Love Letter to Queens: Victor LaValle by Ryan Sheldon

Ryan Sheldon and Victor LaValle dissect the horror and humanity in LaValle’s latest book, The Devil in Silver.

Lavalle Body

Victor LaValle. Photo courtesy of the author.

Victor LaValle’s latest book, The Devil in Silver, has already been billed as a masterpiece of literary horror. The praise is well deserved, the categorization perhaps less so. It’s certainly the closest LaValle’s come to writing a work of genre fiction—The Devil in Silver follows Pepper, a “big man” who’s wrongfully admitted to a mental institution in New Hyde, Queens, as he navigates its terrifying environs and attempts to make an escape (spoiler: his chance at an expedient discharge disappears rather quickly)—but one needs look no further than the novel’s title to understand its precise vision of true “horror.” A visitor to New Hyde explains that the phrase “the devil in silver” became a dark euphemism for the silver poisoning suffered by miners in the nineteenth century, which often caused its victims to become delusional before causing their deaths. This historical referent is well chosen; throughout the novel, LaValle explores how the pressures of a flawed, oppressive system—in this case, the horribly mismanaged mental institution in which his characters find themselves—can precipitate madness. In this way, the very real horrors of medical negligence, abuse, and mental illness run parallel to legend that circulates throughout New Hyde’s inmate population, which believes that the Devil has taken up residence among them. LaValle’s treatment of systemic evils gestures toward a battery of political issues—race, immigration, and the worrisome states of our healthcare and financial systems—which beg our address on a daily basis.

LaValle’s two previous novels, The Ecstatic and Big Machine, feature fantastic elements that verge on disturbing; his brilliant debut story collection, slapboxing with jesus, does not take the supernatural as its proper subject, but charts the ways in which the ghosts of memory—fragmented recollections of childhood, litanies of nostalgia and regret—mark our pasts. In each work, LaValle’s approach to chills and psychic discomfort is never reducible to straight genre writing, and if his investigations of mental illness and personal unraveling unsettle readers, it’s because they remind us of how fragile, impressionable, and precious the human mind can be. LaValle is ever quick to converse with tropes of literary horror, and his interest in jumping the rails of conventional narrative reflects a desire to show just how easily a standard vision of reality might—and often does—collapse. In The Devil in Silver, the scope of this exploration is larger than he’s yet attempted.

Thankfully, the novel’s breadth and structural richness do not come at the expense of his perennially fine prose. LaValle is a master of cadence, and his ear for spoken language is as sharp here as it has ever been. Readers of slapboxing will recall that the Bronx doesn’t shed; neither, it seems, does Queens, and the author’s meticulous attention to the ways in which the borough’s diverse population speaks lends The Devil in Silver a remarkable aural quality. The book demands, as do the best stories, to be listened to.

I’ve long been an admirer of Victor’s work, but it was only recently, at the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, that I made his acquaintance. We met a second time to discuss The Devil in Silver at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Washington Heights—the very same one he mentions in the novel’s acknowledgments. Over coffee, we got into his development as a writer (and a reader), broke down his complex relationship to horror fiction, noted the importance of people watching, and touched on the poor state of American political writing.

Ryan Sheldon Let’s start with The Devil in Silver. Many people have called this a work of “horror fiction,” and I don’t necessarily disagree. You’ve experimented with genre in the past, and there’s probably more of that in this book than in your other work. But I don’t think this is a straight-ahead horror novel.

Victor LaValle No. What’s funny is that I think that began—I’m a lifelong lover of horror, so I never mind that tag—but Gary Shteyngart gave a very sweet blurb that was great because it hit straight at some basic things you might need to know—it’s literary horror, here’s the new master of literary horror, or whatever, and it’s a page-turning delight. I feel like you can almost hear his voice saying these things—it sound very much like him—but his actual tone is always slightly humorous, so there’s a way that he wants you to take this seriously, but not necessarily take [the book] definitely as a work of literary horror. Once that’s on the book, that becomes the story, and as a result, you get the question, Is it horror, or is it not? That becomes the initial debate for the book.

RS One thing that’s always struck me about your work is that its approach to something like horror or the supernatural is flirtatious—it’s active, it’s highly engaged, but it’s not wholly committed.

VLV Right.

RS I never get the sense that you’re bound to generic conventions, or even conventions of the more muscular, direct storytelling that might typify a work of horror fiction. What exactly is your relationship to the genre? Who are some writers who are important to you? What have you learned from them, and what do you attempt to do differently when you’re approaching this kind of material?

VLV Well, like I said, horror is the first genre that I read and loved. I began—probably like many people—Stephen King was the first author that I read. Mine was not a big reading household, so I kind of had to find my own way, and I liked being scared, so horror was the first genre that I was drawn to. Stephen King was the most popular horror writer, and he was the easiest to approach—I could find him in the library, I could find him in the pharmacy, so I started with him. Peter Straub is another one, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, all these people. Also the older guys—H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth.

The person who most affected me was a writer named Shirley Jackson. Her two most famous novels are The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I think the reason she affected me so much was because in her books, she writes beautifully, and that’s not always the case with other writers in the genre—I love their stories, I love the chills, I love the humor and the ideas, but the sentences were not always crisp—but Shirley Jackson was the first person working in the supernatural field who could write rings around wonderful literary writers, as well as others in the genre. I think I glommed onto her because I liked that play with language, but I also enjoyed the chills. The other thing that she does very well is that she never feels like, I have to tell you definitively what’s happening, here’s what’s happening. The story might start as a ghost story, and end as a psychic battle between a house and a woman, and you might be like, What’s going on, what is this? And she’s like, It’s a great book, that’s what it is. I enjoyed her confidence—[that] just because you start one way doesn’t mean you can’t end another way.

It was like permission [to write that way]. So when I started writing, as a teenager, I was copying Stephen King, and I would say that, not even in college, but in grad school, secretly I started saying, This is really what I want to do. And then I came back to Shirley Jackson.

RS That’s fascinating because I think that’s a relationship to genre that is affectionate. People have compared your work to, say, that of Thomas Pynchon, and while you’re certainly experimenting with the structure of genre—testing how much wiggle room you have to play with extraordinary narratives while grounding the work in language and strong, psychologically deep characters—it doesn’t have the same exploitative feel that you might see in traditionally post-modern work. That measured approach is pretty remarkable. How did you stumble on that tack? Is it something that came with honing your skills as a writer while nurturing an affinity for horror?

VLV As far as the idea that there’s a certain degree of experimentation with structure or what kind of genres can be thrown together, before all that—frankly, it’s that I like people so much. That’s the basis of everything that I write, as opposed to puzzles or ideas. I like those things, too, but they’re not the bedrock of my work.

The bedrock of my work is always an affection for very flawed human beings, and so I think that whatever ways the stories take twists and turns and jump into this and that, if you feel there’s less of an exploitative aspect, I hope it’s because at heart, I don’t think the people I’m writing about are simply aspects of an idea that I’m trying to argue. They’re people in my mind whose stories I’m telling, and in the midst of telling those stories, I’m also trying to bring in ideas and concepts and language that I find interesting. But if you stripped all those away, you’d still have the people.

RS Your characters are always very idiosyncratic and distinctive, and I was wondering how the characters in The Devil in Silver evolved. There’s a mention in the author’s note of this type of guy who basically sums up Pepper, for example—what sparked your interest in that kind of person?

VLV Well, to speak more broadly, I want to say that I wrote this book here—

RS This is the Dunkin’ Donuts?

VLV It’s this Dunkin’ Donuts. Just look around right now at the number of different types of people and characters. Right now, there’s a lady being let out, she’s got a walker with an oxygen tank attached to it. There’s a homeless dude at the door who’s acting as a sort of concierge so he can get loose change from people. There’s two dudes over here who look like they might be Russian or Eastern European of some kind. One of the guys who was coming by my table, this table, back and forth when I had my phone out—I was sure he was going to try to snatch my phone. There’s a mother and son over here … all these people are interesting, and I think that just sitting here while I was working on the book, if I picked my head up, and I spent a few minutes checking these people out, there’s no way I couldn’t—if I was open to it—bring these people into the book.

So that homeless dude at the door—he’s a black dude with thick glasses and an Abe Lincoln beard, but he’s wearing a Jeter t-shirt. How could you not use that guy, even just in passing? The black dude with Abe Lincoln beard begging for money at the Dunkin’ Donuts is a character. As a writer, the idea of being open to the world and working in the world so that it can give me people—even if they’re peripheral people—was a matter of circumstance, because I had to work here—we live two blocks away, and I could only be out of the house two hours a day after my son was born and needed to be close enough to relieve my wife, and this place just turned out to be serendipitous. Of the characters in the book, I’d say Sue (Pepper’s love interest), the two women, Sam and Samantha, some aspects of Coffee, a couple of the staff members, are all people who were here in the store.

I knew I needed characters to do things, but I didn’t know who they were. Then someone would come into the store while I was having a donut for twenty minutes, and I’d just take notes—I watched how they did this or that, and then I’d say, “I got them.” And I’d start writing.

Pepper—as I said in the notes—was a working-class white dude, which I’m not. But I grew up with a lot of them. I felt like, to my great surprise, working-class white dudes, if they’re written up in things, are often caricatures—they’re the abusive drunken husband, the abusive drunken dad, the abusive drunken driver who kills somebody “good,” but the kids I grew up with I knew were good folks, at least some of them. So I thought, If no one’s going to write these people as complex characters, then I’ll do it. I love them as much as I love any of the other people I grew up with. So Pepper came out of that. There are also a few guys in this neighborhood—this place is also particular with a very small group of, I think, prescription pill addicts, who hang out at that corner over there (points) and trade drugs depending on the time, and three of them are basically Pepper, but more run down. When I was having trouble picturing a scene, I’d just watch them for a little bit.

RS That makes sense to me, especially considering your writing’s deep appreciation of place—everyone’s got that line from slapboxing [with jesus] about the Bronx not shedding, which is a great line. But here, too, even though we’re pretty much confined to the setting of the New Hyde hospital, the book struck me as something of an homage to Queens.

VLV Absolutely.

RS I could not shake that feeling. It’s obviously an important place for you—

VLV It’s my hometown—

RS And you’ve got that key.

VLV I’ve got the key. Of course, it’s more of a key shape on a plaque … but it’s still the key to Southeast Queens, and it’s great.

To be a bit dramatic about the idea, I always loved something I read about Moby Dick that said that Melville had the Pequod, the ship that Ishmael gets onto, and if you look at the crew, there’s an African, there’s an indigenous Islander, there are white guys from New England, there’s all these different types of people—the Pequod was Melville’s metaphor for America: all these people essentially trapped on the ship together at sea. For me, I took that to heart for New Hyde—within that hospital, you have black people, white people, Caribbean people, Latinos, Asians, Jews … every type of person that shows up in Queens. I felt like this hospital was my version of the Pequod, and my version of the US.

RS What did the institution offer you structurally, and what sparked your interest in that?

VLV In setting it there?

RS I think it’s fair to say that mental illness is a theme that runs through a lot of your writing.

VLV Yes, I think I’m going to have to give it a rest pretty soon.

RS You keep doing it well!

VLV I keep going back to it, it’s true.

RS So if you could talk about that, and specifically about what attracted you to this, aside from the opportunity to represent a demographically diverse population? Was there anything else that interested you about this grand, edificial bureaucratic nightmare of a hospital? Or spatially, even—

VLV Right. Well, on the strictest structural level … Big Machine was really sprawling, and took place in upstate New York and Vermont and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and with the next one I said, What if the entire story had to take place in one location? What are the ways that that might limit you, or set you free? Because if I weren’t jumping into different states or back in time or anything like that, I’d have to create a story that was propulsive, that moved form one event to the next. Could I keep that from getting boring? How could I continue to make you feel like you were learning more and more about this place that was in theory just one closed spot?

That was, on a writerly level, a task I put forth for myself. On an institutional level, it’s no surprise to anybody that the American healthcare system is in horrendously bad shape and is very poorly run—not because it’s an evil system, but because it’s a Frankenstein of parts stuck together, except this one was not reanimated or brought back to life; it’s still lying there on the table. I wanted to write about that as a metaphor for other systems—our financial system, certainly, our political system, everything … it’s kind of like a decaying corpse.

RS The novel feels incredibly timely in that sense.

VLV I was hoping so—

RS And that’s the other thing that the blurbs on the back might not make clear—that there’s obviously a lot happening on the level of structural metaphor. In many ways, it’s a deeply political book, and it moves all over the political spectrum. There are racial issues, there are questions about our healthcare system—and by implication, about the way the country’s run generally. I remember that Full Stop did a series of interviews a while ago where they asked whether it was incumbent on writers to address political material today. In today’s day and age, can you avoid political questions? Is there a responsibility to interrogate systems? Were these at all in your mind?

VLV In particular, with Americans, the minute you say, “This is something you should do,” it’s our natural tendency to say, “Well fuck you, I’m not doing that.” So to say that it’s a responsibility for any writer or artist to somehow address or even acknowledge political realities of any kind is distasteful—that you should, that they have to, rather. But to my mind, I’m flabbergasted by the number of writers who don’t, in any way, address even the politics of cleaning up the garbage in your neighborhood. It doesn’t have to be grand political statements, but all these things are aspects of how our society runs and how we try to get along with each other, and I don’t understand how people don’t have that appear somewhere in their work.

I think the truth is that it’s there somewhere, but it’s not always addressed, and you have to infer how people are telling you the way they think the world should work. But you infer it not like something being subtle, but like someone who talks in their sleep. When you hear them talking about cheating on you, you go, “Oh shit. I’m glad I heard you, because now I know what you’re really like.” But for me, there’s no way to be a thoughtful and engaged human being and not have your ideas about some aspect of politics, or ethics, or faith—whatever matters to you—appear in your work.

In fact, sometimes more contemporary literary fiction is accused of being light, or a little bit throwaway, and I think it’s because so many writers are afraid to insert their own—to say, here are some things I’m concerned about. Part of the problem is that we all know how easy it is to become self-righteous, or to sound like you’re on a soapbox. Nobody wants to do that, and as a result they just don’t say anything. But that’s bloodless, I think.

RS Let’s talk about voice, specifically in The Devil in Silver. There’s definitely an authorial presence, something of an omniscient narrator, and we get glimpses—well fleshed out ones—into the minds of many characters. It’s mostly concentrated in Pepper, but we move around quite a bit. Also, it seems as though you’ve managed to preserve your natural voice, which is delivered not only in the language itself, but through the use of parentheticals and direct address. I’m interested in how you conceived of such a multifaceted vocal approach in the book.

VLV I would say that among writers of my age—I’m forty—and younger, the students that I teach, there’s been a large move away from the third person. The first person has become the default method of telling a story, to speak very broadly. And the argument is often, The third person doesn’t allow me to get my personality—or my character’s—across. I started thinking about that. The reason someone might think that is they have an idea of what the third person has to sound like.

As I started thinking about that more, I would blame it on either Henry James or journalism. The third person we think of now is a reportorial kind of voice—it’s supposed to be dispassionate, it’s not supposed to have opinions, it’s not supposed to joke around. It just tells you the facts. In journalism, that’s good, because you don’t want the journalist to get in the way of the story. But in a book, the person who’s leading you to the story is the author—so it’s almost like saying, I’m going to remove one of my best tools, which is me, because I’m going to use this voice that’s not really me.

So I started thinking, What if I acknowledged that the third person voice was just me, telling a story? And what if I picked a friend that I specifically wanted to tell the story to, and while I was writing the entire book, I imagined this person? Jokes that I would tell him just went into the parentheticals. So by the end of the book, I felt that it was just me telling the story—and it was third person, absolutely. It came from my desire to reintroduce the idea that third person was just the author. It was actually more freeing than first, I think, because you don’t have to pretend you’re this being who’s tied to the job you’ve been given, the life you’ve been given. So it was my desire to liberate the third person from a lot of people’s ideas of what it is.

RS It requires a great measure and display of confidence, and that’s something I’ve always admired in your work—the confident honesty of the voice. If we could talk a bit more generally about the way you approach language, certainly one of the things that I’ve appreciated, especially in a book like slapboxing, is your ear for cadence. To my mind, there are only a few contemporary writers, Junot Diaz, Stephanie Vaughn—

VLV Yes, yes, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog.” [Her book is] a great, unsung collection of stories.

RS Yeah. So her work, Richard Ford’s … these are writers who have not just an ear for language, but also for the representation of a place, its unique rhythms. I think it’s knowing the ins and outs of a specific language, and that’s something that runs all through your debut collection and you’ve maintained pretty well. So I wanted to know about your approach to language—do you start out with one line and build from there? There’s the whole Gordon Lish theory of a progression based in sentences, where you start with one and build the next off it and dig deeper … For you, is it all happening on the level of the line? Or do you go back and tune things later?

VLV Particularly with slapboxing, if I had the right first sentence, everything would come together—if it was good enough, it would set a bar. It was like, If you get that line tight enough, you can’t ever be less tight than the first line, so you’d better keep that up. By “tight” I mean a line that would be declarative, that would be lyrical, that would be funny, maybe shocking … something, it would do something to the reader instantly. And whatever that effect was would be the effect I’d try to follow.

And in the early stages, I needed that because I wasn’t sure [of myself]—I did my MFA at Columbia over here, an I’d taken only a few writing classes as an undergrad, and when I came into the classes, I was not very confident about what I was doing or how I was doing it. I was not very well read, I was a terrible undergraduate student, I got kicked out of school for a little while because I didn’t attend classes, so when I got to the program, I was sure that everyone else would be masters of their craft already, had been writing for years, and I was going to show up with nothing. And so what I’d better show up with was some fucking swagger. I’d better be able to fool people into thinking I know what I’m doing. The way to do that was to sound like I knew what I was doing—and with that first line, people were like, What? And I’d say, I’ve got you. But to some degree, it was a bluff. To my great surprise, people liked the bluff, and I started to think it wasn’t just a bluff—maybe this was really something I could do, it wasn’t just that I was shocking them or something like that. It was that this was actually a good line, and it was followed by another one, and another one.

That’s how I began to write stories, but I’d also dictate them to myself out loud, to keep the aural quality—so I’d tell myself the story out loud, then transcribe it. The editing process involved fixing. But by transcribing stories, I kept closer to the human voice.

RS What is your process like? When do you get down the work? How long do you work for at a time?

VLV At this point—post first kid—it’s just two hours a day, five days a week. That’s all I can do, both with brainpower and organizing time, frankly. Trying to organize time with my family, and juggling things with my wife, who’s also a writer, and needs her time. Weirdly enough, I used to do binges—ten hours—where I’d just sit and blurt out something and revise it later. But when I think back on it now, I was really still just working for two hours, and the other eight were kind of bullshit. I’d read something, I’d listen to some music, I’d get in a sort of mood … I’d go online, whatever it is; I wasn’t actually writing.

Now I have just two hours a day to produce, produce, produce. I don’t censor anything in those two hours. If we’re going to start with a scene where the main character is stealing a car off the side of the highway, I don’t know anything about that really … but what would it be like? I just start writing, and see where it goes. If it’s good, I’ll continue with it. If it’s crap, I’ll say, “forget stealing a car by the side of the highway.”

It’s this idea of fishing for two hours—sometimes I catch a line, and that’s the one that inspires the next day’s two hours. With The Devil in Silver, that’s how I wrote the book: just a slow accretion, rather than in marathon sessions. I used to think—I didn’t like structure of any kind. I wanted to write when I was inspired, then take time off, watch a movie, go out … Now I like structure, because I like to produce more than I used to. Working in little increments tends to produce more than the bursts.

RS It’s probably standard practice in interviews, I think, to go right for the jugular and say, “What’s next?” That seems kind of unfair, given that you’ve obviously been hard at work for a while—The Devil in Silver is coming out next week, and you’ve got a novella that’s been released online. So I’m not going to ask that question. But I’d like to know what you’re interested in right now. For example, something that emerges in [The Devil in Silver] that’s kind of fascinating is the specter of Vincent van Gogh. What inspired your interest in his story?

VLV We were living in Amsterdam; we’d never been there before. They have an amazing set of museums there, one of which is the Van Gogh Museum. It’s an incredibly well set-up museum. We visited and went along the different floors, and there’s no way, I think—if you’re open to it, the way they’ve set it up—you can’t be drawn into the timeline of his life as you’re going up. It’s so moving by the time you get to the end and see Wheatfield with Crows—there’s no way you can’t be a little moved by that. I’d already known about the narrative of his being probably mentally ill—although there’s a set of people who say he was epileptic—but because that was already an obsession of mine, and because this trip made me sympathetic to him, I wanted to read more about him. I knew he was a great letter writer, so I bought his collected letters and began reading them. They just broke my heart again and again—one, because they’re beautifully written, and two, because he references books, he references painters, he makes asides about people—all these judgments are part of the way he writes about people—and I realized in the publication stage, the copy-editing stage, frankly, how much I was emulating the letter writing aspect of him [in the book].

At heart, though, what knocked me over was the thing that I quote at the very end of the book—of his work being a love letter to humanity; they say that he wanted to be a love letter to humanity. What I liked was the discussion of fine art, especially the art that recognizes genius. In whatever field you’re talking about, there’s often a desire to separate that genius—the work that’s produced—from more supposedly earthly or human desires, and it becomes discussions of technique, craft, stuff like that. But what I liked about reading van Gogh’s letters and about the museum was that you could not separate his enormous heart and his desire to love people and be loved from the work he created. One spawned the other and fed back into the other—that was inspiring, because I feel that way, too, as cheesy as it is to say. I feel that this book in particular is a love letter to Queens, to guys like Pepper, is a love letter to a picture of America that is obviously coming—if not already here—this broad demographic vision of America, which, regardless of how people fight against it, is coming, and even a love letter to the ways—even as our systems crash and fail us—that individuals find ways to help each other. That’s a thing worth championing, and I mean all those things whole-heartedly—in this book in particular. Van Gogh turned out to be the sort of fuel for that.

RS That’s really refreshing to hear. I don’t think you get enough of that anymore.

VLV You also don’t get enough of, I really enjoyed writing this—writing brings me pleasure, which is also something I feel, and another reason I cross genres. I love romances, sometimes, I love horror, I love language—why can’t it all be in one book?

Ryan Sheldon is a fiction writer living in New York. He also writes for BOMBlog about books, film, and music.

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