Acclaimed Writer Victor LaValle Talks Shop at MEC

Thursday, October 27, 2017

The acclaimed writer Victor LaValle, described once as a mix of Haruki Murakami and Ralph Ellison, kicked off MEC’s Center for Black Literature’s John Oliver Killens Reading Series on Thursday. LaValle discussed his latest novel, The Changeling.

The well-reviewed work is a dark flight of fantasy masquerading as the domestic tale of what happens when Apollo and Emma become “co-owners of a business called raising the baby,” as LaValle put it.  Before a rapt crowd in the Edison O. Jackson auditorium, LaValle read an excerpt from the novel that featured a whistling teakettle, a screaming baby, a claw-hammer, and Apollo in a bike lock.

LaValle then talked about the book with Randy Brown Winston, a renowned “milkshake scholar,” and the associate fiction editor at Slice Literary Magazine.

Winston asked why LaValle did not begin the novel with that scene, which depicts the frightening unraveling of the super-father Apollo and the depressed Emma?

LaValle said he was told by his publisher that he would produce a deeper work of art by making the reader fall in love with the couple before injecting such darkness.

He writes by just throwing in “just every single thing I can think of” into the first draft and then paring it down by “cutting the boring parts,” LaValle said. At one point, he had a 700-page manuscript (eventually 431 pages) and worked on the architecture of the novel methodically: filling it in with secondary characters, the landscape, and (by the 10th draft), symbols.

As a father and a husband he was looking for answers for some of his own questions when he wrote The Changeling, said LaValle, the 45-year-old author of three other novels, two novellas, and a collection of short stories. The novels include Big Machine and The Ecstatic.  LaValle lives in New York City with his wife and children (ages 6 and 4) and teaches at Columbia University.

“There were all these ways I was trying to be super-dad,” LaValle said of the personal roots of his tale,  considered an example of the genre known as black science fiction/speculative fiction/fantasy and horror. LaValle subverts categories, though, and employs both horror and social criticism.

He was abandoned by his own father, La Valle said, and grew up in a volatile household.  When it came to his son he tried to love him enough, “to fix what was wrong with me,” he said.  To his amusement (and chagrin) he found that he walked around with his son he would “get 50 bits of praise” just for being a present father while his wife was bombarded with demands and judgment (“put a hat on that boy.”)

He writes the way he does because he loves horror stories, LaValle told Winston. He recalled reading the Stephen King novel “It” at age 10 and being hooked.  

“It’s that sense: I have perceived something different and there is no one there to help me,” LaValle said of his feeling of life on the brink of the surreal.