Transcript for Colson Whitehead on "Zone One"

Jim Fleming: Colson Whitehead grew up watching Twilight Zone reruns, reading Marvel comics, and watching horror movies on cable TV. It was the modern master of horror fiction, Stephen King, you inspired Whitehead to become a writer. No surprise, then, that Whitehead's new novel "Zone One" is about zombies. Here's an excerpt.

Narrator: He was the first live human being the dead had seen since the start, and the former ladies of HR were starving. After all this time, they were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone. Their skirts were bunched on the floor, having slid off their shrunken hips long ago, and the dark jackets of their sensible dress suits were made darker still, and stiffened, by jagged arterial splashes and kernels of gore. Two of them had lost their high heels at some point during the long years of bumping around the room looking for an exit. One of them wore the same brand of panties his last two girlfriends had favored, with a distinctive frilled red edges, they were grimed and torn. He couldn't help but notice the thong, current demand on his attention aside. He'd made a host of necessary recalibrations, but the old self made noises from time to time.

Then that new self stepped in. He had to put them down. The youngest one wore its hair in a style popularized by a sitcom that took as its subject three roommates of seemingly immiscible temperaments and their attention to make their fortune in this contusing city. A crotchety super and a flamboyant neighbor rounded out the ensemble, and it was still appointment television, a top ten show at the time of disaster. The hairdo was called a "marge" after Margaret Hallstead, the charmingly clutzy actress who trademarked it in the old days of red carpets and flirty teditets and late night chat shows. She hadn't done anything from Mark Spitz, too skinny, but the legions of young ladies who fled their stunted towns to reinvent themselves in the big city recognized something in her flailings and fetishized this piece of her. They had been reeled in by the old lie of making a name for oneself in the city. Now they had to figure out how to survive, hunt, and gather rent money, forage ramen. In this week's ridden up clubs and small place eateries, loose flocks of Marges were invariably underfoot, sipping cinnamon rimmed novelty cocktails and laughing too eagerly. The Marge nabbed Mark Spitz first, snatching his left bicep and taking it in its teeth. It never looked at his face, ferocious on the mesh of his fatigues and aware exclusively of the meat it knew was underneath. He'd forgotten how much it hurt when a skel tried to get a good chomp going. It had been some time since one had gotten this close. The Marge couldn't penetrate the intricate blend of plastic fibers, but each rabid sally sent him howling.

The rest of Omegateam would be here soon, tromping down the halls. he heard the sound of teeth splintering. The sweepers were supposed to stay together. The lieutenant was firm about that, to prevent this very situation, but the last few blocks had been so quiet they hadn't stuck to orders.

Fleming: Colson Whitehead, reading an excerpt from his new novel "Zone One." He tells Steve Paulson the book was inspired by a bad dream.

Colson Whitehead: I had some house guests out in Long Island. I guess I was in a bad mood, so I woke up one morning, and I heard them chatting and making bacon. The only thing I could think was can you guys leave? I want to be alone. And of course I'd invited them, so it would have been rude to say anything, and these were people I loved very much. Instead, I just willed myself back to sleep and had a dream. I was in my apartment in New York. I wanted to go into the living room, but I kept having this thought. Have they swept out the zombies yet? So I woke up and I though, yeah. Actually, that's sort of a logistical nightmare. How do you get the shambling dead out of the city when you want to restart civilization? They linger like house guests who won't leave. And I started working on the book that day.

Steve Paulson: Wow. So what is it about zombies that you find scary?

Colson: For me, it's the fear or the suspicion that everyone you know is really a monster underneath the veneer of civilization. Sot at any moment, your family, your friends, the kindly shopkeeper down the street could be transformed into the horrible creature that they've always been. So that was my interpretation. Obviously, I have psychological problems. But I got a book out of it, so what are you gonna do?

Paulson: Can you tell me about the story line of your new book Zone One?

Colson: Going back to the dream, how do you clear out the zombies when things are trying to get back to normal? So the zombie apocalypse, the plague has ravaged the world, but it's going away. It's run its course, and America is rebuilding society. Their settlement camps up and down the Eastern seaboard, and now they have the idea for a new initiative, which is to resettle Manhattan. It's an island. You can block off the tunnels and bridges, and go block by block, clearing out the remainders of the dead. That sounds like a nice title, "The Remainders of the Dead." So the army has gone through clearing out Zone One, which is everything below canal, there's a wall that separates the tamed and untamed sections of the city, and now civilian teams are going through restaurant to restaurant, corporate tower to corporate tower, clearing out the plague-stricken wretches that the army has left behind, things that are trapped in utility closets or whatever. So the book follows three days in the life of one sweeper named Mark Spitz, it's a nickname, and eventually things start breaking down, unfortunately.

Paulson: Now, we should mention also that you have two different kinds of zombies in your book, although you never actually use the word zombie to describe these creatures, but there are the Skells and the Stragglers. What's the difference between them.

Colson: The Skells are your conventional slow moving zombie that we know from popular culture. And then the Stragglers are something I added, I mean, they're basically ghosts. I think when you approach a genre, you want to stick with some conventions and you want to reinvigorate it. You want to pay homage to what's gone before, but also expand the idea of what a detective novel is, a romance is, you know, a horror novel is. So, my little variation is the Stragglers, and the Stragglers are malfunctioning zombies. They're emotionally connected to some place in their lives and when they get infected, they head there like honing pigeons and then stay rooted in the place that they're connected to. So, if you were a shrink you might go to your office and then sit on your lounger and wait for patients who are dead and never coming. If you're a radio host, you might head to the studio and put on your headphones and wait for the dead engineer to start things up. And so these people are trapped in their rooms across downtown Manhattan, and the sweepers are going to take out this sort of very innocuous variety of zombie.

Paulson: One thing that's striking about your book is that there often doesn't seem to be that much difference between the living and the dead. The survivors, as you've said, Mark Spitz is kind of dehumanized in his own way. I assume that was a deliberate choice?

Colson: Yes. The survivors are all still stuck in their old modes, so I thought that the bad things would come back quickly, all the sort of bad stuff of contemporary society would reemerge for any innovation, so bureaucracy, corporate branding, our need for fresh organic produce, which is not necessarily bad, but it's a feature of our lives. So all the sort of contemporary features that we love, adore, and hate today will usher them back into existence pretty quickly.

Paulson: It's interesting hearing you describe your book is, one the one hand, it's a great story, you know. It's a horror story. But you're also raising some pretty big questions about what it means to be human. What dehumanizes us and kind of how precarious, how vulnerable being human is.

Colson: For me that's the heart of it. It's about coming back from a disaster, not necessarily apocalypse, but a disaster in your personal life, someone dies you're close to, you lose your job. There's a before and an after, and you have to figure out this new landscape, this new self walking around in these new conditions. And so for me, it's about survivors, about moving on and figuring out how to move on, making new connections with people. And zombies are a rhetorical prop. The end of the world was a way of making these personal disasters global.

Fleming: Colson Whitehead is the author of "Zone One". He spoke with Steve Paulson.


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