Charles Bock wrote Beautiful Children, a novel about Las Vegas, runaways, and what happens when families break.
The book took Charles ten years to write. When it was published in 2008, a lot of people dug it. But before then he had to do a lot of stuff he didn’t particularly like doing.
Charles knows a ton about early ’90s UNLV basketball and rock poster artists.
He’s working on some cool stuff these days that couldn’t be mentioned here.
Some of what Charles says in this interview probably looks bleak on the page, but it was all said with a sparkle. So keep that in mind.
Where are you right now? I’m in a writer’s room in Manhattan. There’s all these other people with their fucking computers doing their stupid little bullshit. It feels pointless. You wanna feel like it matters. It’s hard to do that when you’re in a room like this. At least it’s quiet.
You did some ghostwriting before you published your book. Do you think that had any effect on the way your fiction turned out? There’s a few things that are pragmatically useful about ghostwriting: You’re not the boss, and you’re responsible for getting something in shape and making it publishable. You have to make sure the story has a certain narrative structure. You have to deal with the things that everyone wants to know even if the person you’re dealing with doesn’t want people to know those things. There are hard deadlines. Those are the rules. As much as you might want to, you can’t write an experimental celebrity memoir. And I think learning to work within marketable boundaries won’t ever hurt a creative person. Those boundaries are economic realities. No matter what kind of writing you’re doing — and in my case I’m doing stuff that goes everywhere — it’s important to understand the power of a good narrative. But I didn’t grow up wanting to be a ghostwriter. I was not happy about doing that work. I did it in order to eat. When you take one of those jobs you feel like a piece of your soul dies. But that’s okay, because trying to do anything in the creative world, parts of your soul will die. So in that sense it was good training.
You were almost 40 when your first novel was published. How would your writing be different if you’d first published when you were 25? That’s a very interesting question. Could I have written Beautiful Children at 25? I couldn’t have. I didn’t have the chops. I wish I’d been able to publish it when I was 25 — because years 26 to 30 would’ve been a huge fucking party.
Can you recall an early piece you wrote that made you feel like you were good enough to make a living as a writer? No, but I can tell you this: When I was in graduate school, I wrote a story that took place in New Orleans. I workshopped it more than once. I loved this story and I thought it meant so much to me. But I didn’t ever get it right. Successive versions kept getting worse. My teacher told me to put it to bed. The next thing I did was to get away from that and I wrote something in the voice of a teenage Russian. I sent it out. I’d been told that I could write and that I was talented and whatever, but I hadn’t put anything together yet. I’d had a lot of failures.
Then what happened? A while after sending out my story, I remember going to the post office box I was renting at the time and seeing an envelope from the place that eventually published my piece about the Russian. Inside was a form letter where they filled in the name of the story and the date they were gonna publish it, which was two years in the future. That made me feel like I could do it. But it would be a very long time before my next short story got accepted anywhere. It’s so hard trying to submit anything unsolicited because it feels pointless and like you have no shot. Even if you feel like you’re doing good work, you can also feel like the rules are skewed against you. But getting that story published really did make me feel like I could do this. There are a couple moments like that; where I thought if I stick with this, I can get it right, and something good will happen. But I always knew it was up to me to figure out how to get it right.
Sounds like it was sort of a drag. In many ways it was. A teacher of mine once told me that as a writer you’ll be humiliated, then you’ll be humiliated again, and when you think you can’t be humiliated any more, they’ll find new ways to humiliate you. But he also said that if you stick with it and do good work they’ll come back and kiss your ass someday. Okay, I added that last part about them kissing your ass. But if you don’t believe that there is an audience of readers out there that wants something good, then there’s no point. Then Tinker Bell is dead. I truly believe people want to read good work. There might not be a lot of them, but they exist.
What was the last creative thing you did? I made up a little rhyming song for my daughter. I do that a lot. It helps her sleep.