Victor LaValle and Mat Johnson spent years typing away at opposite of a mouse-infested tenement in Harlem, dreaming of becoming novelists. Eventually, they did, and they also maintained their friendship over the years, talking regularly about writing, life, and what would come next. Victor LaValle’s fourth novel, The Devil in Silver, a literary horror novel set in a NYC sanitarium, was published by Spiegel & Grau in September.
MJ: Alright, Big Nuts. How does this book suck less than all the others?
VL: Well, it's certainly longer. In my experience, the longer the book, the less chance there's a bunch of bullshit in it, right?
MJ: Oh yeah. When I see a long book, I think, that must mean the writer is really smart and serious. Maybe that's why I get asked to judge so many damn prizes. Why is this one longer?
VL: I didn't edit it.
MJ: Bullshit. It's really good, and you have this thing with your scenes, they put the reader right in the seat of the protagonist. You have to feel it with him. That takes time. Most of your novels, when I think about it, are journeys through a contained moment. Is that how you think of experiences that move you, as patches sewn together to make the quilt of your life—I love that last sentence. That was like Maya Angelou.
VL: Actually, that last line was quite Angelou-esque. Put it on a poster and you can retire! But yeah, I don't think I've been too good with the broad span of time sort of thing. Probably Big Machine was the most expansive. And even that one was only about six or seven months of time. I love the ways many small steps lead from one point to another and I enjoy going into every one of them. The broad swath of time sort of thing requires a better sense of summary than I had before. Though I just—like today—started taking notes on a book that should take place over at least a few years. Maybe as long as a decade.
MJ: I've been thinking a lot about that lately, how my traumas and idiosyncrasies have allowed me to have a career as a writer while so many other talented people have not been able to make it work for them. What do you think yours are? What's so broken about you that you can make a literary career work?
VL: I read a piece by Malcolm Gladwell in a recent New Yorker. (Stop rolling your eyes). He writes about a long-distance runner who has done many legendary things, won various marathons a record number of times, that kind of stuff. But the guy is not a "natural" runner. He isn't graceful, he doesn't have the "right" body for the sport, and so on. And yet he won, consistently, because he had the ability to reach the threshold of pain and fatigue that all human bodies reach and then just will himself to continue. He wasn't impervious to the pain, he was simply willing to die (literally) as long as it meant he finished the race (and even won). And the spur for this determination seemed to be his father, an insanely rigid sounding man, an angry immigrant (from Cuba), a man who then spewed all this rage and intensity and fervor onto his son's head. I related to that profile quite personally. Not because my biography in any way resembles this guy's, but because I think of my writing life/career/ambition as the manifestation of a will to show some people very close to me that they were wrong when they threw me away. (I mean that almost literally). It's childish, I know, but every book is an attempt to destroy them and save me.
MJ: I hear you. The best thing my dad ever did for me was literally laugh in my face when I told him I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. And you, your weirdness, it helps a lot too. The same moments that used to freak me the hell out when we lived together, people read those moments in your books and love you for it. I don't know if you know this, but Victor-Weird-Moments, or as the late great Amanda Davis used to call them, your "stoner logic," are famous. Are you conscious of that element, and how it feeds your originality?
VL: We always used to talk about this! You were the first real friend I made post-undergrad, meaning the first friend who knew me after I'd cleaned myself up a bit and pulled away from the edge over which I teetered. And you used to just say to me, straight up, "What the fuck are you doing that for?" And it would be something I thought was routine, that everybody did. I remember I had to have my shoes facing a certain direction in my room when I went to sleep and had a whole narrative about why it was important. You listened to me earnestly, nodded your head, and when I was done you said, "That shit you just told me? It’s crazy. You're being crazy right now." Nobody had been willing to tell me before! They just thought that's how I was. Eccentric or something. After that I used to come to you and explain something I'd done, or wanted to do, and I'd ask you if it was nuts. Then you'd tell me yes or no and I totally believed you, I trusted you completely. So I avoided the crazy stuff (because it was also often detrimental) and stuck to the saner stuff. Now I can look back on those times, in my mind, and still recall the oddness. I insert that into the fiction because it's one of my most unique traits. But now I have perspective. I can write about it, but I don't have to live it. You played a big part in that change.
MJ: Well thank you sir. Yeah, I don't notice a lot of that anymore. When we were trying to make it as writers we were in our late 20s, we didn't socialize. We never once went to a club or a bar. We didn't even know what AWP was. And we got it done. There are so many support systems now, and a community for upcoming writers, but I wonder if any of it helps. We were obsessed with making our dreams come true. What do you think of this lit-scene now for young writers? What do you make of it?
VL: What's great for younger writers now is that there are so many venues for their work. Whether you're talking about lit journals, some cool indie publisher that just sprouted up in someone's living room and make books as beautiful as most mainstream publishers, or the tens of thousands of online opportunities to reach readers/be read. And now they can find folks in South Korea, Lebanon, and South Africa. That's all pretty great.
If there's a downside to all that open access it might only be that they don't get as much push back, as much editorial correction sometimes. The danger with being able to publish anything you write as soon as you write it is that you may do that shit! And not every word a person writes should be published.
MJ: Yo, let me say this though before we go, you let me have the writing career I've had. I started out writing humorless, Toni Morrison rip-offs. I talked to you on the phone one time and you said, "You're funny, you're crass, why doesn't your work look anything like that." It was the single biggest lesson of that MFA time. I tell all of my students that story. That you don't get to choose the writer you want to be, you have to be the writer you are.
Finally, how close are you now to being the writer you are?
VL: I still remember the novel you were writing. Here's the funny thing about that book: it was good. If someone else had written it I would've clapped them on the back and said, "Good shit." But it was clear to me that you were better than that because, well, you had a lot more to you than the earnest story you were telling then. I appreciate you saying that my line had an impact though. It was glaringly obvious to me and, I think, to you as well. Much like I needed you to corroborate that I was being crazy maybe you just needed me to corroborate what you already knew. As for me, I think I'm much closer now than I was two books ago. If you were humorless, I could be needlessly strange. Now I'm just as strange as the story requires. And when I write, even when it's difficult to get the story right, I am enjoying the hell out of myself.