Interview With an Author: Matt Ruff

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Matt Ruff and his latest book, The Destroyer of Worlds: A Return to Lovecraft Country
Author Matt Ruff and his latest book, The Destroyer of Worlds: A Return to Lovecraft Country

Matt Ruff is the author of the novels 88 Names, Lovecraft Country, Bad Monkeys, The Mirage, Set This House in Order, Fool on the Hill, and Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy. He lives in Seattle, Washington. His latest book is The Destroyer of Worlds: A Return to Lovecraft Country and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Lovecraft Country?

Lovecraft Country began as an unsuccessful TV pitch. My idea was to create a show like The X-Files, in which a recurring cast of characters had weekly paranormal adventures. The twist was that instead of being about white FBI agents in the 1990s, it would center on a black family in 1950s Chicago who owned a travel agency and published a fictional version of The Negro Motorist Green Book called "The Safe Negro Travel Guide." So, in addition to dealing with supernatural horrors, the protagonists would also have to navigate the more mundane terrors of life in the Jim Crow era.

I thought there were a lot of interesting things you could do with that premise, but the people I was talking to at the time didn’t go for it. So I went back to the drawing board and eventually came up with a way to reimagine the story as a novel.

What inspired you to return to the world and characters of Lovecraft Country in The Destroyer of Worlds?

The short answer is, I had more stories to tell. I wrote Lovecraft Country as a stand-alone novel, but the potential for further adventures was always there, and before I’d even finished the book, I’d begun thinking about a more ambitious arc that would carry the narrative forward into the 1960s. The problem was that what I had in mind would require two or three more books to complete. That’s a huge commitment, and I didn’t want to start down that road unless I was reasonably sure I could get to the end of it. But then the HBO series happened and Lovecraft Country became a bestseller, and I realized, this is my chance.

Are Atticus, Montrose, Hippolyta, George, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

There are echoes of my mother in Hippolyta—the restlessness, the need to get out on the road and just drive, and most of all that sense of never having found her place in this world. (Hippolyta at least knows what career she wants to have; Mom never even made it that far.)
I also feel a special kinship with Horace, the budding young artist, though obviously our lives are very different.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

With Lovecraft Country, I came up with the idea of structuring the novel like a season of television—one that you would binge-read rather than binge-watch. Each chapter would be both a self-contained weird tale—what X-Files fans would call a "monster of the week" episode—and part of a larger arc story about this coven of white sorcerers who’ve taken an unhealthy interest in Atticus and his family. This episodic structure worked well and helped me maintain forward momentum as I was writing—if I got stuck on one chapter, I’d just switch to working on another.

My first complete draft was pretty close to the published version of the novel. The editing mostly involved streamlining things and making sure that the different pieces of the story fit together as neatly as possible. The most significant edits were to Ruby’s chapter, "Jekyll in Hyde Park," which, during the writing, had kept trying to turn into a novel in its own right. Even there, I didn’t cut a lot of material, I just condensed it and tied it more closely to the larger narrative. So, for example, in the original version of the chapter, there’s a longer version of the backstory about Ruby’s relationship with her mother. The key points of that backstory are still in the novel, in the nightclub scene on New Year’s Eve, but now, instead of me telling the story to the reader, Ruby tells the story to Caleb Braithwhite, which creates this interesting bonding moment between them.

So no, I didn’t cut anything from Lovecraft Country that I miss. But I did have a lot of ideas that never made it into the novel in the first place because there simply wasn’t room for them. Some of those unused ideas ended up in The Destroyer of Worlds.

As for Destroyer, it has a more conventional narrative structure than Lovecraft Country did, so figuring out how the different plot strands fit together was much more straightforward. I also have to say, never having written a sequel before, that it’s a lot easier going back to characters you already know well.

How familiar were you with the time periods in which Lovecraft Country and The Destroyer of Worlds are set? Did you have to do a bit of research? What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

My father is from the Midwest, and while I haven’t spent a lot of time in Chicago, I felt much more at home there than I would have setting the story in, say, the Deep South. Much of my research was focused on learning the "rules of the road" for black people living in the 1950s. For example, if you wanted to buy a house in a white neighborhood, how exactly would you go about it? How would you find a sympathetic real estate agent? What would you do for financing if the bank wouldn’t give you a mortgage (which, if you were black, it almost certainly wouldn’t)? How would you deal with the neighbors? To answer these sorts of questions, I read history books and memoirs. I also read a year’s worth of back issues of the Chicago Defender, to get a general sense of what was happening in the city’s black community at the time, and to find anecdotes I could use in the novel.

The most fascinating thing for me was learning about the now largely forgotten infrastructure that African Americans were forced to create in order to cope with the hurdles of legal segregation. There was this whole parallel universe of social and professional organizations, like the Prince Hall Freemasons, the Improved Order of Elks, and the National Association of Real Estate Brokers ("Realtists"), which served as a non-discriminatory alternative to the National Association of Realtors.

While they have always been popular, the works of H.P. Lovecraft seem to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance, providing inspiration to a number of authors, filmmakers, and producers of television content. Do you have a favorite pastiche, television, or motion picture adaptation/interpretation? A least favorite?

The director Stuart Gordon did a number of campy Lovecraft adaptations—Re-Animator, From Beyond, Dagon—that I have a deep affection for. Of the more "serious" adaptations, my two favorites would be Huan Vu’s Die Farbe, a German-language version of The Colour Out of Space, and Andrew Leman’s 2005 silent-film version of The Call of Cthulhu, which is all the more amazing for having been made on a shoestring budget of $50,000.

As for least favorite…that’s a tough one. Lovecraft inspired a lot of filmmakers—to date, he’s got more than 250 writing credits on the Internet Movie Database. Many of these movies are boring or poorly made, and some are so bad on a technical level as to be practically unwatchable. But that’s going to be the case with any popular genre or subgenre. The price of good art is bad art.

Lovecraft Country seems to take some inspiration from the works of H.P. Lovecraft (it’s right there in the title!). Lovecraft was famously racist and sexist (which is reflected in his fiction). With your last two novels, you join a growing number of writers (P. Djeli Clark, Victor LaValle, Ruthanna Emrys, to name a few) that are reclaiming some of Lovecraft’s ideas and making them into something new and wonderful. Do you have a theory regarding why Lovecraft’s stories continue to influence and inspire contemporary authors?

To begin with, he’s a great storyteller. He’s particularly good at evoking a sense of overarching dread, that paranoid feeling of being in a place where you don’t belong, surrounded by creatures who mean you no good and will show you no mercy. You don’t need to share Lovecraft’s racist worldview to find that scenario compelling.

Lovecraft also had the good fortune to be writing at a time when modern genre categories were first being defined. He helped create the concept of "cosmic horror." And he was generous with his toys, encouraging other writers he knew to make use of his fictional creations. So Cthulhu and the Elder Gods and the Necronomicon became part of the horror genre’s basic DNA, in much the same way that Tolkien’s elves and dwarves got woven into the fabric of fantasy.

The Destroyer of Worlds ends with several issues that are, if not entirely unresolved, open to being pursued further. And in your Acknowledgements, you state that you have been thinking about a larger story involving the characters of Lovecraft Country. Is The Destroyer of Worlds the latest entry in what will become a new series? If so, what are your plans for the series? Do you know have an idea at this time how long the series will be and how many books will be necessary to tell the story you want to tell?

My plan is to write at least one and possibly two more novels. I don’t have a working title for the next one yet, but the plot will feature Horace using the silver key he finds in The Destroyer of Worlds to enter my version of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands.

As for the larger narrative arc formed by these new novels, it will involve all of the characters from Lovecraft Country, but the main throughline will be Horace’s coming-of-age story. I see the series ending in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act is passed, and The Safe Negro Travel Guide ceased publication. Horace will be twenty-two years old then, ready to go out and seek his fortunes as an adult. A good place to leave things.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Victor LaValle’s Lone Women, Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and David Wheeler’s No, But I Saw the Movie: The Best Short Stories Ever Made Into Film. I’ve also got the collected works of Lord Dunsany loaded up on my iPad as research for the next Lovecraft Country novel.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Stephen King looms large—especially his early novels. Other big influences include Shirley Jackson, John Crowley, Richard Price, and William Gibson. I should also give a shout-out to my maternal grandfather, the missionary Albert Lehenbauer. He died before I was born, but every time I read his memoir, Roughing It For Christ in the Wilds of Brazil, I can see who I inherited my storytelling chops from.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Bertrand R. Brinley’s The Mad Scientists’ Club, which concerned a group of boys who used their scientific know-how to play creative pranks, like building a fake Loch Ness monster for the lake in their hometown.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

I was a voracious reader as a kid, and my parents were happy to feed my habit, letting me order whatever I wanted from the Scholastic Book Club and borrow anything that interested me from the library. The only thing I ever felt a strong need to keep private was my own writing, not because I was embarrassed by it but because I didn’t want anyone to see it until it was finished. I can recall a couple of instances where my mother stumbled across my latest work in progress while cleaning my room, which I wasn’t happy about. But that’s why you should learn to clean your own room.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Back in my school days, I may have bluffed my way through the odd homework assignment without doing the required reading first. But I was always much more inclined towards the opposite sin: reading things I wasn’t supposed to, on the theory that if it’s forbidden, it must be interesting. Spoiler alert, it usually isn’t.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I was browsing in the Elmhurst, Queens Barnes & Noble in 1987 when I spotted a paperback copy of Joe Coomer’s, A Flathead Fable sitting face out on a shelf. The cover art was a perspective illustration of a road running through a flat rural landscape, which may not sound particularly striking, but something about it caught my eye and got me to pick the book up. Coomer’s prose did the rest: by the time I’d finished the first paragraph, I was sold. If you’d like to give Coomer a try and Fable is checked out from the library, Apologizing to Dogs and Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God are also good introductions to his writing.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Every book I’ve ever read has changed my life, at least a little. That’s part of what reading is for.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Not a specific book, but an author, John Crowley. He’s an immensely talented writer who other writers know about, but who’s never really gotten the wider public recognition that I think he deserves. His most popular novel is Little, Big, a multi-generational fantasy about a family who lives on the edge of a faerie wood—that’s a good one to start with. Other good starting points include The Translator and the novella Great Work of Time. Or if you’d like to try something more ambitious, check out The Solitudes and its three sequels.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I actually get more out of re-reading. It’s fun to discover new things, but the first time through, my own preconceptions can sometimes get in the way of what the author is trying to do. With books that impress me, I love going back a second or a third or a tenth time, so I can really appreciate the work on its own terms.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

My wife and I just finished watching season six of Showtime’s Billions. I am in awe of the storytelling on that show—particularly the character development—and the fact that they’ve kept the quality so consistent over half a dozen seasons is particularly impressive.

What are you working on now?

I’m not writing anything at the moment, just gearing up for the publication of The Destroyer of Worlds. Once that’s safely launched into the world, it’ll be time to start Lovecraft Country book three.

Book cover for The Destroyer of Worlds: A Return to Lovecraft Country
The Destroyer of Worlds: A Return to Lovecraft Country
Ruff, Matt

In Destroyer of Worlds, Matt Ruff continues the story he began in Lovecraft Country. He continues the stories of the various members of the Berry, Dandridge, and Turner families in 1950s Chicago, expanding locations to include New England, Las Vegas, and locations spanning the galaxy. The structure of Lovecraft Country was almost episodic, telling one story and then moving on to the next. In The Destroyer of Worlds, Ruff tells several alternating storylines that are interwoven into a gripping, sometimes horrifying, adventure that is every bit as exhilarating as the pulps that inspired it.