Not so long ago, women dominated black folks' literary playing field: Edwidge Danticat, Terry McMillan, Bebe Moore Campbell, even British phenom Zadie Smith. Colson Whitehead parachuted onto that field in 1999 with The Intuitionist, somewhat of a detective novel featuring elevator inspectors that Time magazine famously called "the freshest racial allegory since Invisible Man and The Bluest Eye." The late John Updike praised Whitehead's tight follow-up, John Henry Days, as "an ambitious, finely chiseled work" in the New Yorker. Unpredictably enough, his newest, fifth novel, Zone One, details a zombie apocalypse in Manhattan.
A native New Yorker (see his detailed, post-September 11 love letter to the city, The Colossus of New York), Whitehead recently brought Brooklynites out in the rain to his friendly neighborhood's Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene for a reading. His career-spanning, comical monologue included an iPad sample of Donna Summer's "MacArthur Park." (How's that for a non sequitur?) The 41-year-old Harvard grad, MacArthur "genius" grant recipient and daddy, who lives streets away with wife Natasha Stovall and their 7-year-old daughter, Madeline, seemed both relaxed and energized. In a private back office of Loop 21, he spoke of 70s apocalypse films, Michael Jackson's Thriller and (off the record) the wonderful world of four-color comics:
Before The Intuitionist, you worked at The Village Voice. How do you feel about the diminishing relevance of magazines and arts weeklies in the age of the Internet?
That's the way of the world. Technology changes the way people read and receive information. I grew up reading the Village Voice and wanting to be one of these multidisciplinary music writers, film writers, book writers. And I lucked out getting a job at the Voice right after college. I'm not sure how people break into the business now. I mean, you have a blog, you get noticed, you try to make it work. I read most of my stuff online, I rarely go to newsstands. And there's plenty to read. So I think writers didn't disappear; the way people receive their information has changed.
You researched a lot for John Henry Days. What did you gorge on before writing Zone One?
The direct inspirations are the [George] Romero trilogy -- Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead -- and then a lot of those post-apocalyptic films: Escape from New York, Planet of the Apes, Damnation Alley. So I watched those again. Some have held up, some haven't. The John Carpenter films, mid-70s stuff like Assault on Precinct 13. I watched my old childhood favorites again, and that's all the research I did. I'm not drawing upon so much contemporary ideas of the zombie, but my own sort of juvenile exposure.
For me, the all-time best horror films are The Exorcist, The Omen and Rosemary's Baby. For you?
Love The Omen. We worshiped Omen II. I saw it in the theater, I was like eight or nine. [Laughs] So all those movies. And the Betamax enabled that, 'cause we would just go to Crazy Eddie every Friday and get a stack of five movies. We had a social lodge in junior high, and we'd just watch bad B-movies, bad splatter. But also [director] Dario Argento -- Hitchcock if there was somebody getting killed in it.
Tell us all how you first saw Michael Jackson's zombie-filled Thriller video.
I never thought of them as zombies, because they were dancing, and he's a human. He turns into a zombie, so in retrospect, I guess they are. But it was the MTV premiere. They pimped it for, like, a week. And then we bought the Betamax tape [Making Michael Jackson's Thriller] the day it came out, with the behind-the-scenes talking to [director] John Landis. We were a horror-loving family and we loved An American Werewolf in London, which I think is why he was hired to do it.
You guys really bought a Betamax player?
We always had the wrong format. [Laughs] So it was Intellivision, not Atari...That's just our family curse.
With Zone One, like The Intuitionist, you create a fictional world whole cloth rather than "writing what you know," as with the semi-autobiographical Sag Harbor and The Colossus of New York. What are the relative merits of both?
Sag Harbor was a realistic novel. Realism is a tool that has certain ends. Fantasy has different ends. They're both trying to get at reality, but in different ways. So inventing a world with its own rules, whether with Zone One or The Intuitionist, is difficult. And then trying to excavate your own life to figure out what you can use in a novel, what to throw out, is hard. It's just two different ways of doing the same job and they're both equally horrible.
Read the rest at Loop21.