Interview with Victor Lavalle, Spring 2010
Victor LaValle was raised in Queens, New York and is the author of a short-story collection, Slapboxing with Jesus and two novels, The Ecstatic and Big Machine. LaValle has also written essays and book reviews for publications such as GQ, Essence, The Fader, and The Washington Post.
LaValle has been awarded the PEN/Open Book Award for his collection of interconnected short stories, Slapboxing with Jesus, and the Key to Jamaica, Queens. His first novel, The Ecstatic, won wide critical acclaim, drawing comparisons to the work of Ken Kesey, Chester Himes, and John Kennedy Toole. LaValle was a finalist in 2003 for both the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. And rapper Mos Def has been so taken by LaValle's work that he named one of his albums after LaValle's novel.
His newest novel, The Big Machine, was published in 2009. It tells the story of Ricky Rice, an ex-junkie survivor of a suicide cult whose life is changed when a mysterious letter arrives summoning him to a remote compound in Vermont. Novelist Mat Johnson described the novel as "Thomas Pynchon with the Sunday afternoon double matinee…transcendent."
LaValle graduated from Cornell University with a BA in English and continued to Columbia University where he received his MFA in Creative Writing. He has been the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College in Oakland, California, a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and a visiting professor at Adelphi University. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches writing at Columbia University.
In Capital Letters: Mr. LaValle, can you tell us a little about the way in which growing up in New York, a large metropolis and urban center, especially during the 1980's has influenced your writing?
Victor LaValle: I grew up in New York, but to be even more specific I grew up in Queens. This might seem like nitpicking, but it isn't. Growing up in Queens—Jackson Heights and Flushing for the first twelve years—is probably a lot like growing up inside the UN building. When I was growing up my best friends were black Americans and white Americans, Columbian, Persian, Korean, Indian, Chinese, Jamaican and Trinidadian, Puerto Rican, and Irish. That's a pretty wonderful mix, something I didn't appreciate until I became older and learned that it wasn't the norm for everyone, everywhere. So while living in densely populated areas, in apartments rather than homes, had an impact on me, the real value of my particular city existence is that it brought pretty much the whole world to me. It was my first, and best, education as a writer.
ICL: How did you come to literature? Has it been something you always felt passionate about?
VL: I've always been a reader. My household didn't have too many books in it—the Bible and the Encyclopedia Britannica—but I grew up in a neighborhood full of boys, which means that we swapped comics all the time. This was my first real introduction to the life of a reader. From there I graduated to books, my first loves being writers like Shirley Jackson, Clive Barker, and Stephen King. Horror fiction. Once I found myself devouring some of King's enormous tomes, like It for instance, I figured I could tackle just about anything. So I went on to Dickens and so on. It just built from there.
ICL: What authors, books, poems, stories do you return to again and again?
VL: Shirley Jackson is a long time favorite. I can never get enough of her. She's most famous for a short story called "The Lottery" but she's got two outstanding, classic novels: The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Both are spooky, smart, beautifully written, and highly readable. I return to the Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe constantly, particularly his collection of novellas Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness and his first novel A Personal Matter. Gayl Jones has a novel named Corrigedora, I reread that every year or two. Stephen Crane's short stories are amazing. If you only know The Red Badge of Courage, I would recommend you check out the stories.
ICL: What have you read most recently that has surprised or inspired you?
VL: I've been rereading the stories of Ambrose Bierce. He's most famous for a book called The Devil's Dictionary which a clever and cruel book of perversely perfect definitions of various things. (For instance SENATE, n: A body of elderly gentleman charged with high duties and misdemeanors.) He lived through the Civil War and fought for the Union Army. His writing consists of scenes of the Civil War and ghost stories/supernatural tales. He makes the former seem unbelievable and the latter seem matter of fact. That's inspiring.
ICL: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process? The most surprising? The most challenging?
VL: My favorite part of the writing process is when I work out some part of the plot or characterization, or when I come up with a nice bit of language. It's usually quite a lot of error to reach that moment of success so I try to enjoy it, even just for a breath or two, because there will be a new confrontation in the very next line. The most surprising and challenging are actually the same. I'm always shocked at how little I understand about my own stories. When I write the first draft of a story, or even a novel, I feel sure I know what it's dealing with but by the fifth draft I find I was completely wrong. And by the tenth I discover that I was wrong when I thought I had it all figured out in the fifth draft. If the story looks the same from the first draft to the last—meaning the plot, the character motivations, the language itself—if nothing has changed then I'm doing something very wrong.
ICL: What themes do you find central to your work? How have they changed over the years?
VL: I do believe that old saying that writers have only a few themes that they work over, again and again, during the span of their lives. So far my main themes seem to be about who is fortunate and who isn't; why some of us get the good breaks in life and why others don't. How getting a good break isn't enough, but it sure is one hell of a head start. That's a larger thematic idea. Certain issues that I keep returning to are mental health, horror, and religion/faith. So far, those are the top three.
ICL: How do your stories first form? Where do you draw the inspiration for them?
VL: The stories come from anywhere. Usually a good bit of my own life, combined with inspiration from the writing of others, add reading the newspaper on a daily basis, trolling through gossip blogs and watching crappy television. And sometimes it's just genuine inspiration, bolt out of the sky kind of thing. But I know it's all coming together when I've got a strong first sentence. When the first sentence finally appears in my mind I know I'm ready to try a first draft.
ICL: What advice would you give unpublished writers that you would wish someone had given to you when you were still in school?
VL: There's lot of advice, particularly about reading as much as you can and being genuinely curious about the world. But one piece of advice I wish I could give my unpublished self is this: have some fun. I was so serious about being a writer! Meaning, I took myself so seriously. I actually bought into the idea that writing is supposed to be torture; splitting a vein and letting it bleed all over the typewriter. Garbage. I don't believe that any more. Some people are just melancholy, that's the personality they were born with and God bless 'em. But somewhere along the line it became almost a given that writer's are just melancholy. But I'm not. I'm a bit of a nut about various things, but at heart I'm a guy who likes to have fun. I want to enjoy my life. So these days, if I'm working on something, I regularly ask myself if I'm having any doing writing it. If the answer is yes, I keep going. If the answer is no I backtrack to the point where I was having fun, I erase whatever I've done that didn't bring me some pleasure, and then I start again.
ICL: If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be?
VL: This is tough, only because there's a song I've been listening to obsessively lately, "The Wind Cries Mary" by Jimi Hendrix. But to claim it's the theme song would be kind of untrue. It's a beautiful, but kind of somber song and that's not how my life feels, at least not today.
ICL: Tell us something about yourself most people don't know.
VL: I can't stand to let my hair grown long at all. I get it cut about once every two weeks, once a week in the summer. This might also be filed under "things about myself most people couldn't give a damn about."
ICL: If you weren't focused on writing, what would you be doing?
VL: I'd like to think I would be the drummer in one hell of a band.