The novelist Colson Whitehead isn’t new to science fiction and speculative fiction—his 1999 debut novel, The Intuitionist, was set in a world of competing schools of elevator inspectors and the dream of a elevator that could take riders to a perfect society. But his new book, Zone One, on bookshelves today, an elegaic tale of plague, zombie hunters in New York, and the limitations of efforts to build new societies is the result of Whitehead’s longstanding plans to write a monster novel. We spoke at New York Comic Con about choosing average narrators rather than heroic ones, making monsters sympathetic, and the persistence of corporate sponsorship in the apocalypse. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why a zombie novel?
People are wondering. It was reading comic books, and watching horror and science-fiction movies, reading them, H.P. Lovecraft that made me want to be a writer. I’ve never seen much of a division between so-called genre fiction and literary fiction. So when I went to college, I wanted to write werewolf novels. I remember applying to college and saying this to the interviewer, and he’s like ‘No, what do you really want to write?’ and I was like ‘Yeah, no.’ In retrospect, an elevator inspector novel obviously turned out not to be a bestseller. I knew that I would do a horror novel, book seven or book eight. It turned out to be book six. And zombies in particular, seeing Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead when I was nine or ten, too early to be that state-of-the-art makeup, the idea of zombie terror stayed with me.
I’m not prepared to talk about the larger social currents and why they’re big now among twenty-somethings and teenagers. For me, the terror of zombies and also covers Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, the idea that your family and friends and neighbors and teachers could suddenly overnight become monsters, or reveal themselves as the monsters they’ve always been, that’s sort of my bad, Freudian interpretation. And it’s what brought my conception of the book to mind.
In a lot of these zombie stories, the hero is someone who’s really extraordinary, someone who’s going to find the cure, or lead the people to freedom. Mark Spitz, the nickname of the main character through whose eyes we’re seeing the world, is sort of relentless about his averageness. I was wondering how deliberate that choice was to make him representative rather than aspirational?
Yeah, there are the shambling dead, he’s like shambling mediocrity. I think when I was conceiving of the book, I figured, if you’re really high-functioning and really cognizant of what’s going on, you’d jump off a building. And if you’re a C or D person, you’d be killed off quickly. For me, the survivors are all mediocrities. He’s like a mediocrity among mediocrities. I’m not sure what kind of person ought to be in an apocalypse. I’m sure I’d be cut down pretty quickly. But it seems that someone who has always muddled through in organized society, his inefficiency to succeed becomes, actually, a successful adaptation.
He seems sort of cut off. You mention at one point that religion has become more prevalent since the disaster, but he’s also sort of emotionally reserved. Does that make him more like us as the readers?
I’m not sure. Later on, there’s a discussion of what monsters mean, and there’s his interpretation of what monsters mean, and people seem to be latching on to those passages relating how he feels about the other survivors and monsters. So, I kind of have two protagonists. I think in this case
Is it fun to destroy New York?
It’s a devastated the New York. The way Zone One works, it’s kind of like Wall Street at 2am is Zone One. There’s no one around. Everything’s closed. It’s non-residential. And it’s dead…Growing up here in the seventies, there was always an idea of a ruined New York. It’s dirty, rubble is everywhere, the vandals have taken over. So I think that’s definitely in there. The films that I watched as a kid: Escape from New York, The Warriors, Planet of the Apes, you find out the whole time that New York is heading for a bruising and perhaps that bruising is already here.
New York seems to have the seeds of destruction in it. A creative destruction, maybe, because the city keeps changing.
We talk about Bloomberg, and Giuliani, and how they’ve transformed the city over the last fifteen years. The downturn’s going to come. Whether it’s next year or ten years from now. That expansion and contraction is part of the life of the city. Of course, I’m in Brooklyn now…there were progressive waves of immigration, it gets run down in the eighties and nineties, and now it’s a super-rehabbed brownstone wonderland. And then, it goes back and forth.
We don’t have a lot of information. There are all these myths about Nobel prize-winners off working somewhere, but it’s not a particularly omniscient perspective. Does that make things scarier? Or pace out the introduction of the world?
The destruction in the Road Warrior, you can’t really consciously explain the devastation. In the first Night of the Living Dead, there’s a line or two about a satellite that fell down, and maybe there’s radiation, and that’s kind of thrown out afterwards, but we’re in the world of horror. What’s more important is the psychological landscape.
There’s also a winsomeness in the horror when Mark Spitz sees the faces of all the people that he knows in the zombies that he’s killing.
It’s ultimately about this character trying to find a way to make it through the day without getting killed. And how does he process what’s happened to him, and the world, and moving on to the next stage, Buffalo, or the next refuge after this one falls. And in terms of the humor or my personality, I’ve always been much more grim and the jokes start seeping in.
I love Kaitlyn, part of Mark’s team, and this horrible repetition that she’s been Student Council Secretary.
In real life, Gary and Kaitlyn, I would hate them. But I actually do have some affection for them as characters and the family unit they make. They’re dissimilar, they’re throw together, and they have antagonistic personalities. But they are a family. We don’t get a choice in real life, either. But in the apocalypse, you have a smaller pool of people.
Gary and Kaitlyn both struck me as, if not keepers of the civilizational flame, existing institutions. Gary’s excited by the idea of a patent. Kaitlyn’s still clinging to who she was. I thought it was striking that there’s that moment when you talk through some of the social experiments that happened, but you try to keep things as normal as possible.
The systems of the post-apocalyptic stress disorder are the general symptoms to getting up on Monday. You’ve lost some sleep. You can’t eat. You’re gaining weight. You’re losing weight. People like Gary and Kaitlyn are still stragglers in their own way. They’re still tied to their pre-existing notions despite the apocalypse. I’m trying to explore where the borders are between skel and straggler and survivor. How different are they?
There’s a continuum of humanity. There’s a tendency to assume that we’d move towards fascist organizations, that we’d trade freedom for security. But the novel seems to suggest that humans stay human.
The gaudier the structure, the quicker it comes back. So marketing, corporate sponsorships, bureaucracy, bureaucratic incompetence—like, they don’t cap off the top of the island. There are certain tropes about post-apocalyptic stories, especially ones that go on for a couple years. ‘Oh, here’s another refuge and its crazy rules! Oh, now we’ve got to escape!’ And you go to the next one, and the next one. And it’s a critique of every institution being parodied, whether it’s fascistic, utopian, counterculture. So for me, my satirical take is the crappier the existing institution now, the more quickly it will come back.