Alone on the Range: Victor LaValle on Lone Women’s Homesteaders, History, and Horror
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Fiction writer Victor LaValle joins co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss his new novel Lone Women, which tells the suspenseful story of Adelaide Henry, a Black woman with a mysterious trunk who heads from California to Montana to become a solo homesteader in 1915. LaValle talks about the inspiration for the novel’s incendiary opening, how the story merges horror and history, and Adelaide’s unconventional baggage. He also reflects on the tradition of lone women homesteaders, considers the eclectic cast of characters that Adelaide meets, and reads an excerpt of the novel.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Rachel Layton and Anne Kniggendorf.
From the episode:
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about finding your way to that horrifying, gripping opening. How did you figure out what you did and didn’t want to reveal?
Victor LaValle: Yeah, for sure. That opening was actually the first thing I thought of. In most of the other things I’ve written, the beginning has been the last thing I’ve thought of. I have to tell myself the whole story so that I can go back and figure out where the story should begin—the most interesting start. But this one came to me.
Originally, it was just her standing at the foot of her parents’ bed. They were both dead and had been torn limb from limb. And I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And I’d been reading all these books about lone woman homesteaders, so she was in period gear, right? It wasn’t a modern day scene. And I just started saying, “Okay, well, what is she going to do if her parents are dead?” She could stay in the house with the corpses, but that feels too much like a horror movie in a way that I’ve seen before. And then I said, “Well, what if she’s trying to escape? What if she’s trying to flee?” And I asked, “What’s she going to do with the evidence? I guess she has to burn it.” And that was the beginning of the questions, even before the steamer trunk and even before I knew where things were going to go.
Whitney Terrell: It’s interesting, the way that fiction works. A lot of imagination is just answering questions posed by the position that your characters are in, and that leads to plot.
After this start that you were just describing, Adelaide goes to Montana by way of boat and various other conveyances. She’s carrying this locked steamer trunk that we’ve already mentioned. It’s very heavy and hard to move around; it makes her nervous and it makes the reader nervous, I would say. We’re not going to spoil what’s in the steamer trunk. In an earlier interview, you said that a great thing that horror can do is make use of a device—like a monster, say—in order to make the reader understand how something feels, which is not always the same as explaining what actually happened. So the trunk is kind of a device like that—it’s literal and metaphorical baggage that she’s carrying with her. Could you talk about that part of the story and the development of that idea?
VL: In a way, it was exactly like your point there. A part of me, at a certain point, said “Is this too on the nose?” It’s literally baggage, it’s figuratively baggage. But one of the things I’m learning as I write more and more is to stop overthinking—and maybe not just with writing. With the steamer trunk, I was like, “That’s the idea. Just go with that idea, and let’s have the most fun with it.” And that became “Well, what’s in that trunk?” I think it’s fair to say that it was something very surprising and strange.
WT: But did you know right away what was in the trunk? Or did you have to go through a discovery process as a writer to figure out what was in the trunk?
VL: Well, the thing is, I knew what was in the trunk all along. I guess I would say that I knew the first level of what it was—like if you were going to touch it with your eyes closed. But I didn’t know what it was on a deeper level. Within the book, there’s almost two levels of reveal for what was in the trunk, and I didn’t have any idea of what the second level of reveal was going to be right away. That was the thing that was part of the discovery.
The original version of this was a long story that I had in an anthology that came out more than 10 years ago now. The anthology was called Long Hidden, and it was speculative fiction taking place in the past. It was the first third or so of my novel, although still very… sketchy. I filled things out a lot more—the whole farmhouse wasn’t there. It was in my head, and it was more just what was sending her running. I knew there was something there, but what it deeply was—what it really meant—took a couple of years to figure out.
WT: When you move something from short story to novel, you’re going to have to have… I mean, novels are about modulation, right? You have to keep modulating the story. I thought that the modulation that happens at the end of the book was also very effective, which we’re not going to tell people about. You’ll have to read it!
VVG: I learned a lot about reveals by reading the book, beyond the immersive pleasure of just finding out what happened. Sometimes, when I teach beginning writers, they don’t want their characters to have any problems because they’re worried that they have to solve them. And here, watching reveal after reveal after reveal, the plot turns were endlessly satisfying. Whereas so much of the time the struggle is to find a way to surprise while keeping it logical. So the trunk is this great object. Another thing that this story does is zoom in on the lock on the trunk. And so there’s this kind of cinematic “How’s the lock doing? Is the lock stable? Where’s the key?”
So, Adelaide takes the trunk from California to Montana; she’s going to be a homesteader. And you referred before to reading books about lone women homesteaders—I’m curious to get back to that in a second. But, in taking this journey, she goes from being part of an almost entirely Black community to a predominantly white one. And this is part of her sense of unease. For understandable reasons, she’s ill at ease traveling alone anyway, but then also the racial and gender dynamics of this are present for travelers even now, of course.
And you’re from Queens, New York—nowhere close to Montana. So I’m curious about how you started reading these lone women homesteader narratives, why you chose to set this novel in Big Sky Country, and what kind of research you did to capture the experiences of specifically Black women during this time period. Because there’s not only Adelaide. When Adelaide arrives in Montana, there are rumors of other Black women, and eventually we meet some of them.
VL: Well, this whole book began with… I don’t know if you all did this pre-COVID—if I was going to do a reading somewhere in a place where I probably was never going to be again, what I’d try to do was buy a book of local history so that I might read about the place. Because there’s a decent chance I didn’t experience it very much. You know, you show up for the day, you do your reading, maybe you meet with students, and then the next day you’re on a flight home. So you don’t get to see the place.
And so I was at the University of Montana doing a visiting job—maybe I was there for two, three days, if I remember correctly. But I was busy most of the time, so I really didn’t get to see the town at all. So I went to the university bookstore—usually I tried to go to a bookstore in town, but this time I was at the university—and they had a local history section. And as I was browsing through it, I came across this book called Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own by Dr. Sarah Carter. I didn’t know there were women homesteaders on their own.
I think I had my picture of what homesteading was from popular entertainment, and it was John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, maybe it was a Little House on the Prairie kind of thing. But even there… There’s a white family, and there are women, obviously, but it’s Pa’s story. So I was fascinated by this idea, and I picked this book up to read about it. The more I read about it, the more I was like, “Wow, these women going out on their own to these places were really remarkable.” There were certainly married couples who went, there were whole families who went, but this was a very specific subset of women who went alone. And I was just endlessly fascinated with them.
• The Changeling • The Ballad of Black Tom • Eve • Big Machine • The Devil in Silver
• Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 3 Episode 3: “Creepy Stories (and More) from Victor LaValle and Benjamin Percy” • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 1 Episode 15: “Emily Raboteau and Omar El Akkad Tell a Different Kind of Climate Change Story” • Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart • Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own by Sarah Carter • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte • Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older • Mattie T. Cramer • The Bear Paw Mountaineer • The Color Purple (film)