Colson Whitehead: ‘When I read Invisible Man I thought maybe there’s room for a Black weirdo like me’

The Pulitzer prize-winning novelist on discovering Ralph Ellison as a child, his passion for pop culture encyclopedias and why he loves World War Z

My earliest reading memory
Let’s salute those early-70s days of scarce representation and give a shout out to The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats and its sequel, Goggles!. There weren’t a lot of Black boys running around the kids’ books those days, let alone uptown NYC.

My favourite book growing up
I loved pop culture encyclopedias, with their entries and mini-essays about movies and shows that might one day pop up on broadcast TV. The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree was one, and Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film was another, that last one offering tantalising summaries of movies like The Flesh Eaters and Satan’s Sadists.

The book that changed me as a teenager
I was 19 when I underwent my big Pynchon summer and dived into Gravity’s Rainbow. Systems, rebel forces, counter-histories, a little bit of hope – that you could cram so much of the world from page to page was exhilarating to discover.

The writer who changed my mind
In seventh grade English class we read the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and I thought: here’s a Black weirdo who writes; maybe there’s room for a Black weirdo like me. I was 12.

The book that made me want to be a writer
Also in seventh grade, I read Stephen King’s Carrie and thought novels might be where it’s at. (I previously wanted to write Spider-Man.) I liked the chronological jumps, the inserts of news reports, interviews and scholarly texts. Novels could be oddball, form-wise, and also have a big body count.

The author I came back to
I dug Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, but couldn’t hack The Lathe of Heaven at 11 years of age. I went back when I was researching short novels for The Nickel Boys, and was finally able to understand her flawed utopias. Plus I’m finding her Tao stuff pretty cool these days.

The book I reread
I rarely reread books. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is such a bounty I can’t resist, though. I read a couple of chapters a year: spreading it out!

The book I could never read again
I liked Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high. Does it hold up to my current taste? Probably not. I’m curious … but not that curious. Rereading a book just to see if it holds up seems dumb, and I don’t care enough about it to read it for any other reason. I guess I’ll never know!

The book I discovered later in life
I read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry 10 years ago and it was scrumptious. Sagebrush, water snakes ... Age 42 is later in life, right, if you’re 53?

The book I am currently reading
I’m mostly reading a lot of stuff for work nowadays: memoirs of criminals, histories of New York City. Wade in the Water by Tracy K Smith is a nice antidote: capacious, generous in spirit, and very few murderers for hire (so far).

My comfort read
World War Z by Max Brooks. I won’t last long in the apocalypse, so it’s nice to read about people who are more capable.

• Colson Whitehead will be international author of the day at the London Book Fair on 18 April. His new novel, Crook Manifesto, will be published by Fleet in July. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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