The Changeling is the book I’ve most earnestly and most often pressed into people’s hands this summer. It’s not like “a beach read,” though you can certainly read it on the beach. (You can read anything on the beach!) It is a sitting-in-the-shade-in-a-city park read. It is an I’m-stuck-on-the-subway-for-the-rest-of-my-life read. It is an I-love-how-air-conditioned-this-library-is read. It is a book you will fall into and not come out the other side of till you’re done: fun and scary and wise. In his fifth book, Victor LaValle impresses the changeling story of legend—babies kidnapped and swapped with decoys—on contemporary New York City, where book dealer Apollo Kagwa and librarian Emma separately and together work to save their young son.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
We ate crepes while standing on the deck of a 220 foot steamboat. We were at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. The steamboat is called the Ticonderoga built in 1906. I always say, "If you're going to eat crepes, eat them on a National Historic Landmark."
Is that a normal breakfast for you?
No, I'm answering this while I'm on vacation with the family so this morning was a little unusual.
For me the most striking breakfast moment in The Changeling is when Emma serves Apollo a bowl of drugged oatmeal. The intimacy of that moment makes the violence that follows that much more shocking. How did you write that scene? What was the process like?
For a long time I didn't address how exactly Emma knocked Apollo out in that scene. My best friend, and fellow writer, Mat Johnson suggested she should've slipped something into his food. I'd already written a story from Emma's past, where her own mother served soup that had been drugged so it also seemed like a nice call back. Like Emma used this horrific incident from her own past to enact something horrific in the present. Oatmeal seemed like the best choice because who can tell what's in oatmeal anyway? Someone could drop a handful of nail into that stuff and you wouldn't even know it until you'd swallowed them. (Which just gave me an idea for a different story!)
You created an incredible (and incredibly scary) villain in Kinder Garten, a noxious combination of Grimm's fairy tales and meninist Reddit subforums. How do these two paradigms—the troll of legend and the troll of today—inform each other?
I'm so glad you were troubled by Kinder Garten! I knew I was tussling with all these old fairy tale monsters, but I didn't think it was enough to simply mine the old material. I needed to sprinkle in my own, new monster. Well what counts more than the trolls and troglodytes who lurk in the netherworld of male rage? These kinds of guys were always there, but in the past they probably confined to the handful of men like that in your town, in your neighborhood. The internet has allowed them link up like Voltron and, unfortunately, they do become more powerful when they combine their strength. So I had to write about them.
One think I liked about the old trolls is that they were always linked to their natural habitats. They are creatures of nature. So there are hill trolls and sea trolls, cave trolls and so on. Since the online world has a become a kind of new "natural world" for us all that will inevitably spawn a kind of troll that is natural to that environment. In this case it's angry, lonely, neutered men. Quite possibly the most frightening kind of creature the world has ever known.