Victor LaValle is the author of a collection of stories, Slapboxing With Jesus, which won the PEN/Open Book Award, and three novels, including The Ecstatic, after which Mos Def named one of his albums, and Big Machine, which won an American Book Award. He is also one of the most generous writers I know, not just in terms of his winning personality, but in his willingness to dedicate himself to his characters, and to guide a reader into the worlds he creates. He's also an Assistant Professor at Columbia University's creative writing MFA program, a fellow Aquarian, and one of my favorite people to talk to about writing. On the occasion of the publication of his new novel The Devil in Silver, Victor and I met at the Oyster Bar in New York's Grand Central Station for a beery lunch, and a wide-ranging discussion. Highlights of our talk are below.
Brett Berk: "When I last interviewed you three years ago, as your novel Big Machine came out, you told me you had returned to church. And lo and behold, here's the Devil--capital D, Devil--appearing in your new book. Of course, there are stand-ins for Satan all around us--many of them are gathered like a cabal in Tampa right now. But the literal Devil? Is this rooted in your religious revival in any way?"
Victor LaValle: "Yes and no. One of the reasons I love devils so much is not based in my faith, but because as a kid, I grew up loving heavy metal and horror movies, and the Devil is such a huge presence in both. The Devil that stayed with me most vividly was the one from the cover of Iron Maiden's "Number of the Beast" album. It's a painting of a lake of fire with human souls in the lake--burning, bubbling and suffering--and a little figure just above them orchestrating their pain. And then, there are marionette strings running from that little figure, up to a larger devil, who is working the strings manipulating that figure, with a gleeful look of evil. And then, there are another set of marionette strings running from that devil to Iron Maiden's stalwart mascot, Eddie."
He's like a skeleton/ghoul-looking guy, right?
Well...[Victor unbuttons his shirt to reveal an Iron Maiden t-shirt]. Yeah. And I remember, as a 14 year-old kid, it really did blow my mind, thinking, There really is someone pulling the Devil's strings.
Mental illness acts as a major theme in your work. I'm compelled by the way this places your characters outside of the mainstream. But is there something in this that's about the innate insanity of simply being an American, at this moment?
Well, I do, at one point in the book, have a character say that our country is basically an asylum now, and she calls the place The United States of New Hyde--New Hyde Hospital being the institution they're in. And I'm certainly, in the book, trying to wrestle with the idea that the country feels like it is really going crazy at this moment. Going crazy specifically with fear. The thing that is sort of dogging the characters throughout, is fear. And fear warps our understanding of reality and even our ability to see reality clearly. So the fact that the book is set in a mental hospital and these people are mentally insane is purposeful, and part of my ongoing interest. But my hope was that as you read the book, as more and more of the outside world's insanity filters in, the characters seem less and less insane. And hopefully by the end you see the way that you can't limit the idea of all of us going crazy to simply the crazy people. We've all become sort of crazy.
Is a return to sanity possible in contemporary America?
I think it's possible. I mean the other thing the book tries to show is that part of what is driving everyone crazy is that we think that the battles are Us versus Them, in various ways. One of the points I try to make in the book is that the Them that most of us think we're fighting, they never even come around. They live in the equivalent of a floating satellite above our worldly concerns, and they shoot down rays of fear that make us think that our battle is with someone down here. And that the beginning of a conversation about how we deal with these things is coming to realize who our mutual enemies might be. And that can be very difficult to accept or acknowledge--that the forces allied against most of us are not living in a red state or a blue state. They live outside of statehood and citizenship. They have accounts in islands and things like that. They're a bigger concern. But it's like that old saying: the greatest trick that the Devil ever pulled was to convince people that it didn't exist. And so there's two devils in the book: there's a Monster, and a larger Devil. One who is down on earth, and one who's actually pulling the strings.
Like your Iron Maiden album cover.
Right. There's the Monster who's killing the people in the book. And then there's Eddie. And we might be able to kill that lesser devil, but Eddie's not going to give up so easily.
Last question. What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you at a horror movie? Did you ever wet your pants, or throw up, or anything?
The most visceral reaction I had, I remember my uncle took me to the theater to see Friday the 13th, Part 3 (in 3-D). And I was far too young to see it, but I think my uncle thought, If that's what he wants to see, then we'll go see it. And it was somewhere near the beginning of the movie, and I was already sort of terrified, because I had seen the first one, and the second one. And that music came up--ch-ch ch; ch-ch ch--which is really one of the most brilliant sound designs in horror ever, because it's so bizarre and unnerving, and it really gets under your skin, and you feel like it's right over your shoulder. And so, that noise started to happen because two people were having sex in a barn, like they will when they're about to be slaughtered, and the guy goes out alone, as he must because he hears a noise. And Jason grabs him, and what he does is, he picks him up by the ankles, holds him in the air, puts the guy's head between his knees, and then squeezes his knees together so hard that the guy's eyes pop out of his head, in 3-D. And I screamed, and ran out of the theater. To the credit of my always-cool uncle, he did not come running out right away. He came out, like, a minute later, his newspaper folded under his arm, and sighed, totally exhausted with me, like, "You know I paid for this movie." But we left, and he took me to have a soda.