Author visiting Western Pa. thanks '70s crime films for 'how I see the world'
Most writers cite books and authors as their main influences.
Not William Boyle.
The Brooklyn native who lives in Oxford, Miss., regards film as the medium that most affects his writing.
“Seventies crime movies are probably my favorite thing in the world,” says Boyle, the author of the short-story collection “Death Don't Have No Mercy” (Broken River Books). “They kind of shaped my perception of everything, of how I see the world. I grew up in the neighborhood where the chase scene in ‘The French Connection' was filmed. That informs my vision of the city, especially, and the world in general.”
Boyle will appear April 9 at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg's Writers Festival with Stewart O'Nan, and April 11 at the East End Book Exchange.
“Death Don't Have No Mercy” (the title is borrowed from a song by the Rev. Gary Davis) is Boyle's second book, following his 2014 novel, “Gravesend.” The stories are set in the 1990s and early 2000s, but by design have the feel of much older tales because of the lack of cellphones, computers and other vestiges of modern technology.
“One of the things I'm really interested in is making places feel mythical,” he says. “To me, that usually means, because I'm so heavily influenced by film noir and crime fiction, making a neighborhood seem like it's the '40s or '50s or '70s, the eras I'm really fascinated by.”
His fascination with films from the '70s — notably Martin Scorsese's “Taxi Driver” and “Mean Streets” — might mark Boyle as a product of that generation. But he is only 36 and came by those influences second-hand while growing up in the Gravesend neighborhood of Brooklyn and attending Catholic school for 12 years. The area was primarily Italian — Boyle's heritage on his mother's side — and working class.
Trouble was available if he was so inclined. Instead, Boyle wrote.
“I'm pretty disciplined as a writer,” he says. “I would write for 10 to 12 hours a day when I was 14, when I had the time.”
He also read a lot, becoming a fan of the late Larry Brown, the author of “Dirty Work” and the short-story collection “Big Bad Love.” But Boyle kept going back to the movies, notably Quentin Tarantino's “Reservoir Dogs” and, especially, Scorsese's “Goodfellas.”
“ ‘Goodfellas' came out when I was in the fifth grade and by the time I was in the sixth grade, everybody in the neighborhood had a copy of the movie,” he says.
Those movies taught Boyle about pacing and place and timing, but most of all, he learned how to create characters. The stories in “Death Don't Have No Mercy” are filled with individuals, mostly men, who lack steady jobs and are not averse to committing crimes, petty or otherwise, for a few extra bucks.
“When I first started to write in Brooklyn, I'd look around and see a lot of people who were maybe living at home with their parents and not working,” Boyle says. “And as somebody who was trying to write instead of doing a 9-to-5 job, I could empathize with the situation they were in.”
But Boyle's empathy extends only so far. The characters in the stories are prone to violence and larceny of the most crass kind.
In “Poor Box,” a 40-year-old man steals from the poor boxes in Catholic churches for drinking money. A boxer on a losing streak courts a woman with one arm in “Zero at the Bone,” only to finding she's been courting him for another purpose.
In order to get in this type of mindset, Boyle cites another influence, the comedian Louis CK.
“(Louis CK) once was talking about how his act was not really him and he just kind of thinks ‘What would I do in this situation if I never learned anything?' '' Boyle says. “That's what I do a lot of the time: I try to think of the saddest version of myself, or if I was completely stupid, or if I had nothing else and followed through on some dumb idea I had at some point. What would that be like? It's just fun to explore that.”
Rege Behe is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.