A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself started for me when my neighbor in Brooklyn—let’s call her Linda—told my mother and me a story about being invited over to our other neighbor’s house on the corner. We’ll call him—the other neighbor—Angelo. Angelo’s a notorious character in my neighborhood. Never wearing a shirt in the summer, eighty-years-old and hard of hearing, thick Italian accent, cheating on his shut-in wife when she was still alive, and pretty wealthy by all accounts. Linda was probably thinking, What have I got to lose? She was probably thinking he had all this money and that wasn’t a negative. But when she got over to his house, he put on a porno movie and made a move on her. She left immediately, rushing home to her apartment and filling my mom in on what happened. But my brain was lit up with what ifs. What if she had lashed out at him? What if she was a former mob wife, now a widow, who had felt protected her whole life but no longer had that sense of safety? (My brain went there because the apartment she lived in, the same one I had grown up in, was where the gangster Gaspipe Casso lived for years.) What if, on top of that, she was intensely lonely, estranged from her daughter and granddaughter? That’s how Rena Ruggiero came to be.
Having just re-watched Thelma and Louise for the first time in twenty years, I had a sense early that I wanted the book to be about female friendship. And I’ve been mainly interested in writing about older women lately. I was raised by strong women, by my mother and my grandmother, and I was shaped by the absence of my father growing up, so I wanted to explore the mythology of New York City from the perspective of women who know how to survive. The character of Lacey Wolfstein grew out of my desire to explore someone who was the polar opposite of Rena in so many ways: someone who had depended on friendship her whole life, someone who had lived hand to mouth, who had flown by the seat of her pants, who had been daring and wild and who could teach Rena to see the world in new ways. I’d always been fascinated by adult film star Lisa De Leeuw, who faded into obscurity and then disappeared, the legend being that she’d used dying of AIDS as a cover to assume a new identity and exist off the grid. I wanted to imagine an alternate history for someone like her, someone who had struggled after being spit out by the adult film industry and then thrived.
Lucia, Rena’s granddaughter, wrote herself a bigger part than I ever intended. She’s not a mere ornament. She deserved her own thread. She’s independent and headstrong and fiery. While Rena discovers the importance of friendship, the book also—in a key way—is about Lucia’s rugged individualism (and Rena’s reckoning with that).
I grew up loving movies first and foremost as a kid. It was Quentin Tarantino who led me to Elmore Leonard. It was the Coen Brothers who led me to James M. Cain. The influence of film is all over the place here, and I’m not shy or sorry about it. I thought a lot about the transition the Coen Brothers made from Blood Simple to Raising Arizona. I love the way their movies bend reality, how they seem real and mythical at the same time. That’s something I’m always after. I thought about Jonathan Demme’s screwball noirs from the ’80s, Something Wild and Married to the Mob; I love the balance of menace and violence with weird, comedic set pieces in those films. I also, on that note, thought a lot about the films of Shane Black, a master at wild, over-the-top meaningful action. John Cassavetes’s Gloria and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan are two of my favorite films and big models for what I’m doing here. I wanted chase scenes reminiscent of The French Connection and The Seven-Ups and We Own the Night. In terms of how time unfolds, I wanted the urgency of Bad Day at Black Rock: a charged story over a twenty-four hour or so period.
One of the things all of these films I’m talking about have in common is incredible pacing. On the list of principles I made going into this book, pacing was my number one concern. I wanted the book to be frantic and funny. I wanted it to be a study in tension. I also wanted those big tonal shifts. I love moving from slapstick to dead seriousness, from intimacy to a jarring scene of sudden violence. For me, formulaic beats kill pacing.
There are, of course, lots of literary influences here, as well. My hero Elmore Leonard is a big one. Harry Crews looms large, especially the schizophrenic wackiness of a novel like All We Need of Hell. (My early elevator pitch for the book would’ve been: “Harry Crews doing The Golden Girls.”) In the character of Crea, I get to flex my psycho noir muscles a little and pay homage to the strutting brutality of two other longtime heroes, Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin was an important (and unexpected) key to understanding how I wanted to deal with structure and time. The darkly comic crime novels of French writers Pascal Garnier and Jean-Patrick Manchette were instrumental in helping me build an off-key yet plausible fictional world.
A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself relies on coincidences and crossed paths and luck. Characters come together in a time of crisis, as they do in all of my favorite noirs. Their storylines intersect. On a larger scale, the book is a meditation on violence, time, death, and memory. The mythical and the real fade into each other. The book is populated with lost characters telling their stories to prove they’re real. Through telling, they tangle with guilt and failure and forgiveness.
(c) William Boyle
William Boyle is from Brooklyn, New York. His debut novel, Gravesend, was nominated for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in France and shortlisted for the John Creasey New Blood Dagger. Boyle’s follow-up, The Lonely Witness, is also available from No Exit. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.
About A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself:
Thelma and Louise meets Goodfellas when an unlikely trio of women in New York find themselves banding together to escape the clutches of violent figures from their pasts.
After Brooklyn mob widow Rena Ruggiero hits her eighty-year-old neighbor Enzio in the head with an ashtray when he makes an unwanted move on her, she retreats to the Bronx home of her estranged daughter, Adrienne, and her granddaughter, Lucia, only to be turned away at the door. Their neighbor, Lacey ‘Wolfie’ Wolfstein, a one-time Golden Age porn star and retired Florida Suncoast grifter, takes Rena in and befriends her. When Lucia discovers that Adrienne is planning to hit the road with her ex-boyfriend, she figures Rena is her only way out of a life on the run with a mother she can’t stand. The stage is set for an explosion that will propel Rena, Wolfie, and Lucia down a strange path, each woman running from their demons, no matter what the cost.
A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself is a novel about finding friendship and family where you least expect it, in which William Boyle again draws readers into the familiar – and sometimes frightening – world in the shadows at the edges of New York’s neighborhoods.
‘It’s the women who make this novel such a great read. They are glorious and mad, vulnerable, so human, and very, very funny’ – Roddy Doyle
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