Going Home Again: An Interview With William Boyle

The real emotion and strong sense of place made William Boyle’s The Lonely Witness our Pick Of The Month for June. The book concerns his character Amy, who played a smaller role in his debut novel Gravesend, who has put her wilder ways behind her, delivering communion for the shut ins in her Brooklyn neighborhood. The job leads her to witnessing a stabbing and dealing with it in a way that both puts her in danger and has her flirting with her past life.

Bill was kind enough to let us ask him some questions about the book, it’s location, and influences.

MysteryPeople Scott: When you were writing Gravesend, did you know Amy had a bigger story in her?

William Boyle: I wasn’t thinking about a bigger story involving Amy as I was writing Gravesend but when I finished it she was a character that I really wondered and worried about. I named her Falconetti after the actress Renée Maria Falconetti from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of my favorite films, so that—just that great name—was a draw to return to her. Pretty soon after I finished Gravesend, I was thinking about the poster for Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim, that iconic shot of Parker Posey, and I imagined a book called Falconetti. I didn’t know exactly what my approach would be—I didn’t wind up starting work on the book (which became The Lonely Witness) until early 2017—but I saw Amy as some kind of cross between Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and Willy Vlautin’s Allison Johnson. I liked the idea of her and Alessandra having had this whole relationship that we don’t see and then she stays behind in Alessandra’s neighborhood. My grandmother’s 90 and she was getting communion delivered at home, and I just started to see that this was what Amy’s life had become. I knew some things about her past from Gravesend; others revealed themselves as I wrote.    

MPS: You dig into that noir concept of the past coming back in a unique way. What did you want to explore with that concept?

WB: In a lot of ways, I think the book is about the ghost of past identities, how we can be all the versions of ourselves we’ve ever been simultaneously. I like the double action of the title. Amy witnesses crimes, but witness also has religious connotations. The book is haunted and even driven by Amy’s tortured spirituality. It’s not just that she was shaped by the crime she witnessed as a teenager; she was shaped by her mother dying, by her father leaving, by her Catholicism. All of these things are ghosts she can’t shake, which leads to a life of trying on new versions of herself, seeking something that fits. I love the idea of having a character like her driving a noir narrative—someone that’s neither one dimensionally good or bad, but who is a complicated and confused yearner. I just watched this great film, Christina Chao’s Nancy, and Andrea Riseborough’s character in that film really brought me back to Amy in a good way. Nancy does worse things than Amy, but they’re both searching for meaning, trying to understand how to exist in the world. They’re outsiders, on the margins of normal existence.

MPS: Besides familiarity, what does Brooklyn provide for you as a writer?

WB: It’s the landscape of my imagination. I spent—and continue to spend—so much time there that I can just think of a battered house on my block, and it’ll spark a story. It’s familiarity, definitely, but it’s also the mythology of it. To think of all the stories, the way it’s changed and changing. My part of Brooklyn is not the hyper-gentrified part people think of—the changes are interesting and really speak to a lot of what’s still great about New York City. I also like the idea of the way things change around people. My grandparents were in their house for sixty years, and everything changed around them. The house tells those stories. The sidewalk out front tells those stories. The weeds in the backyard tell those stories. I like walking around and seeing old signs that have been covered up or faded away. I also feel this melancholy when I’m back there that, I think, informs everything I write. I’m interested in people who are trapped in the neighborhood, chained to it, who live—essentially—a small town life in a big city.     

MPS: Scott Phillips once told me you can only really write about a place once you left it. Does the distance help you in any way?

WB: That’s definitely been true in my experience. But there’s also something about returning to a place a certain way. I’m back in Brooklyn a lot, probably two months a year, and when we’re there we stay with my mom and we visit my grandma in her nursing home in Coney Island (where she’s been about a year), and there’s something about being there that way that’s so intense, that brings me back so fully to my childhood and formative years, that really feeds my imagination. I’m hanging out with my mother, visiting her at work, meeting people at my grandma’s nursing home, seeing neighbors, taking lots of walks up to the avenue for groceries and coffee and to-go food. I’m back on the ground. I’m seeing all the same religious statues in yards, I’m seeing the same houses, the garbage in the streets, the El rumbling by, and I’m thinking about time in a way that I never quite have. I don’t know what it’d be like if I was totally removed from it—that’s just distant to my personal experience. Frankly, it scares and saddens me to think that someday my connection to Brooklyn might be more tenuous.

MPS: All your characters are vivid, even someone at the end of the bar for one page. Do you have a particular approach when writing those “smaller” characters?

That’s one of the real joys of writing for me. There are many writers and filmmakers I admire who make the most of every bit part, but I don’t know if anyone does it as meaningfully as David Lynch. Look at Twin Peaks: The Return. You’ll meet a character once—like Max Perlich in his brief cameo—and you wonder about him and marvel at his existence in the show. That’s the kind of thing a lot of people would cut—there’s no purpose, they’d say—but it adds layers of mystery and builds the world. You can have this whole story-within-a-story that’s moving and unexpected. I think my approach with those characters is just to see them as fully as I can, to try to witness their pain, to have this whole other story under the surface that brings the world to life. In The Lonely Witness, one of my favorite minor characters is Lou, who hits on Amy at Homestretch. He wasn’t there until he was, and that’s part of the joy, too. Painting away from the edges of the scene in the name of discovery.

MPS: Will the next book be in the shared world of Gravesend and The Lonely Witness or something completely different?

WB: The next book is set in the same Brooklyn neighborhoods with some parts in the Bronx and even a stretch up in the Hudson Valley. It takes place in 2006. It’s pretty much the same world of Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, but there are no direct connections beyond place. It’s really inspired by Jonathan Demme’s great screwball noirs, Something Wild and Married to the Mob, with maybe a little Shane Black mixed in there. It’ll be out this time next year, maybe sooner. The new book I’m working on is set in my neighborhood in 1991. The one I’m thinking about for after that will take place in the ‘80s. Again, the connection there will just be the place, though there might be some very minor character crossovers here and there.                                                                                                                                                         

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Interview with Joe Lansdale

CrimeReads, the new crime fiction site, spun off by LitHub and partially overseen by our former Director Of Suspense, Molly Odintz, has been getting a lot of attention in the past few months. Recently, they asked MysteryPeople’s Scott Montgomery to interview his friend Joe Lansdale. So, hopped up on medicine for Cedar Fever, Scott discussed politics, religion, and writing. Check it out if you dare to know the results.

 

 

Interview with Alex Segura

In Blackout, Alex Segura’s latest book to feature Pete Fernandez has the PI operating in New York, but brought back to his Miami home to find the missing son of a business man politician, mainly because he resembles a young man who went missing when he was last seen with Pete’s high school crush before she was murdered. Alex will be joining us for a discussion and signing of Blackout on May 18th, but we got in touch with him ahead of time for an early grilling.
MP: Blackout has a great hook of a premise with Pete hired to track down a missing person who is tied to a murder of an old crush. It gives you both a promise in plot and emotion. How did the initial idea come about?
AS: That’s a good question – I really want the mystery to harken back to not only Pete’s drinking days, but his youth – to give readers a longer glimpse at him in his formative years. In past books, we’ve explored cases that had some roots in the past, either cases Pete’s homicide detective father didn’t get to resolve or stuff that dates further back, but I wanted this book to completely center on Pete, and to really impact him emotionally. I wanted it to be the case that always haunted him. Growing up in Miami, there were a handful of crimes that just felt ever-present – missing students or kids, constantly being discussed on the news, missing for years, so those two ideas came together, and I made the victim someone that Pete knew and felt an emotional connection with. I also wanted to give him the added baggage of having failed at it once – when he was a mess, drinking heavily and of no use to anyone. So he felt like he’d already struck out twice trying to solve this case. So, when a chance to fix that arises, he jumps in fully, despite the risks involved in returning home, and the damaged relationships he’d have to repair. It’s the crux of the entire book – can you come to terms with your past in order to live out your future?MP: The mystery of Blackout forces Pete to deal with the past, something he has been trying to avoid. What did you want to explore with that idea?

AS: I’ve always liked the idea of telling a story about recovery, as opposed to just spotlighting a hard drinking PI. I wanted to show the steps and stumbles he takes toward getting better. When we find Pete at the beginning of Blackout, he’s not desperate for a drink – in fact, he seems to be in good standing with AA and living a pretty functional life. But that’s on the surface. He hasn’t really dug back into his past and cleared the wreckage. He’s still haunted, and that’s driven a wedge between him and his friends – like his partner, Kathy Bentley, and other supporting characters. So, to answer your question, I wanted to show that Pete’s journey is an ongoing one – he’ll never be completely fixed. No one is. But this book is a big step for him because he’s given an opportunity to make something right, and that, in turn, might allow him to move on, to not be clouded by this guilt and shame, and to maybe embrace being alive. Unfortunately, he has some obstacles to overcome before that can happen – like a deadly cult with its sights set on Pete for meddling in their affairs.

MP:  Usually with modern PI novels the author usually goes an action route that sacrifices emotion and character or a character approach that remains mainly internal. In Blackout you strike a perfect balance of both. How aware of the balancing act are you when writing?AS: Thanks for saying that. It is something I try to be mindful of. For me, it all springs out of character – where do we meet them and where are they at the end of the book? That helps define the journey of the novel. I knew I wanted Pete to reach a turning point at the end of the book that would forever change him and his status quo, so it became a matter of crafting action that pushes him down that path. From my perspective, Blackout is pretty intense – there are few slow scenes, but I try to coat those moments with some emotion and introspection. You get a sense of how these intense scenarios are affecting Pete and Kathy. I never want it to feel clean or without consequence. I like the Pete books when they wallow in the gray areas of life, which feels more real to me – complicated, conflicting, messy. That’s where you get the most genuine stuff.


MP: You’ve mentioned one of my favorite private eye authors, Ross Macdonald, in some of your other interviews. Is there anything from reading his work, you’ve applied to yours?
 

AS: I love Macdonald, so I’m glad you bring him up. I revisited all the Lew Archer books before writing Blackout. And while it wasn’t intentional research, I felt like a lot of that managed to sneak into the writing of the new book. He was a superb plotter, which, to contrast a bit, wasn’t Chandler’s strong suit. And while Lew Archer is unlike Pete in that he doesn’t really experience major, seismic changes from book to book, when you zoom out on the series, you do notice some things, especially when Macdonald plays with themes like the humanity of evil, the environment, or what have you. Those books helped me drill deep and create more compelling “bad guys.” The best villains don’t think they’re villains at all.And, like I said, the Archer books are so tightly plotted. That aspect is often ignored because Macdonald was such a great wordsmith – you can very easily get lost in his language and descriptions. But the books always move at a good clip. Nothing ever feels wasted or like filler. That must have subconsciously nudged me in that direction with Blackout.

MP:  As someone who has friends that have dealt both successfully and unsuccessfully with alcoholism, I thought you portrayed that aspect of Pete in a realistic way. What do you keep in mind about that part of him when you’re writing the books?

AS: I try to be honest. Recovery isn’t a linear process, and it doesn’t stick with everyone. I think a lot of people just assume that once you get into AA or some kind of rehab, you’re okay. It’s silly to type that, but I’ve met people who think it’s like going to a doctor. It’s not. It’s a journey fraught with pitfalls and detours and, for many, relapse. So, I wanted to showcase Pete’s quest to get better with that in mind. Just because he’s not drinking doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about it, or thinking about his past as a drinker. He’s a haunted character, and that applies to many people who deal with addiction. It’s a lifelong struggle.

MP:  You’ve more or less stated that your putting Pete to rest at least for a while after the next book. Do you already have other stories or another series character in mind?

AS: I have at least one more Pete novel in me, which I’m starting on now – Miami Midnight. I’m having fun with that and might find myself at the end wanting another Pete. But as I see things now, I think I’ll at least give him a break. I don’t know if I’ll dive into another series just yet, though I do have an idea for a character. The two strongest ideas sound like standalone to me, though, and touch on subjects I haven’t gotten to explore with Pete.

Q&A with JULIA HEABERLIN

MysteryPeople interviewed author Julia Heaberlin, author of Paper Ghosts. Julia Heaberlin is also the author of the critically acclaimed Black-Eyed Susans, a USA Today and Times (U.K.) bestseller. Her psychological thrillers, including Playing Dead and Lie Still, have been sold in more than fifteen countries. She will be here at BookPeople on Thursday, May 31 at 7pm. This is one you won’t want to miss!

 

 

Mystery People: What are you reading these days?

 Julia Heaberlin: The Smiling Man by British noir writer Joseph Knox, King Zeno by Nathaniel Rich, How to Talk Like Ted: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds (but people who come to the BookPeople event shouldn’t expect that I have mastered this).

 MP: What books did you love as a child?

 JH: Harriet the Spy, who has been my Facebook icon for years, head down, scribbling her little reports; Anne of Green Gables because I wanted to BE Anne with an E; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which inspired my dream to write gothic thrillers; From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (I still want to sleep in a museum on the sly and survive off of coins I pick up in a fountain); Little House in the Big Woods, because my mother read it to me with my head in her lap. And an adaptation of the play The Miracle Worker, maybe from Scholastic. I learned the sign language alphabet from the back cover, which I’ve never forgotten. 

MP: What’s the hardest thing about writing?

 JH: Creating a great ending that lives up to yours and readers’ expectations. A disappointing ending ruins the whole book.

 MP: What’s the best thing about writing?

 JH: The euphoria of putting together a really good sentence.  On a personal, how-it-affects-my-real-life level, it has been meeting people through my research, which I was reminded of while doing an interview for my next book (after Paper Ghosts!), which includes a girl with only one eye.  

 I was talking to a beautiful teen-ager who has a prosthetic eye so perfect no one knows it but her best friends. I asked her mother, who sat with us, to describe her daughter, as I sat there with my pen and journal. She didn’t hesitate. These words spilled out in this order, like she was reciting a poem.

 Resilient
Strong
Resourceful
Tender
Kind
Empathetic

 This is why I research. It’s a gift to myself. People never fail to remind me how beautiful the world is.

 MP: What’s your favorite word?

 JH: Out loud, anything with a– in it. Kicka–. A–hat. That’s a–. On paper, the word “fate.” Or “dark.” I like simple, four-letter words with power.

MP: What’s a sentence you’ve loved and remembered from a book?

JH: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.”— A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving.

MP:Do you have any weird writing habits?

JH: I’m unable to survive a deadline without Whataburger Dr Peppers.

 MP: Who are your literary influences?

 JH: Alive: John Irving, Jess Walter, Tana French, Thomas Harris. Dead: Emily Dickinson, Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Patricia Highsmith.

 

MP: What’s your favorite place to write?

 JH: In my mind, oceanfront to the sound of waves; in reality, at my kitchen table with the washing machine as background (and the dog snoring).

 

MP: What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

 JH: Photographer. You will see my love of photography’s haunting power in Paper Ghosts.

Review Of Blackout by Alex Segura

Alex Segura has slowly made a name for himself with his Pete Fernandez series. The sports writer turned private detective, who battles his inner demons and the bottle as much as the bad guys, is steadily grabbing fans. I’ve been reading to the series for the past couple of years and his visit to BookPeople on May 16th gave me the opportunity to read his latest, Blackout. He now has a new fan.
Blackout finds Pete with an office in New York, staying away from him Miami home and the past. A client comes in, drops it on his desk anyhow. A businessman running for Florida senate wants him to find his missing ne’er do well son. Pete refuses until he sees a photo of the missing person. He resembles a young man who was seen with Pete’s high school crush before she was murdered. Pete heads back down to Florida and with the help of his former partner Kathy Bently get involved in a mystery dealing with a cult, the mob, and old wounds.
What impressed me about Blackout was how as a first time reader of the series, I understood Joe and his world so thoroughly. I knew him as well as Lew Archer, Sheriff Walt Longmire, Moe Prager, or any of the other fictional slueth I’ve read more than a dozen books of. Segura gives us enough history from the previous books and gives us Pete’s connection and emotional point of view to them, showing how they connect to is current actions. He also defines him through his interactions with other series characters, who come off both believable and caring.
Segura balances action and emotion in Blackout like a master craftsman. He carries the reader along with an engaging plot and likable if damaged hero. You root for Pete both to save the day and save himself. I’m looking forward to reading his next case as well as the one before.

Murder in the Afternoon Book Club Celebrates Texas Mystery Writers Month!

Our Murder In The Afternoon book club celebrates Texas Mystery Writers Month with a detective tale with tons of Lone Star flavor. The Do-Right by Lisa Sandlin is a wonderful mystery novel with layers of intrigue and characters who can only be found in Texas. As part of our discussion, Lisa will be joining in, via conference call.
The Do-Right has two protagonists both in the middle of a life change in Beaumont Texas during the early Seventies. Delpha Wade, on parole after getting out of prison for killing one of her rapists, needs to find a job. Her parole officer sets her up as a secretary for his buddy Tom Phelan. Tom lost a part of his finger on an oil rig, With his workman’s comp, he started a private eye firm. Delpha proves to be Tom’s match as they each take separate cases that entwine.
The Do-Right gives us a lot to talk about, Texas in the Seventies, the Watergate Hearings used in the backdrop, role reversal in detective fiction, and you’ll get to ask the author herself. We will be meeting Monday, May 21st at 7PM. The book is 10% off for those planning to attend.
For June we will be celebrating World Fiction Month with the second book in Jean Clad Izzo’s Mareille trilogy, Chourmo.