Below is the self-interview I wrote for the trade paperback “P.S. edition” of Lovecraft Country:
How did you come up with this story?
Like my last novel, The Mirage, Lovecraft Country started out as a TV series pitch. I wanted to do a show like The X-Files, in which a recurring cast of characters had weekly paranormal adventures. The first question you have to answer with a show like that is, What job do these people have, that has them constantly running into monsters? I wanted it to be something that would allow for a different group of protagonists and a different set of cultural concerns than would typically be featured in a genre series.
I’d been reading James W. Loewen’s Sundown Towns, a history of whites-only communities in America, and it was from Loewen that I learned about Victor Hugo Green’s Negro Motorist Green Book, the real-life Safe Negro Travel Guide. I decided to make my lead character a field researcher for a Jim Crow-era guidebook, someone whose job was to drive around the country, looking for hotels and restaurants that would serve him. I also decided to make him a pulp-fiction fan—someone who, if he saw a flying saucer setting down in a field, would be intrigued rather than frightened. But the real reason he’d keep running into monsters was because he was black, and when you’re black in America, there’s always a monster. Sometimes it’s Lovecraftian Elder Gods; sometimes it’s the police, or the Klan, or the Registrar of Voters.
What are your personal feelings about H. P. Lovecraft?
The story that best sums up Lovecraft for me is “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” It’s about a New England coastal town whose inhabitants have made an unholy alliance with aliens who live in the sea. A tourist comes to Innsmouth for the day, sees too much, and ends up running for his life.
All of Lovecraft’s worst traits are on display in the story: Besides the standard racist worldview, “Shadow” offers a thinly veiled allegory about the evils of miscegenation (the aliens are mating with the townspeople). But as a tale of steadily mounting dread, it works, and it’s one of the most effective portrayals of attempted lynching I’ve ever read. Lovecraft’s protagonist is white, but with just a few changes this could easily be the story of a black traveler caught in the wrong place after dark.
So for all his faults, Lovecraft was tapping into these universal themes of horror that resonate even if you’re not a white supremacist. I wish he’d been a better person, or blessed with better mentors. But as a storyteller, I can still learn from him.
In your acknowledgments you say that the first seeds of inspiration for the story were planted almost thirty years ago, in conversations you had at Cornell University. What were those conversations like?
At Cornell I was friends with a guy named Joe Scantlebury, who was the Residence Hall Director for Ujamaa, the program house affiliated with the Africana Studies Center. Joe wasn’t the first black friend I’d ever had, but he was the first who got me to pay attention to the ways in which our lives were fundamentally different.
There’s one exchange in particular we had that probably constitutes the ur-moment for Lovecraft Country. I used to go for long hikes in the farmlands around the Cornell campus. One day I was coming back and I stopped at Ujamaa to see Joe. I told him what I’d been doing and suggested that he might enjoy hiking in the countryside, too. Joe kind of laughed, and said, “Yeah, that sounds like fun, but I can’t go walking the back roads around here, I’m black.” I said, “What do you mean? This isn’t the Deep South. We’re in New York.” And he said, “That’s right. We’re in New York.”
So I thought about it some more. I thought about the people I encountered on my hikes. They were all white, of course, and they were the kind of white people who kept dogs and drove pickup trucks equipped with gun racks. I never got hassled, but if I’d looked like Joe, the reception might have been different. And those back roads were awfully lonely if you did get into trouble.
So it clicked for me then, how even though Joe and I occupied the same geography, there was an important sense in which we lived in different countries, with the borders drawn more tightly around his. That stayed with me.
It was also through Joe that I got to know Professor James Turner at the Africana Studies Center. I took only a couple of courses with him, but he was one of those teachers who leaves a lifelong impression.
Other than providing your protagonist with a job, was there something about The Negro Motorist Green Book that particularly inspired you?
What fascinates me about The Green Book is that it hints at this vast infrastructure African Americans created to cope with legal segregation. The long-term goal was full equality, but in the meantime people had to live their lives in the world as it existed. Many of the details of that day-to-day struggle have been forgotten, but it’s an amazing story, as heroic in its way as the fight for civil rights. I wanted to try and capture that, and spotlight some of the history that readers might not know about.
So you start with this daily struggle to survive in the Jim Crow era, and then on top of that you add a series of supernatural adventures.
Which isn’t as odd a stretch as you might think, because one of the many forms of exclusion African Americans faced was being shut out of the popular imagination. For as long as genre fiction has existed, there have been black genre-fiction fans, but most of the time they were either ignored or insulted.
One of the elements from the original TV show concept that I wanted to preserve in the novel was to give each of the protagonists a chance to star in their own personal weird tale, the kind that historically would have had no place for them. That’s why the book is structured the way it is, with each chapter serving as a sort of mini-adventure.
This isn’t the first time you’ve combined realism with fantasy.
I think hybridization is great. It makes the story richer. Realism grounds the characters and makes them easier to believe in and care about—and in this case, the nature of their reality breathes new life into some very old genre tropes. Meanwhile those same genre tropes offer another way of looking at and thinking about the real-life history. And of course, tales of the supernatural are just a lot of fun. There’s a reason African Americans wanted a chance to play, too.
Lovecraft Country is surprisingly funny, given the subject matter. Is tone a concern?
It can be. Obviously I don’t want to trivialize what I’m writing about.
I think the key to getting emotional tone right is to know your characters well, and keep your own emotional reactions separate from theirs. For example, when I think about the Tulsa Riot, I’m looking back from a safe remove of almost a century, and I’m viewing it as a source of drama. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s my job to think that way—but to the people who were actually caught up in it, it wasn’t a story; it was real and it was terrifying, and that’s how it’s got to feel on the page.
And it’s the same with humor. It’s OK to be funny, but you want to be funny in a way that your characters would appreciate.
Lovecraft Country ends with a victory, but it also leaves a lot of loose threads hanging. Will there be more to this story?
I’m not a big fan of sequels. In general I believe that a story that’s properly told ought to exhaust the potential of the idea that gave birth to it. That said, Lovecraft Country may be an exception. I do feel like I have more to say with these characters.
But that’s not why I ended the novel the way that I did. Yes, the heroes have won a victory, but they still live in America, and the decade ahead is going to be a very turbulent and dangerous one. So to wrap everything up neatly would have seemed false. The Turners and the Berrys and the Dandridges aren’t going to live happily ever after; they’re going to continue to struggle. What makes the ending hopeful is that, as we’ve seen, they have the tools to deal with adversity. They have each other. They know how to find their way.