Colson Whitehead takes on the end of the world (with zombies!) in Zone One.

Not only is Zone One not depressing, it's funny at times, which is interesting given the situation.

Ninety-five percent of the population has been killed off, and the main character's in a pretty desperate situation. Nonetheless, he still has some optimism. And even though I was writing about the end of the world, I realized early on that my general sarcastic take on things would seep in and became a part of the book.

There's a Dawn of the Dead riff in your last book, Sag Harbor. How long have you been thinking about this?

I was a big horror movie fan growing up. I loved watching Creature Features and renting my stack of horror movies from Crazy Eddie, so even though I‘ve written different kinds of books, I have a deep love for this kind of story. George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were the first two movies to have a really strong black protagonist... and for me, growing up in the era of blaxploitation, the very rational antimaterialism of Dawn of the Dead was something. And the takeaway of Night of the Living Dead is that here's a black man on the run from a crazed white society, and for me that's sort of a subplot to the American story.

The book seems tinged with 9/11.

The story takes place downtown... the wasteland they wander is defined in terms of before and after the cataclysm, so... Since 9/11, I've had a heightened sense of insecurity and anxiety, and I think that definitely plays out, perhaps in particular in the way the characters have made their sort of insane accommodation to what's going on.

These days, people reading about apocalypse may think of The Road, but Zone One is set so definitively in New York.

The postapocalyptic wasteland is usually a literal wasteland, the desert or the country. I grew up in postapocalyptic New York, my horrible '70s is my apocalypse, with The Warriors, Escape from New York, etc. Looking back at Beloved, The Road, or Saramago's Blindness, I was fortified by these so-called literary writers doing horror stories, genre stories. Beloved is a ghost story, The Road is Mad Max, and to me, who loves B movies, Blindness is sort of a highbrow Day of the Triffids.

I read the book after the tornadoes and the Japanese earthquake, and I couldn't help thinking of them.

I wanted to accommodate all different kinds of catastrophes—they're manmade, they're natural, they're completely out of the blue—but hopefully, I'm getting at some sort of essential way of dealing with these disparate horrors.

What's next?

I'm going out to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker and write about it for I've been training for the last few months.