Colson Whitehead grew up in Manhattan, now lives in Brooklyn, and has spent much of his career writing ambitious, award-winning novels set around New York or a place that feels very much like it. Now, he's gone and destroyed the whole city for his latest book, Zone One, a post-apocalyptic tale of a Manhattan crippled by a plague and overrun with zombies. But it's so much more than that! One, while ostensibly a horror story, transcends the genre by bringing in elements of some Whitehead favorites, like race, ambition, and societal fear in a post-9/11 world. Also, it's funny! Whitehead, who maintains a hilariously melancholy Twitter feed and is described by his publisher as "the most morose man in Brooklyn," has a delightfully twisted sense of humor that permeates the entire novel...and most of his conversations. We spoke to the author about surviving Comic Con, leaving Manhattan for dead, and go deep into some zombie mythology.

Let's start off talking about Zone One a little bit. While The Intuitionist was vaguely futuristic, Zone One is really your first foray into the horror genre. Why zombies and why now? I was reading late ‘70s Stephen King novels and late ‘70s Marvel that made me want to write. It seemed like a good job. You can stay at home and not talk to people, not wear clothes, and just make up things all day. So being a writer seemed like a cool gig. I remember applying to college and talking to college interviewer and saying that I wanted to write stories about vampires and werewolves. [The interviewer] was like, “no really, what do you want to write? You want to be a writer? What else besides vampires? I was like, no, that’s it.” I always knew I would eventually write something involving horror or science fiction. I think with people my age who are writing a lot of them have those sort of hang-ups, that this isn’t literary fiction, this is genre fiction. You know, it’s your life. You’re supposed to write what you want to write and not worry about other people’s classifications.

Did you enjoy this little experiment in horror? Do you think you’re going to do more? I never enjoy writing a book. It’s a pretty crappy job. It’s just you in your house thinking up stuff all day.

But you don’t have to wear clothes or talk to people! I mean, it definitely beats leaving the house and getting a degree in veterinary medicine or an M.B.A. However, if you’re writing a lighthearted book like Sag Harbor, with a lot of jokes, you're just trying to make this crappy sentence you’ve just written into a less crappy sentence and then tomorrow making it into something a little better. With Zone One, I will say I'm definitely glad how it turned out.

There’s a lot of humor in the book. Dark, twisted humor that seems befitting of what seems to be your personality. Does that come naturally to you or did you have to lighten the tone to let it come out? I thought it’d actually be darker. I wanted to make it even more unpleasant and disturbing but the jokes started seeping in pretty quickly so I went with it. Some books of mine are more accommodating to my weird sense of humor. Some are less so. Though, it seemed that the narrator’s strange humor was going to be a part of the book since the beginning.

Even your publisher describes you as a perennial contender for the most morose man Brooklyn. Your Twitter feed sort of seems to back this up. Is that an act? Do you work to maintain this? It’s a pretty big title. [Laughter] It’s not work. Whatever I’m putting out there comes very naturally to me. I’ll definitely sign off on that persona, sure.

Did you have to study up on any zombie mythology or go deep into the world of fanboys before writing Zone One? No, I mean I watch Night of the Living Dead twice a year and I’ve been doing that for thirty years. So, I did not increase or decrease my viewing of that or Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later. I watch these movies whenever they’re on. I didn’t have to change my habits that much.

And you went to Comic Con this weekend, right? I did. I survived.

Was that your first time? What was it like? Well, it was my first one in thirty years. I went to the only comic conventions which were held at the Coliseum which is now gone and now the Time Warner center—it has been a couple of decades, yes. It’s much bigger. All the comics on sale, there were video game booths, I was in the book section. There were people in costumes. The scale was several orders of magnitude bigger than when I was there last.

Everyone is describing Zone One as a zombie book, but you don’t even use the word zombie in the book, do you? It’s a little more subtle than that. If you use the word zombie or not a zombie is a zombie. In the first Night of the Living Dead the word zombie doesn’t appear. I don’t think it does in 28 Days Later. It’s a zombie book in a way that The Intuitionist is an elevator inspector book which means that I’m using these rhetorical props to talk about people and ideas.

The parts that hit me most were just the stragglers. The harmless zombies who are just caught doing these everyday movements forever. It's sort of terrifying if you’re just a working stiff to read this and think, is this me, now—not actually as a zombie—but kind of as a straggler? Well, yeah, no. It’s about people and how we live today, in New York and other places. The stragglers moronically attacked to their former lives but then so are the survivors. So is Mark Spitz. So are the other supporting characters. They’re also attached to some dead notion of themselves and the world. The lines between the dead and the undead are not too firm.

Gothamist, as you may know, is a New York-centric site. So I’d like to ask you some New York questions. First of all, I’d like to keep it with the book on this one, why set it in Manhattan? Could you have done it anywhere else? I grew up in Manhattan and I hadn’t written a book about Manhattan yet so it seemed like time. And then there’s the geographical necessity of having a place you can clear. You can’t really clear Long Island, that’s a different kind of operation, so that leaves out Brooklyn and Queens. It makes sense to have it downtown. Downtown after—there are times at 2 am or even 10 pm when Wall Street is sort of this empty landscape. No one really lives there and all the corporations are closed down in that part of the city so I think that’s definitely fed into it.

You grew up in Manhattan. Do you live—you’re in Brooklyn, right? Yeah, I’m in Clinton Hill right now.

What do you like about living in Clinton Hill? It’s seems nice enough. I’ve been in Fort Greene/Clinton Hill for the last eighteen years. I keep coming back here. Nothing specific.

You didn’t want to live in Manhattan as an adult? I did for a while, Upper West Side and Lower East Side. In the ‘90s when I moved out here it made sense in terms of money. I’d love to go back to Manhattan at some point and probably will. Unless I’m dying of something, I imagine there’s time to go back.

I would hope so. It seems like Brooklyn—every literary stereotype is centered around where you are right now. Do you feel like a part of some scene there? Not particularly. To sell some t-shirts, maybe, sure! [Pause] There are a lot of stereotypes about New York City. Some about Manhattan, some about Brooklyn, few of them are actually true. I learned that pretty early.

So you’re not having dinner with the Jonathans and discussing politics? [Laughs] No, are you?

Well, actually, every Tuesday, yeah. I was going to invite you. But if you’re not already in with the in crowd, I don’t know. Oh my God. Oh my Lord.

Whitehead will be at Greenlight Bookstore on Wednesday and McNally Jackson Bookstore on Thursday before taking off for a national tour. Go!