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Colson Whitehead at Powell’s

October 31, 2011

Trick or Treat

I wasn’t very familiar with Colson Whitehead’s work before attending his reading last week. Oh sure, I knew he was a MacArthur genius award winner in 2002, which means he’d bagged $500,000 for his “exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work.”  I knew that he’d written several books including The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and Sag Harbor. I knew that he has over 90,000 followers on Twitter. I hadn’t read his books though, so I decided to drop by Powell’s to hear him talk about his latest novel, Zone One.

Earlier in the day, I tweeted him to say that I was looking forward to his reading and, amazingly, he responded. When I asked him later how in the world he had noticed my tweet among what must be thousands in his stream he replied with a straight face, “I don’t have any hobbies.” He had tweeted back to me, “It had better be festive.” I said I would bring balloons. I didn’t bring balloons, but he brought what Washington Post book reviewer, Ron Charles, has described as “his acrobatic imagination.”

Whitehead first confessed that he usually spends Monday nights at home “weeping over my mistakes, so this is a nice change.”  He then said,  “About a year and a half ago, I realized that there comes a time in every writer’s life when you’re supposed to edit an anthology, so I started assembling an anthology on the writers craft.”  He decided to call it, “How to Write and the Art of Writing – Writers Write About Writing,” and then explained, “The idea is simple: Today’s best writers and the topics of their choice. In short, writers writing about writing.”  Whitehead said he sent out letters to a lot of “prominent people in the publishing industry: editors, fiction writers, non-fiction writers – no poets.”  He then read an essay written by author, Jim Phillips, who wrote such books as Can’t Get There From Here, You Gotta Know When to Fold and another book with the engaging title of Ding, Dang, Dong:  The True Story of Frere Jacques, Methamphetamine and Chronic Insomnia. The essay contained eleven rules of writing that Phillips was prescribing to future writers. It was funny, tongue-in-cheek and apparently standard Whitehead schtick. I found a recording of it on YouTube done in 2009 at the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Whitehead talked about Zone One‘s origin which, it turns out, is rooted in his own deep-seated zombie fears.  “I didn’t like leaving the house as a child, so I used to read comic books and watch horror movies.  When I was in seventh grade, we had a family outing to see Dawn of the Dead. It was rated X and people my age weren’t allowed in, but it was New York in the early eighties and wasn’t that big a deal. Immediately, I began having zombie anxiety dreams. Depending on what’s going on in my life, whether I’m really stressed or mildly stressed, the zombies are fast; they’re slow; I’m alone; I’m with a crew. Sometimes I get away and sometimes they get me.”

Whitehead deadpanned that Zone One is “about killing zombies in downtown New York, so it’s my second autobiographical novel in a row.”  He summed up the big-picture plot by saying, “It’s about getting over a disaster, whether it’s a communal disaster such as a tsunami, or terrorist attack, or earthquake, or some personal disaster in your life. You lose your job, somebody in your family dies.” He wrapped it up by talking briefly about his comedic influences ranging from George Carlin to Richard Pryor, and mentioned that he is currently reading Neal Stephenson’s book, Reamde.
Zone One, Doubleday, October, 2011

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