A Skype Chat with Victor LaValle

A Skype Chat with Victor LaValle

By Michael Conner

Victor LaValle Skyped with Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s fiction workshop last week to share thoughts on his novella, The Ballad of Black Tom.

Ever since he was a kid, the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Shirley Jackson filled LaValle’s reading library with tales of horror and mystery, but it was H.P Lovecraft who introduced him to “cosmic horror”—a philosophy built on human insignificance—and profoundly influenced his writing thereafter. In particular, The Horror at Red Hook, while not LaValle’s favorite Lovecraft story, serves as the urban backdrop to his novella.

According to LaValle, horror stories are often about taking a normal life and filling it with abnormal catalysts; but what if “normal” wasn’t a place one should feel safe in the first place? H.P. Lovecraft, while considered one of the most important horror writers of the twentieth century, has long been a target of criticism for his extensive negative portrayals of minorities, including Irish Catholics, German immigrants, and African-Americans. Lovecraft described communities of heavy immigrant populations in The Horror at Red Hook as living in “tangle of material and spiritual putrescence” and “a maze of hybrid squalor.” In response to this allegorical xenophobia, LaValle set out to provide an “equalizing” voice for the minorities of Lovecraft’s tale.

Enter Tommy Tester, an African-American hustler who stands in as one of the disenfranchised voices missing from Lovecraft’s tale. In teaming up with a sorcerer named Suydam to destabilize the status quo, Tommy Tester is both the humanized—yet non-angelic—character Lavalle wished were included in the original story. And unlike in previous LaValle works, The Ballad of Black Tom pushes the author’s great love of the supernatural front and center.

“I think one of the traps MFA students fall into is thinking that if they write depressing fiction, they’ll be taken seriously,” LaValle said. “A friend of mine reminded me, ‘It’s not only misery we go through…’ I realized [by the third book] that by writing misery I became miserable.” This time around, Victor decided to write something that truly entertained him, rather than focus on tailoring his work to an abstract idea of “literary” fiction. The decision looks to have paid off; LaValle is now writing a television adaptation for AMC.

Among the key pieces of writing advice Victor offered Dolen’s students included two major questions that allegedly save him a lot of time from the start of a writing project:

  1. Who is the protagonist in the beginning? Who is the protagonist in the end? Are these two people one and the same?
  2. Who is the antagonist? Who wants the same things as the protagonist—given that only one person may succeed in acquiring those things?

There are several sub-issues within these major questions. What is the cost of the protagonist’s change? Do the events of the story do anything to make them change? Between the protagonist and antagonist, whose view of reality works best? Who is the most powerful antagonist? How are they faced? Are they a formidable opponent?


Victor LaValle is an Associate Professor at the Columbia University School of the Arts. His other works include Slapboxing with Jesus, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, The Devil in Silver, and The Changeling.


Image: Teddy Wolff

Michael Conner is a contributing writer at Café MFA and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

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