Fathers never fare well in folktales. They are either struck down early, with their children left to contend with wicked caregivers and woodland monsters, or they are somewhat hideous creatures themselves.
In Victor LaValle’s new novel The Changeling, a mystery/horror tale set in modern-day New York, the father is the protagonist in his own grim fairy tale – and surviving is perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to him.
The book follows Apollo Kagwa, a rare-book dealer, happily married man, and wet-behind-the-ears dad who is trying to figure out how to be a father even though he didn’t have one of his own. His dad disappeared inexplicably when he was a child, and apart from a box of his old man’s mementos that showed up one day, he stayed gone.
“This was my breadcrumb trail. I wanted the reader, on some level, as unsure and off-balance as Apollo,” LaValle says.
Apollo and wife Emma’s new baby is named after the missing man – Brian – but the baby’s fate may be no better. The new family is shattered by a nightmarish crime early in the book, and Apollo goes on a quest throughout the concrete and steel canyons of Manhattan in search of answers.
The Changeling is partly inspired by LaValle’s own story. When he was a boy, his mother, a Ugandan immigrant, and white father separated. His father didn’t vanish, but he was absent.
“I definitely could not have written this book before we had the kids,” he tells EW. “It just wouldn’t have been possible. Maybe a better writer than me would be able to make the empathetic leap, but I couldn’t – until I deeply understood what it would be like to fear losing a child, to fear being a bad parent, to fear letting down the people you love.”
It also gives him a different perspective on his own father — if not forgiveness, maybe understanding.
“The people who raised us are often just human beings trying their best. That’s not a young person’s understanding, necessarily. It’s not something I understood when I was young,” LaValle says. “I was just angry at my father. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s and really thought things through, and had a kid by that point, I could see that all these things I dismissed as complete failures of character, I could see small versions of them in myself, whether it was impatience or the desire to escape.”
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As Apollo seeks to deal with the horror that rips apart his life, he also learns why his father disappeared. There may be otherworldly reasons for it, things beyond a mere mortal’s understanding, but that reflects the child’s perspective, too. “Seeing or reading good horror or fantasy, if it has that bedrock emotional concern, I always feel it resonates much more deeply than the cheap jump scare,” LaValle says.
Early versions of The Changeling were much harder on the fictional pater familias. “All he was, from the beginning, was a bum,” LaValle says. “He was a terrible person, but as I wrote the book, and aged in the couple years of writing, I was like, ‘Ehhh, I know you would like to immortalize the idea that your father was a bum. But that’s a child’s grudge. You’re writing this as a grown man. What does this look like?’”
The result is more sympathy for Brian, Apollo’s father, and maybe even some admiration. “That was a late addition that came with me thawing out,” LaValle says. “No one person is just the mistakes they have made.”
The Changeling is also a tribute to the wild, exotic wonderland of New York City – the labyrinth Apollo Kagwa explores in search of the truth about his son and his father.
“New York City is incredibly well-known, but I still think people don’t know all of these tiny, little weird [places] we have. That kind of magic is here, but it’s far from where people actually want to go to,” LaValle says. “There are hidden islands in the East River … And without giving too much away, there’s actually a really big forest in the middle of New York, not in Manhattan, but it’s an enormous piece of land that could hide some profound, magical secrets. It’s a real place in Queens, my hometown.”
It’s like a doorway. Take one step and you’re in the woods, the middle of nowhere. Take another and you’re on the Q45 bus.
“I’m endlessly fascinated by that, as a magic trick,” LaValle says.