Talking to Victor LaValle about 'The Changeling' and the horror of parenthood, H.P. Lovecraft and more
By Nichole Perkins
Jul 27, 2017 | 11:00 AM
In “The Changeling,” Apollo Kagwa loses his wife, Emma, and their son Brian in an unspeakable chain of events but is determined to get them back. He begins his quest for the return of his family and finds himself in worlds only a mastermind like Victor LaValle could create.
LaValle’s “The Changeling” is a horrifying fairy tale about the maze of parenthood, shrouded by the shadows of our own upbringing. The award-winning author blends literary allusions, horror and social commentary to create a riveting piece of work that will have readers examining their own views about parenthood while worrying if they’ll ever sleep again.
The Times spoke with LaValle over the phone about his new novel, why he chooses horror to discuss racism and other social issues and more. This conversation has been edited.
Why is horror/sci-fi/speculative fiction such a good fit for discussing issues like racism and mental health?
One of the great things about horror and speculative fiction is that you are throwing people into really outsized, dramatic situations a lot. In their ways, things like racism and sexism and classism, biases against the mentally ill are outsized, dramatic issues in real life. To me, it often makes sense to put the two things together. If I wrote about them directly, my fear is that it starts to become too lecture-y and kind of dull, for lack of a better term. But if I blend them with really dramatic situations, I find that it’s like a little bit of syrup to help the medicine go down.
H.P. Lovecraft is an obvious influence; your novella “The Ballad of Black Tom” is both a tribute and critique. Was it difficult to turn a critical lens to someone whose work you admired?
It wasn’t difficult, but in many ways, it was exciting. When I got into the project and saw that that was the way I was going to approach it, I realized that while I remained a fan of his, I was also talking to him like a peer rather than still feeling like that 10-year-old boy. It’s very difficult for a child to critique an adult — sometimes the criticisms are astute. But a lot of times, they’re not necessarily reasoned in the best way. Whereas I found the way I’m arguing with Lovecraft now are not ways I could have done it when I was a young writer, even in my 20s. I still wouldn’t have been able to do it because I wouldn’t have been skilled enough yet to pull off both telling a story that was also a critique. So in many ways it felt kind of gratifying like you’re not sure if you can fly but it turns out you can fly.
In “The Changeling,” Apollo brings home an extremely rare autographed first edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird” that’s signed to Truman Capote, “Here’s to the Daddy of our dreams.” Apollo tells Emma he thinks Harper Lee knew that “Go Set a Watchman,” with its racist version of Atticus, would not go over well. Is that moment both a reflection on how you feel about tackling Lovecraft’s racism and how you see yourself as a parent — becoming the father of your dreams?
The book is all about, for both Apollo and Emma, what kind of parent we become, considering the parents that we had. That’s a lifelong dilemma for anyone that decides to have kids, and for those who decide not to. In that inscription, I wanted to give credit to my imagined Harper Lee that she would understand one of reasons for the enduring appeal of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is that it is so flattering to many people’s, especially many white leaders’, dream of the good white American father. He was a Southerner but he was good to black people; he wasn’t racist. He was a man better than his time. Atticus Finch gets imbued with all this, almost holy, power. It’s interesting to me, as I became a father and in thinking about my own missing father, to understand how much power we give to the idea of the father and how much many people need to believe in the idea of a good and beneficent father. Why are people so invested in that rather than a combination of Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the father from “Go Set a Watchman”? Probably both of these were her father or somewhere in between these two. I think that’s almost more frightening for people to realize that in the end, those parents were just human beings.
Emma and Apollo are both immersed in the literary world. Do people think the novel is based on your home life?
I made a point to make them book readers and book lovers but they are not writers or professors. She’s a librarian and he’s an antique bookseller. They needed to be book lovers because I need to get stories in there. I usually don’t care much for books about writers or writing teachers, so I definitely wanted to avoid that. On the other end, before the book was published, the person who mattered most, my wife [Emily Raboteau], read the book. And I said to her, “If there are things in here that feel too close to the bone or that’s wrong or whatever, let’s talk about it and let’s make this a book that you will feel OK with it being in the world, that you won’t feel blindsided or betrayed.” That was really helpful for the book because she was able to give me some perspective on Emma, on how or why she might’ve done the things she did. And Apollo -- he’s one of these new dads. He needs to be a great guy, and that’s who I am, too, so there’s a danger that I’m going to be patting myself on the back a little bit too hard as Apollo. So she would come through and be like, “Well, I have a different take on this scene. I don’t know if that’s exactly accurate.” It actually made the story better. It’s not that I was trying to honor her feelings. It’s also that her pushback was better for the book and better for the story and made things more complex. She definitely had final say of the book before I sent it to my editor and said it’s ready to go.
For all this horror stuff, I’m really an optimist so I wouldn’t say that I only think the world is a horror show. I think it’s also beautiful.
— Victor LaValle
In “The Changeling,” technology and social media play significant roles in the horror of parenthood. Can you talk a bit more about that — Apollo’s desire for “likes” on baby Brian’s photos?
In the case of the book, one of the things I was interested in was my own tendency to take excessive photos of our kids and then to post them online, almost without thinking, and then to slavishly check back for affirmation from all my friends that our kids are not only beautiful but the most beautiful kids that ever lived. I also wanted to dig into the idea that there’s a degree of vanity in that: I want people to see that we’re a happy family. I want people to see that I’m a good dad. I want them to acknowledge it with “likes” and comments and hearts. It’s a push and pull of pure love and pure selfishness and vanity. I thought that combination is interesting. It’s not one or the other. It’s both
Much of your work is interconnected: Characters from your novella “Lucretia and the Kroons” show up in “The Devil in Silver.” Why do you want your works to speak to and feed into each other?
Every book I write, I make a point of having some character or some place or some detail from a different book pop up. The character from my first book, “The Ecstatic,” shows up on the last page of “The Devil in Silver,” being admitted into the hospital. On one level, this is fun for me because I like to think of Queens as the county I’m trying to draw into the literary map of the world, as all of us writers are doing when we write about a particular place. I like to imagine that all of these people are crisscrossing each other whether it’s in the present or the past, someone is related to someone and if you pay careful attention, you’ll realize their name is this name and those kinds of things. It’s inspired by one of my first true loves, Stephen King; in many of his books, if you’re a close reader, you’ll realize, “Oh that character who’s in the background here is the lead character there.” Or the thing that happened in this book is in the town’s local history of another book. And I love that because then you start to think that if a person ever did read everything you ever wrote, by the end of your life, they’d get a map of an entire world as opposed to just one book.
Do you have your own physical manifestation of this map to keep all the characters in order? How do you pick who’s going to show up in which text?
It’s definitely based on a feeling of who would fit where, but I do have a little notebook where I keep like a genealogy map of who’s where, who’s associated with who, and it’s just a tiny thing for me so that if I ever forget, “Did I already mention this person before?” then I just check the notebook. It’s just a way to keep my memory fresh.
Mat Johnson wrote about losing 100 pages in a technology glitch. Do you keep these kinds of notebooks to avoid losing so much work to technology?
I don’t keep them for that reason but early on, when I was starting my first book, a collection of stories, I started this practice: I would write a draft of the story then put it in a drawer and rewrite the story from memory. If I couldn’t remember what was in the story in the previous draft then it probably wasn’t very interesting, so I need to come up with something else . I knew it was a good way to train myself out of being precious with the material in the book. Doing that taught me no matter what you have, you could probably come up with something even better. That’s a way to guard against preciousness and thinking that if I lose this thing, life is over. That’s just too paralyzing a place to be in.
Much of your work features a main character who slowly realizes he’s trapped in some type of horror — a mental hospital against his will (“The Devil in Silver”), the grief of losing someone you love (“Lucretia and the Kroons”), parenthood (“The Changeling”). I can’t help but wonder is this how you see life? As horror all around us?
The thing I do believe deeply is that I, and most of us, are deeply self-delusional about something in life. And maybe also about their role in the horror show of life. I’m really into that idea of slowly becoming aware of how things are because it just feels like, for me, on a daily basis, whether it’s in marriage and parenting, in teaching, or even in how I relate to my super every morning, day by day, there are tons of moments where I’m allowed to realize something I hadn’t realized even the day before. If I’m lucky, it makes life richer and deeper and more complex. That’s how I view moving through life so I guess I try to use that in the stories. Then, purely on a mechanical level, it’s not interesting to read a character who knows everything from the beginning because what are you on the journey for? If they know everything, why don’t they just explain everything on Page One? But if they feel like they’re slowly discovering things too, then I get lost in their journey. And for all this horror stuff, I’m really an optimist so I wouldn’t say that I only think the world is a horror show. I think it’s also beautiful.
You’ve done a great job of showcasing other writers’ influences on your work without becoming a copycat. For young and new writers, how can they avoid imitating while being influenced by other writers?
Oh no, I would urge them to copy completely in the early phases. How do you learn how to do something? You watch your sibling do it. Or you watch your parents do it. And as long as you don’t plagiarize, there isn’t any problem with copying. What I mean by that -- let’s say there was a Stephen King story that took place in Maine with a bunch of white working class people working in a factory in the middle of the night. I didn’t know anything about that, but I would write a short story that was about some black factory workers at a factory in Queens at midnight and then it turns out that there’s a pathway down to an underground maze of rats. And it was a complete steal of one of Stephen King’s stories but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was teaching myself to tell a story and how to include the details that I knew, of a story that I knew. As long as you don’t get to a point of plagiarizing. The mistakes that younger writers make is to think that they have to be original. You don’t have to be original. You just have to be good.
For people unfamiliar with your work, I’ve been using the film “Get Out” as a comparison. Have you seen the film yet? How do you feel to see racism displayed as the horror it is?
I loved the movie. Part of what I loved was that it was entertaining as well as being so smart and political. What Jordan Peele got so right was understanding, “I’ve got to give you both,” so I was just riveted by the secret. What are these white people doing out here to all these black bodies and what’s going on? That was just fun to unravel the mystery and then to be sitting there thinking of the idea he’s really trying to portray. One of the things I found exciting about the movie was thatin American horror, there are really only two types of bodies that are considered endangered: white women or white children. Those are the two bodies that filmgoers of 30, 40 years of horror have been allowed to think are ever endangered. I loved seeing a young black man who clearly looks strong and healthy and smart, and for him to be the person you’re scared for, and to see the black men and black woman who’ve already been victims… I rarely see these bodies considered vulnerable. How revelatory to say, of course, these folks should be scared in this world. I loved him showing that the black body is not invulnerable or super-powerful.
Jordan Peele hopes to have a film series on social horrors. Should we start sending him your books as inspiration?
I’m more than willing to… I can say this: It has probably already been put in the mail. That’s the most I should say. It’s been sent. [laughter] Whatever may come.
Perkins, who writes about art and culture, was a Buzzfeed Emerging Writers Fellow. She is on Twitter @tnwhiskeywoman