NOVEMBER 22, 2018
A NATIVE NEW YORKER, Victor LaValle has been publishing startling and incisive works that feature people of color since his 1999 debut short story collection, Slapboxing with Jesus. His books tackle mental illness, poverty, and parenthood in a variety of genres. LaValle’s most recent publications, the H. P. Lovecraft–inspired novella The Ballad of Black Tom and the American Book Award–winning novel The Changeling, are being developed for the small screen by AMC and FX respectively. In 2017, LaValle created a modern-day Frankenstein story for BOOM! Studios in the form of a graphic novel that has achieved critical and popular acclaim. His exploration of horror, starting with his 2012 novel, The Devil in Silver, pays homage to the genre that first inspired LaValle to write. Though his work has transitioned from the so-called literary to the realm of horror, it still remains lyrical and complex. There’s also been a marked tempo shift, a preference for the slow burn. And yet, perhaps because of his work in genre fiction, LaValle remains an underappreciated sculptor of compelling narratives. We spoke over Skype twice.
AYIZE JAMA-EVERETT: It’s funny. I’ve been writing for years, but I’m just now getting into what it’s like to do literary writing as opposed to genre writing.
VICTOR LAVALLE: What made you think about them as distinct things?
I think early on I just wanted to get published. But, then in trying to make a career out of this — which seems insane — I know literary authors tend to get better advances than most genre writers …
That’s funny because I’m coming at it from the literary side. We don’t know what the comparisons are. We used to talk about science fiction, mystery, thriller, and romance as the four genres that people read. One of our things — that we acknowledged as literary fiction writers — was that if we were really serious no one would ever read us. That was sort of the mantra, at least for some of us.
Your badge of honor.
Yes, that’s right, and also to make peace with it. You’re going out into the world knowing the thing you’re doing just ain’t going to give you a cushy life. We might joke that we’d sell books to our friends from workshop, but that was it. So some of us would talk about genre writing like, “If we could just figure out a plot that would have people wondering what came next instead of the beauty of the sentence, we’d really get paid.”
And so from our perspective, speaking again from basic anecdotal MFA experience, the narrative-focused writers, seemed to be the ones who have people reading them.
Walter Mosley talks about that. I’ve heard him say there are a lot of literary cats out there, but people read my work.
But then, what’s this whole literary fascination with ambiguity, which sometimes seems like it goes against the very nature of engagement with the reader?
I think that in almost every genre, including literary realism, you can detect a point of view. A writer’s point of view, and what that writer imagines the reader’s point of view will be. There’s a great deal being communicated about the writer’s expectations, and assumptions.
And so I do think, again speaking very broadly, that literary realism is largely the story of middle-class life. Some common life events occur, but others often do not. You’re talking about individual, life-changing events, like an illness or a divorce to name the top two clichés, but you’re not necessarily talking about war or life in the bottom 20 percent where the whole bottom could fall out of a society and you could all be drawn down into the whirlpool. There are instances of such things in literary fiction, of course, but they’re less likely. This becomes a signal about the writer’s point of view, and what that writer’s imagined reader will find relatable.
The joke about The New Yorker: without cancer, divorce, and the suburbs, The New Yorker would have nothing to publish.
I think that’s, like, 75 percent true. And then there’re the outliers like Karen Russell, who writes super weird fantastical stuff, and Zadie Smith sometimes publishes the occasional less fantastical piece. Chimamanda [Ngozi Adichie] and Edwidge [Danticat] are regulars in their pages, and they’ve got a different beat. So there’s an outlier wing of the magazine, but it’s about 20 percent.
I don’t have any position on this, but it feels like that construction is — you called it middle class, but I want to race it. In the United States, it feels very white. When I read literature from Africa, even from the Caribbean, the concerns are different, and as a result I feel like the stylistic approach is different. There is more of a call for something to happen. It doesn’t seem so interested in maintaining this mythical status quo.
I think that white and middle class would be the definite, clearest signifiers, broadly speaking, of that literary realist tradition in the United States. But in more recent years I’ve been making friends with folks in the horror genre. And horror, fantasy, science fiction, romance, every genre, really, is still pretty white and, often, middle class. It’s not a trait of literary fiction alone, that’s all I mean. That’s not to defend The New Yorker, but to indict everyone else too. Let’s make it a class action suit against the monolithic nature of whiteness in publishing.
You were being interviewed about your first book and you spoke about writing in resistance to misery porn. I believe it was one of your friends who told you, “But yeah, man, we have some good times, too.” Was that you?
I can’t claim that I was writing against misery porn back then. In fact, I leaned into it pretty hard. Misery literature as a particular-path-that-is-rewarded in fiction by “minority” writers is a problem I’ve become more aware of as time passes. I was doing it in my first book, but didn’t realize it.
My first book was a set of stories about growing up in Queens mostly, and it was just a litany of bad things happening to black and brown kids and their loved ones. Not every story turned toward the grim or the violent or the hopeless, but a hell of a lot of them did. And then it took an old friend, who I’d hooked up with on Facebook, pointing out those bad things were some of experience but that sure wasn’t all of it. Where was the happiness, the silliness, the dull-ass parts of being working-class folks in Queens? Those parts are just as valid as the misery, and they tend to paint a fuller picture of one’s life, so why didn’t you include them? He didn’t mean it as a smack in the face, but that’s how I felt. Because I knew he was right. And then I had to ask myself what, exactly, I’d been peddling. And why I’d been rewarded for it.
Where do you think that inclination came from? Was it fostered in your writing program or in publications?
I think many writers are, just by nature, pessimists. A lot of us are misanthropes and sad sacks. As a result, many of us come to believe that a story is only “serious” or “adult” if things don’t go well for people, and then continue to get worse, and then the story ends with some truncated moment of lyrical beauty. Now give me my literary prize. Melancholy is the natural inclination of so many writers, but that doesn’t mean it’s the “truth” of life. Not anymore than optimists who demand that life have meaning and ends happily. It’s all perception. Life itself has no inherent qualities.
Consciously or not, I took that on. I thought about my undergraduate program and I thought about which came first, the chicken or the egg. And I have to say that I can’t really blame my MFA. I showed up and said, I’ve got some rough stories for you. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and the movies that I saw that had people like me were Beat Street and Juice and Belly, you know, things like that.
I love Belly.
It’s an underground classic but the beauty of its imagery gets to give balance to the misery of the lives depicted. That’s the thing the written word can’t rely on. If there’s going to be beauty or joy or surprising tenderness, we actually have to write it into the text. But so many of us don’t.
And yet you’ve gone more toward horror.
I’ve definitely gone more toward horror, but that was embracing the thing that made me love writing as a child — it was horror, being scared. And in my own strange perspective, that is one way I’ve embraced joy. Being scared is a blast, at least for me. It makes me happy.
My first two books are literary realism. They have lots of weird wild stuff happening in them, but there’s nothing fantastic or capital-W Weird. But after I’d finished my second book — my first novel — I felt completely drained. I’d mined a great deal of personal material — all the bad stuff — and didn’t want to keep tapping that vein. So I had to bypass the instincts of the 27-year-old who wanted to be taken seriously and rediscover the 10-year-old who simply wanted to devour books. The one whose excitement held as much power as a nuclear reaction. And that child loved vampires and werewolves and ghosts and more. Writing was not making me rich, and it was not making me famous, so it should at least make me happy.
The nicest part is that the more I have embraced horror, the more I’ve embraced the joy that comes from horror, the more readers I’ve reached. That was counterintuitive, because I thought I’d be cutting my own throat. Instead that choice gave me new life.
One of the things people forget about horror is that it’s not just the fear — it’s people surviving the fear and coming out on the other side of it.
Yes. Often. Although there are some times when no one survives, when people don’t make it out and that can be bracing and powerful too. Like a rough massage. You shouldn’t do it to yourself all the time, but once in a while it feels perfect.
What were the early horror books that got you excited?
Clive Barker, the Books of Blood series, hit me at the right age and I fell hard. Also, he was one of the first people I encountered who actually wrote horror stories that took place in cities. Not exclusively, but it could be kind of tough to find that kind of thing back then. Stephen King was a gateway for sure and his study of the genre, Danse Macabre, helped me discover writers like Richard Matheson, among many others. Shirley Jackson was a foundational writer for me. I can’t overstate how much her stories and novels have meant to me. My mother bought me D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths as a kid, and it remains a favorite. The stories are great, of course, but the illustrations were even better. They border between horror and fantasy, and I couldn’t get enough.
What’s the role of myth in your stories? Does it provide structures? Do you find influences in your voice? Definitely with The Ballad of Black Tom there’s a sort of mythos, and even in Big Machine. In The Changeling, there’s an overarching myth that’s present but not fully articulated until about halfway through the story, and even then it’s not fully articulated because the person is just living through it.
The Changeling is where I made the most conscious use of fairy tale and myth. Previously, it was certainly there — Big Machine was the beginning of that. Actually, I don’t know if that’s true, because in a way even my first book of stories was me writing the myth about myself. I called them autobiographical at the time, but it’s not entirely true. After all, it’s a parade of pain and disappointment, and that’s not all my childhood consisted of. But there’s the temptation, especially when young, to make yourself seem serious by making yourself seem wretched. I fell victim to that.
As time has gone by, book to book, I’m writing a new creation myth for myself. Each book I’ve written has been, in a way, an attempt to figure out who I want to be now. I’m one person at the start of the book and, hopefully, another by the end. I don’t mean that I’m exactly like the character, but that on some essential level I’m mirrored by this person. I want to tell a story, but I also want to work some shit out for myself. Changeling is the most thoughtful about myth and fairy tale, but it was also me trying to write an honest version of myself, both the good and the bad, as father and husband and son, but writing toward that version of Apollo that I could essentially learn from by the end.
If I could write him succeeding at becoming a good husband, a good man, then maybe I could become one.
Do you find that to be a challenge for you?
Being good? Oh, sure. I’m selfish and vain. At times I’m short-tempered with everyone around me; often I’d prefer to be alone. But, I’ve got a wonderful wife, and two wonderful kids. I have friends and co-workers. I’m constantly navigating between my most selfish and vain self and that version of myself that’s selfless and giving.
And, is that how you see Apollo? As selfless and giving?
No. I see him trying, just trying. Early in the book he thinks he’s succeeding, but he’s deluded himself. He’s got a lot to learn. I hoped other people might identify with that.
It’s just a personal thing for me but for some reason, whenever I see a black father with his kids, it just fills me with this sense of joy. I didn’t grow up with my dad or anything, but when I see that scene I think, “Yeah. You know you’re doing something.” And for the kid, I’m thinking, “You don’t know what you’ve got. The longer that guy’s there, the happier you’re going to be overall.” There’s one scene in The Changeling, I think he’s in a basement, and he’s looking through records, and he has the baby on something …
On a little blanket.
Yes. And, I’m a crate digger. I collect comics and I used to collect vinyl and I’ve been to those swap meets. I’ve been to those yard sales where that dad comes through with the kid and there’s that divided attention: trolling through the garbage to try to find the gold and keeping an eye on the kid at the same time. And I feel like you did that tension so well. You had to have lived it at some point.
I still do. I take my son to the comic shop. We go semi-regularly to get my pull list and he comes with me. My daughter’s not quite old enough yet, but he comes with me and he walks the aisles. He walks the length of the new comics, and we have a deal that he can pick one, so he has to look at them, check out the covers, see what looks good to him. If you take it down, let’s look at it together so you don’t rip it. But at the same time I’m like, “Where’s the latest issue of B.P.R.D.? And what’s the new thing to get into? What’s this company do? What’s that company do?” So, that’s the kind of divide. I’m there with my son, but I’m also just a comic-head trolling for the goods.
But, to your point about dads. I also didn’t grow up with my dad, and have felt, and assume always will feel, a great deal of pressure to give my son and daughter what I never had. And what a gift that I get to do it. But if I do the job really well they’ll never know what I gave them. The sign that I did it well is that they’ll take it for granted. I lean close to them often and say, “I’ll tell you a secret.” And they roll their eyes and say, in a weary tone, “You love me.” It’s become annoying to them. But, they know. And how amazing is that?
Of course, I’m also benefiting from the fact that the bar for good father is so low.
Just show up and you’re good.
Yeah. The danger in being the dad who does those things is ego. It’s easy to think, “Has there ever been a man as good as me on this earth?” And, to make it worse, the world rewards me for doing the bare minimum. When they were really little I’d walk around with my kids, and people would come up to me and say, “God bless you.” And I’d think, “Yeah, God bless me. I deserve extra blessings from the Lord.”
Of course race impacts that as well. And I guess I wonder how your wife deals with that. Does she tell you to get over yourself, or that you can feel that for like 20 minutes and then move on?
A slight eyeroll now and then, but really she’s happy for me to receive praise for my parenting. Why not? She thinks I’m a good dad, too. But the nefarious side of all this is that being a “good dad” is easy, being a “good mother” is practically impossible. The par is ridiculously low for the former, impossibly high for the latter.
Constant, endless criticism, that’s motherhood. There was a piece in The New Yorker last week that my wife corroborated. Scientists did a study: if a woman goes to the doctor with her partner, her male partner, the doctor will take her complaints more seriously. This is a fact. And it’s awful. So, all of those discrepancies are baked into fatherhood and motherhood too. I think she’s just very tired a lot of the time, because she gets extra layers of criticism. But, it’s not necessarily tension between us.
How do you avoid that, given that writers tend to be the worst people to be married to?
I’d guess that marriage can be difficult no matter who you’re married to. It’s just the reality of making compromises with another person. There are so many benefits to it as well though.
She does nonfiction?
She writes fiction and nonfiction. Her last book was nonfiction, but her first book was fiction, a novel, and her next one will be a novel as well. So, the downsides of us both being writers are that we are both moody at times, solitude can be vital to both of us, and we take our projects seriously. But, here’s the nice side: today she and I had lunch before splitting up to do work for the day, and we talked each other through our writing projects. That’s the side of two writers being married that isn’t always talked about. There is a degree of intellectual and artistic back and forth that’s very nurturing. I’d never want to give that up.
So, you’re nurturing not only your children, but also your ideas together?
Yes. And, having writer friends who are not married to writers is see the other side: the great part is that the non-writer spouse bring something else into the life, into the family, some other interests that aren’t just writing and books. But, the downside can be that they don’t understand what it is to be a writer, and they don’t have a particular care about stories or storytelling, and that can be maddening.
Do you believe that? That there are people who don’t care about stories?
Definitely, in the technical sense, taking stories apart. If they’re watching a show or reading a book, they don’t want to say, “How could that have been better?” or “This is the moment it all paid off.” As far as they’re concerned, look, that thing is just a show. Why are you taking it apart? Why are you overthinking it?
It’s done already.
Yeah. It’s just a stupid show. And that would be maddening to me. Even the stupid stuff has been thought through, planned out, and if it’s working on you there’s a reason. McDonald’s thinks quite a bit about how to make you keep eating their french fries.
Do you think that writing can be taught?
Yes. For example, Ernest Hemingway didn’t go to college. A high school graduate, super well read, but with no writing classes, obviously. But, he was a journalist for years, and he worked under an editor. And that editor pared down the prose, simplified, helped him learn how to communicate his ideas in a way that was better than the original. Essentially, that’s just what a writing class is meant to do. He also sat at the feet of Gertrude Stein, who instructed him as well. They were in her home, but that was a place of instruction. So, to me, writing has been taught forever. Whether working as a journalist or reading the slush pile at an agency or a magazine, that’s all a form of learning writing. Friends who have done that, after they’ve been reading for a month or two, they say that they see the mistakes that people make. They see how people do this, or this, or this, and they say, “I’m not going to do that.”
Seeing what doesn’t work.
Seeing what doesn’t work and seeing how many people do the same things. And so you think to yourself, “Okay. How am I going to make myself stand out? What’s my angle?” I consider all of those things aspects of teaching writing. What can’t be taught, I think, is personality, a point of view. Teaching writing, as I see it, is no different from teaching painting or teaching sculpture or music. In all those other arts people know you have to take lessons, or if you’re self-taught you have to practice a hell of a lot before you get good. But somehow people think that writing is meant to just come to you. It doesn’t. One way or the other, you’re going to have to apprentice to someone and learn.
But, make that choice.
Make a choice. Gertrude Stein at her most experimental isn’t just sitting down and writing any word that pops into her head. There’s always a method to it, a structure, some deeper idea. Teaching writing to me means helping the person learn the skills, the craft, that will allow some personality, some point of view, to be communicated.
Let me ask you about that other side of communication. When you write, I always think you’re writing to me personally, and I appreciate it. I grew up in Harlem; I was born in 1974.
Ah, yes. So, if we weren’t friends then, we could have been.
We could have been. So, when you write, do you have an ideal reader in mind, or do you write for yourself?
I have this trick. Every single book, I pick a specific person that I’m writing the book for. It’s not someone I’m extremely close to and it’s not a stranger. If they’re too close, then we have a private language, shorthand, that will keep another person out of the story. If it’s a stranger, then I won’t sound like myself because we share no intimacy. So, I pick a person who I’m medium-range intimate with, someone I went to college with that I don’t see anymore, but we’re still in touch on Facebook. A kid I grew up with, someone like that. And I specifically say, “This book is for Aki. This book is for Cameron. This book is for Genene.” When I sit down to write, I am thinking of that person. So, there’s a way that I’m making jokes that sound like jokes I would tell to him or her. I’m describing things that would make sense to that friend. I’m using slang or not using slang that would talk to them. If I’ve done a good enough job, then my hope is anyone who picks up the book will, essentially, be sitting in my friend’s chair and that reader will feel like a friend, too.
I came up with this method as a way for me to get around a problem I was having early on: how to sound like a “real” writer. Well, what does a “real” writer mean? Does it mean high lyricism? Does it mean Shirley Jackson? Stephen King? Octavia Butler? The risk is that I’ll only be imitating one of those people and I’ll never sound as good as they do. So, this method of telling the story to a friend was a way to trick me out of my own insecurity, vanity, and hero worship.
And to find your own voice, it sounds like.
And to sound like me.
I heard that. Before I knew who you were, I was like, “This dude’s from New York.” I just knew it. “That’s a New York cat. I don’t care what anybody says. That’s a total New York cat.”
New York for sure.
I can hear this continuity in voice, even in books as different as The Ballad of Black Tom and The Changeling. You’re very assured. You have so much authority — you take these huge chunks of time to set up the plot, but it’s not time that’s wasted. It’s time getting to know your main characters intimately, and I think you can only do that if you have total assurance in what you’re doing.
Well, I’m very happy if it sounds that way in its final iteration. But it takes time to have the confidence to take your time. My earlier books didn’t have that kind of assurance. Instead, they lead with bluster and try to swagger through till the end. I’m very proud of them, but they are definitely snapshots of a young writer. Back then, I had this idea that every sentence had to be a killer.
I still have that idea.
Nowadays, my idea of what’s a killer sentence has changed. I used to think it has to be like a punch in the face. First sentence kinda thing. The first sentence in a story in my first book, this story called “Slave” that’s about a child prostitute — the first sentence is “Rob eats pussy like a champ.” And I was like, “Yeah! That’s what I’ve got to do!”
I’m still proud of the story; the story goes in interesting directions, but then, nowadays when I see a thing like that, my first thought is, “Come on. What are you trying to prove?” That’s why it’s good that I wrote that story then, because I couldn’t write it now.
It would have to come out a different way. I don’t have to do that now. I can say, “Hey. You wanna hear this thing? It’s interesting, but if you want to hear it I’m going to have to go back to like 1862 for just a little while to tell you these things, but I promise you it’s going to mean something to the story I gotta tell you.” That’s a different kinda energy. What’s your rush? We’ve got all night. If I do my job right, you won’t want to get away.
I think because you have such a mastery of craft, even that, “Hey, let me tell you this story,” even that’s such a convention that’s used very well, but it’s the confidence with which you present that, it’s the same confidence as “Robby eats pussy like a champ.” It doesn’t have to be so, I don’t want to say vulgar, but it doesn’t have to be so …
Vulgar. I think that’s right. I mean, I didn’t write that line because I wanted to be demure.
The content doesn’t have to be so arresting, because you have a greater control of the form. And I was thinking about Alfred Bester. Have you ever read his stuff?
I know his name, but I haven’t read his stuff.
He’s pretty cool. He says the book is the boss, and you’ve got to let the book go where it wants to go, and you just follow along with it.
The book is the boss. I like that.
Do you agree with that?
I would say that, at a certain point, the book is the boss. I don’t know his method of writing and I don’t know yours either. My old way of doing it is that I would just have an opening line, or an opening scene, and I would just write that scene and I would go from there. Go, go, go, go, go. And I would just write everything, everything, everything that came out. And then, at some point, a hundred pages, three hundred pages, whatever it was, I ran out of steam. Then I’d figure the book was done. But that’s not a book, that’s just a bunch of pages. For me, it takes two or three drafts before a real spine, a real idea, a real character became solid. “Okay, this is the territory…”
That you’re going to map out.
Yeah. And, where I feel the spark of energy and where I feel like I want to explore. And then that shapes the book. So, I would say that the book is eventually the boss, but it first it has to be a book.
And not just a catalog of ideas. I’d like to go back to race for a second if that’s okay.
So, there used to be this idea that white people don’t read books by black people. Black women don’t read books by black men. Black men don’t read.
Yes. These were the assumptions. Probably still are in certain circles.
None of that has ever seemed to impact your career or at least the stories that you tell. You tell stories from lots of different vantage points, and I wonder if that has ever impacted you. Anyone editing your stories is like, “This doesn’t seem like a black guy story”? Do you get any of that?
Well, I will say two things. We have a storage closet where I keep all of my old papers because our apartment’s not big enough to keep it all here.
You’re in New York.
It’s New York. And I found, just yesterday, I was looking around at all of the old rejection letters for Slapboxing. My agent sent it around the first time to eight or 10 editors. All of them rejected it, and what was interesting to look at now is that some of them were like, “This isn’t for me,” and with some distance now I respect that because I can appreciate someone who will say, “I’m not even saying that these are bad, I know I’m not the reader for this.”
And then there were the folks who were like, “He’s clearly a talented writer, but these stories seem plotless, aimless, and there’s just a lot of atmosphere and place.” And I don’t think that’s wrong, but aren’t you publishing lots of MFA fiction? I’ve seen your list, that’s why we sent the book to you. Lack of plot is what you’re giving me shit for? But then, one of those eight rejections basically said, “These are powerful stories, but they are essentially not as gritty, not as grim as Push, so I can’t buy it.” At the time that the book Push came out by Sapphire.
I’ve met Sapphire, did an event with her many years back, and she’s wonderful. I mean from top to bottom, she’s an excellent person and a writer I respect. A wonderful mind. So, this is not about her.
But it was the first time that I had felt that thing from the establishment, the “machine.” The idea that there was a “black” story and it could be clearly delineated and, for this editor, it was Push. Now the messed-up part is that if I lacked perspective I might’ve turned my anger toward Sapphire instead of that editor. But I’d taken a few Africana courses as an undergrad and had my coat properly pulled. Sapphire’s success has nothing to do with my rejection except in the mind of this person who rejected my book. And yet, that person’s perspective wasn’t simply a “difference of opinion.” It had real-world effects. Namely, that I didn’t get my stories out in the world, and I didn’t make a little money to help me live as a writer. If enough editors think that way then, effectively, there is only one kind of black story. And if a few years, or decades, reinforce this perspective, then how many other black stories have been silenced or overlooked?
The editor who finally bought my collection was a white woman who was super smart, astute, and thankfully did not have those hang-ups. Her thing was all about, “We need to make a sense of structure, some sort of feeling of movement even if there’s not a plot.” And so that helped me, number one, to see that here was this white woman who was willing to take the stories as they were, treat them seriously, not demand that I make them “blacker” or more “miserable” or more redemptive or ask, “Where’s the good white person?” She didn’t ask for any of that, and that was a great gift. She published that book and started my career, and I’ve remained eternally grateful.
Then the second great luck of my career happened. I met Chris Jackson. He’s been my editor since my second book — my first novel. He’s a black man who grew up in Harlem, worked as an editor at a religious textbook publisher and is now vice president and executive editor of his own imprint at Random House. My man is a force.
But he’s also someone who is familiar with my voice, my context, my history, in a global sense. There were so many things in my books that might’ve been flagged as confusing or unbelievable or not relatable by a different editor. But Chris is quite familiar with the complexity of black life, of all life, and that’s exactly what he encourages in his writers. So when I gave him my novel, Big Machine, he was like, “This is kind of Ishmael Reed and Gayle Jones.” And I’m like, “Exactly. That’s exactly what it is. Plus, the X-Men.”
Right. There’s some people for whom the critiques are sometimes not about the work, they’re about not knowing the lineage in which a person is writing. And that’s their critique. It’s not about the work.
Yes. It’s just them saying, “I don’t know enough about this.” But, the hard part is that they don’t realize that’s what they’re saying. There’s always the argument about representation, about diversity in who’s published. But what matters just as much is who is at those editorial desk. Who gets it through their transom and says, “I recognize this. I grew up in Alaska. I understand native culture there. I see how this fantasy novel is actually talking about native life in Alaska. And, I see how to make this thing better within that understanding.”
But, if you don’t have that person on the editorial side, on the publishing side, it becomes a tougher sell. Even the most well-meaning person can’t understand every canon, can’t understand every experience. And they shouldn’t have to. But if there’s a greater variety of experiences at the publishing house, there’s at least a chance that book will find a person who can understand it.
Did you read The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.? Really great book by a Persian-American novelist, Gina Nahai, and it’s the history of a curse on an Iranian Jewish family from pre-Shah times to modern-day L.A. And it’s such a Persian tale. You know the history of every character; every character gets a full history, and it comes back, a hundred pages later through their child or grandchild. It’s not structured like an American novel. And because of that — not just because of that, because of great writing, it’s a brilliant book — I’m thinking more and more about how the writer is one part, but it’s also the community around the writer that supports the book.
Changing gears. Why did you choose comics, why did you choose an updated version of Frankenstein?
The first independent reading that I did was comics from the spinner rack at the candy store. In a way, I’ve been spending my whole life trying to get back to them. I had to write novels in order to get to write comics. I never read Frankenstein when I was younger. I just read pieces of it here or there, and I watched movies and I read tons of comics that were inspired by it.
But in 2014 or so my wife, the writer Emily Raboteau, taught a course on the literature of birth. She included Frankenstein in that syllabus. One night she said, “You think you know the book, but you don’t. You should read the whole thing.” So I read it, truly read it this time, and she was right. It was weirder, and more boring, than I remembered. It was clearly such a work of genius that I came away feeling energized, inspired. The iterations of Frankenstein that have existed follow some paths that make sense and have been wonderful in various ways, but I thought I could see a new way to play with the material.
On top of everything else, Frankenstein is definitely a political work by a young woman who had been raised by an incredibly political mother. This was not a person who wrote something fantastical because it seemed like simple fun. She meant to talk seriously about the world she lived in, the times. I wanted to do the same.
Why did you choose BOOM! Studios instead of trying to do something with Marvel or DC?
I like BOOM!. I like the stuff that they do. They did a fun version of the Santa Claus story with Grant Morrison and Dan Mora. It’s called, simply, Klaus. I like the work they’ve done with creators like Delilah S. Dawson and Cullen Bunn. They’ve done a great comic with Saladin Ahmed called Abbott. That last one came out after my comic, Destroyer, but I mean to say I liked their sensibilities. Also, I wanted to own this idea and this property, and with Marvel and DC, you don’t have that option.
That makes sense. Just tangentially. One of the things that I find fascinating with Frankenstein is that she wrote it while she was taking care of her infant son who would later die.
God, yes. She found him in the crib.
Yes, and it adds this extra layer of tragedy to the whole narrative. This woman writing a story about this man creating a child by putting together the pieces of the dead while her own child has died. It kills me.
And her mother died giving birth to her.
So, she was definitely a person who was acquainted with death and also the desire to cross the boundary between the living and the dead. She might’ve been young, but she’d already been through more than many experience in a lifetime.
What comic books are you reading now that get you hyped, that you want to tell your students, “Ah. You gotta check this out.”
I’ve been enjoying a lot of independent comics these last few years: Manifest Destiny, Southern Bastards, Infidel, and The Wilds. Evan Narcisse’s recent run on Black Panther. My boy Mat Johson’s Incognegro. Paper Girls by Brian Vaughan. I enjoy Tom King on Batman. There’s Warren Ellis’s Injection that I think is amazing. I like Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet. Gabby Rivera had a fun run with America — I wish it hadn’t ended. And Shade, the Changing Girl.
What are the differences in writing a novel, writing a novella, and writing a comic?
You can write comics where people just talk and talk and talk and talk and you can write so that every panel is just talking. But as someone who reads comics, frankly, I hate when I open one and see 40 panels of dialogue bubbles. I put those down, because I feel that’s a writer who doesn’t understand that the words aren’t as important as the image. I’m a prose writer, I live and die by the word, but images are simply the most important part of a comic book. You read Alan Moore’s scripts From Hell and you see how much description goes into what should be in the panel.
Oh my God. It’s insane.
It’s insane, but it’s worth pointing out that the amount of dialogue doesn’t match the amount of description in the script. He goes on so long so the artist knows what to put inside the panel, but the characters themselves don’t need to be as long-winded.
I feel this is related to the critique of literary fiction versus genre. There has to be some impetus in genre to keep the plot going. You can’t really have two people sitting at a cafe talking about whether or not to have an abortion, you know, as you could with somebody like Hemingway.
That’s probably true, but I would also point out that in Lord of the Rings no one ever shuts up. They talk and talk and talk and sing and so on, and no one is doing a damn thing. I’m looking at you fucking Tom Bombadil.
That said, rather than thinking of plot or action, think of visual storytelling instead. Paying attention to what people are doing, where they’re located, this kind of thing is vital to any good story. It sounds simple, and it is. So simple that most writers, in any genre, forget to pay attention to it. But those things aren’t simply about moving characters around, but about communicating something essential about each character through the actions they take. Salinger, to use a very old example, could do more with two characters smoking cigarettes than most of us do with a whole novel’s worth of story.
So then there’s a lot of crossover, there’s a lot of similarity with visual storytelling.
There’s no difference, if you look at it schematically. Really good literature, really good genre fiction, whatever you want to call these things, they might use different story elements, but the actual structure, the craft, is all the same.
Do you think that’s the common understanding of storytelling, or do you think you’re unique in that approach?
I wouldn’t say unique, but I don’t think that’s the common take. I’m thinking about the literary/genre divide here. There are a lot of people who only read one thing or another. They are well read within the genre they prefer — historical fiction, literary realism, zombie novels, but they’ve got very little experience outside of that narrow vein. And yet, almost all of us hold strong opinions about genre that we have hardly encountered at all. We swear we know what’s good or bad, when really we only know what we’re used to.
Did you ever read Hellblazer? There’s a Garth Ennis issue where it’s just classic, beautiful, literary horror, where he doesn’t show it, but there’s this constant threat of a priest who is a weirdo. And then, off panel, he says, “And then the priest took out two pencils and shoved them in his eyeballs and headbutted the pew in front of him.” And I threw the comic away because, it literally shocked me, disturbed me. And it’s one of those things with comics; you can only do these things with comics. All the visual horror earlier of this priest set you up to see this guy do something horrific. And then to not see it made it even worse.
Right. It is maybe a cliché of the genre but it’s usually better to keep the worst horrors just outside the panel, just off screen.
How do you start a project?
I used to start with a great first sentence. If it sounded like a gunshot going off, felt like a slap in the reader’s face, then I knew I was ready to begin something.
These days I see that tendency as a sign of my ambition but also my insecurity. I wanted to show my swagger right from the first words. But I was also deathly afraid that you wouldn’t keep reading unless I made a lot of noise. That can be effective when you’re 27, but when you’re 46 it’s just … kind of sad. You can’t be a bad boy of literature once you hit middle age.
So these days my process is less about having the killer opener, and more about creating a story that will, in its entirety, affect the reader deeply. I use a book called The Anatomy of Story by John Truby as a reliable way to think about the many different aspects of a story I need to know and understand before I write. I work faster and smarter these days. My younger self would be impressed.
Who’s your team? Who looks at your work before it’s polished or before it’s done?
It’s my wife, Emily Raboteau. Then my best friend, Mat Johnson, my agents (Gloria Loomis and Julia Masnik), and then my editor (Chris Jackson). Those five people. I don’t tend to show it to any of them until I think it’s done. Like I mean, it’s ready to be published. And then I brace myself because it is never ready to be published. It’s only as good as I could make it on my own. That’s why I need, and cherish, every single one of them. They make my books better than I could have done on my own.
I find it very interesting when authors know their stories are not working. And I guess I wonder if you have a metric, or if it’s other people’s reads on it, your team’s reads.
There are plenty of times when it’s obvious to me that a scene, or a chapter, or a character, isn’t working. By that I mean they’re unconvincing. It doesn’t matter if we’re on Mars or in Montana, I simply don’t believe these characters in their actions, thoughts, or dialogue. That’s the easiest to deal with, in a way, because if I can see it’s false then I know other readers will, too.
The harder part is when my readers can see the problems, but I can’t. Of course, in the end, the book is mine and I have to feel right about all the choices within it. But if readers I trust are telling me there’s a problem, then I’ve learned to listen to the critique rather than always taking their solutions. They’re telling me they’ve sensed a weak spot, but their ideas of how to fix it seem off to me. When I was younger, I might assume this meant I should just keep it the way I originally had it. Better my own flawed choices than someone else’s incorrect solutions. But now I see that they’re telling something true — this part isn’t working — and it’s not their responsibility to also tell me how to repair the issue. I go off with the pages for a while and usually, with a few days of thinking, some third option will come to me. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s usually better than what I had originally.
You said Chris Jackson has been your editor for a while, now.
Five out of seven of my books.
How did you establish that relationship?
He was the only person who wanted my second book. The rest of the world said, “Meh.” Part of this goes back to our conversation about the importance of having people on both sides of the desk, people who understand you on both sides of the desk. Chris Jackson is a black male editor. There aren’t too many of those, not in big or small publishing.
So when he read the manuscript, he saw the story of a black weirdo, a black weirdo kid who is just breaking down and falling apart. And he said, “I’ve been a black weirdo kid. I can do something with this.” And my gift and curse was that most of the people who the book went to had never been a black weird kid, and had never even known a black weird kid. And so they couldn’t empathize with in a way that, say, generations of white women can understand, and mytholgize, say, Sylvia Plath, just to be specific …
They can understand the dilemma that Plath’s in and when they find books that in some way echo that experience, they go, “Oh. It’s just like The Bell Jar. That was so formative to me. I want to publish this so that it will be formative to other young women like me.” And thank god for that. That kind of continuity is vital. But if the only people in your office identify primarily with The Bell Jar, then what are you going to be publish? Lucky for me, Chris gets it.
And he’s at Little, Brown now, right?
No. So, he started his own imprint under Random House. One World. He’s had a really good run. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, Eddie Huang. Go to the One World website, it’s a squad.
You’ve come up as Afrofuturism has been gaining steam. And yet, I don’t hear your voice in that conversation, and I wonder how you feel about that. Is that your experience, do you know why it is?
I think it hasn’t come up terribly much because I don’t write Afrofuturism. I write horror. Afro-horror, is that a thing? Because I’d gladly join that crew. I just never read sci-fi or fantasy as a kid. I found sci-fi too optimistic and fantasy too, capital-R Romantic.
Sci-fi, to speak way too broadly maybe, presumes that human beings will live on into the future and do things. Good or bad, humans are usually there. I’m skeptical that we will be and always have been. And fantasy seems to find a misty, storied past to be worth living in. But whenever I read books that are set in a quasi-European or North American past, I know exactly how people like me would be living. We’d be fucking orcs, if we were in the books at all. So fuck that, and fuck them. Though I admit I have been dipping into fantasy much more in recent years as folks like Maurice Broaddus and N. K. Jemisin and so many others are making their presence felt. Like, I can’t wait to unwrap Marlon James’s new novel, too. An African Lord of the Rings? Yes, please.
Can I push back just a little bit? I do think Afrofuturism is a weird umbrella term that isn’t accurate; Tananarive Due is a total Afrofuturist, but all of her stuff is horror. And none of it is all that positive. And Octavia Butler: all of her projections into the future around black people generally tend to be linked in some shape or form with a new form of slavery. There’s a biological form of slavery, or a psychic form of slavery, and the polemic is, “How much are the people participating in their own slavery and how much are the struggling to get out of it?” You know what I mean?
So for me, Afrofuturism has very little to do with sci-fi. It’s not spaceships and faster-than-light drive, but the same themes that we’re dealing with in the present day, in the past, projected into the future. And that’s why I was putting you into that box a little bit because I see you in that.
Well then I’d love to be included, if that’s the definition. For a number of years now I have been saying that I write horror, and I still embrace the term. I feel purposeful in saying this. As a result, if there is any crew of black writers who I find myself blending with they’re usually black horror folks. Tananarive Due is absolutely one them. Also, Chesya Burke, Wrath James White, Linda Addison, who has been great for a long time. But maybe none of us all fall into one category alone. It’s almost like, whoever’s making the list determines who’s Afrofuturist, who’s black horror, who’s black sci-fi, and so on.
I also wonder how useful those lists are.
The best use of those lists is if they can introduce readers to someone new. You love Octavia Butler? How about Nnedi Okorafor? Or you might try Justina Ireland. Tade Thompson. The danger is just for anyone to think, “I’ve written the definitive list.” Without fail, people will be making lists of their interesting but still limited reading.
Right. Which is a problem that we all have.
So. It would be better to choose 10 great Afrofuturists knowing that if you’re just sticking to 10, you’ve already made this list way too small. But there’s no pretense of being complete, or definitive. There are always more great books, great writers. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Right. Just say that and that’d be fine.
Even at this point I’d say you’re not allowed to say Octavia Butler. She’s elevated to a form where she’s just taken for granted. You’ve read her, so now what? Just like with black essayists. You can’t keep saying Baldwin …
Ayize Jama-Everett is the author of the novels The Liminal People, The Liminal War, and The Entropy of Bones, and of the graphic novel Box of Bones. Originally from New York, he now calls the Bay Area his home.