The Big Idea: Matt Ruff

Books are often turned into television series — but what about stories going to the other direction? As Matt Ruff shows you in this Big Idea for Lovecraft Country, stories intended for one medium sometimes find their full flower in another entirely.

MATT RUFF:

Lovecraft Country started out as a TV series pitch. The big idea was to create a show like The X-Files, in which a recurring cast of characters had weekly paranormal adventures—only instead of being white FBI agents, my protagonists are a black family who own a travel agency in 1950s Chicago. The agency publishes a quarterly magazine, The Safe Negro Travel Guide, that lists and reviews hotels and restaurants open to black customers. (Such travel guides actually existed during the Jim Crow era, and contrary to what you might expect, they were most useful to travelers in the northern and western U.S., where discrimination was just as common as in the south but explicit “Whites Only” signs were rarer.)

My lead character, Atticus Turner, is a 22-year-old Army veteran who works as a field researcher for the Guide. Atticus is also a nerd whose familiarity with genre fiction comes in handy when things start to get weird, as they do: It turns out Atticus is the last living descendant of Titus Braithwhite, an 18th-century wizard and slave trader who founded a cabal called the Order of the Ancient Dawn. Now the modern incarnation of the Order has plans for Atticus.

In addition to occult forces, Atticus and his family have to deal with the more mundane terrors of American racism, such as sundown towns. Lovecraft Country’s title is a nod to this duality of horrors—H.P. Lovecraft being known for both his tales of cosmic dread and his embrace of white supremacy.

While transforming my original idea into a novel, I kept the structure of a season of television. The long opening chapter, like a two-hour pilot, introduces the main characters and sends them on a dangerous cross-country journey. Each subsequent chapter offers a self-contained weird tale—a “monster of the week” episode—starring a different member of Atticus’s extended family. In “Dreams of the Which House,” Atticus’s friend Letitia buys a haunted house in a white neighborhood and has to play the dead off against the living to keep what’s hers. In “Abdullah’s Book,” Atticus’s uncle George enlists his Freemasons’ lodge to stop an ancient treatise on magic from falling into the wrong hands. In “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” Atticus’s aunt discovers a portal to another world. In “Jekyll in Hyde Park,” Letitia’s sister Ruby goes home with the wrong guy and wakes up to find that she’s been turned into a white woman. In “The Narrow House,” a dead man forces Atticus’s father to revisit the 1921 Tulsa race riot. In “Horace and the Devil Doll,” corrupt Chicago police detectives use sorcery to terrorize Atticus’s 12-year-old cousin. All of these episodes fit together to form a larger arc story about Atticus’s struggle against the Braithwhite clan and the Order of the Ancient Dawn.

For me, Lovecraft Country demonstrates the real power of diversity in art. By focusing on people who were traditionally excluded from genre fiction, I’m able to do interesting new things with some very old tropes, while simultaneously exploring aspects of our shared history that aren’t as well-known as they should be. Combining fantasy with realism produces a richer story than would be possible with either alone. And despite being set sixty years in the past, this is easily one of the most topical books I’ve written—though that says less about my skills as an author than it does about the state of the country that I live in.

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Lovecraft Country: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

24 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Matt Ruff

  1. Y’know, it’s easy and lazy to just handwave Lovecraft’s racism away, as being from a different time, but the thing is, I think his racism provides a fantastic springboard not only for critical discussion, but for narrative exploration as well, much moreso than if he was more progressive.

  2. This looks really interesting and the chapter format appeals right now.

    I’m always amazed at how many people *don’t* know about the Green book or other guides, or even think about how necessary they have been.

  3. I happen to be in the middle of reading this right now. I picked it up on a whim from a bookstore in Maine of all places. It is fantastic so far, and I highly recommend it!

  4. It definitely sounds like it would make a good TV show (and might make a good novel too). The elevator pitch is “Civil Rights Buffy” – so the gimmick of Buffy is that all the horrors of high school are actually real monsters; Lovecraft Country does that for institutional racism…

  5. Talk about timing! I finished reading this about 11:00 last night and started mental notes immediately. Just a superb novel, sustained all the way through the “weird tales” experienced by Atticus and his family members and friends. It’s a beautiful fusion of the weird and historical fiction with tremendous characters with amazing strengths. Do I catch a whiff of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley?

    As fascinating as the characters are, Lovecraft Country needs no sequels, just re-reading. I will need more copies because I know I’ll be “loaning” it out.

  6. This was the best novel I read in 2016 – and knowing why he structured it the way he did is fascinating. Reading it sent me off on a a whole series of Lovecraftian explorations, (like the Laundry Files and a visit to Providence). And of course, I read The Underground Railroad by Coulson Whitehead right afterwards. I can’t wait to see what Ruff does next!

  7. Another great book from one of the few authors whose work I will always pre-order. each story is fantastic, and works as a whole book tied to a few themes. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  8. .
    I got very mixed messages from TV agents, Film Agents, Graphic Novelists, about my series of 12 Explicitly Lovecraftian Novellas /many also available as teleplays):
    .
    THE 12 LOVECRAFTIAN NOVELLAS {12 are complete}

    Words Pages Title StartDate EndDate
    21,500 70 “Mage of Hornets”* 5 December 2012 15 December 2012
    27,650 81 “Hero of Magnets”*, 17 December 2012 27 December 2012,
    35,000 102 “doG is Dead” 28 December 2012 25 January 2013
    24,850 78 “Joe Ben Dracula” 26 January 2013 13 February 2013
    31,250 96 “Genera of Moths”* 15 February 2013 17 March 2013
    27,300 84 “Men of Shortage”* 27 March 2013 25 April 2013
    26,300 85 “Harry Jesus” 26 April 2013 20 May 2013
    37,600 127 “Forename: Ghost”* 26 May 2013 20 June 2013
    35,650 135 “A Genomes Froth”* 28 June 2013 19 July 2013
    37,000 124 “Of Hatemongers”* 12 August 2103 23 September 2013
    35,050 109 “Onium” 3 Oct 2013 15 October 2013
    35,150 112 “Date With Destinee” 1 Feb 2014 15 Feb 2014
    ===== ===
    374,300 1,203
    31,192 words average = (21,500 + 27,650 + 35,000 + 24,850 + 31,250 + 27,300 + 26,300 + 37,600 + 35,650 + 37,000 + 35,050 + 35,150)/12
    100.25 pages average = (70 + 81 + 102 + 78 + 96 + 84 + 85 + 127 + 135 + 124 + 109 + 112)/12
    * [titles that are anagrams of GAME OF THRONES]

    ***

  9. I just researched the “Green” guides for a story I wrote. It’s fascinating and kind of devastating. And I’m from California, so I was all, “Oh, thank God we didn’t participate in all that racist nonsense,” and then I discovered that Glendale, CA was a sundown town.

  10. I enjoyed it, but in the chapter where Ruby is passing by Braithwaite’s magic, I thought it was odd she never thinks about the regular kind of passing–it seemed to treat the possibility of passing as white as if she were completely unique.

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