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Unanswered Questions

Victor LaValle interviewed by Jack Boulter.

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The main question that never got put to cult US novelist Victor LaValle on the night we met ran like this: a friend from Washington DC heard that the author of Big Machine was living in Amsterdam for a few months as Writer-in-Residence of the Dutch Foundation for Literature, and that I would get to meet and talk with him.

“Wow,” he exclaimed. He’d read LaValle’s latest novel, a feted literary fantasy that crossbreeds hard-boiled noir with supernatural thriller; its publication by No Exit Press marks LaValle’s UK and European debut. “Not everyone gets to talk to one of our iconic authors,” he’d said. “Get me a photo.”

So the idea was to ask Victor LaValle what it felt like to be described as an iconic author, still in your thirties and after three critically acclaimed books.

One reason the question went unasked is that LaValle had already spent much time in the interview analysing his acclaim, his ambition. Unknown to Britain and Europe, LaValle has become one of the USA’s most lauded younger authors. The critical response to Big Machine was staggering and it’s possible to lose count of the number of awards heaped on both novel and novelist; LaValle freely admits to loving it.

“There was one big award that in my heart of hearts I hoped I would win,” he says, although on the grounds of the issue being “too silly” he declines to name it. “And I wasn’t even a finalist. I got home and my wife said, ‘I have absolutely no sympathy for you. What do you want them to do? Blow you?’ And I thought, ‘Yes I do.’”

His wife is fellow New Yorker, burgeoning novelist and literature professor Emily Raboteau. LaValle claims that she, his agent and editor all know him as “a bottomless pit of ego.”

He doesn’t come across that way at all. He is polite and funny, athletic-looking and dapper; he checks if you’re alright and asks questions about you. We settle in an Amsterdam bar to talk; to my relief he eschews the squeamish attitude to alcohol typical of many Americans in Europe and orders large beers. His fondness for praise comes across as honest and rooted mostly in the love that a growing writer has for writing, and for having the chance to pursue his passion. Buzzing with ideas for his coming novels and scripts, LaValle gives off a big-dreaming determination that stems not from popularity but from living through some hard times and coming out again. It’s infectious.

Victor LaValle was born in New York in 1972. He grew up in the Flushing neighbourhood of Queens and studied English at Cornell University. As a young teenager he wanted to be a horror writer. After some troubled years his first book of short stories, Slap Boxing With Jesus, was published in 1999. His first novel The Ecstatic came out three years later. Both books plough themes that LaValle has taken ownership of very quickly: mental illness, outsiders struggling to belong, American fears and manic families – the latter topic causing some disturbance after The Ecstatic‘s publication. LaValle’s mother was mortified at her families’ depiction in what was avowedly an autobiographical novel. He says he’ll be kinder next time he writes about her, but confesses to still drawing on the lives of loved ones in his work. “It’s parasitical, but I’ve made peace with being a parasite.”

These days LaValle is Assistant Professor at Columbia University. After a hiatus caused partly by the “great time” he had writing it, 2009 saw Big Machine published to a near tsunami of media praise. It earned the Shirley Jackson and American Book Awards and won yearly fiction prizes in the Chicago Tribune, LA Times and Washington Post, among others.

LaValle threw off the autobiographical shackles with Big Machine. The novel sees aimless mid-life dope addict Ricky Rice plucked from his cleaning job by the summons of a cryptic personal note and its enclosed bus ticket. Using it, Rice takes his place in a gathering of chosen ‘scholars’ at a secluded New England library. Drugs and crime hang over the pasts of those assembled; their enigmatic tutors tell them to redeem themselves by devotedly studying the nation’s press for reports of supernatural phenomena.

Rice is a wise and weary noir narrator and does a mean trade in one-line wit and axiom. A back story reveals his upbringing in a suicidal religious cult; at the library he appears to have joined another cult with some contentious beliefs of its own. Rice is dispatched to California to assassinate a heretical ex-scholar who is splitting the belief-system. Rice is accompanied on his mission by the austere and unimpressed Adele – one of LaValle’s many unaffectedly powerful female characters. As Rice and Adele grapple with the terrorist threat caused by their schismatic foe, they learn that supernatural intervention is most definitely not limited to newspaper reports. On the way to an explosive but oblique climax, Rice is impregnated by Swamp Angels, falls in love with ex-prostitute Adele, and reveals how his soul was once nearly eaten by ghostly cats in a drug baron’s basement.

An attempt to re-invigorate literary fiction and play with beloved genres, Big Machine is widely interpreted as an allegory of organised religion and its madness, arbitrariness and arguments. But the novel is also ambiguous and heavy on unanswered questions; its hypnotic atmosphere and dream logic at times recall the movies of David Lynch and Michael Haneke.

“I’m particularly drawn to stories that don’t have logical conclusions,” LaValle says of the book’s mysteries. His special love of the horror genre comes into play here. “I’m always looking for the monster. Not even just in horror. I want them in everything. Just give me the monsters. Logical conclusions don’t satisfy. Monsters satisfy, absolutely. But even most horror endings suck because they try to explain everything. Even great things like Edgar Allan Poe and Algernon Blackwood. You know, ‘Oh, so that’s it – something strange came out of the swamp because some people are trying to dig up coins at night.’ I agree with giving people endings but not conclusions. An ending is a wrap up. It’s considerate to the reader. My favourite books and movies, the best works of art, they all gave something to me. They didn’t just take something. So these days, yes, absolutely I care about the reader. But I don’t want to conclude anything. There’ll even be a sequel to Big Machine.”

What’s his favourite monster?

“The werewolf. It’s like the shortest straw, the one that’s easiest to be silly. Human beings like wolves? Come on, please. But these figures are so deep in human consciousness. The basic monster types – werewolves, vampires, zombies – they show up in every culture. They always show up, think about that. These things have been working away in our consciousness for thousands of years, why should we decide it’s OK to discard them now?”

LaValle set out to mix genres in Big Machine. He loves genre because “it works hard”, whether noir, horror, Jason Statham movies or even the romances he sometimes reads. “Noir is one of the broadest genres for a writer,” he says. “A story’s solution is rarely the point of noir. Noir is more about the atmosphere you inhabit, the perspective you get on existence, on relationships.”

And what does he find disagreeable about ‘straight’ literary fiction?

“Very little actually happens. The literary idea that a book can have few events and just follow the internal development of a character is a perfectly valid reason for a book to exist, but then that type of literary fiction is a genre like any other.”

To expand his consideration of genre LaValle draws on the classic literature he teaches at Columbia.

“People forget that in so-called canonical literature there is no self-consciousness about wild plots. Melville, Jane Austen…we would mock the events of these books if we saw them in a contemporary movie. You know, ‘I saw that coming a mile away,’ and so on. But I thought, if this canonical literature can be beyond reproach for these unlikely events, maybe I can try that approach today…people think that all of our modern techniques, the action, the jump cuts, the switch of perspective, they think we just invented all that. No. Check your history. It was always there. These tricks are old, they’ve just been buried by a hundred years of modernist amnesia.”


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Heavy on praise, Big Machine‘s American reviews were also weighty on comparison. This was another question I never got to ask LaValle – the origins of his distinctive writing style. The beer and the evening came and went too fast.

Poe, Murakami, Ralph Ellison and Thomas Pynchon are the names most often cited in critics’ favourable analogies. For a writer so often compared to the same clump of other writers, the most striking thing about LaValle’s books is that not only do they not read like those authors, they don’t read like anyone; alternately staccato and poetic, his prose has an accent and rhythm all its own, even in its most genre-referencing moments. It’s also sprinkled with hip-hop lyrics, heavy metal lyrics, lines from horror movies.

Does he mind being compared to other writers?

“Not at all, if they’re any good,” he grins.

When asked if a review has ever annoyed him, the conversation takes on a distinctly New York tone. You can take the man out of Queens but you can’t take Queens out of the man.

“There was this one reviewer, he was writing about my early books and he said something like, ‘This is literature played through a boom box.’ And for various reasons, that got to me. So I ran into a friend and mentioned it and my man, who does ju-jitsu and all that, said, ‘Well, let’s wait on the stairs of this critic’s building when he goes home and take him out.’ And we really talked about that, like let’s just waste this guy, but I thought about it and it had to be me doing the fighting, not my man. So it didn’t happen. One reason Ricky Rice is such a coward is that I am also very cowardly and trying to preserve my own ass all the time.”

We agree that more martial arts in literary criticism would be a good thing. But LaValle’s admission of cowardice will surprise readers of his early books, particularly the stories of Slap Boxing With Jesus. These tales of young sex and hassle, including the unforgettable privations of a male prostitute and a sequence of stories devoted to LaValle’s own schooldays, are full of the hardness, numbing violence and peer-group trouble that can accompany life in the big city. LaValle talks a lot about his childhood friends, about who was tough and who wasn’t. How does he describe his place in the playground hierarchies of 1980s New York?

“I wasn’t the tough one but I was the one who’d usually do the very disturbing thing…lie in the road during traffic and just see what happened, or whatever. Fuck around in the street, drink more than my friends. Even then I knew I was being the crazy one because I wasn’t the tough one. Calculated madness. That was my role. And after a while it stopped being a role that I’d chosen and just became true. I never wanted to be some lump just sitting there unnoticed.”

The Ecstatic in particular recalls the familial mental illness that blighted LaValle’s teens and early twenties. Although he cites hereditary mental illness as his own ‘creation myth’, these days he seems controlled and positive; he exudes the solidness of the veteran. We don’t discuss actual diagnoses. He doesn’t offer the information and I don’t request it. Instead I ask how his mental health problems manifested in his youth.

“Obesity. Eating myself from a normal sized man to a three hundred pound man. Eating and staying home. I hid away for years, didn’t go anywhere, didn’t travel.”

He made it through college, somehow, but not to any great advantage.

“I drifted through college like I wasn’t really there. And I graduated and felt like I’d fucked up because I was about to become everything I hate. I was about to become a high school English teacher who hates teenagers, who hates his job…then I ran into a friend who ran a writing program. He asked to see some of the stories I’d written. He looked and said, ‘These are terrible, but there’s something to work on.’”

Having stalled self-destruction LaValle applied himself to becoming a writer and became one. These days he’s enthusiastic and driven, presumably a good teacher. He eagerly writes down the name of an eighteenth century gothic novel when informed that it mixes genres; he loves reading but also is “teaching myself constantly, looking to expand my arsenal of tricks.” He asserts that determination is more important than talent in any field, although on occasion he’s been blown away by his students’ writing. “But there are those who are brilliant and stop writing, and those who are not brilliant and are flawed and clichéd but who stick with it and keep writing. And those who aren’t brilliant but who stick with it can be the ones who end up with a career and publishing books, great books sometimes.”

LaValle was miserable when he wrote his first two books. “I thought being a writer meant you were supposed to be unhappy. Writers are an obsessive, self-pitying lot.” But he’s benefited from the changes of physical health, marriage and impending parenthood. “Now I just wanna be with my wife, be happy and raise some kids. And I loved writing Big Machine. And since everything that has happened around that book is better, exponentially better, it’s like, let’s stick with this happiness thing.”

He talks about his wife often. City College professor Raboteau’s writing attracts plenty of its own admirers. LaValle seems proud and talks in slightly more detail about her forthcoming book than he does about any of his own. Literary marriage is working out so far.

“We both like our space, our privacy. But Emily likes to go out and I don’t. It’s important and difficult for writers to maintain their connections with things that have nothing to do with books or writing. A danger is that you stop writing books about people and start writing books about books and academia in a very self-involved way, which would be terrible. So we try to hook up with friends who have nothing to do with all that, so we can steal from their lives and their experiences.” He says this with a straight face but a bit of a twinkle. “We’ll go to a dinner party where everyone works for the sanitation system in Queens and we’ll look at all the sanitation professionals. There’s a body type we’ll both notice, a hairstyle we’ll notice.”

The couple find it important to share their in-progress work and ideas.

“I really value Emily’s opinion. It may sometimes make me angry or whatever, but I know my work would be worse if she wasn’t around. She really, really helps and I hope I help her. We have to be careful because we both respond to different types of criticism. I write fast and I respond more to challenges, to someone saying ‘What the fuck is this?’ It spurs me. But Emily writes more slowly, painstakingly. By the time she shows anything she’s already thought about it a lot, and if the tone of the criticism is wrong she can lose heart, think she has to start all over again. So we have to be careful with that.”

LaValle is excited about being published in Europe. Of his new publisher he says, “No Exit seemed like a cool press to be part of. It’s small and you get the feeling they care. It’s more like a club, a gang to get into.”

We talk about Europe and Holland, its relative tranquillity and civilisation. For his writer’s residency LaValle is putting in long but enjoyable days teaching a screenwriting program. He remarks on his Dutch hosts’ fabled directness and bluntness.

“If they don’t want to know you, they let you know,” he laughs. “But in a way I admire that honesty. America has the kind of culture where when you meet someone new, say on a train, you’re talking, you’re finding out about each other, swapping emails and saying ‘Look me up!’ But then if someone actually looks you up it’s like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you? Why did you come to my house?’ In America it’s like you put out the carpet of politeness, but you expect the return of not being taken up on it.”

Some young Americans, like my friend from Washington, celebrate LaValle as a prominent black writer. He is coolly dismissive of the racism that once again invests mainstream European politics. We briefly discuss the Dutch politician Geert Wilders and his assimilation-or-leave message.

“In the US you can just build your own nation within a nation,” LaValle remarks. “Even if you don’t speak English you can build an entire society. So it’s not so much the melting pot but the salad bowl. We don’t have to like one another, we don’t even have to care, but in the end we’re all committed enough to this idea, this place that allows us to co-exist. Because assimilation sometimes means, ‘Throw out your culture’. To assimilate you’re being told to not be you. And that neglects the fact that different people, different cultures, might have some really cool stuff to teach others.”

Some of Big Machine‘s closing sentiments are gentle and uplifting, despite the book’s unanswered questions. Ricky Rice comes to terms with the legacy of his neglectful father and the absurdities of his life; he appears to have found some peace, urging against social and religious atomisation. So the grim optimism of LaValle’s last word on society and the human condition has an amusingly familiar ring to it.

“Ultimately, I’m more than willing to accept that human beings are essentially just animals. We’re animals. If a lioness gives birth to a couple of cubs and then a new lion comes to the pride, he kills the cubs. Human life may be savage or fucked up or whatever, but it’s still better than the lions. If the lions are the baseline then we’re doing OK, we’re doing better than that.”

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Big Machine by Victor LaValle will be published by No Exit on March 24, 2011. For more details visit www.noexit.co.uk.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 31st, 2011.