But why fictionalise this history? Surely what we need in the age of “post-truth” is a bit of good old-fashioned truth? For one, fiction can fly under the radar of those who would manipulate the past (for non-fictional ends); it comes out with its hands up, confessing its falsity.
More importantly, fiction sidesteps identity politics – that monstrous but inevitable byproduct of “free” news. When the news is “free” what’s really on sale is us, the audience (to the advertisers), and for that sale to work, our demographic identity has to be tied, predictably, to all our behaviour; not just our purchasing habits but our affiliations and sympathies. Fiction is one of the few things that allows us to completely uncouple our sympathies from our sense of personal identity. We can sympathise with those we don’t identify with; we can connect with the unfamiliar, we can take the other’s side.
The second trick is to leave the house. The writing life is full of contradictions. It depends on hours at a desk, but requires the author to be connected to the world. Setting out into the day like a useful member of society, helps.
The writing itself is hard to relate. It is a process of adding and taking away; deep thought and waking dreams; hard technical graft and the occasional leap of realisation. I drink lots of tea, chew gum and occasionally stand up and stretch. When I feel stuck, I put my head on the desk and try to reach that place between dreams and awareness, where the unconscious lives.
Whitehead said that landing the £2,017 prize – the winnings are adjusted annually to match the year – was wonderful, and that The Underground Railroad “could not exist without the toolkit of fantastic literature”. A Guardian review of the novel said that “it’s as if he’s attempting to cram as many genres into one novel as possible, with science fiction meeting fantasy and a picaresque adventure tale, all against the backdrop of a reimagined 19th-century America”.
“Way back when I was 10 years old, it was science fiction and fantasy that made me want to be a writer,” said Whitehead, whose previous novel Zone One featured zombies. “If you were a writer, you could work from home, you didn’t have to talk to anybody, and you could just make up stuff all day. Stuff about robots and maybe zombies and maybe even miraculous railway lines. Fantasy, like realism, is a tool for describing the world.”
It’s hard to be precise. It took me a while to realise how right Ian McShane was when he described Game of Thrones as “only tits and dragons”, by which he meant, surely, formulaic hokum that degrades its viewers by commodifying women’s bodies, making entertainment out of sexual torture and pimping up its spectacles.
But in one respect, the world of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is just as traditionally fantastical as the worlds of Grandfather Tolkien, Pious Uncle C. S. Lewis, and Skeptical Cousins Philip Pullman and Ursula Le Guin. The books’ pleasures are not just narrative and political, but cosmological. All of these authors engage in world-making in a deep sense: they are interested in the organizing principles of their imagined universes, and the moral and historical meanings of their elements and landscapes. Magic works as more than a deus ex machina or literary CGI effect in their stories because it bodies forth these principles: it is part of the physical and moral laws of a somewhat different world. Fantasy is partly interested in other ways of imagining ice and fire — and earth and sea, rock and wood, summer and the coming of winter. Both the books and the show have, so far, put cosmology at the center while leaving it mysterious, with many open questions about what sort of world this is.
“When I had the idea in 2000, it seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t think I could pull it off,” he says. “I didn’t think I was a good enough writer. I thought if I wrote some more books I might become a better craftsperson and, if I was older, I might be able to bring the maturity of some of those years to the book and do it justice. And so I shied away from it. It was daunting in terms of its structure, and to do the research as deep as it needed to be done, and to deal with the subject with the gravity it deserved, was scary. And then, a couple of years ago, I thought maybe the scary book is the one you’re supposed to be doing.”
And seriously, are women’s testimonies worth so little that we need to watch arty renderings of their pain to make it believable?