10:21 am Jul. 12, 2012
Whitehead did eventually manage to get to book's opening sentence.
“He always wanted to live in New York,” Whitehead read, in a sing-song, slowly enunciating each word and blurting out “in New York,” as if the words were rolling down a staircase. Then he digressed again.
He'd started out his appearance by offering an update on what has been keeping him busy since Zone One was completed and published. He explained that he'd been editing an anthology of essays on the writing process titled, How to Write and The Art of Writing: Writers Writing about Writing. Anyone expecting a routine reading should, at that point, have been tipped off that Whitehead wasn't going to indulge such banal hopes. “[It] will come out in a couple years or something,” he said. One of the book's purported contributors, a man by the name of Jim Phillips, Whitehead explained, was a well-known author of many works of fiction, among them “Colloquial Phrase I'd Use As A Title.” Phillips, Whitehead went on, lays out eleven rules about writing in his essay in the book. The most notable of these rules is the dispelling of the myth of “show, don’t tell.” In another, Philips suggests that writers take ample advantage of the popular notion of "writer's block" whenever they just don't much feel like doing any work.
Whitehead is a celebrated author, with four (actual) novels and a (real) book of essays under his belt, but a read of any of his works makes clear that he's also quite the humorist. Zone One, though it concerns a rather gruesome zombie apocalypse scenario, is also screamingly funny. Readings, lectures, book parties, panel discussions, and other such events can be drearily serious, writers soberly trying to explicate their artistic process and audiences—largely composed of would-be writers or writing enthusiasts—looking for hot tips and inside dope on the writing game. Afterward everyone gossips about the literary scene—an overheard anecdote last night about a recent run-in with Jennifer Egan of Jonathan Ames was par for the course.
And so Whitehead, armed with a comic sense that's made him a popular author as well as a popular Twitter personality, quite understandably decided to have a little fun with the format of the reading.
“I guess I should get to Zone One,” he continued.
“He always wanted to live in New York..."
"Just seeing those words reminds me of day I wrote that sentence," Whitehead broke off. "It was a couple years ago so it was exciting to start a new book. It’s a time of optimism. You’re excited. You convince yourself that this book is going to be great. You’re not going to fuck it up this time like all the other times. Then you look at the blank page and you remember that writing a book is the shittiest job in the world. If you actually knew how horrible it was to write a book, you’d actually never start it. It’s like having a baby. People don’t like it when you compare the miracle of childbirth to writing a book but I think there is some overlap in the two because they are both pure agony. Obviously I’ve never passed a baby through my pee-pee hole … but I figure it must hurt."
"I’ll get to Zone One … He always wanted to live in New York,” Whitehead read, in the exact same way he had before.
And again he began a digression. While writing, he explained, he normally shows his work to his editors and friends once he's about a third of the way through to gauge reactions. When Sag Harbor, his fourth novel, was partly done, he duly consulted perhaps his closest confidante.
“I was really anxious since it was a really personal [book]," Whitehead recounted, “And I was waiting to hear back from her. Days, weeks, months go by and I was finally like ‘Have you read it?’ and she says ‘Yeah’ and I was like, ‘So what did you think?’ and she was like ‘I didn’t like the main character. I think I liked the main character Lila Mae, in The Intuitionist, more.
“And I was like ‘You understand this character is basically me,’ and she was like 'Yeah' and I was like ‘You know we’re married right?’"
As for Zone One, Whitehead finally did do some explaining when he sat for a brief Q&A after his talk; he dropped the sarcasm and affirmed that he’s not a zombie aficionado and will probably not write another book on zombies. The book is Whitehead’s first foray into science fiction, though he's been a fan of such stuff since he was a kid. Gore fanatics, he admitted, were a tough sell for his particular take on zombies since he’d peppered in what he called his signature “boring meditative stuff,” and as such ended up with a novel that did not, to some readers' chagrin, consist entirely of fast-paced bloody action scenes.
Yet even during the jokey reading Whitehead did manage to explain some of the inspirations for the novel. He said that ever since the first time he'd seen Dawn of the Dead he'd been plagued by zombie anxiety dreams (that, he said, writing the book had nearly vanquished from his psyche). One particular night, before he'd hatched the idea for the novel, Whitehead found himself awoken by house guests he’d asked to spend the night.
“I heard my friends laughing downstairs and all I could think of was ‘Could you guys leave?’ The walls are very thin, so basically, the house is a no-sex house; which I make clear if people come. The spare room is made up. You can bring some greens. This is a no-sex house.”
Whitehead eventually willed himself back to sleep, but ended up having one of his zombie anxiety dreams—in this one, he awoke terrified to move on account of zombies hanging out in his living room downstairs, remnants of a zombie apocalypse.
“And I thought, That’s a logistical nightmare. Once the apocalypse is over, how do you get rid of the zombies? They sort of hang around like house guests who won’t leave,” Whitehead said, “And I started writing the book that day.”
He paused for just a moment. “So we start from the beginning: He always …”
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