Author Jon Boilard on writing his latest novel, The Castaway Lounge (Dzanc Books/July 2015)
After crossing The Castaway Lounge off my summer reading list, I had the good fortune to speak with the author about his process. Jon Boilard was perched on a stool in venerable San Francisco bar Gino & Carlo’s and I was on the opposite coast, in my home office outside of Boston. Before I go any further, let me just say this: Jon’s second novel lives up to the hype of his stunning debut effort, A River Closely Watched (MacAdam Cage/September 2012).
Like in his first book and his short stories, he engages all of the reader’s senses in The Castaway Lounge. I could not only picture and smell the filth with his vivid descriptions of characters and scenes, but with this novel, I was hearing music in my head with every tune he referenced. And somehow Jon makes me love even the seediest characters, although he tested my resolve with Applejack, the supposed hero in TCL. You may find yourself wanting to give up on this badass as you long to find the redemptive qualities in him. When Jon slowly let them slip out, I was relieved. It’s like he is daring us to feel empathy for a man who is steeped in sleaze, and then once we accept the dare, he makes us pay for it with a perfectly devastating ending.
His responses to my questions shed some light on how he goes about crafting words in such a brutally descriptive and unabashed way. The following are excerpts from our original conversation as well as from a handful of follow-up email and text message exchanges.
That’s really hard to say, actually.
My process for The Castaway Lounge was much different than it was for my first novel, for example, which I worked on full time for around 18 months.
With this one, it sort of started out as a screenplay and that was several years ago. But what do I know about writing a screenplay? It was horrible. So it sat there in a box collecting cobwebs. I’d dust it off and fiddle around with it when I needed a break from another project or if an idea got stuck in my head that seemed relevant to the piece because I still wanted to tell the story.
And then after my first book was published in 2012, I really got serious about TCL and trying to get it across the goal line. Partly because I felt some pressure to do a second book and also because I simply had to get it out of my system. It had been kicking around for too damn long, lingering in my mind. So it was over the course of a few years, working on it part time.
What came first to you in the novel, the story of Peanut that you built Applejack’s love story around, or vice versa? And did you have a preference for one thread versus the other? If so, which? Why?
Ah, yes. Let’s see now. So the screenplay I mentioned was truly Peanut’s story, it was about a beautiful but maybe damaged young woman who gets chewed up and spit out by this busted little mill town. There was the pole dancing angle and all the cocaine that was flying up everybody’s noses in the mid-1980s. The sleazy politician and the strip club owner.
Sort of in parallel I had been writing all these short stories about Applejack. That wasn’t always his name, but I was obsessed with this character, the guy who solves problems with his fists, who can only make sense of the world when he’s doing violence on another person. At some point I had an epiphany where I thought I might have a novel if I put Peanut and Applejack’s stories together.
And you asked, do I have a preference for one thread over the other? No. It’s like having two kids, I love them both the same even though they are so different and I can’t imagine one existing without the other.
At what point in the writing process did you know what the ending was going to be? Is that the norm for you? What’s harder—starting, finishing? Why?
In writing this book, I didn’t know what the end was going to be until I got there. But that’s not always the case for me. For example, I’m working on a new novel right now and it’s very early stages but I already know what the final scene is. Or at least I think I do. It could change as I move down the road with these characters. I don’t struggle much with starting or finishing a novel, it’s all the stuff that lands in between that takes the piss out of me.
This novel is laced with a soundtrack, of sorts. Were those songs in your head as you revealed the story in writing, or did you add them afterwards?
That’s funny you mention the soundtrack. That’s been coming up a lot lately and in fact I’ve been asked to write a blog post about it—what songs I chose and why, along those lines. The songs would pretty much pop in my head as I was developing a scene. And not to open the kimono too much here in terms of over-sharing about the creative process, but on a few occasions I had to go back and actually swap some songs out because the ones that had originally popped in my head weren’t released until after the mid-1980s, when the action of the story takes place. So for the sake of authenticity I went back and found more setting-appropriate songs.
Did you mean for those songs to add another dimension to the novel, or was that just a happy accident?
Mostly a happy accident, I suppose. But I do think that just like in a good film the music can really help strengthen a scene and even become a critical part of it by reinforcing the setting. And of course quite often the song playing can give some insight as to the mindset of one or more of the characters participating in the scene or chapter in question. Like when Applejack’s favorite Elvis Presley starts playing on the juke, just as he’s in the middle of a bare knuckle brawl with some random yahoo, we know he’s in his happy place.
I’m dating myself here, but there’s a simple but suggestive scene in the movie Pulp Fiction where Vince is meeting Mia at her apartment and Son of a Preacher Man by Dusty Springfield is playing while he’s downstairs making himself a drink and she’s upstairs chopping up some gack on a mirror—and the two have been inextricably linked in my mind, scene and song, since the film released in 1994.
So that’s the power of the soundtrack that I tried to harness in TCL.
When you were writing this novel full of many dark characters did you find it difficult not to become so engulfed in that “world” that you struggle to re-emerge in your own?
Yes. That happens for sure when I’m writing a novel or short story. Because I do tend to write about these dark characters, people who are in trouble or whose souls are in danger. And it is easy for me to get lost in that world.
When I was talking to creative writing students at the international short story festival in Wroclaw, Poland a few weeks ago, I compared the process to what I imagine actors go through when they get into character, how challenging it must be to then slip out of character and go back to normal life. Daniel Day-Lewis comes to mind, how he throws himself into his craft and basically becomes the character he’s portraying. That takes a physical and mental toll, I imagine, slipping into and out of those dark places.
So that part of the writing process is difficult for me anyhow. The journey can be scary and exhausting because you can learn things about yourself. Don’t get me wrong on this point; it’s a thrill to be able to do it—invigorating when it works the way it’s supposed to. When everything clicks just right, there’s nothing better, nothing more exhilarating. And like any other addict I simply have to go back for more. But the reality is sometimes I get stuck in a middle place, a holding cell, between worlds and I have to chase the demons back and there are some healthy ways that I do that and there are some other very unhealthy ones, too.
During the day when you are going about your normal activities and some aspect of the story comes into your head, do you need to stop what you’re doing and record a few thoughts, or does that stuff just stay in your head for you to tackle later when you get some writing time?
It stays in my head, haunting me throughout the day. Typically my writing time is early in the morning, between 4am and 6am, so that’s when I put stuff down on paper. I don’t carry a notepad around or anything like that. But the ideas are constantly knocking around in my brain, distracting me, keeping me off balance, I suppose.
The story of what happens to Peanut is revealed in pieces, as is her body. When the story came to you in your head, did that juxtaposition happen naturally, or was it a literary trick you added later because you thought it would add a cool dimension to the novel?
Again, at the risk of lifting the veil and revealing too much about the sometimes messy creative process here, in early drafts Rodney was a serial killer and so the body parts strewn all over Franklin County belonged to multiple women. But that was getting complicated and confusing, not to mention pretty goddamn unsettling. So I decided it would just be poor Peanut and I had to go back and edit so she didn’t end up with six legs. And it was at that point that I recognized the power in telling her part of the story bit-by-bit—just as her body is found bit-by-bit.
When you were writing this novel, did you ever have full days of open time to put it all on paper, or did you write it more in shorter bursts? What is your preference as a writer—are you more effective one way or the other?
It is rare that I have a full day that I can dedicate to writing fiction since I’ve got a “real job” as well as a young family. So by necessity I’m a short-burst guy, a sprinter for sure.
I mentioned earlier that I worked on my first novel full time for 18 months, but that was definitely the exception and not the rule. I was in between corporate gigs back then and had some money saved up, so figured what the hell. And it was cool being able to do that, write fiction full time. I treated it like a nine-to-five job, packed a lunch pail, mostly set up shop at a noisy little café down by Ocean Beach. Good times.
But the demands of raising a family in San Francisco require a steady paycheck and so until I start selling a crapload more books I’ll continue to whore myself to Corporate America, which isn’t the worst thing. And so I think back to your question, for The Castaway Lounge, I wrote it in short bursts. If given a choice, I’d sit around and make shit up all day long.
Also—as a writer in general, and on TCL in particular, does having aspects of a story in your head make it difficult to concentrate on regular life? If so, how to you get a handle on that?
Once I get an idea for a story stuck in my head, I brood over it constantly. This drives the people in my life crazy because I can become very distant and distracted in all other aspects of the day-to-day. But the good news is that before I spit a story or a scene out on paper a lot of the pre-work is done inside my head while I’m driving down 101 or digging a fence post hole in the backyard or shopping for groceries or whatever. So I don’t know that I ever truly have a handle on it. But in general I think I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing, which likely started out as a defense mechanism in my childhood but has become an essential part of my creative toolkit.
So many of the characters in TCL are sketchy in one way or the other. Were most based in some reality—on people you know or have known? And if not, why do you think that the characters you create, in this novel, and in other works are so morally questionable?
I actually talked about this very topic on a panel at LitQuake 2015 the other day, right here in the city. My uncle teaches poetry and short story writing at a jail back home in Massachusetts and his students are typically guys who are going to be in the system a while because they have done some pretty horrible shit. Morally questionable shit. And so he has shared my short stories with his class, as well as my novels, and my work really resonates with them. They tell my uncle during workshops that they recognize themselves in my characters and appreciate that I don’t judge them. And they want to know how I know so much about what they call “the life.”
Well, I have always figured I am maybe one or two bad decisions away from being in their shoes. If you look at how these guys were raised up compared to how I was raised up—pretty similar childhood experiences. Abuse of all stripes, neglect, fucked-up adults showing you all the wrong things. But then I got lucky and some good folks stepped in at critical points in my life and got me going in the right direction. Not everybody gets lucky.
So I do understand how a guy can get off track and desperate and maybe even hopeless and end up in jail or worse. I think his story is worth telling, I think we can learn from it. Don’t get me wrong, having a shitty childhood doesn’t give a person license to go around doing dirt on others. But there is a certain amount of empathy there.
And so that’s a long way to answer your question about characters. The characters I created for TCL and that I create in general are pure fiction but I do sometimes pluck traits from people I know or have met or bumped into at a bar. But rather than create the characters in order to serve the story I am trying to tell, the characters come first for me and then I put them in situations and come up with a story to serve as their platform. The characters always show up first.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m excited to be working with Dzanc again to get my first collection of short stories out into the world in the late 2016/early 2017 timeframe. It’s called Settright Road. I’m also in early stages of another novel, as I mentioned. Always something.
Karyn Noble is a freelance writer and teacher based in Hopkinton, Massachusetts