The Lonely Witness, William Boyle‘s new novel, abounds with moral complexity and one of the strongest senses of place you’re likely to encounter this year. Amy, the novel’s protagonist, lives a quiet life in relative isolation in Gravesend–until the return of several people from her past, and a brutal killing, force her to re-evaluate just who she is. It’s a subdued and unnerving narrative, with a host of unpredictable characters, leading to a powerful conclusion. It’s part of a big year for Boyle: a new edition of his debut novel Gravesend will be released later this year. In advance of two readings this week–June 7th at Mysterious Bookshop, and June 8th at Kew and Willow Books–I talked with Boyle about his new novel, writing about Brooklyn from a distance, and the evolution of his fiction.
One of the things that most effectively contributed to the sense of the place in The Lonely Witness were the specifics of a given block: the names of stores, the styles of buildings, the sense of history. How much of that was based on the real locations, and how much was fictionalized?
A lot of it is real. The neighborhoods of Gravesend and Bensonhurst live fully in my imagination, and I’m back there often to visit my mom and grandma. But I also like to overlay mythical, imagined versions over the real places, so much of it is invented or fictionalized. The bar that plays a central role in the novel, Homestretch, is real and I describe it accurately from the outside, but then I play fast and loose with the interior. The Roulette, a diner that appears in both Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, is a fictionalized version of the Vegas. Seven Bar in the East Village, which also appears in both Gravesend and The Lonely Witness, is not a real place but is definitely inspired by a few places: Bar 81, Blue & Gold, and the Holiday. One of the great joys of writing for me is looking at houses and buildings and storefronts and imagining what’s going on inside. Often, I’d say, stories start that way for me.
Your roots are in Brooklyn, but you no longer live there. What’s it like to carry this place with you as you write something set there over a certain period of time?
I was thinking the other day that I’ve almost never written about Brooklyn while in Brooklyn. I’ve worked on things there—in fact, I started The Lonely Witness at my grandma’s house—but I’ve mostly written about Brooklyn while I lived in the Hudson Valley, the Bronx, Austin, or Mississippi. So, for me, being away from it allows me to write about it in a way I might not otherwise be able to. It plays like a movie in my mind’s eye, consumes me. I could spend the rest of my life writing about the place as I knew it, the people on my block, the stories that shaped me and made me.
How does the Brooklyn of your memories compare with the current state of the borough?
I can’t really speak about a lot of Brooklyn. I’ve spent very little time in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Greenpoint. It’s interesting as hell that so many of the friends I’ve made in Mississippi over the last nine years have moved to Bushwick and Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy. I can speak to the changing faces of Gravesend and Bensonhurst, both of which remain working class immigrant neighborhoods. When I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, they were mostly Italian American. (I grew up with my mother’s side of the family, Italian, despite my last name, which is Scottish—my father, who mostly wasn’t in the picture, was born in Scotland). It’s been really great to see—as so many people I grew up with have split for New Jersey or Long Island or wherever—that the neighborhood has thrived in some new, interesting ways. It’s predominantly Chinese American and has become a food destination. But it’s diverse beyond that. It’s sometimes hard to separate the place as it is now from the place as I knew it and what I felt there as a depressed, lonely kid. I did grow up loving movies, so a lot of my memories are shaped by seeing the place through a cinematic lens. When The French Connection and Saturday Night Fever are shot in the place you’re from, it sure helps to heighten the mythology. I was also pretty obsessed with mob stories, and I loved imagining what the place was like in the old days. The Lonely Witness is set in 2017 and the book I just finished is set in 2006, but my next books about Brooklyn will go back to the ’90s and then the ’80s; I can see myself going back even further than that one day.
Amy’s relationship to the church made for one of the most complex aspects of the book, for me: she’s doing decidedly good things, but she’s also a queer woman involving herself in an institution that forces her to suppress parts of herself. How did you navigate the wrinkles in this situation?
It wasn’t hard to imagine someone who was raised in the church, shaped by the church, and then driven away by it. That’s been my relationship, too. I do have these pangs of yearning, especially when I interact with Catholic art that moves me: Robert Bresson’s films; the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene; the work of Thomas Merton; St. John of the Cross and the mystics in general. Whenever I read or listen to Jesuits, I’m moved; Father James Martin, for one, has worked hard to build a relationship with the LGBTQ community. I was reading a lot about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement when I was working on The Lonely Witness, and I thought it would be easy for Amy to latch on to what was good, what moved her, and to avoid what she didn’t like or to avoid the part of the church that would certainly be unwelcoming to her, especially in a neighborhood where the church’s population has dwindled. In some ways, it all comes down to Pope Francis. When he showed up, if you’d ever interacted meaningfully with your Catholic faith and been chased away by all the bad shit, it was hard not to feel welcomed back into the fold. I haven’t made the leap that Amy made, but in different circumstances—if I felt more lost than I currently do, for instance—I could see myself looking for answers there. I also don’t think that queerness and Catholicism are as incompatible as they seem; they are, maybe, when you’re dealing with the horrible institution of the church, but when you’re reading about someone like Dorothy Day, it’s hard not to feel that it’s all about love and that everyone is represented.
There’s a lot of ambiguity in the book, particularly surrounding the question of how reliable Dom’s account of certain events is. What are some of the challenges of introducing this kind of ambiguity into the narrative?
That was one of the reasons I wanted to keep the book in just Amy’s POV. I liked the ambiguity of what Dom’s telling us, what’s true and what’s not true about Vincent’s past and about Mrs. Mescolotto being up in the air. We don’t really get neat answers. Why do we need them? For me, part of the joy is in the mystery. I’m a disciple of David Lynch when it comes to that. I think you run the risk of alienating audiences who want their mysteries resolved in a more formulaic way (and I’m not knocking that method); I’m just interested in maintaining some larger sense of mystery. Why am I still talking about Twin Peaks: The Return a year after it aired? Because Lynch is a master at leaving you wondering about big things and little things and everything in between.
You’ve worked with presses large and small in the US; you’ve also had one book released only in France. How have those experiences compared with one another?
I was lucky as hell that J. David Osborne and Broken River Books took a chance on Gravesend. That was my first experience in publishing and a great one. My experiences with Rivages and now Gallmeister in France have been surreal and wonderful; I wouldn’t have a career as a writer here or anywhere if not for François Guérif, my translator Simon Baril, Jeanne Guyon, and Oliver Gallmeister. I love having some success in a place that values books so much; I’ve met so many incredible booksellers and readers in France. My experience with Pegasus Crime has also been great so far; most importantly, I really love working with my editor, Katie McGuire. Honestly, it’s pretty hard to compare anything that’s happened to me in America with what’s happened in France so far, though—that’s truly been unique, a dream come true for a writer who has long idolized Chester Himes, Elmore Leonard, David Goodis, and Jim Thompson.
Photo: Katie Farrell Boyle