Colson Whitehead on Sandwiches, Bunker Songs, and the Zombie Apocalypse

by Melissa Locker

There have been many books written, movies made, and graphic novels turned into television shows about the undead. Yet when novelist Colson Whitehead tackles the subject, it feels like no one else has noticed that an inevitable zombie apocalypse looms over us. (Don’t worry, he knows that sounds really depressing.) In his new book Zone One, the remainders of humanity battle the walking dead in lower Manhattan, and so we talked him into battling the walking dead or spinning some tunes with us on Topics include: R. Kelly, Edith Piaf.

Melissa Locker started playing “Love Zone” by Billy Ocean

Melissa Locker: Hi!
Colson Whitehead: Hey there … let me get at a gander at this newfangled “technology.”
ML: Yes, welcome to Make yourself comfortable. We can just listen to some Billy Ocean. I picked this song because, well, it has “zone” in the title and your book is called Zone One. Clever, right? Plus, Billy Ocean.
CW: Thanks! Early on, the book was called Monster Movie, since the direct antecedents are horror and sci-fi flicks, but once I named the downtown section, Zone One sounded dorky and sci-fi. Something about the word “zone,” I guess.

Colson Whitehead started playing “Buffalo Gals” by Malcolm McLaren

CW: I take it you are hearing Buffalo Gals?
ML: I am hearing the song. It must have helped with promotion when the city started zoning everything during the Great Hurricane Evacuation of ‘11.
CW: I missed the hurricane, sadly. I missed the Brooklyn tornado, the earthquake…whenever I leave town all the good stuff happens.
ML: So if you stay in town, maybe we’ll miss the zombie apocalypse?
CW: I like it here, but if I never get to leave NYC, then the world really has ended.

Melissa Locker started playing “Astro Zombies” by The Misfits

CW: I sense a theme…
ML: Oh you got that?
CW: Two weeks ago, my friend was in CVS in LA and saw Danzig. He took a picture of him — from the back. Black hair, bald spot. It coulda been him.
ML: He’s been around lately. He had a meltdown in Austin. I think astrozombies would be worse than regular zombies.

Colson Whitehead started playing “Eight Miles High” by Hüsker Dü

ML: I love this song.
CW: My favorite mix tape from 10th grade had The Byrds version and this version back to back. I think I was “trying to make a statement.”
ML: To yourself?
CW: I only made mix tapes for myself! Heh!
ML: I truly miss mix tapes. Spotify just doesn’t cut it. Do kids these days just send the boys they like Spotify playlists? But back to zombies, what do you think the chances are of an actual zombie armageddon? Pop culture seems really convinced it’s going to happen.

Melissa Locker started playing “Cudi Zone” by Kid Cudi

CW: Well…nostalgia is one of my signs of creeping zombie-ism, I think. Being stuck in particular grooves, unable to escape them. Robotic devotion to the past. Not that it’s all bad, but — you asked about the Zombie Apocalypse, and I think that’s one of the symptoms. Straggler signs.
ML: So we’re doing it to ourselves? ’90s nostalgia is going to do us all in?
CW: What are the things that we do every day that may be indicators that we’re a bit dead…or not quite alive.

ML: Not drinking enough coffee.
CW: My last two books were deeply about nostalgia and trapped by old ideas of ourselves … The coffee helps, and the egg sandwiches, goddammit.
ML: I think it was Kelly Oxford who asked yesterday, “How much longer do we have to tweet?” Which was kind of weirdly eye-opening. Are we going to do that forever? Or will it take a Zombie Apocalypse to get us to stop?
CW: I’ve see that a few times from people. Can we just call it a day? My TweetDeck filter is bursting with stuff I’m trying to keep out of my feed!

Colson Whitehead started playing “The Light Pours Out Of Me (Live) (2009 Digital Remaster)” by Magazine

CW: I guess my idea is that we can’t stop, won’t stop … we’ll just persist.
ML: Until something stops us. That song title has a lot of parantheses.
CW: I know! And we didn’t mention Kid Cudi, whom I know nothing about. Is that a person or a band? At any rate I’ll have to investigate.
ML: It’s a person. He’s great. I don’t know if he’s on Twitter though. So, what is the first record you’d throw at a zombie if it was coming at you?
CW: I wouldn’t throw a record, that’s terrible. I would start singing “La Vie en Rose” to try to calm it down. “Chill out, bud.”
ML: Edith Piaf stops zombies? Someone should tell those guys on “The Walking Dead.”
CW: If they’ve heard the song before.

Melissa Locker started playing “She’s Not There” by The Zombies

ML: So there’s no universal song to soothe the soulless?
CW: A lot of regional differences, like do you like Sriracha and stuff.
ML: Oh so you have to know your skel? Head to Waffle Houses in the South?
CW: I was glad to have a set piece in TGIFriday’s in the book. I enjoyed the research.
ML: Did you get the endless lunch? Well, I guess you wouldn’t if you knew the world was going to end.

Colson Whitehead started playing “Senses Working Overtime” by XTC

ML: Your musical selections seem like a near soundtrack to another one of your books, Sag Harbor.
CW: I’ve been stuck in an ’80s groove since writing that book. I dug into various New Wave and Post Punk for “atmosphere” and never fully emerged — the straggler part of me.
ML: The songs are really good, though. So maybe it’s not nostalgia, but just good musical taste? When did you start working on Zone One?
CW: Summer of 2009. I’d taken two years off from writing after finishing Sag, and the horror novel was the first thing that seemed compelling to work on.

Melissa Locker started playing “This Town Doesn’t Have Enough Bars For Both Of Us” by Gospel Music

CW: I handed it in last January, was editing all through the spring, so I never really had a post-book recuperation time. All I want to do now that the book is out is hang out on my couch and eat sandwiches.
ML: Sandwiches and couches are a good solution to most problems.
CW: Who are these characters singing?
ML: This is a guy named Owen Holmes. It’s his first solo project. He goes by Gospel Music. He’ll be in New York in December.

Colson Whitehead started playing “Scum” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

ML: Do you have a new book percolating? Or are you just thinking about PB & J versus salami?
CW: I tend to work intensively … and then decompress intensively. It seems to work! Not thinking about any project at all.
ML: I love this song. Have you read Nick Cave’s fiction?
CW: Had this song on a Flexi disc … It always struck me as a nice monologue. I wish I could do it in karaoke!
ML: You could do this in karaoke? Also, Flexi disc? Whoa.
CW: Dude, I have been doing this in the shower for years. (I’m weird.)
ML: This would put my go-to karaoke song of “Careless Whisper” to shame.

Melissa Locker started playing “Heroes” by David Bowie

CW: I have a pact with Nick: he doesn’t hear me sing and I don’t read his fiction. (I’m sure it’s quite good.)
ML: I’ve only read And the Ass Saw the Angel and it was good. But if you won’t read Nick Cave, what will you read?
CW: Just joshing. I would read Vanilla Ice’s memoir. Just the 1996–2005 years.
ML: I want to read R. Kelly’s memoir, Soula Coaster.
CW: Is that what it’s called?
ML: Yes!
CW: Was I.P. Daly the co-writer?
ML: I assume. Unfortunately, it got held up by the publisher until spring.
CW: (good survivors in the bunker song, by the way)
CW: (everyone else is dead, just us left)
ML: What else is a good survivor in the bunker song? Although I would think this song would inspire people to go make a run for it.
CW: I’d loosen those boards on the window and split, sure. I’d probably get eaten, but you have to go for it. Have you seen Christiane F?
ML: No. I’ve seen Dead Snow, though, and The Road. Is it like that?
CW: No, it’s a “cautionary tale” of drugged out ’70s Berlin youth. Great Bowie footage. And scenes of teens in trouble.
ML: Oh, nothing to do with people in a bunker.

CW started playing “I Believe” by Buzzcocks

CW: No zombies, just great campy degradation.
ML: * adding to netflix queue *
CW: This is also a “take a stand” song — solo against the world, but still standing, etc.
ML: Did you watch any zombie movies while you were writing?
CW: I watch Night of the Living Dead twice a year. I did not increase or decrease my frequency.
ML: Christmas and Easter?
CW: Exactly! I had to have lil zombie film festivals to explain to my friends what I was doing. Some were like, I hate zombie movies. Then I’d ask, which ones didn’t you like? And they’d say, um, never seen one.
ML: What films did you include in your film fest? Have you seen Dead Set? Where the zombies invade the Big Brother house?
CW: Night, the original Dawn, 28 Days Later: that’s a good intro. Enjoyed Dead Set very much. Thrown in Return of the Living Dead, and then Escape from New York and Omega Man for general apocalypse action.
ML: Whenever I try to leave NYC for the weekend, I feel like I’m in Escape From New York. Like, what do you mean the Tappan Zee and 95 are closed??
CW: Exactly. The apocalypse is all around us, we’re just too stupid to see.
ML: Well, then, I’m going back to bed. Or at least going to go sit on the couch and eat sandwiches.
CW: Didn’t mean to bum you out. Oh, wait, I did. That’s why I wrote the book.

Melissa Locker started playing “Invincible (Theme From ‘The Legend Of Billie Jean’)” by Pat Benatar

ML: How do you feel about ending the interview on this song?
CW: Seems okay!
ML: I think this would be a good bunker song, too.
CW: Yes, as you check the ammunition stores.
ML: Okay, off to go stockpile Cipro, sandwiches, and ammunition.

Zone One is available now.

You can also follow Colson Whitehead on Twitter @colsonwhitehead. And Melissa Locker @woolyknickers.