Charles Bock visited for the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series last September, and while we weren’t able to fit an in-person interview during his stop, we caught up with him by phone this spring. We talked about the importance of being involved in characters’ lives, the value of timelessness in literature, and how research can enrich fiction.
Charles Bock is the author of Beautiful Children, a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. He lives with his daughter in New York City, where he is at work on his second novel.
Hot Metal Bridge: Often we ask our writers, when we interview them for Hot Metal Bridge, about craft and writing process. Those are kind of obnoxious terms, I guess, but I was wondering, do you have a routine when you’re working on a book that you’re writing?
Bock: Oh. I’m a mess. Making time to write is a bit of a—I wish it were so set that I always had the same times and always had the same availabilities. And I wish that my mind worked in such a way that I could always just do the same things. It doesn’t. It doesn’t. That’s not how it is. And there’s times where I have a lot of time in front of me and it’s time to do work, and I have real problems getting in. And I think getting into and being connected and being able to stay in the chair and not surf the web, not check Facebook or not go try and do dishes all of a sudden when you have to do dishes—which is what I was doing when you called, I was like, “Oh, I can get my dishes done before I do this interview.” I wish I was that routine and that disciplined, and I know there are writers who really are and who are able to keep the world at bay like that.
Usually I stumble around until a sentence or something engages me and then when I get in, even then I still take breaks and do what have you, and then come back to it and build a little more and have my notes and arrange my notes a little more. I think of myself more as a builder, that I gradually build things and gradually understand them better. I wish my process was more rigid: I sit, then I write my sentences and then I write my beautiful paragraphs, but I don’t even think my sentences or my paragraphs are all that particularly beautiful anyways. So I just stumble my way through. I do a lot of organizational work and put lots and lots of thought into things.
Hot Metal Bridge: That brings me to a question. I read Beautiful Children of course, which I really enjoyed, and even though it was hard—of course there are a lot of really tough moments in that book—
Bock (chuckling): It’s a tough book.
Hot Metal Bridge: —Yeah, but I felt like there was a lot of research that went into it, even if it was just research about runaway culture or the porn industry or whatever it was. So I was wondering, when you are working, does it totally depend on the project the amount of research you do? Or do you feel like that tends to improve fiction? How do you go about doing that?
Bock: That’s a good question. You know, every single person who answers that has a different thing that they’re drawn to and that they’re interested in and that can even change book to book. I do have an interest in how the world works and how things connect. I do, I just do. And I want to get things right. That matters to me a lot. I think now it might be even a little different because we have the magic Google machine to tell us how everything works. And when I was writing Beautiful Children that wasn’t really the case. There were no giant search engines that just, you plopped in and got answers. I still find things fascinating like that. Josh Ferris’ new novel [To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, out May 1, 2014] is about to come out and I really believe he knows everything there is to know about being a dentist—about dental work and about how the mouth works and about how being a dentist works and I buy it. I totally buy it. But you know, Kafka got the Statue of Liberty wrong. He’d never seen it. And that novel—and there’s all kinds of works of fantastic flight that maybe don’t [seem credulous]. I think each person has to decide for themselves. The thing that I’m working on now has a lot of cancer in it and a lot of hospital stuff. And part of that is just personal experience and lots of notes, but I also want to make sure that it’s right. I don’t want it to be wrong. If someone doesn’t believe that and if they know it, that’s embarrassing. Whether or not you say it’s fiction, you want the lie to be better than the truth. I mean that’s the thing, you have to believe. And I think that a really good, skillful liar uses a lot of fact.
Hot Metal Bridge: Yeah, I guess that’s true.
Bock: That’s my own take, but again, you see things on these fantastic dystopian worlds that people write about but even in [Cormac McCarthy’s] The Road, we have to believe, we have to believe in the apocalypse of civilization to buy it all. And I think research is one of the ways, so long as it gets assimilated in and it’s not “this is the paragraph where I did all my research” but can get assimilated into the work, then I think that it’s a good thing.
Hot Metal Bridge: So you grew up in Vegas, so a lot of that research was really just from being there.
Bock: There were things I knew from being there and then there were things I would have to go back and figure out.
Hot Metal Bridge: So I guess that’s kind of a follow up is … it took 10 years to finish Beautiful Children, so was part of that revisiting places or was it just, you know, an arduous process as it was?
Bock: Well, I just didn’t know what I was doing, and it just took me a long time to write it. And it’s a big, long book. And there’s a lot of attention and care, there’s parts of it that … there’s a lot of attention and care in that book, whatever flaws there are. I didn’t know how to write it and it took me a long time. And in the course of it also Vegas did change a lot. And I came to an understanding that I had to come up with my own version of Vegas that was a timeless amalgam of what I thought of the city that could somehow handle time.
Hot Metal Bridge: Why was that timelessness important, do you think?
Bock: Because I knew Vegas is constantly changing—things are constantly going up and coming down, and if I tried to capture a certain time period, I would date myself. If I tried to be ahead of the curve, the curve would pass me, because it takes a long time to write and because I could see that happening. And I could see books coming out where someone was trying to be super current and by the time it comes out it’s not super current, it’s past. Even in the novel there’s VHS videos. By the time I was done, that was gone, that was done. So it’s dated, it’s definitely dated. And there’s nothing you can do about it. But hopefully there’s a larger truth that is captured that is timeless. And at some point I decided, “What do I believe about this city?” and how do I get it? You know? And that’s where I really went and that’s what I really went for that and whether or not how close I got I don’t know, but I know that at some point I did focus on that idea and hopefully this is what I think of Las Vegas and it’s not going to change with time.
Hot Metal Bridge: I think you’ve talked a number of times, or people have asked you about how Vegas is a character. But I mean, yes, it totally is, but speaking of characters, the characters in Beautiful Children are super complex and very real—I felt like they were very real—but a lot of them for lack of a better word have shitty existences in a lot of ways. I was just curious, as you’re writing these characters, do you ever need to take a step back from creating and spending time in those lives for yourself just so you don’t get bogged down by them?
Bock: You know, that’s a good question. Vegas is a hard place. And my feelings about it especially when I was writing that book—and even now—at best they’re complicated. But I felt and I still think that I wrote those characters with a huge amount of love and a large amount of empathy and sympathy for them. And as far as distance or stepping away, I think it’s good to be in the book. I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s important to have a healthy life outside of it and people around you that support you and have things that keep you alive while you’re working on it.
But—and I did understand that I was writing a very, very dark book, I never had illusions about that—but I felt that there would be more than enough humanity shining through to make it both readable and worthwhile and not a piece of torture porn or something. I don’t know, I thought people would love the book. Usually people tell me they admire it or that it was quite a read or they couldn’t put it down. There’s not people who say, “I really loved Last Exit to Brooklyn,” but it’s a great book. You can’t deny it, and what I did probably is, whether I wanted it to or not, it seems to have fallen along those lines.
I don’t know, I had support of the woman who became my wife and who was a great reader and who believed in what I was doing and we spent a huge amount of time talking about it, but I stayed in the book, I gotta say. Except when I had to, like for life reasons, I was pretty connected and emotionally I was more emotionally concerned with taking care of them and doing them right and doing the vision in my head right than I was with taking a break. I’m not a take-a-breaker.
Hot Metal Bridge: I think you accomplished something that’s so difficult. I just think it’s so hard to write characters who are so real on so many levels like they’re, you know, they do things that, as a reader you’re like “what are you doing?!” but you want them to win, even if they’re making these choices. I really liked that.
Bock: Thanks. Isn’t that part of the delicious hell of it? Of a book you love? Where you see it’s not going to be that way? When you see that it’s not going to be what you want it to be?
Hot Metal Bridge: Yeah, because it’s so much like real friends can be—you love them even though you know they’re not always doing the best they can for themselves.
Bock: Right. That’s exactly right. And even if sometimes you have to step away from them and you love them but they’re doing things that you can’t stop and you can’t condone and you love them and you know it’s headed for ruin. That’s the same way with a relationship with someone that you love that you can’t be with.
Hot Metal Bridge: That’s a good analogy.
Bock: And it is hell. But for good literature, for literature to survive and for it to be worthwhile and for it to be something more than Twilight or something, it has to reflect the fact that life involves hope and pain and death. And that being an adult is learning to live with a certain amount of failure. And in fact there is an argument more and more that being an adult is living like that. Even as it’s also always living with hope. You know that it’s both, it really is both. It needs to be both in some capacity and depending on what you’re doing, you kind of change the formula or change the balances.
Hot Metal Bridge: So Newell, he finds, I don’t know if it’s necessarily hope, but he really enjoys reading his comics and I was wondering, can you remember when you were Newell’s age what kind of stuff you liked to read?
Bock: When I was that age, I had an older brother and he was huge into comic books and I was huge into comics—I lived for that stuff. Now it’s 30 years from that and now every comic book has had three movies made of it and it all dominates, and it’s these billion-dollar industries and Comicon stops coasts because it’s so big. But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t that. I grew up in a time where I was called geek and nerd and there was nothing good about it.
Hot Metal Bridge: Right.
Bock: There was nothing cool attached to it, there was no computer culture of Silicon Valley taking over that was going to own everything, and no nerd culture. It was a horrible term and going to comic book stores, it was an exciting big deal, that fantasy world. And like X-Men, oh my god. And the Daredevil-Bullseye-Elektra saga. I lived for that shit, I lived for that shit. That’s really true. And it was this huge escape, but it has to be in context because I don’t even know anything now because I’m not connected enough, but just how much of an outcast and how much of an escape it was for me as that little scrawny kid.
Hot Metal Bridge: When you visited us you read from what you’re working on right now and I was just wondering if you would tell us a little bit more about it?
Bock: Sure, I’m working on a novel. It’s loosely based on the first year of my late wife’s illness. It’s about a young mother who, when her baby is six months old, the mom is diagnosed with leukemia, a very complex form of leukemia. And in the course of the novel they have to find a donor and she has to undergo a very tricky operation called a bone marrow transplant. The book is going to take place in the early ’90s in New York City, a pre-gentrified New York City. It’s about her and her husband and kind of what happens to them while they’re trying to save her life.
Hot Metal Bridge: Do you expect that New York City will be as important to this story as Vegas was in Beautiful Children?
Bock: It’s different. It’s still important but it’s a different kind of importance. And the grimy, kind of gritty nature of it is almost comic. And it’s nostalgic, very nostalgic. And also shows how much the world has changed since the early ’90s. The book takes place right before the first commercial web browser ever comes out, so it’s taking place at a time when if you go online, you could in like a month, little less than a month, you can visit every single webpage in existence.
Hot Metal Bridge: Oh wow, I cannot even imagine something like that.
Bock: No, right, we can’t imagine that, and that actually is part of it. The husband is kind of a programmer, and he and his buddies at some point they do that. But that’s unimaginable now. So in some ways there’s a sense of, you know, it’s kind of at the beginning of a different time in the city’s history because this is also when like the … gentrification project to clean up Times Square really starts that year, things like that. And you know, I think of Vegas as kind of a cultural black hole and a city built on cynicism and built on all of the indulgences we have, and taking advantage of them or imbibing them or embracing them, and I think of New York City in a different way and that time in a different way, and hopefully the city is used in a way that’s much more enjoyable. And all these little factoids and little things I have in there are treats, I’m trying to use them as treats. So we’ll see. Who knows. It sounds nice.