The scope of the award-winning Victor LaValle's last novel, Big Machine, gave the author the highest profile of his career. The novel straddles genres effortlessly while commenting on subjects like mental illness, horror, and religion"”three of the author's self-professed obsessions, according to a Wall Street Journal profile. In Big Machine, an ex-junkie named Ricky Rice who has survived a cult's mass suicide receives a mysterious letter that catapults him right into the middle of vast conspiracies.
Compared to the work of both Pynchon and Murakami, Big Machine manages to be deep and wide and personal. Publisher Weekly's starred review read in part, "Ricky's intoxicating voice--robust, organic, wily--is perfect for narrating LaValle's high-stakes mashup of thrilling paranormal and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, as the [main character]--something of a modern Odysseus rallied by a team of spiritual X-men--wanders through America's messianic hoo-hah."
This month, Spiegel & Grau published the trade paperback of Big Machine. It seemed like a good time for Amazon.com to catch up with the author and find out what he's been up to...
Amazon.com: In some ways, Big Machine seems like a departure from your previous work. Has this novel changed your relationship with your audience in any way?
Victor LaValle: This book marked some pretty distinctive changes for me. The greatest change is probably that I gave myself the most room to be completely myself on the page. By that I mean I could stop trying to craft single-minded tight little stories because, I'll be blunt, I suck at that. It's a talent I just don't have. But to create something that's absolutely bursting with energy and ideas, humor and wildness, that I think can do. And to my great joy--shock--this book has been embraced more energetically than anything I've done before. It's an old lesson, but one each of has to learn again and again: no one can be you but you. So, really, my audience has only made me feel more sure that I should continue to be idiosyncratic artist I am.
Amazon.com: With the trade paperback now coming out, you've had ample opportunity to read the reviews and hear from readers. Anything that you found surprising, funny, or horrifying in the reactions?
Victor LaValle: The most wonderful surprise has come when someone who "shouldn't" enjoy the book writes to me or comes up to me at a reading and tells me how much the book has meant to them. I'm guilty of a limited imagination myself sometimes, no more so than when I imagined who might hold tight to this book. Basically, I figured it would be me and my editor (I figured even my mom would sort of shrug in bewilderment and still give me a proud little pat on the back). Don't get me wrong, some people have been completely puzzled by this book, but I think of it as communicating on a certain register--a kind of dream frequency--and it's reached those people who are attuned. I like to think of that John Carpenter movie, Prince of Darkness, where people from the future are sending messages backward in time but the characters in the present can only register them as disturbing, haunting dreams. That's what this book is, a tachyon pulse from the future! (Or some other ridiculous quasi-scientific explanation.)
Amazon.com: You started out as a short story writer and now have had two novels published. Do you see yourself going back and forth between the two forms, or do you think you're primarily a novelist now?
Victor LaValle: I'm working on a short story right now, actually. Like I mean I just got down to it a day or so ago. I love the short story form and I hope to continue working in it, going back and forth between then novel and the short story, and even a novella that's in the works. The story will dictate the form, not the other way round.
Amazon.com: Can you give Amazon readers a general sense of your life over the past year or so? Have you mostly been writing, teaching, or"¦?
Victor LaValle: The last year has been pretty wonderful. I got married, moved to Amsterdam for five months with my wife, and now we're having a dang kid in May! I started teaching at Columbia University in January 2011 and I'm trying to knock off two projects, a novel and a short book of non-fiction/travelogue. Things are busy, in other words, but it's the best kind of busy. Also, I grew a mustache (prepping for that "dad" role, I think) so that's taking up what's left of my free time.
Amazon.com: In terms of writing, are there any issues or questions that are foremost in your mind these days?
Victor LaValle: Big Machine was my fatherhood novel. It should've been obvious to me while I wrote it but only became clearer after I published it and could hold it far enough from my eyes to focus. To see it like a reader instead of the writer, in other words. So right now I'm wrestling with the question of tests. Not just whether we pass o fail, but whether we're even prepared to take them. In other words, fatherhood may still be on my mind!
Amazon.com: Have you read any books recently that you'd recommend to Amazon readers?
Victor LaValle: Three books I'd recommend to anyone and everyone: Mat Johnson's Pym, Jennie Erin Smith's Stolen World, and Harlem is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. And going farther back I'd recommend three works of non-fiction by three legendary fiction writers: Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston, and Black Power by Richard Wright.
Amazon.com: And can you tell us some specifics about whatever fiction you're working on now?
Victor LaValle: I'm working on a novel about four people who've been committed to a public mental hospital in Queens. They become convinced that one of the other patients, one who is kept in a solitary room on the ward, is actually the Devil and they must kill. It all seems like a delusion but then, when they try to kill off this patient they start dying off one by one. Going head to head with the Devil just isn't succeeding. The patients will have to figure out a different way to fight if they ever hope to win. Also, I'm going to sneak the story of Vincent Van Gogh's life into this bad boy.
Amazon.com: If you had to describe the current state of Victor LaValle in just a few words, what would you say?
Victor LaValle: A rush and a push and the land is ours.