I enjoyed Guernica so much that when author Dave Boling turned out to be a real person (it's uncanny, how often that happens) who actually took a moment to send me a "glad you liked the book," message on LibraryThing, I had to ask if he'd answer some questions. Seeing as he had nothing much to do last week besides give readings in New York, Oregon, and Washington, plus cover golf and Seahawks football for that newspaper gig he's got, he said yes.
You've been a sports journalist for many years. Have you been writing fiction for a long time as well, or is this something new for you? I guess I'm wondering whether you see yourself as primarily a journalist who became inspired to write a novel, or are you a novelist with a day job as a journalist?
This was absolutely my first try at fiction. I hadn't even fiddled with it. I had some fellow journalists who turned into successful novelists (Jess Walter and Jim Lynch) and I just sort of decided it was time to see if I had a knack for it.
Seems you do have the knack. And you're certainly not the only ones to cross over successfully--Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe come to mind.
One of the main differences I see between journalism and fiction is that journalism emphasizes the clear dissemination of facts, while in fiction, the facts are only included as they're relevant to story development. Was it tough for you to focus on sticking to the story, rather than presenting all of the interesting or important facts you collected in your research? I'm sure there was a lot you had to leave out.
Actually, I went back and forth quite a bit on how much history and politics and non-fiction to include. Initially, I think I included too much. I had a great deal of Basque lore, political explanations, and much more non-fictiony background on Picasso and Franco, who were both fully examined characters. I guess it was just a part of learning how to tell the story that I realized that it all would be better if the history rose more naturally from the characters.
And, in bringing real-life characters such as Picasso and President Aguirre into your novel, you clearly did careful research but I assume took some liberties with dialogue and other details. Did you have to fight an inclination to only include that which could be confirmed as fact?
I felt that the facts created the context and I needed to supply the text, if you will. I presumed the reader understands that this is a piece of fiction and that it would be impossible to know exactly what was said between an actual historical figure and an obviously fictional character. So, you have to treat them the way you would one of your characters, and be sure they have a consistent voice and that they act in a manner consistent with their characterization.
In the acknowledgements you mentioned the Murelaga family, could you tell us a bit about them and your connection to them? How closely related is their story to your novel?
The Murelaga family was the Basque side of my wife's heritage. I named my main character in the novel "Justo" because that was [her grandfather's] name. I wanted it to be a tribute to him. He was a very strong, hard-working, engaging individual whom I admired greatly. From those folks and the Basques I met through them, I developed a love for their culture and an interest in their history. My wife, of course, played a big role in the research and character development. The way Miguel and Miren met in the novel is very similar to how we met. I made up some story about her having eyes like a gypsy fortune-teller, etc., and it seemed to work!
Oh, I love that connection, thanks for sharing that. And you mentioned in your talk that your Basque relatives-in-law attempted to teach you to dance, which also made me think of Miguel. So, your relationship with your wife's family was, in many ways, the impetus for the novel.
Of course, since I was interested in their history, I read a great deal about the oppression during the Franco regime, and also the bombing of Guernica.
In the original manuscript, I had a character who left Biscaya and came to Idaho to become a sheepherder in the mountains. His activities were based on the actual life of my wife's grandfather. When I realized that the manuscript was more than 600 pages long, a few characters had to go, and he was one of them. However, I've got him saved and tucked away somewhere for a later novel.
Yes, in your talk you said that over the course of a weekend you had to cut how much? 150 pages? That must have been gut-wrenching, and yet I suspect it's a better novel for being more focused on the characters you kept. Is there anything you cut that you now wish you'd left in?
It wasn’t too bad, actually. I guess I’m used to that sort of thing after so many years of deadline journalism. Naturally there were some exchanges with editors over what should stay and what should go. A lot of what was cut seemed like pretty good stuff, but it just made it a different book. I think it’s better as it now sticks closer to the main characters. However, when I get a criticism about the book lacking something specific, I’m tempted to tell people, “well, yeah, but that was actually IN the original version and it had to be cut.”
The scenes of the bombing of Guernica were both beautifully written and horrible to read. Relentless, is the word that comes to mind (just like the bombing was). I'd like to know more about the process of writing all those pages, all those different perspectives and experiences of a nightmarish event. How was it, emotionally, to take all those experiences into yourself in order to write them down?
The bombing scenes were difficult emotionally. Maybe I lost track of the time, but it seems like I wrote them almost in one straight shot at the computer and don't think I had to go back and really change much from the first draft. There were some terrific non-fiction accounts of the bombing in a number of books that were hugely important in setting up the context for my characters. Guernica, the Crucible of World War II was a great resource, as was Mark Kurlansky's The Basque History of the World. Almost everything in the bombing scenes had been described in historical accounts. I intentionally left those passages as stark as possible, without modifiers, coming in quick, snap-shot flashes, the way I imagine the mind takes in frightening events -- recording the bare details, and only filling in the depth later.
That's exactly what impressed me about it--the way you portrayed the characters' minds as almost playing tricks on them while they were in shock. Mariangeles, for example, focusing on standing in line at the train station in the midst of chaos. In fact as I was reading it I wondered if you'd been in combat, because it seemed so genuine.
No, thank goodness, no combat for me. I tried the best I could to imagine myself in the most stressful situation possible and project how a person would react.
The only thing that didn't seem realistic to me was the character who dug so persistently for his loved ones that he ruined his hands. Not possible, I thought, but I was willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. I was astounded to hear you say that this particular detail was pulled directly from medical accounts.
I have a hard time even thinking about it now without getting a little choked up.
There's an old concrete archway in Guernica that was left standing as a reminder. It's riddled and gouged with holes from bullets and shrapnel. You can't stand in front of that, even 71 years later, and not feel chilled.
I can only imagine how disquieting that must be. And we can't change what happened, so I think it's important that we at least bear witness to it: by standing in front of that archway, by writing the book. By reading the hard parts of the book.
Are you thinking about the next novel, yet? A Basque sheepherder in Idaho, perhaps, or are you being pulled by a completely new topic?
I’ve got four or five topics that I like and I’m sort of waiting to see which one sprouts first. I have another Basque “follow-up” novel in mind that might serve as an extension of “Guernica,” tracing some of the same characters as they aged, but my agent thought it would be good to move on to another topic so as not to be regarded as the guy who writes Basque novels.
Seems like good advice. I'm sure the follow-up novel would be very welcome among those who read Guernica, but it's probably a good plan to branch out for number two.
Funny, one of the historical fiction possibilities I had on my list was to research the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands during WW II. With most of the men conscripted, the population on Guernsey, for instance, was primarily women. I thought the situation rife with dramatic possibilities, as some would be involved in resistance, some in collaboration, etc. When I saw “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” released, I was delighted I hadn’t spent a year or two on that project. It was very much different from what I had in mind to write, but it’s still a great book with a very high profile. The timing for coming out with another piece of fiction on such a similar topic would have been dreadful.
I haven't read that one yet but there are as many of my fellow book-bloggers raving about it, as about Guernica.
Thanks so much for taking time out from your busy schedule to answer my questions, Dave. It's been a lot of fun getting to know you a bit these past few days, and I wish you continued success with Guernica and your next project, whatever it may be!
Dave's website, Daveboling.com, gives more background about Dave and the story of Guernica, and even has a picture of the original Errotabarri, the farmhouse of the ancestors-in-law who helped inspire the novel.