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Q and A: Colson Whitehead
“I’m here because I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else,” says Colson Whitehead in his 2003 book of essays The Colossus of New York. Born and raised in Manhattan, a student at Trinity, a writer at the Village Voice, Whitehead is truly a lifelong New Yorker. So in celebration of Tin House’s latest issue, it is only fitting to share a conversation with long-time Brooklyn resident, and master of ceremonies for Tin House’s 10th anniversary celebration, Colson Whitehead.
Whitehead spoke with writer David Naimon, host of Between The Covers, at the studios of KBOO 90.7 FM in Portland, Oregon, about Zone One, a distinctly literary take on the horror genre, a book that manages to be a ruminative meditation while also delighting in the grotesque fun of a zombie apocalypse overtaking Manhattan.
David Naimon: Our protagonist in Zone One, Mark Spitz, is a sweeper. Tell us what a sweeper is and what exactly he is up against at the beginning of the novel.
Colson Whitehead: The book takes off from various entries in the zombie apocalypse genre. Which for me is a film genre. I grew up on the first Romero trilogy and various post-apocalyptic films. And those are the main inspirations for the book. Sweepers are people trying to put society back together after the apocalypse is in abeyance. Most of the zombies are dead. There are settlement camps up and down the east coast and the survivors have this idea that they can resettle Manhattan. It’s an island, so you can block off the bridges and the tunnels. And once you get the plague-infected wretches out of the residential towers and corporate buildings, people can live there again. So the army has gone through and swept out 99% of the monsters and now civilian teams, volunteers, are going door to door, getting the remainders.
DN: And those are the sweepers?
CW: Yeah, the sweepers are the civilian volunteers. The book has a little bit of lingo. The sweepers, the skels—that is the name of the zombies in the book, for their skeletal appearance. And then there are the stragglers. Stragglers are a variant of the zombies in the book. They are kind of like ghosts. Instead of feasting on human flesh they feast on their own pasts. So, once they get infected they head, as if by homing signal, to places they are emotionally attached to, neurotically fixated upon.
DN: I had a soft spot for the stragglers. I know that might sound strange. This is your contribution to zombie lore, the idea of the straggler who is caught in doing one last nostalgic gesture that they are trapped in in the end. I saw these sad souls going back to these poignant places in their lives and their jobs and becoming frozen there. And it was touching actually.
CW: Well, yeah. I’m trying to talk about nostalgia and the idea of the self. In the same way that the stragglers are completely stuck on who they used to be even though the situation on the ground has changed, the survivors are also stuck in the past, trying to bring their former lives into this new world of the disaster. And, of course, it doesn’t go as planned. So, in comparing the uninfected survivors with the infected stragglers and skels, I’m trying to break down the divisions between the two, to figure out what is dead about the living, and what is still living in the dead.
DN: On a superficial level this feels like a big departure from your previous books. Obviously with Sag Harbor we have an African-American teenager spending the summer on the wealthy beaches of Long Island. But on another level it feels like Zone One is squarely a literary book, just dealing with a genre topic. How do you balance these two things, fulfilling the tropes of the genre, and doing these meditations, these contemplations on society?
CW: My first book, The Intuitionist, was a take-off on the detective novel. Partially I’m paying tribute to what I love about the detective genre. And I’m trying to invent my own way of dealing with the conventions, rejecting some, embracing others. I’m doing the same thing in Zone One. In Sag Harbor, it is sort of an anti-coming of age novel. So I was trying to understand what made that type of story tick and deconstruct it. So I’m always doing my shtick no matter what sort of rhetorical prop I’m using, whether it is teenagers in Sag Harbor or flesh-eating monsters in Zone One. They really are just rhetorical flourishes that allow me to talk about society, people. This book to me is not so much about blowing up monsters’ heads but about how to survive in a changed world, negotiating the before and after. Whether you’ve encountered a big disaster in your life, a communal one, or a private one, how do you make the change, navigate this new landscape and remain intact.
DN: A lot of your books deal either directly or obliquely with issues of race, and while Zone One doesn’t, I wondered if part of your attraction to zombies, versus, say, vampires or werewolves, had to do with the strange racial history of zombies. In doing research about them, I discovered all sorts of things I didn’t know—that the original zombies to enter American consciousness were from Haiti, blacks disinterred and animated to work for the American Sugar Company because they were considered docile, hard laborers. And that at one point it was considered a novelty for a zombie to be white. Of course that changed later on but I was curious if you were intrigued by that history and if that somehow played into the choice of zombies.
CW: My history of zombies starts with the novel I Am Legend. The Haitian zombie, for me, does not connect so much as post World War II fiction and film. I locate the terror of the zombie apocalypse in the idea that suddenly your friends, your family, your neighbors, the guy at the café, all these people can be revealed as the monsters you’ve always sort of suspected them to be. So my idea encompasses Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the fifties version and the ’78 version, the early Romero entries where the rules of our civilized society are turned on their heads. Everyone you’ve trusted and loved your whole life is now against you. And that’s a sad commentary on my psychology but that’s how I’ve always interpreted it. But definitely seeing Night of the Living Dead when I was in sixth grade, seeing a really strong black protagonist resonated with me. I’d seen a lot of blaxploitation films. But seeing just a normal Joe who is on the run from a white mob who wants to destroy him seems to be a part of the American chronicle. And George Romero will say in interviews that he cast Duane Jones, the African-American actor, just because he was the best person who auditioned. And he didn’t realize until later what sort of resonance it would have in post-civil rights America. But it definitely stuck with me and made me attached to the genre.
DN: Similar to the Romero films it feels like you put the reader in an unusual position since you are also doing commentary on society. I didn’t exactly want the zombies to win but I also couldn’t entirely cheer for the humans because it felt like they were so eager to recreate this society of corporate consumerism. Tell us about this branded, zombie-like human effort to reconstruct New York.
CW: Even before I wrote a word I was trying to figure out what are the features of this particular apocalypse. And early on I decided that living in the end times in a ruined world is pretty much like living before, it’s just that 95% of the population is dead and people are more bummed out. When the characters in the book try to reestablish society they are still stuck in their old grooves. And I think the worst parts of contemporary society will come back quickly. So for me that is marketing, our need for fresh organic greens. It’s corporate branding, a need for catchy slogans. The government plucks a songwriter out of the wasteland, and he comes up with an anthem for reconstruction called “Stop Can Your Hear The Eagle Roar.” People are humming this as they go about destroying zombies. So, in the same way that the stragglers and the skels are not too far removed from the survivors in a certain kind of way, the pre-disaster self is very much overlapping, merging with the post-disaster self.
DN: It feels both very realistic and dispiriting that they would so quickly be thinking of things like types of furniture to put in the condominium, or the different sponsored products that the Army are using, furnished by the various corporations vying to be the biggest part of the reconstruction.
CW: It’s all they know. It’s those creature comforts and consumerist ideals they’ve been chasing their whole lives that will guide them pretty swiftly after things start to get back to normal.
DN: Interestingly, there seemed to be more joy and humor in your descriptions of the grotesqueness of the zombies, and more of a nauseating dread in your descriptions of the brands and the products. It felt like a heap of human trash was accumulating, that people were wondering about shopping again while still trying to eliminate the city from these so-called zombies
CW: Well, sure. The zombie world is not too far away. If you’ve ever tried to catch a train at rush hour in Grand Central or any sort of big transportation hub, or try to go shopping at Whole Foods at 6pm on a weekend, you are in a zombie world for a few minutes, in the blind mob after their grubby ends. It’s part of my take on where we’ll be once it all goes down.
DN: Let’s talk about New York. I know you set some of your work there. Was there a specific reason other than that, that you decided to destroy New York versus somewhere else?
CW: This is actually my first novel that takes place in the city itself. The Intuitionist takes place in a kind of detective novel Gotham that is like an essential city, not necessarily New York. So I was overdue to set a novel in the city. And I think from growing up in Manhattan in the 70s and 80s when the city was broke, when it was being ravaged by the crack epidemic, that ruined city was part of the original conception of where I live. And if you live any place for any real amount of time you are always superimposing that city you’ve known for years over what’s there now. Outside the studio twenty years ago perhaps was a run-down stretch of Portland. Now there are hipster cafes, a hip hotel—The Jupiter Hotel, around the corner, but if you are a long-time resident you can see that ruined Portland that used to be your landscape and still superimpose it. So it’s that idea of the kind of city we see in front of us and walk around with that animates some of Mark Spitz’s relationship with zone one. He’s a suburban kid who always wanted to move to New York to become that sophisticated city fellow of legend. So as he walks through the devastated city he can still insert his childhood dreams of being a metropolitan dandy. And, of course, he can’t go back there.
DN: In that sense, Zone One feels like a companion piece to The Colossus of New York. You have an essay in Colossus, entitled “Lost and Found,” where you talk about how you know you are a New Yorker when you can remember something that no longer exists, that’s been destroyed, that’s been replaced.
CW: I wrote that right after 9/11 and I was trying to grapple with my city which had become briefly ruined for me. And I was trying to figure out, partially through writing that, how I could live in this place that I loved so much when it had been changed forever. I wasn’t directly writing about 9/11 in Zone One. I think it is in there within a larger notion of disaster. Our disasters are communal sometimes, felt by our whole communities, or private, a death in the family or losing your job. So the heart of Zone One is really about Mark Spitz finding that new self in the aftermath of a catastrophe. But he is using some of the tropes that are in Colossus to describe how he feels about the city.
DN: Mark Spitz as a sweeper was, at least for me, very evocative of Giuiliani, with his sweeping of undesirables off the island. I don’t know if that was intentional but when you talk about layers of memory and how different New Yorkers have different New Yorks in their minds, when I think about people just going in and sweeping out the people they don’t want to be there anymore in Zone One, I couldn’t help but think of him
CW: It wasn’t intentional. [laughs] But it was probably in there now that you mention it.
DN: I know you say this isn’t a 9/11 book but it definitely has a lot that is evocative of it. I think of “ground zero” and “zone one” having a resonance in sound and name. And the idea of post-apocalyptic stress disorder, which everyone in Zone One is suffering from, surely that’s something similar to what people must have been experiencing after 9/11.
CW: Yeah, the survivors are diagnosed with this condition, post-apocalyptic stress disorder and the symptoms are insomnia, eating too much, sleeping too much, eating too little, irritability, headaches, nightmares, and that’s basically the symptoms of anyone on a Monday morning. So the traumatized survivor self again isn’t too far from the harried, existential modern person.
DN: So do you think you are going to continue in the horror/sci-fi genre with your next book?
CW: I’m not sure. Since I am sort of perversely jumping from style to style I probably wouldn’t do another horror one next. I just finished this book in January so we were editing all spring. And I could use a rest. So I’m just going to chill. You know, I’m teaching two days a week, hang out with my kid, and watch a lot of TV for the next year or so.
DN: That sounds like a great year. You’re going to be a zombie next year!
CW: [laughs] Yes! Back to my old shtick, yeah.