In the early moments of the fourth episode of HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” which is set in early 1950s America, a Black character named Montrose stands over a fire and says, “Smells like Tulsa.”
Through six episodes of the show, which airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m., that moment is the only mention of Tulsa to date, but Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name goes deeper.
Ruff took part in Sept. 23 phone interview to discuss how he learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre, how it’s used in his story and why he thinks the 99-year-old event is getting more attention in Hollywood.
He also reflects on how “Lovecraft Country” has raised awareness on the history of sundown towns and the differences between his book and the show, plus how excited he is to see his characters' lives play out differently on TV.
In the book, the Tulsa Race Massacre plays a big role. We learn a couple of characters moved from Tulsa to Chicago after securing an important family heirloom as violence erupted. Then it comes up again later in a big way with the story of Dick Rowland and the destruction that followed. How did you learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre? How did all that come to be in your book?
One of my primary inspirations for writing “Lovecraft Country” is a book by James Loewen, called “Sundown Towns,” which is sort of a secret history of whites-only communities in America. That is where I first heard about the “Green Book,” and I believe where I first heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre. Part of Loewen’s project in that book is basically just to explain that we're used to sort of thinking of racism as a southern phenomenon in America, and the truth was that the North and the far West were just as racist and just as segregated, it was just expressed differently.
In the South, they were basically trying to continue the legacy of slavery by other means through sharecropping and exploiting black labor in other ways. In the North and in the West, there was more of an ethnic cleansing, where the freed slaves came up North or tried to settle out West, and they were in many cases driven out of the communities by white people. This started in the 1890s, and it originally started with Chinese immigrants on the West Coast. But as the as the era went on, as we get into the 20th Century, it started applying to African Americans as well.
This is sort of why even today there are large portions of the United States where you just don't expect to encounter someone who isn't white. It's not an accident. It's not that Black folks didn't want to live in Idaho or Montana or Maine. It's just that they were met often with violence, and they ended up being driven into fairly small locations in large cities. When Loewen talks about the Tulsa Race Massacre, what you notice is that it was actually rather unusual in that it was unsuccessful in driving out the Black population of Tulsa, which is why we know about it. The job was just too big.
They did a lot of damage. They burned down like 35 square blocks of the Greenwood neighborhood, but at the end of the day, there was enough of a Black population to stay and rebuild and remember what had happened, even though it was sort of sent down the memory hole in the white press for decades afterwards, whereas there were many other incidents, probably hundreds of incidents in other parts of the North and West where all the Black population would be driven out.
Then this sort of amnesia where this cultural amnesia would set in, where just the white folks who live there would pretend that nothing had happened, that Black folks could never live there, and the next generation would grow up in an all-white town and just think that was natural and normal rather than the result of a violent policy. So basically this idea that there was a sort of forgotten story, this forgotten history of ethnic cleansing in the North and West, that really interested me and seemed like a thing to include in the story I was telling. So I decided to create a backstory for the Turner and Berry family that they came from Tulsa and moved to Chicago after the race massacre.
I grew up in the Tulsa area. This is something that wasn't talked about at all until the commission released its report in 2001. Then it kind of just simmered locally until more recently. You published “Lovecraft Country” in 2016, and even then it wasn’t something that was widely known or talked about. That's changing with the 100th anniversary approaching and then there’s HBO’s “Watchmen,” which introduced it to a lot more people and created a bigger conversation. Why do you think the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre is resonating now more so than in the past?
What’s interesting is we've sort of reached a point where anybody who could be reasonably held accountable, they're all dead now. So in a way, it's become the people who had the most to lose by having this talked about publicly are no longer around. So sort of like it's that people are more free to talk about it, in a weird way.
I think as more Black folks move into positions of power in Hollywood and in television, there's going to be a hunger to tell the stories that haven't been told in the past, I believe. That's one thing is that there's a shift in the culture generally where a lot of the stuff that when I first heard of it, like when I when I first thought about putting in a version of the “Green Book” into “Lovecraft Country,” that was something that nobody I talked to had heard of, and they thought that was fascinating.
Then as I was working on the book, suddenly the “Green Book” started being rediscovered by a lot of different people. I started seeing more references to it, and a lot of it is just time going by and people sort of rediscovering this history from before the Civil Rights Act.
Some of it too is probably that just this realization that a lot of these problems are still with us. Police brutality is still a huge problem. That's something else that's come up in discussing the novel and TV series with people is that a lot of people are saying to me, “Do you feel that isn't the timing interesting that this is happening in this year with the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter protests?”
What I have to tell them is that it may seem surprisingly timely, but the truth is, you could have told this story in pretty much any year and there would have been something that would have made it seem timely because these problems, there's points where we pay, where the media pays more attention to them. Then there are points when the media loses interest, but they don't really ever go away, they're just always there simmering in the background and then something high profile pops up, and it becomes a topic of discussion for a while.
Each time you kind of hope that some progress will be made or something will change, but a lot of this stuff is really deeply buried in the national psyche. Part of dealing with it is telling the truth about how it happened in the first place and telling stories that haven't been told about the past and understanding the history of the country. I think that's what a lot of this is.
I learned about sundown towns as a kid when a racist family member boasted about a nearby community being one. This was in the late 80s or early 90s. Similar to how “Watchmen” created a nationwide discussion about the Tulsa Race Massacre, after the first episode of “Lovecraft Country” aired, it spawned a major online discussion about sundown towns. Turns out it was the first time many people had heard the term or that it meant Black people were supposed to be out of a town by sunset. Did that surprise you?
No, because I went through the same process when I first heard about it. That's another thing where people assume once they hear about them, they assume that must be a southern phenomenon, and that's not right, either. In the South it was all about exploiting Black labor, so it was fine if Black people lived in town, as long as they knew their place. It was in the North and the West where they just didn't want anybody who wasn't white, where sundown towns became a way of enforcing the whites-only policy. Even people who've read the book sometimes mistakenly refer to it as being set in the South, which I find bizarre, because it isn't.
It's just like, no, it's like "Did you not read the novel?” It's just a natural thing that people slip into. So, the fact that people do not know what sundown towns are does not shock me. Even New York City, where I grew up, had a version of that where neighborhoods were very segregated by race, particularly when I was growing up. I went to an integrated school, but then Black kids and white kids went home to separate neighborhoods at night. That was just the way things kind of were, and I imagine still is at least in some areas now. This is another part of our history that we just sort forgotten, so it's good that people are finally aware of it or have starting to become aware of it, but I'm not surprised that that people are surprised.
Back when you were working on the book did you visit Tulsa or just rely on research through books, the Internet and such?
No, I read pretty much everything I could find on it, but I did not come to Tulsa directly. I'm married to a professional researcher, so it's almost as good as being able to go there. We have the university library here. So yeah I totally said, “find me whatever you can” and she comes back with a stack of books, the official commission report and also a lot of the older accounts that had been compiled in previous decades because I think it was like in the 1970s when the first cracks began to appear in the sort of conspiracy of silence about it, and people started doing research writing about it.
It's amazing to me that you're saying that, you know, having grown up around Tulsa that you didn't know about this event until the 2000s. By then I would have thought it had become more common knowledge, at least in Tulsa itself. But I guess I shouldn't be surprised.
You’re listed as a consultant on the series. How much were you involved in the development of the show?
I had very little direct involvement. At the beginning of the process I shared my research with showrunner Misha Green and some notes on why I had made certain decisions in the novel, why certain things happen the way they did, and they had a genealogy for the families in the book. Basically, I gave this to Misha and said, “You know, you're gonna do your own version of this story. So take what you know is useful from this and leave the rest, and you have my blessing to just do what you want to do”
I felt like my version, the story I've already got it, it's in the book, and the book will always be there. I wanted to give Misha as much freedom as possible to just go and tell her version, which I thought would be really interesting. That has proved to be a really good decision on my part because I'm really happy with the way the series is developed. I was not a part of the writers’ room, and I was not a part of the day-to-day production. I just sort of started them off.
Is it fun for you to see the differences between the two? Like the episode that aired Sunday night about Atticus during the Korean War. That doesn't happen in the book, and there are some other things I'm not going to spoil for people who maybe haven't watched the show or read the book, but there's some big differences between the two.
Yeah, it's funny. I've always said that I don't necessarily want adaptations that are a carbon copy of the book or else what's the point? What you want is something that understands the spirit of the book and is faithful to it but isn't afraid to do things differently. I'd always thought I believe that but of course, until you see it happen, you don't know how you really feel.
It's easy in this case because I really feel like they've just done such a good job, and the team is so talented. I don't know how I feel about a bad adaptation. (laughs) But this one is just so cool. It's been a lot of fun for me to see the changes. It's like watching a parallel universe version of the story where it's like, I recognize things, but they incur in different order or there are things that looked differently than I imagined or things that happened in a different way.
Yes, in last week's episode, the Korean War episode is completely new. That was really fun because I really enjoyed it, and also I had no idea what was going to happen. That was a wonderful experience. It was really my first time watching the show where I got a sense for what it must be like for regular viewers who don't necessarily know what's going on. So that was it. That was a lot of fun to see, and I'm still dying to find out where they go with that and how it ties back into the rest of the story.
So far in the show there’s only been that one brief mention of Tulsa. Do you know if the rest of the Tulsa content will make it into the show or was that an Easter egg for the book fans?
I don't know for sure, because I've not read the scripts, but I don't think they would have brought it up if they weren't going to use it. So I would expect to see something with that later in the season. I can't promise that for sure, but I would expect them to tie that in.
For one thing, it's just too interesting story not to do something with, and certainly I feel like the one thing the series has done is taken the best parts of the novel and the most interesting parts, even if it's interpreted in different ways. So I would think the fact that in the book, I do talk about it. And you know, I have Montrose actually tell the story of what happened to his father, I'd be very surprised if they don't go there and do something with that as well, though, it'll probably be in a different way than I handled it in the novel. With four episodes left I'd be very surprised if it doesn't show up in some form.
From what I've read it seems you're kind of weary of writing sequels. Does the show and the possibility of more seasons kind of take some pressure off you to even think about returning to “Lovecraft Country” or do you think there's more for you to do with Atticus and the gang?
It’s actually sort of the other way around with me, which is that I've never written sequels. It's not that I'm weary of it. It's that I just generally don't do it. And actually, what's interesting in this case is that I find myself really tempted to and it's not that there's any pressure on me to write sequels at all. There isn't. I've been very fortunate that publishers have always been willing to let me go where I want to go even if that makes life difficult for my publicist. Because Yeah, every Matt Ruff book is completely different than the last one, so it's very hard to sell that because how do you pitch that? It's like, “Yes, if you liked the last book, we have no idea what you'll think of his new one.”
But in this case, no, it's actually kind of interesting that I'm still thinking about doing more with this. It's basically at this point, if anything, there's pressure on me if I’m ever actually going to do that, I probably have to do it soon because there's never going to be a better opportunity than now if I want to go back into the universe and do other things with it. So if anything, no, I'm actually kind of excited at the possibility I might actually get to do that.
The only hesitation I have is that if I did go back, I don't think it would be just one more novel, it would probably be two or three to tell a complete story that felt worth doing that, and that's a big commitment. And I write slowly. So that's the only hesitation I really have. But again, the fact that I'm still thinking about this, you know, four years after the initial volume was published means that I at least want to take a crack at it. So we’ll see.
Are you currently working on a new project that maybe you can talk about?
If you want something new by me, I just published a new novel back in March called “88 Names” and this is a near future cyber thriller/twisted romantic comedy.
It's basically it's about a guy named John Chu, who is a paid guide to online role-playing games. So imagine the kind of guy who wanted to play World of Warcraft but didn't have time to build up a character. So you pay this guy, and he will provide you with a readymade character and a team of skilled playmates to sort of cater an adventure for you online. And basically, he gets a new client who he suspects may actually be North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who's apparently interested in virtual reality for reasons that have more to do with power than entertainment.
The novel is set largely in virtual reality where everyone has total control over how they look and sound. Most of the people John Chu is interacting with not just the guy he thinks maybe Kim Jong Un, but any of his coworkers and even his ex-girlfriend or people that he's never met in real life. You can look them up on social media, but social media can lie too, so it's this masquerade cat and mouse game in an environment where everyone is essentially a shapeshifter.
It's a lighter story in some ways than “Lovecraft Country,” but it's still got interesting things to say about identity and the way we behave in environments where we can pretend to be other people, but it's also just a fun romp and got a lot of cool genre stuff. So if you like “Lovecraft Country” that may float your boat as well, although it is very different also.
I don’t know if you’re aware, but there’s a great nonprofit bookstore here called Magic City Books that’s constantly doing author talks. They’ve hosted folks like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman and many more in recent years. The store is actually couple blocks away from Greenwood. I’d say you should come visit and do a book talk, but it'll probably have to be a Zoom discussion if it’s anytime soon.
That would be wonderful. And yeah, I've been doing a ton of events like that now. The fact that everyone is doing Zoom and has gotten used to it has made it a lot easier to say yes to things like that. I'm happy to do it.
Editor's notes: Ruff will take part in a Nov. 12 Magic City Books author talk via Zoom. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.