WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi William! I’m really excited to talk to you about one of this year’s most highly anticipated and coveted new novels, The Lonely Witness. It’s received praise from every major star-studded noir writer. What drew you to the premise of the novel and how did you develop it, and how long was it cooking in your brain before you took to paper and pen?
William Boyle: Thanks so much, Matthew! Great to talk to you. And thanks for the kind words. The main character in The Lonely Witness, Amy Falconetti, was a minor character in my first novel, Gravesend. I was drawn back to her, to seeing what she was up to; I was worried about her. I’d been working on another book for about eight or nine months, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, a book that’ll actually come out next year, and The Lonely Witness was knocking on the door the whole time. The day I finished the first draft of Friend, I launched right into The Lonely Witness. I’d been thinking about it a lot and I wrote the first draft in about three months, just totally on fire with it, working every day before and after my day job.
MT: The title doesn’t lie. Every character in the novel seems to be so lonely in so many different ways. Living secret lies, a lie to one another really. What attracted you to this issue: loneliness? And why do you think loneliness is such a major driving factor in noir novels?
WB: Well, the easy answer is that I’ve always been lonely or that I’m always afraid of being lonely. I think I’m obsessed with lonesome voices, singers that echo the feeling of being alone: Jason Molina, Sharon Van Etten, Elliott Smith, Cat Power, Townes Van Zandt, artists like that. I think one of the loneliest things I’ve ever heard has to do with Elliott Smith. When he was living in New York in the late ’90s, he was a regular at a bar that I sometimes went to when my regular dive was closed. I never saw him there, but I heard a story about him leaving the bar after closing and walking back to Brooklyn through the subway tunnels, drunk as hell. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s stayed with me. I wanted to write a book that felt like that. I’ve been to that place. I know that sort of loneliness. I think noir is always about outsiders, and I think that’s one of the main things that draws me to the genre. I remember seeing Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour as a kid and being knocked out by a story set so far outside the edges—failures, people on the run, people who don’t fit in. It’s a lonely business, fucking up and not fitting in.
MT: What are some of your favorite noir classics about loneliness? There’s In a Lonely Place, but what other books would you look to, or did you look to, both for inspiration for this novel, and also just to explore the concept of loneliness in general?
WB: I loveIn a Lonely Place. Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? comes to mind. It’s brutal and beautiful. I wouldn’t call her a noir writer, but Jean Rhys is one of my patron saints when it comes to writing about loneliness. All of her books fit the bill, but I went back to Voyage in the Dark and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie when I was working on The Lonely Witness. David Goodis is a master of it: The Moon in the Gutter, Street of No Return, Cassidy’s Girl, so many of his books are a huge inspiration in this regard. Charles Willeford’s Pick-Up is a big one.
MT: There’s also this very extreme sense of a need to escape, not only for Amy but for everyone in this book—and not just from place. Although, I would like to note that most people involved in novels about escape dream of one day moving to cities like New York, not escaping from its confines. What drew you to this issue and how did you flip it on its head?
WB: I think that’s another thing that’s always drawn me to noir, this idea that there’s something better somewhere else if this one thing will just go right. So the idea of escape—wherever the characters are from—is always about the promise of being someone better in another town or city. Growing up in Brooklyn, I was lonely and I felt outside of things, so I dreamed of places like Canada and California because I imagined a different version of myself in these places. I do think it’s interesting that New York City is a place people often want to escape to and that my characters are looking for a way out. I think home, wherever it is, can just feel like a place you’ve got to break away from. You can get trapped by a neighborhood or town. Gravesend is especially about that. You carry that weight around with you everywhere. I like the idea that Amy’s initial escape is even smaller—from Queens to Brooklyn. I felt that when I moved to the Bronx for a couple of years; it was a different experience of the city and everything felt new.
MT: When you set out to plot this novel, what and how did you decide what went where and what happened when? Were there many changes from the first draft to the last draft, and how long was the writing process for this novel in general?
WB: I like to set characters adrift in the world. I had the advantage of knowing Amy from Gravesend.The inspiration for the book came from a visit with my grandmother back home in Brooklyn. She was housebound and had communion delivered weekly. She also had a woman sitting with her a few days a week, a sort of caretaker while my mother was at work. This was when her dementia was in its nascent stages and she could still be alone some of the day. That woman, my grandma’s caretaker, was the mother of a kid I went to school with; I liked him back then but he’d gone down a pretty dark path somewhere around junior high. I started to wonder what would happen if he just showed up instead of this woman, and what if he’d turned out bad. And then there was Amy, still in the neighborhood after Alessandra split—I was reading a lot of Dorothy Day, and I saw how Amy had embraced the good part of the Catholicism of her youth and how she was trying to make meaning of her existence in a new way. Those things came together, and the book just opened itself up to me. I didn’t have an outline. I knew where it started and I knew where it would end, and I had a few other things along the way I knew would happen. The rest was a mystery that revealed itself it to me as I wrote.
I wrote the first draft of the novel in about eighty days. I was working constantly. I’d wake up at 5 a.m. and try to get three hours in before I went to work (I’m an adjunct instructor and also work at a record store). I’d scrape out time wherever I could. It was a good feeling, to be so wrapped up in it. I didn’t take any time off from the book—except for three days where I wrote a screenplay. There were some changes between the first draft and last draft but not a ton—mostly just stuff that filled in cracks based on great editorial input from my agents and my editor. There wasn’t an epilogue in the first draft. I feel like it really helped that I wrote the book in one mostly unbroken stretch—I’m always afraid of losing the thread and I never lost it here.
MT: You have a tight, tiny, compressed book squeezed into just over 200 pages, but an elaborate set of characters who are all fleshed out and fully developed by the novel’s end, or at least to an extent. How did you make this up and were there any additional characters you had to cut?
WB: No characters that I cut. I knew Amy was the star here, and I knew Fred and Vincent and Mrs. Epifanio and Diane and Mr. Pezzolanti would figure in as major characters, but I honestly didn’t know that most of these other characters would show up until they did. Alessandra is the main character from Gravesend; I didn’t see that she’d be back until she suddenly was. I love almost nothing more than writing minor characters and imagining whole lives for them even though they’re only present for a page or two. Cab drivers, bar patrons, waiters and waitresses, funeral home directors, church secretaries, old women sitting up in open windows, a couple of shut-ins, whoever. Hell, that’s how this book came to be. Amy was one of those characters in Gravesend. I thought about her a lot and wanted her to have her own book.
MT: When writing outside yourself, like writing as a woman when you are a man, how did you prepare yourself to author this novel and get inside a woman like Amy’s head? What exercise do you do, what book do you read, in an effort to become more acquainted with the character you’re writing?
WB: I just think about being true to the character, true to the stuff she loves. It’s important for me to think about what she’s reading and listening to. It’s also important for me to be true to the women I know and love and aware of what they expect out of fiction. Any good character needs to be messy and complicated. I’m always consuming art by women, listening to what women creators say in conversation and in interviews. One of my favorite films is Mikey and Nicky, which is written and directedby Elaine May. It’s a movie about men written and directed by a woman, and it’s a tender movie about gangsters. I don’t think someone else could’ve done exactly what May did in making those characters.
I don’t know that I did a lot to prepare other than what I always do: read books, listen to music, and watch films that vibe tonally with what I’m trying to accomplish. Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Calleris one of those movies that really impacted me on a subconscious level when I saw it, and I was thinking about it a lot here. Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan was an influence—the shifting identities, the city as hideout, the cast of wild characters. Kate Lyn Shiel’s performance in Kate Plays Christine was a big inspiration. So was Sophia Takal’s Always Shine with Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin Fitzgerald. There was also lots of Sharon Van Etten, Cat Power, Nina Simone, and Angel Olsen playing in my headphones at all times.
MT: What made you decide to make Amy’s character a lesbian, and do you think her sexuality somehow played into her loneliness, especially given she had reverted to Christianity at the novel’s beginning?
WB: Amy was a character who just sort of appeared in Gravesend—one I hadn’t seen coming but who had a small and pivotal role as someone who Alessandra connects with. She’s based loosely on one of my best friends from college, who I don’t see too much anymore because she lives far away. It was a way of spending time with her or at least imagining her into this part. I do think Amy’s sexuality played into her loneliness. Part of what drew me to telling her story was that she had stayed behind in her ex-girlfriend’s neighborhood and that this was a place where she would feel especially like an outsider. When you’re alone and you find solace in church and through the writings of someone like Dorothy Day, that can be a powerful thing—especially if you’re capable of being moved by faith. I grew up Catholic and I’m Catholic-haunted now, a non-believer who sometimes yearns to believe, and I think a lot of that went into Amy.
MT: What are your favorite crime novels written by women? What are your favorite crime novels written by queer authors?
WB: Everything by Megan Abbott and Sara Gran—they’re my two favorite writers. Impossible to choose favorites from them, but their most recent books are always tops for me, so I’d pick Give Me Your Hand and The Infinite Blacktop in a pinch. Vicki Hendricks’s Miami Purityis one of my all-time favorite books. I love Dorothy B. Hughes, especially Ride the Pink Horse and In a Lonely Place. Vera Caspary’s Laura. Margaret Millar’s Beast in View. Laura Lippman’s Sunburn knocked me out. Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Helen Nielsen’s Detour and The Woman on the Roof. Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters is a masterpiece. I was a little late to Maggie Estep’s Ruby Murphy books, but Hex is now one of my all-time favorite books. I love Melissa Ginsburg’s Sunset City. Susannah Moore’s In the Cut is a book I think about nonstop. Mercedes Lambert is a writer I discovered just last year--El Niñois a lost classic. Charlotte Carter’s Rhode Island Red is another lost classic I only recently discovered. Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight is killer.
Patricia Highsmith, of course--The Cry of the Owl might be my favorite of hers. I really like Vin Packer (aka Marijane Meaker), especially The Girl on the Bestseller List. I love Virginie Despentes; I just read Pretty Things and it blew me away. There’s a queer feminist bookstore called Violet Valley in the small town of Water Valley, Mississippi, right up the road from where I live, and last time I was in I discovered Sarah Schulman’s After Delores. It’s a great New York City novel that I’d never even heard of, and I couldn’t believe that it took me so long to find it—and not in New York City, where I’m from, but here in Mississippi.Val McDermid’s great. I haven’t read as much of her as I should, but I love The Wire in the Blood. And, finally, I love Joseph Hansen’s Dave Brandtsetter books, especially Fadeout, and John Copenhaver’s Dodging and Burning is a recent book I really dug.
MT: At times, the novel coasts along like a regular crime novel, and then there’s the whydunnit rather than the whodunit which propels us forward at the conclusion of the novel. How were you able to switch in and out of these two subgenres—straight forward crime and then mystery—in order to deliver the conclusion of the novel in one whole piece?
WB: I’m not sure I was ever really thinking of the novel that way as I wrote. I guess, at times, it did feel like I was writing a paranoid thriller, but I mainly viewed it as a tragedy surrounding Amy and her father Fred. Everything else kind of swirled around that, added tension and purpose, but that was the center of it for me, so I knew it was going to end with that tragic set piece. I wasn’t really trying to subvert the mystery element—it just wasn’t my main concern.
MT: You write about a sort of deceit, the use of other people for material or personal gain, and I’m wondering how you feel that reflects on noir in the past, and if you’re willing, how that might reflect on your own experiences as a writer?
WB: One of things I’m interested in as a writer is desperation. I think noir is all about desperation. We have characters who are desperate to survive, to escape, to find connection, to get dough, to get out of something bad, to get out of something good. Whatever the reason, desperation is the driving force. And I think that’s where deceit comes from. When someone’s pushed to the breaking point, they deceive people who have trusted them or they deceive strangers. One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard about writing is—and I can’t find the source, I originally heard it secondhand—is from a film director who said (I’m paraphrasing, probably getting it a bit wrong), “Real drama happens when the villain says something true.” I think a lot of my work turns on that notion. I’m not interested in one-dimensional villains. Or likeable heroes. Everyone’s complicated. Good characters are capable of deception. Bad characters are capable of kindness.
MT: At the end, which isn’t totally unexpected, I saw Alessandra as a manipulator and Fred as something of an abused martyr. Obviously, there are some gray areas in between, but this says a lot about familial love and romantic love within noir novels. How do you feel about these two types of love (and other forms of love) within noir and what do you think is the truth that lies there and how can it be presented on a larger scale?
WB: I don’t think Alessandra comes off looking very good, that’s true, but I love her and I sympathize with her. She’s looking out for herself—that’s what she does. That’s how she survives. And there’s so much pain in Fred. As someone who is estranged from his own father, I put a lot of my feelings on the matter into Amy. She doesn’t forgive Fred for abandoning her. Why should she? It’s one of Amy’s many complexities. I think noir often hinges on love and honor. Fred, after all he’s done wrong, is willing to die for a daughter who can never love and forgive him. And I think the night that Amy and Alessandra have in the hotel, that’s central to the book. You want to escape to a moment like that forever, but nothing gold stays. Things fall apart. And that’s what I ultimately trust about noir. It doesn’t paint a perfect picture. It tells you the truth: happiness is fleeting and trouble is on the way.
MT: How do you think Amy’s character evolves throughout the story, and why do you think she makes the choices she does? Do you view her as a hero or as a villain and if neither, how would you explain her as someone in between?
WB: In no way do I think of her as a villain. I do think she’s heroic in the ways that she grapples with faith and doubt and identity. I try not to get hung up reading Goodreads reviews that bash her as stupid or crazy or unbelievable; I don’t think any of those things about her. She’s lost in the world. She makes bad decisions, sometimes with purpose, often because bad decisions initiate change. In some ways, she’s my riff on Rosanna Arquette’s Roberta Glass from Desperately Seeking Susan.
MT: Ultimately, like most noir novels, this is a story of loss. Great loss, for many people. There are issues with religion, issues with romance, issues with paternity and familial love, and ultimately how all of this can or cannot be redeemed, and how we might be betrayed by anyone. While the novel can certainly speak for itself, I’d love for you to speak to this topic, and possibly reference to any parts of the text you feel necessary.
WB: I think that’s absolutely true. What we lose and how we lose it defines us. Losing her mother and witnessing that crime as a teenager, those are the things that set Amy adrift. I think she feels loss in a holy, almost mystical way. Over the course of the novel, loss presents itself in other ways. The dive where she tended bar has transformed into a theme park dive. The Roulette Diner is on its way out. The city’s changing—rents are astronomical and the old good places are shutting down, replaced by chain stores, banks, and frozen yogurt joints. This loss also manifests itself in Amy. She almost cries when she looks at Camilo José Vergara’sphotos of ruined buildings and crumbling cities over at Gwen’s.
MT: In the beginning, Amy feels like a source of comfort. She visits elderly women, gives them communion with the wafer and such (I’m not as familiar with Catholicism as I should be—it’s not as big of a part of the South as it is elsewhere) and she seems to be trying to atone for past sins. What do you feel makes her suddenly jump from one life to another, and do you feel that’s commonplace in the real world?
WB: I don’t think she’s trying to atone for past sins necessarily; I just think she’s finding purpose in something else at the moment. I definitely feel like it’s commonplace in the real world to jump from identity to identity—to be one thing, define yourself a certain way, and then to abandon that. I think just she’s looking to feel content with something, not to feel restless or displaced or alone.
MT: One thing that struck me is how jarring and shocking your novel can be. An example is when Amy just casually reflects on witnessing a murder when she was younger. The murder comes out of nowhere, presented in such a nonchalant manner she might have been thinking about the dinners her mother used to make when she was a kid. This effect is repeated several times throughout the novel. What was your intended purpose, and what do you hope this says about the real world and noir itself?
WB: I wanted seeing Vincent—and being curious about him—to trigger the memory. It’s something she’s felt removed from for a long time; Alessandra is the only person she’s told. The action of the novel is set over a very short span of time, a few days, and I don’t like to sludge it up with too much exposition. Since it’s close third person, only the one POV, I wanted those memories to come naturally to Amy, exposed, brought out into the light, giving meaning to decisions she winds up making. How she acts with Bob Tully defines her response to the Vincent situation.
MT: There are so many characters clinging to people who they are losing or have lost. Do you think we ever fully have a hold on anyone, and how do you think the novel reflects on this issue?
WB: Personally, I hope we do. The pessimistic side of me knows that everything can fall apart at any minute. Art is a way of dealing with this. Telling stories is my way. There are always the characters to hold onto. I think the novel is about fighting to survive through loss, about endurance in a time of crisis.
MT: The Lonely Witnesswas a hit for those in the crime community and really anyone who loved noir. I know you already have another work coming out, and possibly another work-in-progress. Can you give us any hints as to what those might be about?
WB: I have a new novel coming out in March 2019 called A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself. It’s about two women in their sixties, one a mob widow, and the other a retired porn star. They’re on the lam from trouble. It’s a screwball noir, inspired by Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild and Married to the Mob. Right now I’m bouncing back and forth between working on two new books, but I’m reluctant to talk about them because I’m superstitious that way.
MT: I really am so grateful to have been able to interview you, William, and so sorry for getting the interview to you so late. Thank you for speaking with us at Writers Tell All and feel free to stop by another time with any future books and the like. Feel free to leave us with any thoughts, questions, concerns, or comments. And, once again, thank you.
WB: Thanks so much for the thoughtful and generous questions, Matthew. It was really my pleasure. I hope to talk to you again soon.