The Big Idea: Matt Ruff
New York Times bestselling author Matt Ruff is back with his first ever sequel, The Destroyer of Worlds. Follow along in his Big Idea as he tells what led him to write a continuation of Lovecraft Country.
This novel is a departure for me. Over the course of my career, I’ve written in a wide variety of genres, but I’ve never published a sequel before. Typically, one volume is all I need to say everything I have to say about a particular subject. But Lovecraft Country was different. I really fell in love with the characters, and even before I finished the first book, I knew there were more stories I wanted to tell about them.
One of the most important questions I had to answer in returning to the world of Lovecraft Country was what the new novel would actually be about. I’m not talking about plot; I’m talking about theme, a unifying idea that would help me choose among the many possible paths the narrative could take.
A central fixture of Lovecraft Country is The Safe Negro Travel Guide, my fictional version of The Negro Motorist Green Book. The real-life Green Book ceased publication in the mid-1960s, not long after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. If I were going to turn Lovecraft Country into a series, it seemed to me that would be a good way to end it: the last scene could take place on the night the final edition of the Guide rolled off the printing press.
And when I did the math on that, another thought struck me. The character in Lovecraft Country I identify most closely with is Horace Berry, the budding comic-book artist. Horace is twelve years old when Lovecraft Country begins; in 1964, he’ll be twenty-two, ready to go out in the world and seek his fortune as an adult. It occurred to me that I could use the sequel—or rather, sequels, since I was clearly talking about multiple books here—to tell Horace’s coming of age story. His journey to adulthood would become the central arc around which all the other characters’ adventures would be organized. And each novel in the series would focus on a different aspect of that journey.
Which brings me to The Destroyer of Worlds. Shortly before the novel begins, one of Horace’s friends, a girl named Celia Fox, is killed in a particularly senseless fashion. When he overhears someone trying to comfort her stricken father by saying, “She’s in a better place now,” Horace reacts with a mixture of rage and dismay. “She’s better off being dead? How does that make sense?” And this starts him questioning the nice story he’s been told about how you get to go to heaven when you die. What if there is no heaven? he wonders. What if this life is all there is, and if it’s stolen or cut short, there’s no reckoning for that? And how do I live with the burden of not knowing?
So the book is about death: about coming to terms with mortality, and finding hope in the face of the ultimate uncertainty. And it’s also about history, because part of the answer Horace is seeking lies in the past. In one of Destroyer’s subplots, his cousin Atticus and his uncle Montrose travel to the old Swincegood Plantation in North Carolina, where, a hundred years ago, their ancestor Simon Swincegood began his escape from slavery. Their intent is to mark the anniversary by retracing the route Simon took into the heart of the Great Dismal Swamp, but a run-in with an old enemy turns their historical reenactment into a real life-and-death pursuit.
It’s a nail-biting adventure, but it also has a point: Horace isn’t the first person to wrestle with doubt in the face of death. The people who came before us—who made our lives possible—dealt with the same uncertainties we do, and the fact that they found the strength to keep going is evidence that we can too. Or as Horace’s mother, Hippolyta, puts it: “If the things we don’t know were all bad, you wouldn’t even be here to worry about them. So when you feel yourself despairing, remember that just because you can’t think of a reason to hope, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. And as for God, remember that even a universe where He didn’t exist could still act, sometimes, like one where He does.”
That’s what the book is about, in the big picture sense. But of course, since this is Lovecraft Country, it’s also a story about magic and monsters, about powerful sorcerers who want to rule the world, and about ordinary heroes who are smart enough and brave enough—and when all else fails, lucky enough—to win the day. And the real joy for me as a writer is that I get to take these weightier themes of mortality and faith and history and combine them with all the fun tropes of fantasy and science-fiction and weird tales. It’s why I was so eager to return to this story, and why I look forward to continuing it.
While I wait for Destroyer’s debut, I’ve started planning a third volume in the Lovecraft Country saga, which will be about dreams, and desire, and first love. I still have a lot of details to work out, but I know where I’m going with this story now, and with Horace as my guide, I’m confident I’ll find my way.