Another Other: Gideon Glick on Broadway’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

To Kill a Mockingbird is a Broadway juggernaut. Harper Lee’s classic novel is currently one of the most successful Broadway productions ever, setting attendance and box office records since opening in December 2018. Met with positive reviews and a slew of Tony nominations—and a Featured Actress win for Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays Scout—this production asserts the relevance of Lee’s work for modern audiences. The play revises the book’s well-intentioned but oversimplified view of racism in 1930s Alabama, offering a more mature perspective on the novel’s themes by casting adult actors in the roles of the book’s children, Scout, Jem, and Dill.

Gideon Glick plays Dill, a newcomer in the fictional town of Macomb. Dill befriends Scout and her older brother, Jem, by inventing stories of intrigue and adventure—often involving the mysterious Boo Radley. With Scout and Jem, Dill witnesses the trial of Tom Robinson, which frames the action of the play.

The Millions spoke with Glick about his relationship with To Kill a Mockingbird, what it’s like to be an adult playing a child, and how he’s introducing a queer voice into this English-class staple.

The Millions: Can you start by telling me about your relationship with the book? Did you read it in high school?

Gideon Glick: I did. I read it in the seventh grade. I had a really profound experience with the book. The book taught me to be a critical reader; it taught me about metaphor and simile and theme. I’ve taken what I learned from the book, from To Kill a Mockingbird, to all the books I’ve read since then, and I’m a pretty avid reader.

TM: How do you think To Kill a Mockingbird taught you to read with a critical eye?

GG: It was my teacher that really highlighted the themes of empathy and the themes of otherness. You know, some people go, “Oh it’s a YA book,” and some people go, “Oh it’s not a YA book,” and I think it can be both.

TM: I think sometimes people mistake that child narrator as making the book for children.

GG: Well, what I find interesting about the narrator’s voice is that it’s a child narrator but it’s also somebody looking back. It oscillates, and maybe that’s where the tension is. It’s a self-reflective book. It’s a book that is someone looking back on their childhood and it’s also America looking back on itself.

TM: That childlike voice can mask the complexity of the book. It’s deceptively simple. But you got so much out of it that’s not really that simple.

GG: Yes, and it continues to yield so much. I’ve read it a couple of times in the last year, and each coming back to it I’ve noticed different things. I mean, how incredible is that scene—I wish we could have had it in our show—towards the end and Scout’s coming back, and you’re seeing the legs of all the women, and they’re talking about what’s going on in the town. Calpurnia’s in the other room, and there’s all this hubbub going on, and it’s from her perspective as a little girl, but it is so profound, and you’re so placed in that space.

TM: That space of childhood, with snatches of conversation, with Scout trying to find her way through those words. You talked just now about empathy, and in the book, Dill sort of personifies empathy. There’s the scene during the trial when Dill cries about how the prosecutor—

GG: His treatment of Tom—

TM: And that seems to me to transcend the social rules of the town. Dill’s sympathy for Tom overwhelms him there. How much do you think about that kind of empathy for Scout, but also for Dill?

GG: Oh yeah. In this adaptation the courtroom and Atticus are kind of the focal point, so I think that, when the kids are on, we’ve really got to make it count. And so, the way that I saw Dill was that Dill is another Other. He’s not from the town, a stranger. I’ve created Dill as a proto-Truman Capote, as young Truman Capote, a young queer boy in the Deep South in the ’30s. So to carry that around you have to have a strong armor, but there’s also a sensitivity that is—to an extent—your armor. For me that was really important in developing, as the show went on. And I think kids have—and this comes with the loss of innocence—kids have a way of seeing the world as kind of so clear about what is right and what is wrong.

Dill comes from a very hard background. Especially when you imbue Truman’s life. His mom used to lock him in rooms and go meet men. I think there is a world where the adults in Macomb, especially in our adaptation, feel this is not going to be an easy life for you because of who you are, but also the way you see the world. And I think that’s a really important cathartic moment for the audience to witness.

TM: I would love to hear more about realizing Dill as a kind of queer voice in the play. How did you make anchors or footholds for representing that queerness in Dill?

GG: Once I found out he was based off of Truman Capote, it opened the world to me. Capote and Harper Lee promised each other that they would put each other in their first books. So Dill is Capote and then Idabel is Harper Lee in Other Voices, Other Rooms. What an extraordinary relationship that has been existing in our literature for so long. So that was really exciting for me. I was really interested in the idea of this kind of relationship between this tomboy-esque perhaps young lesbian and her queer best friend in the deep deep south. I wanted that to become part of the conversation, and I realized: Oh this book is about identity, it’s about intersectionality. Yes it’s about race, obviously, but it’s also about identity. And that’s also race, but here it manifests in many different ways. I was really interested in how the queerness can imbue the otherness and imbue intersectionality and identity.

TM: A lot of the discussion around the Broadway production had to do with the ways in which the book’s representation of race had to be addressed. As much as it’s progressive for 1960, it’s problematic now. So what modern pressures do you feel in terms of representing queerness, and representing the Harper Lee/Truman Capote relationship?

GG: What I find remarkable is perhaps the story couldn’t have been told in this way until now. In terms of pressure, I didn’t feel pressure. I mean, I definitely felt a responsibility to honor this character, and it’s a beloved character, you know, the majority of the characters in this novel are. People come to them in a very transformative time in their lives, in terms of their own development. But again, I was excited about telling this story now. My hope is that this kind of queer narrative is going to be part of how you teach To Kill a Mockingbird, and I would hope that that is something I could help contribute to.

TM: You talk about how so many people come to this book in adolescence, in a formative moment, and you seem to feel an obligation to honor people’s relationship with this story. As an adult, and as someone with such a history with this book, how does it feel to take on the part of this queer child?

GG: First it was about research. We—all the three kids, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen—we all went down to Monroeville to make sure we understood this town. We wanted to make sure we knew what it felt like to be completely on our own in the Deep South. It’s hot, there’s no television, what do you do? How do you set about your day? The sense of adventure. The way you leap and bound from one place to another without really thinking is part of the physical vocabulary, because their sense of adventure is their only form of entertainment. The stories that are percolating around the town are their television. They’re really invested in their books and the stories they read. They perform these stories. Reading about Capote’s life and Capote’s literature, that was very helpful too. The protagonist of Other Voices, Other Rooms is a 13-year-old queer boy, and that was really powerful for me. I think when you’re older, you have a preconceived notion of what you are, and what people think of you, and you don’t really have that so much as a kid. You’re kind of creating as you go. And what I said before, your morality is almost more intact.

TM: If the kids have symbolism, it’s in that kind of morality. Scout is all passion, she responds to things immediately with her gut, and Jem is the rational thinker of the three, he weighs all the evidence, but Dill is really imagination—

GG: Dill’s a dreamer—

TM: He’s the source of the dramas they act out, the stories they tell about Boo Radley—

GG: They call him “pocket Merlin” which are my favorite descriptive words for him.

TM: And so even though Scout in the book is the main narrator, it’s Dill’s storytelling that really frames the story, really gets the story moving.

GG: Yeah, he’s the one that comes to town and starts the adventure. This is what we played with with our adaptation and the three kids: you have two kids who are writers, two narrators who also believe in their own version of a story, and they are maybe somewhat competitive as well. Supportive and competitive. And that was really exciting to me. Two of our nation’s best writers, are the characters.

TM: So how do you approach that? How do you approach being a narrator as well as an actor in the story?

GG: At first it was the most terrifying aspect of the story, being an adult playing a kid, but also shifting in and out of the narrative. But we found out that what terrified us the most became what freed us up the most. It ended up being the most theatrical aspect of this adaptation, and thus it kind of divorced itself from other iterations. People come with their idea of what To Kill a Mockingbird’s going to be, and all of a sudden this is not it. These are three adults playing kids and they’re talking to us. And so that really freed everything up. What I was really excited about was this literary agency, people taking agency over a story.

Becoming a Tugboat: On Rikki Ducornet’s ‘Brightfellow’

Late in Brightfellow, Rikki Ducornet’s new novel, the protagonist and titular “fellow” takes two eight-year-old girls to see Rear Window. Unsurprisingly, for those readers familiar with Ducornet, the impropriety of this outing is never discussed. Rather, the children are more upset by Jimmy Stewart’s nipples than Raymond Burr’s murder and dismemberment of his wife, “Men should not have nipples!” they insist, “no one should have nipples!.”

This absurd and illogical world, here as in all of Ducornet’s novels, is not exactly magical realist — there is no intrusion of the fantastic into the otherwise normal here. It is also not a postmodernist world of artifice and simulacrum. Rather, her worlds are all surface and texture. Brightfellow refuses to conform to a narrative logic in which events have meaning. While Ducornet is, here and everywhere in her work, expansively erudite, her use of citation and reference does not take the form of clues, or gestures toward meaning. Her Borgesian meta- and intertexts aren’t to be interpreted; they are to be experienced. Ducornet even makes a joke of the kind of embodiment her prose evokes, when the eight-year-olds debate the logistics of body dismemberment, “They suppose the thighs look like hams and that there would have only been room for two in the suitcase. They wonder if the knees would have been attached to the thighs.”

This image: grotesque and gustatory, also silly and beautiful, distills all of Brightfellow. It also evokes Ducornet’s earlier novels Phosphor in Dreamland and The Fountains of Neptune more than her last, Netsuke, which Michael Cunningham described in The New York Times as a malignant and malicious story of “soul-murder.” Brightfellow flirts with childish eroticism and terrible violence, yet, despite the Alfred Hitchcock, in it Ducornet follows Lewis Carroll and Jorge Luis Borges, more than her sometime-precursors Vladimir Nabokov or the Marquis de Sade.

This novel, Ducornet’s ninth, follows its bright fellow, who we meet as a boy called “Stub,” and rejoin later as a young man calling himself Charter Chase. Stub/Charter, abandoned by his mother and then abandoning his father, winds up a feral young man on the campus of an unnamed university. His first entry into the world of the college is through the library, where he obsessively reads the works of the reclusive anthropologist Werner Vanderloon. Eventually, Stub becomes a secret resident, sleeping in a specimen cabinet in the biology lab and pilfering the left-behind contents of gym lockers and dorm rooms for an appropriately preppy wardrobe that enables him to pass as a student.

The inevitable Giles Goat-Boy comparisons are already made by Ducornet’s blurbers, and while, in some sense, this book may resemble John Barth’s feral-boy-on-campus novel, Stub/Charter’s self-invention is a red herring. This is a coming-of-age story in a looking-glass universe, in which familiar categories are meaningless. Charter presents himself as a scholar studying Vanderloon’s papers, and so gains entry into Faculty Circle, where he eventually takes a room in the home of a lonely emeritus professor. While there, Charter conceives an obsession with a child, Asthma, who lives next door (and who, in a bit of heady referentiality, he observed through the window, and who he will take to see Rear Window). Observing Asthma, Charter muses on Vanderloon’s anthropological system:

Vanderloon divides mankind into two constants: the ones who know how to play, are full of mirth and fellow feeling and the ones who are killjoys and combustible. Play, he writes, is a powerful form of magic — sometimes white, sometimes black. But always it is born of invention and intuition. Play is about becoming a human, just as it is about becoming a lion, a tugboat, a galloping stallion. The hallway that leads away from the child’s room and into the depths of the house is a river, a glacier, a bridge to the moon.

This anthropological treatise recapitulates Charter’s own experience, when, as Stub, he imagined a linoleum floor as”

an archipelago that begins under his bed and goes all the way to his door. It shines with beauty and danger. There are flowers that have voices and sing to children. There is a poisonous toad that speaks in riddles, and the wrong sort of snake, thick as a chimney, concealed in the dappled light.

For Ducornet, the point of this description is its sensation. She wants you to feel “tugboat” and “galloping stallion” in your mouth when you read. Rear Window makes the act of viewing a film dangerously close to voyeurism.

Brightfellow suggests that the artifice of the words on the page and the voyeurism of a girl playing in a window, or an anthropologist observing some hitherto unknown society, are all there is. Ducornet’s is a world of surfaces so rich and textured that notions of meaning and interpretation are subsumed under a lush and seductive prose that eventually inhabits readers minds. Her writing inevitably gets described in a vocabulary of her creation: “decadent,” “anarchic,” and “fragrant.”

In Brightfellow, Ducornet forces readers to experience the physicality of reading, to feel and taste the act of storytelling. Every character perpetually self-invents. When Charter creates a fictive Vanderloon book about an obscure and isolated island culture, it is indistinguishable from the “real” Vanderloon texts. Vanderloon’s account of play both is and is not apt in the novel’s reading of Rear Window, which forces the viewer to share Jimmy Stewart’s voyeurism. As the film’s audience sees the film through the eyes — and the lens — of its protagonists, readers of Brightfellow feel Ducornet’s prose as Charter invents the cultures of Vanderloonian anthropology.

Ducornet has said that everything she writes is “informed by experience, experience not limited to the street, bathroom, kitchen.” This is a novel to be experienced, not simply read. Yet to say this novel refuses meaning is not to say that it lacks event. Its celebration of the texture and contours of storytelling, of the unruly expansiveness of language, and of the relative ease with which the borders of the world are permeated by fabulation offers a rebuke to a kind of fiction in which the imagination is increasingly constricted. As ever, Ducornet wants you to feel and taste her story more than to say what it is about. Like Vanderloon’s notion of play, it is about becoming human, or a tugboat.

All of This Is Mine: A Conversation with Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle has a knack for colliding the mundane and the horrific in works that marry fantasy with social realism. In his last novel, The Devil in Silver, the uncanny horrors of an asylum are shown to be the product of late-capitalist decline. His latest offering, a novella called The Ballad of Black Tom, continues this journey into darkness with a “love letter-slash-rebuke” to H.P. Lovecraft, the progenitor of a particular brand of dark fantasy, and an author who is enjoying a kind of revival that remembers his work while reviling his racism.

The Ballad of Black Tom is based on Lovecraft’s “The Horror of Red Hook.” While absent Lovecraft’s most famous monster, Cthulhu, “The Horror at Red Hook” features vague glimpses of supernatural horrors, “half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.” But these supernatural horrors are clearly symbols for Lovecraft’s more mundane terrors: the increasingly diverse inhabitants of New York. Red Hook’s real horror, for Lovecraft, “is a babel of sound and filth,” a population that is “a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another.” This supernatural horror as allegory for virulent racism is what has increasingly tarnished Lovecraft’s legacy, and what makes LaValle’s rebuke so sharp.

Unlike Lovecraft’s story, The Ballad of Black Tom is resistant, like all of LaValle’s work, to allegory. Black Tom, both the hero and the villain of this novella, delivers LaValle’s rebuke to Malone, the police officer who is the protagonist of “The Horror at Red Hook,” and who shares the center of LaValle’s revision with Black Tom himself. Tommy Tester, as Black Tom is known at the beginning of the book, is seduced by the supernatural in part out of a desire for revenge. A small-time, self-described hustler, Tommy lands on the wrong side of a pair of detectives, who turn out to represent a much more terrifying evil than any ancient god, killing Tommy’s father in his bed and justifying the killing by claiming to have seen a gun. This murder, sanctioned by the same ugliness that motivated Lovecraft’s work, quite explicitly drives Tommy to Lovecraft’s supernatural realm, “Outside,” a terrifying world invisible to those without knowledge of the occult. At the end, Tommy, now Black Tom, tells Malone, “I’ll take Cthulhu over you devils any day.”

I spoke with LaValle about his lexicon of horror and how it shapes his thinking about narrative and language (during a reading at McNally Jackson promoting his novel Big Machine, he screened 12 minutes of John Carpenter’s The Thing). Representing monsters is one of LaValle’s strengths, from the Devils of the Marsh in Big Machine to the buffalo-headed demon that torments New Hyde hospital in The Devil in Silver. Not surprisingly, LaValle’s monster references come from an exhaustive knowledge of horror. “A few summers ago I reread the first six or seven Stephen King novels,” he told me. “In Salem’s Lot, there’s a moment when the main character finally, finally, finally sees the vampire, the count. And he does this amazing thing. He’s brought you — with all the tension — up to the house, this abandoned house, and then the guy breaks into the house, and he’s going up the stairs, and then there’s the moment when it appears — and I’ve noticed he does this all the time — he then picks a thing that is disgusting or horrifying, or weird, but is completely normal, realist…So he might say, the Count came out and it felt like when a cat licks you on the back of your hand with its tongue. It burns at your skin and sort of cuts. And the point is not that he’s seven feet tall and has fangs, it’s that you probably know what this feeling of the cat tongue is, and it’s not a pleasant feeling. And it’s visceral.”

That visceral horror of suggestion is quite different from Lovecraft, who tends toward the overblown: “In the blood of stainless childhood the leprous limbs of phosphorescent Lilith were laved.” This couldn’t be more of a departure from Tommy Tester’s Harlem cool: “This is how you hustle the arcane.” I ask about this contrast, and about Lovecraft’s appeal. I began reading him in my early teens, as did LaValle, yet if I tried to include prose like Lovecraft’s in my courses for first- and second-year college students, I’m sure they would rebel. LaValle theorizes that Lovecraft’s tone — “someone who comes in and says, like, ‘THE WORLD IS SO BIG!!!!’” — is “not cool” for people at the skeptical ages of 19 or 20: “I had friends who would laugh at me at 14 or whatever because I loved Lovecraft, and then they turn around and love The Smiths. And it’s the same thing!”

LaValle’s horror lexicon allows The Ballad of Black Tom to pay homage to its source, while also transcending Lovecraft’s own paranoia, in which throngs of immigrants overrun the good, “Aryan,” in his word, inhabitants of New York, using supernatural horrors as allegory for overwhelming racist paranoia. I ask whether LaValle thinks that good horror is possible without Lovecraftian allegory, without a pathological fear: “I can’t think of any good horror, any horror that has lasted with me that isn’t based on some kind of ugly terror.” But LaValle expects more of existential terror: “One of the reasons that ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ is not one of his best is because he doesn’t do quite enough of the magic.” Pathological fear should be universal, LaValle thinks. “His really good stories, are also about a lot of fear, but the fear might be about the fear of the scientific revolution going on at the time. Even if he loved it and he was himself an atheist, it still rattled him to find out, or have proof of the insignificance of humanity in the larger realm of things. But by embodying it in Cthulhu or in the Old Ones and all this stuff, he finds a way to not just have a guy sit around saying, like, ‘isn’t it crazy! We’re insignificant!’”

The racism underlying “Red Hook” is too parochial to resonate; LaValle’s paraphrase is apt: “I’m being rattled in my cage by my fear of non-whites, and my fear of human insignificance. Here’s a giant octopus head.” LaValle’s assertion of ownership doesn’t supersede Lovecraft, but rather situates him, forcing him out into the violent, messy world he was so afraid of, showing him what’s really frightening.

LaValle’s current work-in-progress is about the particular, modern terrors of the Internet, dealing with fears at once more benign and ubiquitous than the monsters of The Devil in Silver and The Ballad of Black Tom. The new book is about parents posting pictures of their children on Facebook, something he does regularly. “It’s about the technology but really even more particularly it’s about what are the ways that we volunteer to lose control or we choose to open a door to monsters. You know, a vampire can’t enter your home unless you invite it in, that kind of thing.” True to form, however, LaValle is quick to see through any moralizing about whether or not parents invite and thus deserve these monsters. Such moralism, LaValle observes, “is a way of policing each other,” and, in particular, a way of policing women. In the new book, “the father is more often than not applauded or rewarded for exactly the things that the mother is punished for.”

Finally, I ask whether we will see more work in this LaValle-Lovecraft universe. LaValle has said elsewhere that, although he intended Tommy Tester to die at the end of The Ballad of Black Tom, his editor suggested he leave things in a more ambiguous place. LaValle’s response is profoundly revealing in its reckoning with Lovecraft — not only the world he created, but the world in which he lived. While he expresses enthusiasm for supernatural ghost stories, the real monsters, the ones to which LaValle lays the strongest claim, are not imaginary: “There would be a certain pleasure in expanding that universe and continuing the story, continuing a story. And certainly there’s tons of ghosts. But there’s also human violence. So much violence. So many people getting shot up. Cut. Drowned. Die of drink. Die of cocaine. All this great stuff. What if you could take all of that in, Lovecraft too, and just say, ‘all of this is mine.’”