Even when confined to New York City, Victor LaValle’s fiction covers plenty of territory. His latest novel, The Changeling, is a perfect example: a moving portrait of a marriage; a haunting vision of online surveillance; a revelatory depiction of a city that can seem all too familiar; and a contemporary version of an ancient—even primal—tale of sinister beings lurking in hidden places. In a recent conversation with Marlon James at Vulture, LaValle discussed his shift away from realism following an earlier pair of novels. “I really do feel like that sense of joy became imbued in the text,” he said. “People were touched by those first two books, but nobody ever said they enjoyed them.”
Now, LaValle, who also teaches writing at Columbia University, has added another dimension to his literary resume: editor. In collaboration with John Joseph Adams, LaValle edited the anthology A People’s Future of the United States, in which an impressive group of writers—including Charles Yu, N. K. Jemisin, Alice Sola Kim, and Omar El Akkad—offer their vision of this country’s future.
In the introduction, LaValle writes about his family and the impact of Howard Zinn’s now-classic A People’s History of the United States: “Hell, even today whole swaths of the US population regularly go into a rage at the idea of genuine historical accuracy.” Later, he offers a kind of mission statement for the collection, dedicating it to the stories of people “history often sees fit to forget.” The resulting anthology lives up to that potential, both in possible futures and the methods by which their authors describe them.
At a recent Guernica event at Bauman’s Rare Books, LaValle and I discussed the new anthology, his fiction, and creating dialogues with earlier literary works. We also touched on his childhood love of horror, recently requited when LaValle’s graphic novel Destroyer won the Bram Stoker Award for superior achievement “in dark fantasy and horror writing.”
—Tobias Carroll for Guernica
Guernica: The stories in A People’s Future range from hopeful to bleak to, in some cases, very playful. Talk a bit about the editorial process, looking at these various futures, then having to create an arc for the book.
Victor LaValle: Well, first, I’m glad you think some of them are hopeful. This was my first time working as an editor for an anthology, and so one of the things that was a revelation to me was, we had a step where we asked each author to tell us what they were going to write. And then we might say, “We kind of have something like that. What else do you got?” Or, “It seems like you could go this way or this way, which way are you leaning?” In that way, we actually began a process of thinking: Okay, this can’t all be happy-go-lucky, but we also don’t want it to be all scorched earth. What’s the point of reading, if that’s what we get out of it? It’s like getting kicked in the teeth, twenty-two times.
Eventually it did start to feel like, okay, now that we have all the stories, we can start to make an emotional journey for the reader so that it’s not just all the bad and then good, or vice versa. It was just kind of fun between John and I, to sort of hash out what should lead, what should be in the middle. We had one that was kind of like a piece of an excerpt of a thesis’s footnotes. Where do you throw that in so that people can kind of be like, “Okay” and throw them a curve? How fun that might be for a reader. And if they hate that it’s like, “Okay, well, here’s another one.”
I wanted to make it so that every story in there got a chance. And not every story will be for every reader, and it shouldn’t be, but all of them will find their people—that was my hope.
Guernica: You’ve co-edited an anthology; you’ve worked on a comic. Do you find that these works have affected your prose, or the way you approach prose when you’re teaching?
LaValle: I had a fellowship in 2010 that took me out to Amsterdam for five months. The idea was that I was going to learn to adapt a book. Most of the people who were there were writer-directors, only a couple of us were either prose writers or pure screen writers. So me and this Dutch prose writer, we were going to learn to adapt for film. What was great, though, was that they didn’t make a distinction—director-writer, screenwriter, prose writer—everyone got the same five-month boot camp.
One of the things that was revelatory for me was seeing how often they used prose to teach visual storytelling. But it was interesting because they used older prose, so, for instance, they would talk about how Dickens, or someone like that, describes a human being. Look how much time they take on their face, their body, how they dress. They thought that your physiology was your destiny. If you looked a certain way, you were evil; if you looked a certain way, you were good.
It made me start thinking about all the ways that more recent—say late 20th century, early 21st century—fiction has sort of given up on visual storytelling. How we’ve ceded that to TV and movies, painting, comic books. It seemed like a shame to me that the film people have a better grasp of what we used to do well than we do. Like there was a way that it seemed fiction writers took the rise of TV and movies and all that stuff, to be, like, all we have is the interior, so I’m just going to stay interior. But I felt like, No, no, no, you have both!
Guernica: And this affected your writing approach.
LaValle: That time started to change my prose, and it was that change that allowed me to be able to write comics. I had tried to write comics before I went on that fellowship, and I pitched them to a company called Vertigo Books. I pitched all these ideas—I worked for this editor there—and every single one of them was just garbage. She’d come back and be like, “This is great, this is four pages. How could you do this in one page?” And I used to be like, “You’re stupid. You don’t know. You can’t.” And then, years later, I was like, “Oh, I was stupid.” Or maybe another way of putting it was, I didn’t know that skill. But I didn’t even know that I didn’t know it. So, weirdly, that experience brought me back to prose in a way that blossoms on the page, and then I started getting people in comics saying, “Hey, would you like to write something?”
Guernica: This anthology deals directly with politics. Your fiction has also delved into political subjects, though perhaps less overtly. What’s the process as an author or an editor putting out work when you know there’s going to be that political engagement, especially in such a polarized time?
LaValle: What I’ve come to believe is that there are some kinds of books that, I mean this as no form of disrespect, are just machines to pass the time. And they’re wonderful for that. I go on summer vacation, I want to take a stack of thrillers, and I just want to read those thrillers. And that machine is really just there to say, “Here’s this fucking group of people who do their thing, and maybe they win, and if it’s a better book, maybe someone will die.” And then that’s it, you really don’t think of it again.
But I think anything that is to be read maybe more than once, that is meant to pull you in, is going to in some way engage politically and is going to put off some folks. I think there’s a fallacy certainly on the writer’s point of view, that wishful thinking of like, “Maybe everyone will want this book.” And that’s preposterous. I went to a bookstore for years, the Barnes & Noble down at Union Square, and I remember one of the more heart-breaking things to see would be just a person who would pick up a book, and they would look at the back, at the author, or look at the cover, and they would just go on… They hadn’t even read the jacket. More like, they looked at the author’s picture and they were like, “They seem nice.” Or, “They look like me.” I mean, that is the level of engagement most people are using when they decide.
So, for better or worse, the concept that by page 200 I promise I’m gonna win you over, forget that. Write the book that needs to be your book. And then, amazingly, there’s a decent chance that that’s going to be the book that finds its people.
Guernica: Speaking of politics, your introduction in A People’s Future reminded me that for all our seeming progress, things have been this way for a very long time.
LaValle: I always like the story of—I don’t know if it’s actually true or if it’s apocryphal, but—that Edgar Allen Poe’s death came about because they just kept handing him drinks to vote. He voted again, and again, and he got a drink, and a drink, and a drink, and a drink, and he was a heavy drinker already and he wasn’t in good health and then he just laid out in the street. I don’t know if that’s really true, but the stories of American voting 200 years ago is just a mob out front of a voting booth. Just saying, “Who are you voting for?” And they go, “so-and-so,” and then they just beat the hell out of them. So, all I mean to say is, there’s a tradition. And there’s no way around the fact that that tradition of keeping people out of the booth or like, paying people for their votes with alcohol and money, is as old as America. And as old as I’ll bet any country is on this Earth.
Guernica: The anthology is largely science fiction. Destroyer is a science fictional graphic novel. Should we expect to see more science fiction from you?
LaValle: I would say, mostly no. I know Frankenstein is science fiction, but I always read it as horror. I came to it as a horror novel and a political novel. And so, I always feel like I’m cheating by saying, “No, it’s horror as much as it is sci-fi.” And I only say that because I grew up reading horror as my great love. Not science fiction or fantasy, largely because I found that science fiction was always too optimistic, like that there will be a future. People in that future doing amazing things with their minds? That’s garbage. And fantasy was always too romantic about the past. There’s all these historical shows that people love, like Downton Abbey, but, like imagine if you could smell people. The novel Perfume, I mean, in that one, there was such wonderful detail about what a disgusting, smelly, dirty time everything was. I guess that’s why I’m not a writer of science fiction.
Guernica: One of things I most enjoyed about your novel The Changeling are the typical portrayals of New York, the fantastical portrayals, and the back and forth between the two. What was it like to turn the very known geography of New York into a very mysterious and fantastical place?
LaValle: It was a blast. I mean, one of the most fun things in the world for me was, or one of the most fun tests, was to see whether I could make New York feel new to New Yorkers. To myself, as a New Yorker, too. I feel like you turn a corner and you are in another universe every day. And that’s one of the amazing things about the city, because new people come in and change it. New businesses are in a place that had a business for a hundred years, and now it’s like a shoe district. I remember when it was, like, all falafel. I don’t know that most people—even New Yorkers—are actually all that adventurous. Human beings everywhere, we stick largely to the places we know. Me, when I knew that I was coming to midtown for this, I was like, “Oh, I never go there. Yes! This is going to be an adventure for me!” And you know, this whole spot, this whole neighborhood—I’ve been here. I’m from Queens, I would come through here when I was a kid because I got off the train too early. But then, walking around here, I was like, wow, look at this. I feel like it’s super cheesy to say, but even the length of the escalators. But then it feels like we have a super long escalator on 181st street in Washington Heights, and I wonder if this could be a thing where like the long escalators are actually a dimension where, like Dr. Who, you could jump from long escalator to long escalator throughout New York!
To me, New York is as magical as can be if you’re willing to see it that way.