Q&A with Gerry Boyle
By Leslie Bridgers
Since the early 1990s, crime writer Gerry Boyle has been unraveling mysteries in his series of novels written from the perspective of Jack McMorrow, a former New York Times reporter who lives in Maine.
Boyle, 53, recently released his ninth novel of the series, “Damaged Goods.”
A resident of central Maine, Boyle will be at the McArthur Public Library in Biddeford on Thursday, March 4, to read from his book and discuss the process of writing it. Last week, he answered questions about Jack McMorrow, his latest books and the accuracy of his Wikipedia page.
Q: "Damaged Goods" is your ninth book about Jack McMorrow, a former New York Times reporter who continues to seek the truth in small town Maine. How have the events of your novels shaped Jack? Is he a different man than you originally imagined him to be?
A: Jack and I have grown older and maybe a little bit wiser over time. When I began writing about him, some 18 years ago, he was darker, more self-destructive, and reckless. Jack would fight a bad guy in a second, took on people bigger and nastier than himself. He was a bit of a loose cannon, though a very endearing and well-meaning one, I think. He’s learned from his experiences over the course of the books. I think Roxanne, his longtime partner and, in “Damaged Goods,” his wife and mother of his child, has taught him a lot about picking his battles, taking a longer view of things. Of course, now that he’s a father his perspective has changed. He’s just as tough, as his assailants find out in “Damaged Goods,” but he’s less willing to sacrifice himself to take somebody out.
Q: Like Jack, you worked for a newspaper for many years. Is Jack like you in other ways?
A: He and I think in similar ways. We hate bullies, hate injustice, tend to want to bring down people in power. He does it with his stories and his fists, and his friend Clair. I tried to use my newspaper column to defend people who couldn’t defend themselves. I was less willing to take a punch for the cause. I didn’t want to test the newspaper’s health insurance.
When Jack ruminates on things, I agree with most of what he thinks and believes. I’m a little more hopeful than the early McMorrow and probably believe in the goodness of people more than he does, but we have many of the same sympathies. The people he goes to bat for are people I like and sympathize with. A woman in court trying to get protection from her abusive boyfriend, a skinny kid alone on the street.
Q: How much of your writing is based on your real-life experiences?
A: I always say I don’t send McMorrow any place I haven’t been myself. Most of the books have a seed from something I’ve seen or done. Courtrooms, murder trials, marijuana growers. I wrote about a New York detective in “Cover Story,” but made sure I talked to one beforehand. I did visit all of the scenes in the New York book, photographed them like I was scouting locations for a movie.
I did the same for “Damaged Goods,” though I don’t know any Satanists. (I did read a lot about that.) The book also has a character who is an escort. That wasn’t based on any of my experiences.
I guess the only thing I really haven’t done in McMorrow’s life is work for the New York Times. I have to live through him vicariously for that.
Q: You recently wrote “Port City Shakedown,” your first novel about Brandon Blake, a young man who runs a boatyard in Portland and wants to be a cop. Why did you decide to do something aside from the Jack McMorrow series? Will Brandon Blake have his own series?
A: I had written eight McMorrow novels and a screenplay. I wanted a change, but I also wanted to write a novel in the third person. All of the McMorrow books are first person. That form of narration is very intimate and vivid but it limits the viewpoint in some ways. It’s like you have a camera on McMorrow’s head. You can’t be anywhere else, hear what characters are saying when they’re not in his presence. So Brandon Blake gave me a new vehicle for that, and the chance to write a younger protagonist.
I’m working on the second Brandon Blake mystery right now. I plan for him to have his own series. Maybe he’ll cross paths with McMorrow sometime. Maine is a small state in many ways, after all.
Q: Are most of your characters based on people you know? How do you go about developing new characters?
A: In the early books I tended to create characters based on composites of real people. People I knew used to say they knew who so-and-so was. Often they were wrong, but I was glad they thought the characters real enough to be based on somebody we knew. That’s diminished over time. I don’t know anybody like Brandon Blake, though I draw on tendencies I see in real people. A flash of someone real will break through as I’m writing, but not just one person. Brandon is a combination of many people, some who bear almost no likeness to him, at least not obviously.
I invent characters bit by bit. A face, a name, then add a past. I write sketches of each one, most of which never appears in print. I was just considering a woman character for the next Brandon Blake novel. I placed her in Brandon’s life, then went backwards. Why does she live with her mother? Did she always? Has she retreated from life after a bad experience? What was that experience? Is she bitter? Angry? Is her mother disappointed in the way she has turned out? I scrawl page after page and in the process feel like I know the person well enough to write about them, write in their voice. In the end, I’m just making people up. It’s what fiction writers do. We have very active imaginations.
Q: Do you foresee an end to Jack McMorrow's story?
A: I don’t plan to kill him off, if that’s what you mean. I still find him interesting. He’s very good in “Damaged Goods,” I think. Parenthood has changed him, as it does all of us. In some ways he’s more lethal than ever because he has so much to protect.
Q: On your Web site, you say that working for a newspaper is the best training for a writer. How long did you work for the Morning Sentinel? Do you consider yourself a reporter who writes novels or a novelist who used to be a reporter?
A: I worked for the Morning Sentinel for 18 years, most of it as an at-large columnist. It was a great job, one that few newspapers can afford any more. And it was the perfect training ground for writing and crime novels. But now I’m a novelist who used to work in newspapers. I still write for magazines, especially the Colby College magazine (I’m the editor) so I like to think I haven’t lost my chops.
Q: You went to college in Maine, have lived here a long time and use the state as the setting for your novels. Describe your relationship with Maine. Where are you originally from and where in the state do you live now?
A: I grew up in Rhode Island, came to Colby for college. I lived in Portland for a bit after Colby, then tried other parts of the country. And then I came home. To Maine. I’ve lived here ever since.
I live in a small town in central Maine. I love that part of the state because it’s naturally beautiful and the people are, too. I even like the criminals. But Mainers are stoical and generous and take the good and bad in stride. It seems very real to me, and I find that I’m uncomfortable in a lot of other places. I love to travel but when I cross that bridge and hit Kittery, I feel a wave of contentment sweep over me.
Q: Besides your upcoming reading in Biddeford, how else are you promoting your new book?
A: I’ll be doing signings, talks, appearances all over Maine, and beyond. I also have a “Damaged Goods” video on my Web site (gerryboyle.com) and a blog that I write. I have a Facebook fan page, and a Twitter feed (gerryboyle). We (me and the people at Down East Books) are doing everything we can to get the word out on this one. I like “Damaged Goods” a lot, and I don’t say that about all of them.
Q: What's the premise of "Damaged Goods"? Why should people pick it up? Would it be hard for someone to get into it without reading other books about Jack McMorrow?
A: You don’t have to have read earlier books to enjoy this one. That’s true of all of them, actually. They’re written to exist on their own.
The story: Roxanne, a child protective worker, is threatened by the father of some kids she’s pulled from a home. This guy really scares her and she decides she doesn’t want to do the job anymore, would rather stay home for a while. This means Jack, a freelance writer and part-time woodcutter, has to kick it into gear. He sets out to turn out some stories, and decides on one about small-town escorts, the kind who advertise in the personals. He meets one, a young woman named Mandi, in a small town on the coast. He finds her intriguing and likeable and when she is beat up by a client, Jack brings her home to recover. The story takes off from there: mysterious Mandi in the house, the crazed dad lurking in the woods, McMorrow is beset on all fronts.
I like this one, as I said. I really enjoyed writing the Mandi character, whose back story is pretty fascinating, when it is revealed. I liked Roxanne in “Damaged Goods,” and I really enjoyed writing their daughter, Sophie, 3. I had to think back to try to remember what a 3-year-old is like, how they sound, how they think. It was a good challenge.
Q: Your Wikipedia page refers to you as Gerry "The Bee" Boyle. Is that really your nickname? If so, who calls you that and what's its meaning?
A: I have no idea what that means. One of the things about Wikipedia – it’s not all true.
(This interview was originally published in the American Journal, February 25, 2010)