- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
I’m looking forward to introducing our readers to William Boyle this upcoming Tuesday, August 2nd, at 7 PM at our New Voices of Noir panel discussion. Boyle joins Bill Loehfelm, Alison Gaylin, and Megan Abbott for the panel discussion. His short stories and Gravesend, his first novel, feature hard-luck people stuck in life. To give you an idea of him, here’s a quick interview we did.
MysteryPeople Scott: Gravesend is an ensemble novel, set in a decaying working class part of New York that is a character itself. Did you start with the idea of the place or the people?
William Boyle: I grew up in the neighborhoods of Gravesend and Bensonhurst. I knew I wanted to write about the place. I’ve mostly lived away from Brooklyn since college, though my family’s still there—I’ve spent time in the Hudson Valley, in Austin, in The Bronx, in Mississippi—but I carry the neighborhood with me. So, it started with that feeling, I’d say, of being trapped by the place you’re from, whether or not you’re physically there. A lot of the action of the book actually takes place away from Gravesend—upstate, in Manhattan, in other neighborhoods—but it’s still and always about people made and shaped by that specific place. The people are the place. My characters are stuck there, for the most part, except for Alessandra, who’s just returned after living in L.A. for years. A lot of how I feel about the neighborhood—how I fall into old struggles and fall victim to old sadnesses when I’m back there—went into her character.
MPS: It is a very cause and effect book with actions of one characters defining the fate of another. How much was mapped out before you wrote?
WB: I knew two of the principles, Conway and Ray Boy, and I knew the conflict there—Ray Boy responsible for Conway’s brother’s death and fresh out of jail, Conway wanting revenge—but the rest unfolded as I wrote it. Alessandra and Eugene just sort of showed up. I had a sense of their fates almost immediately because that’s written into their blood—Alessandra there as a witness, Eugene clearly doomed. I like writing that way because I think it makes things more unpredictable. I correct course a lot. The novel takes place over a short stretch of time. I had a big whiteboard where I kept track of where everyone was, what day it was, stuff like that. For the most part, though, things just kind of rolled out.
MPS: The novel and your short story collection, Death Don’t Have No Mercy, look at folks on the bottom rung. What pulls you to that part of society as an author?
WB: I like characters on the margins. I like neighborhoods, like mine in Brooklyn and my wife’s in The Bronx, that are near the end of the line, where people are so close to everything and yet so removed from it. I’m more drawn to failure than success. I want to understand how people live with dead dreams, how they survive in the face of bad odds, how luck rotates away from them. I’m preoccupied with how fucked up people behave in times of crisis.
MPS: Do you have a preference between short stories and novels?
WB: As both a reader and writer, I prefer novels. I love short stories too—and many of my favorite books are story collections—but I mostly read novels and that’s mostly what I’ll write going forward. I especially love short(ish) novels. Simenon, Manchette, Garnier, writers like that—160-240 pages is a real sweet spot for me.
MPS: I know you’re a fan of crime movies from the ‘70s. What influence have those films made on your writing?
WB: Everything I write is shaped by my favorite ‘70s movies, I’d say. They teach us as readers and watchers that character doesn’t have to be sacrificed in the name of plot. Cassavetes and Altman are my greatest heroes. The French Connection was huge for me, the big chase being shot in my neighborhood. I grew up with that mythos in the air. Every time I walked under the El, I felt lit up because of that chase. Of course, I love The Godfather I and II, Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Dog Day Afternoon, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Straight Time, Prime Cut, Serpico, The Getaway, Sorcerer, many more. There was so much room for weirdness in these movies. The energy’s so different. Everything I learned about atmosphere and balance I learned from ‘70s crime movies. It’s the perfect combination of how the movies were shot and how places looked then. Cars were better, buildings, graffiti. Everything’s so gritty and raw and alive.
MPS: What can you tell us about your short story in Mississippi Noir?
WB: I’ve lived in Mississippi for seven years now. I didn’t know if I’d ever write a story set here, but then I found a way in. Holly Springs, where my wife worked the first few years we were here and where I’ve spent a lot of time, fired up my imagination. My story takes place there. It also, for the most part, deals with Northerners in the South. Holly Springs is a weird and beautiful place. You can feel the ghosts of savagery. It’s a divided town, an eccentric town, in some ways it feels like it’s stuck in the ‘70s. There’s a wildcard feeling in the air, like anything can go wrong any time—that’s such a key feeling in noir, and I wanted to tap into it.
Come by BookPeople Tuesday, August 2nd, at 7 PM, for a panel discussion on “New Voices of Noir.” Joining us for the panel discussion are crime writers William Boyle, Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin, and Bill Loehfelm. You can find copies of Gravesend on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.