Wonder and Distance: A Conversation with William Boyle

By Steve WeddleApril 19, 2020

Wonder and Distance: A Conversation with William Boyle
WILLIAM BOYLE lives and teaches in Oxford, Mississippi, though you wouldn’t know that from his fiction. Boyle’s first novel, Gravesend, was published in 2013, set in Brooklyn, and nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France. Since that debut, two things have held true for Boyle's novels. First, they’re set in Brooklyn. Second, they’re nominated for literary prizes and praised by readers and critics alike.

Like much of Boyle’s recent work, City of Margins features an ensemble cast of troubled souls, living in the Brooklyn of Boyle’s youth. It’s loud cars and mixtapes. It’s an Italian mother simmering gravy on the stove, a teenage suicide, and a mob killing. It’s ex-husbands, ex-wives, and ex-cops. It’s weary people who’ve watched friends and family and dreams die along the way. And it’s holding on to that last piece of hope that might make everything worth it.

Publishers Weekly described Boyle’s characters in City of Margins as “[b]attered by loss and unrealized dreams,” adding that they were “vividly drawn and painfully real.” They are also endearing and charming and awkward and brutal and vulnerable.

Boyle and I chatted via email about his new book, his influences, and how his idea of writing about a place where he no longer lives has changed since his first novel.


STEVE WEDDLE: One of the strengths of the new book is each chapter is so deftly devoted to one character’s point of view that the reader feels as if the book is entirely that person’s story, until the next chapter when the process is repeated. How are you able to get to the heart of each character so thoroughly?

WILLIAM BOYLE: Thanks so much. With some of the characters, it came naturally. I felt very in tune with Mikey, Antonina, and Donna, and they just kind of made perfect sense to me. I knew their hearts. Nick and Rosemarie also made immediate sense to me, in a more warped way. The other main characters — Donnie and Ava — were tougher. It took me longer to figure them out, the source of their desperation and anguish. Ava was a character I really wanted to understand; I knew plenty of people like her, but I didn’t really know her. Donnie, in all his ugliness, was hard to feel anything for in the beginning; that changed over time. Being able to bounce between characters definitely created a good tension in the writing process. I hope that same tension exists in the narrative for readers. I learned a lot about each of the characters from the other characters who knew them; that brought everything into sharper focus. I wanted a big cast from the start, and I was aware of the dangers and benefits of that, but I also knew — as a reader and a viewer — that I really respond to stories that shift and move in the ways that an ensemble allows.

What draws you to this period of Brooklyn, an area you’ve been exploring in recent books? Do you feel we’ve lost something in our world that you want to rediscover?

I write about the part of Brooklyn that I’m from. I grew up on the border of Gravesend and Bensonhurst, and it’s the place I know best and the place I automatically go to when I sit down to work. That being said, I haven’t lived there full time in a while. My family is still there, and I’m back often, but Gravesend and The Lonely Witness are both set in the 2010s and the neighborhood’s changed a lot. A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself is only set partially in the neighborhood, but it takes place in 2006 (when I was living in the Bronx and spending a lot of time back home in Brooklyn). Writing it, I realized how much of a period piece it really was, even though ’06 doesn’t seem like that long ago. It made me want to go back further, to write about the neighborhood as I most vividly remember it, growing up there in the ’80s and ’90s. City of Margins is set between 1991 and 1994. I was ages 13–16 at that time, walking everywhere, taking the bus to school, making regular stops at my regular video store and pizza joint, getting into fights in the schoolyard, playing stickball at dusk, discovering the records and books and movies that would change my life, learning about evil. It was a really important, transitional time for me. I don’t know if it’s about the feeling of something being lost now that wasn’t lost then, but there was definitely a deeper sense of wonder and distance. I think I’ve got another late ’90s book in me and then I’d like to dig back further, spend some time in the ’80s.

This book in particular is a sort of jigsaw puzzle of the community, with each piece existing on its own, but creating something more than the sum of its parts as you construct the story. Have you started with the picture on the box of the jigsaw puzzle and worked to develop each piece, or did you start with pieces and work to see how they fit together?

I definitely started with the pieces. The title came to me one day (an homage to John Sayles’s City of Hope and Noah Isenberg’s Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins), and I just knew it had to have a sprawling cast. Out of the gate I had Donnie talking to Pags and Sottile and then Mikey and Antonina showed up in the schoolyard across the street and then there was a bat, a confrontation. After that, I remember pausing and getting hung up on a memory from high school. My English teacher junior year was Mr. MacLarty, a veteran and retired cop who loved good books and movies. He had a big impact on me; we read Look Homeward, Angel, The Things They Carried, and Cannery Row in that class. Anyhow, one day in English, a pal of mine, a very smart kid who played in punk bands, started making fun of one of the meatheads in the class. (This meathead was a truly shitty guy.) It was junior year and — in English class, at least — the tables had turned a bit and the smart kids were getting verbal revenge on the guys who had previously tormented them. Mr. MacLarty scolded my pal by reminding him that the meathead would surely be the one who’d stop to help his mom when her car broke down on the highway. That stayed with me, the idea that bad people can do good things (and over time, of course, I also realized that good people can do bad things or even nothing at all when faced with a crisis). The next piece was suddenly there, Ava breaking down on the Belt Parkway, shithead Donnie stopping to help her, playing the part of Good Samaritan. From there, the story spread out — I saw all these lives crossing, and I started to make sense of the connections. One of the book’s epigraphs comes from a Joe Bolton poem: “From a distance, the city looks like broken glass.” That was the way I pictured the process of putting it together — I had all this broken glass and that was my puzzle, my task.

I tend to think of these types of narratives in similar ways, that each piece of glass has its own shading, its own coloring, and that only by putting them together in the right way can we see the overall stained glass image of the community. And it’s this idea of being both a part of and apart from the community that is intriguing, especially in your storytelling through the years. There’s the common thought that William Faulkner had to distance himself from Mississippi to truly write about it, and while I’m not sure how much stock I put into that in particular, I think that in general it does get to an interesting point. Do you feel better able to write about the Bronx and Brooklyn now that you’re in Mississippi? Do you feel that distance allows you to see the whole of the community?

I answered a similar question seven years ago when Gravesend first came out, and I think how I felt then — having not been gone from New York for that long yet — is different from how I feel now. There’s the practical truth that everything of value I’ve written about New York has been, for the most part, written away from New York. I miss New York more now than I did then (though I’m still back often), and both of my grandparents have died, so there’s a much deeper sense of loss. I do know that if I still lived in New York, I’d be writing the same stories; I just don’t know that the New York of my imagination would be the same. I think that living in Mississippi for a decade has given me a better sense of the universal. I’m not writing about the Brooklyn of celebrities in brownstones and artisanal ice cream shops; when you’re writing about a place where people are living and working and fighting and scraping by, that’s something that’s the same everywhere on some level.

You and I have spoken about this at a panel, but you bring up Joe Bolton’s poetry, and I wonder if you could take a moment just to mention how you’ve been influenced by poetry, music, and movies. Do you find yourself taking a story you’ve seen or heard and ushering the narratives through in your own direction? Do you take characters from songs that have impacted you and expand on them to make them your own? Do you hear the rhythm of certain poems when you write? Feel free to take this in any direction you want.

I wanted to be a poet first, but I wasn’t cut out for it. I love reading poetry and always have, and I’d say the reason I most go to it now, especially when I’m writing, is to be inspired on a language level. I’ll pick up Frank Stanford’s What About This or Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness, read a few poems, and my imagination’s just instantly lit up. If I ever feel like I’m getting stale on the page, I turn to poems.

As for music, I’m pretty often inspired by the sound of a record. For City of Margins, I was thinking a lot about the great Garland Jeffreys. I wanted to write a book that sounded like Ghost Writer. A song like “New York Skyline” captures the city better than just about anything I can think of; it is New York. There’s probably no one who’s had a bigger impact on me as a New York writer than Lou Reed. I remember hearing Set the Twilight Reeling in high school and knowing I wanted to tell stories like that somehow. Early on, I think I would take characters from songs and move them into the world of my fiction — definitely with Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. Now, I’d say, it’s more about the sound. I think of a song like Patti Smith’s “Paths That Cross,” and that’s another example of exactly how I want City of Margins to feel. With The Lonely Witness, I distinctly remember wanting the book to sound like Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp.

Probably the most transformative experiences of my young life were movie-related. Seeing Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour on PBS one night. Watching Blue Velvet when I was 12. Watching The Grifters in junior high and then reading every Jim Thompson book I could get my hands on. On an ideal day, I’m writing, reading, listening to music, and watching at least one film. I find almost every movie I watch to be instructive in some way. With City of Margins, I was thinking a lot about big ensemble films that shaped my sense of story: John Sayles’s City of Hope and Limbo; Robert Altman’s Nashville and Short Cuts; Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me and Trouble in Mind; Wayne Wang and Paul Auster’s Smoke. Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, one of my favorite films of all time, was a constant source of inspiration. I turn to the work of John Cassavetes like I turn to poetry. The same is true of Kelly Reichardt’s films. And Charles Burnett’s. And Hong Sang-soo’s.

You’ve mentioned other ideas you’ve had, other books you’ve worked on or will work on. How many half-finished novels do you have in your drawer? For me, about 20,000 words seems to be the breaking point between having a good idea you can start on and having a good idea you can finish. What, if anything, keeps you from completing a novel? And do you have that one novel you abandoned a decade back that keeps nagging at you?

Oh man, I probably have thousands that barely get out of the first chapter. I have maybe 15 that have gone significantly further than that; I probably got to that 20,000-word mark or so. I have four that I’ve finished that won’t be published. When I was starting out, I think the breaking point was just when I realized I didn’t have the chops to tell the story I wanted to tell. Now it’s mostly lack of enthusiasm — if I get to a point where I’m no longer excited about the story or the characters, it’s time to bail. It might not mean that I bail on it forever, but it’s just not the time to tell it. I have a novel I wrote in my 20s that’s about 20 percent gold and 80 percent shit; I really learned the ropes on that one, and there’s enough in it that I like (it’s a Coney Island novel) that I keep thinking I should go back to it.

Also, I find myself buying copies of Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson probably more than any other book. Is there one book you recommend more than any other?

I love Out Stealing Horses. Lately, it’s probably been a pretty even split between Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women and Ann Petry’s The Street. Berlin’s stories sustain me; I go to them and always find something unexpected and tender and alive. And The Street is among the best novels I’ve ever read — it’s not often talked about as a crime novel as far as I can tell, but it absolutely is. A true masterpiece.


Steve Weddle is the author of Country Hardball. His latest fiction appears in Playboy magazine.


Banner image: "Brooklyn Bridge view in the 1990s" by Kenneth C. Zirkel is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Steve Weddle is the author of Country Hardball. His most recent fiction appeared in Playboy magazine.


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