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.