Victor LaValle is a writer and teacher who was raised in Queens, New York and now lives in Washington heights with his wife and young son. He is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, three novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, and The Devil in Silver, and an ebook only novella, Lucretia and the Kroons. On the back cover of Big Machine, Mos Def proclaims that LaValle’s writing, “is like nothing I’ve ever read, incredibly human and alien at the same time.”
He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Whiting Writers’ Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and the key to Southeast Queens. He earned an MFA from Columbia University, where he currently teaches writing.
Sitting across from LaValle at a campus cafe, it is impossible not to be warmed by his contagious optimism about people’s ability to change and grow. He generously offers up his own life-lessons-learned-the-hard-way and speaks with extraordinary patience and affection of the blunders we all make as we try to navigate our way through the everyday struggles of life.
When did you first start thinking that you would write, or when did you first write a story?
I wrote my first story when I was 13 or 14. And then I even sent it in to magazines. I sent my first story into a magazine called Grue Magazine, a horror magazine put out of the lower east side. The woman who was the Editor in Chief is now either the vice president or the chancellor of the Church of Satan. The magazine had closed, but the church of Satan took her in, I guess.
But when I sent my story in, she sent back this great rejection sheet. It had a list of all these craft issue like characterization, plot, language, pacing, and beside each of them this chart: “good, very good, not so good.” She went through and checked off all these things and then gave notes like: “characterization: good—and here’s why.” It was a real labor of love because I’m sure it [the magazine] was not a money-making venture. At the bottom she even wrote a little note —because I must have said in there that I was like 13 or 14— that said, “This is an auspicious start for someone so young.” And I saved it.
You still have it?
I still have it. Well, my mom found it and she two-hole punched it—she’s a secretary—and put it in a binder and kept it and then gave it to me years later. I still have it in my closet somewhere. What was nice about that was that I sent it out and it was rejected, so I learned that things could be rejected. But I also learned that this is a craft that has things you can be good or bad at – like plot, language, and all this – and I had never thought of that before. I took it as a sort of gospel that these were the factors that went into a good story. And even though I stopped writing for a while – because I was just a teenager and had other things I was interested in – it was a formative experience to have that happen at 14. It stayed with me. That you submit, you accept that rejection happens, and, if you’re lucky, the editor tells you why it’s not working.
And how did you know that submitting a story to a magazine was something you could do? Was there somebody around you who was encouraging you to write and submit or…?
I don’t know if I was at the library or a bookstore or whatever, but I saw this thing called The Writers Guide To Magazines and Journals. They used to come out every year and it was just a phonebook of all these different magazines and journals— here’s what they look for, here’s what they pay, here’s who to write to… For whatever reason, I said, “Okay I gotta go find out about all this.” There’s certainly no one I can think of who introduced me to that, but I realized that if you want to publish somewhere you gotta find the thing that tells you where to publish and I picked it up.
A very practical teenager!
I’m very practical, very business-like, and, well of course, if I can be totally honest, they would list who pays what and I saw dollar signs. A story was 3,000 words and I thought, “This place OMNI Magazine pays a dollar a word! I would like $3,000.” I sent it to OMNI Magazine and they sent back a complete form letter rejection that I also saved because at least they sent something back.
So yeah, it was partially, “I want to get published” and it was also, “I want to get paid for my work.” At 14 or 15, I already knew I wanted to get paid.
Were you thinking of writing as a career at that point?
Yeah, I think I was. I didn’t have an idea of what “career” actually meant, but I thought, “I’ll sell this story for $3,000 and I’ll go get an apartment, you know, and I’ll live there for a year.” I had very skewed ideas of what you could live on. But I did think, “This is my path to being an independent adult who makes his own living.” And my dream was, I’m just going to write stories and sell stories and that’ll be my life.
So it was more of a practical choice than a romantic calling?
Well, it was romantic in the sense that I thought, “I’m going to write stories and people are going to want to read them. I’m going to touch people, I’m going to scare people,” – at that point I wanted nothing but to be horrifying – “and people are going to so love my horrifying stories that they are going to buy my books.” So, what was romantic was that idea of, “I want to talk to the world and I want to scare the world.” Like all my favorite writers did to me. So that was romantic. “I’ll have a house and I’ll just write stories.”
And scare the shit out of everyone.
And scare the shit out of everybody. And that actually is the dream I’m coming back around to. Scaring the whole world is an ambitious plan. But you know – a few thousand, a few hundred thousand, and then 7 billion people. It can still be a goal.
Then teenage life happened. When did you pick up writing again?
Well, in high school I took writing classes, or I wrote in English class. And I was also apprenticing in the sense that I was taking stories or songs that I liked and essentially—I realize now you would say adapting them or novelizing them. I would take Metallica songs that I really liked and write a story version of the song. And in my ignorance I didn’t realize that they [Metallica] were actually sometimes cannibalizing books, so I was novelizing songs that were already books.
Can you think of an example?
Well, to explain my level of ignorance: they have a song called For Whom The Bell Tolls that is based on the Ernest Hemingway book. I did not understand that, so I wrote a story called For Whom The Bell Tolls and my English teacher was like, “You know, you should read the book first.” And I said, “There’s a book?” So I was not the most widely read teenager. But it was nice still because she—the teacher—just said, “If you want to be a writer you need to be a reader—go read this book.”
So, you began by imitating.
Yes, in high school—and even in college in a couple of writing classes. At that point I just imitated movies. And then got called out on that.
Were you imitating horror movies?
No actually— what would the euphemism be? —“urban movies.” Boyz N The Hood, Juice, South Central. There was a boom in black ghetto crime movies and they were almost uniformly terrible, but they fit the same pattern as The Godfather—the same rise and fall of gangster stories. So I imitated those and then I had people in class saying, “This is just a movie called Juice, you’re not inventing anything.” And I had to go back and read and watch movies and read and read… It wasn’t until graduate school that I started writing more original stories.
Do you think of that period as a time when you were finding your subject matter?
Yeah, I didn’t have confidence that what I would come up with—I mean I didn’t think of it this way then, but I realize it now—that I didn’t have confidence that what I had to tell was worth telling. But there were things that spoke to me in some way. I knew I liked a song—so I’d do a cover version of that song, but I didn’t feel confident enough in my own version of that feeling. So I did the cover versions for a while just to build up that belief.
It was only when I was coming to graduate school that I said, “Okay, maybe I’ll try something that comes more from what I want to tell, or material that is more my life and what I know refashioned for fiction.” And then people seemed to say, “Oh, there’s something here.” Instead of saying, “Oh, this is just such and such work.” And that’s when I said, “Alright, I’m onto something. I’ll just keep going.”
Were you studying creative writing in undergrad?
I was an English major, so I took some creative writing classes, but I wasn’t a creative writing major. I thought it was half a waste to be an English major because I felt like, if I’m going to be a writer, I’m going to read all this stuff anyway, so I should have been an anthropologist or something and learned something that was actually useful. Another expertise – another language. In the end that’s all it is, the idea of anything—you study math, study philosophy, even, like, physiology—someone who is a masseuse and who becomes a writer—I’m jealous. They know how the body works in a way that’s fascinating and I bet is helpful in the writing.
Everything leaks in.
Everything. Everything. But I was an English major, frankly out of laziness. And then here and there in my junior year I started taking classes in other things. Mostly history, anthropology. Because I started to grasp that I needed other languages.
And other ways of looking at things?
Absolutely. It was helpful to not just study things for what they symbolized, but also for what they actually might be or for how they might exist in the world independent of my conception of them. It was nice to take a history course and say, “It’s fine that you see a pattern, but here’s what happened.” And then you need to search it for some understandable variation or pattern or whatever as opposed to just sort of deciding you are going to find it.
And writing your own version of history.
Yeah. So [I studied] English and then an Africana minor, which is essentially just history but with a more specific focus. But I treated it again like an English major and just read black books. I don’t know how useful it was either because, again, I would have read these books anyway because I was interested in writing from Africa, and the Caribbean and black American writers.
I don’t think it’s a mistake to spend time studying something you’re interested in!
I hope not. But the one thing I would say is that if there is any chance of taking some classes, even now as a night class or weekend class, take a cooking class, whatever, just to become knowledgeable about something besides writing. It’s just infinitely useful to a writer. Whatever it is—it doesn’t even matter. Woodworking. It can help you— it’s something you can use.
I was reading something the other day that was about how the default mode for someone from the United States is, “Yes that’s fine, but what can this be sold for? What is its commercial value?”
How is it productive.
Yeah—that’s right. And in some ways I love that, because I feel like: you better have an answer and you better be able to use it. But the danger is that you reduce everything to its commercial value.
And then, as a writer, you feel like you’re not succeeding in a way?
That’s right. You’re not succeeding even if what you are doing is insightful and brilliant— if it isn’t financially valued, it isn’t valued. That’s a dangerous path for any artist to be on. But a little of that…
I remember a couple of years back seeing protests in France—this was not the most recent round of protests against police brutality—it was protests under the Sarkozy government. If I’m remembering this correctly, there were artists who got stipends to live and be artists and the Sarkozy government—in their capitalists evil—was saying you’re going to have to work part time—something like 10 hours a week—for your yearly stipend that you live on. And the artists were in the street, they were going to set fire to the Louvre because this was being demanded of them. And I thought, “You’re insane. This is not too much to ask for you to get this money. You should have to give a little to the state.”
And maybe there’s some value to doing the thing you don’t want to do—something in there for your own personal growth?
There are artists who refuse to take anything in from the outside world and believe that their interior life is the only thing that’s valuable, and those artists I think are doomed to become stunted. But those artists who feel like whatever my experience out in the world is, it feeds my work, those are the artists who can only grow from continued exposure to humanity.
What made you decide to do an MFA?
I went directly after undergrad. Well, when I say directly after I mean, I failed out of school— out of undergrad after about 3/4 of a year. I got booted out because my grades were terrible and I was on grants and student scholarships. I did so poorly that this one dean said “You’re out and I’m never going to let you back,” like specifically he was like, “If I see your name come up I’m going to veto it every time if you try to come back and finish your degree.”
Wow. He wasn’t messing around.
He was adamant. I didn’t understand—I’d never met him, I didn’t know why he hated me—I’m sure he didn’t hate me—but why it was such a bug for him. Maybe he felt like I was wasting valuable scholarship money, I don’t know. So I stayed in Ithaca and I worked through a temp agency and did tons of different jobs and then I found out that that dean went on sabbatical. I went to a different dean and I said, “I’m ready to come back, will you let me back?” And she said, “Okay.” And then I was a student again.
Yeah I was sneaky. I felt like it was my only choice or chance to finish this thing that I’d started.
Was there ever a question of whether or not you wanted to finish?
Well the question was more existential—the way that I was living and acting suggested that, on some level, I did not really want to be doing this. I had sabotaged myself so fully that there was no way it was accidental. Even though it wasn’t conscious. But then, quite frankly, six, seven months cleaning offices, moving furniture, working in food service – it was a reminder: “Do you want to finish your fucking college degree, or do you want to do this?” And I wanted to get that college degree. So that was when I schemed to get back into school.
But while I got back into school, I was not in such a good space that I had figured out the life path I wanted to be on or how to be successful, whatever that meant. But I had a friend who was in the MFA program at Cornell and we were in a little crew and hung out and he said, “Why don’t you just do an MFA, just to bide your time for two years.” Because what I knew was that if I graduated, I would have an English degree and I would likely become an English teacher who hated my students for making me work and teach them when I wanted to be something else.
So I applied to a bunch of programs, and only got into Columbia. I came here [to Columbia]—it was like a life raft. The way I saw it, I had ruined my undergraduate career and I had basically burned all bridges, but here was my chance to show up, brand new. And I was a writer. When you show up, you’re a writer. You’re not a failed undergraduate, you’re not a dude who was a mess, you’re just a new writer.
I showed up and in a weird way it was actually really helpful because I showed up with work. The summer before I wrote four stories because I thought for sure that everyone else when I came in would have books—like five books—done.
I dunno, you know, I felt so inferior to everybody, I thought for sure… So I thought, I better come in with a couple stories. And in the first workshop—first day, first semester, first workshop—I had twelve copies of my story in my bag because I said, “She’s gonna ask for us to hand out and I’m gonna be ready.” The professor said, “Alright, let’s come up with our schedule.” And the whole class looked cow eyed—all, “don’t ask me, don’t ask me”— and I realized, “I’m the only fucking one with a story. I’m the only one who’s prepared.” And I realized, “I got this, I’m ready.”
That’s a good first day.
I felt like, in my utter insecurity, I had basically started running the night before and so I was two laps ahead of everybody. It wasn’t true, but that’s how I felt. So, suddenly, I entered into that space of, “I can do this.” That little thing made me feel like I could keep up and that was the beginning. It became less of a contest with others because I felt like I had already lapped them.
You’d earned your place in the race.
Well, I felt like I was in the lead— even though that was clearly not true once we started handing things out. But that’s what I needed to believe. I didn’t even realize that that’s what I was needing to learn—“you belong here as much as anyone else. No one here is better than you” – which I assumed everyone was – “no one here is smarter than you or better read than you – not completely. You are a worthy candidate for this chair.” And that was not a thing I had believed as an undergraduate or even in high school. If you start acting like it, eventually you’ll believe it and eventually I did.
And did you find your workshop teachers were supportive? What was the culture like?
Well, I got very lucky. My first workshop teacher—her name was Rebecca Goldstein—was a wonderful teacher for me because all she did was encourage. She just said, “Keep writing.” Which was all I needed to hear first semester. And then second semester I had this teacher who said, “I know you’re very enthusiastic, but you don’t know how to write a story.” Everything I submitted, she said, “Sorry buddy, this is not a story,” and just knocked me down again and again. But first semester had taught me confidence—if not even stupid arrogance—and second semester was when I needed to learn humility. And she taught me humility. The third semester was back to, “You can do this, you are beginning to learn how to write a story, but it’s still early.” And then by last semester they were saying: “Okay, you’ve got a general idea for stories, now how do you put this all together into a book?”
Also, I was determined to get something out of every class even if it was a teacher who seemed like they didn’t even like what I was doing. Because it’s a lot of money and also—what else am I going to do? I don’t want to waste a semester. So, those were the lessons I chose to extract because those were the lessons I needed.
So it sounds as though you felt like you were making progress the whole time?
I think that’s how I understand it now. During the MFA experience I don’t think I understood that that was the path I was going on. I felt at times frustrated, I felt at sea, there were some teachers I felt appreciated me more than others, there were some students who I felt were almost enemies and some students who were really supportive, but it was only after the fact when I left—sort of six months later- when I started putting together what each class taught me that I realized, “Oh, there is a path here.” But I couldn’t see it before. During the time, I was just so determined to write that that was the only thing that I was doing. I didn’t have perspective yet. I don’t know anyone who has perspective during things.
You said you wanted to come out of it with a book—did you try to publish that book when you graduated?
I came out with a group of stories like almost everybody does—although it was stories and a play, because for a thesis I just thought: “Everything I have I should throw in there.” And, as a result, it was an uneven thesis. Then my thesis advisor said, “I think there’s some good stuff here, why don’t you send this to my agent and see what she says.” I sent it to the agent and she said to come in to talk and I was super excited, and then she said, “Its not ready. I think you need six months.” And I was totally dejected. But I didn’t know any other way to reach any other agents, because I hadn’t learned anything about how that worked. That was something we didn’t talk about much in the MFA.
I got a job at Barnes&Noble—the Barnes&Noble down in Union Square—and I moved in with my best friend (who was also an MFA student named Matt Jonson), and we had an apartment up on 135th or something, and I ended up taking a year. I worked on it for a year and then I gave it back to her [the agent]. And by that time I had cut the play, cut three stories and revised the stories that remained many, many times. I gave it to her and she said, “This is much better, I would be happy to take this out now and represent you.”
Then she sent it out to about ten editors and they all said no. Some had very nice rejections, some had form rejections and some had insulting rejections—but that’s just how it went. After the 10th rejection, the agent said, “I’m not sure what to do, maybe you should think about something else.” And then I ran into a fellow student from a workshop at school and she told me about a friend of her’s who had just gotten a job as an editor at Vintage books. I sent it to her, she liked it, and that’s how I sold my first book.
So, the lesson I took from that was: “Don’t be an asshole to your peers if you can help it.”
Because they can help you.
They can. Of the twelve people in your class, some are going to become writers right away, some are going to become editors, agents, some are going to work at magazines and journals—there are so many paths that people take in this culture and you don’t know who is going to turn out to be what to you. And it’s not about playing politics, because obviously you can’t know everything, but it’s the idea of just not being horrible.
It’s funny how in a workshop there can be a tendency to think: only one person in this room gets to make it and we’re all in competition with each other.
But it doesn’t make any sense!
But weirdly, it’s the natural thing to do…. I mean, all you have to do is look at the number of books published every year and it’s not impossible to imagine that all of you in the room can get published. So what’s behind that idea that everyone seems to agree on—that only one of us can make it? Because if you say “published,” just logically everyone knows that’s not true. So do you mean published for a million dollars and on the cover of The New Yorker? And the answer is “yes,” a lot of times for people. You know, secretly in their ugly or just ambitious hearts, what they really mean is, “Only one of us gets the golden ticket.”
But even that—if that’s the test of success—I have some people close to me who have gotten even the golden ticket, and I’m telling you, they were unhappy people before and they are unhappy afterward. None of these things—as much as it sounds self-helpy or whatever—none of these things actually make you a happy or content person. Working shit out makes you hopefully a more content person.
Everyone in this room can have a book out there and can have a good book out there and could be read by people. If the idea is, what you want to do is share a story with people or affect some human beings in a way that’s meaningful—of course that can happen. If instead, speaking for myself, you want to fill the daddy-sized hole that your father left in you when you were three..,. that ain’t happening with any book. And you’ve got to figure out some other way to deal with that, so that you can appreciate the good stuff that comes in the book life, and, honestly, in the rest of your life. Not to be too therapeutic.
Did you fall prey to that trap with your first book? Did you have expectations of how it would change your life or your status?
And how did that play out?
Well it didn’t happen. When I sold my first book it was ‘98-‘97 and this was a time when a couple people were selling books of short stories for a couple hundred thousand dollars. And so in my head I said, “If these people can do it—that’s what I expect.” And what I didn’t understand that I was saying at the time was, “I will only feel like what I did was worthwhile and valuable if I get that, and if I get published in these couple places. Nothing less than that will count.” And then the agent sent it around to ten different people and they all said various things, but no one said, “Here is $500,000.”
The editor said, “We want you to be part of this line, this book is going to be published, this book is going to be read, and you’re going to be reviewed many, many places—we are going to do this, we are going to work hard for you.” And all I could do was be bitter that I didn’t get more. And the book came out and got some very, very nice notices, was read by a fair number of people and all that stuff and in every way, in retrospect, I feel very proud of everything that happened with that book. But at the time, I did not enjoy it. Because I could not enjoy it. I was so consumed with the idea that I needed to make all this money and be celebrated anywhere and everywhere that I went, so that honestly—I had no concept of how much the world should care about writing—I imagined I would be on the subway and people who say, “Isn’t that the guy…?” You know? All these things that didn’t happen.
How connected was the idea of getting on the front page of The New Yorker and having everyone in the world recognize you to your feelings about the quality of the writing?
Well I certainly felt great confidence in the writing and I feel like the reason I want to publish stories is because I do believe on some level that the whole world should read this. That is my default hope whenever I write something or try to publish something. Whether I am right or wrong, I believe that.
But my feelings about the kind of money I should have received, the kind of attention I should have received and the kind of adoration I should have received, were not in any way tied to the quality of my writing; it was tied to my utter self loathing and inability to believe that I was a worthwhile human being—I prayed for some outside source to tell me something that I could not believe. Which of course was doomed to fail. And, of course, what I came to understand a couple of years after, was that nothing I would have received would have made me believe it. Although, you know, a Pulitzer Prize would have been nice.
It’s hard to convince yourself of that. It so tempting to look forward and think—if I just get blank then I’ll be alright.
But then, on another level it’s nice to have goals—and if you are going to have goals, why not have ridiculously outsized goals so that you obtain maybe even just very great modest goals? On one level there’s something beautiful about people who are completely satisfied with what they do all the time, but my own bias also makes me feel like, you don’t really push things far—in yourself, in whatever you do in the world—if you feel satisfied with whatever you do.
Are there people like that?
Absolutely. There are. I’m going to tell something that you and me and some segment of the world will just never believe—and that is that there are people in the world who are generally satisfied with themselves. And those people are floating out there somewhere and they are people who find happiness in their lives. Not because they are happy with less success, but because they value the things that they have succeeded at.
Even now, whatever I hope for, I still have ridiculously outsized ambitions for myself and for my writing, but I’m closer along the way to feeling like, “This is also pretty fucking great—as is this and this etc.” And only occasionally does that demon arise that say, “But it would have been even better if you also had this…”
When you first gave your thesis to your agent—how receptive were you to her telling you that this wasn’t ready yet?
Well, what was great about that moment was that it didn’t matter if I was receptive or not. She was saying was: “I’m not ready to go into business with you.” And there was nothing my pouting, my thin skin and my pain—which was there—could adjust. She just said, “Not yet.” With workshop and with friends you can say, “I don’t agree with you and I don’t know if I’m going to do that.” She was just saying, “I cannot sign on to work with you yet. End of story.” And I had to decide whether or not that meant that was the end of our relationship, or if I was going to work on a better version my book and come back to her.
So, I left and I was angry and I was hurt and of course I felt like, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” and all those things. But then I just had to go back to work and I was stewing about this and that, and I had to say to myself, “Do you know any other agents? No. So what else are you going to do then?” And I gave myself a couple months where I didn’t think about it at all. I just read, talked with my friends… And then at a certain point I started coming back to it and thought, “When she said it wasn’t ready, what do you think she meant? Were there some things she was right about?” Some things were easy, like, “Why don’t you just cut the play?” And then once I could cut the play, I could say, “Well, you know that other thing, it’s not really a story, or it’s a story but it’s exactly like this other story that’s better…”
With a little time and distance I could begin to adjust and accept that I knew this woman was smart, I knew some of the people she worked with, she’s no dummy and she’s been at this a long time, so maybe that’s enough reason to trust that when she’s talking she’s not talking out of her ass.
But every writer also has the right to feel at first, “You’re wrong, I don’t agree with you and fuck you.” Every writer has the right to that. The smart thing is, you don’t say that to the person—because you don’t want to burn somebody who has been kind enough to read your work. You don’t want to act like a baby. But internally, have that tantrum. Go home have a drink, go run 15 miles or whatever it is that burns out that thing in you—do it. And then a little bit later, come back to the work and say, “Did they have a point?”
Even now that I’ve worked with the same editor for the last three books, every time I gave him a book I thought, “This time he’s going to say there’s nothing to fix.” And then he gives it back to me and says, “This is a really good start, here’s what else you need.” And I sit there and think, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” But I don’t send that email to him. And then a couple weeks later, I say, “Okay, let’s talk about it, let’s have lunch.” It’s happened every time the same way. I want it to be one draft and done. But it has never happened. And I’m pretty sure it will never happen.
But you can always dream!
And you know, there are some people who swear that the first draft is the best draft. But I think that they are wrong.
It seems wrong to me, but then it’s also easy to start worrying—am I making it worse?—and get lost in that.
The thing I try to tell myself is, “If you can only make it worse, then it was probably pretty bad to begin with.” I’ve just rarely known of a time when practice didn’t make you better at something and didn’t make for a better version of something. Nobody says, “The way I’m going to be a great pianist is I’m just going to sit down at a concert hall and just start bashing and just see, and I’m not going to practice ever, I’m just going to do it. I’m just going to go to court and convince someone to let me represent them, I’m not going to go over case law or anything like that, I’m sure I can do fine.” Nobody does that! But in writing, for some weird reason, there’s a cult of the amateur—the genius amateur. And it’s a total lie.
And right now, there seems to be a fascination with really young writers.
Yes. But even most of the really young writers, I’m willing to bet—unless they are being celebrated for a super riveting blog or something where there is actually no filter between them and the public – if they’ve published their book somewhere, there’s a good chance they worked with someone. Whatever they did went through some degree of editing.
You know, one of the great frauds of first drafts is Jack Kerouac and On The Road. It’s just a lie that he wrote it in that one draft. There are early drafts of the book. That was just the finalized draft. But Kerouac was smart enough to know that every good writer needs a good legend, and it was a great legend. But it’s essentially like destroying the ladder after you’ve climbed up. Nobody can attain that. Because you didn’t even attain that, Kerouac—you fucking liar.
What did you do after you published your first book? Were you still working at Barnes&Noble?
No, I used my first book to get a teaching job. I had a cheap apartment, a rent stabilized apartment that I got from a friend. It was—I don’t want to tell sob stories—it was not a nice apartment, but it was cheap. And I would work long enough to basically save about $6,000 – maybe now that would be $10,000 – and then I would not work, and just write until I had burned through about $5,000 of that and then I would start looking for work again.
So, basically, I was teaching for a semester and then off for half a year or a year and then teach and then off, and in that way. I didn’t have disposable income, but I had time to write and read and it was great for me in that way. And also, I defaulted on my student loans—which was a real mistake. I didn’t realize you could talk to the government and work out very reasonable arrangement plans. When you’re done, even if you don’t want to live hand to mouth, stay in touch with your creditors, because I ended up doubling my student loans—I went from like $60,000 to $120,000 or something like that. Actually, it was even more—I’m just embarrassed to admit how much it was. To be a writer! I did that because I just thought, “I’m going to disappear—I don’t have any disposable income, I’m just a writer and I’m just going to live or die by what I put together.” I was just not thinking ahead. And these people would have let me pay $25 a month. I could have done that. A couple beers. But I was just not a forward thinking person. And also a little bit self-destructive.
I lived for the next 5-6 years in that cycle. And I caused my mom great worry because I never had any real money and I had fallen behind most of my friends in whatever path one is supposed to live and all that stuff. But I was producing books and stories and all this so it seemed worth it.
So, what interrupted that cycle?
By then I had published a book of stories and a novel and I had won a couple awards and then I could get a visiting teaching job where they actually hire you as a full timer even though I didn’t teach very much more than what I was already doing. So then it was just like, “Okay, this is better.” I got an actual salary and I could move around – I moved to California for two years doing that—I could move around a little bit here and there and so that was my path.
But my belief was, “If I stay broke for a little while and live hand to mouth and publish these things…” I just lived with the sort of foolish hope that in some way they’d be recognized and recognized in a way that would allow me to continue to write. And it turned out that they actually were. A couple of writing awards gave money and that helped me so that was very fortunate.
It was my blind optimism married to…you know, I went to a graduate program and I got an agent out of it, I got these connections, so I was already on a privileged path. It’s easier to live by the seat of your pants when you have some privileges lined up. But if anybody has privileges—use those fucking privileges! That’s the point of privilege! And if you can, you pass that privilege on to someone else in whatever way you can.
I just worry sometimes—there’s great reasons for working full time. One is to have an income, two is health insurance, three is you have a family to support, four is you just want to live like a fucking grown up. All those things are great reasons, but doing it because you feel like, “Well, I’ll find time to write in between…”
All these things are sacrifices one way or the other, the question is just where you can make sacrifices. And, at the time, I was on my own, I was okay with living pretty broke, and that was my equation. Everyone has a different equation and there are just pluses and minuses to everything along that path.
Interview by Sasha Laing
Photo courtesy of the artist.
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