Interview with Victor LaValle, author of “The Ballad of Black Tom”

Interview by Douglas Wynne.

Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus and the novels The Ecstatic, Big Machine, and The Devil in Silver. He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Whiting Writers’ Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Shirley Jackson Award, and an American Book Award. In February Tor.com published his Lovecraftian novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, which revisits “The Horror at Red Hook.”

What spoke to you about Lovecraft’s stories when you first read them?

The truth is that I first picked up Lovecraft as a ten year old. I came across these old Del Rey paperback editions that had some vividly horrifying illustrations on the cover. There was one I never forgot, a monk who’s pulled back his black robe to expose a fleshless skeleton underneath. Wow! What the hell is this? I can’t think of a better way to entice a kid. It could’ve been a goddamn book about dieting and I still would’ve spent my money to get it. But it wasn’t. It was this wild, weird, dense, disturbing set of short stories. I can’t say they all made sense, but I wanted to read and reread them until they did. In retrospect I can see that’s exactly when Lovecraft sank the hooks in.

You live in New York, and “The Horror at Red Hook” was inspired by the brief time that Lovecraft spent living there, but your protagonist, Tommy Tester, thrives on the urban bustle that Lovecraft found so appalling. While writing The Ballad of Black Tom did you visit Red Hook or any other locations referenced in the original story? And if so, did anything specific about the real places have an impact on the direction the novella took?

A fair bit of the book takes places in Harlem, where Tommy lives. I live near Harlem, a little farther north in Washington Heights, but I’m in Harlem on a pretty regular basis. What I wanted to get across most about uptown as a whole was the sense of life and community, exactly the things Lovecraft missed, or simply couldn’t see. His depictions of the immigrant neighborhoods in Brooklyn were so baffling to me because I simply couldn’t recognize the kinds of places he feared as exactly the kind of places I’m so happy I grew up in, and where I still live now. So my depictions of Harlem had to work as a kind of corrective. If Lovecraft seemed to be suffering blurred vision about these neighborhoods then I wanted my story to be like the contact lenses.

In contrast to HPL, who was writing about the era in which he lived, you had to approach The Ballad of Black Tom as a piece of historical fiction. And yet, to me, the milieu of your story feels more authentic—especially, but not only, because we see events through the POV of a black character, a hustler who is very conscious of the boundaries where his world brushes up against the white world and the world of the police. What sort of period research did you do to bring 1920s Harlem, Brooklyn, and Flushing to life?

Thanks for that. I’m so glad the period felt authentic, or at least not musty and mothballed. I actually hate historical fiction that reads like HISTORICAL FICTION! You know what I mean? Like the fake English accents the non-English actors use in the Lord of Rings movies. When they do it I think the idea is to sound “old-time” or something but it regularly rings false to me, makes the whole thing seem more like play acting. So I tried to read a few books by authors that were writing about a time that preceded them, but whose books didn’t come across as hokey. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson were two of the serious inspirations for how to pull off that balance. As for research I like to dig up accounts by people who lived at a certain time to help get an idea of how regular life worked at any given time. What kind of slang did people use? How did they describe their jobs? What did they do for fun? These things are often more helpful for the tone than any broad overview of the big historical events of a time period. Thanks to the Internet it’s surprisingly easy to stumble across some article or journal written at that time wherein real people were interviewed at length. This blog, called Digital Harlem Blog, was a great place to start.

There’s a great line from Tommy’s perspective when he’s first assessing Robert Suydam: “You had to be rich to risk looking broke.” It reminds me of the risk writers take when dabbling in these subgenres, but I think anyone who picks up one of your horror stories will see that your genre fiction is enriched by the time you put in reading and writing literary fiction. What advice do you have for writers of speculative fiction who want to avoid approaching genre from clichéd angles? And what continues to make genre fiction attractive to you?

 It can be tough to realize which clichés you’re using if everything you read makes use of the same clichés. It’s sort of like the problem of hanging out in a bar where everyone only drinks shitty beer. You come to think shitty beer is the only beer in existence. But it isn’t! There’s so much good beer in the world. You might have to go to a different bar though and that can be frightening. What if I don’t know anyone? What if they don’t sell the one beer I’m used to drinking? What if I look stupid when I make my order?

I’m half-kidding, but only half. I do think that kind of anxiety is what can keep different readers from stepping outside of their comfort zones. The other reason can be lack of curiosity. That’s a larger problem. But the anxiety is easier to solve. I tend to do this for myself every six months or so: I make a list of the books I’ve been reading in the last six months. Author, genre, publisher, even the style. Then I step back to asses whether they’re all, largely, the same. Am I reading only commercial fiction in this time period? Only stuff by men? Only horror? Only literary? Only fiction? If I can see a real pattern then I change it up. For six months I’ve got to read stuff set in the mid-west, or the south or (heaven forbid!) outside of the United States or Europe. Not everyone is going to be that rigid, but it can be illuminating to take a hard look at what you’re taking in, if it’s not varied, not surprising, then how could your own fiction be either of those things?

Do you ever feel you have to justify or defend horror fiction?

 I wouldn’t say I feel the need to justify or defend horror fiction, but I do enjoy talking with people about what constitutes horror fiction. There’s a lot of different kinds of fish in that net. It can be helpful for them, and for me, to be reminded that horror isn’t in any way a clear category. Every other kind of genre could fit into horror, or make room for horror within it. So I’d say I feel I have to celebrate horror and I do so as often as I can.

I loved how you juxtaposed the Lovecraftian idea of dimensions and entities that are invisible to man’s ordinary senses with the reality of a black man who is aware of (and at times savvy about using) the everyday kind of invisibility that comes with his race in that place and time. The Ralph Ellison kind of invisibility. The parallel is subtle, but it’s one of the things that makes the book resonate as a different kind of horror story. Was that theme something you intentionally set out to riff on, or was it a case of a story’s subconscious motifs being smarter and clearer in retrospect than what the author may be deliberately attempting to convey while writing?

This is one of the things I consciously set out to do, juxtapose those two kinds of horror, those two systems of terror. I’m happy that came through. I like the Ralph Ellison comparison if only because his structure for Invisible Man  is so rigorous. He wanted to write the story of one black man facing a series of trials but he also worked hard to make every hurdle he faces have a symbolic and mythic meaning, too. Certainly that’s the pleasure of thoughtful books. When you read them again you see those things but the first time through it should still read like a good, individualized tale.

ballad of black tomThe most horrific part of the story for me was the power dynamic and lack of empathy surrounding the death of one of the black characters at the hands of investigators. Later, when contemplating the cosmic indifference of the Great Old Ones, Tommy says, “What was indifference compared to malice? Indifference would be such a relief.” But for the second half of the book, you switch POV to the Irish detective, Malone. Was it a challenge for you to make the reader empathize with Malone’s fears throughout the climax without being tempted to draw him as a more sympathetic and enlightened character than he is?

I switched to Malone for a few reasons, but one of the biggest was that I wanted to spend time with Malone and show the journey of a white character who is a passive racist. There’s a private detective in the book, Mr. Howard, who is the more virulent—and easily dismissed—kind of racist. He says terrible things about black people, he’s physically abusive to black people, he kills them without any guilt. Of course he’s terrible. Malone, on the other hand, seems to have a greater respect for Tommy. He doesn’t say racist things and he doesn’t seem to relish being brutal to black people. And yet he never stands up against the system in which he works. He sits at the same table as police who have very recently murdered an innocent black man and he doesn’t object, or try to bring criminal charges against them. He’s good in the sense that he isn’t overtly evil but if that’s the best he can do then what the hell good is he? I wanted to write that guy because I find that kind of perspective interesting. “Well I’ve never called anyone a nigger.” Or, “But my family never owned slaves.” It’s that kind of person, the one who simply stays silent in the face of oppression, who in fact looks away from it when he sees it, that is as much to blame for the situation as the more overt Mr. Howard. I didn’t worry about making him too sympathetic, instead I simply tried to show him as someone who was blind but didn’t know he was blind. I’ve known lots of people like that. I’ve liked many of them but that didn’t make them blameless.

Was that dual structure part of your plan for the novella from the beginning, or did it emerge from working out the narrative?

One of the other reasons why I jumped from Tommy’s perspective to Malone’s had to do with the moment when Tommy has finally had enough and he steps “Outside.” He goes through those library doors and he becomes something…else. I did try writing with him as he crosses over and changes into Black Tom but I found it all turned pretty hokey. One of the many things Lovecraft got right was to never explain too much about the eldritch forces at work in his stories. When he did try to explain it almost always went badly. The Elder Gods are aliens from another dimension who came to Earth eons ago and crashed landed and then genetically engineered a race of slaves and then they built these cities that… Okay. That’s enough. How about a little less explaining, Howard? I took my own advice. So the switch to Malone saved me a practical problem. If we just meet Tommy/Black Tom and now he has these powers well then the reader just has go to along. (Hopefully!)

And it is my belief that an awful lore is not yet dead. Your version of Robert Suydam quotes this Arthur Machen line that Lovecraft used as an epigraph to “The Horror at Red Hook.” It struck me as especially resonant because, while those old school white dudes were referencing dark lore preserved by dark people, the same quote could easily apply to racism itself. As a black writer living in New York 90 years after “Red Hook” was written, to what extent do you find that the awful lore of racism is not yet dead? Do people ever try to convince you it is?

Damn, my man, you’re a really astute reader! I appreciate these great questions. And I absolutely meant for that irony to ring through as well. If The Ballad of Black Tom is resonating with readers I think it’s because the ideas at the heart of it remain relevant. I hoped to connect Tommy’s problems with obvious, and ongoing, problems of racism today and I’ve been gratified to see that so many readers have felt the connection is real. When it comes to discussions of racism I think a mistake many Americans make (not just white ones, but certainly many white ones) is to think that being racist means being mean, or rude, or impolite. They think of racism as a problem of how one individual treats another. Thus, a person who never says nigger and never lynches non-white people thinks they have passed the test for being non-racist. But that’s not what racism is. Racism is systematic. Racism (and sexism and homophobia and more) is a way that the United States does favors for some people simply because of who they were at birth and penalizes others for the same. 

This doesn’t show up in whether one person smiles at another one on the street, it shows up in whether the United States chooses to give, say, college scholarships and home loans to white GI’s returning from war in 1944 but deny many of those benefits to black GIs returning from the same war. Those white soldiers went on to fuel the great suburban land rush of the fifties and to set up the generations of land ownership and college attendance that their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren continue to enjoy today. Talk about Affirmative Action. The US government made a conscious decision not to give that same leg up to the generations of families related to those black GIs. You can have the same conversation about how the US government backed farm loans for white farmers and denied those same loans to black farmers in the 1980s. All of this is easy to find and verify. So there are people who do try to convince me that racism is dead and other such silliness but when pressed I find they’re usually talking about the conduct of individuals rather than the conduct of system, a nation, that might still be working very much for their own benefit. It can be tough to see this, to acknowledge it. Those conversations remind me of the very end of the first Nightmare on Elm Street when the kids think the way to beat Freddy is to look away, ignore him and he will lose all his power. If you ignore Freddy then Freddy will die! And yet eight more Freddy movies were made. 

The Supreme Alphabet plays an important role in the story. I hadn’t heard of it before, but looking it up helped me to appreciate some little flourishes, like how it tied into the references to Maat, the Egyptian goddess of justice. What can you tell us about the Supreme Alphabet and why you chose to include it?

The Supreme Alphabet comes to me from rap music. It came to rap music through a group called The Nation of Gods and Earths aka the 5% Nation. This is a group that’s an offshoot of the Nation of Island who preached a quasi Black Nationalist (some might say Black Supremacist) ideology that took on among young black men in the seventies, eighties, and nineties in particular. Many of the great northeast hip hop groups that people still love today were influenced by the Five Percenters. Wu-Tang Clan, Rakim, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Big Daddy Kane, and on and on. They all used Five Percenter terminology in their music and as a listener that filtered down to me. It’s more complicated than I could explain in one answer (and I sure as hell am no expert anyway) but there were a series of teaching or lessons imparted between Five Percenters that could be described, loosely, as the Supreme Alphabet and the Supreme Mathematics.  I decided to include the Supreme Alphabet because, frankly, I thought it would be fun. Also, I wanted to inject something new into the Lovecraftian universe. I also thought there was a fine irony in pitting Lovecraft’s white supremacy against the Five Percenters’s black supremacy and see who would win. (No one, it turns out.)

Do you think you might revisit the Cthulhu Mythos again in the future?

Hell yeah! I’ve been thinking through the next chapter in the Black Tom story. Some of the reviews I’ve read stated that they wished it had gone on longer. I’ve really warmed to this idea. I’ve started writing the next novella, it would come right after the last events in The Ballad of Black Tom. It wouldn’t be a straight continuation—like Malone wouldn’t be in it—but it would take in elements of another Lovecraft story. This time I won’t retell the tale, instead I’m simply going to mix in another character, and the circumstances from his story, and pour it into my own. I’m very excited about it, actually. I think there’s a lot more to explore in this world I’m building.

What are you working on now?

 I’ve got a novel that’s due to come out next year, mid-year. It’s a bit of an update/reimagining of some old Scandinavian fairy tales. It’s horror, it’s fantastical, it’s literary, it’s fun. I don’t know how it’ll be categorized, but I’m incredibly happy with what it’s going to be. It’s called The Changeling. 

Purchase The Ballad of Black Tom here.

Interview by Douglas Wynne, author of the Lovecraftian novel Red Equinox.

One response to “Interview with Victor LaValle, author of “The Ballad of Black Tom”

  1. What a great, solid and instructive interview. The author sounds like a guy you would really enjoy having a beer with; and the interviewer is asking really perceptive questions.

    That interview is worth ten minutes’ of anyone’s time!

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