"I feel like I'm working on myself"
An interview with Louis Greenstein, author of Mr. Boardwalk
Louis and I met in the fall at his local coffee shop in West Philadelphia. We chatted and laughed over coffee, discussing Atlantic City, isolation versus collaboration in the writing process, the difficulty of capturing an aging character, drunkenly calling literary icons, and much more. Below is the transcription of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
Your rendition of Atlantic City is very realistic in the novel. What is your personal relationship with Atlantic City?
So, first off, the Atlantic City in the novel is a fictional Atlantic City. There are some big concessions, the main one being, there were never buskers on the boardwalk in the sixties and seventies. That was completely fictional.
But I do have a connection to Atlantic City, although not as intense as the character in the novel. My dad was a pretzel baker among other things, and we had a few pretzel bakeries. In 1963 we went to Atlantic City for the summer; in the mornings, my father rented bicycles, and then in the evenings we moved all the bikes and turned the space into a shooting gallery. I was a mascot for the lifeguards too — I turned seven that summer. It was a great experience.
After that, I wasn’t back for the summer again until 1975, when we had another pretzel bakery. Part of the novel is based on that summer. Atlantic City had gone downhill culturally, and they were arranging for the citywide gambling referendum (the statewide had failed the year before) which promised some big change. Of course, a bunch of us were saying, This doesn’t make a lot of sense. This will only make casino owners rich. But I pretty much lived on the boardwalk that summer. I ran the pretzel bakery and stayed in a little room behind it.
Also, I just love the Jersey shore. People say it’s visceral — you can smell it, even taste it. It’s a place that’s really close to me.
The story follows Jason as he matures from childhood through adolescence, and it’s a slow, even-paced maturation. How difficult was it to capture the character as he matured?
It was really challenging. Sometimes I’m in his head as a thirty-nine year old, but sometimes I’m just kinda in his head. I would attribute that success to feedback from my writer’s group. One particular note I got from several people was something like: Look, he’s eight here, and here’s the voice inside his head, and now he’s eleven and it’s a different voice! It was really a function of going back and looking at each phase. Once I figured out what I had to do, the job was mechanical: Okay, I’m eleven, how does an eleven-year-old see stuff?
I also try to keep in mind something I learned both as a parent, and from being married to an educator: on any given day, any eleven-year-old could sound like they’re six, or sound like they’re twenty. I tried to remind myself to see things through the character’s eyes.
According to the bio on the back of the book, you’ve also written television scripts and stage plays. How is your process for writing a novel different than writing in other forms?
Two things. One, you’re alone when you’re writing a novel, and two, it takes a fuck of a long time. If you’re writing a story or an article, it can go quick, but a novel takes years.
Working on this most recent play — a one-woman show called One Child Born: the Music of Laura Nyro — the writing was so much fun. I wrote it with my great friend Kate Ferber, so I got to collaborate with someone I really like. We did it side by side as well, bouncing stuff off each other, and since Kate performs the show too. It’s written for her. So if there was a disagreement we’d argue it out a little bit, but I’d always defer to her. That made the creative process pretty smooth.
With a novel, you’re just sitting in a room. I share my progress with my writer’s group — they’ve seen one draft of the current novel I’m working on — and it’s exciting and rewarding to get feedback. But for most of it you’re just alone.
It must be interesting working directly with someone you have a creative history with — who’s also the person who’s bringing the character to life on stage — where the back-and-forth process is immediate. Do you feel the process of the writer’s group providing feedback is similar?
It’s different because it doesn’t feel collaborative. When I’m working on a script, there’s collaboration. The way I look at it, I’m just bringing my stuff to the table, and I want to hear what they have. In that room I don’t have a big ego; I want to do something that works. I hope this makes me an easy collaborator to work with!
With the writer’s group, there’s seven other members right now. If one of them has an opinion I don’t agree with, and nobody else mentions it, I think, That’s just the way he’s feeling, that’s cool, and I can choose not to acknowledge that note. I feel like my writer’s group is more editorial than collaborative.
I was reading the acknowledgements in the book, and you mention that a version of Mr. Boardwalk was published online in ‘97/’98. How is that version different than the one that made it to print?
I could have just as easily given it a different title and it would have been a different book. Even people who read it — all nine of them — would have seen a lot in common, but would have seen it as a different novel.
Looking back now at my own way of working and my own sensibilities, I didn’t have as much life experience when I wrote the early version. My kids were little at the time; now they’re grown, so I’ve had a lot more life experience. There are more layers of meaning in this version.
I didn’t intend it, but the first version was more like a YA novel, whereas this is more literary fiction. It’s deeper, there’s more there, it’s more nuanced. And the character wasn’t originally presented as an adult.
You mentioned nine readers of that first version. Friends or family members? Or just people you met online?
One of them was a stranger, a woman who lives in the UK. We became pen pals, and we’ve been corresponding ever since.
My wife read it. Everyone in my writer’s group read it. This was in the early days of online; there weren’t forums. I guess I met the guy who published it online through Dreamforge, an early literary journal. He published some of my reviews, and a couple short stories or poems or something, and then he said Oh, send me your novel. It was actually the publisher of the final version, Doug Gordon, who reminded me about this early version. I wouldn’t say I forgot about it, but it seemed like a different book.
Could you describe your writing process in three words?
I’ve thought a lot about this, so here goes: Gush, Flow, Drip.
I’m good at first drafts. I spend as much time as I need — months — making a lot of notes, making outlines, figuring out who the characters are and what they want. Sometimes I write resumes for characters and then build them up. I spend a lot of time thinking about it; sometimes I even get stoned before I go to sleep so my mind can wander.
After six months of thinking, I’m ready to write the first draft. And I’m a disciplined guy: I sit down five days a week and I write. At least a thousand words a day, sometimes twelve-or fifteen-hundred. I bang that sucker out. With the current novel I’m working on, I decided to write the first draft in fountain pen, and one of the wonderful things about that is it’s really hard to go back. What was the name of that coffee shop? Well, when you’re writing the first draft, it doesn’t fucking matter! Don’t look back! After four months of writing, there’s the first draft — that’s the gush.
I try to set aside two or three hours in the morning to work on my creative stuff before I go and do client work, but throughout the day I’ll go back periodically and I’ll edit: for style, the economy of words, the feel of the language. Fixing stuff — which, since I’m an editor, is something I’m good at and I believe in.
Then, I show it to my writers group. With the current piece I’m working on, they’re really positive about it, and they’ve given me a lot of little stuff to work on. They’ve also given me a couple major things — not huge structural problems, but character development problems. This is the drip part. It’s really hard to get up in the morning and sit down with this monster staring at me, going Okay, come on. Change me. Fix me. It’s really hard, but the craft calls for it.
I think that’s the difference between an amateur, OK novel, and something that really shines. You have to go back and you have to fix the character development that isn’t working. It’s really hard because I’m up against my own craziness, and I’m pushing the boundaries of my own understanding of people: motives, behaviors, drivers, everything. As I go back and do the hard work of crafting this character, I feel like I’m working on myself. It’s rewarding, but it’s really hard and really slow.
If you could meet one of the characters from Mr. Boardwalk, who would it be and why?
It would be the rabbi that Bar Mitzvah’d Jason, because he’s compassionate. He sees the world in a fundamentally different way than I do, and yet I think we’re similar. Like, I’m an atheist — I think it’s all horseshit — but he’s not. He’s trying to find answers, and he’s looking at scripture and he’s not saying it’s horseshit; he’s saying, No, wait, these are good lessons. I love that he’s selfless. I think he’s a guy that really, genuinely thinks about other people. I wish I were more like him. A lot of people in that novel have an agenda — they have something to hide — but he’s a pretty righteous guy. One more reason is, many of the other characters are based on people I know. He’s not. I just made him up.
Writers can be superstitious about their writing process. Do you have any superstitions in your process?
Superstitious? I’m not even a little-stitious.
I thought about this, and I really wanted to say, No, I’m not a superstitious person. And then I lit the candle I always light before I write...Ohhh, wait a second. So, I protect that. I don’t call it “superstitious,” I call it a “ritual.” I almost always have a candle burning when I’m writing; it confers a sense of peacefulness. I really think that’s as close as I get to being superstitious.
I really don’t know if I like the word “superstitions” to describe these things. They’re really just familiarities that put you in a place you need to be.
When I think of “superstition,” I think of Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Or Don’t walk under a ladder. Those are superstitions. But when I think about it, ritual behavior is mostly based on them. Like, what would happen if I didn’t light a candle before I wrote? Well, nothing, because sometimes I forget. But the moment I remember…
You mentioned that you’re writing your most recent novel out longhand in fountain pen. Is that usually part of your process, or do you compose on the computer?
Usually I make a lot of notes longhand, and I outline longhand, and then I start writing on the computer. But I was on a panel with Greg Frost who said he writes with pen. I thought it sounded like a cool idea. Then I remembered, this guy I went to high school with makes fountain pens. Aesthetically, I fell in love with it. I don’t want to be superstitious and say From now on, that’s how I’m going to write, but I love doing it.
Is there any novel or author you really love or admire that you feel hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves?
Fielding Dawson. I guess I would call him a “close Beat”. He was from the Black Mountain School in North Carolina, and he was a painter, an illustrator, a short story writer, a novelist, and a poet. A beautiful guy. When I was an undergraduate at Temple in 1975, I brought him to campus. I called him and told him I was a fan. He was the first writer I met — I was the kid who met him at the train station, I got to show him around the school, and he was so sweet. We stayed in touch for a little bit.
The beauty of his work is, it’s stream-of-consciousness but very well tended. So it isn’t like reading James Joyce; it’s accessible. He wrote about dreams. He wrote a tiny little story about a pretty girl who rode by on a bicycle while Mahler was playing. Something I’ve taken from him and from a lot of other writers — Philip Roth, notably — is using my emotional life and my history and my experiences, but making shit up too. I’m gonna use what I can from my life when it makes sense on the page; I’m going to be brave about it and put it out there. He did that. I was in my late teens and early twenties when I was first reading him, and it really made a strong impression on me.
I got turned on to Dawson and Charles Bukowski at the same time. I called Bukowski one time — I was nineteen and I was drunk, and I thought Hey, what could go wrong?
Did he pick up?
Yes, and he cursed me out a little bit. I sat there grinning the whole time. “I really love your work — ” “Fuck you!” He was not happy. It was like three in the morning in Philadelphia, so it must have been around midnight where he was.
So I got into the two of them at around the same time, which opened a door for me on small presses, and writing in a way that’s maybe not mainstream, really putting yourself out there.