Matt Ruff Showing off his Seattle Public Library card
This past October author Matt Ruff sat down with NYPL's own Alexandria Brown for a conversation about his book Lovecraft Country and the highly bingeable HBO show it spawned. The story follows the magical, often dangerous adventures of the protagonist family as they navigate both the horrors and violence of Jim Crow America as well as witches, warlocks and their many-eyed and -tenticalled pets. Rumors are swirling about whether the show might get picked up for a second season and it seemed like a great opportunity to reach out to the author and ask:
What are you reading at the moment and what was the last thing you read?
Like a lot of people I know, I’m having trouble focusing enough to get any serious reading done this year. The last book I actually finished was Christopher Moore’s Island of the Sequined Love Nun, which I read just before a Zoom event I did with Chris last month (and which was very good). Books on my current kinda-sorta-reading pile include:
- volume one of H.P. Lovecraft: Letters to Family and Family Friends
- Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead
- Robert Shearman’s We All Hear Stories in the Dark
- Kat Rosenfield’s Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone
- Ted Chiang’s Exhalation
- Peter P. Greweling’s Chocolates and Confections: Formula, Theory, and Technique for the Artisan Confectioner
(Re: that last, if America doesn’t survive 2020, at least I’ll go into the apocalypse knowing how to make my own candy bars.)
The writing bug bit you at a very young age. What was it that made you wake up and say "I want to write fiction," and what books (or other media) most guided you along the path?
In my author bio I say that I decided to become a novelist at the age of five, but the truth is I don’t recall ever making the decision. I’m just one of those people who came wired from the factory knowing what they wanted to do with their lives. To the extent that it’s inherited, I probably get it from my mother, who was a great storyteller in her own right, and my maternal grandfather, the missionary Albert Lehenbauer. Grandpa Lehenbauer died before I was born, but when I read his memoir, Roughing it for Christ in the Wilds of Brazil, the writing style feels very similar to my own.
I was a voracious reader as a kid, and my parents indulged me—in addition to covering my late fees at the library, they let me order whatever I wanted from the Scholastic Book Club. I’ve still got a lot of those books, and scanning my shelves, some of the names that jump out as having left a lasting impression are
- E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
- Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth
- Clifford B. Hicks's Alvin Fernald books
- Judy Blume
- Thomas Rockwell's How to Eat Fried Worms, and
- Bertrand R. Brinley whose Mad Scientists’ Club stories remain an all-time favorite.
- I used to have a full set of The Hardy Boys too, in hardcover—an early birthday present—but that got weeded out somewhere along the way to make room for newer passions.
Yes, my “research” into video games, which has been lifelong, is one of the reasons I’ve only published seven novels so far, despite my early start. My current gaming obsessions include Hearthstone, Marvel Puzzle Quest, and Oxygen Not Included.
You've talked about how you have enjoyed some Lovecraftian fan-fic. Do you have a favorite story or anthology of Lovecraft-lit not written by Lovecraft himself?
I’m a huge fan of T.E.D. Klein’s Dark Gods, a collection of four Lovecraft-inspired novellas that was published in 1985. A year earlier, Klein had published a Lovecraftian novel, The Ceremonies, so I was looking forward to much more from him, but after Dark Gods he dropped off the radar. Other than a limited-edition collection of his other short work that came out in 2006, he hasn’t published since.
You have pointed to both The X-Files and Stephen King as sources of inspiration, and I must say their influences subtly shine through Lovecraft Country in excellent ways. In 1995 the late great Alex Trebek brought David Duchovny and Stephen King together for an episode of Celebrity Jeopardy! which resulted in an episode of The X-Files written (mostly) by that night's Jeopardy! winner: King. The episode ended up being heavily rewritten by Chris Carter and King later spoke positively about the process. How do you find the process of turning your words over to the team at HBO and seeing their vision mix with your own on screen?
I’ve really enjoyed it. I think the series does an amazing job of capturing the spirit of the novel while not being afraid to make changes that take the story in interesting new directions. For me, the show is a glimpse into a parallel universe, where everything is recognizable but different in large and small ways. And what’s hilarious is that showrunner Misha Green and her writers’ room independently came up with the same metaphor and made it concrete—in the HBO series,
there really are parallel universes, and at one point the characters get a copy of an alternate version of their family history that is clearly a shout out to my Lovecraft Country. So that was great.
Growing up as an aspiring fiction author in New York, did you spend much time at the New York Public Library? Do you have a favorite branch?
I lived in Queens, so my main library hangout was the North Forest Park branch of the Queens Borough Public Library. I did sometimes make the pilgrimage to NYPL’s Central Branch in midtown, especially once I started attending Stuyvesant High School.
Bonus question: What was your favorite 1980's Tribeca haunt?
I must confess that I was never a big haunter of lower Manhattan. Other than Stuyvesant—which in my day was located on East 15th Street just off First Avenue—my main hangouts in the city were the Strand Book Store, the Forbidden Planet comic shop, and the Compleat Strategist game store on East 33rd Street.
What celebrities or public figures are you curious about?
Whose book list would you like to read?
Let us know in the comments!