The novels of the Oxford-based, Brooklyn-born author William Boyle are replete with dire circumstances, gallows humor and instantly iconic characters. An unapologetic disciple of the noir masters of the past, his work invokes both the mind-bending moral dilemmas of James M. Cain and the elegantly rendered cheap thrills of Elmore Leonard. Like George Pelecanos (an influence on and vocal supporter of Boyle’s work), he is also a meticulous chronicler of process. Whether detailing the minute-to-minute thoughts behind a character’s ill-advised criminal gambit or the ways in which baffled institutions like law enforcement and the church tend to fail their communities, Boyle drills down and makes the details so credible and lived-in it can be easy to forget you are reading fiction at all. On the occasion of the recent reissue of his 2014 corker of a crime novel Gravesend, I spoke to the author about his background and influences, his approach to rendering his own characters, and audience expectations for a happy ending. Spoiler alert: This interview references certain outcomes for individual characters, so if you’re planning to read the book (and you should), please stop here until you’ve finished.
The Millions: One of the terrific things in Gravesend is the manner in which you really capture the provincial feel of a small Brooklyn neighborhood set within the great gulf of the city at large. I’m wondering how you were able to gain such a precise mastery of that dialect. I believe you are a New Yorker of partially Italian extraction, as am I. My grandparents were very working-class Brooklynites, and I recognized so much of their manner of speaking in these characters. Is this something you were able to conjure from experience or did you have to do some research around it?
William Boyle: I am—I grew up in Southern Brooklyn with the Italian-American side of my family (my dad is off-the-boat Scottish but was out of the picture early). I used to tape my grandparents, my mom and stepdad, and other family members and friends who came around—I’d put a cassette in and just record them talking for 90 minutes and then I’d transcribe what they said. I was a kid when I started doing this, maybe 10 or11, and I did it for a few years at least. At the time, I was thinking it was a shortcut, that I could just transcribe their dialogue and call it a play. I thought my family was funny. I thought there was real drama involved in just listening to them as they sat on the front porch or at the kitchen table and talked shit about people on the block. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was training my ear. I was getting good at duplicating their speech patterns on the page in an effective way, one that didn’t really rely on tricks. That—along with studying masters of dialogue like George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard—really gave me a sense how to get these voices right. So it was something I conjured from experience, a blend of myth and reality.
TM: To me, on a certain level, the character of Eugene is a sort of garden-variety reprobate—just a nasty, dumb, brutish kid. On the other hand, as exemplified by the rather extraordinary passage where you devote three consecutive pages to enumerating the seemingly endless litany of things he hates in his life, he seems to be clearly untreated for something like clinical depression. I wonder how you see him? Did you conceive him as more of a bad seed or as a victim of institutions that fail to identify him as profoundly troubled before it’s too late?
WB: I saw him, above all, as a tragic character. I think morality in the book is pretty ambiguous, and I like to believe that there’s no message I’m trying to get across when writing a character like Eugene. That said, he’s an example of how consequences spread out and he’s at that age where it’s all posturing. I never saw him as a one-dimensional bad seed—he’s a doomed figure, a kid who’s lost in the world, who has some twisted sense of nostalgia for a time when he believes he could’ve run the table like his uncle once did, and that’s just sad as hell.
TM: Along those lines, there is a strain of very traditional, sort of pre-Vatican II-style Catholicism which runs throughout the novel and which has dire implications for certain characters both implicitly and explicitly. I was raised Catholic, and though I luckily didn’t experience the faith in that destructive manner, I feel like I’ve witnessed that sort of thing around me. Were you raised Catholic and did you attend Catholic school? If so, what was your experience of that and has it informed your adult life?
WB: Yep, I was raised Catholic. Twelve years of Catholic school. Church on Saturdays at five. Had a particularly devout stretch in high school where I went to church daily. I strayed from it in college and then had another devout stretch in my 20s and then lost the thread in a more significant way. I consider myself Catholic-haunted these days. I think I’ve had a pretty destructive relationship with the organization of the church, but there’s just so much stuff that’s shaped who I am and how I think: the mystics, especially St. John of the Cross; Dorothy Day; Thomas Merton; Flannery O’Connor; Graham Greene; Robert Bresson’s films; Virgin Mary statues in front yards in my neighborhood; the stained-glass windows at my childhood church. Shame and guilt and doubt totally drive my existence—that’s pretty goddamn Catholic. And I think I have a very Catholic sense of reflection and redemption. I’m also particularly interested in the places where noir and Catholicism intersect, which are plentiful—those haunted dark corners, good people doing bad things, bad people doing good things, that kind of stuff. I think the characters in Gravesend are trapped by the ways they were raised, and there’s no escaping that. They’re hemmed in by narrowness, unfulfilled, in the throes of a crisis that they don’t know how to name. But at its roots, that crisis is ultimately spiritual, and it’s their experience in the church that’s held them back.
TM: Duncan D’Innocenzo is dead many years before the beginning of the narrative, and yet he feels very present. Above and beyond the fact that his murder is the animating circumstance for the action which unfolds, you convey a deep sense of who his character was through the recollections of others and lingering presence of his belongings. I am curious about the challenges of rendering a character that exists only as a sort of collective memory. How thoroughly fleshed out was he in your mind? Did you ever write dialogue for him as a means to getting to understand him, even though it wouldn’t fit in the story proper?
WB: My original idea for the book was to alternate between 2010 and 1994. In that version, Duncan would’ve been the main POV character in 1994. I scrapped that idea pretty early, probably only wrote a few pages, but I thought a lot about Duncan and who he was and what he loved. He’s an outsider, a sort of saint, a kid who the neighborhood kills. There’s a little of me in Duncan but also some other kids I knew. He’s a much different kind of tragic figure from Eugene but still, above all, tragic. If he could’ve gotten out, escaped, made it to college, he would’ve been good, I think. I don’t remember actually writing any dialogue for him, but I certainly imagined some; I remember playing out scenes between him and Conway in my mind, scenes where Duncan would be instructing Conway on what to listen to and what to read.
TM: One theme of the book seems to be the chasm between how people imagine acts of violence and revenge will take place and the more horrifyingly banal reality. Many of the characters imagine themselves playing out scenarios they’ve seen with film or television characters, and they seem to believe that things will unfold by a sort of script. By the time they have realized that the reality is very different, it’s too late to avoid. Was there something that interested you particularly about the gap between the mediated fantasy of violence and the actual perpetrating of it?
WB: I remember being in high school, just kind of getting my footing as a writer, and thinking that I’d never be able to write about cracking safes or police work or anything that I planned on having no experience with. It was very freeing when I started to realize how easy it is to write about screw-ups, amateurs, people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing. And I think, really, that most people who commit violent acts are stupid about it, or have only the movie version of what violence is like in mind without thinking through the repercussions. It’s also an interesting way of blending myth and reality. And it’s perfect for noir, which is all about bad decisions. You have the dream of the thing, which turns out to be totally misguided, and then you have to deal with the blowback, which is very real. My characters don’t know about guns. They don’t know about planning effectively. They have some long shot idea of what they might desire; that’s it.
TM: As I was reading Gravesend I was reminded of an interview David Simon gave many years ago where he describes the discomfort modern audiences feel with storytelling in the mode of Greek tragedy, where characters are frequently subsumed by the exertion of large forces beyond their control. It strikes me that the argument could be made that this applies to several characters in Gravesend. Was that in any way a consideration of yours while you were writing the book: the distinction between that which is within one’s control and that which is an inextricable consequence of where, when, and to whom you are born?
WB: That’s true. I think one of the things that makes people uncomfortable with this kind of storytelling is that doom is in the cards. Audiences can’t reconcile that with what they think of as their right to be entertained, their right to a happy ending. It also gives audiences this overwhelming sense of despair, forcing them to consider the possibility of a meaningless existence. I was definitely thinking of that when I wrote Gravesend: how we pay for the sins of the past, how there are certain things we can’t escape no matter how hard we try. It’s true of Eugene, Conway, and Ray Boy. We know what their ends will be; the joy of tragedy is the descent in getting there.