Special Feature and Author Interview: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

If Lovecraft Country hasn’t been on your radar by now, it should be. Not only is it about the be a big HBO series, produced by some big names like J.J. Abrams, but it’s also incredibly relevant to current events and racial climate in our country.

Tomorrow night is the premier and you better believe I am watching it tomorrow night after the kiddo goes to sleep! What really catches my eye about this one is that it’s a horror story set in Jim Crow America. Having officially made horror part of my regular reading rotation, this book came at just the right time for me.

With themes of racism and the legacy of slavery as the dominant themes in this book, I think it will leave readers with a lot to talk about as well as process while at the same time being scary with a healthy dose of sci-fi and horror. How exciting does that sound?

Today I am thrilled to bring you all the details of the upcoming show and of course this lovely book that was published in 2016, but I also have an interview with author Matt Ruff. He has a new book out now, 88 Names, that has been getting rave reviews. Not to mention it also sounds equally captivating so be sure to check it out. I have 88 Names linked for you guys here! 

Don’t forget to watch the official trailer for the upcoming show and set your alarms to watch it tomorrow night!

Now, let’s get to the fun part and find out a little more about the author, Matt Ruff and this exciting book, Lovecraft County.

Q & A

  1. This book and HBO premiere come at a very pivotal time for race relations, what are you hoping that readers and the audience of the show will glean from your story and characters? 

In researching the novel, I was constantly coming across things about the history of race relations in America that I either hadn’t known or had misunderstood. For example, one of the most persistent misconceptions about legalized racism is that it was primarily a Southern phenomenon. (This even carries over into some reviews of Lovecraft Country, which erroneously state that the story takes place in the South, when in fact it’s set almost entirely in Chicago and New England.) Racism was—and is—a nationwide problem. The South was just more honest about it. Where a motel clerk in Atlanta would point to the WHITES ONLY sign, one in Boston or Seattle might lie and tell you they’d just rented their last room—same discrimination, but with a side order of gaslighting.

Lovecraft Country is a novel, not a history book, but I’ve got reading recommendations on my website for people who want to learn more. A good place to start is with James W. Loewen’s Sundown Towns, which is where I first learned about The Negro Motorist Green Book and the history of the Tulsa Race Riot.

  1. No doubt it must have been difficult as a white author to write about challenges for the black and African American population, can you elaborate on some of those challenges in this particular book? 

For me, one of the biggest joys of fiction is that it lets me explore the lives of characters whose backgrounds and worldviews are different from my own. Lovecraft Country involved more historical research than some of my other novels, but the fact that the protagonists aren’t Matt Ruff clones isn’t unusual. My approach was the same one I always take: I start with a general sense of what the characters are like as individuals, how they relate to each other, and what role I need them to play in the story, and then that gets fleshed out as I go along. Often I’ll have a specific plot-related question—What would the bad guys use as leverage to force George and Montrose to break into a museum? What would possess Hippolyta to drive out to the middle of the Wisconsin woods alone, at night?—and the answer will give me a fuller understanding of who they are. My goal is to make them as psychologically realistic as possible, so that no matter how fantastic their adventures, readers will believe in and care about them.

  1. When the book was picked up by HBO for production, was the creative vision for the show different or on par with you vision as the author? How much creative influence did you have with the show? 

One of the great things about my first phone conversation with (executive producer) Jordan Peele and (executive producer and showrunner) Misha Green was that it was immediately obvious we were all on the same wavelength and excited about the story for the same reasons. Ultimately the success of the show rests on Misha’s shoulders as showrunner—I shared my research and some notes with her at the start of the process, but I wasn’t involved in writing the scripts or in the day-to-day production of the series. But I trust her vision. She’s taken the basic story framework from the novel and expanded on it in all sorts of interesting ways. I’m very excited to see it.

  1. Here is the Pac NW (I am in Salem, OR) Portland and Seattle have been gaining national attention for their protests in response to racial inequity and police tension. Have any of these recent protests inspired any new stories for you that might one day become a new novel highlighting some of those unique local and national issues? And if so, in what way would you put your unique spin on the stories?

I tend to think about my novels for a very long time before I start writing, so while the events of this strange year will probably make their way into a story someday, it’ll be a while. If I were going to pick a topic to zero in on right now, it’d be the shamelessness of the police. Ordinarily I expect people to moderate their behavior when they know they’re being filmed, and the fact that cops don’t do this says a lot about their belief that they’ll never be held accountable. That’d be something to dig into, but I’d need to figure out how to make it work as a narrative.

  1. I love the meshing of genres in Lovecraft County and am excited to see it come alive in the HBO show. Can you talk about how the convergence of those genres helps appeal to the audience or readers? 

Just as I’ve always written about characters from different backgrounds, I’ve always mixed elements from different genres, going back to my very first novel, Fool on the Hill, which is really four different stories blended into one. Combining genres gives you more tools to work with, lets you find clever new uses for old tropes, and makes the resulting fiction richer overall. It’s more interesting for readers, and a lot more fun for me, too.

I want to say a big thank you to author Matt Ruff for taking the time to answer my questions for the interview as well as provide you all with a more in depth interview here:

Exploring
Lovecraft Country:
A Conversation
with Matt Ruff

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

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5
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 

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6
About the book
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.
Exploring Lovecraft Country (continued)

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7
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 

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8
About the book
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.

Author’s Picks

SUNDOWN TOWNS: A HIDDEN DIMENSION OF
AMERICAN RACISM, BY JAMES W. LOEWEN
A history of sundown towns, defined as
“any organized jurisdiction that for
decades kept African Americans or other
groups from living in it and was thus
‘all-white’ on purpose.” Much more than
a curiosity, sundown towns were a major
force in shaping the demographic
landscape of America: Loewen estimates
that outside the traditional South
(where, ironically, sundown towns were
rare), “probably a majority of all
incorporated places kept out African
Americans.”
JIM CROW GUIDE TO THE U.S.A., BY STETSON
KENNEDY
Originally published in 1959, this
satirical tourist guide offers an overview
of American law and custom regarding
race at that time. Chapter titles include
“Who May Marry Whom,” “Who May
Work Where,” “Who May Travel How,”
and “The Dictates of Racist Etiquette.”
TULSA RACE RIOT: A REPORT BY THE
OKLAHOMA COMMISSION TO STUDY THE
TULSA RACE RIOT OF 1921
This 2001 report, commissioned by the
Oklahoma state legislature, is a good
starting place for readers interested in
learning more about the events 

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10
Read on
described in “The Narrow House.” The report can be
downloaded for free from the Oklahoma Historical Society
website, http://www.okhistory.org.
THE NEW ANNOTATED H. P. LOVECRAFT, EDITED BY LESLIE S. KLINGER
A beautifully designed book that collects twenty-two of
Lovecraft’s stories (including “At the Mountains of Madness” and
“The Shadow Over Innsmouth”) and adds extensive annotations,
a biographical essay, and an introduction by Alan Moore.
THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM, BY VICTOR LAVALLE
This literary cousin to Lovecraft Country takes one of H. P.
Lovecraft’s most racist tales—“The Horror at Red Hook”—and
retells it from the point of view of a black protagonist.
KINDRED, BY OCTAVIA E. BUTLER
In this classic horror/fantasy twist on the paradox of time travel,
a black woman from 1970s Los Angeles is drawn back to
antebellum Maryland, where she must repeatedly save the life of
the white slave owner who will become her ancestor. 

 

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