Believe me, if you are a writer, you don’t want to know the story of the writing and sale of Whiteman. It took me five months to write. It consumed me, and I thought about it with every breath when I wasn’t working on it, which was five to twelve hours a day. I was teaching a 4/4 comp load with 35 students per section, serving on the Curriculum and Author’s Series committees and juggling a couple of relationships. It was like being hopped up the whole run of it. It just felt right and right and right, night after night. I wonder now if I’ll ever feel that way again. Sometimes I’d finish a chapter and sit back and say “Whoa.” I mean, you might read my book and hate it. But the feeling I had when I wrote it is the thing I’ll be chasing for the rest of my life.
The hardest part for me was how to write the Peace Corps out of the story and still have a young American in a remote African village for two years. I just couldn’t come up with the solution. Then Barry Spacks, a distinguished poet, came to my college in our Author’s Series and he said he’d look at what I was working on, and he read a couple of the proto-chapters, and he gave me the idea of the fictional aid organization that my character works for. It was a simple solution, laughably so. But there it was. That was in mid July ’04. The writing went off like one of those long fuses Coyote lights in the Road Runner cartoons.
Keeping the Peace Corps out of the book was the most important thing, because of all the assumptions pro and con that go along with it. People are either instantly sympathetic or dismissive. I did not want that for this character and this experience.
But writing Whiteman was not easy. There are twelve chapters in the book, and it’s no secret now that they each work alone as stories since so many have appeared in the serials. The manuscript ran out at 81,000 words, about 270 pages, and to get that I wrote 1000 pages. The thing was, I just kept throwing parts away that I knew didn’t work, pressed on to the next thing. But I did move chapter by chapter, following a timeline. I don’t outline. I have a vague feeling, usually the vision of a character, and then I look for the right lines that carry the story along. There is one chapter that I’m not a big fan of, but needed it for a bridge, and a couple more that just never felt perfect, or that they could ever be perfect. I had to go back and write a couple chapters to fill holes. It wasn’t magical, it was work, but it was magical to be that consumed.
The original title was “Africa Unchained,” the title of the opening chapter. I wrote a proto-form of that chapter in our Seguela flop-house in 2000, right after getting tear gassed in a riot. I sent it to my friend and teacher William O’Rourke just to look at, and a year later he sent me a copy of the Notre Dame Review where he’d published it as the lead story. Quite a surprise to get in the mail in Africa. It was really that story that spurred me on to write the book after my return. It’s such a violent and dark piece. Yes, that was my Africa, but the humor and vibrancy that runs through the rest of Whiteman until the war at the end was also my Africa. I had to tell people about that as well, because they hear so much about the darkness.
Nobody liked “Africa Unchained” as a title for the whole book but me my editor at Harcourt let me know we’d have to come up with another one. So I went to my chess buddy and proof reader Joel Dunsany’s house with a vegetarian pizza and a sack full of bottles of Grolsch, and he coached me through dozens and dozens of titles long into the night. He lives in a remote cabin and there was snow outside. He kept saying, “What is the essence of your book, Tony? What is the true thing?” Well, they called me Toubaboo everywhere I went in Africa, as they do my character, Jack. It binds his identity and frees him. It becomes who he is. In English, Toubaboo translates into Whiteman. That was a magical moment, and we both knew it was the perfect title and cheered. I’m really proud that I came up with it. They were a little hesitant at Harcourt at first. But I knew it would grow on them and it did.
I wrote all of Whiteman in an old building called the Mortuary in Dunsmuir, a mountain town on the Upper Sacramento River in far northern California. The town was very blue collar, with tough railroad and forestry folk, a scattering of stubborn intellectuals. I had a wonderful writers group there and was surrounded by beauty. I didn’t feel overwhelmed at all by American culture. I felt isolated and anonymous and in touch with nature. It was a great place to write.
I finished Whiteman in mid-November last year, finished the last revisions on Thanksgiving night. I sent it to Liz and she was back to me on it in ten days. The first week of December, she told me to sit by my office phone at such and such an hour, and for three days I took calls from the editors of the major American publishing houses. My colleagues were constantly in and out of my office to hear me recount those conversations, and all night I was on the phone with friends. At first I thought I had to impress the editors, but quickly understood that they really liked my book. That Wednesday evening, Liz told me that we weren’t going to take any more calls, that the book would be sold on Monday. She asked what house I liked, and I liked Harcourt because Becky Saletan and Tina Pohlman said things about what they though I had been trying to do that made me breathe with pleasure, plus the fact that they publish Jose Saramago, who is my favorite living writer. It was a very tough decision. I can’t say enough about how much I respect Carol Houck Smith at Norton and how nice she was to me on the phone and since. So three weeks after I finished the book, it was sold. I know that there was interest from at least five publishers, Liz knows all the ins and outs of that. But it was a very charmed period of time in my life.
In March, The New Yorker bought a chapter, and in August, Playboy and Tin House bought chapters. We went through a few cover designs before my editor, Tina Pohlman, said “Have you heard of the Ivorian artist Outtara Watts?” Three seconds into looking at his work, I knew it was right, and picked out the cover Three Skulls. Tina told me not to get excited because Watts has a big reputation and he either might not want to do it, or might be too expensive. He called us that evening and gave us the permissions for free in exchange for copies of the book. I was recently in New York and bought the actual painting. It was the first and best major purchase of my life. Jacques de Loustal did a great illustration based on the chapter in the New Yorker, Liz sold UK rights last week. I do a lot of media and have seen my face way too up close in glossy magazines. It’s been a year since I finished writing Whiteman, and in that time I’ve written one very good short story, and one very good poem, and not much else. I feel a lot of pressure from myself to write some huge, huge second novel quickly, and I am of course worried that Whiteman will be a success. I work nearly everyday, but I’m going through a creatively dry period, everything goes straight to the trash can. I am confused and way off my keel. It has been a year of dreams.