Saturday, April 18, 2020

William Boyle

photo credit: Katie Farrell Boyle
photo credit: Katie Farrell Boyle
William Boyle is from Brooklyn, New York. His books include: Gravesend, which was nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France and shortlisted for the John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger in the UK; The Lonely Witness, which was nominated for the Hammett Prize and is nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière; and A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

Boyle's newest novel is City of Margins.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

In this case, I started with the title. I wrote down City of Margins in my notebook and I lived with the idea of what and how it might mean for a little while. It was the title that pulled me into the story.

I mostly write about the neighborhoods in Southern Brooklyn where I’m from, Gravesend and Bensonhurst, so I knew I’d start there, but something about that title opened up the idea of exploring the way all these different lives were connected. And something about the title dictated that it be set in the early 1990s—I think it was the end of an era, pre-internet, where a neighborhood, even in New York City, could feel so small, distant, removed.

I think there’s also a double action to the title that will hopefully draw readers in. These characters live their lives on the margins, but the story is also centered on coincidence and chance, how paths cross in unexpected ways, how the most interesting stuff is often scribbled in the margins.

What's in a name?

I have seven POV characters in this book, as well a host of minor characters. I’m most definitely drawn to the musicality of Italian names. I grew up with the Italian side of my family in a heavily Italian-American neighborhood. Many of the names I use come from kids I went to school with, people I know from the neighborhood, and—more and more often—the death notices at the funeral home where we held wakes for my grandparents and uncle. It usually only takes me a second of looking there to find some combination that really sings. Finding a name that clicks—like I did with Donnie Parascandolo, Ava Bifulco, Antonina Divino, et al—often brings the whole character into focus for me.

Occasionally, I also like to have a character’s name be a nod to some other work I admire. Mikey and Nick in City of Margins are an homage to one of my favorite films, Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky. And Mikey’s last name is Baldini—a play on John Fante’s Arturo Bandini.

My love of naming definitely comes from my grandfather, who was a compulsive nicknamer. As a boy, I was obsessed with the names he gave people, the stories he told about them. So, there’s a good amount of that in the book, too. Characters like Johnny Christmas Lights, mentioned only in passing, for instance—that’s a name that can tell you everything you need to know.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

An interesting question especially in light of the fact that the novel is set in the early 1990s when I was in high school. I was really scrounging through my high school memories of the neighborhood and people I knew as I worked on the book.

I think, on some level, my teenage reader self wouldn’t be surprised at all because a lot of the seeds of what I wanted to accomplish were planted back then. On the other hand, I think he’d be very surprised by the level of world-weariness that comes with age. This is a novel I could have only written now—having more fully experienced love and loss, pain and dread, having seen the ways that lives crash together.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Both beginnings and endings are about momentum to me. I like starting in the middle of a scene, so there’s automatic tension. We’re meeting characters as they talk, there’s some immediate conflict, we’re pushing forward. If I’m not doing that at the beginning, I’m struggling. I didn’t know anything when I started City of Margins. I had Donnie talking and then I painted from the edges out.

I’ve had lots of different experiences with endings. When the momentum is there, it can feel like everything’s going right. That’s the best case scenario. Other times the struggle is about figuring out which moment to end on, which line, what will really linger. The ending of City of Margins, a three-part epilogue set sixteen months after the main action of the book, rolled out pretty smoothly because the momentum was there, the tone was right, and things just sort of fell into place.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Some more than others, to be sure. In this book, I put a lot of myself into Mikey and Antonina, the youngest characters. Like I said, I was in high school during the time the book is set, so a lot of my impressions of the neighborhood and the world found my way into their interior lives.

But I think there are elements of other characters that stem from me, too. I’m the same age now as the character Donna Rotante is in the book—she feels like something of a kindred spirit. In an early draft, dirty ex-cop Donnie was merely a monster. I had to let myself feel something for him to have him function more effectively, and part of that was about feeling like he was part of me somehow.

I also think—well, I hope—that the book is full of the sort of dark humor I love.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Oh, so many. Film is huge for me, obviously. A few films that influenced this book are John Sayles’s City of Hope, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, and Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me. I was inspired by these films in a variety of ways—character, place, structure, dialogue, blending of genres, the ensemble element.

Music is tremendously important to me, too. It’s very present in the narrative. Characters listen to records, to mixtapes, to car radios. It’s as present in their lives as it is in mine. I’ve often said I want my books to sound like an album. With City of Margins, I was thinking a lot about the sound of albums like Ghost Writer by Garland Jeffreys, New York by Lou Reed, Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen, and Catholic Boy by the Jim Carroll Band. Also, the song “Paths That Cross” by Patti Smith. I wanted some approximation of that sound for this world.

I also get really inspired by photos and paintings. I was looking at Donato Di Camillo’s pictures a lot at the time I was working on City of Margins. Another example in the same vein: I can just stare at a painting like Nigel Van Wieck’s Q Train and a whole world of possibility opens up to me.
Visit William Boyle's website.

The Page 69 Test: City of Margins.

My Book, The Movie: City of Margins.

--Marshal Zeringue