Colson Whitehead

The Rumpus Interview with Colson Whitehead

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Colson Whitehead is the author of many novels, including The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, and most recently, Zone One. He has a collection of essays, The Colossus of New York, about New York City, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Granta.

Zone One, a literary, post-apocalyptic horror novel takes place in Manhattan shortly after a plague, which has turned half the population into the living dead (or skels as they are called in the book). The novel follows Everyman Survivor Mark Spitz as he sweeps an area south of Canal Street, looking for straggling skels and wrestling with a world that has fallen to ruin. It’s a cool, smart take on a genre that, while its popularity comes and goes, never seems to lose its relevance. Zone One was released in paperback this July, so I chatted with Colson about his books, the writing life, and of course, zombies.

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The Rumpus: I lived in New York for a few years, and shortly after I moved there a friend gave me your collection of essays, The Colossus of New York, and it was this great introduction to the city. I remember being sort of overwhelmed by the mythology that surrounds New York, but that book feels really grounded in daily life. Can you talk a little about that book, and what the process of writing it was like?

Colson Whitehead: The mythology, yeah. I guess I’m not the best-qualified person to say what draws people here or what makes people come here because I was already here. But definitely the city is one of the things I like to write about. It’s there in The Intuitionist. It’s there in Zone One, and so along with pop culture and race and technology it’s one of my subjects that I’m attracted to. The voice of those essays comes out of a chapter in John Henry Days where I was trying to have this sort of impressionistic voice—I was writing a chapter about a country fair in a small town—and the voice that’s in the Colossus essays I first started working on in John Henry Days and I really liked the voice. I liked switching perspectives. The impressionistic sentences, zooming in for a tight shot, and pulling back for a larger view. So I wanted to use that voice to write essays about rush hour, or Times Square, or the Brooklyn Bridge. And it was a side project; it wasn’t a novel. I didn’t know what it would add up to. I wrote one essay and then put it down for six months, then wrote another. And after 9/11 I wrote the essay that is the introduction to Colossus, and it seemed like the book I was working on was a bit irrelevant compared to writing about New York and what happened in my hometown, so instead of having Colossus on the back burner I started working on it fulltime and it I felt better about things once the book was done.

Rumpus: All of your books are so different—from style to content to structure. I always approach each of your books knowing that it will be very different than the last one. What is the process like when you’re starting a new book?

Whitehead: I always have a few ideas that are percolating, and then after I’ve finished a book and it’s a year later, and things are sort of festering and things are disgusting in my house and I have to get back to work, whatever project I keep thinking about is the one I end up working on. Sort of a very simple process of elimination. If I have three ideas and I’m working on one more than the others, that sort of tells me that I should work on that one. In terms of why everything is different, each book is different than the one before because I’m so bored of what I just finished I want to work on something different. The next book becomes an antidote to what I did before. So Sag Harbor is very cheerful, a lot of jokes—it deals with a certain kind of optimistic part of my personality. So that’s one part of my personality. Then Zone One becomes how I register some of the darker aspects of my personality. The structure of The Intuitionist, which is very plot-heavy, finds it’s antidote in John Henry Days, which has a very loose structure, a lot of different voices, and doesn’t have a very controlled structure. So basically I’m definitely done with what I did last time and so I want to avoid repeating myself.

Rumpus: Do you ever think about what kind of writer you want to be? Or what you want to accomplish with your career?

Whitehead: I try to challenge myself. With Zone One, which borrows from horror movies, it’s a challenge to figure out this form—what I want to keep and what I want to throw away. So I want to keep growing as a writer. I find myself doing unexpected projects and sort of challenging my idea of where I am in my career, or what I’m supposed to be doing. In fact, I’m not supposed to be doing anything. Just finding projects that are challenging to me. I want to be a writer who keeps growing and figuring out new things and hopefully people will follow me along as I publish these things.

Rumpus: You have written about your interest in horror movies, especially your love of George Romero and Night of the Living Dead. Why do you think zombies are so compelling to us?

Whitehead: I don’t know why other people find them interesting, but for me they are a way of talking about how I feel about people. So zombies are a rhetorical prop for me. Elevators are a rhetorical prop for me in The Intuitionist. They allow me a certain way of talking about how I feel about myself and other people and strangers and people I love. So the various different ways that Mark Spitz encounters the living dead in Zone One provides different ways of looking at what it is to walk around the world. So the way I wrestle with monsters is what made me write Zone One.

Rumpus: Would you ever want to write a movie?

Whitehead: Yeah, I like movies. I’ve written screenplays as a sort of procrastination thing for me. Like I’ll work for a couple months on this idea that’s been kicking around and then like 30 pages in I’ll just go try a novel because it’s a lot easier. That’s what I know. So why am I killing myself?

Rumpus: Did you always want to be a writer?

Whitehead: As a kid I was reading comic books and Stephen King and it seemed like writing stories about werewolves and superheroes would be a pretty good gig. So yeah, I watched a lot of movies, read a lot of comic books and writing movies or writing comic books, like writing Spiderman would be a really great job. I thought that at a really early age.

Rumpus: You write a lot about technology in both novels and essays. How do you think technology will affect literature?

Whitehead: I think being a writer was a crappy job when you just had typewriters. It was crappy when we just had ink and paper. And it’s sort of crappy now. It’s always just you and the page. That doesn’t change. In terms of the economics, yes obviously the rise of e-books and how people choose to read books has a big effect on the economics of the game. But whether people are buying them on paper or downloading them there’s still some poor wretch in a room who is trying to write a poem, write a story, write a novel. And so my job doesn’t change. It’s just how people receive it and economic conditions on the ground change, but that doesn’t affect what I write.

Rumpus: Do you feel you have to compete with more things now? That there are more distractions for people?

Whitehead: I write books and either people read them or they don’t read them. The rise of Facebook or e-books doesn’t change the difficulty level of writing sentences and thinking up new ideas.

Rumpus: How do you think about writing essays versus writing fiction? These two different mediums—are there commonalities or do they feel very different to you?

Whitehead: I became a writer working at The Village Voice, and that sort of taught me how to sit down for five hours and not get distracted and hand things in on time and be my own boss. So I started off as a critic, which is technically nonfiction. I call myself a novelist, but the essays that come out—I do one or two a year—they are sort of more fun. I don’t get assigned that often, but I like the idea of finishing something in a couple days as opposed to years, so a lot of the time when I write an essay, I have an idea and I can execute it in a couple of days and then move on, so that’s really nice. I work on these in-between my novels. So that said, I’m working on an expansion of a poker article I wrote last year, so I’m working on a small nonfiction book about poker. Writing nonfiction is different than writing fiction—the poker book is first person voice, a lot of jokes. I’m sort of worried about what magazine it’s for, what the readership is for the magazine, whether you’re working with someone else, so there are different ways of writing. And writing a comic novel is different from writing a very linear novel or a loosely structured novel so there are just different ways of getting at the world. There are just different ways of talking about how it is to walk around on earth.

Rumpus: Do you feel like you have any obligation to make the world a better place with your books? Or change people? Or is it just about telling a good story?

Whitehead: I don’t think there is an obligation, nor is it about story. I write the books that I’m compelled to and I definitely learn things about the world when I write them, and I hope that other people get something out of them, enjoy them, see the world differently when they’re done. I can’t say that you should extract this or that value from my books explicitly. They are up for interpretation. In terms of the obligation, I think we’re all individuals on this planet, trying to scratch our way through the day, and if you’re writing a book exposing atrocities in Rwanda or writing a murder mystery set in a mountain village, I think both ways of spending you time are valid and both books are probably fine to read.

Rumpus: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Whitehead: Heat by Bill Buford. I got around to reading that this spring and that was really good. I just finished Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and that was a nice way to spend a couple days. I would highly recommend those two.


Nancy Smith is a writer and graphic designer. Her work has been published in Paper, The Believer, Seattle Weekly, Resonance, and Communication Arts. She has an M.A. in Media Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She is currently working on a Ph.D in Communication and Culture at Indiana University. She blogs about books, design, and technology here: somequietfuture.com More from this author →