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Looking for a feminist horror western? Novelist Victor LaValle Is Your Man (Highly Evolved)


“I was inspired by the bravery of these women,” Victor LaValle says of the story that led to his latest hybrid novel, “Lone Women.”

(Teddy Wolff)

On the shelf

‘Lonely Women’

By Victor LaValle
One World: 304 pages, $27

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“History is simple, but the past is complicated.” says a character in the new Victor LaValle novel, “lonely women.”

By telling the story of single women who settled in Montana at the turn of the 20th century, LaValle complicates traditional narratives of life on the American frontier. Consider it a variation on the theme of her life’s work. For more than two decades, the author has won acclaim and devoted fans for his novels, mostly set in New York, that subvert literary fiction by blending horror and fantasy. His previous novel, 2017’s “The Changeling,” took a deep dive into internet culture, book collecting, and parenthood with the complication of a possibly demonic baby. (Soon to become an Apple TV+ series.) “Lone Women” is a bit different, although not as much as you think.

It started, LaValle told me over Zoom last month, during a trip to the University of Montana, where he bought a book: “Women colonists of Montana: A Field of One’s Own”, edited by Sarah Carter. “I was fascinated by all these women who went (to Montana) to try it on their own. I found out that there was at least one black woman occupying a house and that the Chinese population could not occupy a house,” due to immigrant exclusion laws.

The result is Adelaide Henry, a single black woman fleeing California after violence takes her parents. “There are two kinds of people in this world,” LaValle writes by way of introduction: “those who live in shame and those who die from it.” Adelaide heads first to Seattle to sign a claim, then travels to Montana. Traveling alone, she only takes with her what she needs for her new life, including a heavy locked trunk. Readers immediately feel that this is some kind of anchor that chains her to her past, and also something like the Ark of the Covenant, inspiring fear because of the horrible truths that she could reveal.

A western with horror overtones, “Lone Women” also sets out to revisit, and revisit, that complicated past. “One of the things I wanted to get across,” says LaValle, “is that the tenor of a lot of old Westerns is: ‘Look how bold and brave these white men were with the law, the government and the guns on their side. .’ And he wanted to say, ‘That’s not brave. What’s brave is going out when you know all those things are ganged up against you. I was amazed by the bravery of these women.”

To portray them, LaValle drew on a family history forged by pioneering women from a different era. Her mother fled the repression in Uganda and came to Canada and then to New York.

"lonely women," by Victor LaValle

“As I get older, father and worker too,” says LaValle, “I remember my mother coming to New York in her early 20s in the late 1960s. Things are hard, not that great, but she finds a way. to get ahead here. She has me in 1972, and things aren’t working out with my dad. He eventually he brings my grandmother here. And the idea of ​​just the two of them in New York seemed very similar to the energy of the occupation. The same audacity to leave it all behind. I was trying to channel my admiration and love for the two of them into how I thought of Adelaide and the other lonely women.”

Unlike many children of immigrants, LaValle says he was never pressured to pursue a professional career. His mother supported the family as a secretary, “but she was an artistic soul.” He painted, sculpted and played the piano, which gave him freedom when he decided he wanted to be a writer at an early age.

LaValle still faced obstacles; college at Cornell University was a struggle. “I was a mess, trying to keep my nose out of water,” he says. One dean insisted that he would never be allowed to graduate. But after taking leave, LaValle persevered.

What really inspired LaValle was all the reading he did as a kid. “The corner store was run by two sisters named Gina and Rose. And they would let you read comics on the revolving shelf as long as you bought something else. They had the energy of being the aunts of all the children.”

After the comics, he remembers reading Poe. “But like a lot of people in my generation who love horror, Stephen King, who I read when I was 10, 11, 12, was Stephen King. Part of the genius of him was that he could write in a way that, as a child of that age. , he could get it. But an adult could read it and understand the deeper subtext.” From there, he went on to Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson.

“Lone Women” incorporates some of the genre tropes that infused “The Changeling,” as well as another LaValle novel, “the silver devil”, about a mental institution where patients were stalked by a monster. (A film adaptation is in development.) But the new book isn’t horror itself; it is more of a novel haunted by the invisible specter of horror. And, in another LaValle game, she is full of optimism. He owes it to another strong woman, his wife, the writer Emily Raboteau.

“It was during the Trump era, so there was already a war on women,” recalls LaValle. “And she said, ‘That’s hard enough. I want to read this book and be happy for women.’ And I said, ‘Okay, honey. Let’s do it.’ And then it was fun. In fact, he was very liberating because he knew that this is not what you would expect to happen” in a Victor LaValle novel, he says.

The author also sought the opinion of his agents, both women. They counseled her on times when a woman would be vulnerable in ways a man wouldn’t see. Raboteau, meanwhile, would explain to her where she was going wrong. “The funny thing was that sometimes my solution was that she hit whoever she was. And my wife was like, ‘Shut up.’”

Not that Adelaide couldn’t take a beating. Thinking of the physical strength it would take for her to cut down trees and work the land, LaValle turned her into a physically formidable woman. She and other characters, like the inimitable Bertie, who makes an in-demand “special concoction,” are not children left behind at the border. Sometimes, LaValle confesses, she wanted the reader to witness an Adelaide confrontation and think, “Could I kick that guy’s ass?”

We laugh, but it brings us back to the topic of how “tough” women are often portrayed. “I don’t enjoy modern movies where there are scenes with 10 soldiers in a room and a small woman, an actress who is 105 pounds, and then she beats them all up,” she says. “I’d love to see you have to think about how this particular woman could beat them without having to fight like Arnold Schwarzenegger.” He admits that he was tempted to choreograph more fight scenes, before reminding himself that he wasn’t writing an action movie where physical violence was the right choice.

It’s just one of the many ways LaValle sought to turn the West around. The heroism of the lone hero in the wilderness is replaced by a sense of a place marked by absence: the expulsion and internment of Native Americans; the exclusion of potential immigrants. One of the most difficult challenges for LaValle was deciding which stories to tell and which he should leave out.

“I wondered about the variety of characters and how comfortable I was with who could or could not appear with,” he says. “There’s a Métis trader coming in, which also shows how porous the Canadian border was at the time. I wanted the characters to acknowledge this story, not just that the native peoples were there, but to speak explicitly about how we, the characters, reject them. How all these underdogs have underdogs too. I was hoping to recognize the layers.”

A medium that allows more play and more inclusion is television. LaValle is enjoying the process of adapting the projects in development, especially “The Changeling.”

Kelly Marcel, executive producer of the Apple series “Changeling,” has worked to expand the narrative of the original novel. “Kelly was an incredible collaborator,” says LaValle. “From the beginning, she said that she was not going to change the book, that she was going to add things to it. She saw that the book was narrated from the character of Apollo, the main character. And she told me that she wanted a lot more space for the character of Emma… There are these moments of love and camaraderie between the women that are just lovely.”

This, at least, is nothing new to LaValle, who knows he would never have gotten here, to the top of his game, without the women.

Berry writes for a series of posts and tweets. @BerryFLW.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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