No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled with demons.—Ishmael Reed
When I began my interview with Victor LaValle, he was in Uganda working on an article. I did not know at the time why he was there but was anxious to find out, though that was not our starting point. Born in Queens in 1972, Victor LaValle is a brother with extensive and eclectic interests who insists upon writing characters whose obsessions do not necessarily begin and end with race, though race indeed informs the work. LaValle's work at large does not easily fit any boxes, and the worlds he has inhabited are as unlimited and nuanced as the ones he can imagine.
Thus far, he has released three notable books. The first, Slapboxing With Jesus (1999), a collection of short stories, takes us to the violent streets of childhood. Here we first meet Anthony James, and it is mainly through his eyes that we see the cicatrix of lives collide in the Queens of the 1980s. Elliptical, jarring, and unsparing, the interwoven stories were a poetically resonant treatment of boys coming of age and men who don't age well. It was the first book of LaValle's I read, so I was surprised reading his third book and latest release, Big Machine (2010). This was the second book of his I read, and the scope of it spoke to LaValle's breadth of reading and range of interests. Is it a horror novel? Sure. Can it be limited to that genre? Absolutely not. It defies and blurs categorization. Horror inducing and speculative, literary and pop infused, it plays with the conventions of mystery and noir as it advances in the manner of a parallel universe the story of another man underground. Yet, LaValle still manages to maintain the grit of his first book. As readers we take on the premise, and the realism keeps our incredulity at bay as we become further invested in the story—a story which doesn't end with Big Machine, as LaValle makes clear in the interview. Reading his work out of order prepared me for the leap to fictionalized memoir which is in effect what his second book The Ecstatic (2003) does. The Ecstatic was the first of LaValle's books I had on my shelf, but I couldn't get past the pan-like, tongue-lolling, horned demon on the cover. My husband had bought this book after hearing LaValle read at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. I couldn't imagine why my husband [End Page 949] bought it for me. He kept telling me I'd like it. I had my doubts. Interestingly, I'd grown up on comics, B-movies, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, but my taste for horror had waned over the years. I thought The Ecstatic was a horror novel, and in a sense it was. Here was Anthony again, larger, wilder, with a family in a state of dissolution. There were fiends and demons riding each character's back. LaValle conflates genres, forces us to consider what possesses us, to look at our monsters as he exposes his own and creates more.
By the time I conducted my interview with LaValle, I felt as if I were meeting my little brother, who like me had smuggled comics, devoured Shirley Jackson, and sat in hot cinemas watching creatures covered in goo (then later in a much better fake blood) as if they might walk right off the screen and down the aisle toward me. A brother who, like me, grew from those forays into reading a broader spectrum of literature, but was never able to release the specter, the ghost, the haint. I wanted to know how LaValle connected his childhood interests to his adult concerns, and what role culture played in his process. LaValle has been compared to many writers from Ellison to Murakami, but I found in his body of work a kind of cultural...