressed about the things I was reading in the newspaper. Unfortunately, there continues to be a series of alarming, high-profile incidents of police violence in the African-American community. Those two things came together. The idea was to take the metaphorical idea that slavery is still with us and make it literal.
In what ways do you think we could be doing a better job about confronting racism?
Very often, when people think about the problem of racial inequality and racism in our country, we act as if it’s the responsibility of the African-American community to make things better—to march and to fight for their rights and to demand opportunities. When, in fact, it’s beholden upon all of us, and white people in particular, to fight for those changes. We have to acknowledge that these problems aren’t new and they’re not unconnected to the past, specifically the fact that our country was founded as a slave state and that a huge population of people began their journey to America in chains. Then there were generations and generations who were locked out of economic opportunity, who were kept from decent schools. This wasn’t something that went away one day in the 1860s.
Yes, we have a moment right now with a presidential candidate who is vocally racist. In a way, it does highlight how perennial these problems are. Racism is part of the DNA of the country.
In some ways, the book presents an alternative universe, and in other ways, it’s very close to reality. How did you balance that?
I don’t know that there was any kind of grand plan. Obviously, some of the changes were driven by the conceit behind the book. So the Soldiers and Sailors Monument you know couldn’t be there because that is a Civil War memorial. So I changed it to a statue of Lincoln, and I invented this whole counterfactual idea that Lincoln was assassinated in Indianapolis on his way to be inaugurated. I tried not to fuss too much about putting in clever little changes to the fabric of reality. I didn’t want the book to feel too “clever.” I wanted it to feel realistic and very focused on my hero and his story. One thing I did, hopefully somewhat subtly, was to make the United States more economically depressed and less at the center of the global economy. But then I tried to keep small details from the real world, like the Starbucks on Monument Circle. Why not?
The novel begins with an amendment to the constitution saying something to the effect that slavery is a state decision. And it’s written by John Crittenden, who was an actual person. What parts of that proposed amendment are real?
That’s all real. All parts of that amendment are real except for the fact that it didn’t pass. I think he was a senator from Kentucky, and it was proposed in late 1860. So in my imaginary version of American history, the proposed set of amendments is resurrected after Lincoln is assassinated. I plucked that right out of history. I did a lot of research, and there were other attempted last-minute proposed compromises to keep America out of civil war. I liked using the historical language because it sounds so real—it was real. I found it interesting that the proposed compromise included language specifying that “no future amendment may undo this amendment.” They were so desperate to keep the nation together without offending both the pro-slavery and abolitionist movements.
Imagined versions of today’s political movements play a role in the book. Given that the novel is coming out so close to the real presidential election, were you thinking about what’s happening in politics as you wrote it?
Not much. Not in any conscious way, like, “Oh, this book is going to land in the middle of the presidential election.” Unfortunately, the topic of racism has been around for a long time and is not going anywhere. Yes, we definitely have a moment right now with a presidential candidate who is vocally racist. And in a way, it does highlight how perennial these problems are. But racism is part of the DNA of the country, and the fact that it’s having a public moment right now is not all that surprising. It comes up over and over again.