Interview with James Boice

Some things happen when you least expect them (like finding a signed copy of a book in a used bookstore), and the following interview with MVP author James Boice is most certainly one of them. This interview spawned out of a few giddy (fine, starstruck) messages over Twitter and email. More than anything else, we (The Antithesis Collective) are readers, and so when the opportunity presented itself, we grabbed/snatched/seized by the jugular the chance to interview James Boice. And he was gracious enough to humor us.

Who is this James Boice of whom you speak, you ask. A Google search will tell you that he’s a pastor and Reformed theologian and at which point you’re probably thinking we’re about to subject you to a Bible Study Hour. We’re not. We’re talking about James Boice, a twenty-something writer from Northern Virginia, who wrote MVP and NoVA. His third book, THE GOOD AND THE GHASTLY, was just released today. He’s interesting to say the least: For a person who writes about people who aren’t quite right in the head, we can say that he’s as interesting as his characters and the yarns he spins.

How did you get started as a writer?

I was always good at it when I was a little kid. Teachers were always encouraging. I liked the reactions I got from my fellow little twerps when I would read my stories aloud to them in class. I can remember being like 8 and reading aloud in a class a story I had written and the class laughing a lot and girls eyeing me in a particular way—both of which I discovered I liked.

Then in high school I was into rock n roll and melodic hardcore and was in bands and wrote the songs etc. But I soon admitted to myself that in a way it was an elaborate excuse to write words. Music was not to be my thing. Writing was.

How many of your manuscripts got rejected?

187 before my first acceptance. That number has continued to rise. It never stops. Even once you’ve published a book, you will be rejected a billion times every day by people coming across it on Amazon or something and deciding it sucks or that they would rather read a children’s book or that they would rather watch TV. Rejection is just part of being a writer. Like rain to springtime.

Out of all your rejected manuscripts, which rejection stung the most?

I don’t know, I can’t remember. You have to let it go right away, like a quarterback throwing an incomplete pass. (Do Filipinos know what American professional football is? It’s what we do to give ourselves brain damage for entertainment and commercial purposes.) [Editor’s note: In the Philippines, we have boxing. Just two guys giving each other concussions.]

How do you cope with rejection?

Just tell myself that it comes with the territory, it’s the nature of the business, that there’s no accounting for taste, etc. I realize that my shit is not for everybody. That’s fine. There’s no universal standard of what is good. There are people out there who think I am good and people who think I am shit. That will always be the case. Especially with the sort of deranged stuff that I write. I don’t manipulate the reader, I try to write the truth—that does not always go over well with editors or readers. The idea is try to not put too much stock into the opinions of those who think I am no good. I don’t think much of what they like either. So there. But really the best way to cope with rejection is to send the rejected piece elsewhere then sit down and start writing something new. You’ll feel better.

How did you feel when you got your first “Yes” from a publisher?

Disbelief. It was from Fiction magazine. An editor named Zelda Alpern sent me an email out of the blue one day. And she called and left a voicemail. That was an email and a voicemail I had started to think I would never get. That was in 2002 or so. I think they had a story of mine for over a year and so I had forgotten about it, assumed they had just tossed it and forgot to send a note saying so. Apparently they had not tossed it, they liked it and wanted to publish it. Then a few months later I got an email from Eli Horowitz at McSweeney’s saying they were accepting something of mine too. They had had that story (a different one) for like ten months without a word. And again, I had more or less forgotten about it. So it was beyond exciting. It was validating. It felt like after several years of trying and trying with little validation or reason to continue trying beyond the pleasure of writing for its own sake, things were finally clicking.

Where do you write?

At my desk. It is at a window which overlooks a street. The other day a guy was standing in the middle of the street, his wiener out, peeing away in broad daylight, very happy.

What’s your writing mixtape?

Here is what came up when I hit shuffle on my iPod ten times just now:

Bob Dylan – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
Yuck – “Stutter”
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – “Relative Ways”
Led Zeppelin – “Misty Mountain Hop”
Beach Boys – “God Only Knows”
Devotchka – “Transliterator”
Disappears – “Old Friend”
Deftones – “Rocket Skates”
The National – “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Bob Dylan – “She Belongs to Me”

Usually every other song is Bob Dylan and every two songs is Radiohead and every three songs is Modest Mouse and every four songs is Steve Earle. So this was a bit of an anomalous sample.

Who are the characters in your head?

Psychologically pathological people involved in American professional sports and Northern Virginia, USA.

What is your favorite book and who is your favorite author?

Right now:
Book: THE GOOD AND THE GHASTLY by James Boice (out June 14, 2011 in the USA)
Author: William Faulkner.

Any advice for fledgling writers?

Read and write. Commit to it. Commit to a style and spot on the landscape. Never take any shit. Except when you should. Be stubborn as all hell. But be flexible.

Got all that down? Read, write, commit. Words we all should live by. Isn’t it quite an eye opener how much persistence (and just plain bullheaded stubbornness) it takes to get published? As evidenced by James Boice, who has another book hitting the shelves today, taking the leap and sending those manuscripts to publishers and to oblivion does pay off.

Again, thank you James Boice for allowing us to pick at your brains (sans the fava beans and the Chianti).

As we mentioned earlier, James Boice’s THE GOOD AND THE GHASTLY hits bookshelves today. You should check it out. Seriously.