William Boyle is the author of the 2013 novel Gravesend and a new collection of short stories titled Death Don’t Have No Mercy. Set in Brooklyn, Gravesend presents a disturbing picture of hoodlums, lowlifes, and losers who are desperate to change their lives, but with no clue how. Boyle’s grim vision disputes the popular image of Brooklyn as a hip place full of farm-to-table restaurants and retro-chic boutiques. And yet his first novel reads like a book you’d bring to the beach compared to Death Don’t Have No Mercy. Boyle and I met for happy hour and, after knocking back a few drinks, talked about the new book.
You use your old neighborhood in Brooklyn as a setting in both books. Is it really that depressing of a place?
My outlook is probably more depressing than the place. That’s just the way I see the world. I tend to notice those things. But New York City as a whole is depressing to me. I get depressed going to the East Village. I get depressed going to Williamsburg. In my neighborhood, it’s the narrowness and smallness of the people’s lives. So many people I went to school with are stuck there. I think about those people when I’m writing characters. More than that, though, I imagine lives for people I see. Or I imagine what I’d be like if I hadn’t left the neighborhood. How would I have turned out? How would I feel? That’s one thing I enjoy about writing. I get to see what a mess I would’ve been if I had stayed. I’d be a different kind of mess.
You live in Mississippi now. Do you miss living in Brooklyn?
I miss some things. I miss my family. I like being home. A lot of what I felt growing up comes back when I’m there. There’s a great interview with Mark Kozelek where he talks about going home and feeling “unspecific sadness.” Sometimes the city can feel so small. That’s what I feel when I go home—the loneliness of the neighborhood.
A strong sense of place connects the individual stories in the book. Do you think about place a lot when you write?
I do. I bring the place I’m from with me wherever I go. Even though parts of Gravesend take place in upstate New York, the characters take the neighborhood with them wherever they go. When I sit down to write I don’t think about the place as a character. But I’m interested in how characters relate to the world around them. I want the place to feel real, on the one hand, but also mythical. That’s true of the stories in the new book, too. It’s a stylized version of the place.
Why did you decide to publish a collection of stories rather than a novel?
I had a bunch of stories I’d written over the past ten years or so, and my publisher asked me if I had enough for a collection. The last two stories in the book I had intended to write as novels. But they ended up being long stories. The other six in the book I worked on as stories. I got these eight together because I thought they worked well together as a group. They’re all loosely crime stories. Most are set in the ‘90s or ‘00s. And the characters all know the same world. Everything I write can feel like it takes place in the same universe.
Where does Manhattan fit in this universe?
It’s not the world I knew. Manhattan felt so far away as a kid. It’s a forty-five minute subway ride. My mother hardly went there. My grandparents never went there. I try to make it seem like a distant world even though it’s only ten or fifteen miles. I’m interested in life in the outer boroughs. My books take place on the margins of the city, but the characters also exist on the margins. My neighborhood is in the southeast corner of Brooklyn. It’s a working-class, ethnic neighborhood. Three of the new stories are set in The Bronx. I lived in Throggs Neck for a couple of years. My wife’s family is from there. Throggs Neck is as far as you can get from Manhattan and still be in The Bronx. I can’t write about Manhattan or Williamsburg. I’m not interested in writing about those places like I am with Bensonhurst, Gravesend, or Coney Island.
Image by Matthew Revert
Almost every story has a scene in a bar. Where do you like to do your drinking?
City Grocery now that I live in Oxford. I almost never go out drinking in Brooklyn. I used to go into the city and drink at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge. I spent a lot of time there between 1998 and 2001. In Throggs Neck, there were a ton of great Irish bars and everyone loved us because my wife’s father was a hero there—he owned a bar on Tremont Avenue for twenty-five years before he passed away.
Truth is, my neighborhood in Brooklyn has almost no bars. There was a bar called The Wrong Number, but it’s not open anymore. I used the name in Gravesend. Instead, I imagine the places where my characters would drink. I almost never have a plan when I’m writing. Part of the fun of writing for me is putting characters in a world and seeing where they go. And a lot of times they go to a bar.
What’s your drink of choice?
Bulleit Rye. My friend Jack got me started on that. I’ve been broke lately, so it’s mostly cheap beer when I go out. PBR. Coors. I could live on Guinness, but you can’t get a good, proper pint of it here and they don’t sell the original bottles in bars. When I’m home in New York, I really like to get some Hudson Manhattan Rye from Tuthilltown Spirits.
So many of your characters are hardcore music fans. What does this say about them?
People always give me shit for that. It makes me want to do it more. You can understand a lot about a character by knowing what he listens to. I’m not trying to make a character listen to a certain type of music to make him seem cool. Or to make me seem cool. Music can be a lonely occupation. A character in one story makes a mixtape for a girl he’s slept with. I can remember staying up late at night making mixtapes. It was a lonely experience and kind of wonderful. Cassettes are sad, too. There’s another character in the story “Poughkeepsie” who still listens to Alice in Chains. He’s stuck in that moment from the ‘90s. And I understand that. I have great empathy for those people. I understand that feeling of nostalgia for hearing something for the first time. Or associating what you heard in the past with the only time you felt good in your life.
What are your 5 favorite records?
Jason Molina has been one of the biggest influences on me as a writer. This book is called Death Don’t Have No Mercy and it’s about a doomed view of things. Molina had that in a way I understood. There’s a line in the song “Hammer Down” from What Comes After the Blues?: “Sometimes I forget that I’ve always been sick/ and I don’t have the will to keep fighting it.” The idea that things are okay now, but they can fall apart at any second. I love all of Molina’s music, but I’d say the Songs: Ohia Magnolia Electric Co. LP is my favorite record ever. It’s certainly the one I feel the deepest connection to. And I just never get tired of it.
Darkness on the Edge of Town by Springsteen is definitely up there. Bone Machine by Tom Waits. Let it Be by The Replacements. The Boatman’s Call by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Only five? I could name fifty.
What are you listening to right now?
I’ve been listening to this podcast about classic Hollywood called You Must Remember This. It’s by a film writer named Karina Longworth. It’s fucking great. It’s a mix of old Hollywood gossip and the history of film.
As for music, This Is the life by Andrew Bryant and Jake Fussell’s new record. Dylan’s Shadows in the Night. I love John Carpenter’s Lost Themes—I’ve been writing to that the last few weeks. I’ve also been going back to Neil Young’s Le Noise a lot lately—I think it’s a perfect record. It’s up there for me with other Lanois-produced masterpieces like Emmylou’s Wrecking Ball and Dylan’s Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind.
The title for the new book comes from a Reverend Gary Davis song that I love. I’m making a playlist right now for the website Largehearted Boy, so I’m going through the songs I’ve chosen and thinking about how they influenced the stories. Pretty often, I’ll start with a song title or a line from a song and just work from there.
What is the last book you read?
I’ve been sleeping like shit since my grandfather died in early December, so I’ve been staying up watching classic fights on YouTube and rereading some of my favorite books. A couple of nights ago, it was Hagler-Hearns and John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas. A few nights before that, it was Foreman-Lyle and Jim Thompson’s Savage Night. Last week, it was Ali-Spinks 2 and Sara Gran’s Come Closer.
I’m usually balancing a few books at once. I just read and loved Chloe Caldwell’s Women and Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief. I’ve been reading Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s slowly, not wanting it to end. And I’ve been dipping in and out of The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy for the last couple of months.