Skip to main content

Justice Stevens Reflects On The Court And Its Chiefs.

After 35 years as a Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens retired last year. His newly released memoir is about his time on the bench and the five Supreme Court chief justices he personally knew. He details his views of those justices and how his viewpoints on various issues evolved over the years.

21:36

Other segments from the episode on October 19, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 19, 2011: Interview with John Paul Stevens; Interview with Colson Whitehead.

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***

..DATE:

20111019

..PGRM:

FRESH AIR

..TIME:

12:00-13:00 PM

..NIEL:

N/A

..NTWK:

NPR

..SGMT:

JUSTICE STEVENS REFLECTS ON THE COURT AND ITS CHIEFS

TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, John Paul Stevens, was a Supreme Court justice for 35 years, making him the fourth-longest-serving justice in the court's history. He was appointed by President Ford and retired last year at the age of 90.

In his final decade on the court, some of his best known opinions were his dissenting ones: in Bush v. Gore, which stopped the Florida recount; and Citizens United, which ended restrictions on corporate spending in elections. Stevens also wrote the majority opinion for the court in two cases that successfully challenged the Bush administration's approach to the war on terror: Rasul v. Bush, which said detainees at Guantanamo had the right to challenge their incarceration in American courts; and Hamden versus Rumsfeld, which ruled against the Bush administration's plan to use military tribunals at Gitmo.

Legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin describes those decisions as the summit of Stevens' achievements on the bench. Justice Stevens has written a new memoir called "Five Chiefs" about the five chief justices he's known, including the three he served with: Warren Berger, William Rehnquist and John Roberts.

Justice Stevens, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's an honor to have you on the show. Is it something of a relief to be retired and not have the weight of having to make these really important, you know, opinions on really important cases that will affect the future of the country?

JOHN PAUL STEVENS: The answer is yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEVENS: It's definitely a relief, although I do miss the work, which I enjoyed very much, but it is a relief.

GROSS: Now, you were nominated to the court by President Ford. You began serving in 1975, and at the time, you were considered a moderate Republican. By the time you left, you were described by Walter Dellinger as the chief justice of the liberal Supreme Court, of the liberal branch of the Supreme Court. Do you think you became more liberal over the time that you served in the court?

STEVENS: Well perhaps, but those terms are a little bit misleading because you have so many issues that you address as a member of the court that on some issues, you might be regarded as, to use your word, as a liberal, and on others, you might be regarded as a conservative. And it's difficult to place a simple label on the entire work product of a member of the court.

GROSS: One of your most famous dissenting opinions was also one of your last. It was the Citizens United case, for which you wrote a 90-page dissenting opinion. That's really long, isn't it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEVENS: That is long, and that's probably why there are a lot of people who haven't bothered to read it all.

GROSS: So this is the decision that overturned constraints on corporate spending and political campaigns and said that limits on corporate spending infringed on corporations' freedom of speech. Why were you so angry about this decision?

STEVENS: Well, I don't know if angry is the word or not. I thought it was incorrect in several respects. At the beginning of my 90 pages, I explain why the court would have been wiser to decide the case on narrower grounds because I think it's always a good craftsmanship in administering the law to decide cases on narrow grounds, particularly constitutional cases, when you have the opportunity to do so.

And as I explain in the opinion, there were narrower grounds that would not have caused any major change in the law that could have been used to decide the case. And then having explained that, I then get into a discussion of why I thought that the particular cases that the court overruled in that case were - had been correctly decided and should not be overruled.

GROSS: So you're talking about deciding on narrower terms, and you write that you saw it as conservative judicial activism when the court sent back the lawyers in the Citizens United case and asked them to bring a more expansive version of the case and to address broader issues about the relationship of corporations to the First Amendment.

And the way the Supreme Court decided the case, infringing on corporate spending was seen as infringing on a corporation's right to free speech and also equating a corporation's right to free speech with an individual's right to free speech. Correct me if I got any of that wrong.

STEVENS: You've got it right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. So were you surprised to see the Supreme Court equate a corporation's right to free speech with an individual's right to free speech?

STEVENS: Well not entirely because some years ago, Justice Powell had written an opinion in the Bellotti case, which held that a corporation does - the First Amendment does protect a corporation's right to communicate with the public on issues of general public interest. But in that opinion, he carefully distinguished speech about general issues from election campaigns.

See, an election campaign in many respects is like a debate between two adversaries, which some believe, including actually me, that it's wise to have rules that make the debate fairer to both sides and lead to a reasoned decision rather than one based on how much money one has or some non-reasoned factor.

GROSS: One of the divisions within the Supreme Court now is between the people who describe themselves as originalists in their interpretation of the Constitution, like Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas, and others who see the Constitution as an evolving document that needs to be interpreted in its time. And I think you and Justice Breyer would fall in that category. Again, correct me if you feel I'm misrepresenting anything.

So I'm just wondering about the whole idea of originalists. Is that something - is that a point of view that you think has always existed during your years on the Supreme Court, or is that something that's relatively new?

STEVENS: Well, actually the term can be used in many ways, and every member of the court is an originalist in the sense that he or she always tries to have as complete an understanding as possible of the reasons that motivated the drafting of a particular provision in the law, whether it be a statute or a constitutional provision. That's part of the general study that one goes through in trying to resolve a particular case.

Most of us, however, do not regard the so-called original understanding as the complete answer to all the issues. It's one of the factors that are considered.

GROSS: So let's jump to the D.C. versus Heller decision, which was a gun control decision. Do you want to just explain what that decision said?

STEVENS: Well, it held that the Second Amendment protects the right of a homeowner to possess a handgun in his or her home.

GROSS: And that, you say, just re-interpreted the Second Amendment. In what way?

STEVENS: Well, there had been a square decision about - I forget the exact year now, holding to the contrary. It wasn't on exactly the same facts, but it held that the amendment protected military uses of firearms as the language of the amendment itself.

GROSS: The well-regulated militia language.

STEVENS: Well, the militias and the right to bear arms, and the text of the amendment makes - refers specifically to military uses, and that had been the basic limitation in the law prior to that decision.

And I think it's fairly clear that the framers expected the states to have the last say on what kind of use of the people to keep and bear arms should be authorized. They certainly didn't expect, in my judgment, federal judges to have last word on what kind of firearms states could authorize for themselves.

GROSS: But what about the well-regulated militia part and the difference between the originalists and others on the court?

STEVENS: Well, the - I don't know if it's just originalists or not, but the well-regulated militia in the preamble to the Second Amendment identifies the purpose of the provision, and it seems to me it conveys a very strong message to the ordinary reader, whether he's an originalist or whatever might be a different form of interpretation, that they were basically concerned about protecting the state militias, not protecting individuals or hunters or things like that because at the time there were state constitutional provisions out there that were not so limited by the phrasing. They talked about the right to use guns for hunting and other purposes.

GROSS: I guess I'm wondering if it seems a little topsy-turvy to have you arguing: No, literally the Constitution said the guns are for a well-regulated militia and having the originalists saying no, no, no, the rights are really broader than that.

STEVENS: Well, that's exactly right. I think it's - it's a very ironic decision because it seems to me that the more you looked at the text and the drafting history of the Second Amendment the more you come to the conclusion that the current court's reading of the amendment is much broader than what the draftsmen expected.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Paul Stevens, who was a Supreme Court justice from 1975 until 2010. Now he's written a memoir called "Five Chiefs: A Supreme Court Memoir," and it's about the chief justices who he knew.

A question about Bush v. Gore. You describe the story in the book. It's - the Florida recount is happening in this contested election, and the Bush camp wants to take it to the Supreme Court and have the Supreme Court halt the recount. And as that process is beginning to be set in motion, you run into Justice Breyer at a Christmas party, and in casual conversation, you both agree this is a kind of frivolous case, it doesn't stand a chance of actually being accepted by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court isn't going to hear it. And then much to your surprise, the Supreme Court hears it and rules in favor of the Bush camp and stopping the Florida recount. What surprised you most in the argument that was made by the justices who wanted to not only hear the case but stop the recount?

STEVENS: Well, I guess the thing that surprised me most was the fact that any justice thought that there was irreparable injury shown by the petitioners that would justify the action that was taken.

GROSS: So what would - in your interpretation, what would irreparable injury have to be? What qualifies irreparable injury?

STEVENS: Well, I'm not sure what would qualify as irreparable, something that would have precluded an understanding of what the results of the election were, which certainly was not even argued in that case.

GROSS: So because this was such a big decision, and the country was so divided, and the election was so close, was there a lot of tension in the court while that decision was in process?

STEVENS: I don't think I should comment on what went on within the court. I can just say that it was consistent with what I said at the end of the brief. I think that the justices respected one another for the views that they expressed.

GROSS: It strikes me of all the Supreme Court decisions that I've ever tried to talk about on the air with a justice - and I've only interviewed you and Justice Breyer - but, like, that one seems like I don't want to go there. You know, that seems like the decision that justices, like, really don't want to talk about in public.

STEVENS: I suppose that's right. You know, and of course I don't think it's been a decision that has been cited since it was handed down.

GROSS: Didn't the decision say it shouldn't be cited, that this was like a one-off, that this was meant to apply to this election only?

STEVENS: Well, there's language in the opinion that I suppose should be interpreted to say that. But again, I don't have the opinion in front of me now, and I wouldn't want to comment on that.

GROSS: OK. So, you know, the question has come up with some cases: Should Justice Thomas be recusing himself because of his wife's participation in political activities? And I'm wondering, if I may go back to the Citizens United case, if you think that's an example of a case that Justice Thomas perhaps should have recused himself from because his wife was active in politics in a way that could relate to a political campaign and perhaps was a member of a group that got corporate funding.

STEVENS: No, I don't. I don't think there's the slightest danger that Clarence Thomas' views or vote in the case was affected by his wife's activities or her - whatever might have been said about her. I have total confidence in Justice Thomas's independence in the case.

GROSS: So you don't think there's any cases that he should have recused himself from?

STEVENS: No.

GROSS: OK. Now, when you put on your judicial robe, did it transform you in any way? And I'm thinking, you know, how actors always say when they put on a certain costume, they feel more in character, it helps them get into the role. Did putting on the judicial robe give you the sense of, you know, gravity of the occasion?

STEVENS: Well, I frankly hadn't thought of it that way, but that may well be true because it is a solemn occasion when you get ready to go on the bench and confront the issues that you have to confront as a judge or a justice.

GROSS: And are the robes, like, custom made for each judge, or do you go to, like, a robe supply store and just pick out your size?

STEVENS: That's the one tax deduction that judges have, if I can remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEVENS: If you buy new robes, I think that's a business expense and can be deducted. But in fact, my original robes were given to me by my former partners when I went on the bench, and I continued to wear them until they got perhaps shabbier than they should have.

GROSS: My guest is retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. His new memoir about the five chief justices he's known is called "Five Chiefs." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. He stepped down last year after serving in the court since 1975, when he was appointed by President Ford. His new book is a memoir called "Five Chiefs" about five Supreme Court justices who he knew or worked with.

Do you feel like your judicial philosophy changed or evolved over your many years in the court?

STEVENS: Well, it definitely evolved in the sense that I learned more about the law and more about the Constitution, more about life in general so that any judge or justice has views that evolve over time because he becomes more and more educated and better able to do certain things that he could've done at an earlier time.

GROSS: Can you give us an example of an issue in which your view or your judicial philosophy changed?

STEVENS: Well, I - there's been some change but - in my views about the death penalty, but I think there's more of a change in the jurisprudence of the court that made me eventually reach the conclusion that the death penalty, as it is presently administered, is unconstitutional - a bit more specifically, a most unwise practice.

What were the judicial changes you're talking about?

Well, I suppose one of the major changes was expanding the category of cases in which the defendant is eligible for the death penalty because our decisions back in 1976, I guess it was, reinstating - upholding the constitutionality of the death penalty in three specific states rested largely on Justice Stewart's view that administering the death penalty should not be similar to being struck by lightning, as it was then, so much so random in its application.

And there were other changes in the law. The court relaxed the standards for service on the jury to allow the prosecutor to select jurors who were more likely to impose the death penalty than if they were done on a more random basis.

There were changes in the rules on admissibility of evidence, particularly the Payne decision, which allowed the introduction of what they call victim impact evidence, which had been squarely ruled inadmissible in two earlier cases, which substitutes emotion rather than reason for the basis for imposing the death penalty, and then perhaps others that don't come to mind right away.

GROSS: So there's one decision in which you - although you believe the death penalty was unconstitution(ph), you said that you respected the Supreme Court precedence that allowed capital punishment. So at those times when your belief about a policy is different than your belief about, you know, precedent and constitutionality, what's that experience like for you?

STEVENS: Well, if I understand the question correctly, there is a vast difference between the issue as to whether the death penalty is constitutional and the question of whether it's wise policy. And I think - I mention, I think in the book, or I certainly have mentioned in other occasions, Chief Justice Berger and Justice Blackmun, for example, originally voted to uphold the constitutionality of the death penalty.

Justice Blackmun later changed his views on that particular issue. But both of them were very clear, at least as I recall, in believing that it was not wise policy. They both came from Minnesota, which does not have a capital punishment statute, and I think they were not fans of the death penalty.

GROSS: So have you been in that position, where you're upholding the constitutionality of something, although you think it's bad policy?

STEVENS: Yes, very definitely. The example that comes to mind most readily is a case that we had seven or eight years ago involving the constitutionality of federal enforcement against the use of marijuana in California after California passed a statute allowing its use for medical purposes and particularly for the women in that particular case who grew their own marijuana in the backyard, I think it was, and they had strong medical justification for using the drug. I thought it was most unwise to prohibit them from doing so, but I think that it was equally clear that the federal Constitution did authorize the federal government to enforce the statutes on the books.

GROSS: OK, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for your service to the country.

STEVENS: Thank you very much. I've enjoyed our conversation.

GROSS: Justice John Paul Stevens' new memoir "Five Chiefs" is about the five chief justices he's known. He retired from the bench last year. You can read an excerpt of his book on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH air.

..COST:

$00.00

..INDX:

141427499

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***

..DATE:

20111019

..PGRM:

FRESH AIR

..TIME:

12:00-13:00 PM

..NIEL:

N/A

..NTWK:

NPR

..SGMT:

A 'ZONE' FULL OF ZOMBIES IN LOWER MANHATTAN

TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Maybe it's just coincidence, but Colson Whitehead's new novel has been published in the middle of a zombie craze. His novel "Zone One" is set in Manhattan after a plague has spread around the world turning many of the infected into zombies. When the novel begins, the worst of the plague is over and New York's provisional government is trying to restore some semblance of normal life. The main character, Mark Spitz, is part of a team that is supposed to clean out the remaining zombies.

Colson Whitehead is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship - the so-called Genius Award. His novel "John Henry Days," about a journalist assigned to write about the legendary John Henry, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His semi-autobiographical novel "Sag Harbor" is about summering in the middle-class African-American community in the Hamptons.

Colson Whitehead, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a reading from "Zone One." And you want to just set it up for us?

COLSON WHITEHEAD: Sure. In this section, Mark Spitz, our humble protagonist, is hiding out. The end times have come and he's found a refuge with a woman named Mim in a toy store in Connecticut. And he's mulling over how they got here and trying to process how much the world has changed.

The boy that wandered into the cellar of his personality still nursed the naive hunger for a life of adventure. As a kid he'd invented scenarios for adulthood - to outrun a fireball, swing across the air shaft on a wire, dismember the gargoyle army(ph) with an enchanted blade that only he could hold. Now he was grown up and the plague had granted him his wish and rendered it a silly grotesque. It was not so glamorous to spend two days doubled over emptying your guts because you'd gambled on the expired bottle of kiwi juice. All of the other kids turned out to be postal workers, roofers, beloved teachers, and died. Mark Spitz was living the dream. Take a bow, Mark Spitz.

And then he goes on to think about all the movies and TV shows he loved as a kid and the monsters in them. He loved the subgenre of misunderstood aliens and mechanical men who yearn to love. He'd always seen himself in them, the robots who roved the galaxy in search of the emotion chip, the tentacled things that were beneath their muddled puckered membranes, more human than the murderous villagers who hunted them down for their difference. The townspeople, of course, were the real monsters. It was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends and neighbors, as the creatures they'd always been. And what had the plague exposed him to be? Mark Spitz endured as the race was killed off one by one. A part of him thrived on the end of the world. How else to explain it? He had a knack for apocalypse. The plague touched them all, blood contact or no. The secret murderers, dormant rapists and latent fascists were now free to express their ruthless natures. The timid, those who had been stingy with their dreams for themselves, those who came out of the womb scared and remained so, these too found a final stage for their weakness and in their last breaths were fulfilled. I've always been like this. Now I'm more me.

GROSS: That's Colson Whitehead reading from his new novel, "Zone One." So in writing this novel, who did you see yourself as being, and who did you see yourself as being in action and science fiction fantasies that you read when you were young?

WHITEHEAD: Well, you know, I'm part of the Star Wars generation, so sometimes Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Greedo. You know, there's so many folks to choose from there. You know, when I was planning this book, I felt fortunate that I could pay homage to all the comic books and horror and science-fiction novels I read as a kid. It was a big departure for me in terms of some of my other books. But it was staying in a house, being a shut-in as a 10-year-old and just curling up with "The Twilight Zone" or a stack of comic books that made me want to be a writer. So I was glad to finally attack some monsters in the way I wanted to as a kid.

GROSS: I heard a speech that you gave in which you describe yourself as having delicate girlish wrists and slender fingers that aren't cut out for certain work.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I'm trying to imagine you with, you know, with your delicate girlish wrists thinking of yourself as like Harrison Ford running from the fireball and, you know, imagining yourself in all these like action fantasies. How did that jive for you?

WHITEHEAD: Well, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: ...it's role-play, and sometimes the hero wins and then sometimes he's at the end of the post-apocalyptic film just staring out into the wasteland. And for me, you know, both those parts of the experience are important.

GROSS: But I love the image of you being basically a shut-in, not because you're sick but because you prefer to be at home reading. Thinking of yourself as having these, you know, like girlish wrists and yet...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...imagining yourself all the time as being like the hero in the action film.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I mean, you know, I think I envied kids who could go out and play football and soccer. That wasn't my sort of gig. My gig was...

GROSS: Saving the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: Saving the world, shutting the door and imagining myself as Spider-Man. You know, in the late '70s, Spider-Man had this great narrative where he was a struggling freelancer, he lives in a crappy studio apartment, and I thought I would love to be a struggling freelancer in a crappy studio apartment dodging my landlord (unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So let's talk about the scenario that you've created. What is the plague that destroys so much of New York?

WHITEHEAD: The plague is a zombie plague - and I'm still trying to get over saying zombie out loud so many times of a day. And the infected and dead are about 95 percent of the population, and then there are the survivors. And the plague is running down, they're rebuilding society. There are camps of survivors here and there across the country and now they've decided to tackle New York. It's an island. You can go through and sweep out the remaining zombies, the plague-ridden wretches. And our hero, Mark Spitz, is part of a team of sweepers. The Army has swept out most of the creatures and Omega Team, Mark's team, is going door-to-door in residential buildings, office buildings, and getting that remaining one percent of the monsters who are lurking in closets and in storerooms so that they can resettle Manhattan and bring the survivors home.

GROSS: So the people who are left include the living, the skels, and the stragglers. What are skels?

WHITEHEAD: The skels are what we know as conventional zombies, slow-moving. They gain their horrific potential in groups. And then there are stragglers, which I added to the mix. And stragglers are malfunctioning zombies. They are the human statues. Once they've been infected they go to places that were important to them - places that are emotionally charged. So if you were a lawyer, you might follow your homing instincts and go to your office and sit in your chair and wait for clients who never come. If you are a shrink you might go to your office and wait for patients who are dead and are probably not going to show up for their 1:00 appointments. So downtown is littered with these stragglers, these human statues who are representing some sort of aspect of their past.

GROSS: And there's something so creepy about that concept.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: If you were straggler, where would you be?

WHITEHEAD: Oh, probably on my couch watching the evening news and unwinding, waiting for a broadcast that's never going to come.

GROSS: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: For a weather report that really had no impact on me.

GROSS: Do the zombies in your book have any consciousness of the fact that they're zombies?

WHITEHEAD: As far as the zombies, we don't know what they're thinking. I doubt it's that complicated. I'm kind of hungry. Whole Foods is closed, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: ...I go after this guy right here. Part of what I'm trying to do in the book is erase that line between the infected and the uninfected. The stragglers are tied to emotionally charged places in their past and so are the survivors. They're also ghosts haunting themselves, the people they used to be, the homes, their homes that no longer exist. So whether you have the plague in your blood or not, you're kind of zombie-like is what I'm trying to say, I think.

GROSS: Now, Buffalo, New York has become the home of the provisional government, and the best and brightest have been sent there to rewind the catastrophe, and in return they have a 24-hour a day generator and un-curtailed hot showers on command, which is a really big deal in this post-apocalyptic world. And one of the things they're tackling in the provisional government is language, trying to describe the post-plague world; they're rebranding the survival. They have specialists crafting the new language. What were some of your inspirations...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...for this rebranding?

WHITEHEAD: When I was conceiving the novel I just had the idea that people are pretty much the same after the disaster, they're just a little more bummed out. And so it seems that marketing will come back pretty quickly, bureaucracy, all those sorts of things. And if you are trying to marshal a very depressed populace towards a new future, you are going to need a song, "Stop, Can You Hear the Eagle Roar," which is, you know, the uplifting anthem that people are humming under their breath. You're going to need a name for this new class of people, the American Phoenix, we're rising from the ashes. So it seemed that that kind of corporate sloganeering would come back pretty early along with the desire for gourmet coffee, fresh arugula and all those sorts of nice things that we associate with contemporary society.

GROSS: So the anthem for the new world is "Stop" - exclamation point - "Can You Hear the Eagle Roar," parentheses, theme from Reconstruction, and I love the fact that you've made the anthem a parentheses song.

WHITEHEAD: Well, you know, you love those, you know, all those pop songs that are like "You're Rolling Me" - parentheses - "Like a Pair of Dice."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: So I thought the book would be a lot more, well, hopefully the book is gloomy but the jokes started creeping in pretty early and I had to embrace that. So even though I have killed off most of the population, there, you know, there are tiny cracks where my bits of dark humor can flower.

GROSS: So can you sing the song - the anthem?

WHITEHEAD: I should probably hire a songwriter to actually make a melody. The lyrics will be fun to write. I should get on that. But it's probably close to, you know, things they play at baseball games or any sort of sports match. I don't actually go to any sports matches. Are they even called sports matches? I'm not sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Tennis matches.

WHITEHEAD: Games. Games.

GROSS: My guest is Colson Whitehead. His new post-apocalyptic zombie novel is called "Zone One." More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Colson Whitehead. His new novel is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel called "Zone One." So why are zombies and vampires so popular now? Why do you think?

WHITEHEAD: I wish I could tell you. I mean my strange affinity goes back to when I was a kid. I read a lot of horror novels and watched a lot of horror movies, B movies, good horror movies like "The Thing," bad movies like "Horror of Party Beach," and I was definitely too young to, you know, to see these things. So I saw "Dawn of the Dead" in junior high...

GROSS: So the Romero films - George Romero films.

WHITEHEAD: Yes. The second one, zombie classic, and it was rated X, you know, no one under 18 admitted, but my parents took me and my brother on a family outing, it was very pleasant, and since then I've had zombie anxiety dreams. So some people have anxiety dreams about showing up for an exam they didn't know, you know, for a class they didn't know they had or having to give a presentation and they're unprepared. I've had zombie anxiety dreams for the last 30 years. And sometimes they're fast, they're slow, I'm alone, with friends, in the city or the country, basically depending on what's going on in my life. And this book started from a dream I had two and half years ago.

Finally, one of my dreams was useful. I was out of the country with some houseguests, it was very lovely. And I had this dream that I wanted to go out into the living room of my house but I was wondering if they'd swept the zombies out yet. And then I woke up, and usually when you have a dream and you're sort of aware it's a dream and you think I have to remember this when I wake up, it's going to be a good book and then we wake up and it's terrible. This time I woke up and thought this is a real actual logistical nightmare. How do you get rid of the zombies when you're trying to rebuild society? And that's how the book started for me.

GROSS: So when your parents took you to see "Dawn of the Dead," even though it was rated X, and it was rated X because it was so graphic. I mean, the zombies are, like, eating, they're just, like, chewing on legs and arms. It's a really, really gory film. And you had signed the nightmares ever since. So did your parents do the right thing or the wrong thing by taking you to see that exceptionally gory zombie film?

WHITEHEAD: I got a book out of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: You know...

GROSS: Thirty years later.

WHITEHEAD: Thirty years later. So it paid off. I mean, I think - we didn't have babysitters, my brother and I. We would just go to Crazy Eddie, which was an old video store in New York City, every Friday and rent Betamax tapes of late '70s splatter movies and classic horror movies, Dario Argento, and have these horror film festivals. And until - I think until college I wanted to write horror novels. I wanted to write the black "Shining" or the black "Salem's Lot." Basically, if you took any Stephen King title and put the black in front of it, that was sort of my aspiration.

GROSS: So when you were young, you wanted to write the black "The Shining" or any - take any Stephen King novel and put the black in front of it. So what's going on racially in your new novel? Is your character African-American? Is he white? Is race an issue? Is this truly like - is it a post-racial world and a post-apocalyptic world?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: You know, I mean, the word post-racial is so funny these days. Folks think that because Obama was elected, suddenly racism disappeared, you know, the day after, on November 6th. And, of course, it didn't. We don't live in a post-racial world. However, it seems when folks have the apocalypse on their plate - or at least it seemed to me - that racial differences, class differences, your funny accent, these things aren't as important as finding that last can of peas and maybe a bag of beef jerky that will get you through a couple days food.

GROSS: And making sure that the person isn't a zombie.

WHITEHEAD: Yes. That helps. That helps.

GROSS: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right.

WHITEHEAD: So "Zone One" is a post-racial world, simply because they have more things on their mind than skin color, gender difference.

GROSS: Now, when you were growing up in Manhattan, you went to prep school. And you said you were often the only African-American in the room. And when you'd go to a bar mitzvah, which you did a lot...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...growing up in Manhattan.

WHITEHEAD: It was a great time. I mean, that was my introduction to chicken on skewers...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WHITEHEAD: ...finger food. You know, I look back very fondly.

GROSS: Little egg rolls?

WHITEHEAD: Yes. Oh, God.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So how did that shape your sense of what it meant to be black?

WHITEHEAD: It didn't shape my sense of what it is to be black. I mean, it helped with my outsider-ness. And I think if you're an outsider, as you are in a predominantly white prep school, you become a observer. You start to think about where you end and other folks begin, the sort of alien community that you're part of, half-digested, trying to navigate. But that kind of otherness can be found in so many sectors of daily experience, and I try to tackle that in "Sag Harbor." We have this prep school kid who divides his time between New York City, where he's in a mostly white environment in school, and an African-American community in Sag Harbor in the Hamptons, a middle-class, upper-middle-class enclave. And he toggles back and forth between an all-black society and a mostly white society and tries to figure out who he is and who he's becoming.

GROSS: In "Sag Harbor," your semi-autobiographical novel about summering in the Hamptons in African-American summering community there, the character describes his parents as being from the uplift-the-race category. And I'm wondering if you would describe your parents that way, too. And if so, how did that relate to their expectations of you?

WHITEHEAD: There's some of that in their personality. You know, they're the civil rights generation, and I'm the product of their struggles and what they - and their aspirations and what they wanted for their kids. And they're the product of their parents' strivings, being the first doctors, lawyers in their family, this newly emergent black middle class in the '20s. So they had certain - I think, you know, they wanted me to have a decent job and make a lot of money. And when I told them I wanted to be a writer, they weren't incredibly psyched. I mean, I was fortunate to get a job at the Village Voice and supporting myself doing journalism, not supporting myself in a very lofty style, but I had money for beer, and that helped.

And even when I was being a journalist, they sort of didn't understand and assumed I would get with the program and become a lawyer. I didn't. I started writing novels. The first one didn't go anywhere. And I think it wasn't until my first, "The Intuitionist," came out that they were fully on board. They could actually see a review of it in a newspaper and say, oh, it's actually something that's real. And even if you didn't go into investment banking or brain surgery, he can take care of himself.

GROSS: One of your first book jobs, perhaps your very first book job, was working at the Village Voice, the first - I think it's fair to say the first really big alternative weekly newspaper.

WHITEHEAD: Yeah.

GROSS: And you were, what, assistant book review editor, or assistant to the book review editor?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I was about six months out of college, and it was my job to open the 40 books a day we got from publishers, file them, answer the phones. I had to get a phone voice, because I was a big mumbler, so voice literary supplements.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: That was a real milestone for me. And, I mean, it was a great time and a great opportunity. I'm not sure how kids find journalism jobs these days. But because, you know, the Village Voice thought of itself as a writer's paper, if you hung around and badgered folks, you would get an assignment. And if it was okay, you'd get the second one. And so I started off in the TV section, because the editor seemed like an easy mark. And he gave me...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: ...an assignment, and that led to other stuff. So I never took any creative writing classes in college. I tried to audition for them, and then I was turned down both times, which was very depressing. But I became a writer at the Voice, you know, filing once a week. If you write a good article, you get great feedback. Good job, Colson. If you are too self-indulgent and spend the first four paragraphs talking about your romantic woes or why you're depressed, you hear nothing. So you know you sort of screwed up, and maybe you should not be so voice-oriented and more attentive to the job at hand. And then that gave me the confidence to start writing fiction, even though I never - I'd only written maybe, you know, four stories in my whole life.

GROSS: My guest is Colson Whitehead. His novels include "Sag Harbor," "John Henry Days," and the new post-apocalyptic novel "Zone One." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is Colson Whitehead. His new, post-apocalyptic zombie novel is called "Zone One." His 2009 semi-autobiographical novel "Sag Harbor" is about summering in an African-American community near the ocean in the Hamptons.

There's an incident that happens in your novel "Sag Harbor," and I was wondering if this is based on anything that happened to you. The main character, who is African-American, is with some kids who are white. A one of the white kids drags his finger across the main character's cheek and said look, it doesn't come off - referring to his color. And, you know, the kid tells the incident to his father. And the father gets really angry that his son didn't hit the white kid, that his son just kind of took this insult, which the father considered the equivalent of calling the kid the N word. So is that based on a real incident?

WHITEHEAD: I would say based. You know, I think - you know, my father's upbringing was nothing more rough-and-tumble, and I think you become more aware of those tiny, insidious moments where the world is teaching you what actually it thinks of you. I grew up with, you know, great friends, went to a school where I was with the same, you know, gang of kids from kindergarten on, and was definitely insolated from certain realities - sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way.

So in "Sag Harbor," I was trying to pick out small moments like that, things that happened to my friends, happened to me and slow them down and unpack them and try to deconstruct what's going on in these moments of real racial animosity, but also just racial misunderstanding. Some white folks don't understand that, actually, black people don't like have their head - their hair patted. It's just hair. It's just an afro. You find it springy. Wow. That's great. Don't touch me.

So I did endure a certain amount of head-patting as a kid, and trying to, like, figure out what's going on in folks' brains when they reach out and touch your afro was sort of a fun part of writing "Sag Harbor."

GROSS: So, one more zombie question for you. When - ever since your parents took you to see "Dawn of the Dead," you had zombie dreams, and one of those zombie dreams inspired your new novel, "Zone One." So now that you've written a novel and really spent a lot of time thinking about zombies...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...do you still have zombie dreams, or have they disappeared?

WHITEHEAD: They've slowed down. I mean, I had one last week, so because...

GROSS: Did you really? What was the dream?

WHITEHEAD: I can't remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: I can't remember. There's no book in it, so that's - I think that's how I'm thinking about them these days. But instead of having one a month now, it's one a year. So I did work out a few of my psychological hang-ups in going through the book. There is a lot of me in there. You know, my last book was more obviously drawing from my personal life, but there's a lot of me in Mark Spitz and the other characters as they try to, you know figure out the next stage and wrestle with some demons. So I think I did make some progress on my emotional to-do list, if only getting the anxiety dreams down to one a year.

GROSS: One a year?

WHITEHEAD: Is that too many?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: No. That's nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: One a year?

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. It's only been nine months since I finished the book, so we'll see how the next couple of years pan out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

WHITEHEAD: It was a lot of fun. It got me out of the house, worth big bucks in my world.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Are you still a shut-in?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITEHEAD: Yeah. When you work at home - you know, you write, you work at home. So those are the rhythms of my days.

GROSS: And that suits you?

WHITEHEAD: Yes. I like it just fine.

GROSS: Colson Whitehead's new novel is called "Zone One." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

..COST:

$00.00

..INDX:

141422845

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Country Singer Marty Stuart Plays Songs Of Sin And Redemption

The Grammy winning singer-songwriter started out in Johnny Cash's backup band. Now he's being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Stuart played some of his own music in this 2014 interview.

35:27

As Campuses Become COVID-19 Hot Spots, Colleges Strain Under Financial Pressures

Scott Carlson, Senior writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education talks about the tough decisions colleges and universities are facing dealing with the pandemic.

05:44

'Ratched' Gives A First Name — And A Backstory — To The Iconic 'Cuckoo's Nest' Nurse

Violence and humor create a complicated character arc in a Netflix series that serves as a prequel, of sorts, to Ken Kesey's famed novel. Sarah Paulson gives a star turn as Mildred, AKA Nurse Ratched.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue