in conversation with Mary Karr
“The Nickel Boys“
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COLSON WHITEHEAD is the New York Times bestselling author of nine books of fiction and non-fiction, including The Underground Railroad, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award and was named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. He is also a recipient of the MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships. In 2020, he won his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Nickel Boys. Colson Whitehead’s reviews, essays, and fiction have appeared in a number of publications, such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Harper’s and Granta. Visit his website.
MARY KARR is an award-winning poet, essayist, songwriter, and memoirist. She rose to fame in 1995 with the publication of her bestselling memoir, The Liars’ Club, which documented her hardscrabble Texas childhood. Two more bestselling memoirs followed, Cherry, which recounted her tumultuous teens and sexual coming-of-age, and Lit, the story of her descent into the inferno of alcoholism and madness–and to her astonishing resurrection. In 2015, Karr released the bestselling The Art of Memoir, in which she synthesizes her expertise as professor and therapy patient, writer and spiritual seeker, recovered alcoholic and “black belt sinner,” providing a unique window into the mechanics and art of the form that is as irreverent, insightful, and entertaining as her own work in the genre. She is also a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Poetry magazine. Karr is the Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University. Visit her website.
“[Whitehead] is a splendidly talented writer, with more range than any other American novelist currently working—he can be funny, lyrical, satirical, earnest—whatever is needed by the work.”
—George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo
In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.
When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.
Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.