NEW YORK — You expect novelist Colson Whitehead, a Pulitzer finalist and MacArthur Foundation “genius,” to suggest an august sanctum for an interview — say, the Harvard Club in Midtown, to which the member of the class of ‘91 could belong (but doesn’t).
Instead, the dreadlocked, bookish New Yorker picks a hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurant on the Lower East Side. It’s a hideaway haunt where he parked himself in a back corner one recent Friday, wearing a dark blazer, white oxford, blue jeans and red socks.
The gritty locale fits his unassuming style and the milieu of his latest book, “Zone One.” It is set in a post-apocalyptic New York overrun by the brain-eating undead. The book, his sixth, explores his lifelong attraction to horror films.
“I’ve been into zombie and horror flicks since childhood,” he said between bites of lemongrass shrimp with noodles. “After the turkey was carved at Thanksgiving and Christmas, we would throw in horror movies and bond.”
Whitehead, 41, had a privileged childhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the third of four children of parents who owned an executive recruiting firm. He attended private school and summered in the Hamptons, burying himself in comics and science fiction.
“Zone One” also is an elegy for a city that he has known all his life, one that has been disappearing as old structures are torn down and new ones erected.
“I’m a museum of old New York — I was made here,” said Whitehead, who teaches at Princeton. “A lot of my ideas about the world and how people move through it were formed by just walking the streets and taking the subway and hearing the sirens at night.”
The Manhattan in “Zone One” is a ravaged wasteland. It is the not-so-distant future and a plague has turned the world’s people into zombies. It is up to the lead character, the improbably named B-student Mark Spitz, and his team of human survivors to clear out the legions of zombies in Lower Manhattan without getting eaten — a situation that Whitehead likens to surviving in New York on any given day.
Spitz and some of the stragglers — the kinder, gentler of the two types of zombies in “Zone One” — are “all emotionally connected to some aspect or place in their past,” Whitehead said. “Hanging onto that in the face of disaster is part of what I wanted to map.”
Tall, fit and cerebral, Whitehead looks like a model (he has posed for Vogue) or an athlete (not). He confesses that aside from walking, he does not get much exercise.
“I have a high metabolism,” he said with a smile.
Whitehead writes in cinematic images, with a lucid command of language, a knack for comic invention and a blithe freedom. Surprisingly, it is an agonizing process for him.
“I know I’m not digging ditches, but writing is hard work,” he said. “The humor, the joke that someone might read and laugh at, is still work. It’s constructed and you mull it over for months and months to get it just so.”
His lead characters, like him, are far from run-of-the-mill. There is the female elevator inspector in “The Intuitionist,” his 1999 breakout. “Apex Hides the Hurt” centered on a “nomenclature consultant.” And an unstereotypical black teen growing up in the Hamptons is at the heart of “Sag Harbor.”
His writing might have been considered “postracial” — a term he views as hopeful but misguided — before the notion came into vogue. Race has been and remains very important in America, but it is not all-defining, said Whitehead. In the post-apocalypse, it’s a non-issue.
“Well, it seems like if the world’s ending, you’re not sort of worrying about mortgages, the Yankees winning, and the race of the quivering human hiding out in the gas station with you as thousands of hungry undead are massed outside,” he said.
“Zone One” has a wrecked landscape that evokes the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, with the remains of the dead floating in the air as ash.
“That’s in there, for sure,” he said. “But for me, it’s not just that. There are all sorts of disasters and catastrophes, public and personal, that happen to people. I’m interested not so much in the specifics of what happened, but the natural and unnatural responses to it.”
The book looks at how people deal with changed situations. If someone is a sorority cheerleader, what can you do with that in the apocalypse, Whitehead wondered.
“In the face of ... a terrorist attack or a hurricane ... or more personal disaster like death, divorce, losing your job, losing a child, how do we bounce back?” he said. “When the world has changed, what kind of rules do we have to make up in order to keep going? Here, it’s a zombie outbreak. But it’s about people trying to endure and re-make connections, finding their way back to their fallen world, if they can.”
It’s a question that Whitehead, who is divorced, wrestles with in other contexts. He and his ex-wife, writer/photographer Natasha Stovall, have joint custody of their 7-year-old daughter.
“She’s a good kid,” he said of his grade-schooler. “Her presence in my life has made me a better person and improved my work and happiness.”
Google Whitehead’s name with the word “brilliant,” an adjective used in many reviews of his books, and you get more than 60,000 hits. His 92,000 Twitter followers watch for his daily quips. That he is such an accomplished and celebrated writer might still come as a surprise to some of his friends and professors at Harvard, where he was once turned down for a creative-writing class.
“My submission was bad,” he said.
Whitehead took classes in African-American studies and in other departments outside his English major. After graduation, he worked as an editorial assistant at the Voice Literary Supplement. He rose to become TV critic at the Village Voice from 1994 to 1996, a job that helped him hone his already keen instincts for popular culture.
The Voice experience fortified his vision of himself as a writer who could tell interesting, engaging stories. After all, it had marquee black writers — Lisa Jones, Greg Tate, Nelson George — who were not limited to subjects related to race.
“My first regular writing gig told me that I could do whatever I wanted, and it wasn’t weird,” he said.
While still working at the Voice, Whitehead wrote a plotless novel about a Gary Coleman-esque child star called “The Return of the Spook.” Still unpublished, it was a learning experience, a process that opened a path that allowed other works to flow out of him. He crafted “The Intuitionist” as an antithesis to that.
With each book, Whitehead has proved to be a literary Houdini, wriggling out of the confines of genre. “The Intuitionist” is a taut detective novel that John Updike, writing in the New Yorker, called “scintillating.”
Whitehead then dove into historical fiction with his next book, the loosely structured “John Henry Days,” a Pulitzer finalist. “Sag Harbor” is memoir-like in its intimacy. “The Colossus of New York” collects his essays about his favorite city.
“Zone One” is another re-invention for someone who gives something his all and then moves on.
“I had finished ‘Sag Harbor,’ and by the time I started working again, all my ideas seemed kind of old,” Whitehead said. “The stuff I’d done before was no longer interesting. I didn’t do anything for almost two years. Then I had one of my zombie dreams.”
Whitehead has been having those dreams since he was 12, when his parents took him and his brother, both avid horror fans, to see George Romero’s X-rated “Dawn of the Dead.” The movie, a landmark of the genre, became a feature of his subconscious.
“Some people have anxiety dreams about talking to an assembly and they’re naked or they forgot the big presentation,” he said. “About once a month, I’ve had zombie dreams for the last 30 years, where it’s the underworld, I’m with people or not, they’re fast or slow, they talk, they don’t, I escape or don’t.”
The particular dream that triggered “Zone One” happened in summer 2009 when Whitehead had house guests.
“I woke up and just wished they’d leave — I wanted to be alone,” he said. “I sort of stayed in bed.”
Then he had a visitation of zombies, which provided an answer to what the subject of his next book would be.
“In the dream, I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if they swept all their zombies out,’” he said, adding that he always has been curious about why zombies have such a hold over the living. He had to find out.