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.

You've said that this book is more influenced by movies rather than books. When did you come to that realization? How does that influence the writing style?
I think it's just because the inspiration for the book was Romero movies, Escape From New York, The Omega Man-- my models were movies as opposed to post-apocalyptic novels. The way I write generally, the language is vivid and very visual.

There's such an emphasis on atmosphere in Zone One. It feels very cinematic.
Yeah, I'm borrowing from movie tropes and rhetorical devices and such, the barricade in the zombie world, the inevitable of the breaking down of the barricade, people on the run in the wasteland. I'm borrowing set pieces from horror and sci-fi movies that I love. But then it's also very interior, very meditative. I'm trying to recreate the psychological state of Mark Spitz, and so I think just because of the type of writer I am, there is a blend of what people expect from a zombie novel and my preoccupations as a writer. I think in the first 20 pages, when he gets attacked in the Human Resources lounge, and goes back into a revery or two of how the apocalypse started, that's me frustrating the need for blood and guts and this action set piece to be completed, and also warning the reader that this is not just a straight-up zombie horror novel.

How was it turning your hometown of New York into a post-apocalyptic scene?
For me as a New Yorker, I grew up in the terrible New York of the '70s and '80s, so I'm familiar with a certain kind of ruined New York, and I carry that around with me all the time. So it was not much of a leap to imagine a devastated New York. [Laughs.]

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

How do you view the city now?
Well, you don't feel like you're running a gauntlet anytime you leave the house. But in the terms of the life of cities, we can go back to that '70s New York at any time. A more severe economic downturn, that kind of shift in fortunes can transform a city, and of course our own personal fortunes. If we lose our jobs, get divorced, get sick, don't have insurance, we can be propelled into a very hostile New York quite easily.

Many lifelong New Yorkers tend to romanticize that time, saying the city had more grit and life then. Was this your way of channeling those memories and feeling that way?
I think definitely I was trying to recover how I felt as a kid growing up in this hostile landscape. And also, some of the atmosphere of the city and the years following, like with 9/11--how do we rebuild? Bouncing back from a trauma, an accident, a tragedy, I was drawing upon my own experiences of living in the city, and other times in my life when I've had to bounce back. So one act of my New York experience is animated in the novel, and there are definitely more optimistic and life affirming experiences which I had in the city that didn't necessarily work in this book, but I'll hopefully put together as the years go by.

I know you're a bit of a TV guy. Would you ever explore writing for TV?
As someone who loves pop culture, that's always a nice idea. But whenever I try to write a screenplay or something, I give up after a few weeks and just say, like, well, I'm a novelist, so I'll just write a novel. [Laughs.] There are fewer people involved. I love movies and I love TV, but it just hasn't worked out in any way where I see it fitting in my life.

I saw you tweeted that Salon article by Patrick Somerville last week about how New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin panned his book, but actually misread the novel and had to run a correction. As a writer who faces potential criticism like that, what are your thoughts?
Well, I did a reading with him last year at a book festival, and he's a really nice guy. But I did read the review, and I was like, "Oh, that's too bad..." But then the larger story came out and added more layers. Ultimately, my hope is that his perceptive and wise essay brought people to the book.

I was reading some of your old Voice work and came across a review of Digible Planets that you wrote in '93. What's your current hip-hop knowledge like?
[Laughs.] Well, I'm sort of a big square now, so I'm not quite up on what's coming out. I'm a child of the '80s, though, so those first 15 years of hip-hop are pretty influential on me, on the culture. I grew up reading the Voice every week, every Wednesday, after school, in college, just reading Christgau and Hoberman--they were really inspiring and taught me a lot about criticism and reading pop culture. The Digible Planets piece, looking back, was a breakthrough in me finding my voice, and so I always think fondly about that piece. And at that time, the Voice is where I learned how to write. I didn't take any creative writing classes, but I learned how to sit down for five hours and get a piece in, and meet a deadline. And that's what I do now. I make my own deadlines. I write for five hours and no one is watching me. I learned that discipline at the Voice.

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