AN INTERVIEW WITH VICTOR LAVALLE
Victor LaValle is one of my favorite living authors, and just an amazing stylist, thinker, and feeler (for lack of a better word). He’s written one short story collection (SLAPBOXING WITH JESUS) and three novels (THE ECSTATIC, BIG MACHINE, and THE DEVIL IN SILVER). His last two books have had supernatural elements, as well as literary heft, and his combination of Serious Student of Horror meets the Great American Novelist makes me jump for joy. He teaches at Colombia University in New York City, and has won several awards for his fiction, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the key to Southeast Queens!
“Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of men and women.”
BIG MACHINE is one of the finest books I’ve ever read, period. The fact that it has monsters, noirish elements, cults, conspiracies, a deep look at race in America, AND lots of humor is just icing on the cake of its brilliance. It tells the story of Ricky Rice (the narrator), a middle-aged ex-junkie and child survivor of an apocalyptic Christian cult, who is summoned to a mysterious compound in the woods of Vermont, called The Washburn Library, founded by an escaped slave and run by the semi-sinister Dean. There, Ricky and six other African American outsiders are trained to be “Unlikely Scholars”, whose sole job is to find and research seemingly paranormal events. Ricky ends up being sent on a separate mission with another of the Scholars, Adele, to California to try and convince a fallen Scholar to rejoin the fold. That description does NOT even hint at the awesomeness of BIG MACHINE.
THE DEVIL IN SILVER is smaller in scope than its predecessor, sort of a riff on the haunted house tale, though set in a rundown mental institution in Queens. Yes, there is a monster (a really awesome one!) and mystery and compelling action, but it is also a very empathetic look at mental illness and especially how we as a society deal with the mentally ill. It’s a great story that follows Pepper, an angry guy with very little self control, as he is arrested and winds up under observation at the mental institution. While there, as he is drugged and confined, he has an encounter with what can only be called a demon. He and a ragtag handful of patients take it upon themselves to figure out just what the hell is going on. So good, and deceptively complex.
We had the good fortune to interview Mr. LaValle, and it was awesome! In fact, here is that interview now:
You have a lot of literary depth and power, and to me it seems you could really write ANYTHING you wanted, in whatever style or genre. How did you come to gravitate toward horror/supernatural/dark fiction?
My first love is horror and the supernatural. I got haunted when I was very young and I suppose I’ve never shaken the ghosts. I became a reader through comic books but the first prose writers I ever read were Stephen King and Shirley Jackson, Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft. Those books had the most lurid covers and when you’re just young that’s enough to draw you in. All my reading, all my writing since has been filtered through that lens. Lucky me.
Your second novel, BIG MACHINE, is one of the most amazing books I’ve read in the past ten years. There is SO much going on in it, so many threads, and then it all comes together in quite a powerful way in the end. Can you tell us anything about the genesis of that novel?
I’m so happy you enjoyed BIG MACHINE. I’d say my writing life can be broken into two parts. The books without monsters and the books with monsters. BIG MACHINE was the first one to include monsters and I haven’t looked back since. That change really was the genesis of the novel. I’d written two previous books–a collection of stories and a novel–both were autobiographical and I’m proud of them but I wasn’t having any fun writing them, you know? I asked myself what would bring me joy in the next book. The answer was simple: monsters. The minute I admitted that to myself the book began to take shape. Since I think a good monster has to mean something more–it can’t simply be a fucking killer thing–I asked myself what kind of ideas I wanted to wrestle with. I was interested in ideas of faith and zealotry, religious wonder and religious terror, the monsters, and the book, took shape around that.
Ricky Rice, the main character of BIG MACHINE, has an outcast, heartbroken quality within him so strong that at times, it threatens to engulf him. And yet, he is also the only character capable of dealing with the levels of mystery that are nested throughout the book and which force him to constantly re-evaluate his beliefs about reality. Why were you drawn to him as your central character?
Years ago I had a job working in a small business, only three guys in a windowless room. There was the boss, the manager, and me. The boss would often leave the store on errands, he’d be gone the whole day, and the manager was left to run things and train me. Once he’d trained me (it wasn’t too hard a job) he revealed that he was a heroin addict and had been for almost twenty years. Once the boss left he’d take out his baggies of heroin and shoot up in the office, nod out for a while, secure in the knowledge that I would run things until he came out of it.
Can I tell you that while he was a heroin addict he never sold all his earthly possessions, never robbed the business or mugged anyone on the street. He was one the smartest, most well-read and truly kind people I’d ever met and he was also a heroin addict. I felt like I’d never seen a person like that in literature. If someone is a heroin addict in books or movies he’s a loser or a criminal or stupid or emotionally damaged beyond repair. How could someone be an addict AND an admirable person! I knew I had to get a person like that down into literature. Because I loved him and admired him and also wished he’d get healthy (the heroin did still make him sick after all). Ricky Rice was born because of my experience with that manager. If he seems both wounded and resilient, if he seems smart and likable and funny, it’s to the credit of my former manager who was all those things.
Who are some of your biggest influences as a writer?
The list of most influential writers could run ten pages long, but a handful of top choices would include Fritz Leiber, Angela Carter, Clive Barker, Kobo Abe, Ben Okri, and nearly everything Chris Claremont wrote for the X-Men.
When you are working on a novel, do you know ahead of time where it is all going to go, or is it a more exploratory process?
I never know where I’m going in the early drafts of a book. I usually start with a scene or a sentence that gets me going, but I have to make many mistakes and missteps before I find the actual path of the story. My fear is that if I plan out the plot too well then I’ll only end up with a well-plotted book. That’s no small accomplishment really, but I tend to think of the plot as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The plot is the way I get to explore some deeper, richer idea. It’s the way I get to answer some question that is really nagging me at that time. In later drafts I work to make it seem like I’d planned everything out right from the start, but that only comes much later.
Do you have an over-arching philosophy or aesthetic you try to stick to as a writer?
I take my overarching philosophy as writer directly from the great James Brown. Make it funky.
Are you currently working on anything you care to tell us about?
I finished up a novella for Tor that will be coming out in February of 2016. It’s called The Ballad of Black Tom. It’s my stab at a Lovecraft tale while also being a takedown of a Lovecraft tale. I think it’ll piss off some who read it and seem funky as hell to others.
Finally, can you give us 5-10 suggestions for excellent books, stories, movies, etc., that maybe don’t get enough attention? I’m hoping for deep cuts, if you have them.
Yes, happy to pass on suggestions. Some of these might not be counted as strict horror, but to me they hit the sweet spot of what I most love in good horror, they reach down into my soul and disturb me powerfully. Hopefully these cuts are deep enough to send people on some interesting journeys.
Novels: The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe, Corregidora by Gayl Jones, Benito Cereno by Herman Melville, The Curfew by Jesse Ball, and really any novel by Helen Oyeyemi, she’s just one of the most talented young writers alive right now.
Stories: “Delicate Prey” and “A Distant Episode” both by Paul Bowles. (I can’t recommend these two enough. They’re masterful and terrifying and painful to read by the end.)
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A special HUGE thanks to Victor LaValle!
We are closing in on Saturday’s big Halloween action. Only three more posts to go…