The Devil in Silver: A Novel
Spiegel & Grau, 2012
432 pp., 34.0
Interview by David J. Michael
Writing for the Reader
Editor's note: Victor LaValle is the author of four books of fiction: Slapboxing with Jesus (1999), The Ecstatic (2002), Big Machine (2009), and The Devil in Silver (2012). I have copies of all of them at home—including a permabound ex-library edition of Slapboxing with Jesus, which Vintage published as a paperback original—and I'm looking forward to his next book. In the meantime, here's a conversation between LaValle and David Michael that will reward your attention from start to finish and send you, maybe, to the library or the bookstore.
The Devil in Silver is set in a psychiatric hospital in Queens, which you note at the beginning is the most diverse urban area in the world. You also grew up there. How has Queens shaped your imagination and the way you write?
I'd like to answer the question, first, by listing the last names of the best friends I grew up with on the block. Ortiz, Dadgar, Lee, Jackson, van Akelijen, Amoroso. That's a Columbian, a Persian, a Korean, a black American, a Dutch kid, and an Italian. I could go on and the list would include another two dozen national origins. My family counts as well, my mother emigrated from Uganda as an adult.
I don't simply mean to make a point about diversity of ethnicities, but also about points of view. About personal myths and politics. I traveled the world every time I left my house. The quirks and customs of these families, their cultures, were imprinted on me early. The ways my writing blends genres, styles, is directly a result of that childhood. I couldn't separate all those influences on me even if I tried. And I don't want to try. For any and all hardships we might've experienced when I was young, I feel some completely lucky to have been raised in that place, and in that time. It was like seeing the future. The gorgeous mongrel reality of 21st century America was simply the present day of Queens in the 1970s.
You mentioned the way your writing blends styles and genres. The Devil in Silver was marketed as literary horror, but it has elements of magical realism, and even a little metafiction. Did you set out to write a certain style of book, or did that just evolve once you decided to write a book set in a psychiatric ward?
I do find that the labels for my work tend to come well after I've written the book. I've seen The Devil in Silver referred to as "literary horror," "psychological thriller," "character study," and even a "political" novel. To which I say, yes! All those and more. I find that I most love the writers who are usually placed within one genre or another but whose actual work defies such simplicity. For instance, John Cheever. Before I read him I guess I thought he was just Updike with a smaller nose. But Cheever is a total loon. His short stories are fantastical, satirical, romantic, and realist. Often, somehow, at the same time. They're just Cheever. I think any good artist, finally, is trying to create work that is singular. Mine, regardless of where they might be shelved, are just LaValle.
After finishing The Devil in Silver, I went back and read Slapboxing with Jesus. Stylistically, your writing has changed a fair amount. Is there anything that you've been reading lately that you feel shaped your style in The Devil in Silver?
The styles are definitely different. I think age has something to do with it: Slapboxing is the work of a 26-year-old, and I think it sounds like it. The slang and the subject matter were almost indistinguishable from the way I sounded and the life I'd lived. In a sense that book is a work of personal testimony. Devil, written by me as a 39-year-old man, is less stressed about telling you about me and more passionate about the people I've known, the experiences they've gone through. It's the testimony of an eyewitness. This had a serious effect on the writing, from the prose to the insertion of nonfiction and even authorial asides, in parenthesis, where I address the reader directly.
I was reading a fair bit of 19th-century writing at the time. Great Expectations, Emma, Vanity Fair, to name a few. There are so many rules about literary fiction now, what qualifies and what doesn't, what its subject matter must be and how it should all be arranged. It can all be pretty stifling. Which is why I had to leap back over the 20th century and remind myself that you can do whatever you pull off. Certainly Dickens, Austen, and Thackeray did.
I also picked up Norman Mailer around the time I was writing The Devil in Silver. I especially loved The Armies of the Night. I met Mailer once, in 1998. I was living in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on a writer's fellowship. Mailer lived in town. Me and another fellow would see Mailer in town, walking around using a cane in either hand. He must've been in his seventies. We just bumrushed the front door and rang the bell until his wife, Norris, came to answer it. We asked if we could meet the big man. She let us in, and he saw us in his living room. I told him I had a book coming out called Slapboxing with Jesus. In turn, he said, "I once slapboxed with an Indian coming off a plane in Alaska." He generously talked with us for about a half-hour and explained that at this age he really didn't want to socialize. He only wanted to write books, do that until he died. He wished us both well, and his very kind wife showed us out the door. This story has nothing to do with your question, but answering your question made me think of it.
Your work is concerned with sex, violence, and, for lack of a better term, social justice. When you were reading Mailer, or meeting him, for that matter, was it a hangup that he'd stabbed his ex-wife? I haven't read him yet, in part because it seems like his life overshadowed his writing, and I was suspicious of that. He seemed like more an icon than a writer. (I wrote my master's thesis on The Pale King, and in some ways, I really beatified Wallace because of the virtues his writing espoused. The quest to figure out what it means to be human in this age. So when I read the new D. T. Max bio, which describes, among other things, Wallace trying to buy a gun to kill Mary Karr's then-husband, as well as Wallace's practical addiction to seducing women, I was kinda disappointed. That sounds naive, I know …)
Everyone is going to disappoint you if you get to know them well enough. I don't mean that in a dismissive way, but to say that it's important to think about why we ask so much of the people we idolize. Why must they pass the test of perfection? Or even just amiability? This is certainly the case with artists, but it applies to my priest and my postman, too. I don't know how I would've reacted if I'd known Mailer stabbed his wife before me and my friend showed up at his house. Would it have stopped us? I doubt it. Mailer sure wasn't a wilting violet, but I'd hate to disqualify artists simply because their personalities were remarkable. Caravaggio was a scumbag and a street fighter, Flannery O'Connor a racist, and, from her letters, a bit of a pill. I love the work both produced though, without reservation. The saints weren't even saints.
Something of the spirit of what you just described, maybe we'll call it giving people the benefit of the doubt, is very much present in The Devil in Silver. Almost without exception (Mr. Mack? or maybe Loochie's brother?), all the characters are portrayed charitably, even sympathetically. You go out of your way to explain why the antagonists—the negligent hospital staff, the mother who has her teenage daughter institutionalized, even "the Devil" who haunts the psychiatric ward—are the way they are, often because they're stuck in really dysfunctional systems. I was wondering if you could comment on that. Were you trying to stretch the reader?
I have a natural tendency to be short-tempered, judgmental, superior, a bit bullying, stubborn, and sure that I know better than most much of the time. Not everyone is this way, I know, but I certainly am. I recognize that this has been helpful to me in some ways (we're in touch now because I've been stubborn and arrogant enough to keep writing books and think others will enjoy them), but I also know these traits can be a great detriment to my understanding of the world. I'm often very happy to size people up, and I'm not always generous when I do.
In that sense, I write with the idea of giving my characters the benefit of the doubt because I know that very often I don't do the same with people in the real world. I fail to see their complexity. I fail to see our shared humanity. I fail to imagine that their lives are as valuable as mine. So when I wrote this book, I'd keep an eye on which characters were still caricatures. One draft it was the staff. Another it was the patients. Then the Devil himself. And in each subsequent draft I wrote with an eye toward making that character (those characters) into fuller, more interesting people. I did this to serve the characters, and the book, but also to remind myself to at least try to be more thoughtful, more generous, whenever I can. I like to think that even Mr. Mack gets a nod, an acknowledgement of his potential for goodness. There's a scene in a pizza shop where I try to make clear that he's been shaped, warped, by the system he lives in. And that is part of his tragedy.
Loochie's brother is probably the only character I was unreservedly hard on—he's an arrogant boob—and that's because, of course, he's based on me. I can take it.
Many of the characters seemed to be failed by a system, whether it's the justice system, the healthcare system, or the immigration system. It is a surprisingly political book. In particular, I thought you did a good job at revealing America's very broken immigration system. How did that come to play such a large role in the book?
None of that was planned. The only thing I really had in mind was to have a man trapped inside a hospital, and for him to find that getting out was much more difficult than going in. But the moment that becomes the point, there's no way to avoid asking the question why.
I think, to speak very broadly, the question of how and why systems work the way they do is ignored by American culture. We tend to focus our narratives on individual triumph and/or struggle. This is worthwhile too, of course, but ignoring systems is a good way to ensure that they're never challenged. Because this book was about the kind of people who are really poorly served by many of the systems in America, I felt it was important to show the wires in the puppet show, so to speak.
It's silly, or arrogant, to hope that a book might effect some sort of real change in the world, in people's lives, but I'm just that foolish and egotistical. I hoped this book might, in some way, bring news about people's suffering and—this is important—their triumphs. Generally, I find this type of concern absent in contemporary American literature. I would've felt terrible if I used this setting, these people, and simply told a tale about wacky patients doing wacky things, divorced entirely from the causes of their turmoil.
What do you hope to do with your art? Or, perhaps, what do you want your fiction to achieve?
My answer to this question has changed over time. I think when I was very young, a teenager, I hoped to entertain others. To bring a chill and sometimes a smile to the reader. When I finished graduate school, my impulse had changed. I wanted to bring glory upon myself. I wanted to be respected for my craftsmanship and, in some way, to be honored alongside those writers I revered. I don't think these are bad goals, but I didn't really have the reader in mind.
I think I've managed to synthesize these disparate aspects of myself. I still want to be respected, revered. I want people who love finely crafted language to feel awe at least once or twice on every page of my books. (Still egotistical, in other words.) But I hope to use the aspects of fine craftsmanship that I've learned in an effort to solicit those more primal feelings in a reader, the ones I hoped for when I was a teenager. I hope to write well and cause powerful emotional reactions in the people who read my books. I hope to make readers scared, scandalized, disgusted, and joyful. I hope to make people laugh and, when they set the book down, to think slightly differently about themselves and others, even if it only lasts for a little while. I would like it if my books, by the end, made my readers feel a little less despair and maybe even gave them reasons for optimism. In other words, I want way too damn much, and I expect it all.
What caused your perspective to change? Is the writing-for-glory something that you outgrew?
I never outgrew it, I only added other concerns. I still write-for-glory. Though, to be fair, I also board-the-subway, do-my-laundry, and teach-my-classes for glory. I like glory. I admit this without reservation. Hopefully, though, I've figured out that that glory is, in part, earned through service to others rather than simply to myself. I shine more when others shine. I do better when those around me succeed. That kind of thing. Thinking that way necessitates a certain reappraisal of methods, I suppose. To put it more simply, being selfish wasn't actually bringing me much adulation, money, or happiness. Maybe when I was around 30 I figured I'd try (a little more) selflessness. It was a good choice.
You mentioned earlier that you want to use your craftsmanship to move the reader. It sounds like it's an orientation, an attitude, that you have when you write. But I also wonder if it guides the way you plot stories, the way you create characters, and the way that you structure sentences. If you'll permit a bad metaphor, is it the rudder you guide writing with, or is it the final port you hope to arrive at? Or in short, how does one write for the reader?
How to reach the reader! One of the toughest questions around. Because, of course, who can ever be sure? Even the bestselling writer on earth, let's say Stephen King, goes unread by the vast majority of the world's readers. (Not to mention the even vaster majority of the world's non-readers.) Still, I don't want to be facetious and leave it at some vague mystery. I have my ideas about the subject and how I try to bridge the gap between my book and my reader. So I'll just explain what goes into my process.
First, I write for Readers, not Professionals. By "Professionals" I guess I mean fellow writers, critics, reviewers, agents, editors. Anyone who works at or with writing. This hasn't always been the case. Only the last two books. Previously, if I'm being honest, I didn't really think about this issue. As a result I think I wrote for the default audience I knew, which was mostly other writers, and in the long run I think this was a problem.
In my experience, a book that is 70 percent successful, say, and 30 percent unsuccessful is a good or great book to the majority of Readers. For them the book has done its job—to entertain, to edify, to inspire, to impress—more than enough to pass. 70 percent or more earns a Reader's positive feeling. But with Professionals, a book that succeeds at "only" 70 percent of what it aims to do is dismissed at a categorical failure. Another way to put it is that Readers are, generally, generous while Professionals … are less so. (And, as an aside, I've never read a book that was more than maybe 80 percent successful, and the one book that scored that high was a novella, Benito Cereno.) I try to think of myself as writing for Readers, now, because it allows me to have faith in a certain generosity that I might not offer myself, and that I certainly don't expect from other Professionals. This doesn't mean I dumb things down or try to hard to please in my fiction. In fact, when thinking of Readers as my audience I only feel bolder. I know that they might find the odd subplot, the experiment with language, the blend of genres and sensibility appealing, even exciting. As a result I want to offer them more than I might if I were worrying too much about the reactions of folks who can be as ungenerous as I can be.
On a more specific note, since I've decided to write to Readers instead of Professionals, I've also tried to pick one specific Reader, one person, and tell the story to him or her. John Edgar Wideman has a great quote about this. I'm going to paraphrase. He says that reading a story is like intercepting a private letter that's meant for one specific individual but that's somehow made its way to you. I like this idea very much.
Picking one person, one who isn't too close to you (and the story you're trying to tell) but isn't too far (not a stranger, in other words), can create exactly the right distance. He or she is intimate enough that you will tell the story with your own voice, your personality and quirks. In other words you'll be speaking with a friend and not some imagined reader. You want it to be someone with a little distance, though; otherwise you'll fall into the kind of easy, cryptic banter that best friends and family members may understand but others won't. I can say a certain word to my sister ("Obsession") and we'll break down laughing. But it won't mean much of anything to you. You might grin politely, but you won't feel included. So you want to avoid anyone that close to the story because you do need to explain, set scenes, create a story.
My last two books were written to two specific people. Old friends who I haven't hung out with in a long while. They knew me well enough that I could employ my sense of humor and indulge my penchant for the strange, but because we last spoke when we were in our early twenties, I still felt the need to interest them in the story I was trying to tell. That's the sweet spot for storytelling.
There's been a fair amount of criticism of MFA programs, much of it boiling down to the claim that you can't teach writing. You have an MFA from Cornell and teach fiction writing at Columbia University. I'm wondering what you learned from your MFA program, and also, what you try to do as a teacher. Finally, do you think teaching fiction has changed the way you write fiction?
First, writing can be taught. I want to state that as clearly as possible because it's what matters most in this discussion. I teach writing, in part, because I do believe it can be taught. Also for the health insurance.
It's important to define what I mean, though. Much of the time when people ask whether writing can or can't be "taught," they aren't actually talking about writing. They're talking about "creativity" or "ambition" or "endurance." None of these things can be taught, though they can be encouraged.
When I talk about "writing," I'm talking about some fairly clear and essential elements. Music and painting and dance can all be taught, and there's very little handwringing over whether this is the case. Each of these arts clearly requires a set of technical skills than can be seen/understood by even the most casual viewer. Hardly anyone can dance, paint, or play music without any instruction at all. The crucial mistake folks make is to think that writing somehow lacks the same kind of technical skill. If a person has learned how to write an email (or in the olden days, a "letter"), then he or she should understand how to write a story or a novel. That's the mistaken thinking. A story or a novel is simply an extended email, or letter. Of course anyone who has ever tried to write, or tell, a good story knows this isn't true. Just because you can move around to music doesn't mean you can dance. Plinking out a very basic melody on a piano doesn't make you a pianist. Literacy doesn't guarantee literature.
Does that mean that everyone needs to take a writing class? All the world needs an MFA? No. Of course not. Plenty of writers, the argument goes, wrote great books before MFA programs appeared. This is true, without question, but a limited point of view. Don't think of MFA programs as an entirely new phenomenon, but as a new—and institutionalized—continuation of the oldest methods for teaching amateurs to become proficient and maybe even professional. A novice comes under the tutelage of an experienced mentor. That mentor helps to teach the novice how the trade works. The novice become a pro and takes on students of his own. The pros work together, offer each other support and advice and so on. This is a practice as old as guilds, but we don't have to go that far back in time.
Think of Ernest Hemingway working as a journalist. Submitting his articles to an editor who explained why the writing was precise enough, who instructed Ernest on how to make the story clear and understandable, how to create drama that would interest/entice the reader. And, when the work was in good shape, helped Hemingway get it published. This is professional training. This is learning how to "write." No editor injected Hemingway with his point of view, his obsessions, his life perspective, but editors sure taught him how to be concise, how to make a scene vivid with proper use of detail. It's worth naming just a few of the great writers who went to writing school through the journalism trade. Hemingway, of course. Katherine Anne Porter, Nelson Algren, Dickens and Twain in earlier eras. Pauline Kael was a pretty spectacular writer who just happened to write film criticism.
I point this part out, at length, because I want to make clear that while I think writing can be taught I sure don't think it can only be taught through an MFA program. Working as a journalist, writing under the tutelage of someone more experienced with writing of some kind, is always a form of teaching if you let it be. One can, of course, just read the great writers and try to learn from their examples. The only thing I'd advise with that is that you read the FIRST BOOKS by great writers. James Joyce didn't write Ulysses first, and you sure as hell won't either. If you really want to learn from great writers read, their whole catalogue. Start with the great work(s) first, maybe, but then go back and read the early stuff. Train yourself to see that each man or woman was a first-timer, too. Then see what they did from the first book to the next book until they finally reached the blossoming of their powers. (Read Toni Morrison from Bluest Eye to Song of Solomon just to watch a writer start good and become great. And it's worth noting where Morrison learned to write. She was an editor at Random House for years. Being an editor is also a great way to learn how to write.)
Last, I'd say that teaching fiction has certainly changed the way I write fiction. It's made me more thoughtful about what I do in my own work, for one. If I'm barking at my students about this problem or another, then I better be sure I know why I'm doing whatever I'm doing. (And, apparently, I can be "blunt," but also supportive.)
In general I find that having to explain yourself out loud (or on the page) helps solidify your good ideas and destroy the bad ones. When I explain to my students why something is or isn't effective, I better have concrete reasons. In this way, being a writing teacher is as beneficial to me as it is to my students. I get better as I try to help them get better.
But after school is all done, of course, the big tests are still waiting. Will they continue to write? This is actually is the biggest test of all. Each of us takes it alone. But I promise you that if you can do this—keep writing—the rest is really nothing but time and perseverance.
David J. Michael is a writer living in Brooklyn.
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