An Interview with Victor LaValle
Victor LaValle's fiction (to date: three novels, a novella, and a short-story collection) conjures and populates a wonderfully creepy world. His tales combine horror with an astonishingly moral, astonishingly human perspective, and render mundane struggles as spectacular battles. In Big Machine (2010), a secret society of recovering addicts and former criminals wages an unseen war for humanity's soul, while in his new novel, The Devil in Silver, a group of overmedicated mental patients may be the only force fighting to keep the devil down.
Pepper, the book's protagonist, is fatefully admitted to New Hyde hospital on a seventy-two-hour psychiatric hold; "I want you to understand where you've found yourself, big boy," instructs one of his fellow patients, "In here we're the buffalo. And New Hyde is the cliff." Pepper goes over that cliff, and he enters a gothic world where possibly supernatural horrors are overshadowed by institutionalized inhumanity, and abused patients lock horns with the abused workers who care for them.
This refusal to make the staff of New Hyde Hospital the villains, à la One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, represents a refusal to pass the moral buck that marks all of LaValle's work. In his fiction, and in conversation, LaValle's wit and generosity seem effortless, and he never takes for granted the harsh realities, and the high stakes, of the world he represents, even though that world is marked by the supernatural and the fantastic. There's no hip irony here, only clear-sighted affection for his characters and a sense of how to tell a story that is both humane and genius.
As a longtime reader of the writers to whom LaValle is inevitably compared -- Shirley Jackson, Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed -- when I first read Big Machine, I felt that I had been waiting for it all along. So it was a great pleasure to e-mail with him about how his reading influences his writing, and why writing that is gothic, fantastic, and fabulist best captures the mundane horrors of everyday life.
I read Big Machine at a moment when I was really frustrated with contemporary fiction in general. I felt that fiction was doing a poor job of representing what British writer Angela Carter called the "real conditions of life," the everyday concerns of work, income, of how to make ends meet. Your work, like Carter's, seems to me to argue that those real conditions are best represented in fiction that incorporates some wildly disparate genre elements. Is there something more strategic for you about this practice?
First, I love you for bringing up Angela Carter, in any way, when talking with me. She wrote like a demon, and in her case I mean that literally. Frightening, seductive, and poking at a wealth of pieties as all good devils are meant to do. I think you're on to something about the "real conditions of life," though. It has always seemed to me that realism attempts to describe what daily life looks like while the fantastic attempts to express what daily life feels like. Getting evicted from your home -- I mean genuine court-ordered, City Marshal enforced eviction -- can feel like an episode from a piece of Gothic fiction. The reportorial aspects of realism just aren't going to capture the matter. I can't fathom how only one type of writing -- whether realism, the fantastic, romance, mystery, etc. -- can ever summarize life on its own. Using all of it -- within the same book, sometimes within the same sentence -- seems like the only sensible way to try and capture the whole spectrum of human experience. Plus, it's a hell of a lot of fun.
I loved The Devil in Silver, and I did something I haven't done in a long time: I read 300 pages in one long session. Reading Big Machine was also just an extraordinary experience, as I mentioned. I wonder if you might map out a little bit your own narrative interests between the two texts. The Devil in Silver calls back to Big Machine in small ways -- the Washburn Library, the group of patients who spend nights searching newspapers for evidence of otherwise-forgotten people -- what did Big Machine leave unfinished that you needed to take up again?
Big Machine was a real turning point for me. It was the first time I actually blended all these streams, twisting genres into and around each other until they can't be separated. I felt like I'd entered a different dimension when I wrote that book. I didn't want to leave it. As a result this novel, The Devil in Silver, had to be written in some kind of conversation with Big Machine. That's because, as far as I'm concerned, the two books take place in the same universe. Somewhere else, far from New Hyde Hospital, Ricky Rice and Adele Henry and their child are on the run and being chased down by many enemies. They never show up in The Devil in Silver of course, because this book isn't a sequel to that one. But they coexist. I even dragged a little bit of my first novel, The Ecstatic, into this one, right near the end, because that book had traces of the same stardust. Just as I like the idea of blending genres, I like the idea of making my books a part of one grand timeline. So that at the end of it all, whenever that comes, you'll see a grand mythology has taken shape.
But in a more concrete way I saw The Devil in Silver as the flip side of Big Machine. The humbler, if no less frightening, reality. Where Big Machine began in sanity and spun off into the truly insane (if even I may say so), then The Devil in Silver begins in madness and slowly shows itself to be quite a sane book. The monsters in the last book were transcendent; in this one, they're more tangible. Both are deadly.
Well, I'm glad to hear that Ricky and Adele and their child are at least all together, that Ricky survived his childbirth! If the worlds of Big Machine and The Devil in Silver are the same, then is New Hyde a place like those that the scholars investigate, where the supernatural interrupts the mundane? Is there any transcendence there?
I think a newspaper story about New Hyde hospital and the Devil roaming its halls would certainly rate interest up at the Washburn Library. The problem for the folks at New Hyde though is that they can't get any journalists interested in their plight. This was a purposeful flip on my part. In Big Machine it seemed as though the Unlikely Scholars were sifting through all the available information about strange events, but in The Devil in Silver I wanted to show that even a story as wild as this won't get noticed if it's never told. Like so many hardships in life, if there's no audience then there's crime.
That's why the transcendence here is achieved only by those trapped inside New Hyde's walls. You know that old saying, "There's no justice, it's just us"? I remember it as a line from a hip hop song by Gang Starr, but it's been used many times, by many folks. The patients (and staff) in New Hyde really can't rely on anything outside. Not the news, not the government, and certainly not private enterprise. Pepper enters the hospital as a man only interested in getting himself out, but in time he comes to realize that everyone inside needs his help. And he needs theirs. Once he embraces this fact, and everyone else in the unit does too, all achieve something pretty transcendent as a group: they help each other. When that happens, anytime it happens, that shit seems supernatural to me.
In The Devil in Silver, I read allusions to Harlan Ellison, who to me at least represents a kind of bygone Weird Tales-era science fiction, as well as allusions to Shakespeare and maybe Jane Eyre. Are there particular things in those texts that resonate for you? Are there correspondences between "high" and "low" cultural forms that you are interested in exploring? What is the particular alchemy of associating disparate forms?
You're totally right about those allusions. I feared the Harlan Ellison one might've been a little bit too much on the nose, but then figured fuck it. Throw it in the stew! There are allusions to both high and low culture throughout the book. Some of the writers you've named as well as some old standbys of mine: Shirley Jackson, James Joyce, a British horror writer named Ramsey Campbell. Plus there's so much heavy metal buried in the text. My first musical love. Lyrics or references to bands like Metallica, W.A.S.P., Anthrax, Megadeth, and many more appear here and there, for those who might recognize the nods. Plenty of other bits of culture as well.
I like to include all these allusions largely because they're the stuff that made me. For better or worse I'm a child of my place and time, as we all are. When it comes to putting that kind of stuff into my books, I can't see how to separate the high from the low, or even how to separate one bit of high culture from another bit of influential high culture. I tend to think most people are similarly rich with influence, but maybe they don't include all of it on the page when they write. One wants to look serious for serious readers, I guess, while others don't want to appear elitist to supposedly less elite readers. I'm just grateful for the work others wrote, sang, played, painted, and produced and can't hide the appreciation. Not mentioning all of it, somehow, is like not thanking someone for serving you a good meal. It's bad manners. I don't think those references should be the point of the writing -- a book full of nothing but other cultural cues strikes me as pretty dull -- but if those cues are in the background, then they're just little ways to wink at the reader. Meanwhile, in the foreground, there's an actual story you're trying to tell.
Pepper worries about paying his bills, and the budget cuts to the New Hyde Hospital are not just figurative and abstract; they have consequences that include the abuse of the workers and the patients. To me this is sort of social-realist at the same time that it's couched in a monster-movie plot. Is there a particular kind of social or political work that monster movies or other weird tales do? What do these "weird" elements do that realism doesn't?
To be frank, on one level the "weird" elements make it possible for someone to sit through conversations and information about stuff like budget cuts, hourly pay rates, and the damage done to our health care system by poorly planned austerity measures. I care about those issues deeply, and half the time they put even me to sleep. The monster-movie plot is the pleasure. Anyway, the monster is a stand in, a companion piece, to the forces of crushing budget problems and shortsighted methods of caring for the ill. There are really two devils at New Hyde Hospital, one is revealed early and is monstrous to see, the other, the more terrifying (at least to me), really only comes into focus as the novel nears its end. Its methods of destroying us are better hidden, and it's much, much harder to kill.
But there is also another monstrous layer in The Devil in Silver, when the hospital book group reads Jaws. It's very funny, and it's also how Pepper starts, maybe, to find sympathy for the Devil at New Hyde. Is there something essential about horror fictions or monster movies that opens a door for representing the really scary stuff about the failure of institutions to care for the people who depend on them?
Horror always struck me as the most sensible and clear-eyed of all the genres in fiction. Science fiction, to speak broadly, seems pretty optimistic as genres go. (Optimistic meaning science fiction often takes it for granted that human beings will still be alive in five hundred years, or five thousand!) Fantasy is a nostalgic genre, for the most part. (Always looking back, even when it's in some strange future.) While noir strikes me as the genre of the paranoid. (I'm a fan, so maybe I'm just projecting.) But for me, horror is the genre that seems most grounded in the present day and most willing to see the terrible, even if that means seeing the terrible in a monstrous form. It's so difficult to look at reality head on. Shirley Jackson has that great opening line in The Haunting of Hill House: "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality." I think horror, when it's done with real deftness, is the closest fiction can come to seeing absolute reality. It's not possible, the human mind just won't allow for it (thank goodness), but when it's done right horror comes close. And that's why it can feel so good, to people who enjoy horror. You feel, at least sometimes, that the world is frightening and overwhelming and seems intent on doing you harm, and for a little while -- the length of a story or book -- it turns out you're right! It's cathartic. Then you shut the book and get back to daily work of making the best of things. (And even enjoying the good stuff, I should add.)
Devils are a recurring theme, but in your fiction they always seem to evoke specific iconographies. For Pepper, the devil he discovers represents "somebody else's myth, somebody else's nightmare." So are there particular religious iconographies that inform your devils? Is there a particular religious or literary allegorical tradition that structures these narratives?
I was raised a Christian, so certainly Judeo-Christian ideas of Satan (and, of course, all the broad, beautiful, and completely insane imagery of Satan that human beings have come up with) have had a real influence. And yet I remain at least a little skeptical about the lessons I've learned. My personal life and, hell, human history, is full of people who were labeled devils but looked a lot like angels to me. I think I'm often putting two traditions at war within my work. The traditional Judeo-Christian ideas as they've come down to us versus a more gnostic tradition that challenges those traditional Christian ideas. Think of it like an old school rap battle. Who really wins such contests? The audience, of course.
Pepper's confusion about the devil suggests that maybe there is more behind his own commitment to New Hyde than meets his and our eyes. You have said before that mental illness is of particular interest to you, yet The Devil in Silver doesn't ever really take up the question of how ill Pepper or his fellow patients might be. What literary possibilities does mental illness present, and what kinds of unique obligations does representing the mentally ill have?
Pepper enters New Hyde as a sane human being. He has plenty of problems -- short-tempered, has a hero complex -- but I saw him as someone sane who was put into conditions that will not allow for sanity. Some people are born with a mental illness; others are driven insane by the conditions of their reality. I saw Pepper as the latter, but worked hard to erase that distinction when it came to him and his fellow patients.
The usual depiction of mentally ill people puts their illness first -- the character with OCD will act wildly OCD-ish in the first five minutes of meeting him; the schizophrenic will mutter about phantom voices long before you've come to learn that she's a really good computer programmer. These aren't characters; they're types. I wanted all the people populating this hospital to be characters. That means patients and staff. If I did this, I thought I could make one very important point: the dividing line between someone like Pepper and someone like Dorry or Coffee or Loochie is there, for sure, but its much thinner than most of us might believe.
If the reader accepts that this line is quite narrow, she might also accept that these folks have the same dreams and dignity as she does and then the suffering they go through will mean that much more. The reader will be affected rather than just watching it happen to a being she can't understand or empathize with. She'll finish the book feeling a level of closeness she might never have imagined she could for people like this. She will see, even if only temporarily, their shared humanity. That's my whole goal as a novelist, right there.
So it seems like what you're saying is that what interests you about mental illness isn't mental illness. Is it then the challenge of representing shared humanity between people whose differences seem profound? Is Pepper's version of Van Gogh's biography part of valuing Van Gogh's humanity rather than only his genius?
I certainly care about mental illness as its own condition. My first novel, The Ecstatic, was narrated by Anthony James, a young man who suffers from bipolar disorder. I wrote that book from as far within that condition, that mindset, as I could and feel pretty happy with the results. Because I'd written from within mental illness before I wanted this book to come from outside the condition. It was important to me, this time, that I wrote Pepper as a person who isn't in any medically accepted sense "mentally ill," to show that doesn't protect him from the same pressures, the same failures of thought and deed, that someone with a serious condition might suffer. The line between the two sides is real, but I wanted to show that it's porous.
In the case of Van Gogh, I think he comes to mean so much to Pepper -- and to the book -- because his own life and art mirror so many of the issues in the story. He's someone who, in his lifetime, was not appreciated or understood. Exactly the kind of person who is regularly tossed into the mass grave of history. He was only recovered from that pit because, in retrospect (and the hard work of his brother's widow), the world came to realize it had made a mistake. This anonymous nutjob was actually worth celebrating! It's my contention that all the others are too. I'm not suggesting they're all unrecognized Van Goghs, only that each man and woman, boy and girl, was likely worth a little more than they received.
On a last note, this idea of Van Gogh's genius, I'd like to suggest that his genius and his humanity were insuperable. Van Gogh's technique was revelatory and the product of passion, ambition, and countless hours of practice. In other words, the man put in the time and hard work. But it all sprang from his essential character. As I mention in the novel, his love for humanity. This is why Pepper and I fall so hard for Van Gogh. His heart was as great as his talent. Even someone who can't aspire to his artistic heights can aspire to love as fully, as wholeheartedly, as he did. Even if it's only achieved for small snatches of time in one's life, who cares? In those moments, you are practicing a kind of genius.