Victor LaValle Likes to Stare Directly at His Deepest Fears

What books are on your night stand?

“The Black Guy Dies First,” by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris; “The Survivalists,” by Kashana Cauley; “Mott Street,” by Ava Chin.

What’s the last great book you read?

“The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination From Harry Potter to the Hunger Games,” by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

My wife and I have our kids read for a half-hour before we put them to bed. Sometimes all four of us will be crowded into Mom and Dad’s bed, each of us reading to ourselves, and I am blissful. Sometimes our old cat even jumps up there. Then it’s perfect.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

I will say not enough people have heard of it: “Corregidora,” by Gayl Jones. A masterpiece.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

My wife, Emily Raboteau, writes a great deal about climate these days so I’ve been reading over her shoulder for some time now. Mary Annaïse Heglar, Elizabeth Rush and Genevieve Guenther are a few favorites.

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

I read the same things when I’m working on a book as I do when I’m not, whatever catches my interest. Inspiration is a limitless resource and you can’t know where it will come from. Books, articles, tweets, song lyrics, words tagged on the window of the train, any one of them can offer me insight.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

I love reading about artists and their terrible, childish ways. The trick is finding books that expose that behavior without endorsing it. That’s a fine line. Usually takes an unauthorized biographer to pull it off. Kitty Kelley’s biography of Frank Sinatra is a classic in the field. Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison, while much less salacious than Kitty Kelley’s, scratched that itch, too.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

Kenzaburo Oe’s “A Personal Matter” has come between me and more than a few classes when I tried to teach that book. The novel is about a young father whose wife has given birth to a child with a catastrophic health issue. The father does not, to put it mildly, handle this well. The short novel is essentially the chronicle of him falling apart and rebuilding himself. But Oe is quite unsparing in his portrayal of the protagonist’s worst actions and feelings. That can be hard for people to read, pretty impossible to like. But I was trying to give an example of how ruthless, and honest, my students should be about their own main characters. Most were unconvinced. They were incorrect.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I spent a lot of time doing research on homesteading practices in the early 20th century. One of the most interesting, and simplest, was to put a bit of burlap over a barrel of water so bugs wouldn’t lay eggs in your water. As a kid from Queens this was MacGyver-level ingenuity, though I imagine it was pretty common sense out there.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

I wish white writers would write about the racism that happens when Black people, or any P.O.C., aren’t around. I don’t want it to be the subject of the novel. Instead, in the middle of a story about two lawyers falling in love, the senior partners just make a bunch of awful remarks at a dinner and then the love story continues. Because that’s actually how it happens. As a Black writer, I’m pretty tired of writing about racism, but white writers keep dropping the ball.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

I’m thrilled, and moved, when writers spend time writing about work. What people do for money, and the kind of expertise required to run anything from a space station to a concession stand. So many writers don’t pay attention to labor of any kind! But the way someone works will tell you as much as, if not more than, endless internal monologues ever will. Stewart O’Nan’s “Last Night at the Lobster” is a book I teach regularly for the way he makes work (at a Red Lobster that’s closing down) into something grand and insightful.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

I love horror, that’s obvious. Historical fiction that isn’t too fussy about its research is always a blast. I love histories of place, deep dives into a region, especially those that I will probably never visit. And through our sons I’ve come to love the “Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales” series. Fully rendered history with a sense of humor, they’re perfect.

Which books got you hooked on horror writing?

Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood” were some of the first to show the depth and breadth of what could be done with the genre and the short story. Barker moved between the gory and the atmospheric, the filthy and the fantastic.

Shirley Jackson and Stephen King are dependable favorites. “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” “The Haunting of Hill House,” “Different Seasons,” “Skeleton Crew,” “Pet Sematary.” Also Robert R. McCammon’s “Blue World,” Ramsey Campbell’s “Demons by Daylight.” I was spoiled for great horror as a kid.

What’s the most terrifying book you ever read?

Despite the long list of horror fiction I’ve just named, the most frightening book I’ve ever read is Jamaica Kincaid’s “The Autobiography of My Mother.” The opening paragraph, wherein the narrator describes her mother dying in childbirth (giving birth to the narrator), ends with such a howl of misery and loss. And then the book keeps going for another 200 pages or so, rarely offering solace of any kind to the reader. It’s bleak! It’s terrifying. And I love it so.

What makes for a good horror novel?

For me, the best horror speaks to a deep fear the author hopes to address, one that feels profoundly personal, and you as the reader are welcome to watch the author/the characters wrestle with it. People sometimes ask why I want to read horror at all, let alone write it. Horror is a fearless genre. So much writing glances off the hardest and worst experiences, but horror confronts the worst that happens. Sometimes the worst can be defeated, but just as often it can’t. Nevertheless, it can be addressed, acknowledged, rather than tidily resolved. A good horror novel doesn’t lie to you.

Do you distinguish between “commercial” and “literary” fiction? Where’s that line, for you?

This can be such a hard line to parse. Marilynne Robinson writes best sellers but no one would ever call her commercial, while the majority of books on the commercial end of the market probably don’t sell much more than a literary midlister. So what marks the difference? Publish “Blood Meridian” on a small press horror list and the mainstream would dismiss it as excessive and silly. Like so many things in this world, your life path depends on the family you’re born into. Which is a long way to say I can only make the distinction after I’ve read the book. Each one is a brand-new case.

How do you organize your books?

I put them on the shelves with their spines facing out.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

“Fit Men Wanted: Original Posters From the Home Front.” I love books on visual design even though I have zero talent for visual art. This book shows 62 posters that are largely text, not images, but their design choices are so interesting. I thumb through it every now and then, just to appreciate the power of a damn good typeface.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read to escape a chaotic household. When you have a book up to your face, you become invisible. While I wasn’t from a family of readers, they did respect the act of reading. As long as I had a book I was safe, or safer at least. I think it’s part of the reason I was drawn to horror as well. Stephen King, Peter Straub, Robert McCammon, those dudes wrote doorstops. They were worth weeks and weeks of protection.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

I never read poetry before I went to grad school. But in my M.F.A. program I got to learn from the great Lucille Clifton and she embodied the living power of poetry. Her work remains spellbinding. From there I read poets like A.R. Ammons, Lucie Brock-Broido, Carl Phillips, Rita Dove and more. These days I devour the work of Solmaz Sharif, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Rickey Laurentiis, Natalie Diaz and so many more. That’s been the biggest change, I added poetry.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Shirley Jackson, Octavia Butler, Jean Rhys and me. Just listing those names, imagining that party, gives me a thrill.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I have found myself putting books down and deciding they were overrated only to return to them, older and finally able to unlock their greatness. So, a few books I’d once found impenetrable but came to love: “Moby-Dick,” “Anna Karenina” and “Beloved,” to name just three.

What do you plan to read next?

I’m looking forward to Mariana Enriquez’s “Our Share of Night.” People I trust tell me it’s a great one. And I was already a big fan of her previous work.

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