Victor LaValle’s dreamlike Big Machine (arriving in March, already festooned with awards)is one of the most striking and powerful books to hit the Crime Time mailbox in a while. We asked its provocative New Yorker author, Victor La Valle, if he’d give us the lowdown on it…
Hell yeah, let’s talk about Big Machine for little while. Happy to do so.
Religion is a key issue for me in this book and many people have asked me why. The simple answer is this: I’m an American. Aren’t we supposed so be one of the most religious countries on earth? Living here, I’d have to say it’s true. But when it comes to Americans I’d say there’s another quality that’s even truer: we are enthusiastic. Enthusiastic as hell. By that I mean that we’re incredibly religious but that’s just one of the vehicles for our national character. Have you seen how our militant vegans act? Our pro-gun population? Our pro and anti abortion constituencies? Even our atheists are, it’s safe to say, kind of fanatical about it. While Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens talk a good game, our non-believers are the ones who want to punch you in the face until you stop believing in god, any god. So that’s what really at the heart of my book, and my interest in American religion. Enthusiasm is our common trait. I wanted to explore that enthusiasm to both its best, and worst, ends.
The writers who meant the most to me when I first started, talking in my teens here, were horror writers by and large. I mean Stephen King and Shirley Jackson, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell. Eventually I found my way to Patricia Highsmith, who I adore (which is a strange word to use in relation to Ms. Highsmith!) and Chester Himes. Each one can write beautifully at times, and each one can also tell a compelling story. I didn’t realize I was learning this from them at the time, I was just enjoying some good books.
I’ve got a number of writers who are friends, close or distant, and part of that friendship has been based on the fact that I love to read their work. There’s Mat Johnson, Colson Whitehead, Danzy Senna. ZZ Packer. Recently I’ve read good work by Yiyun Li, Dolen Perkins Valdez, and Steven Millhauser. I do try and read outside of my field as well, whether it’s non fiction (Jennie Erin Smith’s Stolen World, a history of worldwide reptile smuggling is amazing) or Maggie Estep, her Ruby Murphy mysteries series are pretty terrific. Attica Locke and Jeff Vandermeer are also wonderful.
The question of how to approach writing violence can be tough one. It’s always strange to me when there’s none in a book, since even the bumping in a crowded supermarket can feel quite violent if you’re a terrible mood. But when the story is simply a series of grisly acts that also feels unrealistic since, in the case of most human beings, life is rarely only violence. (Even the roughest thug takes a shower now and then, or watches some television and has a laugh.) I think the best use of violence comes from the supermarket example above. The mood of the character, of the scene, of the book, should determine how much violence appears and how its rendered. I remember once getting my ass beat by a friend, in the middle of the day, and it was the funniest incidents in my life. It was funny, even in the moment because the reason for our fight was ridiculous, and the way I’d started the fight even sillier. (I spit in his face. He proceeded to teach me why I shouldn’t do that.) To write such a scene as pure drama wouldn’t tell the truth of it. That’s the guide I use.
When it comes to sex you have another issue entirely. Then issue there is how to make anything seem less than silly. I never liked the euphemism when it comes to describing genitals. "Her touched her sex." "She held his manhood." Doesn’t it just sound stupid? Call it what it is. A person who wants to read a sex scene without the words pussy or dick (or some other specific term) is a person who shouldn’t be reading a sex scene. Let them read "heavy petting" books! There are plenty of those, too.
I think the appeal of my books, particularly Big Machine, comes from the same combination I mentioned earlier. Beautiful writing and a compelling story. Plus, my book is funny as shit.
I’ve written three books now, and the first two were written primarily for myself, while this latest one was written with a reader (who wasn’t me) in mind. The difference is striking, even to me. I’m incredibly proud of the first two books but I think you can see the ways I’m sorting of sifting through my own life story and trying to find meaning, value, a point to it all. If your interests in life, even your experiences, happen to overlap with the ones in those books then you’ll have a pretty profound experience while reading them. But if not? Maybe then the books can keep you at a distance. But this last book—which is even wilder, more improbable, much less likely to be like anything anyone anywhere has ever lived—is more welcoming to the reader, nearly any reader. And that’s because this time I wasn’t simply interested in writing about myself, in some sense. I was interested in writing about two characters, a man and a woman, who were specific, idiosyncratic, complex but who might also share quite a bit with nearly any adult who has seen a few ups and down in life. If you’ve been through a little hell you’ll recognize Ricky and Adele. That’s different from my previous mindset. And I like this newer mindset very much. I write to communicate with people. I don’t like talking to myself.
I’m working hard on my next book, a novel, called The Devil in Silver. To give a short summary: it’s a novel about four people—two women and two men—who have been committed, separately, to a mental ward at a public hospital in Queens. These four patients become convinced that one of the other patients is the Devil, and decide they must kill him. It all seems like a shared delusion until, one by one, each of them starts dying off. So what’s killing them? The Devil? Or something else?
Big Machine is published by No Exit Press.