In Technology We Trust: A Q&A With Victor LaValle

Yahdon Israel

Whenever I read a book, I try my best to read it on its own terms. To not allow my understanding of what I think I know—or expectations for what I think should exist—compromise what’s right in front me. What I mean is I try to get out of a book’s way; I try to get out of the writer’s way. Instead of leading, I allow myself to be led, bearing witness to the journey.

How does Apollo, a man intent on maintaining appearances, figure out that things aren’t always what they appear to be? How does he recover that which he has lost? He learns to listen.

In the same way that it’s “easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” in the words of Frederick Douglass, it’s easier to make mistakes than it is to admit them. This is certainly true for me and, after reading Victor LaValle’s newest novel, The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau), I see I’m not alone. Borrowing its basic premise from folklore, The Changeling is a story that lends language to what happens, or what can happen, when a father, in this case a man named Apollo, is blinded by the fiction that he knows best, even when reality suggests otherwise. Under his nose, and on his watch, Apollo’s son, Brian, is switched out with the baby of a troll, but it is only his wife, Emma, who suspects it—not that she suspects their baby is a troll per se, but Emma knows the child they have is not theirs. Apollo isn’t convinced. This is where social media and technology enter the narrative.  

For Apollo, Facebook is the site for which the fiction of his fairytale fathering can be turned into fact. He floods his feed with pictures of his newborn son. Some are clear, others blurry. He receives Likes and comments about what a good father he is, and it’s the Likes that blind him from what should’ve been obvious. The fact that Apollo’s own baby could be switched without his noticing wouldn’t only mean father doesn’t know best, and that Emma knows better, but also: that he knows very little at all. The simmering tension between Apollo and Emma boils over when Emma chains Apollo to a radiator, beats him bloody, kills the troll baby, and disappears into the New York City night. How does Apollo, a man intent on maintaining appearances, figure out that things aren’t always what they appear to be? How does he recover that which he has lost? He learns to listen. No longer to the chamber of voices that echo only what he wants to hear—the language of social media—but to those voices that were always there, telling him what he needed to hear, even when he did not want to hear it.

While reading The Changeling I started to become self-aware of the dependency of my generation (often referred to as “millennials”) on social media—its ability to make us seen and “likeable.” And by the end I realized that the most important technology we have is our ears, our ability to listen to one another. The photographs of me and LaValle, taken periodically during our interview, perfectly illustrate this realization. You’ll notice that there are times when either I’m not listening to LaValle, or he’s not listening to me, but that’s because we each have something in our hands that prevents us from doing so. “If the concept of God,” James Baldwin wrote, “has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” This is how I’ve learned to feel about anything that’s been given to us with the intention of making us “better” and ultimately failed—whether it’s technology, social media, or even literature. Only when we put down those things that can oftentimes obscure our vision can we truly see—and hear—what’s right in front of us.

LaValle is the author of three three previous novels, The Ecstatic (Crown, 2002), Big Machine (Spigel & Grau, 2009), and The Devil in Silver (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), as well as a collection of stories, Slapboxing With Jesus (Vintage, 1999), and the novella The Ballad of Black Tom (Tor, 2016). He teaches writing at Columbia University and lives in New York with his wife, author Emily Raboteau, and his two sons.

How long have been working on The Changeling?

About three years. I was trying to take a page from writers who are not super precious with their work. They just produce and produce and produce—and every second or third book might be great, the second one is really damn good and the third one is garbage. But so what? You’re just working through your stuff. I put out The Ballad of Black Tom last year; The Changeling is this year; I’ll have another one next year. This is so I don’t get too fussy.

The first draft of this book, my editor, Chris Jackson, told me, “No one’s gonna sign up for that.”

What was the book when you gave it to him?

It literally began with the scene in the kitchen where his wife locks [Apollo] up and is beating the hell out of him and killing the baby. And it just went from there. My publisher, editor, and I all went to lunch together. The publisher, she says, “I’m not going to let Chris buy this book if it starts like this because I can’t imagine anyone who would get into it—and she had good reasons: “You’ll break a lot more people’s hearts if it feels like this is happening to them,” my publisher told me. “I’m not telling you to make it nicer. Right now, you’re doing the equivalent of a horror movie where it’s a gory beheading versus you’re an hour into the movie and you start to really care about these people and then it means more. If you do that, we’ll buy the book.” It was very good advice.

That makes sense because the first hundred pages are like a family history, explaining the circumstances that conspired to make Apollo and Emma’s marriage feel real. What I appreciated was your ability to create a timeline that felt to me like it was happening as it happened to the character.

Sometimes, as readers, we have access to certain information that the character doesn’t. That’s not the case here. The bomb drops on the reader and character at the same time. There’s very little shelter. It really shows how we, as people, move about the world with the information we have—and how that information is often very limited. And the people who withhold information from us, often our parents thinking they’re protecting us, but they’re also putting us in unforeseeable danger as well. I feel like we’re always learning about things that anyone outside of the situation assumes we should already know. You’re just now learning that the thing that you thought didn’t happen actually did. How much of this book is art imitating life? How often do you find yourself navigating moments like the ones Apollo navigates?

Well I always feels like I’m catching up, finding out information late, if at all. I’m always surprised about what I don’t know that I should’ve known—about family members, myself, my kids. And I definitely want the reader to feel like Apollo, in that most of the time he doesn’t know what the hell is going on.

And the irony of that is he’s named after a god. I mean, he’s also named after Carl Weathers’s Apollo Creed, but that is a god’s name. So Apollo, the character, is always at the mercy of what he can’t see. And what’s funny is, every time he tries to assert his authority, a woman usually subverts him. What struck me was the amount of empathy you had for your female characters.

For the past three years I’ve been reading books by men, and thinking about how they write women differently. And it all started when I read The Women by Hilton Als. It’s a 135-page critical memoir about how he basically didn’t realize who his mother was until she died. And not who his mother was in terms of her role in his life. He realized that all he had ever seen of her was as his mother, completely neglecting the fact that she had an interior life. You give each of the women characters a rich interior life. Is that something you knew you wanted to do?

I was trying to think about two things: The particular fairytales about changelings are almost always exclusively about mothers who realize their children had been switched and what they do as a result; and the unstated implication of that is the fathers wouldn’t care or wouldn’t notice because they weren’t present. And my thinking about that bonded with this idea of the “new dad.” Of a certain age and younger there are these men who go, “I’m going to change those diapers,” “I’m going to be at the school.” And the danger of being those new dads—and this is my opinion—I get so much credit for being little more than a minimal dad. I show up for school on Family Fridays and the mothers and teachers are like,“Oh! It’s so good to see you! Oh you’re such a good dad!” and the mothers who are always there volunteering and basically giving blood to the kids are stepped over just so I can be told I’m a good dad—and I haven’t been there for six months! And so I was really thinking about this idea. But as I tried to step up my game, and as Apollo in the book tries to step up his game, as a man and as a father, the seesaw Apollo is walking up, there’s still a bunch of women standing on it so that he can ascend, completely convinced that it is not going to drop out on him at all. And that lead me to thinking, “Well what if we told this fairytale in way that did not go, ‘Oh look how great the dad is,’ and instead the dad is doing his part,” but…these women have been doing this very thing for thousands of years.

Another reason the women characters feel full is because of my wife, Emily Raboteau. I was telling her about how Emma kills the changeling baby and then just runs. Emily asked me, “Well why did she kill the changeling baby?” And I was like, “because she has to, because the plot needs it.” And she was like, “Now that I’m a mother, even if I saw a demon baby I don’t know that I could kill it. It would be too hard.” And this led me to think about how there needs to be message boards where these mothers are sharing info about how to get their babies back. Some Reddit group where they’re talking about the old myths. Then it evolved into something more than her just killing the baby because she was angry at Apollo. The first version was Emma killing the baby because she was angry at Apollo. And Emily asked, “Why would she kill her baby if she’s mad at Apollo? Why doesn’t she kill Apollo?”

And that’s a way to still make the man the center of the narrative.

Exactly! So I asked her, “Well what would be a good reason?” and she said, “The only reason I would ever kill some other baby is if it meant I got my baby back—and it would still kill me to do it.” And so those conversations, her just sort of pushing back, filtered into the book in a lot of good ways that make all the women present in a real way.

Although the book follows Apollo, which by default should suggest he’s the protagonist, Emma strikes me as the protagonist. She’s the real MVP. I feel like Apollo is the threshold for which we get to see Emma be great. In that, the book strikes me, if nothing else, as a love letter/apology to Emily, your wife, for years of, I can only imagine, you not listening to her. This book seems to be saying, “For all the years I haven’t been listening, I am now.”  I used to think all that mattered in a conversation was being right. Now I realize people want to be understood. Listened to. Believed.

Sometimes with fiction, readers try to interact with a book on a cosmetic level—plot, character, theme, etc.—to avoid the emotional logic on which the book operates. And that’s the level I think this book is working on—this remorse, this understanding of your place in the world as a father. That for doing so little you get so much, in contrast to the women, the mothers, who do so much but get so little.

I agree with you. At a certain point, I started treating Apollo as the antagonist and Emma as the protagonist so that I could get rid of the male ego thing, but also so that when Apollo says [to Emma], “You’re what’s wrong with this family,” when he think she’s gone crazy for not believing the troll to be their baby, that would only happen if he is the antagonist, and have everyone just sort of hate him. And then when Emma runs, after she kills the baby, the reader maybe responds, “I thought she was the one I’m supposed to like.” And then she’s gone and maybe this gives you time to begin to like Apollo. Part of Apollo’s journey is going from the man who tells his wife, “You’re what’s wrong with this family” to a man who at the end says, “We can’t win without each other.”

Yahdon Israel has written for Avidly, the New Inquiry, LitHub, Guernica, and Brooklyn Magazine. He graduated from the New School with an MFA in creative nonfiction. He currently serves as the VP of Awards and Membership for the National Book Critics Circle and runs a popular Instagram page that promotes literature and fashion under the hashtag #literaryswag.

Photographs by John Midgley.