Oprah Winfrey has spoken. The new selection of Oprah’s Book Club is Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” a book originally scheduled for publication in September. Whitehead, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2001 novel, “John Henry Days,” appeared on “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday to discuss the new book. In a surprise move, his publisher, Doubleday, secretly shipped copies of “The Underground Railroad” to booksellers, and the novel goes on sale, in stores and online, immediately.
“The Underground Railroad,” already one of the most anticipated releases of the year, imagines that the Underground Railroad — a historic network of safe houses by which southern slaves escaped to the North — was a literal railroad, with trains, tracks, conductors and stations. In the novel, a teenage slave named Cora escapes from a Georgia cotton plantation in 1850, riding the railroad through different American states in search of freedom.
Whitehead, who is 46 and lives in Manhattan, said he got the news in a voicemail from his agent while traveling. “I let out a stream of loud, joyful expletives,” Whitehead said, “which was awkward because my plane had just landed and everyone looked at me like I was crazy.”
Winfrey’s interview with Whitehead appears in the September issue of “O, The Oprah Magazine,” on newsstands Aug. 9. Readers can learn more about “The Underground Railroad” online at oprah.com/bookclub and share their thoughts and questions via social media with the #OprahsBookClub hashtag. Whitehead will participate in a book club discussion on the magazine’s Facebook page on Aug. 24 at 3 p.m.
Winfrey’s book club originally launched in 1996 and offered an enormous sales boost to dozens of titles over 15 years. She relaunched Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 in 2012. Among the titles she has featured are Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Invention of Wings” and Ayana Mathis’ “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”
Whitehead is the author of six previous novels, including "The Intuitionist" (1998), about a fictional guild of elevator inspectors in an imaginary metropolis, and "Zone One" (2011), a literary zombie novel. His 2009 novel, "Sag Harbor," was about a teen boy in the African-American summer community on the East End of Long Island. Whitehead himself vacationed in Sag Harbor growing up.