In William Boyle’s debut novel, Gravesend, Ray Boy Calabrese has just been released from prison after serving sixteen years for his part in the death of Duncan D’Innocenzio. Duncan’s brother, Conway, is stuck in the past and set on revenge, but isn’t sure he has it in him to murder Ray Boy. Two other major players in this Brooklyn drama are Alessandra, a failed actress who has just returned home from LA to take care of her widowed father, and Eugene, Ray Boy’s 15-year-old nephew, who is set on following in his uncle’s criminal footsteps.
The neighborhood is at the center of this novel, and Boyle really captures life in the New York boroughs, the weird mix of urban poverty and gritty small-townness. The novel opens at a firing range in a warehouse next to an abandoned textile company: “From the outside it looked like the kind of place where snuff movies got made.” Alessandra gives the reader a glimpse of the bars in the neighborhood as she contemplates going out for a drink: “A dive called The Wrong Number with graffiti on the sign. And Ralphie’s, a clammy sports bar full of fat cops and smooth Italian boys stinking of cologne.” I grew up near the Little Italy section of The Bronx, a place that’s similar to Gravesend, and man did Boyle nail the language and the descriptions.
I went to college and grad school with Bill, and I was thrilled to read his novel. We were in lots of creative writing classes together, and I always admired his work. Everyone did, really. One of our creative writing professors called him James Joyce, and he was serious: Bill is that good. Sometimes when people are talented, they can be real douche bags. Bill’s not like that. He’s kind and soft-spoken, humble. I contacted him after reading Gravesend, and he graciously agreed to do a Q and A with me. Check out our conversation below:
Irene: I noticed on your Goodreads profile that you’ve read 640 books. What’s the relationship between reading and writing, and what role has reading played in your own development as an author?
William: I don’t know how many books I’ve read – that’s a funny number but I guess I decided to rate those, which probably means those are books that I like or love. I wish I had something new to say on this question, but I don’t. You’ve got to read to write. If I have a stretch where I’m busy at work and I’m not getting that much reading done, I feel like shit; I feel that way because I’m probably not getting any writing done either. For me, it’s all one thing: you’ve got to read good books constantly, watch good movies constantly, listen to good music. I’m reading Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time right now, and I can barely keep it in my hands, it’s so damn good. I keep having to put it down because it’s making me need to write. The best books do that. I’ve loved reading forever. I didn’t like assigned reading until high school but before that, in junior high, I was reading books by Stephen King and Elmore Leonard when I should’ve been focusing on math and Spanish or whatever. I’ve grown as a writer as I’ve grown as a reader, for sure. Works open themselves up to you over time and that’s important – you start to see different things, to be influenced by different things.
Irene: How does the non-fiction you write like book reviews and your blog at Goodbye Like a Bullet relate to your fiction-writing?
William: One of my favorite writers, Willy Vlautin, said this in a recent interview with my pal Jimmy: “I tend to try to write as a fan. I’m a firm believer in being a fan of things. I try to write with blood, you know, with the things that haunt me the most.” That’s what the reviews and the blog are about for me, just being a fan. I think spreading the word on stuff I love is really important and that’s why I do it. It can be draining sometimes, it can take away from fiction-writing time, but it’s important because I don’t want to stop being a fan. Aside from that, it has a practical application. When you start breaking down a thing to its parts – a book, a ‘70s crime movie, whatever – you start to really understand how it’s built. And, obviously, that’s crucial.
Irene: What advice do you have for people who want to be able to write as well as you do?
William: Oh man, that’s so nice of you to say – thanks! I like that Willy Vlautin advice a lot. Never stop being a fan.
Irene: What’s your typical writing routine? Do you write for a certain amount of time every day, or are you more erratic?
William: I write when I can. Right now I’m teaching five classes, working part-time at a record store, and doing freelance work. I’m working on a new novel, which means to get any work done I have to wake up at five and try to get two hours in before my son wakes up and then I try to hang out with him and my wife for a little while before heading to school. Unless there’s bad weather, I walk to school and I do my best thinking and planning while I walk, so I make a lot of notes in my notebook and/or on my phone and often try to write that stuff down, if I can, between classes. I don’t usually write at night but I will if a scene is burning in me. I get some writing done at the record store when I’m not helping people or totally lost in listening to records. I wish I could write for eight hour stretches uninterrupted but it’s not going to happen right now and I’m not sure it would be better for me anyway. I seem to do my best work under pressure like this.
Irene: There were a ton of things I admired about your novel, Gravesend, but one thing I really admired was your ability to create and sustain tension. There were literally no parts of this book where I was zoning out, and by the last 25% or so, I was pretty much unwilling to put the book down. Were you conscious of creating tension? How did you do it?
William: Thanks so much! I was. I really tried hard with that. I studied the openings of novels I admire, like George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle, and I wanted that kind of movement and tension. I think switching POVs – for me at least – was key to sustaining tension in Gravesend. And always moving forward is really important – While the characters do dwell on the past, there are no flashbacks, no weird time shifts. When you set a book over a few days, there’s some automatic tension built in.
I’m also really interested in making tension where people expect there to be none. Willy Vlautin does that really well. There’s a scene in his new novel, The Free, where this nurse, Pauline, is trying to open a door while she balances a plate of cake on a cup of coffee. It’s tense as hell. So that tension’s available everywhere. It doesn’t just have to be guns and chases. It could be your grandmother with a broken hip, learning to walk again.
Irene: That’s really insightful. I think I do tend to always associate tension with car chases and shooting scenes, but you’re right–some of those everyday moments can also be tense as hell.
How did Gravesend come into existence? Did one of the characters speak to you? Did this come out of a reflection on Brooklyn?
William: I wrote it for my MFA thesis. I worked on getting the first chapter right for months. The book was originally going to be about Conway and Ray Boy in the present and tell Duncan’s story in the past. That idea went down the drain pretty fast. Alessandra showed up and the book became hers in a way – I mean, it’s about the neighborhood first, and the neighborhood’s impact on these characters, but she’s the one it all revolves around. And Eugene was an important addition – fucked up as he is, he was fun to write. I wrote it quickly once Alessandra and Eugene got to the table. I guess I’m always reflecting on Brooklyn. I’m always going back to my neighborhood and seeing it through new eyes.
Irene: Eugene was fun to read, fucked up as he was! He kept surprising me. And Alessandra’s voice really hooked me. I felt like I could read her thoughts and reflections on the neighborhood, and life in general, forever and never get bored.
I saw traces of lots of literary influences in this novel. Could you tell me about your biggest literary influences and what role they played in the writing of Gravesend?
William: Oh man, so many. I’ll forget something and regret it. Elmore Leonard is a big one. I started reading his books when I was twelve or thirteen. He shaped my love of dialogue and made me see how I wanted everything I ever write to move. James Ellroy was a big early influence. So were Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, Tim O’Brien, and Jim Thompson. William Kennedy’s Ironweed shook me to my core. I love Hemingway and Carver, Mamet and Tarantino. I love anything by Willy Vlautin. Richard Yates is at the top for me. The influence of Richard Price and George Pelecanos, two of my favorite writers, is pretty obvious in Gravesend – I had to heavily revise my first draft, or at least parts of it, because the writing was, as my friend Alex said, “way too Pricey.” I was reading Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything while working on the first draft – Megan’s also one of my favorites and I think her influence shows up in the language. I reread Mary Miller’s Big World twice while writing and revising. What a beautiful book. I hope its influence shows up in some ways. Larry Brown is a hero of mine; I thought about Father and Son a lot as I planned Gravesend. I’d taken a class on Joyce and reread Ulysses, so that definitely had a big impact on what I was doing in terms of it being a city book. I love David Goodis and John Fante and James Sallis and Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews – I was revisiting their stuff for inspiration. I had a whole reading list that informed what I did in some way. I’m trying to remember other books that were on it. Jesus Saves by Darcey Steinke, that was one. I said earlier how important The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins was and is to me. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, Fat City by Leonard Gardner, Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter, and Pick-Up by Charles Willeford are some of my all-time favorites. Others I love and was influenced by here: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan; Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks; Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor; The Hunter by Richard Stark; and Bob the Gambler by Frederick Barthelme. All of these books guided me in some way.
Irene: Elmore Leonard is a favorite of mine as well, and you’re so right about the dialogue and the way he moves the story. I’ve read about half the books you list here; the other half are going straight on my to-read list.
In most of the reviews I’ve read of your book, people refer to Gravesend as literary crime fiction, noir, and more. Do you see Gravesend as being in a particular genre?
William: I’m no good with labels. Crime folks who looked at it early on thought it was too much of a literary novel and literary folks thought it was too much of a crime novel. Somewhere – I think referring to James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce – I heard the term “noir melodrama” used. I like that. In some ways, I kind of think that’s what it is. I think of Douglas Sirk’s great film Written on the Wind that way, too. But mostly I hope it plays out like the ‘70s movies I love so much – as a sort of character-centered crime story.
Irene: Gravesend is really character-centered. You alternate between the perspectives of three different characters, and I really admired how distinct the voices are; yet, they all seemed to have that Gravesend thread connecting them. Was this challenging for you at all? Did the voices come out naturally in your first few drafts or did you have to craft them in later stages of the writing?
William: It took a lot of revision to knock out some of the early similarities between the voices – that was a challenge. But, aside from dealing with that, it wasn’t hard. They all came pretty naturally and it was easy to fall into a rhythm. Like you said, the neighborhood connects them and the neighborhood is part of all of them, so that made it much easier than it might have been otherwise.
Irene: When you write, do you aim to create characters that are just like people or do good characters require an elevated quality that humans lack?
William: I guess some mystical combination of those two things. I think you need to care about your characters, worry about them, they need to get you up in the morning – so, in that way, I want them to be real people. But I also think there’s a great freedom to exaggerate qualities, to have characters be – to a certain extent – stylized.
Irene: Thanks for answering all my questions. I have one more for you: how did it feel to publish your first novel?!
William: It’s been really exciting! It took me a long time to get here, but I’m glad I didn’t get any of the shitty novels I wrote in my twenties and early thirties published. It feels good to have something that I’m proud of out there. Thanks for reading it!
For more about William Boyle and his writing, visit his website.