Wednesday, May 15, 2019



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 A Friend 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 survive.

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 The Sopranos 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 approach?
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 started?
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 were they?
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 when The Shield got a shout out, a real overlooked classic from the Golden Age (a rival to The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, I think). I’m not sure there’s much around right now that will rival those. I loved Rectify, 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 again. 

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.

As 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.
Ha—not at all. I meant the Bill the Bereaved thing to be funny! Sounds good. Thanks again.

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