SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: VICTOR LAVALLE
Victor LaValle is the author of the short-story collection and PEN Open Book Award-winner Slapboxing with Jesus and three novels, The Ecstatic (a finalist for both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award); The Big Machine, which won a Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, and an American Book Award; and The Devil in Silver. He has also written essays and reviews for GQ, Essence Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. Included among the honors LaValle has received are Guggenheim, Ford, Breadloaf and Fine Arts Work Center Fellowships, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and the Key to SOUTHEAST Queens.
Victor LaValle! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?
I don't think I've ever published anything for free. As Biggie Smalls used to say, Gimme the loot! Gimme the loot!
Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?
Hell no. Not unless I decide to call teaching my craft as well. My main source of income is teaching, then my writing comes a much less consistently-produced second.
If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?
My teaching schedule isn't heavy so I do still have time to write. I've also learned, in more recent years, to demand less of myself. You can never go wrong lowering the bar. When I was younger I thought I needed to write six or seven hours at a stretch, but that's not possible now that I've got a job and a family. Now I write two hours a day, four days a week, which is still quite a luxury compared to the amount of time many can get. Doing that — two hours a day, four days a week — means I produce about twelve pages a week (three pages per day). Much of it will be awful and I'll throw it away, but that doesn't matter. I only need to keep up a rhythm, I only need to keep moving forward.
How do you know for sure when something in your work truly needs revision?
I assume everything will need revision, even if that only means reading it through and correcting for typos. I take it for granted that my first pass on a story or book will become, in some way, radically altered by the time I publish it. This frees me from stressing about how the writing sounds at first. It will all change.
When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?
There's really never such a point for me. It really would be possible to fuss over a book forever, if only because I could always find some other way to describe a character or turn a phrase. It really comes down to exhaustion. When I feel I've strained all my powers as far as they'll go, when I really can't see what I could do better right now, I just have to let it go. Its worth saying that after I've published something — a week later, or ten years — I can see so clearly how I might've fixed the various flaws in the piece. I try to use those new insights on the next book, but, even still, there will always be flaws. It's necessary to make peace with that if I'm ever going to move on to something new.
Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?
I wanted to be a writer from a somewhat early age, probably twelve or thirteen. I loved reading and, at a certain point, began daydreaming that I might tell stories that captured people as surely as the books I loved had captured me. I think it was that moment, that leap, thinking, I want to do this too, when I became a writer. Not everyone who loves reading really wants to tell stories, but it never felt like a choice. It really was the only thing I wanted to do. Still is.
BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?
It would have to be Stephen King's Pet Semetary. It was the first book I ever read where a child died (and in a really brutal way) and it felt like a shock to realize that children could be killed. And yet that made me love the book. Boy was I a weird kid.