After reading Johnny Boy, I was left with a strong sense of what it was like to grow up in working-class Brooklyn in the ’50s and ’60s. That must have been an incredible experience.
Well, you’re probably not going to believe this, but I didn’t grow up in Brooklyn. I did a ton of research for this book. I grew up in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, and both of my parents were devout Quakers.
(A short, stunned silence followed by an outburst of laughter.)
Okay, seriously. Brooklyn in the ’50s and ’60s was a special time and place. People left their front doors unlocked and the streets were filled with kids playing stickball and portable radios blaring rock and roll. There was a real sense of community and many common denominators. Even if you hated your next-door neighbor, you could both agree that the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees were the best baseball teams on the planet. Back then, Micky Mantle was a living god who could do everything short of walking on water.
What motivated you to write this novel?
Well, it’s a long story, but in a nutshell … my older sister and I had been estranged for many years. After finally reconnecting and spending some time together, much of our mutual resentment had dissipated.
I had been kicking around an idea for a book, a coming-of-age novel based on my childhood, and my conversations with my sister sparked some new feelings and thoughts. Being able to sit down with her and hash out our differences gave me greater clarity. I had arrived at a place where I was able to see her, and my other family members, as individuals with their own unique perspectives, beliefs, strengths, and limitations. It was truly liberating, both personally and creatively.
Prior to reconnecting with my sister, I’d spent years seeking help and had done a good deal of personal homework. It took me years to fully realize my potential as a human being and as a writer. My journey started with a question that gave me pause and opened the floodgates of self-examination: How did I come to act and behave in a manner that was contrary to my personal well-being, and the well-being of others?
Your writing is extremely visual. How did your storytelling style develop and evolve?
As a product of the ’50s and ’60s, I was fortunate to catch the tail end of live radio broadcasts, which quickly evolved into the golden age of television as the main source of family home entertainment.
When I was around seven and eight, I would lie in bed listening to radio shows like The Shadow and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. These were popular dramas that featured live voice actors and studio sound effects like car horns, creaking doors opening and shutting, footsteps, breaking glass, you name it. The stories were vivid and engaging. But what I enjoyed most was the presentation, which allowed the audience to participate in the narrative. I loved the idea of hearing voices and sounds and being able to interpret and visualize their corresponding images without—as is the case with film—being shown what someone else thinks they should look like. As a kid this had a huge impact on me.
I had a similar experience listening to music and song lyrics. One memorable tune was Silhouettes, by The Rays, which was released in 1957 or ’58. The story line is moment to moment, and the song has a wonderful melody that is underscored by a steady, suspenseful rhythm. I’ve listened to that song dozens of times, and in every instance, I was right there on the porch, watching two silhouettes embracing on the window shade. At eight it was breathtaking. It still is.
In my twenties, when I discovered writing, I wanted to do the same thing with words and scenes—not just show readers the narrative (as opposed to telling), but transport them to another reality via authentic dialogue and vivid characters.
What are some of the books that influenced your writing?
There are many. But at the top of the list, I would have to say, Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye. After reading his account of growing up in 1930s depression-era Los Angeles, I thought anything was possible. I admired his honesty, and his ability to synthesize and transpose his personal history into a fictionalized narrative that speaks to a greater social commentary about what it’s like growing up as a young man in America.
I was also inspired by Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, Harold Brodkey’s First Love and Other Sorrows, and Richard Wright’s unforgettable Black Boy.
These are just a few books off the top of my head. The list is too long.
I’m sure you must have heard this question before, but how much of Johnny Boy is true to your own life experience?
I love this question.
Why is that?
It’s a reader’s way of letting me know that my book was perceived as authentic and that the story resonated on a personal level.
Here’s the thing. Johnny Boy is fiction. Had I intended it to be true to life, I would have written a memoir. I chose not to do that because memoirs are factual accounts. Nothing more, nothing less. Which is totally fine.
My novel is a literary narrative, an amalgam of people, places, and experiences that I’ve intersected with over the course of my life, past and present. These experiences are uniquely mine. I wouldn’t know how to write a story that was detached from my personal life experience. I’m not good at cranking out contrived manipulations, say, a whodunit, for example. Some writers are great at that; I’m just not one of them.
What message do you think your book might send to readers?
Messages are not part of my MO. If writers want to send a message, they should consider using social media where they can shotgun a 280-character Tweet to the world with a tap on their screens.
On the other hand, my hope is that anyone who reads my book is, first and foremost, entertained. I also hope that readers connect with the protagonist on a visceral level, and that the story offers them some meaning as it relates to their own experience, especially young adults.
As a writer, I couldn’t ask for more.