An interview with the novelist about his new book, which is out this week
In his decade and a half as a novelist, Colson Whitehead has written about boys coming of age in Long Island, a grown man in an identity crisis, and a female elevator inspector living in an alternate version of New York City. In his latest book—Zone One, out today—he takes on an entirely new subject: zombies. Here, he discusses his wide-ranging influences, the literary world's anti-horror biases, and Zone One's shocking ending.
Your last book was about summer vacation on Long Island. When did you decide you were going to write about the undead? It's a major departure, at least on the surface.
Yeah, I suppose on the outside it is. I try to keep each different book different from the last. So Sag Harbor is very different from Apex Hides the Hurt; The Intuitionist, which is kind of a dectective novel, is very different from John Henry Days. I'm just trying to keep things rich for me creatively and for the readers who follow me.
Growing up devouring horror comics and novels, and being inspired to become a writer because of horror novels, movies, and comic books, I always knew I was going to write a horror novel. And it seemed about time.
What were some of those books or comics that were especially important to you?
Late 70's marvel—so Spider-Man, X-Men. DC's line of horror comics. Reprints of 1950's ECR comics. And then junior high, for me, was the rise of all kinds of horror movies, whether it was splatter flicks like Prom Night and other Jamie Lee Curtis classics, or Dario Argento, or John Carpenter.
In '82 and '83, that was the rise of the VCR. Every Friday, my brother and I would go to Crazy Eddie's—which was a video store in Manhattan—and rent five horror movies. And that's basically what we did basically for three years. Becoming social misfits.
Outside of the world of general horror, there's something specifically enticing about zombies right now. I've heard so many people say, breathlessly, "Colson Whitehead's writing a zombie book." What is it about the word "zombie" that gets people so excited?
In the last ten years, there's been a resurgence in all kinds of zombie culture. Why are zombies important or interesting now? I have no idea. I wrote Zone One because I wanted to fulfill my own curiosity—which goes back decades—about the creatures.
So in terms of larger cultural trends, I have no idea. In terms of me, I became demonically attached to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead, the first George Romero trilogy. Zone One comes out of me trying to work through some of my ideas about why, for me personally, zombies are scary.
In terms of what the word zombie means to other people, well, I don't know. When I was starting the book, I would say, "I'm writing a horror novel with zombies." And my sort of bookish friends would say [adopts a clipped, defensive tone]: "I don't like zombies. I don't like zombie books."
And I'd ask them, "Well, what zombie books have you read? What zombie films have you seen?" None. So people who are inside horror culture have their own ideas about zombies, and the people outside have their own stereotypes about zombies. What I tried to do with the book was embrace some of the conventions of the film genre, and reject others. By keeping what I like, and throwing out what I don't, I hopefully can expand people's ideas about this type of horror story.
So you felt some friction from some of your literary friends. Did you have anxieties about that? Or were you just excited to enter the world of this subculture?
To me, it's just another book. I was aware that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a huge bestseller, but I thought that when I finished my book this brief trend would probably be over. I mean, I was wrong. But given that it takes two or three years to write a book, I assumed I was not going to be part of some larger cultural conversation.
I think if you do your job, then people will come to it—whether it's about elevator inspectors, or John Henry, or zombies. Early on my career, I figured out that I just have to write the book I have to write at that moment. Whatever else is going on in the culture is just not that important. If you could get the culture to write your book, that would be great. But the culture can't write your book.
What is it about zombies, then, for you—about their mythology that's so productive and enticing? What about them gets your creative juices flowing?
For me, the terror of the zombie is that at any moment, your friend, your family, you neighbor, your teacher, the guy at the bodega down the street, can be revealed as the monster they've always been. That's reflected in the book, as the character Mark Spitz tries to figure out what's happened to the world. That was my interpretation very early on. It's in Night of the living Dead, too.
One way you update existing zombie mythology is by dividing them into two subtypes: skels and stragglers. Skels are more like your garden-variety zombies—frenetic cannibals on a rampage for human blood and brains. But stragglers become gentle when they transform: they return, almost sleepwalk, to the places they most loved in life. The living room sofa, the Xerox machine in the office. Why did you feel it was important to update the mythology in this way?
I was thinking about nostalgia and sentimental attachment to the past in Colossus of New York and Sag Harbor. So for me stragglers are another way about dealing with the problem of wrestling with our pasts. They're tied to key moments in their lives, and places that remind them of those moments.
And the survivors, too—Mark Spitz and all of his cohorts—are also trying to recreate a fallen world. So I was trying to do my own take on zombies and the stragglers are a vehicle for introducing some of the themes I've explored in other books, that appear in a new variation in this book.
They remind me of characters in Dante's Inferno, the way they continually seek to return to their former lives, and they do—just in sad, perverse incarnations.
They're the living dead. They share a lot of characteristics with ghosts—people who can't progress to the next stage. That notion of the ghost applies to both the stragglers and the remaining human survivors.
The book also features biting, and very often hilarious, satire of modern consumer culture—which, maybe unsurprisingly, survives the apocalypse. Was it important for this book to explore who are as consumers?
I think the origin of that trope in the zombie story comes from Dawn of the Dead. The characters are wondering why these wretched legions are surrounding the mall, coming back day after day. One of the characters says: "This is an important place in their lives, and they're trying to get back to it." I don't want to expand that to emotional memory, but they have this consumer memory that's very hard-wired.
In terms of my own justifications, I find marketing interesting—that's in Apex Hides the Hurt and John Henry Days. The marketing of culture—how we relate to it, how it finds us—is something that preoccupies me. This zombie variation provided me with a different way of addressing it.
An strange optimism pervades the book—at times it's inspiring, and at times it's almost almost tragically misguided. The characters perpetually talk about the American Phoenix rising from the ashes of a ruined world, even while everything's falling apart all around them. Is this a part of human consciousness—or American consciousness—that you were exploring: our desire to build a city on a hill, to bring paradise to Earth, even as things are going to pieces?
There's overlap with the narrative of America, sure. A post-apocalyptic story has to have some notion of hope that it sustains—is there a buffalo? Is there an island we can escape to? It definitely does overlap with that American dream of reinvention. Mark Spitz has isolated this dream with New York City. He's always wanted to come out of the suburbs and make himself some sort of sophisticated New Yorker, a man-about-town. And he still holds that within him, even though New York will never be what it was before.
You're from New York. Was it fun, or scary, re-imagining your city ravaged and blown to bits? What were the challenges of that?
[laughs.] Not so many challenges, really. It's my first book set in New York, and I have a lot of memories to draw upon. And the thing about the area described in the book, the area below Canal [Street], is that you can find it desolate and decimated at various moments during the night. From 2 am to 4 am, Wall Street is completely empty. All the buildings are closed and no one's on the street. It's as empty as it's described in the book.
I also think growing up in the '70s, when New York was at its pitiful worst...my idea of New York has always been damaged and post-apocalyptic. So it wasn't that hard to imagine it.
What do "literary" fiction and "genre" fiction mean to you? Are these terms helpful to you as a writer, or are they just methods of bookstore organization?
They don't mean anything to me. They're useful for bookstores, obviously. They're useful for fans. You can figure out what's coming out in the same style of other books you like. But as a writer they have no use for me in my day-to-day work experience.
I was inspired to become a writer by horror movies and science fiction. The fantastic effects of magic realism, Garcia Marquez, the crazy, absurd landscapes of Beckett—to me, they're just variations on the fantasy books I grew up on. Waiting for Godot takes place on a weird asteroid heading towards the sun, that's how I see it. It's not a real place—it's a fantastic place. So what makes it different from a small planet in outer space? What makes it different from a post-apocalyptic landscape? Not much in my mind.
But I can imagine a time—say, during the heyday of Raymond Carver—when literary writers might have been afraid to touch material with fantastical, or supernatural, or science-fictional, or post-apocalyptic elements. When so-called realism was the literary currency of the day. Have you ever felt pressure to write "realistic" books?
I would say no. My books are weird, so if I had any anxiety about that, I had to work it out decades ago. The Intuitionist takes place in a kind of alternative reality; Sag Harbor is a deeply realistic novel. These strategies have different uses. They're different kinds of books, and you have to pick the tools for the job.
I can't speak for the generation who grew up 20 years ago during the heyday of Carver. I know that people like Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon who are close to my generation don't necessarily have those anxieties. I know that Chabon and Lethem love Marvel comics too, and have saluted the fantastic in various books.
When you had your first initial conversations about Zone One with your agent or editor, was there excitement there? A sense of possibility? Anxiety about a new direction?
It was more okay. I told my editor I wanted to write a horror novel based in New York that features zombies. She said, "I've never seen a horror movie. I don't think about zombies. But go ahead."
In my case, I'm very fortunate that it's one of my books, not a zombie book. I've had the same publisher for six books, and they know it's not just about elevator inspectors, it's not just about zombies—it's about people, it's about culture. I'm lucky that they know that, no matter what the one-sentence description is, it's completely false.
Do literary authors who start using aspects of genre writing have a certain appeal today? Is there an excitement about crossover artists?
The only generalization I'll make is that I think that people of my generation are more comfortable making the foray into genre. Because of macabre books, Stephen King—and probably cable. I think culture changed in the '70s and '80s and people were exposed to different kinds of culture. A lot of my friends share the same influences, and we have fewer hang-ups about such arbitrary distinctions.
Look at the phenomenon of the blockbuster, whether it's an adventure like Indiana Jones, or something like Star Wars and Star Trek . You're exposed to that pretty early. And you're supposed to walk away because you start reading Ernest Hemingway? It's just one of many influences that makes you into the writer you are today.
Last question. This novel has one of the starkest cliffhanger endings I've encountered. Is this your way of torpedoing the Hollywood wrap-up, or do you intend to continue the story arc?
That's the ending, and it's definitely open to interpretation. I guess I could see returning to this world—I'm not sure with the same characters. But that's definitely the end of this particular stretch of the story.