THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM: An Interview with Victor LaValle

When Tor.com announced their trek into publishing novellas, I was intrigued. When I saw that Victor LaValle’s THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM would be releasing February 16th, I fisted some cash, ready to slam it on the counter in exchange for some horror fun. Victor took a break from playing chess with Cthulhu to answer a few questions. 

 -The Interview-

 SG - THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM takes place in the Lovecraftian Universe, and Ole’ H.P. is certainly a controversial figure. What inspired this story, and what new angle did you want to take with the mythos? 

VL - I grew up on Lovecraft, he's one of my Big Four from early childhood reading. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson. But while I loved Lovecraft he was also a crazy racist. I mean even for his time the guy was on a fringe. More importantly, it showed up in some of his work and the work suffered for it. I wanted to take one of the stories that was ruined by his prejudice and see if I could write a counter-version that was just as good a story, but told from a new perspective. It was like doing a Lovecraft Remix. I had a great time with it.

SG - How does music play into this story?

VL - Tommy Tester (who eventually becomes known as Black Tom) is a bad musician. I mean a terrible singer and guitar player, but he makes a living by basically pretending to be a good musician. He dresses the part and he's got the confidence so some people actually get fooled into thinking he's good. Since he plays the blues, mostly, this was a chance to throw in a few songs by one of my all time favorite blues musicians, Son House.

SG - It’s safe to say you’re a New Yorker through and through. What does Victor LaValle’s NYC look like?

VL - The best thing about my New York is that it's always changing. You can't ever get used to what it looks like, what it sounds and smells like. There's always some new group of people--some new immigrants--entering a neighborhood and bringing along all their good and bad. It can be kind of dizzying, people and places are always in flux. That makes some folks uncomfortable. Lovecraft famously hated the wild immigrant mixes of Brooklyn. But if you have the right temperament it's downright glorious. And it's never dull.

SG - Tor.com has gotten into the novella game, and THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM is one of their first acquirements. How different is novella writing, from novels and even short stories, and what made BLACK TOM the right fit for this re-surging art form?

VL - I love the novella because it's exactly the right form for a long night spent tearing through a tale. A short story might not let you settle in for a long enough and a novel, especially a big one, may take days to get through. But sometimes you just want to bundle up in bed, or on the couch, and go on a journey that will be over by the time you're ready to sleep. That's what novellas do so well. A few hours of reading then straight to bed where the whole story may invade your dreams. Who could ask for more?

SG - Favorite part of the novella you can talk about?

VL - Easy, I loved writing about the time period. I did a fair amount of research about New York City in 1924, and about Harlem in particular. Most of it never made it onto the page, but the stuff that was there really popped for me. The kinds of patrol cars the NYPD had back then, the types of lamps used on sidewalks, the secret social clubs of Harlem, that stuff was so much fun to use. And then, of course, there was all the killing. I liked that, too. 

SG - What future projects can you tease us with?

VL - The Ballad of Black Tom comes out February 2016 and I'll have a full length novel out in the spring of 2017. The simplest tease I can give for that book is this: posting pictures of your children on Facebook is going to get them kidnapped. But by whom? Or what? 

SG - Favorite Horror archetype? 

VL - I love, love, love the old person who explains the evil history of a monster or an evil place. Think of Donald Pleasance in the Halloween movies. When it's done right I could read, or watch, that character going on for fifty pages or fifty minutes.

From the cover:

People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

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