The characters of Victor LaValle are weird, funny, and engaging, and they often take the reader on unexpected rides. This is to say, he is a storyteller. In his latest novel, The Changeling, LaValle uses a timeless storytelling format—the fairy tale, witches and all—to deliver a wild piece of fiction.
In The Changeling, Apollo Kagwa becomes a father, and then must battle with parenthood and pressures on his marriage, issues of abandonment, and the literal and figurative monsters inadvertently invited into his life by way of social media. The book is suspenseful, fantastic, and human enough to believe in.
This is Victor LaValle’s fourth novel. He has also written a short-story collection, Slapboxing with Jesus; two novellas, The Ballad of Black Tom and Lucretia and the Kroons; and three other novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, and The Devil in Silver. In addition to being a prolific writer and having a family of his own, LaValle teaches in the MFA program at Columbia, where I am a student.
I met up with him in Washington Heights. The coffee shop where we planned to meet was a quiet zone, so we decided to move to a nearby McDonald’s, where he told me he used to liked to sit and watch the locals passing by. We sat down to talk about how he puts his stories all together.
―Irene Plax for Guernica
Guernica: There’s so much going on in The Changeling, so many threads for a writer to keep track of. How long did it take you to finish?
Victor LaValle: I’ve been working on this book for three years. Earlier in my life, I couldn’t have given myself three years. My previous book, Big Machine, also had some degree of a plot and history and all that, and is actually less complicated than this, in some ways, and that one took me seven years. But I needed that time because I didn’t maybe have the facility to say that this can lead to that. I was still learning, so this taking three years, I find it becomes easier to put the pieces in motion and figure out how to arrange them as I do this more. The danger is that it becomes mechanics and no passion. You have to guard against that, because otherwise you might as well be making toast or something.
Guernica: In classes, you talk a lot about story structure; you even teach a class on the mechanics of a novel. At what point in the three years of your writing The Changeling did structure become important as you were putting it together?
Victor LaValle: Originally this book began with the scene in the kitchen, where Apollo is all tied up, which is an extremely, dramatically promising beginning, and then it just basically went straight into his quest to find his wife, find out what happened to his son. The problem my editor helped me realize is that that scene is really dramatic, but if you don’t know or care about that guy, the threshold that it sets up is so high that the reader doesn’t want to sign up for something like that, or it becomes a revenge fantasy, and neither of those things is what I wanted. So I had to go back to earn that as a turn in his life. I realized I had to go back to before he was born in order to do that. That changed everything I had, though the general ideas stayed the same. Things changed dramatically. Especially between the witches and him. I had a great deal more empathy for how or why those women would choose to live that life, and they knew who he was before he arrived. Then they were able talk to each other.
Guernica: At what point in your growth as a writer did structure start being something you were really obsessed with?
Victor LaValle: Between the second book and the third. My second book was my first novel, The Ecstatic, and it was very autobiographical. As a result, it’s pretty plotless. It’s full of interesting characters, and I hope interesting writing, but it’s me working with mild exaggerations of my family. At the end of it, what I see now is someone who could spin some funny, interesting, weird stories about someone he grew up with, but hadn’t yet figured out how to tell a big story and make all those things come to something.
As it is, the way it ends, what I see now is at the very beginning he’s living alone and he’s a wreck. His family shows up to essentially save him, but what we quickly realize is that they are as bad off as him. At the end of the book, what I understand now, is that he is alone again and that he is very happy because he thinks he’s matured and become powerful, his own man. And his family has actually splintered. In the depths of his dementia, this is a happy ending. Like, “I’m on my own, my grandmother and mother and sister will have to go off on their own.” It’s a bleak ending. But I didn’t understand the irony enough to show you as a reader that actually, this is worse. I couldn’t have put it together, that that was the journey this book was actually on. Two or three years after the book came out is when I realized what I had actually written. And one part of me felt regret, like, “I think I could have written a better novel,” and another part of me thought that was the best thing I could have written then. I never felt embarrassed or unhappy with the book, but it was like, Structure, that’s the thing that’s missing from the book!” Then it took seven years for me to write the next book [Big Machine] in a way that could begin to inject structure into a story that I realize is also about entering a family that is very disturbing, and finding your place. Again and again, my theme was, “Maybe you should abandon your family and start a new one.” I realized, in real life and on the page, how to figure out how to reconnect with my real family in a way that embraces the fact that you can’t totally abandon your family—even if you wish you could sometimes—until you can make a sort of peace with who you are and who they are. I think that’s what the last book or two has been.
Guernica: I really appreciated the time jumps here, and something I took away from one of your classes is that you don’t always have to show everything. You also talked to us about patterns and creating a reader’s trust. By the time I was done reading this, I felt you’d done that with the different themes. In your work, do you consciously organize them that way?
Victor LaValle: Not in the beginning. In the beginning I just write through. Then I look through and revise, and maybe every ten or twelve pages I should come around to something. One of the things that my editor and I agreed was interesting when you learn less about how it works was in a section I wrote about a rare bookseller, where there are a number of time jumps. At first, I actually wrote out most of things I jump over. And when I was going through the process of realizing that I really didn’t need so much on one thing, that’s when I could cut. I didn’t intuitively know to jump. That was something I was obsessive about: What are the jobs of all the parts?
Guernica: So, the fairy-tale format. You’ve used it as a teaching device.
Victor LaValle: Yeah. I used Rapunzel. Then I just put it in the book. I’ve taught it enough that I felt confident about it, and I said, “Let me put it in the book.”
Guernica: I loved learning the history of fairy tales, and the line that kept appearing about how dark they are, and their lack of morals.
Victor LaValle: One thing I’ve learned that’s kind of nice is that if people are into the story, you can actually kind of explain things to them. For a paragraph or so you can break in and say, “I think you know this, but that’s wrong,” and in a weird way, if it’s not ten pages, the reader will actually go, “Oh, ok.”
You don’t even have to be right. In my case, I needed people to think of fairy tales in the old way. It’s true that they used to be dark, but I also needed to just tell the reader, don’t think of Disney fairy tales, don’t think about fairy tales for kids. This is this.
It was good to hear my first readers (my editor, my wife, and my best friend) say that it worked, because it reminded them that this was going to get rough. When it got rough, they were like, “Well, you did tell me.” And it was great because I set the table. I had to hit the note a few times so you wouldn’t forget, because it gets pretty bad, but I also want you to have, and on some level earn, the knowledge of why the villain is doing this. Oh right, it’s a fairy tale. Why do we have an actual monster? Oh right, it’s a fairy tale. All the impossible stuff for the right reasons; it was a fun way to have my cake and eat it too.
Guernica: Your sense of humor is really present in your work. Where have you drawn inspiration for the more hilarious moments in your work?
Victor LaValle: In one section—featuring sock puppets on an island—I was thinking of this woman named Dorinda. I met her at MacDowell. She is a former actor who wrote an autobiography; she acted as a child in the ’50s or ’60s. She made such an impression on me. What I loved about her was that she was really a witch, in the best and worst sense. She really seemed magical to me. But she didn’t understand her affect on people. I found it interesting. At MacDowell, they bring you dinner, and you all eat together. No one would sit with her. She would clear a table within five minutes. I have a real soft spot for chatty older women. I feel like if you park yourself near them, you’re going to get great stories from them. And, in general, they are probably the most overlooked, invisible population. Nobody wants to sit with a chatty, older woman. I was like, “Let’s talk.” But I was fascinated by this idea that she was a witch with a magic power, but she didn’t always understand how it was playing. We’re at MacDowell, and she’s just telling stories about how she’s seen spirits, and I find, in the literary world, if you start talking about spiritual stuff, people get really weirded out. They really don’t like to talk about it. I almost think, like, Why don’t you just want to hear about it? But it really bothers a lot of literary folks. I think there’s a strain of presumption of stupidity if you believe in spiritual stuff or religious stuff, like you must not be very bright. She would talk about her life in the movies, her life as a writer, her marriage, and, “You know, when I was six, I remember seeing a troll girl who came into the bathroom.” I loved it. Just as a human. It was creepy. Good scary stories. But she really repelled a lot of people. And so with the character Cal, I wanted that feeling of a good storyteller, and I hope I imbued it with how much I just loved sitting at her feet listening to her telling these amazing stories. But oftentimes she was telling these stories of how tough it was being a woman in Hollywood in the ’50s. You just had to go through all these layers to get where she was going to go. But most people did not want to sit through that. I almost thought Cal could be the most commanding version of that. In another book, The Devil in the Silver, I based a character named Dory off her. She was supposed to be mentally ill, and people just dismissed her. Here, I wanted her to be powerful.
Guernica: And you’re coming out with a comic book?
Victor LaValle: Yeah! It’s been very, very fun to write that. It’s a six-issue limited series continuation of the Frankenstein story. Not a retelling, but as if Frankenstein really happened, the monster is real, and then we pick up with the last living descendent of the Frankenstein line, and she’s a black woman who’s a scientist, like a genius-level scientist, whose son is murdered by the Chicago police, so she brings him back to life using the same methods as her great-great-great uncle, Victor Frankenstein. And then they all come together, and the fate of the world hangs in balance!
The nice thing about comic books is that I can lean even more into my melodramatic personality, and there’s no part of me that feels embarrassed about it. It’s just fun.
Guernica: Was it difficult to write the dead baby and the grave digging scenes?
Victor LaValle: It was fun. We have two little kids, and since they were born, I regularly imagine ways they might die. Like, there’s always one spool that is playing through my mind, like what if they fell into the train tracks, or what if you shakily installed this air conditioner and then it fell on one of their heads as they lie sleeping on the floor. To me it was actually fun to write one of the tamer aspects, of digging them up. Maybe I’m a morbid person, maybe I’m just a parent, but I have friends who are like, “Oh no, I always think about ways they could die. They’re on the scooter and I’m already imagining them rolling into traffic…” Adults cannot wade into that stuff with the same bravery or interest as younger readers.