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


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.

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.

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.]

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.

I know you’re a square, but are you familiar with Frank Ocean? What did you think about the letter he posted where he opened up about his sexuality?

I’d seen his name in headlines, but hadn’t heard his music. I was moved, though. I was thinking there’s probably some closeted hip-hop guys who are like, “Damn, that guy did it. I wish I could’ve done it. Is it too late? Could I get a press conference or something?” Could it have been done five years ago? One year ago? I think it’s such a unique time. I don’t know anything about him, but it seemed very heartening and people who were fans of him were moved, which was a nice thing.

I have pretty long hair. Could you give me any tips on how to stay cool in this heatwave?

[Laughs.] I grew up not having A/C. But last week, after July 4, I saw it was supposed to be 98, so I went out and got an air conditioner. I was like, I can’t take care of my daughter. This is cruel and unusual punishment. So we just spent the last few days holed up, watching Adventure Time with the A/C on.