The latest from the unpredictable Colson Whitehead, whose last book was the coming-of-age Sag Harbor, is the zombie novel Zone One. Yet it’s also a provocative piece of both literature and cultural commentary, set in a post-plague future that in some ways seems spookily like the present. The humor has as much bite as some of the characters.
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Why do you think zombies have such resonance within contemporary culture?
I stopped doing the "Why is X hot now?" trend piece thing when I stopped being a critic—it's a lot more fun consuming culture than pontificating about it. I can only speak on why the genre resonates with me, which is all that matters when you write a book. Why does it have to be this book, now, as opposed to anything else you might work on? What the culture around you is doing is beside the point. The culture writes its book and you write yours. But as for what zombies mean to me, that brings us to the next question…
What was it about the genre that captured your literary imagination?
The master text is Night of the Living Dead, which I saw when I was a bit too young. I was a struck by the fact that the hero was African-American, which was rare, outside of Blaxploitation movies. Here we had a black man on the run from a crazy white mob that wanted to destroy him—a story as American as apple pie. The zombie world is the normal world suddenly transformed into something horrible, where your friends, family and neighbors are revealed as the monsters they have always been. Or, as a paranoid weirdo, that’s how I’ve always interpreted it.
Every one of your novels might be considered a creative departure. Do you consider your work to be a progression? What, if any, are common characteristics, concerns or themes in your novels?
Progression in that I hope I get better at it the more I do it. It's hard to step outside of myself and say, now I’m doing this or now I’m doing that. In general, I like writing about cities and pop culture. I try to put in some humor, if the subject matter can accommodate it. I'm interested in how race plays out in the culture in different ways. Some of these elements are present in certain books. They are absent in other ones. The needs of the particular project come first, and my personal preoccupations creep in or don’t, depending.
Are there ways in which the city you describe in the novel aren’t that much different from the city you inhabit?
Whenever you write about New York, it's your own personal city, and it borders, overlaps and intersects with the real city, and other residents' cities, only as much as you want it to. After the disaster, [protagonist] Mark Spitz's New York City, which is partially but not entirely mine, is configured to accommodate the requirements of his journey. The streets and buildings are a projection of his psychology, aspects of self.
Will your next novel be as different from Zone One as this is from Sag Harbor?
I spent the spring and early summer in training for the World Series of Poker to write about it for Grantland. It was a long, strange trip, and the story ended up being pretty long, and even then there was still a lot I wasn’t able to put in! I’m expanding that piece into what I think would make a nice little book. So, the answer is yes, I’m changing gears again. Gotta keep moving. Like a zombie.