If you ask Colson Whitehead to describe the man at the center of his new novel, Zone One, he'll tell you: "It's about a guy just trying to make it to the next day without being killed — so it's about New Yorkers."
But character Mark Spitz isn't just any New Yorker. He's one of the only human survivors of a mysterious plague that has swept the world, turning billions of people into zombies. New York is devastated and Spitz is charged with clearing the undead from lower Manhattan.
Whitehead first spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep about Zone One in an extended conversation on Twitter. They continue their discussion on Morning Edition.
On why Whitehead decided to destroy New York:
"New York is always destroyed ... [Mayors Rudy] Giuliani [and Michael] Bloomberg — they got rid of the old New York. I think each time you destroy a tenement and put up a luxury tower, you're ruining New York and making some sort of a new version of the city.
"I'm walking around with my idea of what New York was 30 years ago, 20 years ago. So is everybody else. And we superimpose that ruined city over what's here now. So it's cleaned up, but we're still seeing that old shoe store, dry cleaners, that old apartment where we used to live. So, any street you walk down in New York is a heap of rubble because that's sort of how we see it if we've been here a while."
On wiping out the entire population:
"Well, I wanted to cut back on the Whole Foods lines and make it easier to get a cab for my main characters. If you get rid of 90 percent of the population, life gets a bit easier in the city."
On the zombies being reminiscent of 'laid-off or ruined businessmen who pretend to go to the office for the family's sake':
"Whether you're a zombie or a survivor, you're pretty much in Zone One. You're going through your remembered motions. You're a ghost haunting your former life."
On whether he hesitated to tell a serious story using zombies:
"I did have to give myself permission because zombies were so popular. But I think the idea is that if it's good, people read it. So all I could do is really salute my childhood influences and try to do the best I could in reinvigorating the genre, putting a new spin on it."
On his childhood horror influences:
I grew up in New York in the '70s and so I took films like The Warriors and Escape from New York as documentaries. Other kids did sports; I liked to hang around watching The Twilight Zone and various movies about the end of the world, whether it was Planet of the Apes, or Damnation Alley. And so that's part of the city I carry with me from my childhood. ... In doing this book, I was trying to pay homage to certain cinematic depictions of a ruined New York.
On what makes an apocalyptic story succeed:
"There has to be some glimmer of hope, that refuge, whether it's mythological or real, that keeps people going. You pile on the misery and ... frankly, I killed off a lot of my characters and did bad things to them. But there has to be some idea that you can get to a place where you can put the plague, the atomic bomb, the asteroid behind you and make a new life for yourself with the other survivors."
On being in a bad mood for most of the time he was writing this book:
"There's that hidden current of what's actually going on in your life ... submerged in the writing. Over the course of two years, you have your own ups and downs. And I think navigating my own personal catastrophes helped the book in a certain sort of way. ... My father died a few months before I started the book. ... I got divorced. ... There's something about finding the next place of safety which I think fed the book."
On whether he's gotten the zombie obsession out of his system now:
"I've always had zombie anxiety dreams, ever since, you know, seeing Dawn of the Dead when I was in junior high. So, once a month I have some zombie dream. They're fast, they're slow. Sometimes they talk. Sometimes I'm alone. And I was definitely hoping that I would end this particular manifestation of anxiety dream by writing the book. And I was 95 percent successful. I had one a couple of days ago — perhaps that's tied to publication. Not sure."