The Reading Behind the Reading: Colson Whitehead at BookCourt


The Reading Behind the Reading: Colson Whitehead at BookCourt

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1. Little, Brown publicist Marlene Bittner, agent Julie Barer, Colson Whitehead, Vulture editor Gilbert Cruz, writer Amanda Stern and Colson Whitehead’s daughter, Maddy. 2. Author Emma Straub, Tyler Kord of No. 7 Restaurant in Fort Greene, and designer Michael Fusco, Emma’s “hunky husband,” according to the wife herself.

Colson Whitehead has a way of making his audiences expect the unexpected, which is what happened on Tuesday night at BookCourt for the paperback launch of his zombie apocalypse novel, Zone One. Charles Mingus’ bippity-boppity ‘Tensions’ played over the fifty or so of us gathered on (unfolded) chairs, a church pew, a loveseat, and wherever we saw fit to stand.

1. Could these people be happier? Okay, maybe the girl with the headphones (i.e. Colson Whitehead’s seven-year-old daughter). 2. Everyone is on Twitter — Guernica editor Rachel Riederer, former Guernica writer Kyle McAuley and person extraordinaire Emily Brochstein. Rachel reminded us, “There is lots of internet out there to look at.”

“There comes a time in every writer’s life to write an anthology,” Whitehead began, introducing his fictional collection, How to Write and the Art of Writing: Writers Writing About Writing (click for video of a reading of one of these essays in Chicago.) Fittingly, we were five feet from the Craft of Fiction section.

Whitehead attributed the first eleven rules of writing to “Jim Phillips,” author of the illustrious Ding Dang Dong: The True Story of Frère Jacques, Methamphetamines and Chronic Insomnia. Some highlights:

  • Show, don’t tell? How about show and tell? Like in kindergarten, on primary blue bolsters and industrial carpet. What did Timmy bring to show and tell today? “A Calvino-esque romp through an unnamed metropolis much like New York, narrated by an armadillo. Very nice. Have a juice box, Timmy!”
  • Find your own subject? Heavens, no! “Let your subject find you . . . your ideal subject is like a stalker with limitless resources.” Writers, don’t even consider a restraining order. You need your stalker as much as your stalker needs you.
  • Feeling “writer’s block,” i.e. that excuse for not having produced? “Get that draft counter going . . . print out a draft and add a comma — second draft!” You will be victorious in draft duels every time.

1. Colson Whitehead, possibly in the process of becoming a zombie. 2. Patrick Chang and crochet artist Mahkeddah Thompson love the opening line of Whitehead’s Colossus of New York, “I’m here because I was born here and thus was ruined for anywhere else, but I don’t know about you.”

Finally, it came time to read from Zone One. Where else to begin but the first line? “He always wanted to live in New York,” Whitehead read. Then he paused and looked up at the crowd. “It’s an exciting time of optimism, writing on that first magical day and then remembering that writing a book is the shittiest job in the world. It’s like having a baby. If you remembered how horrible it is, you would never do it again.”

Whitehead made a second attempt: “He always wanted to live in New York.” And then a second departure: “And yet . . . what a strange thing it is to write a book,” he said wistfully. Then he described asking for feedback on his Sag Harbor manuscript.

Reader: “Well, I don’t like the main character.”
Whitehead: “You know the main character is me, right?”
Reader: “Yeah, that’s what makes it awkward.”
Whitehead: “Especially since we’re married, I guess.”

The genesis for Zone One began when Whitehead’s permissive parents took him to see A Clockwork Orange as a 10-year-old. Whitehead: “Mommy, what’s happening to that woman?” Mommy: “It’s a comment on society, son.” Considering that I too watched A Clockwork Orange (and the surreal Brazil, among other films) around the same age, I, too, might have a zombie novel in my future. Whitehead revisited his first line to Zone One several more times in between many a contemplation: R2D2’s inability to speak, learning about the habits of white people via episodes of The Golden Girls, lingering house guests resembling zombies lollygagging around after an apocalypse.

And then, whaddya know? Time was up! Guess we’ll have to read the book ourselves, as it should be.


— Erika Anderson moved to Brooklyn from Geneva, Switzerland. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, contributes to Hunger Mountain and tweets for the Franklin Park Reading Series.

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