Interview: Victor LaValle

"Here's to the Weird": An Interview with Victor LaValle 

by Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Originally published at Specter Magazine

I am drawn to Victor LaValle’s work because he writes about the outcasts. You know, girls like me circa 1998, chubby teen Black girls with cornrows, acne, and closeted obsessions the life cycles of water insects, time travel, and cults. Within the pages of his books, my adolescent self felt kinship with fictional characters. The outcasts in his texts are neither monsters or saints; they are on center stage as leading character, not sideshow spectacle. While it is not LaValle’s accolades that keep me a loyal reader, his honors are worth noting.

LaValle is the author of a collection of short stories, Slapboxing with Jesus, which won the PEN Open Book Award as well as three novels, including The Ecstatic, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, Big Machine, which earned him the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and more recently, The Devil in Silver. He has an active Twitter account that is an entertaining cross section of sarcastic meanderings, writing advice for the young and stubborn, and sharp political commentary. He is also a father of two, husband to writer Emily Raboteau and an Assistant Professor at Columbia University’s creative writing MFA program. And there is so much more, I am not even mentioning.

Throughout the entire interview process, LaValle shared unconditionally, commenting that there are benefits to when your “family is getting into a fistfight in front of you girlfriend…Namely that you say what you are thinking and feeling almost without reservation. Many of the personal facts I’ve shared about my life haven’t seemed like secrets I was revealing.” I appreciate how willing he is to share. I hope you appreciate it as well.

***

Rasheed

When I met you last year at Strand, you signed my book, “here’s to the weird!” And I remember falling in love with your writing because it was so weird and touched on these intricate vulnerabilities and fringe experiences. I felt like you were writing about people like me — it was comforting. How do you define “the weird”? Does “the weird” fit neatly into any literary cannon?

Victor LaValle

It makes me incredibly happy that I could write “here’s to the weird!” in your book and you only found that to be a good thing. Even more so when you state that you felt I was writing about people like you. I hoped that was the case. Because, of course, I’m writing about people like me and it’s a personal relief to know that I’m not alone, so to speak. The family of the weird keeps expanding, or maybe just revealing itself.

As for the literary canon of the “weird.” There’s a long storied one if you just capitalize that ‘w.’ The Weird includes writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, just to name a few. These folks tended to write what might be termed “horror” or “ghost stories” but what made them fit into the more specific “Weird” category is that their works weren’t simply meant to cause a chill through a few spooky scenes and suggestions of grisly death. Instead each of these writers was really tackling the larger task of understanding the utterly impossible true reality of this world. That sounds kind of silly, I think, but I just mean that they used stories of the strange and supernatural to try and poke at the veil of our existence and see what might be on the other side. They had, in some sense, metaphysical aspirations, and I think this is what separates them from others. Of course many of them also told great, scary tales. The two go well together.

I read these writers quite a bit when I was young. I was drawn to horror and supernatural stories, just by the luck of my personality I think, but then to this subset of horror writers because of the grander themes they considered. What is out there? Why do we often feel so lost, so small? Is there more to this world than what our sense easily comprehend? I like those kinds of questions. If there is a literary canon that I might claim, specifically from my youth, then this is it. The Weird. When I got older I came to love other schools of literature—African American lit; Black Diaspora lit; US literary realism; and more—but the Weird was first.

Rasheed

In the acknowledgements of Big Machine, you wrote, “Being a weird black kid can turn you a little crazy unless you have have some role models.” How would you describe your childhood and your cadre of friends?

LaValle

Do you remember a guy nicknamed “Teck” from the The Real World Hawaii? That show, at least in its earlier seasons, which is when I would’ve watched it, always had one black person in the cast of young people coming to live together and “start getting real” or whatever the catchphrase was then. Inevitably this one black person would end up on the outs with a few others, as almost every cast member would be at some point. But in my memory the black characters always took their freak outs way too far. This is, in part, down to editing and to the ways the other, non-black, people in the house might react to a black person’s freak out versus a white person’s. But I also always felt like these black cast members were just acting out of their minds crazy because they were so isolated in that environment. There were always a couple of white guys, a couple of white women, and they would often be seen sharing the small moments of humor and complaint that come with a shared language, a common culture. Nothing wrong with that. Everyone needs it. But the black folks rarely enjoyed the privilege.

But in this Hawaii season, which is about when I aged out of the target viewership, I still remember Teck explaining to the camera, and his housemates, that he was going out to a club that catered to a more black clientele. He looked at the camera and said, “I don’t want to be the crazy black person on the show so I’m going to hang out with some black people.” I’m paraphrasing, but a decade or more later I still remember the glorious and honest moment being broadcast on MTV. It will drive anyone crazy to live in isolation. Shirley Jackson wrote much the same thing in the opening of The Haunting of Hill House. I like that both Shirley Jackson and “Teck” might understand that same truth.

So when I wrote that bit in the acknowledgements of Big Machine, about how being the weird black kid can drive you crazy, I was shouting out that reality. And maybe I was trying to say that I didn’t have enough reflections of myself in my real life back then. I had a wonderful childhood, full of pains and terrors, but also rich with good friends of immensely varied backgrounds. But I admit that at times I still wondered if there were many other kids like me. A very common concern for all children. And each child seeks out community in the way he or she feels best. I had to go searching through the catalogs of history, and literature, and music, and film to find the “weird black kids” of the past, who I thanked in those acknowledgements. They helped me see that there were others like me. Just as you said you felt I was writing about people like you in my book. Think of it like a relay race through time.

Rasheed

When I was young, my mother told me a story about her mother’s friend who joined Jim Jones’ cult, The People’s Temple. I felt sorry about the deaths, but mostly and maybe abnormally so, I was fascinated by the rituals and the “birth narrative” of the cult. In Big Machine, there are several cults.Big Machine left me with a lot of questions regarding religion, black folks, America, poverty, and secrets. Let’s start with this — what is your fascination with cults and cult-like tendencies? Also, can you talk a little bit about how you crafted these varying cults? — Was there research involved? Why a cult started by a runaway slave? 

LaValle

My fascination with cults begins with the family in which I was raised. I believe that all families display cultish behavior, but when I’ve said this some people have accused me of assuming my family was like all others. And maybe we weren’t. So I’ll say that my beautiful, stressful family has a paranoid streak that would’ve impressed J. Edgar Hoover. We were a unit of four: my grandmother, mother, sister, and me. My uncle was also a tertiary member. All others were, on some essential level, suspect. And I mean suspect. Like they are out to hurt us, shame us, steal from us, ridicule us, hate us. When this is the atmosphere of your home it’s easy to lose perspective, to willfully distance yourself from the world, to turn inward without ever really realizing how far inward you’ve gone. Until you are estranged from common reality, even from sanity, and the only world that makes sense is this very strange one to which you’ve become accustomed.

I understand the impulse to depict members of historically oppressed groups as righteous, purely good, but it’s a mistake. Or at least it’s bad writing.

That’s a cult. Whether religious, familial, or even an abusive relationship. When you are cut off from the larger world you are at risk for cultish behavior. Since I knew this kind of reality very well it was almost automatic that I’d write about it. In my first novel, The Ecstatic, I wrote about it in an autobiographical way. In Big Machine I turned the basic theme into a grander storyline.

As for the question of the cults in Big Machine I did some research and I also had some people quite close to me who’d grown up in cultish groups of their own. Religious organizations that enforced much of the same paranoia and mistrust of others. Those people shared their stories with me and that made it into the book.

I wanted the Washburn Library, the largest cult in Big Machine, to have been founded by a runaway slave because I felt I hadn’t seen such a thing before. Why couldn’t a runaway slave be contacted by God? Why couldn’t that slave become the leader of a secret organization? And why couldn’t that slave maybe even become corrupted by his new power and influence? What others have we can also have. That’s one of the themes of that novel. What corrupts others can also corrupt us, that’s another theme. I understand the impulse to depict members of historically oppressed groups as righteous, purely good, but it’s a mistake. Or at least it’s bad writing.

Rasheed

I’ve been holding on to this quote, “The poor aren’t defeated. We’re domesticated.” I’ve been working with youth for over 10 years and in traditional classrooms for 5 years. I am intrigued by what I think you are saying here especially when it comes to students I’ve taught. Can you talk a little about this concept of the domesticated poor versus the defeated poor? How much of this domestication is connected to religion?

LaValle

“Free labor is the cornerstone of US economics.” This is a quote from a song by Killer Mike. (The song is called “Reagan,” and the album is R.A.P. Music and it’s incredible.) I would argue that free labor is the cornerstone of world economics. Egypt never could’ve built those pyramids without the Israelites as slaves, free labor. Russia would never have become a first world power without the tens of millions of gulag prisoners working as a free labor force. And today China is becoming the only possible rival superpower to our own entirely on the backs of hundreds of millions of poor laboring Chinese. You don’t command this kind of work from defeated beings. Defeated beings are checked out from a society, they have shut down and will not be restarted. Domesticated human beings though, like domesticated animals, will work. They will often do it for just enough food and rest to survive. I don’t want to carry this animal analogy too far so I’ll stop now.

Domesticated human beings will show their domestication by the ways they willingly buy into the system that is destroying them. That is designed to destroy them. Rather than wanting to tear down the walls of the temple a domesticated human being simply wants a few square feet inside where he or she can also try to make some money. (Or change some money, as it were.) Of course there’s a narrative that lays the blame for such domestication at the feet of religion, Christianity in particular in this country, but capitalism has done just as good a job, if not better. As have so many other systems. But for me the important distinction is that domesticated beings are no longer a threat, they are in fact allies to those who have trained them.

Poor people, all people, are generally just trying to survive. And survival can be one hell of an accomplishment in this world. Nevertheless, in Big Machine I wanted to discuss the ways that survival isn’t always enough. At times human beings, almost all human beings, want to achieve dignity, to exist as forces of good. The novel is, in a sense, just the mapping of such a journey for Ricky Rice and Adele Henry. From the domesticated poor to the more ideal, unfettered human beings they can be. 

Rasheed

Before we get to The Devil in Silver, I wanted to bounce to The Ecstatic for a moment to talk about addiction because I am interested in addiction as self-domesticating behavior. Anthony James is a fun character for many reasons, but as I’ve read in other interviews, James is autobiographical in some ways. As much as you’d like to, can you talk about who Anthony James is as fictional character and autobiographical subject?

LaValle

I guess I’d say Anthony is the version of myself I feared I’d become. He’s also, in other ways, a better version of myself. What I mean is that in college I was teetering between finishing college, getting a job and all the proper middle-class goals that were passed on to me by my wonderful, striving African immigrant mother and grandmother. On the other side was a headlong slide into despair and self-destruction. Obviously I pulled myself together enough to write a few books. I graduated college and went to grad school. I’m a husband and father and, I hope, good friend to a few. But Anthony is my shadow self and The Ecstatic is a kind of imagining of the life I might’ve led.

To give an example of what I mean the book opens with Anthony living in a house in downtown Ithaca—he’s morbidly obese, unwashed and actually walking around the house naked. There’s a ring at the door and he opens it, still wearing no clothes. Three woman are at the threshold and they look at him with horror. It takes a beat before he realizes this is his mother, sister, and grandmother. They’ve come to get him because they’ve learned, from a dean at his school, that he’s had a breakdown. They pack him up in their rented car and drive him back from Ithaca to Queens where they hope to help him heal and the novel takes off from there.

In real life in 1995 I was living in downtown Ithaca in a house I shared with four other friends. Though I’d had some trouble—got kicked out of school for a semester and worked in Ithaca—I’d managed to get back in and was graduating only a year late. (Should’ve been a class of 1994 grad.) My family—mom, grandma, sister, uncle, aunt-in-law, and little cousin—all drove up to see me graduate. That morning I was waiting for them to pick me up and already had on my graduation gown. I heard a knock at the front door and went to open it. My mother and sister stood at the door and I smiled at them. I hadn’t been back home to Queens in over a year—stayed in Ithaca to work over the summers—so this was the first time my mother had seen me in a long time. I still remember the look of shock on her face. A blend of revulsion and pity and it was the moment when I realized just how bad I must look, how far I’d fallen.

Back to the idea of the cult, I’d become a cult of one. By isolating myself I hadn’t truly noted how much weight I’d gained. I couldn’t see that my dreadlocks hung down over my face like a shade, hiding me. I couldn’t see that the house I was staying in had mounds of crap—books and magazines, old clothes and take out food containers—strewn about everywhere. (Five young guys living together also played a part in this though.) I must’ve looked like a gargoyle to my mother. She must’ve wondered what this thing had done with her son. That’s what I mean when I say The Ecstatic is autobiographical.

Rasheed

Let’s talk a little about The Devil in Silver. It is set in a mental ward. Mental illness shows up in a lot of your work most obviously in The Devil in Silver, but also in Big Machine and The Ecstatic. Why did you choose to write about mental illness? I’ve read before about a history of family mental illness. Beyond the choice of topic, I am more curious why you chose to explore mental illness within the physical setting of a mental institution?

LaValle

Mental illness has definitely been an obsession for me in the last three books. In a way I think you can take all three together and see me peeking at the experience from different angles.

The Ecstatic was the one that felt most personal, and the one where I inhabited the mentally ill character. In Big Machine I’d say that Ricky Rice is actually the sanest human being in the whole damn book. But rather than looking at a realist version of what it would like to live in a world full of unhinged people I decided to have some fun and turn it into a kind of adventure fantasy. The whole country is an asylum in that book and the patients are wrecking the place. Last, with The Devil in Silver, I decided to look at a real asylum, with a realist perspective, and to finally exorcise this demon of mine. That’s why Devil is so unabashedly clear in its politics, in its denunciation of our inept and corrupt mental health care system. I’m purging everything. But I’m also, for the first time, using a main character who has no experience with mental illness. Pepper is a kind of novice in this world and I did that because I understood that many people are unaware of the ins and outs of this type of illness and this type of care. At the very end of the book I have Anthony James, from The Ecstatic, make a cameo. He and Pepper meet in the hallway of New Hyde hospital. I saw this as a way of closing the circle, finishing this (very loosely defined) trilogy. Let’s call them my Madhouse Trilogy.

Rasheed

On that note, how do you write about mental illness and your family while preserving your own privacy as well as the privacy of your family? How has your family responded to your earlier as well as more recent work?

LaValle

I often think I’m preserving the privacy of those I love and I’m shocked when I discover they don’t feel the same. The Ecstatic caused a lot of problems between my mother and me when it was published. She was angriest about the portrayal of the sister character, feeling that I’d betrayed my younger sister and made her seem awful. Funny enough most people who read the book seem to have some sympathy for the sister. If anything they’re harder on the mother. Which is really a way of saying that you really can’t know what will make your loved ones angry. I thought it would be certain behaviors but instead it might be something as simple as how you describe the clothes of that character, or if you mention, in passing, a funny smell. I’ve learned to be a bit better about disguising the people I’m writing about, but it’s a constant battle to respect their privacies while also trying my best to cannibalize their sadness and pain for my own benefit.

As for the more recent work they don’t read it. In truth they’re just not interested. My mother only read The Ecstatic because, by chance, a coworker passed her a review that ran in a newspaper. It was hardly a review, really more of a plot summary, and my mother was so scandalized by the events mentioned that she decided to read the whole thing. Bad idea. All parties are agreed on that point. She’s very proud of me every time I publish. And happy for any and all success I achieve. In return for her general approval I don’t ask her to read a page of it. This way we all stay happy. This is high-level diplomacy, and effective in keeping the peace.

I don’t romanticize that time. We were genuinely broke, lacked confidence in anything but our writing, had only outsized egos to make us believe we’d turn these typed pages into books and those books into careers.

Rasheed

I read a hilarious interview with you in Book Forum by Mat Johnson and now I have a lot of questions, but I will limit myself. What were the first few post-undergrad years of writing like for you? How did being friends and sharing space with Mat Johnson affect your writing?

LaValle

That interview was a lot of fun. Mat and I have known each other over a decade now and, as he mentions in the interview, we lived together for a year or so after we finished our MFAs at Columbia. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to enter the “life of the writer.” We were broke and saddled with debt, both deeply unhappy and mad to write books. He worked nights at Zagats, editing their dining guides, and I worked days at the Barnes & Noble down in Union Square in New York City. We had only one belt between us and since he worked nights and I worked days we traded it for our jobs. We had one belt because of poverty but also because of almost legendary slovenliness. We lived in Harlem, on 135th street and Convent Avenue in a two-bedroom railroad apartment. We ate lots of Chinese food and watched much terrible TV. Our living room couch had no bottom so we just piled stacks of old newspaper inside the frame and placed couch cushions on top. Voila.

And for hours and hours every day we wrote. Mat wrote mornings and I wrote nights. On the weekends, eating breakfast or dinner, we’d talk about what we were doing on the page. We’d bounce ideas off one another and then trade pages and scribble edits in the margins. We both felt that most writers are terrible readers of their own work, that’s why readings generally suck, so we’d practice in the bathroom. One stood in front of the bathroom mirror and worked at looking up from the page, making eye contact with his reflection, an audience of one. And the other sat on the toilet shouting things like, “I can’t hear you and I’m only five feet away!” Or, “Your monotonous delivery is fucking putting me sleep!” These days Mat and I can deliver a pretty damn good reading to a crowd and that all started back in that jacked up bathroom.

I don’t romanticize that time. We were genuinely broke, lacked confidence in anything but our writing, had only outsized egos to make us believe we’d turn these typed pages into books and those books into careers. We were lonely much more often than dating. Also we dressed like bums. But it was a beginning. One we chose for ourselves and worked like lunatics to pursue. In that way I cherish it and feel ridiculously proud of us both.

Rasheed

Now, I imagine that there are other things you could be doing. Why do you write? When you feel like giving in, what keeps you going? When self-loathing reaches an extreme, how do you back away and recalibrate?

LaValle

Here I want to talk a little bit about joy. Most writers, their inborn personalities, don’t seem all that joyful. We’re mopes. We’re whiners. We’re narcissists of a very high order. I certainly have all those traits. Had them ever since I was pretty young. But the two times when those traits seem to be held at bay are when I’m reading and when I’m writing. Maybe the reading part is obvious. When the book is good I willfully lose myself in those pages. I forget my appointments and anxieties and just keep turning pages. For me this is clearly joy.

When I write, when I’m really working well, it’s much the same. I know that’s not the case for every writer, many sweat over each line and feel anguish with each word chosen. But here’s what I think: that is joy for a certain kind of person. Whether a writer or not. I can’t see why else they’d keep coming back to it if it wasn’t rewarding them in some way. Even if that reward is simply to make them feel terrible about themselves which they’ve learned—for better or worse—is how they are “meant” to feel. As for me, when the story gets going and I’m really coasting I feel fantastic. If I come up with something particularly surprising or vivid I’ll feel so good I laugh or have to get up from the table and walk around a little bit, pacing with passion. This is why I do it. Because it makes me feel good much of the time. Not all the time, but when its awkward or aggravating I remind myself of the good times and strive to get back into that groove. I know it feels great when it’s going well so I keep at it until it feels great again. If that analogy sounds a bit like taking a drug I’d agree. But I’m not chasing a high I’ll never experience again. I will experience it again. So I keep going back. It’s not smoking, it’s heroin.

As for self-loathing that has nothing to do with the writing. My self-loathing predates my writing. I also feel self-loathing when I pull on a shirt and notice it’s too tight. I feel self-loathing when I yell at my son for what is, in the end, a minor indiscretion. When I don’t call my mother or sister enough. When I ignore the needs of my friends. When I turn on the tv instead of reading a book. When I’m reading a book instead of taking a nap. The self-loathing is like a hot wind that’s always blowing and all daily experiences are simply different vessels for channeling the wind. So I don’t blame writing for that. I go to therapy.

Rasheed

I know some writers say that do not read their book reviews — they probably do, who knows. Do you? What do you get from them, if anything?

LaValle

I enjoy reading nearly all my reviews, and I read all of them. I like the positive ones, of course. Those make me feel wonderful. I love being lavished with praise. The smart, negative ones can also be useful, though more painful. My first reaction to all negative reviews, smart or stupid, is to plan a brutal and elaborate revenge on the writer of the piece. My second reaction, upon a later reading, is to sift through to see if there’s anything I can learn from. I’d say for each book there have been at least two or three negative reviews that have helped inspire some change, some improvements, in the next book.

The only reviews that are genuinely worthless are the ones that are mere plot summaries. Take a risk! Have an opinion! Plot summaries weren’t even useful when kids were doing them in sixth grade.

I’ve always been the writer I wanted to be, it’s just that the writer I want to be has changed. 

Rasheed

How close are you to being the writer you want to be? Or maybe a better question is this — how close are you to being the writer you think you are supposed to be?

LaValle

I’ve always been the writer I wanted to be, it’s just that the writer I want to be has changed. At each stage I really have been trying my hardest to make use of every tool at my disposal. To write well, with intelligence, to surprise and enrapture my reader. That’s what I’ve been trying to do each time I published a book, each time I sat down to write. With each book though I’ve realized that as good as I might be I could still get better. I could do more, or do the same thing differently. I could improve. I see that as my continuing task as a writer and, generally, as a human being. The only end point to both projects will be death. (Or retirement, at least.)

Rasheed

What is the best critique of your writing you have ever received? What advice would you give to young writers?

LaValle

When I was a freshman I took a writing workshop that was filled mostly with other freshman and sophomores but also one senior. One week I turned in a story called “Bleed the Freak.” I stole the title from a song by a band called Alice in Chains. In my story a group of boys goes out to play in Flushing Meadow Park. One kid is a bit of a loser but is invited along by the charismatic and cruel leader of the boys. They play baseball then tag but at a certain point they start to hunt the weakest kid, chasing after him with greater and greater savagery. In the last scene of the story they’ve pushed the kid down a gully and he lies there terrified and injured. The leader of the boys instructs everyone to pick up a rock. They stand at the top of the gulley and look down on the injured boy. Then the leader says, “Bleed the freak.” End of story.

I was proud of this piece because I’d been reading Shirley Jackson (The Lottery, obviously) and a Stephen King story called “Apt Pupil” that also traded on the barbarism of human beings. I stole elements from those stories and then I stole the title from someone else. Somehow I thought of this story as “mine.” I guess because I added the original element of Flushing Meadow Park.

Anyway, the real point of this anecdote is that I got back the responses from my fellow students and grinned as each student gave me kudos for being “creepy” or “disturbing.” It didn’t matter to me, really, that this story was simply an imitation, an amalgam, of famous stories, what mattered was that I’d elicited the same reaction that those original stories had elicited from me.

Then I got to the comments from the senior in the workshop. He hadn’t written anything in any of the margins. Hadn’t underlined or check marked any of the sentences throughout. In fact he had only one note, one word, and it came right after the last line. Right after, “Bleed the freak.”

The senior had written, “oooooooh.”

I felt so stupid. It was like he’d shocked me with a taser. Suddenly I saw all the rickety machinery of my story in a new light. Not just because it was a cheap scare, a cheesy last line, but an old device that I’d swiped from the writers who actually put in some work to make it theirs. He’d called me out, whether intentionally or not, for being a hack. And he’d done it with one word! I tend to think of that moment as a real turning point for me. When I had to realize that simply copying my betters wasn’t making me a better writer. If I wanted to be a better writer I had to come up with my own material. Inspired by someone else is fine—even essential—but you can’t just jack people’s whole act. Otherwise you’re like that idiot who got caught stealing Patrice O’Neal’s jokes online.

If I had to offer a piece of advice to young writers I’d offer this as the first: are you finding a way to make the stories yours? The only thing that’s going to make you an interesting writer is to insert your own quirks and interests and voice into the tales. The plots themselves are all old hat. It’s the details that make writing new.

The other piece of advice? Ask yourself if you’re enjoying what you’re doing. If you’re not what could you do, what could you write, that would bring you the greatest pleasure? Honestly, what would it be? YA? Romance? A comic book? Go write that.

The only think that separates a writer from a non-writer is that the non-writer gives up.

Rasheed

Writing rituals? — Where do you write? When do you write?

LaValle

My writing rituals are based entirely on the fact that my wife and I have two children. Before our kids came I wrote based solely on inspiration, which meant I really only wrote about six months out of every year. (If you totaled up the time spent at the computer.) Now I realize inspiration isn’t something that strikes you but something you stimulate, like your heart rate. Think of achieving inspiration like doing some kind of cardio exercise. Get on the road and start running and your heart will beat faster soon enough.

Because of the kids I’ve only got couple of hours each day free. (And even that is a blessing compared to most working parents.) I sit down for two hours and I start writing, doesn’t matter if I feel good about what I’m getting down I just need to get the mind moving. Soon enough I’m actually awake to the words on the page and feeling that inspiration like a quick thumping in my chest. By the one-hour mark I’m doing real work and by the end of the second hour I’m spent. That’s it.

Just because I felt good during those two hours doesn’t mean I actually wrote well. Much of what I did that day will be junk. But there will be a half hour worth of strong material in there, a page or two worth saving. Do that every day five days a week—as I do now—and you’ll produce five hundred pages in a year. If you can’t spare two hours make it an hour. It’s the repetition that matters, the routine. The only think that separates a writer from a non-writer is that the non-writer gives up. The only thing that makes you a non-writer is that you stop writing. If you’re writing as regularly as you can then guess what, regardless of publications or prizes or agents or any of that stuff, you are a writer. You are a writer.

Rasheed

You and your writer wife Emily Raboteau just had your second child. Congratulations! How do the two of you balance being invested parents and writers? What is the greatest joy of parenthood? What was your greatest fear?

LaValle

Thanks for your congratulations. Emily gave birth to our little girl in March. Our boy is two. I think it’s safe to say that having them that close has been kicking my ass (and Emily’s) on a daily basis. That’s just the truth of it. Tired, short-tempered, tired, and crabby. That’s been me these last few months. In other words it’s completely run of the mill parenting. The other part of it, of course, is the joy and love. We’ve been very lucky and have two healthy kids who are, 99% of the time, gems.

The greatest joys of parenthood are endless. Whether it’s the smiles or the silly songs my son makes up while playing with his toys or the way my daughter laughs when I toss her in the air. The greatest fear is pretty easy, it’s just that they will come to great harm. And that we won’t be able to protect them from that harm.

Rasheed

Finally, what’s next for you?

LaValle

My next novel is about how posting photos of your children on Facebook will get them kidnapped and killed. In other words, I’m taking my greatest parental fear and inflicting it on the world. It’s going to be a beast! A troll, actually.

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