Talking with Matt Ruff about science fiction's racist past

Seattle author Matt Ruff’s new novel Lovecraft Country is a thoughtful, rewarding examination of the connection between genre and American racism. Specifically, it’s a story that juxtaposes America’s shameful history of systemic racism with the racist history of American science fiction. While the former is well-documented, sci-fi’s racist past is much less overt.

The pivot-point for the novel is arguably the most famous racist in American literary history: HP Lovecraft, the cult horror writer who was an unabashed white supremacist. Lovecraft Country holds Lovecraft accountable for his beliefs. By centering the book on the family of an African-American man named Atticus Turner, Ruff is handing Lovecraft’s legacy off to a new protagonist, one who Lovecraft, by all accounts, would have loathed. The resulting narrative is fascinating, illuminating, and surprisingly fun.

On Tuesday of this week, I interviewed Ruff as part of his book release party at Elliott Bay Book Company. We discussed the book’s origins — it began as a pitch for a TV series — and the idea of Lovecraft Country as a secret history of science fiction’s racist roots. With Lovecraft Country, Ruff is thoughtfully rejecting that tradition, and trying to build something new.

I really enjoyed this book. I've enjoyed every book that you've written, but this one is really something special, so thank you for writing it.

Well, thank you.

First I just want you to start by telling us your history with H.P. Lovecraft as a reader.

I first read them when I was younger, and Lovecraft initially for me was one of those writers where I actually think I liked his imitators better than him. He's known for using very archaic and ornate language, and he does tend to go on sometimes. I think when I was young I liked the spirit of Lovecraft more than the reality of Lovecraft.

Then as I got older I tried him again. There are still some of his stories that don't work for me, but when he works, he really does work. I really like At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Call of Cthulhu.

He gives good dread. One of the characteristics of a typical Lovecraft story is that the monster either doesn't show up at all or only shows up in the last paragraph. It's all about being in a place where you don't belong and you are seeing all of these signs and portents of doom — there are people or monsters who mean you ill, and at some point they're going to come out and get you.

Obviously, one way to read the Cthulhu mythos is as a parable or an allegory for Lovecraft's white supremacist belief system. The Cthulhu mythos is all about how once upon a time aliens from beyond space ruled the planet. They went into decline and either retreated back beyond the stars or into the deep ocean. Now humanity is having its day in the sun, but someday when the stars are right the aliens are going to come back and wipe us all out.

Lovecraft believed that what he called Teutonic Aryans were the pinnacle of human cultural evolution, but that was a temporary situation. Eventually some other group, maybe the Chinese, maybe the Japanese, were going to come and take over. They would have their turn until some other race knocked them off, and eventually all life on earth would die and the uncaring universe would go on without us.

One way to read the Cthulhu mythos is this fictionalized version of the fragility of white supremacy, and Lovecraft's fears about that, and his need to be on guard against miscegenation and race mixing and democracy and liberal ideas about all people being created equal. What's interesting about it is in part because white supremacy generates legitimate fear of other people. If the Klan's coming for you, you're going to be just as scared as the Klan maybe is about the fall of white supremacy. The stories work both ways. You don't have to share his belief system to understand what it's like to stop at a town overnight and suddenly find yourself a target of a lynch mob. It's interesting stuff.

You must have been pretty close to the end of the process with this book when the controversy over the World Fantasy Award happened.


For those of you who don't know, there was a controversy over the fact that the World Fantasy Award was a bust of H.P. Lovecraft.

Has been for 40 years or something.

Yeah, and so they finally changed it. It's no longer H.P. Lovecraft's face. Were you paying attention to all that when it happened? It's certainly brought him to the forefront of the sci-fi community again.

Yeah, I heard about it. I have the internet.

I wasn't sure what your writing process was.

I follow these things. I've learned from experience not to comment on them generally when they're going on because there's just no good to be had there. [The anger over Lovecraft] makes perfect sense. The science fiction/fantasy world right now is undergoing this cultural upheaval as, very belatedly, people of color and women are demanding their place in the sun, demanding more stories featuring them as characters. This created a PR problem for the face of World Fantasy being a guy who compared black people to farm animals.

It was Nnedi Okorafor, who had won a World Fantasy Award and wrote a blog post saying she was just appalled to have won this honor where she got to have H.P. Lovecraft's head in her house, looking at her. It made sense that, yes, they would get rid of that, but of course it's a controversy because for a lot of people, they like artists for what they like and ignore the parts of them they don't care about. I think there are a lot of people that just felt like, “well, yes, he's got these horrible views, but I just like the stories. Why are you bringing these politics into it?” It became a controversy, but it's a no-brainer.

In many ways, to me, it feels like the title Lovecraft Country is almost a feint because this book is interested in all sorts of sci-fi. In the piece you just read, Ray Bradbury is mentioned multiple times. H.G. Wells is name-checked, L. Ron Hubbard. There's a story that's a riff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Mort Weisenger-era Superman, and things like that. This book, to me, feels sort of steeped in science fiction history. To me, it feels almost like you're providing an alternate history of science fiction. I was wondering if you would agree or disagree with that reading.

Part of what I wanted to do was take stories that Atticus might have enjoyed reading, but that would never feature people of color as protagonists, and give them a chance to star in those stories. It would be a case of being careful of what you wish for because, of course, these aren't necessarily fun stories to find yourself a part of.

It was typically the idea that each character in the story would have their own mini-adventure, their own weird tale. I would start by taking a classic story — like, somebody buys a haunted house or somebody finds themselves being chased by an animated doll. First of all, how does this happen to my protagonist and how does having a black protagonist change the nature of the story?

For example, in the haunted house story, Atticus has a friend named Letitia who comes into some money and decides she wants to buy a house in a white neighborhood, because she wants a nice house and that's what you have to do is get a house in a white neighborhood. She gets a surprisingly good deal, and of course it's because the house is haunted. The ghost is white too and doesn't want her there any more than the neighbors do, so she's got to find a way to play the dead off against the living. In some ways, it's taking a story that's been told many times but putting this new twist on it, and at the same time giving you a chance to talk about the real life difficulties of what it would entail to try and just buy a decent house with the money you have at the time. That was definitely part of the process — to tell stories that might have existed had the country been more open, had history been different. These are the kinds of stories that might have existed back then.

That partially answers my next question — about whether it was necessary to structure the book as a novel in stories. Because you do have all these perspectives in the book, and each one is a different riff on different sci-fi themes. Did you ever try to break it out into a single novel or did it always come to you in this episodic format?

This was actually one of the reasons it took me as long as it did to write the book, because with [my most recent novel, also based on a TV pitch] The Mirage, what I was able to do was take this idea for a TV show I'd had — I’d come up with three seasons' worth of subplots — and I could just strip out all of the side stuff and focus on the central mystery of the story. That gave me a story very much like that of a traditional novel.

But in Lovecraft Country, part of the point of the story was to allow these characters to star in their own weird tales. I wanted to spend more time on the character development as well. In television terms, the monster-of-the-week episodes were as integral to the concept as the mythology episodes. That suggested a novel in stories, which is not a phrase that publishers, and I think maybe readers, are necessarily enthusiastic about.

For awhile I was like, “yeah, do I really want to do that?” Then at the end of 2010 I found myself in my then-editor's office. He was saying “The Mirage is coming out. Do you know what you want to write next?” I'm like, "Well, yeah, I've got this idea, but it's a novel in stories, so I don't know." At that point I really knew: yeah, that is what I'm doing. If I'm still thinking about this, I've got to figure out a way to do it.

What I ended up doing was stealing a different metaphor from Netflix — this idea that yes, reading the book would be like binge-watching a full season of TV. It would be episodic, but each chapter would begin with a cold open, a cool bit of business that would grab the reader's attention right away, even if you didn't get necessarily how this fit into everything else you'd been reading.

Then as the monster-of-the-week thing unfolded, eventually the connections would click into place. Now we've got another piece of the mythology as well. You would get to know each of these individuals, because I wanted to spend time with the characters. Then, when you were done you would have this family who you knew, and you would have this complete story about the mystery of Ardham Village and the... I won't spoil it. You would have this complete epic story that had been told in episodes.

That was how I had to do it. I think it works. We spent a lot of time in the editing [process] smoothing the transitions and just making sure that it felt less like separate short stories and more like pieces of a puzzle that you could see how they fit together as you were going along. Hopefully that comes through.

Well, also, the history of science fiction did tend to lean more toward short stories more than other forms. Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles was short stories.

Yeah, the Martian Chronicles are built up of short stories. Exactly.

It’s interesting to me that you are so open about talking about TV and your ideas coming from TV and mimicking the story structure of Netflix, which I think is something that a lot of novelists should start thinking about, because it is a different form. The new TV model is adopted from novels, and so novels need to respond to that. I also think that had you started your career ten years later, you could very well be working for Netflix now, because when you pitched the idea that became Lovecraft Country, that was back when there were three series that were doing this intensive narrative work, but now they're all over the place.

Yeah, and I think that, part of it, the idea caught up with the time enough that it can work now. Certainly that affects how people receive the book too, so maybe it will make it easier to get into it than if I'd written this in 1990 or something.

There are obviously a lot of potential pitfalls for this kind of a book as a white man writing about the African-American experience. The cultural lens has fallen more onto representation, and also, as you said earlier, letting people speak for themselves. I was wondering if you could share your process in writing about these topics? Because it's tricky business. I think most people would agree that white people should not just write about white people, but there are a lot of places where something like this could have gone wrong.

But it's good to be a little nervous. It keeps you awake. My novels are all over the place. Those of you who have read them, they're all over the place in terms of subject matter. I like using fiction to see and experience other people's worldviews and see how other people think and cope with problems. They may have the same temperament as me and some of the same interests, but they have a whole different set of challenges. I find that really interesting and fascinating. I don't know, I seem to have a knack for it.

The process always starts the same way. I work up a history for the character I'm working on. I think about what has their life been life up to this point. What do they want? What do they do? How did they get here? The goal is to work up a psychological model that lets me intuit how they would react in different situations, and I can tell when it's working, when it feels psychologically realistic. The other thing, too, is when you talk about the black experience — there's not one, there's a different one at least for every African-American. That's just the real people. Then you get into fictional characters and that you can have dozens of, or millions of, different possible experiences.

I'm not trying to make a grand statement of how everybody lives. I want to have a set of individuals and who feel like real people and who come at things in a different way and are interesting to write about. If it's an ensemble piece like [Lovecraft Country], how are the characters going to view each other, and how does one person's view of why he's doing something match somebody else's?

I have enough that I can start writing and feel comfortable in knowing how they'll behave and how they'll talk. Then that gets refined as I go along. Typically what will happen is I'll come to a point in the story where I need a character to do something for plot-related reasons, and so I know why I want them to do something, but I haven't figured out why they would do it.

This is an issue. In particular this comes up a lot in horror, where you frequently need to have characters do things that are just stupid. “I'm going to go check out that noise in the basement. The batteries in my flashlight are dying, so I don't think I'll turn it on until I'm in the really dark part of the basement.”

In some ways it was easier with this background because people who are oppressed don't have a lot of options. In a lot of cases in Lovecraft Country, the answer to why are they doing this crazy thing is because this is the only chance they have to get the thing they want. Even if the game is rigged and they know they're probably not going to get it anyways, you either try or you just give up in despair, so they're going to try.

In some ways it just made it easier sometimes to answer the question, but I love that feeling of figuring people out and making sense of other people's behavior. It just helps me understand the world better. Yes, the track record for white folks writing about people of color is not stellar, but I think a lot of the explanation for that is not you can't do it. It's just that a lot of folks don't care to. They aren't interested. They either haven't found a reason to be interested or they just aren't interested. It's when you treat it as a chore or something — “well, I don't really want to do that, but I guess I've got to put a black character in there” — that you could do bad, lazy work. People reach for clichés when that happens. But I really wanted to write this book and I wanted to get to know these characters. That makes it much easier to do a good job. That's the answer, I guess.