An Interview with Victor LaValle
Victor LaValle’s debut book of short stories, Slapboxing with Jesus, won the PEN Open Book Award. His first novel, The Ecstatic, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. His writing draws comparisons to Gabriel García Márquez and William Faulkner. Mos Def named his 2009 album after LaValle’s novel. In addition to this honor, LaValle has been awarded a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and the key to Southeast Queens. His latest novel, Big Machine, was named one of the ten best books of the year by Publishers Weekly. It was also awarded the 2010 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. LaValle was recently a writer in residence at the Dutch Foundation for Literature in Amsterdam, working on a film adaptation of Big Machine in cooperation with Amsterdam’s Binger Filmlab.
Big Machine details the complicated history of the Washburn Library, a research institute based in Vermont that takes in former addicts and ex-criminals, all black, and trains them to investigate supernatural occurrences. The book’s main character, Ricky Rice, a recovering junkie and former childhood member of a dangerous Afrocentric religious cult, is pulled into solving the mystery of the Washburn Library’s purpose and its early history as the legacy of Judah Washburn.
LaValle’s novels complicate traditional narratives of American history and African American history in unexpected and imaginative ways. His work focuses on characters who are outside the mainstream, the type of people less-imaginative observers might deem “outcasts.”
I. “I MADE MORE OF AN EFFORT TO BE A STORYTELLER…. WHICH IS DIFFERENT FROM BEING A WRITER.”
THE BELIEVER: How old were you when you first started writing?
VICTOR LAVALLE: Ten or eleven. Twelve years old. I would copy Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft stories. What I mean is, I would read a story by one of them and try to write exactly the same story. But I don’t know anything about small-town life in Maine, King’s specialty. And I don’t know what it’s like to be a misanthrope in Rhode Island, which was Lovecraft’s. So my stories were always sort of vague and fake. But I kept trying.
BLVR: When did you feel you could call yourself a writer?
VL: I never had any qualms about saying I was a writer. I didn’t come from the kind of people who talked about writers as some rare and cherished beings. This is because we didn’t actually talk about “writers” at all. There were a few books in the home: the Bible and the Encyclopedia Britannica, that kind of thing. My uncle was always a voracious reader, and sometimes he’d leave books at our apartment when he visited. But the role of “author” wasn’t deified, so I didn’t overthink the title. I didn’t imagine it was a privilege. When I found I liked to scribble little stories, I became a writer. As long as I was producing pages, I was a writer, no matter what actually happened to those pages later. Publication wasn’t proof. That wasn’t the test.
BLVR: The first story you wrote was a horror story. And you’ve listed some of your influences as Shirley Jackson and Stephen King. How does horror influence your writing? What elements of horror do you see in your work?
VL: This most recent novel is the most obvious because there are monsters in the book. But also I made more of an effort to be a storyteller this time. Which is different from being a writer. I love tales. In the campfire sense. In the scriptural sense. Folklore. The kind of stories that get passed down like wealth because they are riches. Those kinds of tales usually have some pretty basic lessons to impart: about bravery or cowardice or greed. But they also tend to play on certain primal emotions, fear being one of the surest. And they do this because it works. Fear is a powerful motivator in human behavior, for bad and for good.
But then how do you tell a tale that gains access to that place? Sometimes you have to indulge a little of the fantastic, the impossible, to access that deeper wisdom. And to relay that wisdom to a reader. Whether it’s a wolf that can actually dress and talk like grandma long enough to lure a child into its bed, or the idea that a column of smoke, a column of fire, actually moved with the Israelites, smiting enemies and taking over towns. Talk about eminent domain! It’s not actually important that you believe either story happened, but when you hear each, you know exactly what they’re trying to convey.
BLVR: How did this approach—thinking like a “storyteller,” as you say—work while you were writing Big Machine?
VL: So for this book I tried to access that power. Mixing the mundane and the mythic. For me, few “genres” do that as exceptionally as horror. That’s certainly why I was drawn to it as a young reader. One of the things I’m always telling my writing students is that they should find ways to externalize the internal dilemmas of their characters, of their books. If they externalize the dilemmas, there’s a chance that something might actually happen in their work, and I have a selfish desire for that, as a reader. But I also push them in the hopes that they’ll create a beast of some kind, whatever that actually ends up meaning to them, one that any reader might understand on the deepest level, instinctively. In this book there are a number of beasts: some are humans who act like devils, but others are something else, literally.
I think in order to like horror and supernatural stuff, in order to believe it, you have to have been a person who’s lived a life where terrible things happened and there is no easy explanation for why they did. With [Big Machine], it’s been interesting. Some of the people who have the hardest time going with the final section of the book, where things get particularly strange and insane, when I talk with them, not to be dismissive, they are often people who feel life follows a certain logical order. People who feel, even if cancer kills your parents, you can say, well, they lived next door to the such-and-such plant and that caused the cancer, so they died. As opposed to saying, I live in suchand-such a place, and without my even knowing, a civil war popped off, and a plane dropped a bomb on my house and killed members of my family. And that is a truth that is really hard to explain away.
Or, more particular to me: people in your family are born with illnesses that are never healed. They are only managed. And science can’t particularly explain why these illnesses exist. And for me, it’s an easy leap from that scenario to “OK, there’re monsters. There’s evil in the world that just can’t be fixed.” That’s the influence I get from horror.
BLVR: In this book especially, and also in The Ecstatic, it seems like there is a real sense of faith in each of the characters. It is very up-front that that is what they are struggling with: a sense of belief or a belief system. I’m wondering what advantages you get when you have a character’s belief system so plainly delineated?
VL: Well, first I’ll admit I didn’t know they would have that strong sense of faith, or that they would be wrestling with faith, until about twenty drafts into the process, about two or three years into the book. But one of the advantages of having a character with a specific belief system, with stated ideals or goals, is I get to avoid the excessive ambiguity that I find a little aggravating in some strains of contemporary literary fiction. The idea that ambiguity is all. That a character’s motivations, their beliefs, are supposed to slowly spool out, until you have a mess of yarn in your two hands. But the danger of that approach is that the human beings don’t actually move forward in time; their lives are all stasis. Now this might be how people feel at certain times, but it’s rarely actually true. You still have to get up, go to work, encounter the world, no matter how much you’d like to stay home and ruminate. Rumination doesn’t pay what it used to! I wanted to write characters that had some forward momentum. As a result, they couldn’t sit around for sixty pages, thinking about the delicacy of faith, and describing that condition through the details of a lamppost or something. I wasn’t interested in that.
II. “IF YOU’RE GOOD, YOUR IDENTITY IS A PORTAL. IF YOU’RE BAD, YOUR IDENTITY IS A WALL.”
BLVR: When you were editing Big Machine, what did you fight to keep in?
VL: My biggest fight was to keep the creatures, called the Devils of the Marsh. My editor, Chris Jackson, is incredibly smart, a wonderful editor. But he’s also much more of a realist. He had a hard time cosigning on some damn monsters. So he’d ask, “Can’t they be psychological monsters?” But then I’d ask, “Well, how’s Ricky gonna get pregnant then?” Which led to Chris’s next question, and our second-biggest argument, “Does Ricky have to get pregnant?” And I knew he did. Yes.
BLVR: How soon did you know you wanted the protagonist to become pregnant?
VL: That turn was in the earliest drafts of the book. And it made no sense then. I wrote the first draft while I was on winter break at Mills College in Oakland. It was a short novel. One hundred ninety pages, if that. A pure detective novel. There was stuff about the secret society, but nothing about the Voice, nothing about faith, and there definitely weren’t any monsters. Ricky joins this group, there’s this former member who flips out and rebels. Ricky is sent out west with Adele Henry, to kill him. In that version, Adele, the Gray Lady, as she’s also called in the book, actually betrays Ricky at the end. As soon as the villain, Solomon Clay, is killed, she was meant to murder Ricky. He was Oswald and she was Jack Ruby. And yet, even in that one, Ricky Rice became pregnant. Even though there were no monsters, he was still pregnant; he had something growing inside him, even though it wasn’t explicit, as it is in the final version.
BLVR: And why was it important to you that he become pregnant?
VL: I was dealing with a relationship that was falling apart at that time. Had fallen apart. And in that relationship, I got my girlfriend pregnant. And she and I battled about what to do next. Those aspects made it directly into the book, in some of Ricky’s flashbacks. They are how I remember them, which of course doesn’t mean they’re accurate. But I was trying to tackle that, too. Why we remember our stories, our pasts, the way we do. Whether we damn ourselves in those stories, or praise ourselves, we’re always doing it for a reason. The way people usually remember their pasts flatters something in themselves. And making yourself look horrible, like a monster, is a very traditional form of self-flattery. I wanted to engage with all these ideas, and, for me, the story of that pregnancy was the way to do it.
None of this was conscious, not for a while. The elements stubbornly refused to be erased, no matter how many times I deleted them from the page. After a while you’ve got to stop fighting. Those deeper concerns wore me out. So finally I let them in fully.
BLVR: Is it always easy for you to draw that connection between your actual life and what you write about?
VL: There are many different ways to approach having your real life in your work. I want to tell other people a good story, but if I’m going to spend years on a book, I better get something out of it that benefits my real life, too. I want the work to be worth more than an advance, because I’m going to spend that advance soon enough. My previous book, The Ecstatic, was about working out really conflicted feelings about my family: hating and loving them, wanting to escape them. Pretty normal concerns. But luckily I was able to acknowledge that pretty quick in the writing process, and I just decided that if I was going to really wrestle with this stuff, I might as well throw in as many true-to-life parallels as I could. Unfortunately, my family did find out that I’d thrown in so much, and we had a rough patch because of it. But that’s the other side of being so willing to toss all your autobiographical bits onto the page: those damn human beings won’t just act like characters in your book! They actually have different ideas about what happened and why. But they usually don’t have the luxury of being able to write a book to refute you, though my sister did get a few really solid punches in after The Ecstatic.
BLVR: Both novels, Big Machine and The Ecstatic, contain extensive rewrites of American history. Why did you decide to include these fantastical historical sections?
VL: They weren’t in most of the early drafts [of Big Machine]. But my editor would constantly say, “How is this aspect of the story possible?” Meaning, what explicable history led to this or that element? And I just didn’t know. And so I created not just a complex present-day, but an equally complex past that made the present possible. Which is history. It was exciting.
But the other thing that I wanted to do was I also wanted to have… you have a black American runaway slave and you have these Native Americans from this tribe I made up. I took a lot of pleasure in making them all act really badly. They’re terrible people, actually. At least, they have terrible moments. I knew both ideas were offensive to ideas of what you are supposed to do with certain historical types. They were both supposed to be noble or righteous and nothing else, that’s the received wisdom. Which is, of course, horseshit.
BLVR: It’s interesting that you see these stereotypes as strengths and try to use them.
VL: When a writer just supports a stereotype, that becomes cliché. But when a writer subverts the stereotypes in a surprising way, then the received wisdom can be enormously helpful. And instead you can introduce a type of person that readers expect they already know. And when you take a sharp turn away from the expectations, it can cause some very satisfying whiplash. Satisfying to the reader because his or her expectations have been challenged. It’s almost like slapping the reader awake. And, to my great surprise, many readers tell me they appreciate the feeling. So the conclusion is obvious: readers are masochists! If you do it right.
BLVR: Would you define yourself as a black writer? Or does that term even mean anything to you?
VL: I would. I’m a black writer. I’m a black writer in the same way James Joyce is an Irish writer, Tolstoy a Russian, Flannery O’Connor a white Southerner, just to make three self-aggrandizing comparisons. But those identities, those cultures, are just the doorway to something more universal. That’s the hope, anyway. If you’re good, your identity is a portal. If you’re bad, your identity is a wall.
Of course, there’s the other side of the issue: The reader. You can’t actually control how readers will embrace or flee from the identity before them. Some people love the Brits and others loathe them. Simply setting a piece of fiction in London can be enough to turn some readers away. But what’s your alternative? Set your story in the city just because you don’t want to turn any readers away? That’s a recipe for blandness, most of the time. Specificity is the route to the universal. It’s pretty hard to be specific if you run from all markers of identity. Imagine if Joyce, an Irish Catholic, never played with or referred to the rites and rituals of Catholicism! Can you imagine James Joyce the Unitarian?
III. “I USED TO WANT TO WRITE GREAT SENTENCES. NOW I WANT TO WRITE GREAT BOOKS.”
BLVR: In Big Machine and The Ecstatic, I noticed a lot of physicality in your characters. They’re very much defined by the way they move in their bodies. When creating a character, do you start from gesture, or is that something you work on?
VL: It’s always worked on. My first impulse is to write dialogue. I have a good ear for it, and I can usually make it all sound quite real. But that means I also rely on it too much. Ask the dialogue to do a lot of work for me. But that becomes indulgent.
So on the second, third, fourth, however many drafts, I start thinking: OK, I have to start picturing them moving. They have to have bodies. And then I’ll usually come someplace like a coffee shop, and then I’ll have in mind: OK, it’s two people breaking up, and I’ll try to pick two people who seem to be having a rough day, an argument. Then I just watch them and take notes about how I know they’re fighting, even if I can’t hear a word. Their bodies are telling me everything.
The way people move is all the backstory you will ever need. Because they tell you their whole lives through their bodies. If you want to illustrate an aggressive personality, you don’t need a whole scene from his childhood where you explain how his mother and grandfather had been aggressive, too. Just show him pushing ahead of five other people on a line, and even as others are grumbling, he never even turns around. He just pays and strolls out. The other people just crumple and accept it. And a reader will think, All right, now I know that person. They might not like him, but they sure know him.
BLVR: Do you start with an image, an idea, or a combination of the two?
VL: It’s always the first sentence. I know I’m really ready to start a new project when the first sentence is an asskicker, when it excites me. Some images, some ideas, some characters have been percolating in my mind for a few years, but it’s not until that first line appears that I know the coffee’s ready.
BLVR: So language is the key for you?
VL: Early on I would’ve said that the sentence is all that matters. I used to think it was a compliment to say someone’s book was full of incredible sentences. And it was a compliment, at the time. But these days I tend to take a few steps back from the page. I don’t think it means that I care less about sentences, just that I care more about the book. When I used to coach people to focus only on the sentences, when I used to write that way myself, it was because I needed to focus that sharply on the issue. There’s nothing wrong with lyricism. I’m not trying to degrade the art of a fine line. But when your book just becomes a pileup of fine lines, it makes it much harder for a reader to appreciate the book as a whole. In fact, sometimes the book as a whole is really beside the point. And these days that seems like bad news. I used to want to write great sentences. Now I want to write great books.
BLVR: How do you know you’re done with a project?
VL: When I feel that I’ve gone as far as my powers can go. When I can’t imagine what else I could do. A year, two years, two days after it’s published, I know I’ll come up with a dozen solutions to the problems, the limitations, of that book, but that’s why I write the next one. With The Ecstatic, I wasn’t trying to write a narrative-driven tale. I felt I hadn’t ever read a book that actually captured how a bipolar mind, or a schizophrenic mind, truly works. The two aren’t interchangeable, but I felt I had enough experience with both to pull it off. So that was my mission, and I’m pretty proud of the results. But, in part, that was also my mission because I couldn’t do any more than that. I mean that I could capture the workings of an ill mind, and I could show that mind in a kind of episodic adventure, but I couldn’t also create a traditional narrative for the book. That’s my long way of saying I didn’t know a damn thing about plot. But I didn’t realize this limitation until I was writing the new book, and suddenly it seemed like I had developed this brand-new power. Narrative! But in reality it wasn’t sudden. I’d spent years teaching myself how to do it by not being able to do it.
BLVR: How did your newfound interest in narrative lead to your decisions on structure for Big Machine?
VL: That also was long into the editing process. In the earlier drafts, the chapters were actually about forty pages long. A few years into the writing process, that started to feel like one very long breath. A lot of little things that seemed essential were being lost. I wanted to be able to stop and let the reader think about this idea or that idea, to build my themes slowly over time. But I found that when I had a forty-page chunk, even my closest readers would miss a lot. Not that they were lazy, but that there were only so many details, clues, ideas that I could ask them to juggle at one time. So I was facing a real problem: how do I communicate a lot of big ideas and beliefs without overwhelming the reader?
Luckily, I was reading Moby-Dick and I saw that Moby-Dick has these incredibly tiny chapters. This made it read, at least in the beginning, like an adventure novel. An adventure novel interspersed with moments of philosophy or wisdom. You need to have the sermon at the church as a stand-alone, because if it was buried in another chapter, you might forget, or overlook, the ways that Melville is smacking you in the cheeks with all the themes and goals of the book. As its own thing, you can read it and then put the book down and sort of think about all the points he’s hitting there. I really liked that structure.
Then as the book goes on, the chapters get more and more dense with theory and philosophy. Melville started the book as more of an adventure novel, but then when he discovered that no one wanted to buy it, he was just like, “Aw, fuck this, I’m just going to do whatever I want.” It can seem like Melville is such a genius, and he is, but what’s also true about this great book is just that it ran smack into reality, too. He tried to make money off of it, that didn’t work out, so he switched gears. And to his credit he didn’t go back and remove the more adventurous, propulsive chapters. He just mixed them all together and trusted, hoped, that this only made the book better. The high drama and the deeply philosophical. Melville knew that you can offer a reader both and remain highly serious. And I learned that from him.
IV. “AMERICANS DON’T BELIEVE IN MAGIC, BUT WE DO BELIEVE IN MYTHS.”
BLVR: In both of your novels, most of the characters are outsiders. What’s the advantage of writing outsiders, if you would even call them that?
VL: I would call them outsiders. I would, because enough people have brought it to my attention. Enough people have used that term. But I never think of them that way myself. These are just folks that are misjudged or maligned or underappreciated. That’s who I find interesting.
I have a wonderful family, on both sides, but I would say a lot of them got a lot of bad breaks. And I didn’t. I’ve been really lucky in so many ways. I never thought so when I was younger, but that’s because self-pity comes pretty easy to the young. But I’m a grown man now, and it’s become pretty difficult, if not impossible, to play that poor me card much anymore. So part of me feels like one way I can drag my family, these beautiful but often unappreciated folks, into the public consciousness is by writing about them. One way I can give their lives their due is to make them into stories. But I also realize it’s because I want to save them.
BLVR: What do you mean by “save them”?
VL: Well, one of my beliefs is that people, in the sense of a group, a people, are real only when there are myths about them. Only if they join the legendary: The Iliad or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Toni Morrison’s black Ohioans, or Murakami’s Japanese. These are stories about real people, but they’re all tinged with legends, with myths. And that’s why I think they reach a different scale than a Dos Passos or, I don’t know, Alex Haley. It’s no surprise that Haley’s most enduring book is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Because it’s a personal history, but it’s also an epic in the oldest sense.
Since I’m a reader, my version of being real, and lasting forever, is that there are books that create your legend so that it lives on long after you do, long after the storyteller does. And the specific brand of outsiders, the weirdos that I love, that I feel an affinity for, haven’t been represented in the way I think it should be done. The particular geography I want to map in the world of literature is defined more by the eccentricities of its inhabitants than by their races or their countries of origin. They tend to share the same class, though. Working-class oddballs. The mythic lower middle class! It sounds silly when you say it out loud, but that is actually what I mean.
BLVR: Do you see yourself using realism again?
VL: I think Big Machine is realism. Mythic realism. That’s the term I want to use. I think I came up with it. If so, I’ll file for the copyright. It’s not magic realism. The distinction seems to be that magic realism is what you call it if the writer isn’t an American. So Márquez qualifies, of course. Murakami. Ben Okri. Atwood maybe. Doris Lessing. But if you’re an American writer, it seems like this is a harder fit. Americans don’t believe in magic, but we do believe in myths. Which is just another kind of enchantment.
I remember years ago, when my first book came out, I did an interview with this guy from a magazine that no longer exists. We spent a good while talking, and the magazine ended up writing a very nice piece, with my picture and everything, so it was very gratifying to the ego. It was the thing I could show my family, and they could enjoy their kid getting the shine. But I remember at one point me and the reporter were talking, and he said this kind of cast-off line. He asked me what it felt like to write books for people who don’t read. I had a good laugh at that and proceeded to chew his head off. We had a tense few moments as I defended black readers, or urban readers, or younger readers, all the various groups he meant to suggest I couldn’t rely on. I wasn’t actually hurt by his question, though, because I also realized that his question meant one thing to him and something else entirely to me. He meant it as this real-world issue of how many readers are there for a black book, a book of stories, that kind of thing. Business concerns. Valid questions to raise in a business context. But when he asked the question, my mind had gone in an entirely different direction. I thought of those artists who wrote with a knowledge, a hope, that seems to go beyond a specific moment in their own lives. I’m thinking of Herman Melville, or Henry Green, or Vincent van Gogh, or Zora Neale Hurston. I’m thinking of this great line from a Hunter S. Thompson book, “A Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.”
Even at that age, when me and this reporter sat across from each other at a Russian vodka bar in midtown Manhattan, even as I gave him hell about his prejudices, I still understood the difference between us as this: He saw reality infinite time. Questions of success or relevance or impact were answered that day, or that week. My sense of time was a bit grander. I was twenty-seven, but I believed I’d be sitting here, someday, talking with you about another book. I believed I’d write so many books. And I knew that every person who ever read one of my books and was touched by it, affected, was there with me in that bar. That reporter looked at me and saw one young man at a table. He didn’t realize I had a fucking army with me.
Goddamn, was I an arrogant bastard! Still am.