STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The novelist Colson Whitehead won a following with stories that explore a world that's both familiar and a little skewed - or a lot. Consider the man at the center of Whitehead's new book, "Zone One."
COLSON WHITEHEAD: It's about a guy just trying to make it to the next day without being killed. So it's about New Yorkers.
INSKEEP: People in New York City in the near future that's been devastated. A mysterious plague has swept the world, turning billions of people into zombies who walk around seeking nothing except to bite and infect other people. "Zone One" is the story of the human survivors who are clearing the undead from Lower Manhattan. They bag and remove the zombies, which they call skels, hoping the island can be reinhabited. Colson Whitehead began talking with us about this book in an extended interview on Twitter some days ago, and now we continue on the radio.
WHITEHEAD: The plague that's ruined the world is in remission and we're trying to rebuild society. So our main character, Mark Spitz, is part of a team who's working downtown New York trying to clear out the angry remaining dead from buildings. They go door to door. And Mark Spitz is trying to find his way to the next human settlement.
INSKEEP: What made you want to destroy New York City, of all places?
WHITEHEAD: New York is always destroyed. I mean I think Giuliani, Bloomberg, they got rid of the old New York. I think each time you destroy a tenement and put up a luxury tower, you're ruining New York and making some sort of new - a new version of the city. And I'm walking around with my idea of what New York was 30 years ago, 20 years ago. So is everybody else. And we superimpose that ruined city over what's here now. So it's cleaned up but we're still seeing that old shoe store or dry cleaners, that old apartment where we used to live. So any street you walk down in New York is a heap of rubble because that's sort of how we see it if we've been here a while. So it was about time for me artistically to take a stab at my hometown. And...
INSKEEP: A stab - that's a nice metaphor for wiping out the entire population.
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, certainly. Well, I wanted, you know, to cut back on the Whole Foods lines and make it easier to get a cab for my main characters.
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WHITEHEAD: So if you get rid of 90 percent of the population, life gets a bit easier in the city.
INSKEEP: Now and again you have a description of a zombie walking through the streets of New York City wearing his old pinstripe suit, wearing his old clothes, and it makes you think of some guy who's lost his job, who's wandering around, sitting on a park bench.
WHITEHEAD: I can read that part. It's right in front of me. In this section, Omega team, Mark Spitz is on this team of sweepers, sweeping building to building and they're having a conference in Tribeca, and they see something coming down the street. (Reading) The skel wore a morose and deeply stained pinstripe suit with a solid crimson tie and dark brown tasseled loafers. A casualty, Mark Spitz thought. It was no longer a skel but a version of something that predated the anguishes. Now it was one of those laid-off or ruined businessmen who pretend to go to the office for the family's sake, spending all day on a park bench with missing slats to feed the pigeons bagel bits, his briefcase full of empty potato chip bags and flyers for massage parlors.
INSKEEP: That does feel like current events to me.
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, I mean whether you're a zombie or a survivor, you're pretty much in Zone One. You're going through your remembered motions, you're a ghost haunting your former life.
INSKEEP: Did you hesitate to put out a book about zombies? Because I feel like you're trying to tell me something serious here. I really get that. But some people might not take you seriously, because, well, it's a book about zombies.
WHITEHEAD: Well, for me, you know, I wrote a book about elevator inspectors. When I was writing it I would tell my friends and they would say, what are you doing, you're an idiot, and I would say, yes I am but this is what I have to do. I don't really have much of a choice. And I did have to give myself permission, because zombies are so popular. But I think the idea is that if it's good, people will read it. And so all I could do is really just salute my childhood influences and try to do the best I could in reinvigorating the genre or putting a new spin on it.
INSKEEP: Had you grown up with apocalyptic stories, apocalyptic films, zombie films?
WHITEHEAD: Well, I mean, I grew up in New York in the '70s, and so I took films like "The Warriors" and "Escape from New York" as documentaries. You know, other kids did sports. I liked to hang around watching "The Twilight Zone" and various movies about the end of the world, whether it was "Planet of the Apes," "Damnation Alley." And so that's part of the city I carry with me from my childhood. And partially in doing this book I was trying to pay homage to certain cinematic depictions of a ruined New York.
INSKEEP: What makes an apocalyptic story succeed, as opposed to one that is forgotten?
WHITEHEAD: There has to be some glimmer of hope, that refuge, whether mythological or real, that keeps people going. You pile on the misery, and certainly I devised certain mishaps. I guess, well, frankly, I killed off a lot of my characters and did bad things to them. But there has to be some idea that you can get to a place where you can put the plague, the atomic bomb, the asteroid behind you and make a new life for yourself with the other survivors.
INSKEEP: You told us in this Twitter interview that we did that you were in a bad mood most of the time you were writing this.
WHITEHEAD: I think it helped. You know, I have an idea of how I, you know, construct work, how I make characters, situations. And then there's that hidden current of what's actually going on in your life and how it's being expressed or is kind of submerged in the writing. So you know, over the course of two years, you have your own ups and downs. I think navigating my own personal catastrophes I think helped the book in a certain sort of way. If that's vague enough.
INSKEEP: Well, I was going to ask, actually, to the extent you're comfortable sharing, what personal catastrophes?
WHITEHEAD: Um, yes. Certain life changes. My father died a few months before I started the book.
INSKEEP: I'm sorry to hear that.
WHITEHEAD: Got divorced. And I think there's something about finding the next place of safety, which I think fed the book in a bit.
INSKEEP: So have you worked out, now, your youthful obsession with zombies and the apocalypse and so forth?
WHITEHEAD: Well, I mean, that was part of the hope. You know, some kids, some grownups have anxiety dreams about talking in front of a group of people and they're naked or they've forgotten the big, all the materials for their presentation and they're unprepared. I've always had zombie anxiety dreams ever since, you know, seeing "Dawn of the Dead" when I was in junior high. So once a month I have some zombie dream. They're fast, they're slow. Sometimes they talk. Sometimes I'm alone. And I was definitely hoping that I would end this particular manifestation of anxiety dream by writing the book. And I was 95 percent successful. I had one a couple of days ago. Perhaps that's tied to publication. I'm not sure.
INSKEEP: Oh, oh. Or maybe the Twitter interview we were doing at the time may have prompted...
WHITEHEAD: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: Well, Colson Whitehead, congratulations on the book. It's called "Zone One."
WHITEHEAD: Thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun.
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INSKEEP: And you can read our complete annotated Twitter interview with Colson Whitehead. It lives - online. There's a link at NPR.org and also on Twitter @NPRInskeep.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.