Dear Readers, Open Your Eyes: A Conversation with Jon Boilard




IT’S HARD TO SAY why I keep reading San Francisco author Jon Boilard. The characters in his fourth work of fiction, a new short story collection, Junk City, out from Livingston Press, are mostly deadbeats and addicts. The guys drink till they black out, sleep with each other’s girlfriends, and generally manage to mess up their lives just up to, or sometimes just past, the point of redemption. And they know it. As the narrator of the first story, “Finding Albert Redwine,” says about sleeping with his best friend’s sister behind his back: “It was wrong of me yet most of what I did was wrong.”

The women, often also addicts, sometimes strippers, tend to be stronger than the men, providing a sliver of relief from what can feel, overall, like a pretty desperate environment. The guys may be irredeemable, but at least some of these gals will make it. One in particular, a stripper who goes by the name of Eskimo, hopes the poems she writes can help lift her out of her life, if she can only figure out how poets get published. A poem that is presented as Eskimo’s appears after each of the stories, like a chaser. Though Eskimo has plenty of desperation of her own.

The stories, set in San Francisco, where Boilard has lived since the 1980s, span the ’80s, ’90s, and reach almost up to the present, as evidenced by one character commenting, “Trump did fuck up the economy.” But the overriding sense is that these characters are trapped in a socioeconomic pit that’s timeless. And though you can recognize the external forces that lead them to escape into drugs and booze, it’s tempting, at times, to get fed up and wonder, “Why should I care about these characters if they don’t care about themselves?”

But here’s the thing: Boilard writes like a predator. His stories grab you by the throat in the first sentence and you have to keep reading out of self-defense. And in emailing and talking with him by phone, I realized that Boilard doesn’t really care if you like his characters. He just wants you to see them.

The following is the outgrowth of our correspondence and phone conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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TRISH CRAPO: The first story in the book, “Finding Albert Redwine,” made me wonder how you might fare in this harsh #MeToo moment.

JON BOILARD: That’s a fair observation. My publisher and I did have the conversation about #MeToo. And I get it. In Junk City, for the most part, the male characters are not good to the female characters. But they aren’t good to the other male characters either. Or themselves. So, where we landed was that despite the male-on-female violence, I’m comfortable that the men who abuse women in these stories are not held up as heroes. Not by a long shot.

But let’s be clear here — I’m not demonizing them either. That’s not my job. My goal is to reserve judgment as much as possible and simply present the characters, the stories. Because at the end of the day, I think these stories deserve to be told.

The thing I find myself wondering in this collection, more than in your other books, is how the characters will fare after the limited time the story describes. Are they doomed? Whether by circumstance — for example, poverty — or by their own choices?

I think some but not all of the characters in Junk City are doomed. For sure. But others are going to be okay. Sort of like the real people in my life, probably in your life too. But what I try to do is capture that moment in a character’s existence when he or she is hitting the very bottom. And I like that you used the word choices. Quite often it is their choices that lead these characters down the darkest roads — Should I take that drink? Should I take that bump? Is it all right for me to put hands on this other person? Lots of bad choices. And then throw into the mix that many of the characters in the book are addicts of one kind or another. Right? So, you can throw your choices right out the fucking window at that point.

Why are you drawn to characters who seem so downtrodden and might even be looked down upon by other people?

Because these are the characters that haunt me. Here’s an example from the story called “Little Darling.” The narrator is a teenage runaway who sells his body for dope. Back in the early ’90s, I baked bread at First Light Café on the corner of California and Polk in San Francisco, which at the time was a sketchy little neighborhood. The café shared a restroom with a sushi joint and an Italian ice cream place. For about six months straight, every day around 10 a.m., this young dude would come in looking like he had a really rough night and ask for the key to the restroom — he was probably 16 or 17, just a little younger than me at the time. He’d stay in the shitter for 30 minutes, clearly using the sink to wash himself and then shooting up to get right. Well, we were only supposed to share the key with paying customers but he never had any money, so I’d give him a couple muffins and cover the cost from my tip jar. Then one day he just stopped showing up. I always wondered what happened to that kid. And he’s haunted me ever since. Thus, I felt compelled to tell his story — my version of it anyhow.

And this might be an unintended consequence, because I never enter a story thinking there’s going to be some kind of lesson or moral buried in it. But one comment I have heard time and again from readers who have lived the life — and I mean have really lived it, been in the system somehow, prison or otherwise — is how much they appreciate that I don’t judge the characters for doing bad things and committing violent acts in my stories.

I have this uncle I call Uncle Meatball, who taught creative writing at a jail. He would hand my stories out to his students sometimes and they’d ask him, “How does your nephew understand this world? Has he been in trouble?”

Well?

I dabbled, but I didn’t get so deep into it. But there were others just outside my circle that I got to know. I witnessed a lot of this action and I would just sit in the back of the room and try to imagine the lives of these guys. And I think I’ve told you before that, for me, there’ve been these crucial points in my life where people stepped in and steered me in the right direction. My brother and I were both abused and neglected pretty significantly until about the age of 12, until Uncle Meatball stepped in. I could be that guy if he hadn’t. I could be that angry and that hopeless. I’m not far away from being that person. I have a buddy who always says he’s one paycheck away from being homeless. And I feel that way too — two or three really big mistakes and I’m the guy in the bar, slumped over.

As for how these characters will fare, sometimes they turn out okay and more often they are doomed by their shitty choices or afflictions. But there’s no judgment. And here’s the rub — these people are out there. Right? Living in the margins. So, dear readers, open your eyes to them. I guess I want readers to know these people exist — and again — that their stories deserve to be told.

People have told me if you want more people to read your fiction, you have to make it more accessible — meaning not so harsh. But that feels to me like it would be too big of a compromise. In my corporate job, I do a lot of writing by committee, so I’m compromising all the time. And I’m married. And I have two teenaged daughters, so I’m compromising all the time. When I sit down to write, that’s one place where I’m not going to compromise.

Tell me about the poems. 

The character of Eskimo has been haunting me for a while. Years, in fact. And the poems that are attributed to her were based on my own scribblings when I was an undergrad at San Francisco State. There are currently a half-dozen cardboard boxes filled with old notebooks stacked against a wall in my garage, which of course drives my wife batshit.

Maybe two times a year, I rummage through them to see if anything will move me. Back in 2018 I stumbled across the notebook that held what would become Eskimo’s poems. I had already been working on Junk City for about a year, trying to stitch all the stories together to form a collection that made sense. And it hit me that if I could massage these poems, put them in Eskimo’s voice, make them about her experience —

I didn’t know if I could make it work. Sort of sneaking the poems in after each story was a bit of an experiment for me, and I will say it took me out of my comfort zone. But I gave it a whirl and tried them in different order, moved them around, tested out how the poems could best serve as bridges between the stories. And to be honest I quite enjoyed the process when I didn’t completely fucking hate it — but that’s how I feel about writing in general.

Then in 2019 I started talking to Joe Taylor over at Livingston Press about Junk City, and he said, “Let me see the damn thing.”

I sent him the manuscript along with a caveat about my goofy idea about including Eskimo’s poems. But he loved them. He called them magic. He said the “superheated poems” tie it all together.

So, what’s next?

I have three writing goals for 2021. The first is to finish writing my third novel and fifth book, which is tentatively called Junior. It’s about a young man who has the opportunity to go away to art school if he can just clean up a few messes at home first — for example, in the opening scene we see him throwing a pedophile off the roof of his house.

My second goal is to complete the adaptation of The Castaway Lounge, my 2017 novel, to the small screen as a dramatic series suitable for Netflix or one of the other content providers. Because, well, thanks to COVID-19, I’ve already watched everything on Netflix! So, I’ve put together a proposal packet that includes a breakdown of the overall plot, character descriptions, loglines for each of the eight episodes of season one, and the first 20 pages of a pilot script.

Finally, I want to find an agent in the coming year to help me secure homes for these and future projects. I’ve had terrific luck with some amazing independent publishers to date, MacAdam/Cage, Dzanc Books, and Livingston Press, but I believe that it’s time to take the next step.

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Trish Crapo is a freelance writer and photographer in Western Massachusetts. Her chapbook, Walk through Paradise Backwards, was recently reissued by Slate Roof Press.

 

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