Rumpus: Do you ever think about what kind of writer you want to be? Or what you want to accomplish with your career?
Whitehead: I try to challenge myself. With Zone One, which borrows from horror movies, it’s a challenge to figure out this form—what I want to keep and what I want to throw away. So I want to keep growing as a writer. I find myself doing unexpected projects and sort of challenging my idea of where I am in my career, or what I’m supposed to be doing. In fact, I’m not supposed to be doing anything. Just finding projects that are challenging to me. I want to be a writer who keeps growing and figuring out new things and hopefully people will follow me along as I publish these things.
Rumpus: You have written about your interest in horror movies, especially your love of George Romero and Night of the Living Dead. Why do you think zombies are so compelling to us?
Whitehead: I don’t know why other people find them interesting, but for me they are a way of talking about how I feel about people. So zombies are a rhetorical prop for me. Elevators are a rhetorical prop for me in The Intuitionist. They allow me a certain way of talking about how I feel about myself and other people and strangers and people I love. So the various different ways that Mark Spitz encounters the living dead in Zone One provides different ways of looking at what it is to walk around the world. So the way I wrestle with monsters is what made me write Zone One.
Rumpus: Would you ever want to write a movie?
Whitehead: Yeah, I like movies. I’ve written screenplays as a sort of procrastination thing for me. Like I’ll work for a couple months on this idea that’s been kicking around and then like 30 pages in I’ll just go try a novel because it’s a lot easier. That’s what I know. So why am I killing myself?
Rumpus: Did you always want to be a writer?
Whitehead: As a kid I was reading comic books and Stephen King and it seemed like writing stories about werewolves and superheroes would be a pretty good gig. So yeah, I watched a lot of movies, read a lot of comic books and writing movies or writing comic books, like writing Spiderman would be a really great job. I thought that at a really early age.
Rumpus: You write a lot about technology in both novels and essays. How do you think technology will affect literature?
Whitehead: I think being a writer was a crappy job when you just had typewriters. It was crappy when we just had ink and paper. And it’s sort of crappy now. It’s always just you and the page. That doesn’t change. In terms of the economics, yes obviously the rise of e-books and how people choose to read books has a big effect on the economics of the game. But whether people are buying them on paper or downloading them there’s still some poor wretch in a room who is trying to write a poem, write a story, write a novel. And so my job doesn’t change. It’s just how people receive it and economic conditions on the ground change, but that doesn’t affect what I write.