Set in Boston and Cambridge during the winter of 2001, Douglas Trevor’s debut novel Girls I Know introduces the reader to a cast of sharply-drawn characters from divergent backgrounds, and treats the build-up and aftermath of a restaurant shooting with uncommon grace. Doug took time out from his fiction writing and scholarly research to speak with Dead Darlings about his project, and the unique partnership with SixOneSeven Books that led to the book’s recent publication.
Dead Darlings: Can you tell me how the project originated? What motivated you to write about Walt Steadman and his adopted home of Boston?
Douglas Trevor: My initial set of ideas orbited around the idea of a restaurant shooting: a scene of violence that would connect people from different walks of life. Boston was a place I wanted to write about from the early 2000s on, after living there for much of the 90s, mostly because of the distinctiveness of the neighborhoods. I wanted to write about issues of social class as well, so my initial attempt at the story tackled that topic in the form of a short story entitled Girls I Know that first appeared in the journal Epoch. Walt was developed as a character in conjunction with Ginger, the rather well-to-do, young New Yorker in the novel. I wanted Walt to be older than Ginger, have less money, less pedigree, be more of a New Englander, etc. And I also wanted him to be idealistic and slightly dreamy, unlike Ginger. His fondness for poetry is meant to be a barometer of his idealism and dreaminess, whereas Ginger is fond of philosophers and theologians who contend with questions of reality, evil, etc.
As I began to write the novel it got messier and messier for a time. New characters, from different parts of the city, representing different backgrounds, different degrees of education, and so on, drifted into the story, and mostly drifted out. The young daughter of the restaurant owners killed in the shooting, Mercedes Bittles, made an appearance quite early on, although I hadn’t planned originally to include her, and she stuck. Once I had these three characters in orbit, I felt like they were feeding and bouncing off one another and the novel began to take on a momentum of its own.
DD: Your protagonist Walt evolves quite a bit during the novel. He starts off Walter Mitty-esque, with defined but simple needs focused on a yearning for family, and a desire to stay in Boston, but those needs change. Can you talk about how Walter took shape during the revision process?
DT: Walt presented real challenges to me, particularly early on in the writing process. At the beginning of Girls I Know, he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself, and the book is to a large degree about him figuring out his life, but I found it difficult to start a novel with a character who is up in the air about what direction he should take. I think where I ended up connecting with him was largely through his experiences growing up with two teachers in his family and a mother with debilitating health issues. I don’t relate to that in personal terms–no one in my faily was a teacher, or had chronic health issues–but I think much of Walt’s idealism, and much of his compassion, comes from his childhood circumstances. I wrote more directly about these circumstances in earlier drafts, but I found that I could cut a lot of those flashbacks once Walt began to describe his childhood to Ginger and Mercedes.
The other thing about Walt that I realized during the revision process was absolutely crucial was that he have a sense of humor. I think it’s quite reasonable to expect that someone like him, with social needs but also a fair amount of self-consciousness, would develop a sense of humor in part to deflect attention away from his own failings. Once Walt started to kid around with people, even when his jokes were strained, or not altogether funny (as in a sense he often tries too hard), I felt like a reader could more easily imagine spending time with him, and then the book’s melancholic hue could lighten a little.
DD: Walt’s engaging sense of humor, and his underlying compassion, attract the interest of two very different women, Ginger the hard-driving Harvard undergrad and Flora the Early Bird Cafe waitress. This sets up Walt’s first big choice in Girls I Know — whether to focus his attentions on Ginger or Flora. Was there ever a time during the revision process when this novel might have morphed into a comedy of manners, in which the core conflict centered on Walt’s choice between Ginger and Flora?
DT: Yes, there was an extended period of time during which Walt’s twinned but opposed attraction to Ginger and Flora took up more space, and more of the novel’s attention. The space for Walt’s deliberations on this front was made possible by another factor, which presented a major challenge for me in writing Girls I Know: namely, when to have the restaurant shooting occur in the story. I tried a number of alternatives. One was to have the shooting occur very early in the novel, which I ended up dismissing as a possibility because I felt if the reader didn’t know the characters at all it would be hard for him or her to care about their deaths. The second option was to have to shooting occur deep in the book. While I was considering this trajectory, there was more time for Walt to go back and forth between Ginger and Flora. But this “comedy of manners” (I like your phrasing) caused some trouble for me: namely that I didn’t like the idea that Walt was the one choosing. I felt like Ginger and Flora both became a little hollowed out as a result and their mutual strengths of character were what made them appealing to me in the first place. Of these three, Walt is the wishy-washy one, so why is he the one picking and choosing? So for a time I was stuck.
Then I got a really valuable piece of advice from my most trusted reader: my colleague Eileen Pollack. She thought I should just tell the reader right off the bat that there was going to be a shooting, and then move to the event as quickly as possible. Once I knew that the reader knew what was coming, I felt it was easier to settle into the world of the Early Bird Cafe and give a sense of what the characters in that world were like. And then, of course, with Flora’s death, Walt doesn’t get the chance to “choose” between Ginger and Flora. That choice is made for him. And we can get to know Ginger, as Walt does, during the rest of the book.
In my other life as a Shakespeare professor, I have often marveled at how the Bard sometimes opts just to tell his audience what is going to happen at the outset of play. The best example of this is probably Romeo and Juliet, where the opening prologue informs us of every major plot point in the play. Paradoxically, I think that just makes the eventual deaths of Romeo and Juliet worse, as we are waiting and waiting, with dread, for them to come. Knowing the outcome doesn’t dilute the dramatic suspense–it enhances it. Having read that play a half-million times, I should have known what to do. But I needed Eileen’s help to figure it out.
DD: Focusing for a moment on the restaurant shooting, the material is harrowing yet beautifully executed. “Walt told himself to run for the door. If he was shot in the back, the bullet might not make it to the front of his body, where the important organs were. That was what he said to himself. But he couldn’t move. He was so scared, he was having a hard enough time just standing still. His knees were knocking together. His hamstrings ached.” What did it take to research this scene, and prepare mentally to handle such challenging psychology?
DT: It was unlike any scene I had ever written before and it was very daunting to undertake on a number of different levels. First, from a writerly point of view, I had never written a scene in which the blocking mattered as much as it did here, so I ended up storyboarding the scene, like directors do (I am told) when they set up shots. That took me a lot of time, as did the research required for me to learn about guns, to shoot one myself (a .357), and–more broadly–to read the really countless number of newspaper articles that have documented restaurant shootings, from which I learned that very often the customers are so paralyzed by fear that they remain immobile, as does Walt. The psychological dimension of the scene came somewhat easier insofar as I felt I had a handle on how Walt thought by the time I reached this point in the book. But it was hard to determine how to handle his interior monologue. Does time speed up in this kind of situation? Does it slow down? I ended up deciding that it did both, at different junctures, and that Walt would both fixate on what was transpiring around him but also in broader terms think about his life up to that point in time.
DD: In the aftermath of the restaurant shooting, Ginger’s “theodicy” project, Girls I Know, takes on a heightened level of urgency for her, and indirectly for the reader. Can you talk about what’s driving Ginger, and how she processes the violence she’s learned about in the newspapers, and second-hand through her relationship with Walt?
DT: I see being driven as part of Ginger’s DNA. I think she is one of those intense kinds of people who is very goal oriented and anxious. I definitely relate to that. Ginger’s insomnia is meant to be taken as a symptom of her drivenness. I don’t think she really appreciates violence until she experiences it directly. Midway through the book her attitude toward what Walt is going through in the aftermath of the shooting could be characterized as somewhat callous. In her (partial) defense, she is young and sheltered. And, in spite of her efforts otherwise, Ginger is also incredibly self-involved. But I think she evolves somewhat, although she will never be empathetic and/or compassionate in the ways that Walt is. Hence the two of them really are, I think even Walt realizes at the end (not to ruin the end for those who haven’t read the book), incompatible.
In broader terms I was after something else, beyond developing characters. I wanted to juxtapose, without being too heavy-handed, a “pragmatic” view of the world, embodied in Ginger’s mind by philosophy, with an “empathetic” view of the world, embodied by Walt’s investments in literature. I don’t think philosophy really IS necessarily pragmatic; and I certainly don’t think the study of literature is necessarily empathetic, but Walt and Ginger do accept these definitions and bounce off each other as a result. I think this means, with regards to Ginger’s processing of the restaurant shooting, that her resistance to empathizing makes it very hard for her to appreciate what Walt is going through, even though she tries. The way she goes about conducting interviews for her book project is meant to reflect a certain blindness on her part with regards to inhabiting others’ perspectives. So, in a way that novels enable, the “real world” conveniently (but I also hope logically) goes to work on her. I don’t think her experiences necessarily rewire her, but I’d like to think she grows as a result of them, as Walt grows by virtue of being exposed to her worldview.
DD: You touched upon the book’s “melancholic hue” earlier in the conversation. As a professional academic who wrote a book on the topic of melancholy, how has your scholarly work influenced Girls I Know, if at all?
DT: The way I researched Girls I Know was in part aided, I think, by my academic background, but the scholarly texts in which Ginger is interested aren’t texts I teach. I teach poets and playwrights from the 1500s and 1600s, and a few of their lines did seep into the book. For example, the poet John Milton uses the phrase “into thin air, diffused” in his poem Paradise Regained and the narrator of Girls I Know borrows that turn of phrase to describe Walt’s very melancholic vision of Cambridge after an early tutoring session with Mercedes.
But I do think that anyone who has studied literature in a graduate program has encountered someone like Walt Steadman: someone who loves literature but isn’t really cut out to be a critic, maybe because he loves it too much. I have always felt that I have teetered on that brink, and that creative writing for me has been an outlet for my relationship to story-telling that is not reflective of my academic pursuits.
DD: You formed a unique partnership with SixOneSeven Books on this project. Can you talk about that relationship, how it evolved, and where it might go from here?
DT: I have to say that, in the end, what I have enjoyed most about Girls I Know has been working with Michelle Toth and Andrew Goldstein at SixOneSeven Books. They were extraordinarily attentive in helping me shape the book, and in their efforts to get the word out since the novel has appeared they have been tireless and inventive. Originally I was working with an editor at a New York house, but he was abruptly fired one day and his list was canceled. I stepped back at that moment and–in discussions with my agent, Miriam Altshuler–thought a little bit about what direction I wanted to go in. What I had really wanted all along was to work with a publisher in Boston because Girls I Know is such a Boston book.
I think the book is bigger than Boston, that it is about America writ large in the very early 2000s, but I always felt that a Boston readership, and editor, might prove more receptive to the project initially. But there are fewer publishers in Boston than there used to be. Nonetheless, I began to do some more research and I ended up reading an article about Michelle in Poets & Writers. I sent her an email, she and Andrew read the book, and about a month later we were off and running. In part based on the experience of my first book, I imagined that once I delivered the final version of Girls I Know, much of my work, and contact with a press, would be done. But the publishing world has of course evolved a lot over the years and Michelle, Andrew and I are in touch on almost a daily basis. We have a really wonderful working relationship: lots of back and forth, lots of humor, lots of processing ideas together. I just can’t imagine this book without them.