This Is Who We Are: Victor LaValle

Amanda Breen
February 19, 2021

This Is Who We Are is a series featuring Columbia School of the Arts’ professors, covering careers, pedagogy, and art-making during a pandemic. Here, we talk with Associate Professor and Fiction Concentration Head Victor LaValle about his forthcoming novel Lone Women, how Zoom has changed the classroom dynamic, and how routine can be more important than talent. 

I first heard Associate Professor Victor LaValle speak during an orientation event. It was Fall 2019, and I was an incoming Writing student at the School of the Arts. LaValle gave us an overview of what to expect for the next two years of our lives—everything from how workshops would run to thesis submission guidelines, which seemed so far away at the time. Now, nearly a year and a half later, so much has changed. My thesis is well under way, which I had anticipated by this point in my education, but there was no way LaValle could have prepared us for what was coming—a deadly pandemic. Like most, LaValle wasn’t prepared either. His world, as a writer, a teacher, has changed a lot. It has become increasingly virtual, forcing would-be in-person interactions, like our conversation, to take place behind distant screens. Still, the pandemic hasn’t kept LaValle from pushing his many projects forward—it hasn’t kept him from creating. Currently, he is working on his novel Lone Women and is consulting on the adaptation of his novel The Changeling into a television series for Apple TV. 

Of Lone Women, LaValle says, “It’s about women homesteaders in Montana in 1915. I stumbled across a book that said the US government was so desperate to have this land homesteaded after taking it from the Native Americans who lived there, that they essentially relaxed what would have been the usual legal prejudices at the time.”

Under the Homestead Act of 1862, any adult, including women and immigrants who applied for citizenship, could apply for a land grant, so long as they hadn’t taken up arms against the US government. This meant that single women and widows could now apply for up to 160 acres of land, and a 1909 amendment increased that number to 320. Homesteaders were required to live on and improve their land for five years, after which the acres would become their own. 

LaValle says, “I became really interested in [these women] and their stories, and then the other surprising thing, there were fewer racial components. So Black women could own the land, which was interesting, and white women could own the land, and Latinas could as long as they got up that far north. And Native American women eventually could, like kind of make their way back. Chinese women could not. Because at this time the big ethnic group on the West Coast that was being vilified was the Chinese. And so that was all interesting to me, and I just felt like 'Wow, I hadn't read very much about this, and maybe a lot of other people don't know about it either, and it might be interesting to write about.'"

The editors at One World, an imprint of Random House, agreed. One World’s mission is “to provide a home for authors—novelists, essayists, memoirists, poets, journalists, thinkers, activists, and creative artists unconstrained by genre—who seek to challenge the status quo, subvert dominant narratives, and give us new language to understand our past, present, and future.” Lone Women is set for publication in 2022. 

An adaptation of LaValle’s The Changeling is steadily moving forward too. A shooting schedule has been arranged; preparation will begin in October. Additionally, the series will film in New York, which will allow LaValle to be involved on set. “Kelly Marcel is the Creator/Writer,” Lavalle says, “and she's been very open to letting me give feedback on scripts, we discuss casting choices, directors. I've come to understand that's not how it usually works, but I think she's very open to collaboration, and that's been a gift."

Upon its publication, The Changeling received a 2018 American Book Award, the 2018 Locus Award for Horror Novel, the 2018 British Fantasy Award for Horror Novel, and the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, among other awards and nominations. An enthralling retelling of a classic fairytale, the book grapples with parental obsession, spousal love, and the secrets that make strangers out of those we love. The novel begins with a man named Apollo and his wife Emma, new parents plagued by anxiety and exhaustion. When bizarre dreams return to haunt Apollo and Emma’s behavior becomes increasingly strange, Apollo thinks she’s suffering from postpartum depression before he realizes it’s something far more serious. Then, Emma commits a horrific act and vanishes without a trace, and Apollo must search for a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined, journeying through a world that no longer makes much sense. 

The Apple TV series will remain very true to the book. “It’s very close,” Lavalle says, sounding relieved. “I think that's a reason why, maybe, [Marcel] is more open. There are certainly some places where she's adding her own things, but I think now she's written the first four episodes, and I've read through them, and they're very very close to what the book is doing.” He laughs, “And that probably makes it go down easier. Ego-wise."

Victor LaValle

Despite all this productivity, LaValle tells me that during the pandemic, he has been working in “bursts.” He says this strategy began after his children were born. “My wife had our two kids, and then I learned to write in three-hour bursts, and just get whatever I can get done in three hours. And now in pandemic times, when we're remote-schooling the kids, it seems like about half to three quarters of the time because their schools are closing. I'd say nowadays I tell myself I have one hour. And both mental energy-wise and with the realities of the house, an hour is about all I can expect. It's a slower step forward, but as long as I keep to that routine, I can still look back over a week and say 'I didn't get as much as I wanted done, but I got something done.' And that is good for my mental health.”

Lavalle’s kids are now seven and nine. “They can do home-school in bursts by themselves,” LaValle says. “They can sit there and listen to morning meeting, and then do the math and the reading, and that's usually about an hour before they might need help. And so it'll be like, they start school at nine, I might start working at  9:30 am, by 10:30 am I'm done, and that's it."

Like so many teachers in the pandemic era, LaValle has had to move his own classroom to Zoom too, an experience that has him constantly negotiating what works and what doesn’t. He taught a fiction workshop in the fall, and he currently teaches the thesis workshop for second-year Writing students. While the experience undoubtedly comes with its challenges, LaValle has found that writing workshops lend themselves particularly well to these new virtual constraints. Students submit short stories or novel excerpts for feedback in these workshops, and their written work provides the basis for class discussion the following week. 

"I will say the good thing about workshops in particular is that there is, relatively speaking, a pretty straightforward way they run,” LaValle says. “So that compared to, say, if I was teaching a seminar or if I was running a lab or something like that, there are other kinds of classes that I imagine are much harder to shift. So the workshop format has largely stayed the same.”

Although LaValle—like most of us—looks forward to the day when classes can be held safely in person again, he points out that Zoom-teaching also has its perks. “The good thing about it, I will say, is when we were in class together, I would like to sometimes show things to the students, like just some videos, but I would say half the time the stupid thing wouldn't accept my UNI to start working, and it just wastes all this time. And so I do really enjoy actually the screen-sharing aspect. It's been great for just like, let's plug in, watch this thing for six minutes, talk about how it relates to what we're discussing today. It might be the one thing I will miss—truly the one thing—about this, when we go back, eventually, whenever that is, to being in person. 

“The biggest downside,” LaValle continues, “is you can't have human contact.” On Zoom, reserved students might have a harder time jumping into the discussion, and talkative students might find it more difficult to know when to pull back. “[In the classroom] the shy students maybe have an easier time starting to warm up and feel safe so they can talk, and then the chatty students, somehow in person I find it's harder for them to go on and on. But on Zoom, you don't have cues from people just getting bored by what you're going on about. And as the teacher, too, you know, it can be difficult,” he laughs. 

Still, though there are things LaValle can appreciate from online courses, the challenges are aplenty. "There's the room energy,” LaValle says, “the coffee line energy, the Chocolate lab, those are their own other kinds of energies that I wish weren't lost. And turning out to meet somebody you never would have realized you liked, they liked you, and you actually had this thing in common, and suddenly there's this friendship."

Naturally, differing time zones pose another challenge when it comes to virtual learning. Many students left New York City in March. Some of them traveled to the other side of the country, or even the other side of the world. "In the fall,” LaValle says, “I had a number of students who were many hours ahead, in China and Europe, and so I think I found setting [the workshop] in early morning left room for those students, but it's cut out anyone who’s in a time zone farther back. It's really complicated." 

Although the pandemic imposes unique pressures on his routine, as it has on most of ours, LaValle’s dedication to making progress—even in small moments, which accrue over time—has served him well over his career. He is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus; the novels The EcstaticBig MachineThe Devil in Silver, and The Changeling; and the novellas Lucretia and the Kroons and The Ballad of Black Tom. He is also the creator and writer of the comic book Victor LaValle’s Destroyer, and his five-issue original comic series Eve, with art by Jo Mi-Gyeong, will be published by Boom! Studios in May 2021. The series follows 11-year-old Eve, who was raised in virtual reality, as she sets out to save her father and the dying planet. 

One of the most important things, he says, is to keep working, even if it’s only a few minutes here and there, even if it seems like no one is taking notice. “The great thing I came to understand about routine was that it's the one thing that nobody controls but you. And it's the thing they can't take away from you. If you sit down and work for a half hour a day or five minutes a day or five minutes every three days, whatever life allows, building that repetition in is the one superpower you can give to yourself. Even if the magic thing happens and they say 'Now give me your book,' you've got this chapter you've published and it's amazing, where's the book, you still need the routine to be able to sit down and produce that book.”

LaValle ended with one last piece of advice to aspiring writers: “If nobody immediately notices how good you are, I always tell this to students, it might be years, but if over those years you've built this ability to have routine, when they come to you and say this is long overdue but we want that book, you can be like 'Oh I got that book, I got two more too,’” he laughs. “And there's something very powerful about knowing I still created, regardless of what the world gives me, notices or doesn't. I created.'"

Read more from the "This is Who We Are" series