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A Conversation with BILL BEVERLY

Written by Ayo Onatade

Bill Beverly was born and grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He studied literature and writing at Oberlin College, including time in London studying theatre and the Industrial Revolution. He then studied fiction and pursued a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of Florida. His research on criminal fugitives and the stories surrounding them became the book On the Lam: Narratives of Flight in J. Edgar Hoover’s America. He now teaches American literature and writing at Trinity University in Washington D.C. and lives with his wife, the poet and writer Deborah Ager, and their daughter Olive, in Hyattsville, Maryland. He collects beer cans. Dodgers is his debut novel.

Tell us about your inspiration for the book.

East set up shop as a character in my imagination a decade ago, and Dodgers springs from him. I learned his ways – his reserve, his pique, his sharpened reactions to the world. And the battle, which is so strong at his age, to preserve and control a life you know, when you know too that it is changing, that it will pass. I love stories about that age. Some awkwardness is necessary. Good writing about being fifteen years old should now and then make you cringe.

One story that sparked Dodgers was Richard Price’s Clockers. A great book, a great Spike Lee movie – yet there was always something about the end that made me crazy, that opened more questions than it closed. What becomes of Strike, the young black kid, veteran of the Jersey drug trade, who leaves his hometown at the end, more by necessity than choice? The film ends with him on the road, a blur. That blur fascinates me. I’m not saying that Clockers should have gone there; that’s for a different book. Maybe I should thank Mr. Price for not writing that book.

It took me a long time, writing Dodgers. I was working on another novel, and buying a house, and getting a real job for the first time, and then beginning a family. I had a hundred good excuses not to write the book. Then I quit them.

Your novel follows the story of four boys – East, Ty, Michael Wilson, and Walter. Did you have a favorite to write?

That’s a fascinating question. It was always East’s book: his eyes, his perceptions. But the characters became like four tentpoles – I needed all of them if it was going to stand up.

Ty is a catalyst: he gets a lot of good lines. Michael Wilson carries a few scenes. Walter was always the hardest to get. I changed Walter’s name three times. He evolved most.

You have done much research on criminal fugitives and their stories and, indeed, published a book on the subject called On the Lam. How did your work with fugitive narratives influence the novel?

Oh, I read a mess of them. At first I didn’t even know what I was doing. Every time I read one, I couldn’t keep it to myself, and friends would say, Hey, read I Wake Up Screaming. Hey, read “The Man Who Lived Underground.” Fugitive stories have this lovely shape. There’s a crime, to begin with. Then you can watch the manhunt from the outside, or you can watch the flight from the inside. They have this relentless drive – toward capture, toward the final shootout, or toward escape, which is never final. It’s simple, sturdy, adaptable. You get the outsider’s perspective – even if it’s a manhunt story, your cop’s got an eye for detail, for the landscape, for the way people act. Clarice Starling. Ed Tom Bell.

On the Lam is about a specific era of fugitive stories – the 1930s, 1940s, where the Old West idea, that onecan just outrun the marshal out of town and be free, is being retired. J. Edgar Hoover makes this land a nation – first in myth, and then in practice. But also about how those stories grow out of a whole tradition in our country’s literature – a fugitive tradition. Slave narratives, Huckleberry Finn, Thelma and Louise. It’s not just about finding the outside and hiding there; it’s about what happens to the person when they’ve unmoored themselves from everywhere and everyone they’ve known. The fugitive story is sister to the Western. It’s sister to the American road story. And I think I loved road stories first: The Grapes of Wrath. Lolita. Terence Malick’s Badlands and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Cars are so beautiful and terrible. I’ve always loved them.

What research did you do for the book?

You mean, other than that, other than the dissertation in American literature, and having once been fifteen? Not much.

I admire writers like Richard Price who work like documentarians. I respect that deeply. But I don’t work like that. I am not much good at it.

What do you hope readers will take away from the novel?

Compassion. Maybe a thought or two about compassion. East isn’t a bad kid. What is it that spurs him to do the things he does – to walk away from the girl on the sidewalk? To drive that road to its end? He is still weighing the things he’s done, that are inside him now, at the very end of the story. A colleague of mine had that saying on her office door, which you can find in fifty different versions attributed to a hundred different speakers: Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle. For years, I saw it on her door first thing every day when I walked in to work. I can be cynical, but reading this every day put a crack in my shell. Even the people closest to us can be entirely unknowable – as Ty is to East. That unknowability becomes a sort of excuse. But at our best, we can bridge it. We can be kind.

What was the most challenging part of writing for you?

My terror. Nothing is good enough. Nothing. Not even this sentence is completely ready.

Who are some of the writers or what are some of the books that have most influenced you?

Doesn’t everyone want to be asked this question? Do we write all of our lives so that somebody will ask?

When I was a kid, I read Roald Dahl, most of it, but my favorite has always been Danny, the Champion of the World. It’s about a ten-year-old boy who learns one night that his father is a pheasant poacher, and thus is initiated into the mysteries of the big gray world. It’s so lovely. I remember reading it to my daughter the first time, and she lying absolutely still with great big eyes, and me trying to keep mine from flooding: yes. Yes, this is one thing I kept for you.

When I was younger, I loved Denis Johnson most. Now I love James Baldwin most. They are similarly clear and startling and musical. But Baldwin hurts even more. Faulkner, Morrison, Richard Wright, Lolita, The Children of Men, True Grit. Slave narratives: Douglass, Samuel Sparrow, James W.C. Pennington. I reread Kevin Canty’s A Stranger in This World when I was doing the last rewrite of Dodgers. It is so wise about the adolescent tightrope of awkwardness.

What are you working on next?

Dodgers ends at a precarious moment. I didn’t plan to think about what happens after that moment, but now I am. I think about it every day.

Dodgers by Bill Beverely is out now (No Exit Press, £14.99)
Read an opening extract from Dodgers ? (PDF format)

You can follow him on Twitter @BillBeverly

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