Let’s time warp back to 2007. It’s a rainy day in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I just ducked inside the downtown Borders. I work at a library and rarely buy books, but I leaf through the new arrivals all the same. None of them hold my attention for long, and I consider giving up and buying an overpriced umbrella for the walk home. But then a bright yellow cover catches my eye. It’s titled Bad Monkeys and it sinks it’s teeth into me by the end of the first page. I sit down in one of the uncomfortable wooden chairs so that the staff are less likely to hassle me, and I spend the next five hours reading the book. At no point can I put it down, because I have to know what happens next. This same scene replays itself with every other publication of Matt Ruff’s work over the next decade, minus the rain and the entirety of Borders stores.
His work is always compelling, sometimes chilling, and written in a tone that never lets go of your attention. I was especially psyched when he agreed to sit down to do an interview with me last month:
What was your main inspiration for Lovecraft Country?
It started out, like my last novel, as a television series pitch. The idea was to do a story like The X-Files or Kolchak the Nightstalker, where you would have a core group of characters having weekly paranormal adventures. But I wanted to do something different with it so instead of white FBI agents, I came up with the idea for it to be about this black family that owned a travel agency in the 1950’s and published a guide for black travelers in the Jim Crow era U.S. My lead character, Atticus, was going to be a field researcher whose job was to drive around the country, looking for hotels and restaurants that would serve him. He and his uncle were also going to be pulp fiction nerds going through all of the challenges of loving a genre that doesn’t always love you back when you’re African-American. It’s a story of how this family is thrown into real life weird tales. Mostly horror but with room to also try other genres. When I couldn’t get it to go as a tv show, I kept thinking about it for the next 3-4 years and finally figured out a way to make it work as a novel. So that’s the roundabout way I came to it.
At first you had considered making The Mirage a television series, but the subject matter was a little controversial…
It was radioactive. The Iraq War was still technically going on when I was pitching it and I was talking about doing this 9/11 story set in a world where Arabia was the superpower and the United States was sort of in the position of Iraq as this occupied, fragmented country. The idea of having this 9/11 thriller in a mirror world with an entirely Arab Muslim cast—I think that was a little too much for the folks I was talking with to handle. I understand there are limits to what tv is willing to do, but the nice thing about being a novelist is that you’ve always got another outlet for your ideas. Books can be a little more daring, I think.
Do you think that The Mirage could be something that could be aired in the future? Because there are alternate history stories that are pretty controversial that are getting positive attention, like The Man in the High Castle.
Yeah, and I think part of it is that it’s ten years later and I think the television landscape has changed a lot. I think it’s a lot more open now than it was to diverse stories. It’s always hard to have a show about a war or conflict that’s currently underway, but then as it fades into the past it becomes less radioactive and I think people are more willing to do stuff with it. With The Mirage, I think that as we get more distance from 9/11, the greater the possibility of a show with this concept airing. I’m hopeful. It would be nice. And I think it would still be an interesting show.
I also wanted to ask about when you were starting to lay the groundwork for Lovecraft Country. How much did current cases of police brutality add into how you envisioned the book?
The funny thing about this story is that there are so many elements of it that are really common. It seems like a very timely story for some of the things that they deal with, but a lot of the issues have always been with Americans, though sometimes they get more press than others. Part of the motivation for me was that I had a lot of friends who were African-American—black nerds basically—who love genre fiction and wish that they had a bigger role in it and that it had more room for them. In my acknowledgements I talk about a woman named Pam Noles, who wrote a really moving essay about her own difficult relationship as a fan of sci-fi. Part of my motivation was to address the past lack of black protagonists. The point is, this complaint goes way back. When I was doing research, I would be reading the Chicago Defender, which is an African-American weekly newspaper, to get events and anecdotes from the 1950’s. Even back then there were articles in the entertainment pages about the dearth of stories with African-American protagonists. Likewise, if you’re looking for stories of police brutality, you’ll find them throughout our history. It’s become more prominent recently because of social media. But it’s not like it wasn’t happening all the time.
That’s true. One other plot point that I was curious about is that none of the family members come into contact with many white women outside of two examples whose names I will omit for fear of spoilers. Was there a reason for the lack of interactions?
I wanted to write about the difficulty of interacting with white supremacy from an exclusively African-American perspective. I could have put in white friends, but with the way the story filled out I focused on a largely segregated community, so it was a deliberate choice to make most interactions with the white community situations where you’d be nervous for the characters. I think a lot of white authors want to put in the good white guy for the white readers to identify with and I didn’t want to give the audience that out. I wanted readers in the position of the characters who were having to deal with the nasty effects of legal segregation. Had the story gone longer or had we done a tv show, I think I would have opened things up and at some point had white allies in the struggle. But for the initial story, I didn’t want to go there, I wanted to keep the focus on the black characters.
It makes sense that in depicting the power imbalance with the culture of white supremacy that typically they’d come into contact with men in authority positions, especially during that time period. Earlier you mentioned about doing some background research for your books. I saw that your wife is a renowned researcher. Does she contribute research to your books, too?
Yeah, I get the free research. I could ask about a subject, like the economics of slave reparations or peculiarities of Jim Crow law and she would come back with a stack of books. She would find things that I would likely have been unable to find as easily on my own. She’s always been invaluable to me. We’re a good match that way.
A lot of your stories tap into horror tropes, but especially Lovecraft Country. There’s the scary doll, the haunted house, the monster, and occult rituals. What were your biggest fears when you were growing up?
Probably just dying. It’s weird. I’ve always had this thing about mortality. I enjoy being alive and the idea that one day I won’t be has always been paralyzing and scary. As far as specific fears, flying is one, being alone in total darkness; I don’t like to sleep with no lights on. Those would be my primal fears. The fact that it’s all going to end someday is creepy and disturbing.
You’ve done a lot of public readings of your books, especially as of late. What has been your experience reading your books in front of an audience?
It’s nice. As a writer I spend years at a stretch basically alone in a room talking to myself so it’s good to get out and share it with people and get a reaction. I don’t think I’d want to do it a lot, I’m definitely an introverted person, but it’s nice to get out and interact and realize there really are people who I’m reaching with these stories. I like to go out once every few years and then go back into my hole.
Can you tell me a little about your writing process? I understand that you write in a very solitary way.
Whenever I am alone for more than five minutes I start running dialogue and story ideas in my head. I’ve always been like that. By the time I begin working on a novel, I’ve already been thinking about it for quite some time and yes, the writing is solitary. I’m not a workshop type person, I’m not somebody that likes to get critique while I’m doing it. I’m more like “Let me go off and get it as best I can on my own and then I will show it to you and we can talk about how to make it better.” I spend a lot of time polishing, writing, and rewriting. The first draft that I submit to my publisher tends to be more like other peoples’ third or fourth drafts. But I have been fortunate to have really good editors who are great at helping me tell the story I want to tell, but tell it better. Once we do get to the editing stage, then my obsessive compulsive nature really comes to the floor where I try to get everything as perfect as possible before I finally have to let it go. I definitely don’t believe in rewriting stuff after it’s out there. That’s basically how it works for me: a lot of thinking followed by a lot of writing alone in the dark and then finally showing it to other people and seeing what can make it better.
This is something I’m curious about: even when sitting down to read one of your books and knowing there’s going to be twists and turns and to expect the unexpected, I’m still surprised. As the plot develops it tends to go in directions that I really didn’t see coming. But with writing so much on your own, how do you anticipate what readers will expect? Obviously you aren’t writing based on that, but it seems like you naturally avoid the predictable. How?
I am basically writing to please myself. The anticipation is that if it works for me, it will connect with enough readers and I’ll be able to make it work. A lot of it is because I have these weird lateral ideas that seem perfectly logical to me, but to other people are surprising. One of my friends has this phrase “The Matt Ruff Non-Sequiter,” where we’re talking about one subject and I will leap over to another seemingly totally unrelated subject where I see the connection but they don’t. I think that’s where the twist and turns and surprises come from, is I have a weird way of drawing connections between different things. Part of the editing process is seeing which of these leaps that a reader will follow and which will be totally bizarre to anyone but me. I’m not trying to be deliberately withholding or surprise people, in fact from my position, by the time I’m writing it I have thought it through and know exactly where it’s going. It’s just that where I see it going is not where anyone else would predict that it would go. I’m just weird.
Well, it works! Have you ever found that what you’re currently reading affects your writing style?
It can happen. While I’m writing I tend to reread stuff that I’ve already read, and I think I gravitate to authors whose style is the style that I’m trying to accomplish in a given moment. If I wanted to do some sort of terse violence I might read Cormac McCarthy or something like that. I get in a mood for a particular author to reinforce the mood that I’m creating. It’s less being directly influenced than thinking “What’s the flavor I want today for what I know I need to do?”
What advice would you give to other writers trying to produce novels?
The main thing is to try and keep a clear idea of what it is you really want to do and work on that. Make deliberate choices. Know why you’re doing everything you do in the novel. I think for me, I always have a reason for why things happen. I think where a lot of writers go wrong is when they’re trying to go from point A to point B, they’ll just write a lot of stuff because they feel there needs to be a certain amount of words or a certain amount of space between two action points. If all you’re doing is filling space, then ask yourself why do that? Just get directly to the interesting stuff and cut out that waste in the middle. Know why your characters make the choices they do. In coming up with character motivations, there’s the reason you want the character to do something and there’s why the character would want to do it. You’ve got to write the characters in a way that their desires and drives give sense to why they do what they do. That’s my advice for people. If you can do that, then your characters will be rich and readers will follow you, too.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
Stephen King loomed really large when I was a kid. I think there came a point when he became famous, right around the time that he became big enough that he was able to rewrite The Stand – which I thought was perfectly fine the first time he did it – is when I started to lose interest in him. But I still cherish his early work. I’m a big Shirley Jackson fan. John Crowley is probably my favorite writer even today. Richard Price is really great. I admire his technique. Because I am so introverted and will go to almost length to avoid actually having to talk to people, the idea of someone who goes out and basically hangs out in whatever neighborhood he wants to write about – sometimes for years, taking notes and hanging with people and absorbing stuff – that’s just fascinating to me and it leads to some really amazing writing. Those would be some names that come to mind.
What recent horror movies were your favorites?
The creepiest film I’ve seen lately is actually a documentary, The Nightmare, about people who suffer from sleep paralysis and night terrors. It includes reenactments that will give you nightmares of your own. For purely fictional horror, recent faves include Oculus, about a haunted mirror, and The Den, a social media riff on the “found footage” genre.
Do you have any new projects coming up?
At this point I’m still trying to decide what to do next. Lovecraft Country is the first novel I’ve written where I’m thinking about sequels. I’d love to do more with these characters and that would probably depend on how well this initial novel does. What I’m probably going to do right now is a shorter, more Bad Monkey sized novel that I can work on next, something that I could finish within a year or two. But I haven’t decided what it will be yet. In the next couple of months I’ll have to start seriously thinking about that and figuring it out. I will post on my blog once I’ve figured it out.
Let’s see. Actually I’m reading a book by Victor LaValle called The Devil in Silver. Victor is another Lovecraft fan. He wrote a novella called The Ballad of Black Tom, and he’s an interrogator of Lovecraft. He is an African-American writer that lives in New York City and our books dropped on the same day. His book takes the short story The Horror at Red Hook and retells it from the point of view of a black protagonist, the type of character who wouldn’t have even had a name in Lovecraft’s version of the story. It’s an inversion of a Lovecraft tale. I read that and liked it so much it left me wanting more, so I went back to Victor’s back catalog. Of the other things he’s written, The Devil in Silver seems like the closest in mood so that’s what I’ve been reading. It’s about a guy who is arrested for assault, and with the police in New York being the way they are, instead of taking him to the station and going to the trouble of charging him; they drop him off at a mental hospital which involves less paperwork for them. This guy makes the mistake of acting up, so what is supposed to be a 72 hour hold situation turns into a months’ long nightmare where he’s trapped in this asylum. I’m not done reading it yet, but in addition to that story is there is apparently a monster inside the asylum. So it’s very interesting.