Colson Whitehead has proven not only talented but highly unpredictable. Born in New York City, educated at Harvard, and winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, Whitehead took on African-American elevator inspectors, the folk legend John Henry, and his teen summers on Long Island in earlier novels, and then turned to the living dead for his most recent, “Zone One.”
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
WHITEHEAD: I just moved and have been unpacking boxes. I came across books I haven’t seen in a while. I found a copy of “Lush Life” by Richard Price and “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, which I read back to back. Liked both.
BOOKS: Did you move a ton of books?
WHITEHEAD: Yes, my first job was working in the Village Voice’s book section 20 years ago. One of the perks was getting free books. I’ve moved them so many times, I’ve paid 50 times over for these free books, but I’m not getting rid of them.
BOOKS: Did your time at the Voice affect you as a reader?
WHITEHEAD: I became aware of how capricious the whole reviewing process is. There were so many great books that came through the office that I thought we had to cover. And then the reviewer never got around to it or blew it off. At the end of the month the guy from the Strand Book Store would come buy the review copies, and I would give my boss the money.
BOOKS: Did your experience there affect how much weight you give reviews?
WHITEHEAD: When I was younger I’d read five reviews and figure out if I wanted to read a book. Now I’m so averse to spoilers or having an idea of what a book is about before I read it, I wait for 20 recommendations from friends or Twitter. I also think it helps to buy the big book from last year or later. Then you finally come to a book like “A Visit to the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan having forgotten all the buzz about it and can be surprised by how good the book is.
BOOKS: Any other examples of that?
WHITEHEAD: I didn’t read a lot of short stories in my 20s so I came to “Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson late. When I got out of college, it was on everybody’s bookshelf. I finally got to it in 2003. It was clear that it was a contemporary classic. I am going on book tour next week, and I’m taking along another book I just found while unpacking, “Boss” by Mike Royko. The book’s incredible. It’s been so long that I can’t remember Richard Daley’s story so I’m coming to this contemporaneous account of this figure fresh.
BOOKS: What have you read while you’ve been between book projects?
WHITEHEAD: I binged on the first three books of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire.” I remember being out on Long Island, not having AC and waiting until the sun went down so it was cool and I could just have a beer, have the book, and read until 3 a.m.
BOOKS: Where on Long Island?
WHITEHEAD: Sag Harbor. My parents had a house there when I was growing up. Then in my 30s I started renting a house owned by my aunt. I remember that certain 3 or 4 p.m. light that would come through the trees and reading a copy of “The Avengers” comic book in third grade, then reading Stephen King’s “Cujo” when I was in 10th grade, and then W.G. Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn” in 2006. Not all on the same couch, but in the same place, with the same sounds, same quality of light. It’s where I became a writer, reading horror and science fiction in the summer and thinking that it would be a good job to make up stories about robots and vampires.
BOOKS: Has it been?
WHITEHEAD: Yes, it has.