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'The Ballad Of Black Tom' Offers A Tribute To And Critique Of Lovecraft


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When writer Victor LaValle was growing up in Queens, he loved reading the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft. It was only when he got older that LaValle recognized the racism in Lovecraft's fiction, poetry and letters, which particularly stung because LaValle is African-American. LaValle's new novella is both a tribute to and criticism of H.P. Lovecraft. It's dedication reads - for H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings. Lovecraft wrote stories for pulp magazines in the early 20th century but was largely unsuccessful and died young and penniless, achieving fame posthumously. One of Lovecraft's most xenophobic stories "The Horror At Red Hook" is the jumping-off point for Lavalle's new book "The Ballad Of Black Tom." The book takes place in 1924 and follows the story of a young black man from Harlem named Tommy Tester as he negotiates racism, police brutality and cosmic terror. LaValle's other books include "The Devil In Silver" and "Big Machine," which won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel in 2009. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with a reading from the beginning of LaValle's new book.

VICTOR LAVALLE: (Reading) People who move to New York always the same mistake. They can't see the place. This is true of Manhattan but even the outer boroughs, too, be it Flushing Meadows in Queens or Red Hook in Brooklyn. They come looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince it isn't here. This wasn't all bad, though. Some New Yorkers had learned how to make a living from this error in thinking. Charles Thomas Tester for one. The morning of most importance began with a trip from Charles' apartment in Harlem. He'd been hired to make a delivery to a house out in Queens. He shared the crib in Harlem with his ailing father, Otis, a man who'd been dying ever since his wife of 21 years had expired. They'd had one child, Charles Thomas. And even though he was 20 and exactly the age for independence, he played the role of dutiful son. Charles worked to support his dying dad. He hustled to provide food and shelter and a little extra to lay on a number from time to time. God knows he didn't make any more than that.

A little after 8 a.m., he left the apartment in his gray flannel suit. The slacks were cuffed but scuffed and the sleeves conspicuously short - fine fabric but frayed. This gave Charles a certain look, like a gentleman without a gentleman's bank account. He picked the brown leather brogues with nicked toes, then the seal brown trooper hat instead of the fedora. The trooper hat's brim showed its age and wear, and this was good for his hustle, too. Last, he took the guitar case, essential to complete the look. He left the guitar itself at home with his bedridden father. Inside, he carried only a yellow book, not much larger than a pack of cards. In the apartment, Charles Thomas Tester went by Charles. But on the street, everyone knew him as Tommy - Tommy Tester, always carrying a guitar case. This wasn't because he aspired to be a musician. In fact, he could barely remember a handful of songs, and his singing voice might be described kindly as wobbly. His father, who had made a living as a bricklayer, and his mother, who spent her life working as a domestic, had loved music. Dad played guitar and mother could really stroll on a piano. It was only natural that Tommy Tester ended up drawn to performing. The only tragedy being that he lacked talent. He thought of himself as an entertainer. There were others who would have called him a scammer, a swindler, a con. But he never thought of himself that way. No good charlatan ever did.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: And that's Victor LaValle reading from his new book "The Ballad Of Black Tom." Victor LaValle, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

LAVALLE: It's good to be back, thanks.

BRIGER: So your new book is both a tribute to and a criticism of the early 20th century horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Before we get to the criticism, how influential was he to you growing up? Did you read him a lot as a kid?

LAVALLE: He was one of the four foundational writers probably of my youth. I think I picked him up at about the age of 10 or 11. And I would say it was him, Stephen King, Shirley Jackson and Clive Barker were these four writers - all horror writers - who meant the world to me. And Lovecraft stood out in a way because he was the most - well, he was the oldest of all of them. He had written the earliest, but also he was the strangest.

BRIGER: So you said that as a child these stories were powerful to you because they sort of somehow connected to your feelings of what it was like to be a child.

LAVALLE: Well, I think - I mean, 10 or 11 years old, I'm living with my mom and my grandmother. I've got my uncle who comes by all the time. They all tell me what to do. I have my teachers who tell me what to do. I'm not quite old enough yet to be truly independent, and yet I think I'm the smartest person in all of Queens...

BRIGER: (Laughter).

LAVALLE: ...By 10 or 11. So how could these people have power over me? There must be some cosmic evil at play, you know? There must be something that explains why I feel so powerless. And Lovecraft in his own life felt incredibly powerless. He was from a family that once had wealth but had lost it all. He was raised in a very cloying family atmosphere and then his mother died. His father was institutionalized. And then he was essentially left alone, left his own devices. And so in many ways, even though he was this incredibly smart and well-read human being, he was also this - in many ways this flailing 10 or 11-year-old kid. And the complement that you can pay to his art is that he actually got that down on the page in a way that this 10 or 11-year-old black kid from Queens could also relate to.

BRIGER: OK, let's - let's talk about the part that you can't relate to. It seems that H.P. Lovecraft - you know, from his fiction, his poetry, his letters - that he was racist. When did you realize that first?

LAVALLE: Well, here's the funny thing - so I didn't realize it when I was 10 or 11 reading these stories. And I read pretty much all of them. And in some of them, he's pretty blatant about his particular hatred - particularly of black people. When I was 10 or 11 and I read these stories, I read them only for the wild and outlandish plots and the large cosmic dread sort of thing. And in a way, I was naive and I could overlook what should have been blatant clues about the uglier sides of H.P. Lovecraft's personality and his ideas. Like, for instance, the story where he has a cat named [expletive] Man, and he calls him that 19 times in this really short story and takes great pleasure in talking about kicking this cat and all this stuff. And then he has other things other things - he has a poem that's pretty famous. He has a longer story - "The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward" - that gets into some ugly stuff. And when I was, like, 10 or 11, I just didn't even see it. I think I just couldn't have processed it. And then when I was about 15 or 16, I started being like what is this dude - what did he just say? And it was the kind of thing that you would say, like - if you were walking down the street and somebody said that, you'd smack them in the mouth. So why did I say that it was OK on the page? And yet by this point, I already loved the stories, so it made for these very conflicted feelings.

BRIGER: So this new book, "The Ballad Of Black Tom," is a response to Lovecraft. And the jumping-off point, one of his most notoriously xenophobic stories - it's called "The Horror Of Red Hook." And Red Hook's a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Red Hook at the time, I think, was - most of the people living there were recent immigrants, it seems like. What were some of things he said about the people that lived there and that story?

LAVALLE: Well, in the story, he calls them, like, the dregs of humanity. He calls them a reckless cauldron of chaos. I can't remember the exact phrases, but I think one example that will give you an idea of how he felt about being in Red Hook - and Red Hook was full of lots of different immigrants from all around the world. And one thing I remember reading that gave me an idea of who Lovecraft was and sort of what made its way into his work and into that story is that when they were walking down the street, he and his wife, if a group of immigrants was walking on the sidewalk, he would walk into the middle of the road...


LAVALLE: ...Just so that he could avoid being near them.

BRIGER: The way he's describing people in Red Hook, I mean, it sounds excessive. It sounds maybe slightly pathological. But it's also really interesting that it sounds like the way he described the monsters of his writing.

LAVALLE: I would say that what Lovecraft was getting down on the page a great deal was his fear of everything - everything. He feared women; he feared anyone who wasn't white; he feared Jewish people. I wouldn't be surprised if he feared, like, cars as well. Like, he was just so afraid of the modern world. And he managed to - rather than making it a one-for-one and just having those groups of people who he feared and hated show up in the books and stories as people acting terribly, he came up with these strange and impossible creatures because really on some level, he was almost trying to capture the depth and breadth of his terror.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Victor LaValle, author of the new horror novella "The Ballad Of Black Tom. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Victor LaValle, author of the new horror novella "The Ballad Of Black Tom." It's set in Harlem in 1924.

BRIGER: So your main character, Tommy Tester, is a young man. You describe him, I think, as a hustler. He's dedicated to providing for his sick father and he carries around this guitar with him all the time even he's not a very good musician. In fact, you say that he's kicked out of a rent party by no one other than Willie The Lion Smith because he was so bad. Why do you have him carrying around this guitar even though he's not very good on it?

LAVALLE: Well, his hustle is basically that he tries to trick people into thinking he's a good blues musician or jazz musician because he looks the part, right? He's got on the right clothes - they're a little bit frayed but there's a certain elegance there - he carries around the case, and he's black. And so you just take those elements and you put them together, and a certain kind of person says, I wonder if that's a bluesman? Essentially, they buy into the illusion, and that's what he is - he's an illusionist, you know? And in this case in particular, I make the point that he has to leave Harlem in order for his hustle to work because no one in Harlem is going to think it's all that special to see a black man dressed in a suit playing a guitar. They're actually going to expect him to be good at it because there's lots of musicians there, lots of folks on the street busking, and so they can tell the difference between the two - good and bad. But when he goes out into Brooklyn and he goes out into these white neighborhoods in particular, there, it's more like they're just looking for someone to fill a certain idea that they have of what a jazzman is or a bluesman is and that that is what Tommy Tester can do. He can live up to that idea, and as a result of living up to that idea, hustle a little money out of that person for his performance or just for his presence.

BRIGER: Why'd you decide to make him a hustler?

LAVALLE: Well, you know, on one level what I was sort of thinking about was the hustle of writing as a whole, right, and specifically the hustle of being a black writer, that time and again - and this is - there's - I mean, if you're a Southern writer, if you're a Midwestern writer, if you're a woman writer, if you're a Jewish writer, there's all these hustles that exist that if you play into them, there are already readers, there are already accolades, there are already avenues that have been set up to essentially decide that you are good at that because you essentially just look like someone who should be good at that. Right, it's the idea that if you look the part, we'll overlook your mediocrity. And that's something that is always on my mind. As a black writer, I mean, there are certain avenues that I think - you could approach them in ways that have been done by geniuses before, and because it sort of looks like what a genius of a previous generation did, you may enjoy the glow of that genius, that secondary light. You can be a moon to their sun, and you can make a whole career off of essentially being that. And I was terrified at the idea of turning into someone like that, and so I wanted to funnel that into the book as, like, on some level that's what Tommy's doing. But of course, I didn't want to make him a writer who's dealing with exactly that issue because at least for me, few things are less interesting than a writer dealing with what kind of writer they're going to be in a book.

BRIGER: Did you feel in your career at points that you were writing in a way that was like that sort of secondhand version of greatness that someone else had already done?

LAVALLE: Well, you know, I'll tell you something that happened that was very interesting. So I put out a - my first book was a book of short stories that I was very proud of. It was 12 short stories. It's called, "Slapboxing With Jesus," and the general description might be, gritty stories about black and Latino boys growing up in New York City, right? And the fact that I could even sum it up that way might tell you some degree of, like, what the book is like. And then years passed. I put the book out, it enjoyed whatever readership and success it enjoyed, it did good things for me in life. And then, you know, I joined Facebook however many years later, and I was in touch with a couple of the guys who I grew up with, and they said to me, well, we saw that you wrote a book and we're going to look it up, we want to be real proud of you and all this. And so they bought the books, two or three of them in particular, and then they - one of them was in touch with me later, and he said, I read the book, yeah, and I loved it, I thought you did great job and all this stuff. He said, but you know, something I do want to point out to you is that we were happy sometimes, you know? We didn't always just do terrible things and terrible things weren't only done to us. And if he had said it to me maybe right when the book came out, I think I would've been too raw and defensive, you know? But with some years' distance, I realized that on some level what he was saying was if all you do is wallow in this kind of urban misery, it turns into a kind of, like, urban misery porn that can do quite well - if you write well and you write black misery with some literary flair, there is an avenue for that and there are writers from earlier generations who did that with true genius and were bringing news to the world about something fresh and interesting, but I felt like what my friend was saying was, you didn't bring all the news from our time, you just brought the news that in some way you knew people wanted to hear, and that's not the job of an artist.

BRIGER: Your main character, Tommy Tester, is an amateur-ish guitar player and he gets this gig to play at a white man's party in a house in Brooklyn for an incredible amount of money, and he tells his dad about it. His father's scared because this sounds so impossible, and he's worried for his son's life. So he gives him two things. He gives him a razor blade and a song which he calls conjure music, and the song that he teaches Tommy is called "Grinning In Your Face" by Son House. Do you want to sing us a little bit of that?

LAVALLE: (Laughter). OK, I'll try.


LAVALLE: (Singing) Don't you mind someone -

No. Dang, I'm forgetting the lyrics now.

(Singing) Don't you mind someone grinnin' in your face. Don't you mind someone grinnin' in your face. Oh, bear this in mind, a true friend is hard to find. Don't mind people grinnin' in your face.

BRIGER: That was great.

LAVALLE: On the last one, it was people, not someone. So it took a minute. Yeah. I don't think I have another version of it, though, in me.

BRIGER: No, no. That was good. So why'd you choose that song? I mean, you are imbuing the song with a certain - with magical qualities.

LAVALLE: Well, I'm doing that, number one, because Son House is just one of the greatest blues musicians ever, and I thought my chance to, in any way, shine a little light - if anyone is interested in that song and they go back and they listen to Son House sing that song, as opposed to how I just sang it, and you fall in love with him and fall in love with his entire catalog of music. And so maybe somebody will be led back to Son House and his great music. But the other part of it was just the basic idea in there that Tommy is this hustler who thinks he always knows how to fool people, he always knows how to play people. But he himself also gets pulled into a game. He also gets fooled by this white guy who gets him to come to his mansion and play this song because things go - it turns out he's got much bigger plans for Tommy and much more nefarious ideas are afoot. And so I wanted to be that his father gave him a straight razor to protect himself, but the song and the - specifically, like, the actual lyrics of the song, were another way that he was trying to get his son to see that he should not trust this man he was going to.

BRIGER: So when's your blues CD coming out?

LAVALLE: (Laughter). I'm going to make it a bitTorrent that people can download, and I'll do a little backwards tracking in there so there's something ugly and some secret messages in there.

BRIGER: That sounds good.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Victor LaValle, author of the new horror novella, "The Ballad Of Black Tom." We'll hear more of the interview after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Victor LaValle, author of the new horror novella "The Ballad Of Black Tom." It's set in Harlem in 1924.

BRIGER: A lot of this book - like a lot of your writing - describes how things aren't necessarily how you think they are, how the world holds secrets. And it reminded me that - when you were or our show last, you mentioned how when you graduated from college you were battling some psychological demons. And this secretive and private organization offered to help you and really sort of picked you up. And you actually dedicated your book "Big Machine" to them. I know their secretive and private. So I know you don't really want talk about them, but I think it's so interesting that you had this moment where the world kind of opened up and divulged its secrets in some way, that, you know, it must've been such an expansive moment.

LAVALLE: Yeah. I think - if anything, I - you know, with the paranoid mindset is that there is a secret out in the world, there is a conspiracy out in the world and I'm being denied access to it, right? Like, part of the reason someone gets so deeply into, say, conspiracy theories or paranoia of any kind is not just that you believe there are things being done against you or anything like that. It's also that you are excluded. You are outside of those in power or the machinations that are making things happen. You're not the beneficiary is usually the idea. And as I think I said the last time, I came from a lovely family. But I would say to some degree, there's a certain degree of paranoia about outsiders or an idea that people are not always planning to do the best for you, right? So that was my operating mindset just as a human. And so to have someone reach out and say - I don't want to say magically - but it seems always almost magically, like, we not only see you, but we think you might be worth more than what you think you are worth. Like, that was, like, one of the great revelations of my life that somebody saw me and did not see something hideous or terrible or worth overlooking but instead said we see in you someone who could do something wonderful, like heal yourself and get better and be strong and all this stuff. And that idea of - you know, for all of us maybe sometimes you need to have someone to have faith in you before you can have faith in yourself.

BRIGER: You've said that part of this book is about the relationship between sons and fathers. And I know you've said that you only met your dad maybe a handful of times. As you said, you have two kids. And you recently tweeted, growing up without a father allows me to make fatherhood up as I go along. Sometimes no example is better than a bad example. What's it been like for you to make it up as you go along?

LAVALLE: It's been great afar. I mean, you don't have to ask me. You've got to ask my kids when they come through. (Laughter) They're the ones who actually are the means testers of this system, you know? But what has been nice is - so I didn't see my dad all that many times, but I didn't know who he was. And he was a good man in many ways, but there were certain things that I realize - I spent my younger years wishing I got - wishing that he had been there to give me, you know? And then I got a little bit older and I realized oh, you know what? But if he had been there to give me that, he also would have given me all this bad stuff. And there was a fair bit of - I don't want to say bad stuff - but there was stuff that I'm very happy I avoided, you know, having as an influence on me. And so as a result, I decided to just flip it around and be like OK, since you didn't get any of that and you didn't get someone telling you for generations the men of this household always have done this or whatever the hell people do, right? Then I could just sit there and be like OK, I'm not wounded by this anymore. Now I literally just get to put together every kind of good idea I ever had and make this new creature called me, the dad version. And he will be amazing, right, and also will mess up constantly. But so what? He's still better than the one who wasn't there at all. I mean, he's still better than that. So almost no matter what, I feel like I'm giving myself at least a B+. So...


BRIGER: Both you and your wife are writers.


BRIGER: Does your 2-year-old daughter sort of get what that means at this point? Or...

LAVALLE: Actually, you know, funny thing is that today we were saying that dad's going to record something and he's going to be on the radio. And so my son thought that was hilarious, like really, really funny. He's going to be - he's almost 5. And he thought was funny because he was saying, how is that going to be here having breakfast or whatever time it is, you know, and then also be on the radio?

BRIGER: Right.

LAVALLE: So to him, it was more like a conceptual joke...

BRIGER: It's like...

LAVALLE: ...You know?

BRIGER: ...Sci-fi or something.

LAVALLE: Yeah, that's right. And then he said so why is he going to be on the radio? And my wife said it's because he wrote a book. And then he said is it a good book?

BRIGER: (Laughter).

LAVALLE: And then I said they must like because they're bringing me on. And then he was laughing. And then we said do you want to listen to it when the time comes, when it's on? And he said no. We were done. And that was good. Then we just went to eat breakfast.

BRIGER: (Laughter). Well, you can tell your son we liked your book.

LAVALLE: (Laughter) I mean, the nice thing is I'll tell it him and a minute later he will be off on a new adventure. And I'd like to follow that adventure.

BRIGER: Well, good for him. Well, Victor LaValle, thanks so much for being here.

LAVALLE: Hey, Sam, it was a pleasure.

GROSS: Victor LaValle spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. LaValle's new novella is called "The Ballad Of Black Tom." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be I share our guest will be Rebecca Traister, author of "All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women And The Rise Of An Independent Nation." For the first time in history, single women - women who have never married - outnumber married women. We'll talk about why that's happening and how it's affecting women's lives and gender roles in and outside marriage. Traister's previous book was about how gender figured into Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. We'll talk about her current campaign.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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