Q&A: Colson Whitehead Talks Gritty New York, Zone One Zombies, and Frank Ocean's Sexuality

The writer celebrates his paperback release and reads tonight at Book Court.

Take a minute and place a book of Colson Whitehead's on a shelf at the bookstore. Which section do you choose? Horror? Coming of age? Criticism? After a moment, you'll probably get flustered, set it on the notable releases table, and scamper out the door.

But hey, don't feel too bad, because Whitehead is one of the most diverse writers working today. After getting his start here at the The Village Voice back in the '90s on the book desk, the 42-year-old has since gone on to release six novels, scribe op-eds for The New York Times, and even participate in the World Series of Poker for Grantland. His most recent novel, Zone One, gets its paperback release--it's a three-day post-zombie-apocalypse tale that follows protagonist Mark Spitz (not the swimmer) as he works with a military team to clear New York City of the remaining feral creatures. To celebrate, Book Court will host a release party for Whitehead tonight at 7 p.m., where the New York native will also read. Yesterday morning, after dropping his kid off at summer camp and before taking a nap, Whitehead chatted over the phone with the Voice about zombies, old New York, and how to stay cool in the heat with all that hair.

You're a writer that seems to tackle every subject, from life in Brooklyn to the World Series of Poker to zombies. How do you juggle it all?
As years have gone by, it seems a bit perverse to go from a coming-of-age story with Sag Harbor to zombie apocalypse in New York with Zone One to write about poker. But for me, I'm just trying to not get bored. After I spend two years writing a book, the last thing I want to do is something similar. While I love the voice of Sag Harbor, the optimism of the main character, that's one part of my personality. Another part of my personality is very pessimistic and longs for the apocalypse and loves horror movies and post-apocalyptic fiction, so Zone One became an outlet for that. I mean, like most people, I have a lot of different interests. I've written about the city, technology, and race, and those subjects are more or less apparent depending on what I'm working on at the time.

Zombie fanatic Whitehead
Frank Lojciechowski
Zombie fanatic Whitehead
Paperback out today via Anchor Books
Paperback out today via Anchor Books

I read somewhere where you said writing a zombie book is satisfying a decades-old love of zombies. Would Zone One have happened without the resurgence of zombie culture of the past 10 years?
I feel that my zombie influences and apocalyptic influences are drawn from movies I saw when I was young in the '70s and '80s, so I'm not as up on the current crop of zombie books and movies. But I've never lost my love of the genre. I just thought that, six books in, it was time to pay homage to things I wanted to write, which was, you know, horror, science fiction, and comic books. The timing was right. And I think just in the broader way, generationally, I'm not sure what zombies mean to the teenagers and twenty somethings who go on zombie walks and love fast zombies. I'm much more of a George Romero [Dawn of the Dead director] slow-zombie person. So I can't give you a deep, sociological interpretation of why they've had a resurgence in the last 10 years, but I'm definitely glad that a new generation is coming to grips with their idea of the zombie and that they're creating their own idea as to what this monster is.

What does writing about horror allow you to as a writer?
Well, the intent is different, so you use a different sort of tool. I think the light, funny voice of Sag Harbor was great and liberating, and it's appropriate for the subject matter, which is a realistic take on growing up in the '80s. And then having monsters and a science fiction backdrop in New York allows me to [take a different approach]. Both books are about what it's like to be a person walking around--the stakes are definitely higher in Zone One--but I'm just using a different source of tools to talk about what it's like to be a human person.

Zone One is separated into three large chunks. What does that long-form style do for the story?
Looking back, Mark Spitz's experience is one of an unbroken trial, so the set-up of the books sort of mimicked it. There's a beginning, middle, and end to the book, so that's why there's three sections. But his experience of trauma, devastation, and catastrophe is one sort of long, unbroken stretch of horror. And as he can't escape, neither can the reader.

The reader is almost assaulted.
Yeah. In the same way that Mark Spitz can't escape, neither can the reader.

What is it like writing fiction versus non-fiction?
I think of myself as a novelist, and the Grantland piece and smaller humor essays, I do those on the side. It's just me keeping limber and getting a sense of completion. You write a five-page humor piece and you're done, and you've accomplished something. As opposed to a novel where you're like, "What am I doing?" You're so depressed.

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