An Interview with Victor LaValle
- By Craig Laurance Gidney
- February 27, 2018
Fun with changelings and other monsters
The Changeling by Victor LaValle is, on one level, a supernatural thriller in the vein of Stephen King. In it, tensions arise between rare-books dealer Apollo Kagwa and his wife, Emma, when they become new parents to a baby boy and Emma begins acting strange around it.
At first, Apollo believes she might be suffering from postpartum depression. He discovers, in one of the book’s most haunting scenes, that that is not the case. Combing through the dark web, Apollo uncovers some terrifying secrets about his wife and his child, as well as the hidden history of New York City.
As in LaValle’s other fiction, there is a streak of black comedy and social commentary running through this novel. Similar to how Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby tapped into the dark underside of the 1960s counterculture movement, The Changeling captures the zeitgeist of the Trump era, subtly mixing in issues of race, immigration, and gender (particularly masculine identity) alongside folkloric motifs.
Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child and Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song are other contemporary novels that deal with changeling mythology. What is the draw of “changeling” stories?
Obviously, I can’t speak for those other writers, but I do think there’s a powerful fear at the heart of those kinds of tales. Raising children can be so tough even when things go perfectly. (Though that never happens, of course.) A child can seem like one person on Tuesday and an entirely new one on Wednesday. It’s easy to begin wondering if they really have been switched. Then it’s even easier to begin fearing that they’ve been switched. And, from there, a myth begins.
Your story in the Rosarium’s Mothership anthology, “I Left My Heart in Skaftafell,” draws upon Scandinavian folklore. Do you have a particular connection to that folklore?
I wrote that story a hell of a long time ago, but having it appear in that great anthology might make it seem like I’ve got Scandinavia on the brain much more than I do. I wrote that story because I’d broken up with a woman and was feeling adrift, so I decided to go on as foreign a journey as I could afford. That took me from New York to Iceland. (Which isn’t actually that far away.) That’s where the story was inspired. Then, more than a decade later, I wrote this one. So, no particular connection beyond growing up with Scandinavian myths among the many others of the world.
The Ballad of Black Tom, your variation of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s most racist/xenophobic tales, “The Horror at Red Hook,” was critically acclaimed. Can you talk about your relationship with Lovecraft’s fiction?
I began reading Lovecraft before I became old enough to realize I shouldn’t. I might’ve been 10 or 11. Just the right age for his fantastic visions to thrill me and just young enough that his xenophobia went over my head. And that’s the hard thing about early influences: You can’t really shake them.
So, these days, I think of Lovecraft as the “problematic” uncle who still treated me pretty well when I was young. A little weird, kind of prickly, but also smart and wildly imaginative. Nevertheless, when you get a little older, it behooves you to actually inspect your early influences. An 11-year-old can honestly overlook such ugliness, but an adult who does the same is just complicit.
I spent my later teens and early 20s largely spurning Lovecraft for his racism and all the rest. But then, in my 40s, I found myself coming back to him. I thought I’d reached a stage where I could synthesize both the adoration and the criticism into something new. I could retell one of his stories in a way that was its own gripping fiction while also criticizing the problems of this writer I loved. My model for this was Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. What she did to Charlotte Brontë, I did to H.P. Lovecraft. May mine last anywhere near as long!
Much of your fiction is enriched and informed by sub-textual themes. The Devil in Silver deals with the (mis)treatment of mental illness in marginalized populations. The Changeling references, among other things, anxieties faced by 21st-century parents, and even has a cameo/intrusion by the alt-right man-o-sphere. Do these themes grow organically out of the fiction, or do you have a set agenda?
Usually, the setting and characters will create the political subtext of my books. I never have an issue I want to write about and then build people and places around it. Instead, I find myself wanting to write about a group of people and, inevitably, those lives are impacted by the systems they live within. By writing this way, I hope to show, in part, that every life is impacted by politics, an idea that’s hardly revolutionary, but there are many who like to pretend it’s untrue.
What can you tell us about your graphic-novel series, Destroyer?
The graphic novel will be released in March 2018. It’s not a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but more of a continuation. That’s how I pitched it and how I wrote it.
A few hundred years after we last saw the Creation (as he’s called in the novel), he’s still alive and living, now, in Antarctica. He’s removed himself from humanity, living among the creatures of the natural world. But circumstances draw him back into contact with humanity, and this will not be good for us. The Creation hates humanity and, frankly, he’s got good reason.
More specifically, he discovers there’s one last living descendant of the Frankenstein line, a black woman named Josephine Baker, a scientist in Montana. The Creation goes on the hunt to kill her, but it turns out she’s been doing her own experiments, bringing the dead back to life — one dead body in particular: her son, Akai, who’d been murdered by the Chicago police.
All three will converge to cause great havoc and, since it’s one of my stories, to explore the politics underpinning their lives.
Do you have any plans to return to mainstream literary fiction, where you got your start?
I can’t say I’m making a beeline back to literary fiction just yet, but I do have one idea in mind that might work. It’s years away, though, so I can’t say much. For now, I’m having too much fun with monsters!
Craig Laurance Gidney is author of the collections Sea, Swallow Me & Other Stories, Skin Deep Magic, the young-adult novel Bereft, and The Nectar of Nightmares. He lives in his native Washington, DC. Follow him on Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter at @ethereallad.