By Dawn Ius
Authors draw inspiration for characters from a number of places—friends and family, a stranger they caught a glimpse of at the coffee shop, exes and crushes. William Boyle’s muse comes in the form of an actress.
Amy Falconetti—the haunting protagonist of his gritty new release THE LONELY WITNESS—is named after Renee Maria Falconettti from The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of Boyle’s all-time favorite films.
“I just kept thinking how cool it would be to have a character called Falconetti—it could have been the name of a ’70s TV detective,” he says. “So I started there.”
More accurately, though, Falconetti’s story began in Boyle’s debut, Gravesend, in which she is a minor character that never fully left the author’s head and heart. When THE LONELY WITNESS begins, almost seven years have passed since the action in that first book, and Boyle was anxious to get to know her better.
“I learned not to expect anything of her,” he says. “I learned that she was a million things, all at once, all of them valid. I learned that she’s haunted, that she’s searching for contentment she’ll likely never find. I learned that she’s impulsive, and I learned to value her unpredictability.”
The reader learns these things as well—especially about her impulsiveness. For reasons she can’t quite understand, Falconetti is captivated by a crime she witnesses, and the murderer himself. Rather than calling the police—as perhaps most in her situation might—Falconetti collects the murder weapon from the sidewalk and soon finds herself on a dangerous hunt for the killer.
Boyle took some time this month to give The Big Thrill readers a behind-the-scenes look at THE LONELY WITNESS.
What can you tell us about the inspiration for THE LONELY WITNESS?
My grandmother 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—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.
This book is many things, and could be categorized numerous ways—but I love the term “gritty” and think it’s a great fit for THE LONELY WITNESS. Who are some of the writers that have influenced your work?
Thanks—I really like the term “gritty,” too. It definitely reflects my interest in exploring the dark underside of things. Megan Abbott and Sara Gran are two of my biggest writing heroes. I think their influence is all over this book. David Goodis, Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, William Kennedy, Chester Himes, Elmore Leonard, James M. Cain, Donald Westlake, Carson McCullers, and Willy Vlautin are some of the other writers who’ve had the biggest impact on me. I love Georges Simenon, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Patrick Modiano, and Pascal Garnier. I was reading a lot of poetry while I worked on THE LONELY WITNESS, especially Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness. And then there are tons of filmmakers and musicians whose work I thought about often. John Cassavetes, David Lynch, Kelly Reichardt, Lynn Shelton, Hitchcock and De Palma, Barry Jenkins, Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, Nina Simone, Nick Cave . . . If I keep listing names, I won’t stop. I’m drawn to thrillers because there’s often a sense of real urgency. As a reader and writer, I like stories about characters in a time of crisis. I like to see desperate people doing desperate things.
Setting is important in all fiction, but in THE LONELY WITNESS, Brooklyn becomes almost a character in itself. I read that you are from Brooklyn and so obviously your experiences come into play. What are the elements of Brooklyn that you really wanted to capture?
I grew up in Brooklyn. I don’t live there now, but I’m back very often because my mom and grandma are still in our neighborhood. I want to write about the place as I’ve known it—I don’t often see my part of Brooklyn in fiction or onscreen. I want to explore the melancholy that hits me when I’m there, that shaped me when I was young, and see how it relates to the place, the tragedy of it, the sad beauty, the falling-apartness, everything. I also like to mix in a mythical version of Brooklyn. I like layering those things over each other—the real and the imagined/imaginary—to see what happens. That’s a great joy. I’m also pretty obsessed with how things change, how people change, or how they don’t. I think most of my characters feel trapped in some way, in the way that you might associate more with small-town living—I really like the unexpectedness of that.
Will your next book be a continuation from THE LONELY WITNESS (i.e. via shared world or character) or something standalone?
A standalone. It’s called A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself. Part of it takes place in the same neighborhood, but it’s a bit different, a screwball noir about a mob widow and an ex-porn star in their sixties who are on the lam from trouble.
A large portion of The Big Thrill readership is comprised of new or aspiring writers. What is the best advice you’ve received on writing that you would pass on?
Jim Ridley was a film writer for Nashville Scene. He passed away a few years ago. Some of his reviews have been collected in a book called People Only Die of Love in Movies, which just came out. I’m reading it now. Here’s a favorite bit from Steve Haruch’s intro: “The writer and theology professor, David Dark, an occasional Nashville Scene contributor, once remarked that the lesson Jim [Ridley] taught him was that ‘you can find your voice by loving things.’” I think that’s about the best advice there is.
William Boyle is from Brooklyn, New York. His debut novel, Gravesend, was published as #1,000 in the Rivages/Noir collection in France, where it was shortlisted for the Prix Polar SNCF 2017 and nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Boyle is also the author of a book of short stories, Death Don’t Have No Mercy, and of another novel, Tout est Brisé, recently released in France by Gallmeister. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.
To learn more about William, please visit his website.