Today, we have a talk with Victor LaValle, author of the novella The Ballad of Black Tom .
Hello Victor ! Thanks again for answering my questions ! For those who may not know you yet, could you please introduce yourself ?
It’s my pleasure to talk with you. My name is Victor LaValle and I’m the author of seven works of fiction and one comic book. I write fiction that blends genres together in hopes of making something interesting out of the blend. I usually combine horror and literary realism, but also include speculative and even science fiction to the mix at times. My most recent novel, The Changeling, won the World Fantasy Award in 2018. My novella, The Ballad of Black Tom (which we’re discussing) won the Shirley Jackson Award and was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy Awards, among others, in 2016.
Your book begins with this dedication « For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings. » Could you tell us more about these conflicted feelings ?
Well, I’m a Black man and H.P. Lovecraft didn’t think too highly of us (along with almost everyone else). And yet, I was introduced to his work early enough in life that I came to love the tales long before I understood their undercurrent of xenophobia and racism.
I don’t believe in ignoring the flaws of artists I love. In fact, their flaws are often part of why I love them. But just because I love them, it doesn’t mean I overlook the aspects that are troubling, limiting, or downright ugly. So I offered that dedication with great purpose, I wanted to be clear that I felt both love and loathing. Conflicted feelings. That’s what fueled the book.
Do you have any Lovecraft favorite story ?
I have many favorites ! The Colour Out of Space, Dagon, The Dunwich Horror, The Outsider. There are so many I love. I can’t pick one.
Where does the idea of writing The Ballad of Black Tom come from ? You chose The Horror at Red Hook as a starting point for your novel. Why not The Call of Cthulhu or The Shadow over Innsmouth for instance ?
I had to use Red Hook because it’s one of the few Lovecraft stories that took place in New York. I can’t write better than he does about Providence, or all of New England, I’ve only been to the region a few times in my life. He’s the expert there, not me. But his version of Brooklyn in that story is complete nonsense. I knew I could right about New York City better than he ever could. So I decided to use that to my advantage.
Did you consider at one moment to pastiche HPL’s old-fashioned style ?
Lovecraft’s style was out of date when he used it in the 30s. And he did that on purpose. He wanted to use language that harkened back to an earlier era. But if even he knew it sound old-fashioned back in the 30s then, by 2016, it would’ve sounded like a dead language. I think this is the place where most Lovecraft pastiche stumbles. The ones that try too hard to sound like him end up seeming flat and lifeless to me.
Do you think that someday you could « revisit » another text by HPL ?
I have ended up writing another Lovecraft riff, a long story that was published in the most recent issue of Weird Tales. It was called « Up from Slavery. » I’m honored to say it won a Bram Stoker Award, so that was quite nice
Could you tel us a little more about « The SupremeAlphabet » that’s being used in your story ?
The Supreme Alphabet isn’t my invention. It comes from a group called the Nation of Gods and Earths. A kind of black militant quasi-religious organization that was big on the East Coast of the United States back when I was a teenager. Many great hip-hop artists used the Supreme Alphabet in their lyrics. Groups like : Wu-Tang Clan, Rakim, Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan and more. It’s a kind of coded language that I loved when I was younger and deeply into the hip-hop of my era. It felt like a kind of magic code back then so I decided to use it as a magic code in the novella.
In your novella Tom is a musician who sings and plays the guitar. One could expect him to be some Robert Johnson, but actually he’s not that good ! Is it some way to play with stereotypes like you did with lovecraftian clichés ?
Yes, this is right. It’s too easy to have the black blues musician be some incredible artist. Instead, I thought it would be a pleasant surprise if he actually wasn’t all that good. It would break the stereotype in a way that I found more interesting.
I’ve never been to New-York and reading your book really made me want to visit this city to enjoy this diversity of culture and people you describe. Could we consider your story as a way to make up for the awful depiction Lovecraft wrote of the Big Apple when he lived in Brooklyn ?
I certainly hope my depiction of New York — and Harlem in particular — made the place look better than what Lovecraft put on paper. I guess you could say I was writing a love letter to my home town, while Lovecraft had written a poison poem about the place.
By the middle of the book, we switch points of view. We will live the end of the story through Malone’s eyes (NO SPOILER or what’s left of them …), who is the original protagonist in Lovecraft’ story. Why did you decide to leave Tom’s POV at this moment ?
You’re right, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I can say that it’s always interesting (for me) to see stories from the point of view of characters who lack power, who might actually be in danger. In the second half of the book it’s Malone who is much more at risk than Tommy, so it made sense to switch.
Nearly 100 years after it was published, The Horror at Red Hook’s racism is still here. In the US, in the UK or in France statues are being removed. Do you think that Lovecraft’s literary work should be « erased » or cancelled ? How should we deal with Lovecraft’s work nowadays ?
No. There’s no need to erase Lovecraft, I don’t event think such a thing is what people who criticize him are after. Instead, people are saying — whether it’s about Lovecraft, or civil war statues or laws against wearing hijabs in public — that those of us who are affected have the right to argue with the powers that be. We have a right to criticize, a duty to criticize, when something seems unjust. That doesn’t cancel anything. It only means that a group who is not used to hearing any criticism must finally tolerate some.
I had the great pleasure to ask a few question to Matt Ruff about his book Lovecraft Country, which was released on the same day as The Ballad of Black Tom. What do you think of his attempt at addressing America’s racism by paying hommage and at the same time, subverting HPL’s tropes ?
I enjoyed Lovecraft Country very much and liked the coincidence that both our books were published on the same day. I think it means there was a sense of openness to Lovecraft criticism floating in the air. And we both got to share our versions of it. What a gift.
Your story is set in 1924, right into the exciting moment of Harlem Renaissance. Harlem Unbound is a sourcebook for the role playing game The Call of Cthulhu, where players are taken in the Harlem Renaissance. This sourcebook flips the standard Lovecraftian view of minorities on its head, putting them in the role of heroes. What do you think of this idea ?
I love the idea of characters — of all ethnicities, genders, sexualities, classes and so on — being allowed to play heroes and villains and everything in between.
By the way why did you choose not to talk about this exciting background (Harlem Renaissance) in your story ?
I didn’t spend any time on the Harlem Renaissance because the vast majority of people in Harlem had little or no personal experience with i tat the time. When looking backward, people like to think that everyone was involved in the great events of history, but in fact most of us were simply going about our days, even as history was being made on the next block. There are plenty of books about people being involved in the great/memorable moments of the past. I liked setting this story in the every day life of Harlem, which is glorious too, in its own way.
What are you currently working on ? Will we meet Black Tom again ?
I am currently working to adapt Black Tom for television. We will see if things work out and I get to tell these stories on the screen. If so, you will certainly hear about it !
Thanks again for your time and your answers ! Merci !
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