Tag Archives: Will Boast

An Interview with Will Boast

27 Aug
Will Boast's memoir Epilogue was called "hands down the most moving book I’ve read this year" by Anthony Marra.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue was called “hands down the most moving book I’ve read this year” by Anthony Marra.

Will Boast was born in England and grew up in Ireland and Wisconsin. His story collection, Power Ballads, won the 2011 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction and essays have appeared in Best New American Voices, Virginia Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. He’s been a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford and a Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book is the New York Times bestselling memoir, Epilogue. He currently divides his time between Chicago and Brooklyn, NY, and is currently a Literature Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.

To read the prologue to Boast’s memoir Epilogue and an exercise on framing chronology, click here.

In this interview, Boast discusses structural challenges of memoirs, writing dialogue from memory, and using concision to handle emotion.

Michael Noll

One of the challenges for memoir writers, at least in some memoirs I’ve read, is that they get trapped by chronology. They have something they want to talk about or some particular story to tell, but that thing or that story isn’t enough to fill an entire book. And so, at a certain point, the book moves into “and then this happened and this.” That isn’t the case for this book, and it seems, in part, to be due to the structure you chose, which is centered more on thematic units than chronological ones. Did you always have such a structure in mind? How did you discover it?

Will Boast

I agree. A strictly chronological telling is very tempting for writers starting on any story, whether nonfiction or fiction. And sometimes it does work. But, in memoir anyway, it can be deadening. Too much of life is mundane to just make it “and then and then,” and very few, if any people, have real experiences that naturally take the shape of a good story. So you splice and rearrange and follow patterns rather than doggedly follow a timeline. Sven Birkerts’ The Art of Time in Memoir is very good on this subject.

Every book finds its own shape, but memoirs seem to present special structural challenges. I often say that, If fiction is the art of invention, memoir is the art of arrangement. Honestly, only an enormous amount of effort and trial and error helped me move forward. But I did have in mind, through many drafts, an emotional progression. That, more than anything, was my guide. It’s difficult for me to talk about themes, because I think those only become truly clear in nearly the final drafts. Certainly, I thought about ideas I wanted to express in the book. But more often than not, I found that they dropped away in the long process of revision, and that the ones that stayed became so tightly wound into the story itself that I almost hesitate to call them themes now.

Michael Noll

The book contains so much loss, but you write mostly about living in the aftershocks of the loss and only a little about the loss itself. For example, you cover your mother’s death in a single paragraph. Was such concision always part of your sense of the book? Or did you write a great deal that you ended up cutting?

Will Boast

I wrote an incredible amount that I ended up cutting: several very long drafts and many, many alternate versions of each chapter. A certain concision, even reticence, ended up becoming part of the way the book handles emotion. At times I found that passages that had once sprawled over pages could be condensed into single sentences, and gain in power because of it. That’s actually quite a realization, that editing out whole episodes of your own experience can help the whole cohere. At first, it all seems important. But then you start to see the most relevant through lines, and they begin to guide you.

Michael Noll

Will Boast's memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

One of the questions that memoir writers face is how to handle dialogue, how to write spoken lines that are only half-remembered. So, I’m curious how you handled these conversations. For instance, you talked on the phone with your dad on the day that he died. During the call, you were, as you write,”hungover and pissy about being woken early,” which would seem to not lay fertile ground for remembering. How did you approach recreating this conversation for the book?

Will Boast

That phone call I do remember pretty vividly. Even though my brain was a little addled at the time, it’s simply one of those conversations you can’t forget, even if you wish you could. There are several instances of that in the book. There were also moments where, later in the timeline of the book, I actually thought to take notes, so that helped in places.

But you’re also right to wonder how much of actual speech can be remembered. I don’t think that many people who’ve written memoir would claim to recall verbatim who said what and when. And, really, that isn’t the point of memoir. No one has tape recordings of family dinners from twenty years ago. It’s important to understand that memoir is not simply a transcript of what happened. It’s not even simply remembering things. (If it was, it would be rather easier to write.) There’s a necessary process of distillation. Every single person, after all, says the same things over and over again. Our little refrains are a huge part of who we are. And those I find very easy to recall with great accuracy. So some of the dialogue you see in the book is made up of those things that were said habitually, day after day, dinner after dinner, fight after fight, bad joke after bad joke.

Michael Noll

At times, you mix present action (for instance, preparing for your father’s funeral) with memories from childhood (giving your father a knife that you prized so that he could sell it). Is this mixing simply the result of your imagination and unconscious churning out material? Or the result of something more logical and planned?

Will Boast

Memory is not linear. Though we always live in the present, our minds are constantly casting into both the future and the past. In a way, I think of the stuff of memoir as being that which is so constantly on our minds that it keeps intruding on and interrupting the present. (This is the definition of trauma, I think.) The process of drafting, then, should be in part associative. This moment recalls another moment. Some of this just happens in the notebook. But, by the final drafts, yes, everything is intentional and very carefully planned.

August 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Frame Chronology

25 Aug
Will Boast's memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

When we sit down to write about our real lives, it’s easy to fall into the chronology trap. We write, “This happened and then this and then this.” The essay or memoir becomes, simply, one thing after another. This structure might sound logical; after all, isn’t that how our lives happen, one thing after another? Not really. At any moment, the complicated machines that are our worlds contain many moving pieces, some we see and some we don’t. But we only think about a few of them at a time, and it’s not always the pieces right in front of our faces. We tell stories to ourselves about our lives and histories, and those stories help structure our sense of what is happening to us and around us. When writing these stories down, chronology can actually be the enemy of good writing. What we need is a way to frame it, just as we do in real life.

An example of a memoir that frame chronology really well is Will Boast’s Epilogue. An excerpt was published at VQR Online, and you can read it now.

How the Memoir Works

The begins with the death of Boast’s father. His mother and only brother have recently died as well. These deaths create a natural occasion for thinking about the past—what else is a eulogy but a summing up of the chronology of a life? So, Boast begins with summary: “On the morning of the day he died…” and tells us how his father died. What makes the passage interesting from a craft point-of-view is that it’s not simply a list of his father’s actions and whereabouts. Instead, those actions are filtered through a lens: “My father was never one to complain.” Then, in the passage that follows, the moments of his father’s last day are connected to that statement about his personality and character:

On the morning of the day he died, an ulcer he’d suffered from for years, and left untreated, ruptured and began to bleed. Two days later I met with the town coroner. He told me the end had been painless, that, as his life leached away, my father would only have felt increasingly weak and light-​headed. The coroner, trying to make me feel better, was lying. By any other account, when an ulcer perforates and blood, bile, bacteria, and partially digested food begin to spill into the abdominal cavity, you feel as if a knife has just been buried in your guts. You might faint. You might vomit blood or something that looks like coffee grounds—​blood oxidized black by stomach acid. Or your body shuts down completely, total collapse its only remaining response to the shock and agony.

But my father, on the day he died, carried his burning, pleading stomach with him on his morning commute and worked his usual day at the plant, seven in the morning till seven at night.

As a result, a coroner’s report tells us about not just the cause of death but also something about the man who died. The chronology is given a purpose: tell what happened and pose a question. What kind of man doesn’t complain, even when in physical agony? Questions like that are the basis for story.

Boast fills the memoir with paragraphs that begin with thesis-like sentences. Here’s another: “Growing up, I thought he was unbreakable.” What follows is a paragraph containing details that convey unbreakability:

“On the coldest Wisconsin winter days, he went out gloveless and hatless, his face and fingers gone angry red in the frigid, prickling wind. Never bothered him. Freeze him, burn him, cut him, kiss him—​he wouldn’t even flinch.”

But the statement also sets the stage for a fairly straightforward chronology of his father’s childhood through his teen year—a necessity for any kind of accounting of a life. Most accountings, however, lead only to one thing: adulthood and, finally, death. But in Boast’s telling, the account of his father’s life leads to a point:

“The point of the story, I understood, was not that winners could suffer through and losers could not. The point was that showing your pain was a choice, and the choice not to show it required only an exercise of will. How joyous to laugh and play on in the face of pain!

By making a point, rather than just telling what happened, the prose is freed from the chronology trap. It gains the freedom to slow down, to stay in a moment and show it in great detail—creating pockets of chronology within the larger story. It can also skip over details that might seem important to a basic timeline but that don’t meaningfully contribute to the point. The writing can move back and forth in time because each paragraph or passage suggests the story (the point) of what we’re reading. The result is a memoir that is so much richer than the chronology behind it—even when those events are, as with Epilogue, stunning.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s give meaning to chronology using Epilogue by Will Boast as a model:

  1. Decide what thing you want to tell. Regardless of whether the writing is fiction or nonfiction, we often approach scenes or passages with one detail in mind, a fact or anecdote or description that shines brightly in our imaginations. Of course, to get it onto the page, we need some reason. It can’t sit there all alone. So we create a home for it, which usually involves chronology of some sort. For now, though, set that chronology or story aside. What’s the detail?
  2. Consider why the detail stands out? Some details are so weird or wild that they justify their own presence, though this is rarer than you might think. (Jim Varney, he of Ernest P. Worrell fame, made a movie about a man with a hand that stuck off the top his head. You’d think that’d be weird enough to sustain an audience’s interest. But you’d be wrong, as Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam makes amply clear.) Instead of relying on shock, think about meaning. Why does the detail remain with you? What does it say about the people involved? Did they react to or treat the detail the same as everyone would? Did they think about it in a way that was particular to their community or group or individual personalities? This is where meaning is found.
  3. Write a sentence that suggests or directly states this meaning. It doesn’t need to be grand or philosophical. It can be simple and straightforward: “My father was never one to complain.” That sentence tell us how to think about the details that follow. For your sentence, pick one that tells the reader how to think about the details or chronology that you’re about to write.
  4. Write the chronology toward a point. What happened? What is the sequence of events around this detail? As you write it, think about where you’re headed. Not every passage will end with a sentence that begins “The point of this story is…” but every passage generally ought to end with such clarity. If the point is confusion (I didn’t know what to think), then that confusion should be clear. It’s this sense of direction that makes chronology a story and not just a list of events.

Good luck.

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