Book reviews and interviews, hosted by Stephen Uzzell, author of I AM JUDEN.
Wednesday, May 15, 2019
INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM BOYLE, AUTHOR OF A FRIEND IS A GIFT YOU GIVE YOURSELF
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR WILLIAM BOYLE
I love A Friend Is a Gift You Give
Yourself because it rescued me from a Book Drought, a terrifying, barren
stretch of unsatisfying reading that made me question my entire relationship
with the written word. Then I saw William Boyle had a new release out. Finally,
here was a novel that careened off the page from Mo's first letter, with action
that never let up, told by a cast of fresh and vibrant characters that I wanted
to hang out with all day long. Even though they'd probably get me in a shit
load of trouble.A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself is pitched as Goodfellas meets Thelma and Louise,
which is a pretty perfect fit. I'd add The Sopranos meets Bonnie and
Clyde, with a touch of The Golden Girls.
Here's my conversation with its author, Mr William Boyle.
William/Will/Billy/Bill...lot of options...
What should I call you?
I publish as William but most folks
call me Bill.
After reading your novels, I think you should have a mob style nickname like
one of your characters.... Bill the What?
Ha. Will have to think on that.
In that case I'll come back to it in a
few days! I've just finished A Friend
and can't stop thinking about it. What a beautiful, sad, funny, wise, bloody,
miracle of a book. You do something extraordinary here. Wow—thank you so much. Can’t tell you
how much I appreciate that.
I feel very excited and energised. The
last book that made me feel this was Jordan Harper's She Rides Shotgun (published in the UK as Lessons in Violence). Did you read that? Means a lot. I did read She Rides Shotgun. Great book. Felt the
same about it.
What struck me about AFriend
is how you come at the mob story from such a fresh angle. Obliquely. Almost
from the sidelines. It is a mob story but it's also the story of a
multigenerational 'family' of women coming together, mostly, to escape from the
shadow of men. What was the genesis of the idea? A neighbour told me and my mother a
story about being invited over to our other neighbour’s house on the corner—he
was a skeezy old man a lot like Enzio. When she got over there, he put on a
porn movie. She left immediately, rushing home. The apartment she lived in was
the same one I'd grown up in—It was where the gangster Gaspipe Casso lived for
years before my mother and I lived there in the late ’70s and early ’80s. That
connection made me want to write Rena as a mob widow. With Wolfstein, I just
started imagining an alternate life for a golden age adult film star who was
the complete opposite of Rena in so many ways, who had found different ways to
And yet they are linked, tangentially,
by pornography. The woman who takes control of Rena after her indiscretion with
the ashtray is a 1970s version of the adult movie stars that Enzio tried to
'woo' her with. Is that an - ahem - happy accident? You know, at first, it actually was a weird
accident. Of course, that connection pretty quickly occurred to me and I loved
the way it resonated.
Me too. When you get that cosmic
reverberation, that’s when you know you’ve done something right. To a British
crime fan reared on Goodfellas and The Sopranos it can seem that every
other neighbourhood in Manhattan or Brooklyn has its own little Italian social
club with men in shiny tracksuits sipping espresso and eating sfogliatella. I’m
sure that’s not the case. But it sounds like you did grow up in the shadow of
gangsters to some extent? I grew up on the border of three neighbourhoods
in Southern Brooklyn: Bensonhurst, Gravesend, and Bath Beach. When I was a kid
in the '80s and '90s, that part of Brooklyn—especially Bensonhurst—was the
heart of that. One of those little Italian social clubs was right across the
street from my apartment. Everything was pork stores and pizzerias and
bakeries. Despite my last name (my old man was off-the-boat Scottish), I grew
up with my mother and her side of the family—the Gianninis. I had an early
fascination with the mob that started with the whispered legends—who was
connected, famous hits, places where those guys might hang out, anything and
everything. And a big way of connecting to movies and shows like Goodfellas and TheSopranos was through
family and food. I didn't know any actual gangsters, but I heard the stories, I
read the books, I watched the movies. Growing up in an apartment where a guy
like Gaspipe Casso used to live does something to you, I guess.
It sounds like you could have been a Scottish Henry Hill at one point.
Instead of hanging out with the gangsters, you became an author who sometimes
writes about them. Much safer that way. "One dog goes one way and the
other dog goes the other way." So a lot of inspiration for your characters
comes from what you see/saw around you. But how do you go about bringing these
people to life on the page? A Friend
is bursting with a memorable, vividly drawn cast who sound so completely
authentic. A lot of writers struggle with characterisation. What's your
Ha—yeah, that sounds about right. And
thanks for the good words. As with everything, I guess I just think about the
books and movies I love, the ones where every character—even the most minor one—really
matters. You can meet someone in a bar for a page, but there's a whole story
there under the surface—I love that. A lot of the people I write are based in
some way on people I've known, that's true, but I also love making stuff up,
inventing lives, exploring lost futures and haunted pasts. I love to let
characters just start talking. I love to hear their regrets. I don't really
have a formula. I just want every character to be someone you didn't quite
expect them to be.
I think that's such a wonderfully
organic approach. And it explains what it is I love so much about your books.
Elmore Leonard always used to say he wasn't sure what his books would be about
until the characters told him... Is that the same with you? How much of A Friend was planned out when you
Definitely. Very little was planned. I
had the opening scene, and I knew Rena and Wolfie would cross paths. I figured
out a good amount of stuff in the first draft, but way more in later drafts.
Richie and Enzio weren’t POV characters until the third or fourth draft. Lucia
was originally much younger. There were also other characters who got cut out.
The way Wolfstein looks after the
various women who come crashing into her life made me think of my favourite
Woody Allen film,Broadway
Danny Rose, another Screwball Noir. I love the last scene where he's
serving Thanksgiving dinners to his acts in his pokey little apartment. Do you
see your characters as forming this kind of surrogate family? Also my favourite film of his. I do.
But I think it took me a little while to realize that. The last ninety pages or
so was added after I finished what I thought was the final draft—I realized
that the last movement had to be about the forming of this sort of family.
Rena's interesting. I'm a little bit ambivalent about her braining Enzio
with an ashtray at the start, but that might be because I thought Enzio was
such a funny (and pathetic) character. The ashtray seemed harsh. There's also
her lifetime of denial and hypocrisy over being married to 'Gentle' Vic. How do
you see her?
She’s hard, complicated. I like,
ultimately, that she’s not that likable. She’s detached. She’s lived for other
people. She doesn’t even like music. She’s got a martyr complex. And, yet, I
think she’s the heart of the book. I often wonder what she’s up to these days;
I think this was the beginning of things getting really good for her.
The book is dedicated to your
grandparents, who you hope ‘would get a kick out of it’. What kind of people
They were my favourite people in the
world. My grandfather was a complainer and a genius fix-it-all guy. He gave
everyone nicknames. He was a mechanic at a Chevy shop and used to drive a
coffee truck. He liked B-movies, Benny Hill, Mr. Bean, and Mr. Rogers. My
grandmother was the kindest and sweetest person. I loved watching movies and
playing cards with her. She was a great cook and just had the brightest
personality you could imagine. She had a killer smile. Every friend I brought
home fell in love with her.
What do you find the hardest challenge
when writing novels? Are there parts of it that still drive you mad? I guess the most frustrating thing is
that I don’t necessarily know what the challenges are until they blindside me.
Especially now that I’ve written a few, I feel like I go in with a little more
confidence, but I’m always surprised when I get tangled in some net or other.
There are definitely parts of the revision process that drive me mad.
I stopped reading and cheered whenThe Shieldgot a
shout out, a real overlooked classic from the Golden Age (a rival to TheSopranos,Deadwood,The Wire, I think). I’m not sure there’s much
around right now that will rival those. I lovedRectify, but
that’s ended. What’s exciting you at the moment on TV? Totally agree. Not enough people talk
about The Shield. Rectify is such a masterpiece—that’s definitely
one of my favourites from this decade. Twin Peaks: The Return was just
incredible, and I feel like it kind of ruined TV for me—I haven’t watched many
shows since. I did love Russian Doll, and right now I’m a few episodes
into Dead to Me with Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate and
enjoying the hell out of it. Barry is terrific—probably the only show I
look forward to week-to-week. I’ve been rewatching Deadwood for the
third or fourth time in preparation for the movie, and I’m blown away all over
Finally, you seem entirely comfortable
within the pulp/crime genre, which I love above all others. Do you have any
desire to write outside it? If so, where might that lead? I’m entirely comfortable being called a
pulp/crime writer—that’s what I’ve always aspired to—but I don’t feel boxed in
by it. I love stuff that isn’t afraid to go all over the place. Twin Peaks:
The Return is a great example of that: it’s horror one minute, crime the
next, with a little slapstick mixed in there and a whole big dose of the weird.
I’ve written one novel (Everything is Broken, only published in France)
that’s got no crime; it’s more of a character study. I love ’70s movies for
that reason too—so many of my favourites feel tonally like crime movies, but
they’re really just character sketches.
Thank you so much. It has been such an
honour to chat with you. Two last things... Why is that book only published in
France? And what's the mob nickname?!? I told you we'd come back to it... Oh, absolutely! Thanks so much for
doing this! Been damn great talking to you. My first book, Gravesend, was released with a small indie press in the US
initially. A couple of years later, it came out in France, where it was chosen
to be the 1,000th release in the Rivages/noir collection by François Guérif.
So, before I had an agent or anything here, my second book—this short novel, Everything is Broken—was published only
in France. It's finally coming out here this year, published in four
installments in the Southwest Review.
for a nickname, it's tough. The best ones—Bill the Butcher and Billy Balls—are
taken. It's easier to do something with Billy, but I'm not a big fan of being
called Billy since that's what my no-good old man went by. I feel like if I was
in the mob, the guys would always be commenting on how down in the dumps I was,
how goddamn pessimistic I was about everything, how I seemed like someone I
loved had just kicked the bucket. So, how about we go with Bill the Bereaved.
Sorry to end on a downer! I'll catch up
with you again on the next book. Hopefully you'll have cheered up by then.
at all. I meant the Bill the Bereaved thing to be funny! Sounds good. Thanks