Interview With an Author: Victor LaValle

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Victor LaValle and his latest book, The Ballad of Black Tom
Author Victor LaValle and his latest book, The Ballad of Black Tom. Photo credit: Teddy Wolff

Victor LaValle is the author of seven works of fiction and three graphic novels. His books have won the World Fantasy Award, British Fantasy Award, Bram Stoker Award, Dragon Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award, among many others. He has been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, and the Key to Southwest Queens. He teaches writing at Columbia University and lives with his wife and kids in the Bronx. His award-winning novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, was recently reissued in a new edition and he spoke about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Ballad of Black Tom?

I grew up reading H.P. Lovecraft. He helped me fall in love with horror as a genre. But when I grew older, and reread H.P. Lovecraft, I started to have new and more complicated feelings about his work. So I wrote my novella as a response to the work of a writer I both love and wanted to criticize. My model for this was Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. A great novel in its own right, but also a grand critique of Jane Eyre.

Are Tommy, Otis, Buckeye, or any of the other characters you created for the novella inspired by or based on specific individuals?

All the characters are, in some way, based on different people, but Otis, in particular, is inspired by Ralph Ellison and a story I read about him. Supposedly he rode to college by train, from Oklahoma to Alabama, and to protect himself, he wore a straight razor on a string that he hung around his neck. I gave that detail to Otis because I loved it so much.

How did the novella 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?

This novella is the fastest thing I ever wrote. Two weeks for a draft that was, in essence, exactly as it was published. I revised here and there to add details or come up with more elegant sentences, but it came out "as is." This is the only time that ever happened, and I credit it to the fact that I was using H.P. Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook" as a model. It gave me some ready-made story structure that helped me immensely.

The Ballad of Black Tom was originally published in 2016 and was just recently re-issued as a hardcover this year. What has been the most surprising or gratifying development for you regarding The Ballad of Black Tom over the last six years?

The fact that it exists as a book at all is the most gratifying development of all. When I wrote the book, I thought no one would want it because it blended two kinds of stories that aren't exactly mainstream: Lovecraftian fiction and political fiction. Somehow, to my enduring joy, that combination was widely embraced by readers.

In your afterword, you write how you have been a longtime reader of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction. Do you have a favorite of his works?

The best of Lovecraft's works are pretty easy to name. "The Colour Out of Space," "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," "The Dunwich Horror," and "Dagon" are all worth a reader's time.

Do you have a favorite television or motion picture adaptation/interpretation of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s works? Something done in another form? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one, and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)?

Lovecraft is an interesting writer because his work has often resisted good adaptation. I think this is partly because there isn't much plot in his stories, they rely mostly on mood, and that can be a hard thing to transfer to a visual medium, especially because the need for a plot can feel much more vital in that medium. That said, one of my all-time favorite adaptations of his work is Re-Animator from 1985. It's pulpy and fun and doesn't take itself too seriously, which is a good way to approach that work. There's a film version of Dagon from 2001 that gets a lot of good moody atmosphere right, and it turns into a big, fun, pulpy extravaganza by the end as well.

In many ways, Lovecraft has done better as the inspiration for some great tv and film. That list would include things like Lovecraft Country, Event Horizon, The Void, The Thing, and The Endless to name just a few.

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how Lovecraft’s fiction continues to engage readers and has become a source of inspiration for you and other writers who are reimagining and reinterpreting some of his ideas?

I think Lovecraft's greatest gift is that he tapped into a deep well of fear and paranoia that is so central to the worldview of adolescence. There's a reason that he's a writer most people fall in love with when they're teenage readers. I haven't met many people who develop an appreciation for him if they start as adults. (Though I'm sure some are out there.) His view of the world—that each of us is small and powerless in the face of grand powers—just fits so well with that pre-teen and teenage view of the world, when we're becoming more aware of our desire for independence and also becoming quite clear about those larger powers—parents, teachers, authority figures—who wield a controlling influence over us. Lovecraft's stories often cosign that feeling about the world, and it can be very gratifying. That's not his only gift, of course, but I do think it's one of the reasons he digs into readers early.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Darkly: Black History and America's Gothic Soul by Leila Taylor and in honor of his recent death I'm rereading Peter Straub's Shadowland.

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

Keeping it to five is a tough request! But if I had to do it I'd name Shirley Jackson, Ishmael Reed, Gayl Jones, Stephen King and Clive Barker.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Peter and the Wolf. We had an illustrated version that made the wolf look truly terrifying. I asked my poor mother to read it to me every night for months!

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

My mom and grandma supported my reading habit completely, but they weren't big readers, outside of the Bible, so, in a way, I grew up with the profound privilege of being able to read anything and everything I liked.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Many! But to name one, I've never read Crime and Punishment. Nor have I read The Brothers Karamazov. When people bring them up, I just nod my head and keep my mouth shut.

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

In the 80s, Del put out a series of H. P. Lovecraft's stories with these beautifully horrifying covers by an artist named Michael Whelan. They were grotesque, and I loved them!

Is there a book that changed your life?

There are two, The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid, and Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

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

A repeat answer: The Autobiography of My Mother!

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

It by Stephen King.

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

I've loved the tv show Andor more than almost anything in a very long while.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

My wife and I like to travel with our kids. We don't get to do it as much as we'd like, but it's always a gift to take them out into the world, and let them see just how big and beautiful this place can be. So it would be spending a day in a different part of the world with my wife and kids.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

I wish someone would say, "Would you like to have ten million dollars deposited in your saving account?"
I would say, "Yes!"

What are you working on now?

I've just finished reading through/approving the very last edits of my new novel, Lone Women, which is coming out in March of 2023.

Book cover for The Ballad of Black Tom
The Ballad of Black Tom
LaValle, Victor