Kevin Boyle, a professor of history at Ohio State University, is the author of The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968. A former associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, he is also the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies. He lives in Bexley, Ohio.
Author biography courtesy of Henry Holt and Company.
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Some outtakes from our interview with Boyle:
"I love to read the high-end restaurant reviews in The New York Times, but the restaurant I long to revisit is a fish and chips shop in Stillorgan, Ireland. My family spent a year living just down the road from the shop, and we stopped in so often the crew behind the counter came to know our order by heart. That year's diet probably cut a couple of years off my life expectancy."
"When I settle at my desk to write, I sit on a chair that comes from Detroit's old ballpark, Tiger Stadium. It has ancient wooden slats covered with decades of paint; it's completely uncomfortable; and despite my wife's protests, I'm never giving it up."
"Our family is rounded out by an aging border collie mix we rescued from the Detroit Humane Society 13 years ago. She came to us a terrified puppy, and after years of care and attention -- well, she's a terrified old dog."
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In the fall of 2004, Kevin Boyle took some time out to answer our questions about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
J. Anthony Lukas's Common Ground. I'd grown up in 1960s and 1970s Detroit, a place profoundly divided by race, and the experience haunted me. When Common Ground appeared in 1985, I was in the early years of my Ph.D. program in history, learning to think -- and write -- in the formal, analytical, dispassionate way academics favor. Then I stumbled on Lukas, telling the story of a city's racial conflict in the most intimate terms, taking me into the lives of people very much like the folks I knew back home. I remember reading late into the night, something I almost never do. But it was impossible to consider putting the book aside. Here was someone writing history the way I wanted it to be written. More importantly, here was a book that captured the enormous complexity and profound tragedy of modern American race relations. It's taken years, but with Arc of Justice I feel as if I have confronted the ghosts of Detroit in the way Lukas taught me.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time -- An extraordinary combination of raw emotion and painfully beautiful prose, suffused with bitterness, sorrow, and an unreasoned, unreasonable hope.
Alex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children Here -- The heartbreaking story of two brothers growing up in Chicago's inner city in the 1980s, it is one of the most compelling books I've ever read. I assign it to my large freshman class in U.S. history, and invariably students come to my office to tell me that the story has shaken them to the core.
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters -- This is the finest retelling yet of the nation's great modern epic: the southern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Branch brilliantly re-creates the movement's Byzantine politics and acts of unparalleled heroism. But the genius of the book is its deep understanding of the movement's moral vision.
David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois -- Lewis's two-volume biography of Du Bois is at once a marvel of historical research and an elegantly drawn portrait of 20th-century America. I wish I had a fraction of Lewis's talent.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale -- Another masterpiece of historical writing. From the fragile strands of an 18th-century diary Ulrich weaves together the world of a Colonial-era midwife living on the Maine frontier. Simply astounding.
Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures -- Every academic should have at least one book of theory that he or she considers a lodestar. This is mine. I wouldn't dare to claim that I understand the subtleties of Geertz's arguments. But I am enthralled by the possibility of understanding -- in some fashion, at least -- how other cultures view the world.
Selected Poems and Two Plays of William Butler Yeats, edited by M. L. Rosenthal -- When I first read Yeats as an undergraduate, I was drawn to the political poems. As I've grown older, I read his more personal work. I know I'm supposed to love his cadence, but it's Yeats's imagery that stays with me: the new father standing at his daughter's cradle as the Atlantic wind batters the nearby windowpane; the Drumcliff churchyard, a limestone marker set amid the jumble of long-forgotten graves.
Joseph Heller, Catch-22 -- American literature's great dark comedy, it's the sort of book that draws young people in the joy of literature. It certainly did that for me.
Charles Palliser, The Quincunx -- My wife and I read this faux-Dickensian novel to each other (the only way to read a faux-Dickensian novel) years ago, and I still look back on that experience with great fondness. It's suitably intricate, brilliantly inventive, and a whole lot of fun.
Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted -- Speaking of reading aloud, each evening my wife and I spent 20 minutes or so reading to our two girls. Our older daughter is 11, so by now we've gone through a huge swath of children's literature. This marvelous version of Cinderella remains our favorite.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Philadelphia Story -- An utterly charming, thoroughly entertaining classic.
The Bridge on the River Kwai -- I love the film's interplay of duty, honor, discipline, and fanaticism. And I'm amazed at how David Lean managed to tell an intensely personal story in such grand fashion.
Mystery Train -- A film that plays with narrative form while addressing one of the most fundamental of questions: Who is greater, Elvis Presley or Carl Perkins?
In America -- I'm the son of Irish immigrants, so it's easy to understand my personal connection to this marvelous recent movie about an Irish family trying to make its way in New York. But what really moved me was the fragile grace of Jim Sheridan's storytelling and his gentle evocation of family life.
The Big Lebowski -- Undoubtedly the finest bowling film ever made.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like a mix of things. I'll often put on the blues; I'll listen to gospel and world music a bit; once in a while I play roots music; and I love Celtic music, both in the Chieftans' traditional mode and in its newer incarnations, such as the Afro Celt Sound System. There are times, though, when there's nothing to do but crank up the volume on some straightforward, big-stage rock 'n' roll: Springsteen, U2, and my favorite, the Saw Doctors. I very rarely listen to music while I'm writing, and never to music with lyrics. I find it too hard to concentrate.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I was a member of a book club for years. Most of us were parents of young children, the reason we came together in the first place, and we met one Sunday a month. We had a lot of terrific conversations, but the most memorable was for Toni Morrison's Beloved. Maybe because we defined ourselves so much by our role as parents, maybe because of Morrison's genius, the discussion was intense, insightful, and in the end wrenching. How many books can do that?
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
There aren't too many people to whom I give books. For my parents, I usually choose nonfiction with a great story line. For example, I recently gave my father Seabiscut and my mother Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains. My wife loves serious fiction, so for her last birthday I bought Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. And it's great fun to shop for kids' books. Harry Potter came into our house in hardcover, a rare event, as did the latest book by Beverly Cleary, one of the great figures in American letters.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
If I'm not teaching and have somehow managed to clear my schedule of all the small jobs an academic life requires, I set to write as soon as possible in the morning and work until the kids come home from school. In the course of a day, I spend much more time plotting sentences, passages, or scenes than I do actually writing. I find it hard to do that work sitting still. So I wander around the house -- up and down the stairs, out to the backyard to shoot a few baskets, down the block and back. Once I think I've puzzled through whatever problem is on my mind, I race back to the computer to try out the solution.
When my girls were younger, my wife and I split childcare: she'd do three hours in the morning; I'd do three in the afternoon; we'd share the rest. With time so limited, the wandering stopped and I forced myself to concentrate. On days when there are other jobs to be done, I try to recall that skill, with mixed results now that the pressure of kid duty is gone.
What are you working on now?
I'm trying to clear away a number of small academic assignments that have been on my desk for far too long. My main preoccupation is defining my next book.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
My publishing career stretches back to 1986, when my first academic article -- an excruciatingly detailed look at an obscure 1939 strike -- appeared in print. I've been writing in academic circles ever since. So I don't think of myself as a "new" writer.
Publishing for a general readership, though, is a new experience. Looking back on that process, I still shake my head in wonder. I didn't struggle to get Arc of Justice accepted; my amazing editor, George Hodgman, called me to inquire about the book and was interested enough to make an offer on it. Once the contract was signed, George patiently worked through the project with me, although at times my naiveté must have driven him crazy. The staff at the publishing house, Henry Holt, did an amazing job putting the book into shape. And the reception has been beyond anything I ever imagined.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
In the tradition of American politics, I'll act as if you asked a completely different question, since neither of the writers I have in mind is in any sense "undiscovered." I'm anxiously awaiting the next books by two brilliant students of urban life: historian Tom Sugrue -- one of the greatest talents in the historical profession today -- and journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, whose book Random Family was absolutely stunning.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't try to be discovered. Tackle subjects that you are passionate about. Devote yourself to crafting a great sentence, a moving scene, or a compelling chapter. Then enjoy the personal satisfaction of having accomplished something truly exciting.
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