Broken Land: An Interview With William Boyle




Anya Groner interviews William Boyle

Broken Land: An Interview With William Boyle

February 12th, 2014 reset - +

WILLIAM BOYLE'S DEBUT novel Gravesend begins with a lesson at the firing range: “When you shoot, you gotta have confidence. You got no confidence.” McKenna, an ex-cop, is coaching his best friend Conway D’Innocenzio. After sixteen years in prison for a hate crime that resulted in the death of Conway’s brother, Duncan, Ray Boy Calabrese is back on the streets, and Conway wants revenge.

Though Gravesend is about crime, it’s not exactly a crime novel. Boyle quickly reveals that neither the would-be avenger, Conway, nor the so-called criminal, Ray Boy, are up for their parts. Conway hasn’t the stomach for murder and Ray Boy is so filled with regret that he seeks Conway out and begs to be shot. The plot plays on Boyle’s epigraph, three lines by Frank Stanford: “When a man knows another man / is looking for him / he doesn’t hide.” In this case, it’s not courage that motivates characters, but curiosity, soul searching, and plain confusion.

Boyle’s characters are far from predictable. Steeped in the gossip of Gravesend, the Italian-American Brooklyn neighborhood where the book takes place, his cast is molded by the streets’ complex history. Stephanie Dirello, a virgin who lives with her mother and lusts after Conway, befriends Alessandra, a failed actress who returns to Gravesend after her mother’s death. Fifteen-year-old Eugene worships his ex-con uncle, Ray Boy, and goes on a crime spree to impress him. Conway’s school boy crush on Alessandra returns a decade later and possesses him. Alessandra barely notices.

Boyle’s writing is raw, poetic, unflinching, nostalgic and perverse. Urgency inhabits his pages, and the characters live on weeks after you put the book down. Gravesend is a novel read in a day, and then read again, slowly. This January, I interviewed Boyle about how he came to write Gravesend and what the characters and place mean to him.

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ANYA GRONER: New Yorkers have the reputation of being worldly, but Gravesend operates more like a small town. Everyone knows everyone else, and local gossip thrives. This mentality applies to young residents as much as older ones. Three of your main characters, all in their late 20s, still live with their parents. And when Eugene and Sweat, both teenagers, drive up the Palisades Parkway, Sweat admits he’s just crossed the Hudson River for his first time. You grew up in Brooklyn. Was this your experience of your neighborhood? How can such a tight knit community operate within such a cosmopolitan landscape? And to what extent did your own upbringing influence this book?

WILLIAM BOYLE: It was pretty much my experience. I had family in Rockland County and New Jersey and Long Island, so I got around a little more than some of my characters do. And my mom and stepdad took us on road trips to Florida and Maine and Nova Scotia. We even flew to Vegas once. But for me, Brooklyn was just my neighborhood and the neighborhoods close to me, from Bay Ridge to Coney Island. I don’t think I even went downtown until I was in college and one of my best friends came from Boerum Hill. I certainly never went to Williamsburg or Greenpoint. And the city seemed so far away, 45 minutes by subway. I went as a kid to museums and to Radio City and Rockefeller Center, but that was it. It wasn’t until I was sixteen or so that I started hanging out in the East Village, seeing shows and going to record stores and to the Angelika for movies.

My neighborhood always felt like a crowded small town and there are neighborhoods like that all across the five boroughs. When I lived in Throggs Neck in the Bronx (where my wife’s family is from), it was the same. And Throggs Neck was even more far removed from the city. It was a long walk, 40 or 50 minutes, from where I lived to the 6 train on Tremont Avenue and then a long subway ride into the city. We were one of the last stops. In Brooklyn, my neighborhood’s one of the last stops on the D before Coney. Maybe it’s something about being one of the last stops.

I used to sit out on my grandparents’ porch with a cassette recorder and tape them talking. And they were always talking about the people passing by, the people parking their cars. So I had a pretty early obsession with the rhythms of what they were saying but also with the wonderful gossipy content. My grandfather would say things like, “Look at this bastard. He lives around the block and he’s gotta park in front of my joint.” So there was always that smallness to not only my neighborhood but the block. I could spend the rest of my life writing about the block and not run out of things to say.

I’m also really interested in the narrowness of the neighborhood. When people think about narrowness in terms of race and sexuality, they probably think about the South first, not New York City. But that’s not the way it is, certainly not in my experience. I’m always interested in characters who seek work outside those margins, like Alessandra specifically, but also Conway to a certain extent. And even though they’re different, even though they’ve broken from a certain way of thinking, they still belong to the neighborhood. They’re chained to it.

I say I’m from Gravesend and I am, technically, but my block is really on the border of two other neighborhoods: Bensonhurst and Bath Beach. Most people on my block, including my family, would say they’re from Bensonhurst. And Bensonhurst is where Yusef Hawkins was killed by Joey Fama in 1989. That was an event that opened my eyes to a lot of things I hadn’t been aware of. I was eleven and Do the Right Thing had come out not long before that — I’ve always been a movie nut and I saw this other Brooklyn I knew nothing about. I went to a Catholic high school in Bay Ridge, Xaverian (Our Lady of the Narrows in Gravesend). I’ll never forget being a freshman and seeing Joey Fama for President written in Sharpie on a tile over the urinal. That fucked me up. Those sorts of feelings went into making the book.

Your characters both love and hate Gravesend. On the one hand, their homes are vibrant with Italian-American traditions: lemon-rimmed espresso mugs and braciole, but this is also a working class neighborhood with limited opportunities. Only Alessandra has dreams of leaving, and all the characters live in the past, idealizing high school troublemakers and resurrecting teenage crushes, while doing little to change their current situation. This is a strange nostalgia, one that memorializes times that weren’t all that happy. Is your book an elegy for an older New York City? With the continuing hipsterization of Brooklyn, do neighborhoods like Gravesend still exist?

It is a strange nostalgia. People I’ve known who haven’t left the neighborhood get hung up. They romanticize childhoods that were narrow and oppressive. That’s probably true of anyone, anywhere, who doesn’t stray far from home, whether they come from Panda Puss, Tennessee or Blue Fuck Falls, Oregon. Loving and hating the place that you’re from is probably true for any sane person. That’s how I feel about my neighborhood. I love my grandparents. I love my mother. I love the smells of my grandmother’s kitchen, gravy bubbling on the stove. I love the Italian cookies and pastries. I love the pizza, Totonno’s in Coney Island and Spumoni Gardens and Lenny’s. I love the espresso and the sambuca and the fennel after meals. I love going down to the basement with my grandfather to check the oil, to look for some spare TV tube or wire-cutters or a new sink drain. I love the memory of making struffoli with my grandparents before Christmas. I love how hard my mother’s worked her whole life, 10-, 11-, 12-hour days at the doctor’s office she manages. I love the Russian video store I went to as a kid — I’d rent 10, 12 movies a week; that place was school to me. I love the El. I love walking up my block, Bay 35th Street, and seeing the steeple of St. Mary’s rising up over the tracks. I love the little gardens that people have, Mary statues with chipped noses surrounded by weeds and broken cement. I love the divey bodegas where I used to buy Swedish Fish and quarter waters, the memory of playing basketball in the schoolyards all around the neighborhood.

But there’s also the stuff that makes me uneasy. There’s a feeling I get when I’m back in the neighborhood. I read this great piece in The New York Times by Mark Kozelek, where he was talking about the melancholy that’s always informed his music, and he used the phrase “unspecific sadness.” That’s exactly what I feel when I’m home in Brooklyn, especially when I’m alone. I was just back there for a month and both of my grandparents were in the hospital and my mother had to work a lot and my wife and son went up to the Hudson Valley to visit my wife’s family, and it hit me all over again at 35. Brooklyn means “Broken Land,” and that’s what it feels like to me when I’m home, like that Dylan song “Everything is Broken.” I think about that song a lot when I’m there. It’s funny — on this most recent trip, my three-year-old son, out of nowhere, said, “Everything’s broken here.” And it was true. My grandmother had broken her hip. The handle on my mother’s toilet didn’t work. The TV remote was on the fritz. He was playing with my old G.I. Joes, and they were missing legs and arms. He also had a couple of old remote control cars of mine and the batteries had exploded and leaked crust. The heat in my mother’s house broke. Her ‘95 Ford Explorer, used only to block the driveway, wouldn’t start and had a flat. A pipe froze in my grandmother’s house when it got down to 3 degrees one night. My mother’s refrigerator made crazy noises, something between a howl and a thump, like what you’d hear on loop in a Tom Waits song. Her washing machine doesn’t drain, so you have to pull the clothes and towels out sopping wet and hang them on the line and let them drip over buckets. I’m not complaining, just pointing to a general brokenness that seems to be amplified to someone prone to melancholy like me. I remember being home to visit last year and a light bulb went out in my mom’s house and she said, “Everything goes wrong.” That attitude’s in my blood.

There’s also this terrible dreariness to city living, all city living. There’re cracks in the pavement, birdshit, construction, noise, garbage everywhere. Walking around my neighborhood on this recent visit, my son started to call Brooklyn “Rubbish Town.” (His favorite TV show, Fireman Sam, is Welsh). Pretty accurate. A blizzard hit when we were there and the garbage didn’t get picked up for over a week and it was piled on the curbs, blowing all around, stuffed into snowbanks. Fucking disgusting. My grandfather’s obsessed with garbage. He’ll spend hours tearing up boxes and stapling them or tying them with baker’s string, breaking his recycling down so it takes up the smallest amount of space possible. Before he got weak and couldn’t really go outside anymore, he’d take the garbage out 50 times a day in little bags. He’d always tell me that the world wasn’t going to end in fire or anything like that, that it’d end in garbage. I’m pretty sure he’s right.

Neighborhoods like Gravesend definitely still exist. Gravesend is still Gravesend, for that matter. And Bensonhurst is Bensonhurst. It’s no longer Italian. Now it’s predominantly Chinese and Russian. As long as there are ethnic, working-class neighborhoods, there will be places like this, and New York is better for it. Hipsters won’t take over certain neighborhoods, I’m sure of that. I thought Coney Island would be a prime candidate and it hasn’t happened there. But if you asked me ten years ago, I wouldn’t have guessed that Williamsburg would be the fucking theme park it is and I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me that St. Mark’s Place would be the tourist nightmare it’s become. The people who have been chased out of the neighborhoods that have been taken over are settling where the rents are cheaper, where the food’s cheaper, and those are going to be the places that are interesting, the homes that people have to escape, the broken and sad places where they fight and strive and fuck and cry. The artists, who used to be able to survive in the Village or downtown Brooklyn on the cheap, no way they’re sticking around. If they want a city they’ll move somewhere like New Orleans. You can’t exist in New York the way you could in the ‘70s and ‘80s. When this shit started, I thought a new ‘70s would be inevitable. Things would be built up, rents would skyrocket, and it would last for a while until the hipsters and yuppies abandoned the city for the suburbs and the neighborhoods would be reclaimed by grime and graffiti and everything would crumble, but I don’t see that happening now.

A hate crime lies at the center of Gravesend. Sixteen years before the book opens, Ray Boy Calabrese bullied Duncan D’Innocenzio, a gay teenager, so viciously that Duncan ran into oncoming traffic to escape. While it’d be easy to write someone like Ray Boy as expendable — a thug who deserves his suffering — Gravesend forces readers to consider Ray Boy’s humanity. Defined by poor adolescent decisions, Ray Boy’s shame is so great he wants only to die. Though Ray Boy is clearly guilty, the neighborhood is also at fault. His neighbors were the ones who idolized Ray Boy and turned a blind eye to his “pranks.” I admire the moral ambiguity here. How does justice operate in Gravesend? Is redemption possible? And who do you see as responsible for Duncan’s death?

I knew I didn’t want anything to be easy. I didn’t want Ray Boy to be one-dimensional. And I certainly didn’t want redemption to be available to him. He doesn’t want it, doesn’t think he deserves it, and he doesn’t deserve it. I think justice operates in Gravesend the way it does in some of my favorite ‘70s movies. There’s no moral center, no lesson. It’s pretty representative of my fucked-up view of things. And you’re right — the neighborhood is at fault here. The neighborhood is at the center of everything that goes wrong. The neighborhood made Ray Boy. The neighborhood killed Duncan. You see it in the beginning when Alessandra’s father says about Duncan, “I don’t understand the gay thing, but he didn’t deserve this.” And he’s not, at his core, a hateful person, but that’s just the meanness that’s seeped into him from the neighborhood and it’s indicative of the kind of thinking that made Ray Boy possible in the first place.

The same goes for Conway — It would’ve been easy to make him this sympathetic avenger, but I didn’t want that. He loved and understood Duncan and we feel sad about the loss of his brother, but awfulness comes out in the way he thinks about Alessandra and treats Stephanie. I wanted Conway to be a mess, someone you were torn up about, someone you felt sorry for and hated and wanted to see redeemed and wanted to see dead.

Violence echoes across generations. Seduced by stories he heard about Ray Boy (and by watching The Sopranos), Eugene, Ray Boy’s nephew, wants to impress his ex-con uncle by taking down Mr. Natale, the neighborhood kingpin. He ends up going on a crime-spree that begins with him telling off his high school teacher and ends with murder. I closed the book believing that, like Ray Boy’s crimes, Eugene’s actions would have unforeseen consequences. There’s a tension here between individual accountability and a violent culture. Ray Boy’s jail time does nothing to prevent future crimes from taking place. Was Eugene’s crime spree inevitable? Is a community subjected to violence condemned to a future of violence? And is there any possibility you’ll write a sequel?

Eugene’s a doomed character, for sure. Someone recently said to me that they saw the end coming and I was like, “Yeah, it’s not a mystery novel. Eugene’s fucking doomed from the start. You could sense that because that’s the way I made it. There are no options for him.”

I don’t know if a community subjected to violence is always condemned to a future of violence — I hope it works the other way, but it probably doesn’t most of the time. Eugene is 15 in the book, and that’s the most dangerous time, the time when people break one way or the other. I’m speaking generally — obviously, that’s not always the case and different things influence different people — but, in my experience, that was true. At 15, I looked around knew I didn’t want to be racist or homophobic or sexist. I went from not having words for those things to understanding what I didn’t want to be. The lessons came from books, movies, songs, teachers, friends, family. Eugene can’t access that knowledge. It’s not his mother’s fault. A lot of the blame rests with the father who abandoned him — Eugene doesn’t dwell on that much but his fatherlessness has certainly shaped him into someone who embraces false masculinity, who learns the wrong lessons from his uncle’s incarceration, who’s juiced with hate because he doesn’t know how else to be. The only model for him is his uncle’s former glory.

I don’t think I’ll write a sequel, but I certainly won’t stray too far from the neighborhood and I’d like to return to certain characters in some capacity. I worry a lot about Stephanie. I hope she’s okay. I worry for Alessandra too — she has a good heart. I think there’s a life out there for her. I hope she finds it. I also think a lot about Amy Falconetti from Flushing. I’d like to see her show up somewhere soon. And McKenna, too. I hope he gets things straightened out with Marylou. I hope he learns how to be a father.

You write about Brooklyn but studied writing in the South, getting your MFA at the University of Mississippi. What influence has southern writing had on your prose?

Wise Blood changed the course of my writing life. All of Flannery O’Connor really, including her letters and now this prayer journal that was just published. Larry Brown has been a hero of mine since I picked up Big Bad Love at a bookstore in Austin in 2001. Harry Crews, goddamn, I don’t know where I’d be without reading his stuff. And Robert Penn Warren: All The King’s Men, Flood, Brother to Dragons, his Collected Poems, these are books that hit me hard in college and when I was getting my Master’s at SUNY New Paltz. Faulkner. Walker Percy. Barry Hannah. Tom Franklin. Mark Richard. Chris Offutt. Jack Pendarvis. John Brandon. Jesmyn Ward. William Gay. Ernest Gaines. Frank Stanford. These are some of the writers who have mattered the most to me. Ask me who my favorite writer is right now, and Mary Miller would be at the top of the list.

So the influence is deep, but I’m also aware of a problem here: Southern writer, like African-American writer or woman writer or Native American writer or crime writer or whatever, shit, I hate labels like that. They’re just my favorite writers. I love the way they put words on the page. I love the stories they tell. But I guess there’s a reason for it. People don’t say they love Northern writing or Midwestern writing of Pacific Northwestern writing. Why not? I guess it’s the way place haunts the writing, the way Christ haunts the writing, the way the words are shaped from different clay. I didn’t move here to capture some magic that wasn’t available to me in New York, but I did come to learn and I’ve learned so much. From reading. From studying with some of these writers. From interviewing them. But it’s more than that. The place has definitely gotten into my blood. I see Brooklyn in new ways from here.

Women in crime novels are often sidekicks, objects to be fought about, but not characters who fight, but that’s not the case in Gravesend. Though neither Alessandra nor Stephanie is involved in crime, as the male characters are, both have opportunities to intervene and possibly even prevent murders from taking place, and both fail. How do you see the role of women in Gravesend? Are they responsible, as nearly all the men are, for the crimes that surround them?

I think you’re right — I think so much crime fiction is full of weak, one-dimensional female characters who are only utilized as objects. They’re there to be sexy, to betray, to double-cross, to be slithery. They’re, as you say, sidekicks, secretaries, witnesses. That’s true of a lot of crime fiction, but it’s certainly not the case across the board, not in Megan Abbott’s wonderful novels. Or Vicki Hendricks’s. Or Elmore Leonard’s. Some male writers are fixated on fantasy in all the worst ways. I didn’t want Alessandra to be a fantasy. I’m fixated on people’s flaws, the things that make them sad and scared. I don’t want to write sex scenes that are sexy. There’s one in Gravesend and it should make you want to kill yourself. Often, in crime fiction, female characters serve as beat-off material — and that’s disgusting. If your characters aren’t feeling bad about themselves, if they aren’t worrying, they’re not real. Alessandra is more me than any character in the book. And Stephanie is what I could’ve been. They’re not part of the violence in the way that Conway and Ray Boy and Eugene are but that’s situational. Those guys are all marked by violence — Alessandra and Stephanie have lived at the edge of it but haven’t been impacted by it directly (until the end anyway).

My view on the role of women in Gravesend is dictated by my life. I was raised by a single mom who worked hard. I have a tough wife and her mother and sisters are tough. My grandmother’s tough. I love that Joss Whedon thing where someone asks him why he writes such strong female characters and his response is something like, “Because people are still asking that question.” It’s the dumbest shit. If your characters aren’t twisty and complicated, you’re doing something wrong. On the same note, it’d be a bad move to make Stephanie something she’s not. Here’s someone who has lived at home under her mother’s thumb her whole life. She’s not going to have progressive views about Alessandra’s bisexuality. But the thing for me is to make her beautiful in her simple sadness. I will admit this: I’m probably capable of hating the men in my fiction in a way that I’m incapable of hating the women. Maybe that just comes with the feeling of abandonment: my father gone, so many of the fathers I’ve tried on over the years having let me down. The men I’ve known have been worse in their failures, the women stronger. I think that general feeling works its way into Gravesend.

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Anya Groner teaches writing at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.

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