A 'Zone' Full Of Zombies In Lower Manhattan Colson Whitehead's new novel Zone One is a post-apocalyptic tale of a Manhattan crippled by a plague and overrun with zombies. He explains that he created the novel, in part, to pay homage to the grimy 1970s New York of his childhood.
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A 'Zone' Full Of Zombies In Lower Manhattan

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A 'Zone' Full Of Zombies In Lower Manhattan

A 'Zone' Full Of Zombies In Lower Manhattan

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TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Maybe it's just coincidence, but Colson Whitehead's new novel has been published in the middle of a zombie craze. His novel "Zone One" is set in Manhattan after a plague has spread around the world turning many of the infected into zombies. When the novel begins, the worst of the plague is over and New York's provisional government is trying to restore some semblance of normal life. The main character, Mark Spitz, is part of a team that is supposed to clean out the remaining zombies.

Colson Whitehead is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship - the so-called Genius Award. His novel "John Henry Days," about a journalist assigned to write about the legendary John Henry, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His semi-autobiographical novel "Sag Harbor" is about summering in the middle-class African-American community in the Hamptons.

Colson Whitehead, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a reading from "Zone One." And you want to just set it up for us?

COLSON WHITEHEAD: Sure. In this section, Mark Spitz, our humble protagonist, is hiding out. The end times have come and he's found a refuge with a woman named Mim in a toy store in Connecticut. And he's mulling over how they got here and trying to process how much the world has changed.

The boy that wandered into the cellar of his personality still nursed the naive hunger for a life of adventure. As a kid he'd invented scenarios for adulthood - to outrun a fireball, swing across the air shaft on a wire, dismember the gargoyle army(ph) with an enchanted blade that only he could hold. Now he was grown up and the plague had granted him his wish and rendered it a silly grotesque. It was not so glamorous to spend two days doubled over emptying your guts because you'd gambled on the expired bottle of kiwi juice. All of the other kids turned out to be postal workers, roofers, beloved teachers, and died. Mark Spitz was living the dream. Take a bow, Mark Spitz.

And then he goes on to think about all the movies and TV shows he loved as a kid and the monsters in them. He loved the subgenre of misunderstood aliens and mechanical men who yearn to love. He'd always seen himself in them, the robots who roved the galaxy in search of the emotion chip, the tentacled things that were beneath their muddled puckered membranes, more human than the murderous villagers who hunted them down for their difference. The townspeople, of course, were the real monsters. It was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends and neighbors, as the creatures they'd always been. And what had the plague exposed him to be? Mark Spitz endured as the race was killed off one by one. A part of him thrived on the end of the world. How else to explain it? He had a knack for apocalypse. The plague touched them all, blood contact or no. The secret murderers, dormant rapists and latent fascists were now free to express their ruthless natures. The timid, those who had been stingy with their dreams for themselves, those who came out of the womb scared and remained so, these too found a final stage for their weakness and in their last breaths were fulfilled. I've always been like this. Now I'm more me.

GROSS: That's Colson Whitehead reading from his new novel, "Zone One." So in writing this novel, who did you see yourself as being, and who did you see yourself as being in action and science fiction fantasies that you read when you were young?

WHITEHEAD: Well, you know, I'm part of the Star Wars generation, so sometimes Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Greedo. You know, there's so many folks to choose from there. You know, when I was planning this book, I felt fortunate that I could pay homage to all the comic books and horror and science-fiction novels I read as a kid. It was a big departure for me in terms of some of my other books. But it was staying in a house, being a shut-in as a 10-year-old and just curling up with "The Twilight Zone" or a stack of comic books that made me want to be a writer. So I was glad to finally attack some monsters in the way I wanted to as a kid.

GROSS: I heard a speech that you gave in which you describe yourself as having delicate girlish wrists and slender fingers that aren't cut out for certain work.


GROSS: So I'm trying to imagine you with, you know, with your delicate girlish wrists thinking of yourself as like Harrison Ford running from the fireball and, you know, imagining yourself in all these like action fantasies. How did that jive for you?

WHITEHEAD: Well, you know...


WHITEHEAD: ...it's role-play, and sometimes the hero wins and then sometimes he's at the end of the post-apocalyptic film just staring out into the wasteland. And for me, you know, both those parts of the experience are important.

GROSS: But I love the image of you being basically a shut-in, not because you're sick but because you prefer to be at home reading. Thinking of yourself as having these, you know, like girlish wrists and yet...


GROSS: ...imagining yourself all the time as being like the hero in the action film.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I mean, you know, I think I envied kids who could go out and play football and soccer. That wasn't my sort of gig. My gig was...

GROSS: Saving the world.


WHITEHEAD: Saving the world, shutting the door and imagining myself as Spider-Man. You know, in the late '70s, Spider-Man had this great narrative where he was a struggling freelancer, he lives in a crappy studio apartment, and I thought I would love to be a struggling freelancer in a crappy studio apartment dodging my landlord (unintelligible).


GROSS: So let's talk about the scenario that you've created. What is the plague that destroys so much of New York?

WHITEHEAD: The plague is a zombie plague - and I'm still trying to get over saying zombie out loud so many times of a day. And the infected and dead are about 95 percent of the population, and then there are the survivors. And the plague is running down, they're rebuilding society. There are camps of survivors here and there across the country and now they've decided to tackle New York. It's an island. You can go through and sweep out the remaining zombies, the plague-ridden wretches. And our hero, Mark Spitz, is part of a team of sweepers. The Army has swept out most of the creatures and Omega Team, Mark's team, is going door-to-door in residential buildings, office buildings, and getting that remaining one percent of the monsters who are lurking in closets and in storerooms so that they can resettle Manhattan and bring the survivors home.

GROSS: So the people who are left include the living, the skels, and the stragglers. What are skels?

WHITEHEAD: The skels are what we know as conventional zombies, slow-moving. They gain their horrific potential in groups. And then there are stragglers, which I added to the mix. And stragglers are malfunctioning zombies. They are the human statues. Once they've been infected they go to places that were important to them - places that are emotionally charged. So if you were a lawyer, you might follow your homing instincts and go to your office and sit in your chair and wait for clients who never come. If you are a shrink you might go to your office and wait for patients who are dead and are probably not going to show up for their 1:00 appointments. So downtown is littered with these stragglers, these human statues who are representing some sort of aspect of their past.

GROSS: And there's something so creepy about that concept.


GROSS: If you were straggler, where would you be?

WHITEHEAD: Oh, probably on my couch watching the evening news and unwinding, waiting for a broadcast that's never going to come.

GROSS: Right.


WHITEHEAD: For a weather report that really had no impact on me.

GROSS: Do the zombies in your book have any consciousness of the fact that they're zombies?

WHITEHEAD: As far as the zombies, we don't know what they're thinking. I doubt it's that complicated. I'm kind of hungry. Whole Foods is closed, so...


WHITEHEAD: ...I go after this guy right here. Part of what I'm trying to do in the book is erase that line between the infected and the uninfected. The stragglers are tied to emotionally charged places in their past and so are the survivors. They're also ghosts haunting themselves, the people they used to be, the homes, their homes that no longer exist. So whether you have the plague in your blood or not, you're kind of zombie-like is what I'm trying to say, I think.

GROSS: Now, Buffalo, New York has become the home of the provisional government, and the best and brightest have been sent there to rewind the catastrophe, and in return they have a 24-hour a day generator and un-curtailed hot showers on command, which is a really big deal in this post-apocalyptic world. And one of the things they're tackling in the provisional government is language, trying to describe the post-plague world; they're rebranding the survival. They have specialists crafting the new language. What were some of your inspirations...


GROSS: ...for this rebranding?

WHITEHEAD: When I was conceiving the novel I just had the idea that people are pretty much the same after the disaster, they're just a little more bummed out. And so it seems that marketing will come back pretty quickly, bureaucracy, all those sorts of things. And if you are trying to marshal a very depressed populace towards a new future, you are going to need a song, "Stop, Can You Hear the Eagle Roar," which is, you know, the uplifting anthem that people are humming under their breath. You're going to need a name for this new class of people, the American Phoenix, we're rising from the ashes. So it seemed that that kind of corporate sloganeering would come back pretty early along with the desire for gourmet coffee, fresh arugula and all those sorts of nice things that we associate with contemporary society.

GROSS: So the anthem for the new world is "Stop" - exclamation point - "Can You Hear the Eagle Roar," parentheses, theme from Reconstruction, and I love the fact that you've made the anthem a parentheses song.

WHITEHEAD: Well, you know, you love those, you know, all those pop songs that are like "You're Rolling Me" - parentheses - "Like a Pair of Dice."


WHITEHEAD: So I thought the book would be a lot more, well, hopefully the book is gloomy but the jokes started creeping in pretty early and I had to embrace that. So even though I have killed off most of the population, there, you know, there are tiny cracks where my bits of dark humor can flower.

GROSS: So can you sing the song - the anthem?

WHITEHEAD: I should probably hire a songwriter to actually make a melody. The lyrics will be fun to write. I should get on that. But it's probably close to, you know, things they play at baseball games or any sort of sports match. I don't actually go to any sports matches. Are they even called sports matches? I'm not sure.


GROSS: Tennis matches.

WHITEHEAD: Games. Games.

GROSS: My guest is Colson Whitehead. His new post-apocalyptic zombie novel is called "Zone One." More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Colson Whitehead. His new novel is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel called "Zone One." So why are zombies and vampires so popular now? Why do you think?

WHITEHEAD: I wish I could tell you. I mean my strange affinity goes back to when I was a kid. I read a lot of horror novels and watched a lot of horror movies, B movies, good horror movies like "The Thing," bad movies like "Horror of Party Beach," and I was definitely too young to, you know, to see these things. So I saw "Dawn of the Dead" in junior high...

GROSS: So the Romero films - George Romero films.

WHITEHEAD: Yes. The second one, zombie classic, and it was rated X, you know, no one under 18 admitted, but my parents took me and my brother on a family outing, it was very pleasant, and since then I've had zombie anxiety dreams. So some people have anxiety dreams about showing up for an exam they didn't know, you know, for a class they didn't know they had or having to give a presentation and they're unprepared. I've had zombie anxiety dreams for the last 30 years. And sometimes they're fast, they're slow, I'm alone, with friends, in the city or the country, basically depending on what's going on in my life. And this book started from a dream I had two and half years ago.

Finally, one of my dreams was useful. I was out of the country with some houseguests, it was very lovely. And I had this dream that I wanted to go out into the living room of my house but I was wondering if they'd swept the zombies out yet. And then I woke up, and usually when you have a dream and you're sort of aware it's a dream and you think I have to remember this when I wake up, it's going to be a good book and then we wake up and it's terrible. This time I woke up and thought this is a real actual logistical nightmare. How do you get rid of the zombies when you're trying to rebuild society? And that's how the book started for me.

GROSS: So when your parents took you to see "Dawn of the Dead," even though it was rated X, and it was rated X because it was so graphic. I mean, the zombies are, like, eating, they're just, like, chewing on legs and arms. It's a really, really gory film. And you had signed the nightmares ever since. So did your parents do the right thing or the wrong thing by taking you to see that exceptionally gory zombie film?

WHITEHEAD: I got a book out of it.


WHITEHEAD: You know...

GROSS: Thirty years later.

WHITEHEAD: Thirty years later. So it paid off. I mean, I think - we didn't have babysitters, my brother and I. We would just go to Crazy Eddie, which was an old video store in New York City, every Friday and rent Betamax tapes of late '70s splatter movies and classic horror movies, Dario Argento, and have these horror film festivals. And until - I think until college I wanted to write horror novels. I wanted to write the black "Shining" or the black "Salem's Lot." Basically, if you took any Stephen King title and put the black in front of it, that was sort of my aspiration.

GROSS: So when you were young, you wanted to write the black "The Shining" or any - take any Stephen King novel and put the black in front of it. So what's going on racially in your new novel? Is your character African-American? Is he white? Is race an issue? Is this truly like - is it a post-racial world and a post-apocalyptic world?


WHITEHEAD: You know, I mean, the word post-racial is so funny these days. Folks think that because Obama was elected, suddenly racism disappeared, you know, the day after, on November 6th. And, of course, it didn't. We don't live in a post-racial world. However, it seems when folks have the apocalypse on their plate - or at least it seemed to me - that racial differences, class differences, your funny accent, these things aren't as important as finding that last can of peas and maybe a bag of beef jerky that will get you through a couple days food.

GROSS: And making sure that the person isn't a zombie.

WHITEHEAD: Yes. That helps. That helps.



GROSS: Right.

WHITEHEAD: So "Zone One" is a post-racial world, simply because they have more things on their mind than skin color, gender difference.

GROSS: Now, when you were growing up in Manhattan, you went to prep school. And you said you were often the only African-American in the room. And when you'd go to a bar mitzvah, which you did a lot...


GROSS: ...growing up in Manhattan.

WHITEHEAD: It was a great time. I mean, that was my introduction to chicken on skewers...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WHITEHEAD: ...finger food. You know, I look back very fondly.

GROSS: Little egg rolls?

WHITEHEAD: Yes. Oh, God.


GROSS: So how did that shape your sense of what it meant to be black?

WHITEHEAD: It didn't shape my sense of what it is to be black. I mean, it helped with my outsider-ness. And I think if you're an outsider, as you are in a predominantly white prep school, you become a observer. You start to think about where you end and other folks begin, the sort of alien community that you're part of, half-digested, trying to navigate. But that kind of otherness can be found in so many sectors of daily experience, and I try to tackle that in "Sag Harbor." We have this prep school kid who divides his time between New York City, where he's in a mostly white environment in school, and an African-American community in Sag Harbor in the Hamptons, a middle-class, upper-middle-class enclave. And he toggles back and forth between an all-black society and a mostly white society and tries to figure out who he is and who he's becoming.

GROSS: In "Sag Harbor," your semi-autobiographical novel about summering in the Hamptons in African-American summering community there, the character describes his parents as being from the uplift-the-race category. And I'm wondering if you would describe your parents that way, too. And if so, how did that relate to their expectations of you?

WHITEHEAD: There's some of that in their personality. You know, they're the civil rights generation, and I'm the product of their struggles and what they - and their aspirations and what they wanted for their kids. And they're the product of their parents' strivings, being the first doctors, lawyers in their family, this newly emergent black middle class in the '20s. So they had certain - I think, you know, they wanted me to have a decent job and make a lot of money. And when I told them I wanted to be a writer, they weren't incredibly psyched. I mean, I was fortunate to get a job at the Village Voice and supporting myself doing journalism, not supporting myself in a very lofty style, but I had money for beer, and that helped.

And even when I was being a journalist, they sort of didn't understand and assumed I would get with the program and become a lawyer. I didn't. I started writing novels. The first one didn't go anywhere. And I think it wasn't until my first, "The Intuitionist," came out that they were fully on board. They could actually see a review of it in a newspaper and say, oh, it's actually something that's real. And even if you didn't go into investment banking or brain surgery, he can take care of himself.

GROSS: One of your first book jobs, perhaps your very first book job, was working at the Village Voice, the first - I think it's fair to say the first really big alternative weekly newspaper.


GROSS: And you were, what, assistant book review editor, or assistant to the book review editor?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I was about six months out of college, and it was my job to open the 40 books a day we got from publishers, file them, answer the phones. I had to get a phone voice, because I was a big mumbler, so voice literary supplements.


WHITEHEAD: That was a real milestone for me. And, I mean, it was a great time and a great opportunity. I'm not sure how kids find journalism jobs these days. But because, you know, the Village Voice thought of itself as a writer's paper, if you hung around and badgered folks, you would get an assignment. And if it was okay, you'd get the second one. And so I started off in the TV section, because the editor seemed like an easy mark. And he gave me...


WHITEHEAD: ...an assignment, and that led to other stuff. So I never took any creative writing classes in college. I tried to audition for them, and then I was turned down both times, which was very depressing. But I became a writer at the Voice, you know, filing once a week. If you write a good article, you get great feedback. Good job, Colson. If you are too self-indulgent and spend the first four paragraphs talking about your romantic woes or why you're depressed, you hear nothing. So you know you sort of screwed up, and maybe you should not be so voice-oriented and more attentive to the job at hand. And then that gave me the confidence to start writing fiction, even though I never - I'd only written maybe, you know, four stories in my whole life.

GROSS: My guest is Colson Whitehead. His novels include "Sag Harbor," "John Henry Days," and the new post-apocalyptic novel "Zone One." This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Colson Whitehead. His new, post-apocalyptic zombie novel is called "Zone One." His 2009 semi-autobiographical novel "Sag Harbor" is about summering in an African-American community near the ocean in the Hamptons.

There's an incident that happens in your novel "Sag Harbor," and I was wondering if this is based on anything that happened to you. The main character, who is African-American, is with some kids who are white. A one of the white kids drags his finger across the main character's cheek and said look, it doesn't come off - referring to his color. And, you know, the kid tells the incident to his father. And the father gets really angry that his son didn't hit the white kid, that his son just kind of took this insult, which the father considered the equivalent of calling the kid the N word. So is that based on a real incident?

WHITEHEAD: I would say based. You know, I think - you know, my father's upbringing was nothing more rough-and-tumble, and I think you become more aware of those tiny, insidious moments where the world is teaching you what actually it thinks of you. I grew up with, you know, great friends, went to a school where I was with the same, you know, gang of kids from kindergarten on, and was definitely insolated from certain realities - sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way.

So in "Sag Harbor," I was trying to pick out small moments like that, things that happened to my friends, happened to me and slow them down and unpack them and try to deconstruct what's going on in these moments of real racial animosity, but also just racial misunderstanding. Some white folks don't understand that, actually, black people don't like have their head - their hair patted. It's just hair. It's just an afro. You find it springy. Wow. That's great. Don't touch me.

So I did endure a certain amount of head-patting as a kid, and trying to, like, figure out what's going on in folks' brains when they reach out and touch your afro was sort of a fun part of writing "Sag Harbor."

GROSS: So, one more zombie question for you. When - ever since your parents took you to see "Dawn of the Dead," you had zombie dreams, and one of those zombie dreams inspired your new novel, "Zone One." So now that you've written a novel and really spent a lot of time thinking about zombies...


GROSS: ...do you still have zombie dreams, or have they disappeared?

WHITEHEAD: They've slowed down. I mean, I had one last week, so because...

GROSS: Did you really? What was the dream?

WHITEHEAD: I can't remember.


WHITEHEAD: I can't remember. There's no book in it, so that's - I think that's how I'm thinking about them these days. But instead of having one a month now, it's one a year. So I did work out a few of my psychological hang-ups in going through the book. There is a lot of me in there. You know, my last book was more obviously drawing from my personal life, but there's a lot of me in Mark Spitz and the other characters as they try to, you know figure out the next stage and wrestle with some demons. So I think I did make some progress on my emotional to-do list, if only getting the anxiety dreams down to one a year.

GROSS: One a year?

WHITEHEAD: Is that too many?


GROSS: No. That's nothing.


GROSS: One a year?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. It's only been nine months since I finished the book, so we'll see how the next couple of years pan out.


GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

WHITEHEAD: It was a lot of fun. It got me out of the house, worth big bucks in my world.


GROSS: Are you still a shut-in?


WHITEHEAD: Yeah. When you work at home - you know, you write, you work at home. So those are the rhythms of my days.

GROSS: And that suits you?

WHITEHEAD: Yes. I like it just fine.

GROSS: Colson Whitehead's new novel is called "Zone One." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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