“I find a lot of comfort in nihilism.” Eric Boyd on David Bowie, black and white films, and the end of the world.
Living in the Homestead area of Pittsburgh since he was about ten years old, Eric Boyd received his MFA from The Writer’s Foundry in Brooklyn. His stories, poems, and columns can be accessed via his blog, his website, and on Medium, among many other places. His writing has appeared in several literary magazines, as well as the anthologies Prison Noir (Akashic Books) and Words Without Walls (Trinity University Press). He is the editor of The Pittsburgh Anthology (Belt Publishing). Recently, Eric’s been working on a novel, Far Gone, about a young man losing everything in a day and deciding to hop trains across the country. Even though I interviewed him over the void-hell of Zoom, Eric was still able to convey a thoughtful generosity of spirit, letting each question percolate before embarking on unexpected tangents:
Kirk Sever: Let’s start with an easy question. How are stories formed?
Eric Boyd: You said we’d start with an easy one! I’m a big believer in writing what you know, so I guess stories are formed by the storyteller’s experience. Right now, we’re in a really good place where we’re reckoning with voices, especially in fiction, and we’re seeing books by authors that weren’t getting play even five years ago. Stories are formed by a certain level of experience. I don’t expect everybody who writes about murder to murder someone, but I do expect them to understand pain or grief or loss.
KS: In your work, I get a strong sense of voice. I’m curious how your sense of identity is interlinked with your writing and vice versa.
EB: It’s an exploration. I should hope that my voice is always changing, something I’m constantly adding to, like David Bowie. You don’t mistake Bowie’s records for anyone else’s, but you also wouldn’t mistake Space Oddity for Blackstar. You always want to be exploring and messing around.
KS: Are you always writing the same story? With my fiction, I look back at the stuff I’ve done, and it seems like I’m always trying to solve the same puzzle.
EB: I think you’re constantly refining the same thing. To use another music trope, you can be like David Bowie and explore space and intelligence and the human will, which he does pretty consistently every decade with, obviously, Space Oddity and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Then, Bowie returns to Major Tom with Ashes to Ashes. In the nineties he does Earthling and “Hallo Spaceboy,” then the death of Major Tom in Blackstar. His Major Tom was changing because he was changing. I think you’re constantly refining. Recently, I tried writing something I thought was different from anything I’ve ever done. I tried to really do some weird things, something – for me – really revolutionary. Then, I showed it to my girlfriend, and she’s like, this is kind of like that other thing you did!
KS: You’ve written a lot of short fiction and now you’re writing a novel. Can you talk about the different approach longer fiction necessitates?
EB: It’s been a totally different experience. A lot of times in a short story, you can end on a very enigmatic note, or you can end on a feeling, and that does a lot of the work for you. Certain things are better left unsaid. Whereas with a novel, for whatever reason I’m having a helluva time with even simple scene transitions or not writing every single action almost in real time like, I woke up at eight o’clock, I took the covers off, my feet hit the floor, I walked into the bathroom, I brushed my teeth. Because I’m still finding the heart of the novel, I feel if I just write every single action something will shake out and I’ll, you know, find it. Whereas with a short story, I can settle on one simple idea and build words around.
KS: Before you wrote fiction you were making short films, right? Is there a certain skill set that transfers from one medium to another?
EB: That’s actually been really helpful to me as far as transitions go; I think, okay, where would I cut now? What do I not need to show? A lot of times I’m giving myself plot holes but, when you think of the way a movie cuts you don’t think: How did they get there, how did they do that, they were just there a minute ago. You think: Oh well, they just had to get there, so I don’t care.
KS: Are there movie directors that inspire your writing?
EB: Usually the directors I like are intensely visual, someone like Kubrick who does these long zooms for a minute at a time, setting a frame, so that scenes from Barry Lyndon look just like a painting. His whole thing was how to use natural light, so he got this lens from NASA to shoot night scenes with candlelight. That kind of thing inspires me a lot, inspires a feeling, and I try to think, how would I put that feeling into words? But the closest my writing comes to emulating a director, is maybe Jim Jarmusch. I feel like I could write similar things to Jim Jarmusch.
KS: It’s interesting to think about Jarmusch because, when I read your work – and I get the same feeling reading Denis Johnson – it’s like watching a black and white film in its visually stylized simplicity. Or like Roma, which is intense, but is also muted and austere.
EB: Black and white is so interesting. The two places you see it in photography are extremely dreamlike portraits or landscapes. Infrared film with a red filter gets these really dreamy, creamy clouds. People use it for very high fantasy or for street photography, and it’s weird that it occupies a place of intense fantasy and hyper realism. There’s nothing realistic about black and white. We don’t see in black and white, even if you’re colorblind you see colors. So black and white isn’t really representational of the world, but people find an authenticity to it. It’s like practical effects versus CGI. Practical effects look fake, but they feel real. Computer effects look real, but feel fake.
KS: I was going to ask if you agree with Martin Scorsese that superhero films are not cinema, but I think I already know the answer.
EB: I don’t know. What Scorsese’s driving at is that cinema is inherently different than movies. That’s like saying that James Patterson isn’t literature. I get it. I don’t disagree with it, but, I mean… At AWP, like three years ago, this agent said, you might not like that the Kardashians release a memoir every other year, but their memoir helps pay for the advances for your book. At the end of the day, you might not like that nobody wants your work, but that’s the hard truth, that nobody’s out there clamoring for my stuff. I like the idea of you know, people having to enter these worlds from somewhere, so if someone reads James Patterson, they might decide one day to pick up Denis Johnson. You know, it can happen, so I hope that’s the case.
KS: What’s your take on “rules” for writing, such as Elmore Leonard’s rules to never open a book with weather and never use adverbs?
EB: For a number of years, every single day, I wrote a six-word story or poem. I’m a really big believer in rules if for no other reason than so you can break them. I think those kind of guidelines are a good thing, as long as you know what to do with them. To go back to another film example, Richard Rubinstein, the producer of Dawn of the Dead, told George Romero, this is how much money I can give you. That’s the box. Once you’re inside of the box, you can do whatever you want, but that’s the box. And Romero had to figure out, okay well, if I have a million dollars, how could I do this with a million dollars? What would I have to change? What would I have to cut? Whether you’re talking about a six-word story or using adverbs, everything’s fair play. As long as you know how to play with it.
KS: I like that your example is also another black and white film.
EB: No, that’s Night of the Living Dead.
KS: Oh yeah, Dawn of the Dead was the one in the mall and in color.
EB: They had a hard time dealing with color because Tom Savini, the makeup artist, made the zombies gray, but he didn’t realize gray photographs drastically different if you’re under blue lights or yellow lights or green lights. By the way, I think Savini still has a makeup school out this way, maybe an hour away in Monessen. He started out as a war photographer in Vietnam. He said, I don’t stop with my effects until I feel how I felt photographing those things in Vietnam. He needed to create the horror he felt in real life.
KS: How do you feel about point-of-views in storytelling?
EB: Right now, I think we’re in a moment where, whether you like it or not, people are picking sides, whether it’s socially or politically or in terms of classism, racism, sexism. I think that’s a reason for the increase in first person point of view. People are getting their stories out right now, when they weren’t able to before. You’re also seeing a shift towards the present tense. Right now, nothing’s in the past and everything’s happening right now, all the time. I saw this terrible Venn diagram of the apocalypse and having to go to work, and then you’re right in the middle. When you think of the sheer amount of shit that’s going on right now, it’s just insane and overwhelming, so it’s actually weird for me to read a story in past tense.
KS: You wrote about imposter syndrome on Medium. As writers, we all go through moments of self-doubt. What do you do to persevere or find peace of mind?
EB: I think you gotta own it. With imposter syndrome, I don’t think it’s something to fight against or persevere through. I think it’s something to succumb to, to accept and just let it wash over you. Because the worst-case scenario, your work isn’t doing this or that, and okay, maybe it’s not. So what? I mean, the world’s fucking burning. I don’t even know why I’m writing at all. Like, I don’t know if there’s going to be a world to read these books in a few years. At the end of day, you just have to decide, is this important enough to keep doing? Yes or no? I find a lot of comfort in nihilism. If this is as bad as things can get, okay. You can say, hey the world’s burning, so I should probably not even bother writing. Or you can say, hey the world’s burning, I might as well be writing. It’s just a choice.
KS: Last question: What are your top three David Bowie albums
EB: Low, Heathen, and Blackstar
KS: Wow, I didn’t think you’d say Heathen. I love that album.
EB: You know, that album cover is another really good example of black and white imagery being realism tied to fantasy. The portrait of Bowie is, I think, compiled of a bunch of other photos and they just put them all together. It’s not quite realistic, sort of ghostly, and a little bit, you know, fantastical.
ERIC BOYD is a winner of a PEN Prison Writing Award and Slice Magazine’s Bridging the Gap Award. His writing has appeared in several literary magazines, as well as the anthologies Prison Noir (Akashic Books) and Words Without Walls (Trinity University Press). He is the editor of The Pittsburgh Anthology (Belt Publishing). Boyd studied at Maharishi International University before receiving an MFA from The Writer’s Foundry.
KIRK SEVER teaches composition at colleges in the Los Angeles area. His film, music, and book reviews have appeared in The Colorado Review, No Ripcord, the Literary Review, and Rain Taxi, and his stories and poetry in Permafrost, Storgy, and The New Short Fiction Series. He’s been recognized by the Academy of American Poets, and Kirk’s short story collection, They Crawl to the Surface, was semi-finalist in Ohio State’s The Journal Book Prize. Kirk is writing a thriller.