Victor Lavalle’s first novel, The Ecstatic, is a descent into gleeful madness involving beauty pageants, black slaveowners, tapeworms as diet miracle, and a self-published encyclopedia of B-monster movies. It also contains an ode to the neon signs lining Jamaica Ave. Assuredly, he takes fiction where it has yet to explore. His new novel, Big Machine, features secret societies, angels, cults, and most shocking of all, the West Coast. Mr. Lavalle sat down with Full-Stop a few weeks ago near his apartment in Washington Heights.
In your essay in “The Late American Novel” you end up focusing on the time in your life when you were commuting from home, in Rosedale, Queens, to Columbia University. How was that time important to you?
Because it was really good for me. You know all that infighting, jealousy, sleeping around, all the things that poison that well at MFA programs, I got to avoid by a two-and-a-half hour train. I got to read a lot of stuff, and it really was the best time in the world. The second year I moved in with Mat Johnson, who has a book coming out in two weeks (Pym), so we lived together on 138th. By then I had a job, other things to do. I’m always a fan of being a part of a community and then leaving it as often and as soon as you can.
In the essay you discuss your love for marginalia. Do you think marginalia will die with the e-book? Do you think complaints about the Kindle are just words of sentimentalists?
When my wife and I were living in Amsterdam in the fall, she was working on a non-fiction book. She was using around 40-50 books as reference. I said, if we had a Kindle, we wouldn’t have to carry a suitcase just of books. On a purely practical level, it was already a couple hundred dollars in baggage fees, but my wife really enjoyed being surrounded by books. Still, we decided, next time, we might just have to Kindle this shit. I don’t feel sentimental for writing on paper, but I will miss talking back to the author on the page. There might be a long passage from Faulkner and I’ll write on the side “Like, Whatever dude”, or “Yikes!”
How often do you find yourself writing in essay form?
Right now I’ve completed about eight or nine essays. I’m working on a piece right now actually, of my struggles with the idea of fatherhood, about how some ideas that were passed down from earlier generations to me and trying to reconcile those beliefs with whether or not to have children. So pretty soon I’ll have enough to put out a collection of essays that I think are pretty good, if not too self-pitying or self-involved. But that can be hard to avoid. The only way I find it tolerable to talk about yourself is to make fun of yourself pretty regularly.
After the publication of your first novel, The Ecstatic, you received the key to Southeast Queens. How did that happen? What did you actually receive?
What you get is a plaque with a giant key on it- it’s pretty cool. But what I also loved, in a very Queens moment, was that the ceremony, which included local politicians, etc., took place in the basement cafeteria of Jamaica Hospital. So it’s quirky and funny and maybe honorable. But I always like that’s that where it happened, because it also suggests something run-down about the borough. As far as how it came about, I guess someone on the council had had read the book, and the fact is that there aren’t that many books about Southeast Queens. So when there was one, that board member was like, we need to honor this guy!
There’s no hidden part of the Van Wyck Expressway that key-holders get to drive on?
When cops pull me over, I get to wave them off with the plaque.
When you started working on your new novel Big Machine, were you aware that it was going to become a story about monsters?
The impetus for the book was that after I wrote The Ecstatic, I was very proud of that book, and a lot of nice things happened because of the book, but I was also having trouble writing. I was digging into some very personal stuff, but not in any way that allowed for joy- wry or dark joy. I thought I was going to jump in front of a train if I wrote another book like that. Then I got to thinking about what could make me feel good about writing, and it really was a monster. A monster would make me feel good and happy. And I realized it had been around ten years since I’d thought about writing making me happy. I suddenly started feeling the enthusiasm of when I was twelve. I couldn’t think of anything besides “This is so cool!” and I liked having that energy back. And I knew that I could probably write a much better monster story than when I was twelve. It just went from there. It was a monster story, and then it was a mystery, and then it was a love story and eventually my editor said, “Man, just stop.” It was way more grotesque originally than what made the final cut. My editor said, “You’ve reached the limit of what this apparatus can hold. Anymore and it will break.”
Are you ever going to go back to short stories?
I’m working on a few tales right now. Tales vs. stories, meaning that tales seem to happen in the real world, but they play with legend and myth. And then I have another thing going that’s just pure realist work. I’d like to dabble back into that world. The next book I’m working on seems to be another book with a “Monster” in it, but what I wanted to do is kind of flip it so it only seems like that for a while, but eventually it becomes something realist. Where some fiction starts somewhere real and then goes crazy, this one already starts there and then takes you some place real. But I’m starting crazy, because these characters are crazy.
Is what attracts you to a “monster” the idea that the characters are going to have to come to grips with the monster, and understand one, even embrace it? I feel like in The Ecstatic, Anthony is left unloved.
I think of the ending of The Ecstatic as a happy one. Anthony has snapped, his illness has taken over, but he’s really happy- in fact, he’s manic. To me, it’s only sad if you are anyone but him. And there’s a tragedy in that, but if you’re invested in Anthony, you can see his happiness. To make a stretch of an analogy, his manic sate is like the computer bug they put in the Iranian centrifuges, in that it makes the machine spin so fast that it tears itself apart.
A lot of your characters seem to act in that manic state.
I am a firm believer in the manic state. The driver of human greatness, and destruction. Anthony at the end, he’s holding the book he wrote. So at least, he is embracing himself. Sadly, he’s become a dangerous guy.
Where did you come up with the Washburn Estate (a secretive African-American society that operates in the woods of Vermont)?
It’s to some degree based on a real thing. I finished up a degree at Columbia, and wasn’t doing very well, personally and mentally, and I kind of found, or it seemed like I was found by, a group of folks who were very supportive who told me to detach myself from the life I was in. If I wanted, they told me, we’ll give you a little space to do better. And with a little luck I did better. It was incredibly helpful. I did a fellowship in Provincetown and finally got back to writing. And that was the beginning of a new, good phase of life. I’m obsessed with the idea that they are these unbelievable little secret hideouts where people can get better.
A line that really struck me in Big Machine was “Sometimes a man retreats so far inward he mistakes isolation for dominion”.
There’s the section when you get Adele’s story, and I put it in there to demonstrate that anybody can be destroyed by that personal space, by becoming an island. She was in there drinking copious amounts of alcohol and is clearly unhappy as hell. A cabin in the woods is not always the best thing.
You do a pretty great job of letting the reader actually buy into some of the more ridiculous situations in the novel.
A lot of the Washburn Estate stuff was a bit of a stretch, and pretty humorous, with the cutting up newspapers and the typed reports. There’s a part where the ghetto scholars ask themselves, “Why don’t we just Google all this stuff?” The concern was, as much as Ricky has a sense of humor, you still want the reader to take the premise seriously. One of the hardest things to get the reader to believe is that all these people will do this. And comparatively, if you get the reader to believe this, monsters and monster babies might not be that hard to pull off.
Were Big Machine’s Washerwoman (a Christian cult operating out of an apartment building in Flushing) based off anything?
That’s the proudest thing I accomplished in this book. They weren’t based off anything, at least not directly. I grew up with three women who meant the world to me- my sister, my grandmother and my mother. When I was thinking about this, and Ricky is partially me, I was thinking ‘who were my gods growing up?’ When I was inventing this religion, I was trying to think of whom I would believe in most. And it ended up being these three women. In a sense, I started with the faith and in turn it that made it much easier to create a religion. But everything else I made up. Or stole.
Are you returning to writing about Queens?
The next thing I’m writing takes place at a public hospital in Queens, in a couple of public hospitals actually. It mostly takes place in Rego Park. That’s my territory, that’s where I feel comfortable and the great thing about Queens is that it has the whole Earth represented within it. Queens in particular is made for interlopers. There’s always a new nation. A few people get here, and then they call back to their nation and go, “Come quick, we’re taking over Sunnyside.” And within ten years, they’ll say, “this has always been ours. Always will be.” It’s fascinating how quickly this works, and how people will always drag their feet and say they won’t want change. Local politicians are always the first to notice who is gaining strength- just look where the councilmen are having dinner and you’ll see who is taking over.
How does teaching help you to continue writing?
It’s been viable for me. I finished the grad program, and I would teach for a semester somewhere and take whatever money earned and then go and write for six months. I was teaching only to replenish my savings. For me that was the best way to remain a writer first and a teacher second for as long as possible. Just graduating from an MFA program doesn’t mean you’re a writer, graduating from anything doesn’t mean you’re a writer. Writing means you’re a writer. I only just started teaching full-time a month ago. I feel like if I had started full-time right away, I don’t think I would have written what I wrote. I would not have been willing to try all the things I wanted to. But I had the luxury of not being married, not having kids. Other friends of mine immediately started teaching not because they loved teaching so much, but because they had kids. Hemingway was a journalist, but he also married a rich woman.
A lesson you try to give your students?
One lesson wish I could send back in time to myself, and particularly a lesson for young male writers, is the idea that writing about tough things make you tough. But almost by definition, if you are writing books, you were not a tough kid. But in the writing world it’s not tough to be the tough kid. If you’re not from the suburbs, then by default you are the tough kid. In my first book of stories I found out that you could lie pretty heavily on one note, and not realize that things are really complicated. And that sometimes there’s just joy and silliness. You have to grow up a little bit to realize that you don’t look weak if you acknowledge that life has complexity.
How did Mos Def end up naming his album after your novel?
That was really fucking cool. There’s no other way to say it. My editor sent it to him, he read it, Mos got in touch and we started a friendship. After a while he said, “I’m recording this album because I was inspired by your book.” And listening to the album, it is its’ own entity, but being acknowledged by an incredible artist is a wonderful feeling. I had a swollen head for quite a while. And it’s a very good album, so I was honored. And now I’m trying to work in the songs from that album into my new book. So the conversation continues.