William Boyle sees his latest crime novel in the ‘screwball’ tradition

Posted on Mar 8 2019 - 5:50am by Ellie Greenberger

Pornography may not be the first thing that comes to mind in a conversation about a book, but it came up as crime writers William Boyle and Ace Atkins discussed Boyle’s new book, “A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself,” on Tuesday at Off Square Books.

Set in Boyle’s hometown of Brooklyn, New York, “A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself” follows three women, Rena, Lucia and Lacey Wolfstein, as they head out on a road trip after Rena believes that she has murdered her neighbor.

Photo courtesy: William Boyle

Boyle said that Wolfstein’s character was based on porn star Lisa De Leeuw, an actress during the 1980’s “Golden Age of Porn.” In the time since she left the industry, De Leeuw has been reported dead from AIDS multiple times, although stigma around pornography has kept her true identity and whereabouts hidden.

“I was really fascinated with Lisa De Leeuw — not from watching but with her story,” Boyle said.

Boyle said when he was creating Wolfstein’s character, he wanted to imagine a life or a new existence for somebody by pulling characters from other people he has encountered in his life. Enzo, an old man in the story, attempts to entice Rena by bringing her flowers, offering her wine and cookies and turning on pornography.

“He did it,” Boyle said. “He put on porn as his move.”

Much of Boyle’s work stems from things that he has experienced in his life. When asked about the role that growing up Catholic played in his novels, Boyle said the denomination impacts almost all of his work.

“I think everything I write is informed by it in some way,” Boyle said. “It’s Catholic haunted … I always write about the things that haunt me. I think it’s one of the main things that haunt me in good and bad ways.”

Throughout their conversation, both Boyle and Atkins drew laughter from the people gathered at Off Square Books. They danced around the major points in the story but still had a conversation about all the details critics enjoyed about his book.

“Comic crime capers are fun. Comic crime capers starring women are even more fun,” Marilyn Stasio wrote in a recent New York Times article. The piece, “From Drug Cartels to the Mafia, Crime Runs in the Family,” reviewed Boyle’s book and similar crime-driven novels.

Photo courtesy: William Boyle

Though labeled crime fiction, Boyle said he wanted to make sure there was comedy. He described his vision as almost a “Huck Finn adventure.”

“I wanted to write something in the tradition of the screwball crime movies and books I love,” Boyle said. “There’s so much humor in the stories and voices I grew up hearing, too — I wanted the book to be rooted in that.”

Atkins said the book achieves this, encompassing far more than just a story about crime.

“It’s a book about an aging porn star, a woman on the run and a coming-of-age story… it is everything,” Atkins said.

Lily Copley, a sophomore public policy major and New York native, said she enjoyed listening to Boyle’s talk about their shared home state. She said that the conversational approach to the event gave her new insights about the book.

“I have a better sense of what the book is about in a conversation compared to a book talk,” Copley said. “It was much more in-depth and actually made me want to read the book.”