CHARLES BOCK in conversation with Joseph Salvatore
Alice & Oliver
(Random House, 2016)
Recently Charles Bock was a guest writer in a fiction class that I teach at The New School in New York City, on the theory and craft of fiction. The whole class had read his new novel, Alice & Oliver, about a family’s brutal ordeal with cancer, before Bock’s visit. They, along with their teacher, were deeply moved by the novel and were eager to discuss both its content and craft with the author. As you’ll see from this edited version, Bock was generous, respectful, insightful, and often quite funny. His well-regarded first novel, Beautiful Children, was a New York Times bestseller and brought the debut author much attention. In the years between that novel and Alice & Oliver, Bock lost his wife to leukemia just before their daughter’s third birthday. We talked about his new novel, his work, his career, and his attempt to make art from grief. (Thanks for the contributions of my students at The New School: Jon Wilson, Maria-Elena Grant, Bukola Shonuga-Smith, Tucker Newsome, Mackie Burt, Sean King, Paolo Iacovelli, Greg Levine-Rozenvayn, and Vanessa Warmingham. Special thanks to Tucker Newsome for help with the transcription.)
Joseph Salvatore (Rail): I wanted to start by asking about your thoughts on teaching craft. I created this course,“The Mechanics of Fiction,” because I was noticing in writing workshops that some students were struggling not only with the craft elements in their work—point-of-view, pacing, scene and summary, etc.—but also with how to identify and discuss those elements. What’s your opinion about teaching craft?
Charles Bock: I think it’s a great idea. I have ten or twelve lectures on craft and I deliver one each week when I teach. Half the class we workshop stories, but the other half is basically lectures on different elements of craft. I’ve found that in MFA programs don’t necessarily have the time for such conversations; they’re not really set up that way. I often wish that I could present a lecture or have a conversation with them about how some element works. The rap is that if you take workshops, everyone will come out doing cookie-cutter fiction or it’s all the same, but that’s a joke. The mind works so differently and the things you care about are so personal and specific, the things you were raised on, that keep you up at night. Having tools to try to capture and play these out on the page isn’t going to make people write the same way. My experience has been that most people who really care about this stuff enjoy getting under the hood, you know? If you care about writing, it can be pretty exciting.
Rail: How did you come to writing. Did you study writing in school?
Bock: I wrote when I was little. I wrote when I was a teen. I had older brothers who were twins and had strong personalities and were also very athletic. I tried to be that way, but I was not a great athlete and I was alone a lot. I made up stories. I loved comic books as a teenager. When I was growing up, in Las Vegas, Nevada, a “geek” was insult whose power I can’t explain precisely in 2016. I don’t know if there’s a comparably neutering insult now, something denigrating in a way that says: We’re the humans and we’re going to have dates, we’re going to have fun and we’re going to have lives, but you are not. It’s hard to explain how degrading that was. There wasn’t an internet culture, so there wasn’t a way to seek out and find others. You didn’t have the success of Facebook or tech culture, there wasn’t any compensation or balance. Comic book stores were where geeks went, they acted as an island of misfit toys. But then you also didn’t want to look at each other and be like: You too? [Laughter.]
That was a huge part of my teen years. Trying to show how much I knew about music, or trying to show how much I knew about basketball, how well I could dribble a ball. I ended up being into comic books, and feeling on the outside of everything. I started seriously writing in college. I got involved with my school newspaper and worked weekends covering high school sports for real papers. After that, I got hired to work at a small paper in Mississippi when I was twenty-three, twenty-four, and while I was there I tried to write a novel. I probably tried to start writing a novel before I even read a novel all the way through. Then when I was twenty-five, I moved to New York and tried to get my first novel published. That did not happen. So I came to The New School.
Bock: I was thinking about this when I was walking up today! I applied to take an advanced night school fiction workshop, but they wouldn’t let me in. They told me: “You didn’t take “beginning” or “intermediate yet.” I can remember walking up Fifth Avenue heading back home, burning with anger about it. Just pissed as hell. Thinking: What am I going to do? The way my family thinks is that all fixed, a conspiracy, a bunch of bullshit. Blame them all. So that was my first thought. But I wanted to write. It was kind of this Road-To-Damascus moment: Do I decide that it’s fixed and this is all bullshit, or do I go in and take the stupid Intro to Fiction workshop? You know what? I took it. I fixed my piece based on the class’s comments, and applied to the Bennington Writers’ Workshop with it. That’s how I got into grad school.
Alice & Oliver is my second novel. By now I’ve been in enough situations—enough good things and enough not so good things have happened—that I still think some of it’s fixed. I still think there’s a level of bullshit, where it’s about connections and people who know each other. There’s probably nothing in the world that doesn’t work that way. I think accepting this is part of adulthood. However, I also know that nobody’s going to risk their job, or their limited purchasing budget, on someone who’s a friend but who doesn’t have the goods. I firmly believe that if you can write, you have a chance. Doors open. It may not be the door—it may not be The New Yorker; it may not mean that you’re going to have a television show on HBO, but if you can write and you pay attention, and you get better; then you have a chance, because people need good stories. People want good stories and somewhere out there, someone’s going to read a first sentence and go: “Oh! This is pretty good,” and they’ll keep going.
Rail: So you were able to conquer some of those voices you came up hearing. That reminds me of some of the themes of Alice & Oliver, of the fairness of life and how we deal with what we’re given. Your debut novel Beautiful Children was incredibly well-received and you kind of became writer-rockstar guy for a little while.
Bock: For, like, a day!
Rail: Did you end up writing your book in grad school? How did you get that published?
Bock: No, it took me a very long time. It took me a lot of drafts. I had to rewrite it a number of times. A lot of shit jobs all over New York City. I was in my mid-thirties by the time I finished it. My parents, three times a week, would say: “What are you doing with your life? When are you going to go get a PhD? When are you going to go to Law School? Why don’t you do something more?” I was at that age where it was a legitimate question: Am I throwing away my life? But, by the time I was done with the book, it did—it did have a moment. Because it was about Las Vegas, and I’m from Las Vegas. And it was an ambitious book on top of that. I choose to believe that whatever problems there may be in that novel, it also has a huge upside. Also, I’m a unique cat and have my own way of looking at things, so certain influences like David Foster Wallace and Mary Gaitskill got absorbed and then turned into my own, singular mess. I believe it’s a unique book, and there was a great team that believed in it. So it got some attention. And that all went away very quickly. It seemed like everything was poised to happen in a major way. Then all of the sudden it just kind of stopped. “Okay, now I have to write something else.”
Rail: Did you write short stories?
Bock: In grad school, I had two or three that got published. I’ve only once sent out something completely blind and had it accepted. When I was at the tail end of graduate school I wrote a story about Las Vegas that I ended up turning into the first novel, but I hadn’t started off thinking the story would end up being a novel. It was actually not a good piece of writing. The sentences were packed and had a too much stuff in them. They weren’t good sentences. But if I started to unpack them, slowing down and giving the detail the attention that the thoughts deserved—then there was a life, something was going on. When I saw this, I realized, the piece isn’t a short story; it’s something more. So I started following that, which ended up, a hundred years later, turning into Beautiful Children.
Rail: I heard that you revised that novel something like, eight times?
Bock: You just keep doing it and do it and do it. At some point you can’t do any more, and hopefully by then it’s close to right.
Jon Wilson: I was interested in how you incorporated the case studies into Alice & Oliver, because I thought they were very interesting, but I almost felt that they were separate entities that fit into the pieces of that. How you decided to put what, where?
Bock: I felt like Alice & Oliver was going to be intense and wanted places where the reader could pause for breath. I’d heard some medical stories, and I thought that I could use them somehow. And somewhere within the second or third study they started becoming more surreal. They started breaking the idea of what a case study is, breaking the form. So then I set rules for myself. What are these? If these are going to stay in, figure out what they are doing here. That means they have to deliver a certain kind of story to stay in the book. But how do they belong? Eventually I decided that the people in these case studies, maybe they’ll be in the novel as different people that we meet for briefly. The guy in the nurse study—in the novel he’s just coming out of the administrator’s office, and the only way that we know that it’s him is through the shirt he’s wearing. Subtle, but the reader can make the connection. I thought doing this would be a way to get more stories in the book, and to show that so many people go through this in some way or another
Rail: You didn’t have to do much research. You lived this.
Bock: Yep. My wife and I did indeed have a six-month-old baby when she was diagnosed with a complicated form of Leukemia. My wife passed away three days before our child’s third birthday. She had two bone marrow transplants beforehand. That happened and provides the novel with a backbone of truth. I took a lot of notes during my wife’s illness because I needed to know what things to buy, for instance, and have a record of what her temperature was, and what was going on each day. When I was writing the novel, though I also had medical three-ring binders. And I had to read and learn about technical things, not so that I would become a know it all, but so I’d know what the right two sentences were to put in a scene.
When I finished the novel I showed it to some medical professionals to make sure that I got everything right. There were some drugs and some other things in the book that didn’t exist in 1994. In some cases, I tried to find out what they would’ve done then, in other cases I just made up names of drugs. You do lie, just make sure it’s a great and believable lie. That’s fine. So long as the reader believes in the story, you are good.
Rail: Talk about researching the NYC of 1993.
Bock: I couldn’t rely on my own experience visiting here, so I went to the New York Public Library and hit the microfiche for the Village Voice from 1993 to 1994, reading not only the articles but the advertisements and the back pages and learning how much an apartment went for. I looked at fashion magazines for Alice. The paper trail was significant. Based on the ads and The Best Of New York issues and things like that, I made little maps of the neighborhoods derived from what stores existed at the time. Say for a route Oliver would walk, what places would he would pass? Where it really helped was around Astor Place, With my map, I’d figure out where things were. Always trying to tell that believable lie.
Maria-Elena Grant: I just lost my mother to cancer in two months ago. My experience has been that I find it largely undiscussable. I’ve been going through her stuff and her journals and I couldn’t even imagine writing a book about my journey. Did you know this was going to be a book while you were on the that journey with your wife?
Bock: That’s a good question. There’s this Lorrie Moore story called “People Like That Are The Only People Here.” It’s about a woman who is a writer and she has a young child and the child has blood in its diaper and is diagnosed with cancer. Halfway through the story, the husband says to her: “Take notes. This is we you earn a living.” It’s a very funny story. I also had the “take notes” part in my head. I remembered that story, but I still wasn’t thinking that I was going to write about it.
During that first span, when were staying in the hospital, there’d be little things, I’d see them and I’d write them down. Like, when the morning parade of the attending and all the student doctors come in and the one at the end isn’t paying attention. He’s looking at the family pictures and you just take a little note. It’s not anywhere close to writing a book. At some point after we got back to New York City, someone told me: “You’re going to need to write about it.” My late wife was also taking notes on her computer because she wanted to write a book when she beat cancer to help other women get through it. Now she never got to where that could happen, but she was taking notes, which at least was a way for her to process.
Each time she went into remission, I’d start to work on the book. When she came out of remission, I wouldn’t be writing, I’d be just concentrating on trying to keep her alive. As you know, that’s an encompassing, full-time job—the caregiving, let alone the paperwork and the money aspects of it, are just a nightmare.
But a couple months after she passed away, I started to organize my notes. Because I had written a novel before this, I also knew that I didn’t need to be ready for the whole thing. I didn’t need to know everything about the novel. I knew that all I needed to do was to start working—at first it was organizational work—and that it would be a long time before I would be getting to the end or the second half of the book. Now, when I was writing and it was the time for a new chapter, I’d look at my notes, and then, yeah, I would have to get into bed and I’d be done for three hours because it was just too hard. But after little while, the shock wears off a little bit. You start to think again in terms of: Is this a good scene? What do I need to do? What’s going on here? You start to think of it as material.
Also, with time, you’re not going to want to forget. All the shit that’s so hard now, actually would feel worse if you’d forget it, because there comes a point where this is all we have, our memories. As hard as the work was, it was better for me because at least I was putting it down. I was getting it on a page. I know this is a long, ten minute answer, but the process of how we work—it really is a process and it happens at a lot of levels.
Bukola Shonuga-Smith: Did revisiting this episode on your life serve as a sort of therapy?
Bock: Probably to a degree. I think it helped me come to terms with certain things. I don’t think it helped heal anything. My experience is that it helps you live with these holes as opposed to paving them over, and it helps you figure out how to navigate certain things because you don’t get over it. I don’t get over it.
Tucker Newsome: I wanted to jump back a moment to the time period of the novel. That setting plays an integral role to the story; it almost becomes a character itself. I was wondering why you chose the specific year of 1993 and if you think that the time period would have lent itself as well to the story had it been set a decade earlier or a decade after?
Bock: That’s an interesting question. I wanted a New York City that was different than this city is today. I thought ’93 to ’94 was interesting for a lot of different reasons. It allowed me to be able to end the book with the girl—when the baby would be fifteen, which creates a very different Meatpacking District from the one written about in the early ’90s. When I started to do research there were a couple things that helped. The Disney Store moves into Times Square in early ’94. The first commercial web browser is released in early ’94. There’s all the delineation points of before and after and not all of them make it into the novel. The New York City we live in now is just a different beast. You could write a powerful book about New York City and race and set it in 1993 because the mayor was so evil in what he did: He also ended up transforming the face of the city. But that was not the book I wanted to write. I did want race to be part of the novel, but creeping in from the edges, one element of the experience.
Mackie Burt: I think Alice & Oliver is such a meaningful book. What do you hope this contribution makes to literature?
Bock: Oh, thank you. Well, I’m really proud of this book. I do want it to have a place in the world. People who have family members or who are ill themselves, I hope that it gives them solace. It’s a book about life and about being able to go on, more than it is about death. That’s what make it a bearable and good book, I hope. You know, cancer is a way worse—more scary villain than the boy king from Game Of Thrones. I tried to treat it that way: tried to make it be a villain. But in the end I hope it’s a book about life. I hope all readers, not just ones with sick family members, get a lot out of it.
Rail: That line—the doctor says: “Cancer. It’s a hell of a disease.” The way you describe it, it’s as if he, as a scientist, marvels at its ingenuity as a destroyer and he’s just shocked about how pernicious it can be.
Bock: Or just matter-of-fact, but it’s with admiration. We study this and we’re in combat with this and this is a worthy foe or the worthy foe.
Sean King: In that last part of this third-person point-of-view novel, you go into first-person present-tense with Alice. When did you decide to do that? And why?
Bock: Good question. Probably a middle chapter. We’ve met Merv. We’re starting the stuff with the spring weather. Somewhere around there, I started thinking about this as a possibility. By then it had probably been a year to a year and half since Diana has passed. My computer fucked up. I had some days before I was actually going to go and bite the bullet and buy a new computer. I was writing on my wife’s old laptop, and finally I opened up her old files. I went in and looked at Diana’s notes for a book and then Diana’s journal. When I started reading it; there she was. There’s her voice. Now, that’s not the voice in the novel’s pages, but in her journal, there she was. Within a day, I thought: what if she starts—what if she directly tells the story of her transplant? There were some sentences and some moments— the afternoon where Alice’s friends came and she had that line: “I got to be with all these wonderful women, how lucky I am.” And then saying, about the transplant, and her fear: “It’s not today.” All of this is ahead but it’s not happening today and she felt blessed for that.
Once I saw how powerful her voice was, I think that made me need to have her tell this story. We’re going to get into her head and she’s going to wrestle with all this. She has to wrestle with her husband and his betrayal and she has to wrestle with her own mortality — what if she is the one delivering it directly? It’s her book anyway, right? I thought in terms of: “How am I playing my cards? This is a pretty excellent move” What if for half of the book, I hold back and everything’s happening full bore, but it’s third person, it’s that removed narration that filters through the third person. It’s a kind of holding back. But then at the worst moment—when she’s going through the worst and everything is crashing down, what if she tells it to us directly? I didn’t have that idea until I opened those journals. But once it was in my head, I couldn’t ignore it. I had to do it, because it was too good. It’s a move that adds intimacy. And then when she falls into a coma well understand what the loss of her her voice means. We’ll feel the loss and the tragedy.
Paolo Iacovelli: Since you were just talking about the back and forth between you and you editor, could you talk more about that whole process?
Bock: My editor was the same editor who bought my first novel. Very early he was supportive and said to me, this is something you can do. My publisher was great to me. It’s easy for people is to bad-mouth the publishing world. And sometimes you do have people who drive good books into walls, messing up the careers and lives of authors. But Random House was tremendous to me when Diana was ill, and they were excellent to me afterwards as well. They found sitters for my kid. They gave me extra time. They released money when I had no money. My editor was great, I had a great ride with him. He read through everything many times. He made me rewrite the first paragraph more times than I could ever tell you. His way of doing things was to say: “So, what do you think of the ending?” And then I would be like: “I think I nailed it! It’s so good, right?” Then he would start asking me questions. “Well, what’s happening here and here and here?” By the time we were done I understood why the ending wasn’t so great and that I had some more work to do and had some things to figure out. I hope each of you has an editorial experience that’s as good as the experience I had.
Greg Levine-Rozenvayn: At what point during the writing process did you decide that it wasn’t Alice’s story told through Alice’s lens but like this collective story told through an omniscient narrator? And what was the thinking behind that?
Bock: Halfway through then I understood the last third would have a lot of her voice and then, once I made that decision, I began to understood that in other places I was going to have to hold back. That was part of the gamble and part of the game: When we get to her, we’ve really wanted her for all of this time. Instilling that desire is not necessarily a flaw, but a calculated poker decision, in the hope that the last third will be even more sparkling.
As far as the ending, which jumps into 2010, that was something I had to figure out. At some point, I understood: When my daughter was like four or five years old, people would say: “Oh, she is just going to be a terror.” Or “Can you imagine what she’s like when she’s fifteen? You’re going to be in so much trouble,” and then I thought: Oh! What if I make Doe fifteen? There’s been enough leaps in the novel, jumps in time, jumps with the case studies, where that final leap becomes possible, the book’s structure is elastic enough to allow for it. When I figured this out, I couldn’t even sit still. It was like: That’s the right move. That’s the right card to play.
Vanessa Warmingham: When you’re writing fiction based on your real life and you have a message you want to get across, how do you separate the two so that the message doesn’t suffer or your plot doesn’t suffer?
Bock: It’s hard, honestly. You try and then you fix it. Sometimes you write a scene that’s too heavy-handed. Then you have to read it, recognize the problem, and change dialogue or just change things up. I’d have to figure out, what does this scene do, then start to block it out and work out to get there. Then you have to mix in the medical terms that you need and the structural things you need to happen. With a level of naturalness so that it’s not a soap opera or be wooden. You try and you mess it up and then you keep all your good stuff, all your good lines, or you move the good lines around. You just kind of experiment.
Sometimes there would be real events that were the basis of a scene. But I knew I needed a sentence here. Or this thing has to happen, but I might use a funny line I heard someone or at some other time, or maybe it got left out of another scene. Or maybe there’s some event that was important that actually happened some other time and it gets added to the scene for layering. You mix and match so that eventually the scene is going to stand on its own and it’s going to have its own parts, its own rhythm, its own life. My hope is that no one else could go through and say: “this scene that takes place in a hospital bed; part A happened, but part B didn’t happen.” There’s like an orderly that Alice says to, “Let’s go get high.” I put that in because of Denis Johnson and Jesus’ Son. His narrator worked as an orderly, that’s what addicts had to do as part of their halfway house program. So I was imagining someone like him when Alice says, “I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you get me out of here. Here’s a thousand dollars, let’s go get high!”
Now, in real life, there was a moment, I remember—when my wife said that the orderly rolled her by, all the windows on her way to getting a test and she looked out and she said: “Why can’t you let me be outside for five minutes?” That’s what I turned the novel into: little moments. You mush them up, and some stays in and some doesn’t. You show it to the person who reads your work, who will tell you “This is too much” or “This is too far.” You do another draft. You read that again and then you do another draft. And you keep what faith you can.
Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume A Pleasing Shape (BOA Editions, 2011). He is the Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. He is an associate professor of writing and literature at The New School, in New York City, where he founded the literary journal LIT. He lives in Queens. @jasalvatore