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The July 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine features an excerpt from Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, which is being released by Random House on October 18. Harper’s put six questions to Whitehead about the book:
[This interview was originally posted on July 1, 2011.]
1. The premise of Zone One is that a plague has struck the world, forming legions of “skels” — zombies, essentially, though you never use the word. This would seem to be a substantial departure from the introspective and personal terrain you covered in your previous novel, Sag Harbor, which focused on a black teenager living in the Hamptons during the 1980s. What was the appeal of a zombie plague as a literary subject?
I try to have each book be an antidote to the one before. The expansive stage, diverse cast, and loose structure of John Henry Days was a refreshing change from the linear, hermetic narrative of The Intuitionist; the intimacy of the voice in Sag Harbor was a pleasant diversion from the detached, morose narrator of Apex Hides the Hurt. The terror of figuring out a new genre, of telling a new story, is what makes the job exciting, keeps me from getting bored, and I assume it keeps whoever follows my work from getting bored as well. Until I got to college, I only read horror and science fiction; tales of the fantastic made me love books and want to be a writer. The Intuitionist was my first stab at trying to repurpose a known genre — the detective novel — for my own purposes. It was only a matter of time before I tried my hand at something with monsters and ray guns.
2. Zone One does have in common with Sag Harbor the theme of nostalgia for a place. The new novel’s opening passage is a flashback to a childhood impression of Manhattan — home of the titular zone — from a protagonist who has lost everything, including his name. (He’s known throughout by his post-plague handle, Mark Spitz.) And the skels, too, are drawn to the city — as a freshly minted Manhattanite, one of my favorite lines in the book was “Then as now, they believed the magic of the island would cure them of their sickness.” You’ve explored Manhattan in previous works; what aspects of the borough were you excavating this time out?
My first reader for this book was my friend Richard Nash, editor and publisher and general man-about-town. I was pretty jazzed when I came across his note in the margins: “I realized early on that this was a sort of morose sequel to The Colossus of New York.” Certainly there is longing for the lost home, the lost and bygone self that is erased by the new self. I hadn’t set a novel in my hometown before, and it seemed about time. I had put it off — the same way I had put off using more obviously personal material in my writing, as in Sag Harbor (although if you ask me, Colossus is my most autobiographical book, but what do I know). Being depressed in New York can seem like the end of the world, so it seemed to make sense that if I wanted to write a book about a guy who is depressed in New York, the end of the world was a good place to set it.
3. Your choice of epigraphs — quotations from Walter Benjamin’s “Dream Kitsch,” Ezra Pound’s “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,” and Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome” — suggests that you were tackling head-on the challenge of marrying intellectual and literary substance with pop culture. How do Benjamin, Pound, and Public Enemy connect for you?
I assume Public Enemy is the intellectual and literary substance and Pound is the pop culture…? It’s 2011 — I don’t think it’s that novel to recognize the equivalency of cultural forms. The world is a junkyard — take the parts you need to make the machine work the way you want it to. A song, a poem, an essay lives beyond the time of its creation if it can speak to different generations, cultures, contexts. If the recognition is ignited. The Pound quote is a lyric, perfectly suitable for humming as you step into a subway car at rush hour, the Public Enemy is a simple nugget of morning advice, like “brush your teeth.”
4. On your website, you’ve posted a list of apocalypse-themed films that affected you as a kid. Does one in particular stand out as influencing the book?
When I was a youngster, comic books and novels such as Lucifer’s Hammer and The Stand provided models of the apocalypse, but movies were my true primer — the glorious feel-bad dystopian flicks of the 1960s and 1970s. The inexplicable monsters of Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were my template for this book, as they are for everything we currently categorize as a zombie text. (Happy to discuss aspects of the novel I Am Legend with advanced students!) I was in fifth or sixth grade when the local New York PBS affiliate broadcast the original Romero movie for Halloween, and as someone who rarely encountered the Strong Black Protagonist in movies — outside of blaxploitation flicks — the movie was a revelation. Night of the Living Dead is the story of a black man on the run from the mob of white people who want to destroy him, literally devour him — in other words, it’s a crucial subplot of the America narrative.
5. One of the plague survivors Mark Spitz encounters had been a successful writer of video-game narratives, while Mark Spitz himself had last worked as a marketer with a particular affinity for Twitter (being “a natural at ersatz human connection”). I could easily imagine Zone One being adapted into a first-person shooter, and you write one of the pithiest Twitter feeds on the Internet. Do you see these media as being of a piece with your fiction, or do you struggle to reconcile them at times?
I don’t play video games, but I assume that Zone One would make a pretty boring shooter, what with all the thinkin’ and meditatin’ and musin’ about society and whatnot. As for Twitter, I think Robert De Niro put it best, in The Deer Hunter, when he said “This is this. This ain’t somethin’ else.” Twitter is Twitter — a way of speaking. I talk one way to my Mom and a different way when I talk to my friends, my kid, when I write an op-ed for the Times, when I’m using the proper narrative voice that suits this or that novel. They’re all pretty separate. I’m good at keeping things compartmentalized — if any of you out there needs practice, start with your emotions.
6. The weekend I brought the novel home to read, I passed a pair of young guys in Washington Square Park who were sitting in front of a sign that read “Let’s Talk About Zombies.” To my great regret, I was in a rush and had to pass on the offer. What’s your relationship with zombie culture? Which is to say, Zombie Walks: yea or nay?
I’m too old for Zombie Walks, although I salute the kids in finding their generational accommodation with the zombie equation. One Halloween I saw a really hot zombie on the subway. It made me feel weird, until another source of discomfort took its place soon after. I’m not an elevator inspector, or a junketeering journalist, or a nomenclature consultant, but it’s fun to use these characters for a time, as vehicles for exploring this or that idea. The grief-stricken survivor at the end of world is not someone I consciously identify with, unless I go to Whole Foods or a party or something.
For more of Whitehead’s writing, check out “Wow, fiction works!” from the February 2009 issue. You can also subscribe for a mere $19.97 for one year and get free access to more than 160 years of Harper’s Magazine, including Whitehead’s “Down in Front” and “The Great Reboot.”
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”