Victor LaValle – interview

Hello Victor. My focus will be on The Ballad of Black Tom, but before that, let me ask some general questions. First of all, how did you become engaged in writing?

Like most writers I began as a reader. My earliest memory of books is when my mother would read Peter and the Wolf to me at night. The edition we had was illustrated and the wolf was drawn with such menace. And of course I was terrified and obsessed with him. I’m sure I drove my mother insane with how many times I asked her to read that book, and how I would stop her to stare at the pages with the wolf. But really, that was the start of it. I loved being pulled into a world and living there for a while. From children’s books I moved on to comic books because they were easy to get and I could page through the pictures even before I understood all the words.

What are the most important works either in weird or “realist” fiction that shaped the style of your writing?

Well, since The Ballad of Black Tom is a Lovecraftian story then I’d have to include Lovecraft’s tales in the mix. That’s a given. But I also loved Ramsey Campbell, especially his earlier stories that were so influenced by Lovecraft. I was obsessesed with Clive Barker, I especially remember diving into his Books of Blood. Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, Shirley Jackson and Angela Carter, Stephen King and Peter Straub. These were the writers who meant the most to me, especially when I was younger and first dreaming of becoming a writer myself.

Your writings seem to display two recurring features: detailed representation of characters and their social settings, and supernatural fear. Which of these appeared earlier in your writing? Do you consider either of them more important than the other?

The supernatural fear came first. When I was thirteen or fourteen and writing stories I jumped straight into the decapitations and demon possessions, disembowelings and the rest. But where were such things happening? What were the settings? Who were the people? In those early stages I was usually just copying the writers I loved. So my stories took place in small Maine towns like the ones Stephen King wrote about, or maybe the British settings of Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell. But I was not from any of those places. I’m a black kid from Queens, New York. So eventually I realized that if I was going to make my work feel grounded, feel real and believable, then I’d better start writing about people and places I actually knew, and could write about with authority. Once I started doing that (not till well after college by the way) the stories began to feel like they were my own.

How did you encounter the works of Lovecraft? What were your first impressions of reading him?

I remember Del Books putting out reprinted paperback editions back in the 80s. The covers were lurid and disturbing, skeletal monks and hideous creatures. The kind of stuff a teenager like me loved. So I picked up those books because of those covers. And then I began to read the stories themselves which took a little getting used to. The archaic style, the unfamiliar settings, but there was still some hypnotic pull. I didn’t get it all, but what I did understand—body switching, creatures at the bottom of the sea, or up in the stars—was captivating enough to make me want to spend time to learn and understand.

The Ballad of Black Tom is a reflection on Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook.” What motivated you in picking this specific short story for reinterpretation? Did the idea spring up all of a sudden, or was it something that you contemplated for a long time before realizing it?

I knew that if I was going to write a kind of counterattack to Lovecraft it couldn’t be about any of the stories set in Rhode Island. I just don’t know about the state—its cities or coastal towns—to argue with how he did things in them. But  ”The Horror at Red Hook” took place in Brooklyn. And it did a lousy job of portraying the borough. I knew Brooklyn, I knew Red Hook. I could dig into what he did with that locale, and with those people, and start to reimagine that world. And it did spring up quickly. I wrote that novella in two weeks. A record for me. I’d read another novella called Train Dreams by Denis Johnson right before I started the book. That book was a source of great inspiration for mine as well.

Your novel boasts with vivid scene and character descriptions, and readers can pretty much imagine themselves in New York in the 1920s. Did you conduct preliminary research for a faithful representation of the area and the time?

I did some research, which in these days meant I spent time on a website or two. One in particular served me incredibly well. It’s called There I was able to read through materials about the day to day life of Harlem residents at the time. I like to focus my research not so much on the big events of the era but on how people live their lives close to the ground. I find that’s a much better way of making a reader feel like he or she is there.

The finale of The Ballad of Black Tom is a surprising subversion of the well-known climax of “The Horror of Red Hook.” Did you have this in your mind from the beginning, or is it something that evolved during the process of writing?

I didn’t know right away that I’d make such a change from the original. What I did know is that the ending of the original makes no damn sense. It’s terrible. Which made it much easier to discard. For instance, I never would’ve changed something like  „The Colour out of Space” because it’s excellent.

The story brings the reader closer to Charles Tester/Black Tom and Thomas Malone as living, real human beings. However, we do not get a glimpse at Robert Suydam’s point of view. Did it occur to you to introduce Suydam to the reader?

The second half of the novella is where I wanted to swing back into the story as Lovecraft wrote it. So that meant introducing Suydam. That said, I still thought there were different ways to play with Suydam in my story. I didn’t need to act like Lovecraft’s version of Suydam had to be the same as mine. Importantly, I didn’t actually change much of Suydam’s plans or anything like that. I just gave a different context so that the same plans, sometimes even the same dialogue, had new meaning.

You once mentioned that you “love and loathe” How about the “love” part? What is it in Lovecraft’s writings that one might love in spite of some of his repellent attitudes?

How do you not love a writer who creates a race of ancient, giant, star traveling beings? I really don’t mean that as a joke. What I love most about Lovecraft is that he took seriously the kinds of questions that many dismiss. What is the role of humanity? Are we really the center of existence? What would we do if we were forced to confront our insignificance? These are not stupid questions to ponder. They’re some of the most important out there, actually. For all the ways Lovecraft can seem silly or melodramatic his work isn’t frivolous, it’s not merely entertainment. That’s worth a lot. I do believe it’s why he’s lasted.

The Ballad of Black Tom not only engages into a debate with Lovecraft’s thought, but also directs attention to the construction of race in a white-dominated society, and thus raises a broader social issue by way of a fictional narrative. Do you think that a writer bears any social responsibility besides providing his or her readers with good entertainment or some riddles to ponder on? If so, what does such responsibility consist of?

Every writer is going to be different, some folks are made to create super entertaining works and that’s all the work will be. And God bless ’em. That’s actually harder than it looks to do well. So I would never dismiss that kind of creator. You can only be what you’re going to be. But I do think there is value in simply discussing the hidden scafolding of how the world works. Someone benefits when that kind of stuff is left unspoken. Those systems work hard to keep some people down and others up, and one the things they work hardest to do is go unnoticed. You can commit almost any kind of injustice if no one is looking. Obviously, a book can’t stop injustice but I’ll at least try to make sure people have to look at what they’re doing to others. You can’t plead ignorance after you’ve been told. And if I can wrap all that inside something entertaining well then I’ve done a damn good job.

When one treads on Lovecraftian ground, one inevitably encounters the dilemma: cats or dogs?

Cats. Got to be. I don’t trust blind loyalty in humans or animals.

Thank you for your answers. Good luck with your future work.


Photograph: Teddy Wolff