Around the time Charles Bock’s first novel emerged in 2008, life looked pretty great. Beautiful Children, a novel of youth and Las Vegas, was released to great fanfare, including a rave review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Charles and I had become friends during our time as residents at the Vermont Studio Center; I had the privilege of seeing very early drafts of Beautiful Children and beholding its evolution over the course of 10 years. To writers like myself, Beautiful Children was a bright example of what a writer’s perseverance could achieve. Charles was married to Diana Colbert; they were happy and in love, and they soon had a doted-upon baby girl. For a while the most obvious challenge he faced was how to follow up Beautiful Children.
Then one day Diana wasn’t feeling well, and thinking it was a bug, she went to the doctor. Within hours their lives were upended. Diana was diagnosed with leukemia. Chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, and insurance battles followed. Two years after her diagnosis, Diana passed away, their daughter just shy of three.
What does a writer do when confronted with such wrenching tragedy? When the writer is Charles Bock, he writes a book. Alice & Oliver embraces both the pain of loss and the reality that life chugs forward even when the worst has happened. While Bock speaks openly about the fact that Alice & Oliver is rooted in his own experience, he is nonetheless a writer preoccupied with style and language and the function of narrative — Bock is “good with structure,” as Garth Risk Hallberg wrote here in 2008; the result of his efforts here is not exactly an autobiographical novel.
I corresponded with Bock via email about the writing of Alice & Oliver and how the book and his personal life have been woven together.
The Millions: Charles, let’s assume that any reader who makes it past the front cover of Alice & Oliver knows your story, and knows that this novel was inspired by events from your life: your first wife, Diana, receiving her cancer diagnosis when your daughter was an infant, and the horror of losing her so early in your lives together and with a young child. Alice & Oliver was a book you obviously needed to write. What would have happened if you hadn’t written this book?
Charles Bock: It’s an interesting hypothetical. Let’s go with the assumption that I would have written some other book, or had some other writing project. My guess is that all the emotions would have been channeled and translated into whatever other project I was working on. Now, how that might have worked out, I can’t say. We’ve both taught students, or known talented writers, who might not have been working on the right thing. The student whose escape from his/her homeland and childhood memories are obviously the story for her to write, but who can’t take it on just yet and is writing a coming-of-age romance. With any luck, a writer does connect with that internal imperative, the thing they must work on. George Saunders’s short stories being an example in that no matter how fantastic the world he creates, or how bizarre the terrain might be, certain ideas about selflessness get through. So even if I had been writing some kind of caper novel about art forgery in the 1800s, my guess is that all the larger emotions and ideas — love, selflessness, care-giving, generosity — that dominate Alice & Oliver would have seeped through. Fairly early on during Diana’s illness, I knew I had to write about it. So this never really came up.
TM: Diana was a truly lovely person. The first time I met her, not five minutes had gone by before I thought to myself, “Charles is very lucky.” And I remember when I learned of her diagnosis, and especially considering you two had such a young child, my reaction to her diagnosis was that it seemed shockingly unfair. “This is not fair” is something one of your characters utters, while drinking with Oliver early in the book, but the novel manages not to dwell on the unfairness of Alice’s cancer. How did your characters manage to so gracefully avoid feeling stuck in the unfairness of their situation? How might knowing them help readers get through similar situations?
CB: The thing, of course, is that it all is unfair. In terms of real life events, I was angry, I did wallow, quite a bit. I put up the best front I could, but of course my anger and fear came out in all sorts of ways. The truth is, we were all under ungodly amounts of stress. I fought a ton with hospitals and doctors, new-age types who wanted to help, and even could get into it with random people who might look at me on the street. For long stretches in the years afterwards, I had weird mood swings. In the middle of teaching my writing workshops, reading this or that emotive sentence out loud from a story could send me into tears. A lot has happened in the years since. But I’m still not over how unfair it is that Diana does not get to watch her daughter grow up, that her daughter does not get to know or remember her birth mother. Often, at bedtime my daughter will tell me that she misses her birth mommy, that it’s not fair. What can I do but answer, you are right, it’s not fair, you get to be unhappy about that, you have every right to be unhappy.
But that’s not all that we get to be. Her, me. Or the characters in the book.
Does yelling about how unfair it is help make anything fair? When you’re done acknowledging cosmic injustices, does self-pity solve one stupid thing? The facts on the ground are still the facts. Very early on in the novel, Oliver helps center his wife. He says something to the effect of, Let’s not worry about hypotheticals. Let’s focus on the tasks in front of us, the day ahead, we’re going to get through this thing, so what do we have to do right now to do that? Alice dabbles in Eastern ideas, which very much focus on the moment. Doing this helped prevent any wallowing from the characters. I didn’t want to have characters feeling sorry for themselves. Very early on I also made the conscious decision that I didn’t want an angry book. Characters could feel anger, but I didn’t want anger, or self-pity, or what have you, to derail plot, momentum, development, really anything. My goal was always the larger, better struggles. It is unfair, yes, so what do we do? What is there that we can do?
Once this turn gets made, then characters — or people — can start to concentrate on what truly matters: the moments we have, the people we care about.
TM: Beautiful Children, your first novel, took you a decade and eight drafts to complete. What did you learn from that experience that influenced the writing of your second novel?
CB: This is going to sound hokey, but it’s true anyway. I learned to trust in the experience of writing, the larger, long-term process. That dyad of trust and process just keeps appearing in the world, you know? Whether a person come to them through Eastern ideas of selflessness to the larger good, through a basketball coach screaming the main thing has to be the main thing, through the example of your parents showing up to work every day for 40 years to unlock their store and get to work, through the 12 steps of a recovery program, or the simple belief in your feelings for another person, all sorts of different roads lead to trust and to process, and these two things play a huge role in my writing. During a long-term project like writing a novel, you don’t necessarily need, at every moment, to have huge amounts of faith in the wide-angle vision of how that novel is going. You just need to take care of shit in that moment. Wash the food, eat the food, wash the bowl.
An example. While organizing the outline to Alice & Oliver, figuring out some signposts to guide my way, a truth became obvious: the back third of the book — which deals with the born marrow transplant and its difficulties — was going to be really emotionally difficult for me. Now, at whatever point — probably gradually but then all at once — I also realized that this rear section also was going to require a structural switch, one that, with any luck, would make the novel more dramatic and direct and even more intense. So, organization gets to a decent point; I’m starting to write; however good I think that rear section can be, there’s still no way in hell I’m put back together enough to take on writing through that bone marrow transplant, and all of its emotional complications. I didn’t have distance from Diana’s second transplant, let alone from her passing. But I also didn’t need to have it. I wasn’t going to write that part of the book anytime soon. Time was going to pass, I knew this. I knew its passage would provide me with a little protection. I also trusted that the aesthetic imperatives and character demands inside the book would grow as I worked, they’d come to occupy whatever place in my psyche. Certain immediate emotions or connections from real events were also going to recede, some, into my subconscious. It was unavoidable, just as my present life also was going to have its own immersive, daily demands. All this had to happen, I told myself as much, even if there was no way to be prepared for it.
It still was emotionally taxing. And I certainly wasn’t ready for how the experience would turn. Because time would work the other way as well. Looking at my notes for the transplant would still bring so much pain; but there would be a large part of me that needed to remember and wanted to be put through that wringer. The memories, no matter how hard, were still better than the forgetting, because forgetting wiped away the details, the love, the bad meals, the quarrels, the humor and tenderness, the true marrow of it all.
Being able to trust in the large process — over and over again, in different iterations (edits, rewrites, etc.), in so many areas of the novel — was hugely helpful. So I was indeed fortunate that I’d been through this during the 100 years and 50,000 drafts it took to get Beautiful Children done.
Honestly, I can’t imagine trying to write Alice & Oliver as a first novel, without the experience of the first book behind me.
TM: Readers who remember the Manhattan of a few decades ago are likely to experience a delightful nostalgia when reading Alice & Oliver. Tell me a little bit about the decision to set the novel in the Manhattan of the ’90s, and situating Alice and Oliver specifically in the Meatpacking District.
CB: It’s really gratifying that you say it was delightful to read, because that was a big part of what I wanted to do. Back during the ’80s, when I was a teenager in Vegas, I used to go to the local grocery store and read Spy magazine and Details and Andy Warhol’s Interview. Those gave me a vision of a certain kind of Manhattan, one where freaks and stockbrokers did lines together at Danceteria and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jay McInerney and Jama Tamowitz (not her name, should have been) commandeered the back table at Nell’s. I wasn’t part of that downtown scene, but it was fun to imagine Alice coming to the city back then and maybe on the scene’s margins. I ended up moving the novel back 15 or so years from real events, having it take place during the ’90s, specifically 1993 to 1994, in New York City. This is on the other side of the famed downtown ’80s scene, on the cusp of a new era, I think. The first Web browser is about to become commercially available. Forty Second Street is all porno and weirdness, but Disney is moving a store into Times Square.
It’s a time and place that in my mind is still close enough to reach back and touch, although honestly it’s not that close any more. There are organizational and macro reasons why putting the book in this period made sense to me — the change gave me some more distance from the real events of my life, which gave me more license and creative room with the characters, for instance. It also tied in with the book’s ending and the impermanence of time, its effect on all of us. Just for that reason, putting Alice and Oliver in an illegal loft in the Meatpacking District makes for a great backdrop. The Meatpacking District back then was a place where big slabs of meat actually got packed and shipped, Hogs & Heifers was just a shitty bar where the owner and his biker pals really did used to ride their Harleys around inside. Sex workers and after-hour clubs pretty much ruled the night. Now that district is gone, it’s the High Line and shopping and big glass towers. Manhattan itself has more than followed suit.
I wanted to have fun with the weird gritty absurdity of that period, but wanted to do it with the right touch, a backdrop tinted with that gorgeous patina of nostalgia, kind of the same way that nostalgia for a different version of the city suffuses Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Honestly, the nature of the project, a young mother with cancer, is naturally so emotional, my own personal connection and investment is so high. So I knew this was going to deal with the biggest ticket items. I wanted some breathing room, some joy — for me, for the characters, for the readers. Stuff that would hit pleasure notes. Simple things like references to early chat rooms and the nascent Web and the CD-ROM-loaded magazines that used to stuff mailboxes. By my thinking, they added to the book, helped to form this fascinating and fun backdrop. And so far, it’s been gratifying: early readers who happened to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn back then have always made sure to tell me about the references that hit them right — the crowd at Florent or the line for the Village Voice classifieds on Tuesday afternoon at Astor Place, or maybe inside references from college radio culture, like “Shut up, little man!” (Those who recognize the story behind the story get a thrill and a treat. If not, that’s fine, you’re in the story, all good).
I also got to do some cool and more serious things with that time frame. It’s right after the great ACT UP wars on AIDS, in the aftermath, and I wanted that in the novel. I also wanted to acknowledge the racial tension that Rudy Giuliani had used to get elected mayor (at the time he had a lot of support, New York magazine’s political coverage was pretty fawning for a while). It was a subtle way of getting in just how far we’d come in some ways, and how little progress we’d made in others.
TM: Well, as someone who lived in lower Manhattan in the ’90s, I smiled at so many of these references, and there was real pleasure in that. Structurally, you made an interesting choice to begin the novel more or less at the moment of Alice’s cancer diagnosis. It seemed there would be nowhere to go but down. But there was also the spunkiness of the characters as we get to know them, and that buoyed this reader throughout the reading of the book. Did it feel risky to begin the book at this point in the story?
CB: Yeah. It’s a gamble. But that’s fine. The diagnosis was such an odd an immersive experience, one second a woman’s feeling a bit under the weather and assuming she has a bug, the next she’s being told she has to be rushed to a hospital and admitted and tested for cancer. It’s impossible to believe. I made a connection to thriller page-turners and wondered if I could try to recreate that immersive rush, where a reader couldn’t put the book down. So it did begin the novel at a high point and a breakneck pace. But even as I was doing that, I kept thinking of the beautiful passage that starts The Known World, where Edward P. Jones describes the rain beginning and falling on the trees, and the character Moses’s reaction, and his grief about his wife. It doesn’t take place four pages in probably, and it’s so gorgeous that pretty much any reader has to be addicted and hooked. I just love that book and that passage. So hey, were there spaces in the early pages of chaos where I might have moments like that? Was it similarly possible to drop in the seeds and clues that would grow into character traits? The stakes are so high, the level of suspense is so high, that it seemed to me possible to create some bonds with the reader. Then I could expand on those bonds and have the book open up. If that happens, then like you said, all the character traits have been set and we’re ready to follow these characters, to expand their worlds some.
These are some of the formal questions of how you open a novel, how do you ask artistic questions and come up with strategies that can keep a person engaged. It’s not enough to write a pretty sentence, although, yes, we all love pretty sentences. I tell my students that there’s checkers, and there’s chess, and then there’s three-dimensional Star Wars chess. Why not play the game at the highest possible levels? That doesn’t mean bluster and showing off. Rather, it means connecting with the best possible way to tell your story. In Alice & Oliver the connection between the suspense of that diagnosis day and the idea of a thriller was the key, it was organic, and there was a logic to what could happen, how the book could expand, from there. Again, I don’t know that something being risky is a reason not to do it. It’s a reason to figure out the risks and to react the best you can.
TM: It’s almost impossible to discuss this book without focusing on events from your life. Do you kind of wish people like me would quit asking you personal questions?
CB: Let’s be honest, it’s really hard to get attention for a novel. You work years on it and then there’s a cycle of a week — a month if you are extremely lucky — when there’s any attention on it, and even then you start to worry that anyone who consumes those pieces is going to decide that the interview, feature, or review is enough, they know about that book, they don’t need to read it. So it creates a weird place. I’m very thankful that anyone is asking any questions about this book, and that it’s getting any interest. That itself is seen as a form of currency in this business. I also want to be professional and answer questions. In my case there’s a hugely personal aspect to this book, so it logically follows, who wouldn’t ask personal questions. I understand as much. Being asked personal questions is part of this gig. I also know it is up to me to decide how to respond. The fact is, I didn’t write a memoir, and the reasons for this are concrete. Still, I do want to answer you, and to charm, and entertain, and intrigue, and impress, enough that you — and readers — will be interested, will want to check out my book. So, what happens in response to a personal question, or at least what happens today: I write an answer that deconstructs and, essentially, deflects the question.
TM: In that case — one more personal question! Surrounding the release of Alice & Oliver, you’ve been rehashing your first marriage in a very public way. But you are recently remarried, and the experience of writing about one relationship while beginning another must be fraught. Can you talk about that?
CB: Two years after Diana passed away, I was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with the writer Leslie Jamison. I don’t know how or why she fell in love with me, let alone agreed to take on so much (grief, widower, five-year-old daughter), but she did. And every day I sacrifice a live goat in thanks. We’ve married, and she’s given my daughter an amazing maternal figure. My daughter calls her mommy (now she has two mommies, Mommy Diana in heaven and Mommy Leslie here). We all have the best time together, we’re building our family. I feel very lucky and very happy. We have a loving home. Leslie happens to be a genius and a superstar in her own right; if she walks into a room full of Nobel Prize winners, she’s still going to be the smartest person in the room. She’s also hugely generous and decent, and she helped immensely with this novel, reading and editing and chopping down various drafts. My feeling is that she and Diana have a ton in common, and would have gotten along tremendously well. And each woman is different, each relationship is different. More than once I’ve been asked about what it’s like writing about Diana while building a new, loving relationship. What I’ve found is that all I can do is to try and apply my appreciation for life and for the love I had, as well as lessons I learned during that time (mistakes I made, things I wish I could have done over, all of it) to my current day. So I do. But I also am in something new that has its own momentum and fun and energy and challenges as well. After Diana passed, I never would have guessed this could happen. But Leslie really helped put me back together and make me whole again. So every day I try to honor Diana’s memory and also to do right by Leslie. I try to be a good father, a good husband, a good friend, a good teacher and writer, doing good work. I’m lucky that I got to fall in love twice, with two amazing women. The fact is, time does move forward and there’s no choice about this. You do what you can.