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November 1, 2009 | Interview

An Interview with Victor LaValle

Amy Minton

An Interview with Victor LaValle photo

AMY: Hello, Victor. Thank you for agreeing to talk with me again. As with our last interview, I'd like to start with a quote — not from Bruce Campbell this time, but from the epigraph of your recently-released novel, Big Machine. For your aural pleasure, my husband, John Minton, recorded it: click here to listenThis epigraph puts the gravely voice of a well-known horror movie character in the reader's head before we even meet Ricky Rice, your colorful first-person narrator with a distinct voice of his own. Ricky's voice guides us through a world that becomes more isolated (and snowy) and things become stranger and stranger. How did you land upon the decision to introduce a voice like Ricky's with a well-known voice like MacReady's in John Carpenter's The Thing?

VICTOR: Hi, Amy. First, thanks for asking me to do another interview. Second, that audio file is kick-ass. Please thank John for putting that together.

I started with the quote from The Thing and then went through about two dozen others, trying to get one that set exactly the right tone. The epigraphs changed with every draft of the novel, and I wrote about 30 or 40 drafts of this damn novel!

But what brought me back to that original line, I realized, was that I felt like film was a perfect reflection of the goals I had for this novel. Namely, for it to be full of thrills and frights and breakneck pacing, but also for it to really wrestle with some profound questions.

While the movie asks questions about loyalty and trust and identity (in various ways) I remember being blown back on my ass by the last scene, and the last lines, of the movie. I don't want to ruin it for people who might not know how the movie ends, but the line that rattled my brain that first time is very simple: "Maybe we shouldn't." That "shouldn't" actually means that sometimes self-sacrifice is not only noble, but necessary. Mere survival is a pretty ugly goal in life. It can too easily turn into selfishness and wanton destruction.

It was a lesson to me that popular entertainment and serious concerns aren't mutually exclusive. That "realism" doesn't hold the patent on high-mindedness. I admit that I forget that sometimes. So when I finally decided, for sure, to use the quote, it was like a way to tell anyone who recognized the line (or the movie) that I was planning to entertain them even as I gave them some fun. And it was a challenge to myself: can you do it as well as Carpenter did? Whether I did or not isn't for me to say, but I regarded his movie as a high water mark. There's no point in testing yourself against the sort-of-good. Might as well see if you can keep up with the best.

After setting the tone for big fun with the epigraph, the reader will turn the page to discover the title of the first section: "We Like Monsters." How that line appears in the first section of the novel is quite unexpected (thanks to a lexical play on voice), and it announces your theme with a heavy punch. (You get extra points for creeping me out with the scene on the bus in which that line appears.) Recently my nine-year old son pulled a fragment of a short story out of my printer and read it with a contorted face. His disgust was apparent. I asked, "What's wrong?" He asked, "Where's the monster?" (He offered me assistance by relaying how well Jaws works, and that perhaps I needed a great white shark in my short story about a mentally deteriorating grandmother.) That question slayed me, though. People need a monster. Susan Neville pointed it out in her essay titled, "Where's Iago?" which was based on advice from Kurt Vonnegut. You understand the notion that people need a monster, even if it's an unexpected one (i.e. not a great white shark). Was that mantra ("We Like Monsters") rolling around in your head as you wrote those 30 or 40 drafts?

I'm glad that line resonated with you. Of course, it — and that scene on the bus — turn out to tell you quite a bit about what the novel will become. But even better that it creeped you out in the short term, too! I certainly think that human beings see monsters everywhere. It's a part of our tribal nature. But I don't want to be too hard on human beings either. The world can be fucking terrifying. It's no wonder people finds things to fear. The problem, really, comes just when that fear overwhelms any sense of logic or reason. Which is, of course, part of what I'm trying to wrestle with in the book. When is it completely justifiable to be terrified. And when do you have to swallow that feeling and think about a way to survive.

From a storytelling point of view though your son (and Susan Neville and Kurt Vonnegut) all make an important point. Asking "where's the monster" is simply a way of saying where's the uncertainty, where's chaos, where's the unknown in this story? When I've read books or stories that lack the monster, in this broad sense, they seem essentially false because they don't reflect the life I've lived. Where unpredictable problems arise and mess up days, months, years of my life. And where even predictable problems do exactly the same thing. So I would agree that people need a monster, but even more I'd say that a good story needs a monster. A book about how cancer ravages a woman and her family is a story with a terrifying monster at the center of it.

So that's my bit of advice to any writers reading this: make sure your book has a monster. Or two.

The chapters in Big Machine are strikingly short. One might expect a book with 81 chapters to be of Tolstoian proportions, but your book fits comfortably inside a common satchel. Thinking about how the chapter lengths affected my view of your story, I concluded that they struck like chords in a horror film like John Carpenter's famously repetitive, foreboding, driving scores. This made me think of Melville's Benito Cereno, when the slaves on the ship provided the menacing clacking background for the scenes on board. The brief chapters inBig Machine, then, made me feel uneasy without knowing why -- as if gears were moving, things shifting, one chord at a time. Tell me about your decision to write in short chapters, and what you wanted to achieve with that.

It's good you brought up Melville because Moby Dick is the reason for the short chapters in my book.  In earlier drafts of the novel the chapters were very, very long. Maybe sixty or seventy manuscript pages. At the time I thought the effect on the reader would be like one great big breath being expelled. Like we just would never stop until we reached a major, dramatic section break. But what I realized, instead was that this method tended to bury all sorts of small but still significant drama. There were a thousand little surprises, twists, actions that should be interesting to the reader, but because I never stopped to let the reader breathe a lot of these moments were missed. I needed a way to let readers stop and start, really let them think about each little surprise and have those surprises build into a much grander revelation by the end of that section of the book.

I went crazy trying to figure out how to make this happen, but do you know that I never thought to just make the chapters shorter? I messed with different kinds of section breaks, I used typographical tricks to emphasize an interesting moment, but they were all hokey. And, worse, they didn't actually allow the reader to enjoy the small surprises I was talking about.

Then, about three years into the writing process I sat down to read Moby Dick again. I hadn't read it since college and, to be frank, I didn't like it much then. I hardly remembered the damn thing, really. But this time I found myself tearing through the book. When I read it in school it had been assigned and it was 'important' and our examination of the text had been as ponderous as the term 'important' would suggest when applied to a novel. But this time, on my own, I got about a third of the way through and I had a revelation: this is goddamn adventure book! And those adventures were broken up by more thoughtful (rather than ponderous) sections that described the practice of whaling, or how machinery on the whaling ship worked, or a sermon from a mad old preacher. And, to quote a great song, this time "the combination made my eyes bleed."

I know people complain about the whaling bits in the book, but I found that Melville used a perfect structure for his big book. The whaling bits are there to put the brakes on the mad adventure stuff, the craziness of Ahab's quest, the riveting fights to catch and kill the whales, the frightening battles of will amongst the men on the ship. The scene where Tashtego (one of the crew members) falls into the head of a whale they've killed and is rescued by Queequeg is truly thrilling.

And let me set that statement on a new line so I can write it again. In Moby Dick there's a scene where a man falls into the hallowed out head of a whale. That head is being suspended against the side of the ship but this man's weight causes the ropes to break and the head falls into the sea. The head sinks, with Tashtego still trapped inside. Then one of the other men, Queequeg, leaps into the water and rescues his crewmate by cutting a hole in the whale's head while it's underwater!

If I told you that plot point, on its own, and asked you to identify it you'd be just as likely, more likely I bet, to say it was a scene out of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. And that's exactly my point. Melville (like so many "classic" or "canonical" writers) didn't shy away from extreme drama, over the top action. And he also didn't think that such dramatics made it impossible to indulge sincere and scintillating philosophy on the page. These things can be put together on the same page, in the same story. In fact, each is often served by the other. Flannery O'Conner knew this. Gloria Naylor does too (check out Mama Day orLinden Hills).

So Melville was teaching me all this and pretty soon the last lesson (for now) of the book dawned on me. How was he making me tear forward. Crazy to find out what happened next? You ever seen the chapters in Moby Dick? They're two, three, four pages long, many of them. Some no more than a paragraph. Aha!

As far as what I wanted to achieve, it was exactly that. To have the reader rushing forward and to short just before the reader was ready to end. Then leap into something else, brand new, and have the reader thinking, when are we going to get back to storyline A? But then they thing, wait storyline B is actually kind of interesting. And then stop. And go back to A. Or start storyline C. A constant process of cycling through these story lines, making the reader's anticipation build and build, so that when you finally wrap up there's such a feeling of satisfaction because the reader didn't get it all at once. They have to wait a while. I learned this from Moby Dick, but now as I write it out I realize it also sounds a lot like that old book, The Rules.

I remember, much earlier in the drafting of this novel, you said that you met with a comic book artist and gleaned a lesson on plot movement. Am I remembering correctly? If so, what did you learn that catapulted your novel into a Herman Melville/Jerry Bruckheimer production?

The comic book angle is correct, but it was actually a conversation with a fellow novelist that helped me with plot. My best friend is an incredible writer named Mat Johnson (time for plugs: author ofDrop-novel, Hunting in Harlem-novel, The Great Negro Plot-creative non-fiction, Incognegro-comic book, and the upcoming Dark Rain-comic book; all this, and the dude is a full time professor who is married with three kids — it all puts me to shame).

Anyway, Mat got a job writing a limited series called Papa Midnight for Vertigo Books, the cool ass line of books out of the DC Comics Empire. And working on this series turned out to be an incredible education for him and, in turn, for me. I basked in that dude's glow like the moon does the sun! He would figure out ideas about plotting and narrative by talking over his various story points with me. "I want this to happen and then we have to get to that, but what should come in between to link them?" That's simplifying, but not by much. Mat would talk himself through these various twists and I would pretty much sit there going, "Okay," or "Then what?" The great thing is that I got to see him run down a number of blind alleys and then backtrack until he'd figured out the best way to make a coherent, propulsive, and entertaining tale. (What made it even more difficult is that he had to tie all this into the larger history of an existing comic universe so he couldn't just do anything he pleased. He had to be inventive, but still color within certain lines.)

Watching Mat teach himself how to create a satisfying, and entertaining, plot felt like cribbing notes at the grown-ups table. He'd cast off some idea and I'd greedily swipe it from the floor, tuck the discarded sheet of paper into my pocket. Take it out later, alone, and really try to understand what was written there. But the idea that stayed with me, and the one I think most worth passing on now, is the idea of the "second reveal." This is the term Mat had for it.

The second reveal is simply this: you start out with one revelation, the thing that sets the story in motion. But that partway through you create a second revelation and, this is the most important part, that second revelation complicates the first. So, you could have a dead body appear in the first pages of a book. But if the second revelation is that this whole story is actually taking place on Mars then the one doesn't really build on the other. In fact, the latter serves to undercut the former. "We're on Mars in this book? So why the hell did you spend so much time with the dead body?" But, if the dead body leads us to a second revelation that there is a secret government task force killing off members of the public then the reader (or at least this reader) will only have one question: then what? This narrative can eventually make its way to the great big (seventh or eighth revelation?) that the whole story is, in fact, taking place on Mars. But each step needs to lead logically to the next, each one needs to pull the reader forward one or two steps, rather than taking a leap all the way across the football field. Go too slow and you risk boring the reader, go too fast and you risk confusing the reader. Stay somewhere in between and you still have a good chance of losing the reader, but at least you're working in the right zone.

But one other point I'd like to make, the writing lesson that is probably worth more than any other: don't be boring.

Now boring doesn't mean that you should stuff every page with an explosion or a sword fight or a car chase (though, really, if you do any one of those, please feel free). Instead, I'm suggesting that you write in a way that (at least!) doesn't bore the shit out of you. Do you know what I mean? There are times when I've been working on a story, a scene, a chapter, and no matter how much I stick with it I find myself completely uninterested. I'm writing it because it seems like I need it, but then my own internal editor is giving me a clear signal. The alarm is going off: BORING! BORING! BORING! And yet I ignore it. Why? Maybe because I feel like I've put all this time into the damn thing that I better get something out of it. Or, it's because my favorite book has a scene just like it and if it was good enough for Jane Bowles (for instance) then it's good enough for me. Or maybe it's just because I can't think of anything better to put in this section.

Obviously these are all terrible reasons for keeping it in there. And yet I still do it. I'm guessing you do too, from time to time.

AMY: Uh... how'd you guess?

VICTOR: You shouldn't write something that bores you. The editing process will bring a certain degree of tediousness to even the most captivating pages, because you'll be rewriting and rewriting them a number of times. (And you better be revising. I'm just putting that out there.) That's different. But ask yourself a simple question: if I could write anything now, could have anything in the world happen next, what would be most interesting to me? I don't care if the most interesting thing would be a humorous conversation between a student loan officer and someone who has fallen behind on their payments. Write that. You can worry about how it all fits together later on. (Once again, the value of revision.)

The only way this advice can fail you is if you are, in fact, just a boring person. Then I don't know how to help you.

I turn to booze when I find I've become a boring person. I don't recommend that to everyone.

I'm guessing that if you really let your imagination loose on the page you can't help but be riveting. So there's all my wisdom in two words: be riveting.

Our interviews are always so much fun, and I hate to end them. But I do want to know what you're working on now so I can call dibs on the next interview. What's cooking in Victor LaValle's Literary Kitchen?

I'm working on a short novel that I hope to finish in the next few months called The Devil in Silver. It's the story of a haunted house, in a sense, but I guarantee no one's ever written a haunted house story quite like this.

Guaranteed. Thank you, Victor.

image: Big Machine Cover Design