What: Colson Whitehead headlines Author! Author!

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Bend High School auditorium, 230 NE Sixth St.

Cost: $25 general admission; $75 preferred seating (includes a private reception with Whitehead)

Contact: dplfoundation.org or 541-312-1027

If you ever thought the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves in the pre-Civil War era involved a subway train, you’re not alone. This fairly common misconception is usually corrected by a long-suffering middle school history teacher. But in his Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning 2016 novel, “The Underground Railroad,” New York City-based author Colson Whitehead reimagines the metaphorical railroad of safe houses that helped slaves fleeing Southern plantations as a secret network of subterranean trains and tracks traversing many states.

Whitehead will discuss “The Underground Railroad,” and how he got his start as a writer, when he headlines the Deschutes Public Library Foundation’s third 2017-18 Author! Author! event in Bend on Friday.

The novel centers around Cora, a teenage slave whose desperation and strength of will drives her to flee the harrowing bondage of her life on a cotton plantation in Georgia, along with a fellow slave named Caesar. Her mother had escaped years before, abandoning Cora to the atrocities inflicted by the slave owners and other slaves. Relentlessly pursued by the slave catcher Ridgeway, Cora travels through several states searching for physical and emotional freedom.

Whitehead’s deft interweaving of the brutal reality of life for slaves with imaginative jumps into an alternate history of antebellum America is mesmerizing. He also plays with time to incorporate later events and attitudes into the book’s 1800s setting.

This time-bending may leave you wanting to research some of the references and passages in the book that seem just fantastical enough to be fiction, but grounded in enough truth to be fact. If you do that, one of Whitehead’s ambitions for the novel will be realized.

“The book does travel into corners of American history that aren’t as well known, like eugenics and forced sterilization, and I hope maybe readers will be moved to read further on those issues,” he said.

Several of Whitehead’s six novels have featured machinery as a central plot device, and the concept of a physical train is a key part of “The Underground Railroad.” However, the author said he consciously avoided getting too deeply into the nuts and bolts of the train’s mechanics in this novel because he didn’t want those technical details to become the focus of the story. Instead, he uses the train to find different metaphors he can play with and give the story structure.

In a similar way, the mystical realism of “The Underground Railroad” is applied with a lighter touch than in some of Whitehead’s earlier novels.

“As a writer, I think you pick the right tool for the job,” Whitehead said. “Sometimes, it’s realism. Sometimes, it’s some aspect of fantasy. Sometimes, it’s a first-person narrator or sometimes third-person. Since I do deform reality I wanted a narrator who could move between the real and the fake, and present absurdities alongside realities.”

In addition to his highly regarded novels, Whitehead has also published several essays, short stories and two nonfiction books: “The Colossus of New York” in 2003 and “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death” in 2014.

The latter was a memoir about Whitehead’s brief foray into the world of professional poker when a magazine staked his $10,000 entry fee to the 2011 World Series of Poker tournament. Luckily for fans of his work, Whitehead (who had never competed in a casino tournament) didn’t win big in Las Vegas.

“If I’d won, you might not be reading this right now,” he said with a dose of sarcasm in the book. “I’d still be sailing around the Caribbean on my yacht with some wretched hotties.”

Whitehead claims whatever poker skills he acquired while preparing for the tournament quickly disappeared afterward. “Most of my higher-level poker knowledge has been replaced with recipes and binge TV,” he confessed with a laugh. Some of his preferred TV viewing: “American Vandal,” the mockumentary series satirizing true-crime documentaries, and the British crime drama series “Peaky Blinders.”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan and graduated from Harvard before he started writing for the books section at the Village Voice. He enjoyed reading horror stories, fantasy novels, comics and the classics, as well as the work of writers from the New Journalism movement like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe.

“It always seemed like well-informed, creative nonfiction was a worthwhile enterprise,” Whitehead said.

Despite the critical acclaim for Whitehead’s work and the blockbuster success of “The Underground Railroad,” there were some lean years at the start of his career. He has said in earlier interviews that his parents were not thrilled with his desire to become a journalist (hoping instead he’d opt to become a lawyer or doctor). At times, he was scraping by earning 35 cents per word as a freelance writer.

His first book manuscript was reportedly rejected by 25 publishers, but that only made Whitehead more determined to succeed as a novelist, and he started work on “The Intuitionist,” which was published in 1998. His second novel, “John Henry Days,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and his work has gone on to earn him numerous other awards and honors including a Whiting Award, Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur Fellowship.

However, the frenzy surrounding “The Underground Railroad” has brought a new level of success and attention to Whitehead, with everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Time magazine wanting the author’s time and attention. A TV series adaptation of the novel is reportedly in development with Barry Jenkins (who directed the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight”) at the helm.

“It has been a bit distracting,” Whitehead said. “Finally in the fall, I thought, ‘I have to get back to work,’ after I hadn’t written anything in a year and a half.”

Whitehead has begun his next novel, which he will only say is set in Florida in the 1960s. He hopes to be done writing this summer and the book should be released in 2019.

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