Victor LaValle is a celebrated author and winner of the Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, and British Fantasy Awards. The associate professor at Columbia University talked with BGN in a video call about his recent work in horror and dark fantasy, plus what’s coming next for this prolific writer of stellar speculative fiction.
Your most recent novel, Lone Women, is the rare book that has a Black woman as its main character without making her the target of physical and sexual abuse. Can you tell us about creating Adelaide Henry and the life she lives as an early 20th-century homesteader in Montana?
A piece of good luck I had was that real Black women lived in that time and place. There was real Bertie Brown, who I based a character on, and she was making the most famous moonshine in three states back then. Her background might have been hardship, but the worst thing would be to ignore all that success and renown just to heap pain on her. People would come for me, and they’d be right to.
You write about small-town politics and the way small women’s groups decide who will prosper. Is that from experience or research?
I have to cop to it: In 1915, there were real Busy Bees community groups. But what I was also thinking about when I wrote it was that clichéd idea that if there were no men around, the women would be all peace and love. That’s not true; women are human beings. Who’s the villain here? It’s these wealthy white women in a frontier town. The Busy Bees genuinely see themselves as good people, and the women they decide to help see them as a force for pure good. The horror is that there are real people whose whims determine your fate.
Lone Women features a character who is obviously neurodivergent and turns out to be transgender too. What made you decide to include those details in a work of historical fiction?
It’s a love letter to a family member who I wanted to plant in there. Maybe someday they’ll read it and see that someone like them was always there. These identities are not centralized, not pathologized. I just wanted to remind people that these qualities are not a creation of the 20th century. And to leave someone a valentine.
Your books often include family secrets, and Lone Women is no exception. Why is that concept so important to you?
I come from a family that is very secretive. In particular, we were very secretive about the neurodivergence in our family. The more modern take that ND is just another way to be was not the bedrock of our belief. For my family, it was more about not letting outsiders in because they’d learn that we aren’t like everyone else.
The thing I was interested in was not the secret itself but the mistake of thinking that a secret keeps you safe. In reality, it just keeps you trapped. The way you show love to yourself is you tell everyone your story.
Mythologies from around the world appear in much of your work. Where do you draw inspiration from regarding what stories to choose and how to weave them in?
Growing up in Flushing, Queens, I was in this immigrant community. I had a lot of friends; I was in everyone’s house, and everyone was in mine. Grandparents and aunts and uncles would tell stories from Persia, India, Jamaica, or Norway. Right or wrong, these stories came to be sprinkled onto me. Bits and bobs, that’s the Queens way. I feel freedom to pick from them as long as I’m not claiming to be the authority on them.
Is there something powerful about the Other, in that how what we see is determined by what we already know?
Exactly! Whoever you are, if you’re not the norm where you’re raised, you’re a monster. But if you’re part of the norm in the place where you’re raised, there’s a good chance that you’re pretty wonderful.
My mother is from Uganda, so she was raised in a completely Black environment. The shock of coming to the U.S. and Canada for her was that in ways both explicit and inferred, her skin and her nose made her less. She thought these are great, these are normal features. But over time, she learned the norms of the place where she exists, and she started wearing a straight wig to work because she knew it would make people treat her more professionally. Under it was her natural hair, but that was a thing she couldn’t show except at home.
How do you feel about The Ballad of Black Tom being your best-known work?
Thrilled that any work is known. That’s a gift.
That book was the first one that was my full leap into horror. I felt trepidation. I hadn’t put in my time in the horror trenches. But I have always known that the horror community is so sweet and welcoming. When the book connected, I was grateful. At that time, there were me and Matt Ruff [Lovecraft Country] with books coming out on the same day. Cassandra Khaw and Ruthanna Emrys — we were all rethinking Lovecraft at the same time. We were all on a frequency at the same time.
You’ve spoken before about Lovecraft being inseparable from his racism, but do you struggle in the same way with contemporary writers?
Stephen King would be one of them — the most famous one. He was so formative to me, but so far, I haven’t found myself leaning into his old-school magical Negroes. I bounce off those characters as a rule, so the idea of wrestling them hasn’t occurred to me. The thing that I’m interested in with King is, the outsiders and losers and the space they get and why they get that space.
On the other hand, I think about Clive Barker. He was ahead of his time in many ways, and maybe there’s some book I didn’t read where he falters. But in my experience, he was so on point.
Now that you’re working on the sequel to Black Tom, what can you tell us about it?
I read an article a few weeks back that came up from the wrong time period for this story but was still very interesting to me. It was about this disturbing cultish community that came to a bad end. And it felt like the community had some spectral Black Tom-ish energy. It sparked the idea in me that the thing that’s missing from Ballad is women — so in the next one, this news story pointed me toward a story about a lot more women.
Can you say anything about the upcoming adaptation of The Changeling?
It’s coming out in September! But you’ll see a trailer in August.
Did you work as a writer on the show?
I worked as an executive producer on the series. I was on set every day, and I have a small but pivotal role in the show itself. Watch for that.
Who are you reading now?
The Strange by Nathan Ballingrud, which is basically True Grit on Mars. It’s a wonderful novel so far. And The Black Guy Dies First by Mark H. Harris and Robin R. Means Coleman.
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Meg Elison is an author and essayist living on the East Coast with West Coast sensibilities.