In second grade, William Boyle and a buddy named Robert wrote a tale titled “Friends,” in which their classmates disappeared into an underground world and battled monsters. In seventh grade, he wrote a crime story that earned him an “A” and a comparison to Mickey Spillane. Sitting around at home he’d tape record his grandparents, mother, and stepfather. “I’d transcribe what they said,” explains Boyle, “and call it a story or a screenplay.”
That early immersion in words has served Boyle well. The adjunct professor at the University of Mississippi, where in 2011 he earned his Master of Fine Arts in Fiction, already has a novel to his credit (Gravesend, Broken River Books), as well as several stories published in magazines and journals. Recently he won the grand prize in our 2014 fiction contest for his story “Shoveling Out.”
The Brooklyn, New York, native landed in the Mid-South by way of Austin, Texas, where he discovered the works of novelist Larry Brown. That led him to other Southern writers, including Barry Hannah and Tom Franklin — and ultimately to Oxford, which he describes as “this dream place to me.”
His story, however, takes place primarily in Brooklyn and was sparked by a real-life winter storm that kept his mother and grandparents housebound. “A lot of guilt and fear came with my being far away from them and unable to help,” Boyle recalls. As for his literary style, he says, “I definitely write like someone raised in a city — I’m trying to carve sense out of the noise of living.”
When it comes to inspiration, he finds it not only in works by such legends as Flannery O’Connor and Richard Yates, but also in songwriters, from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Tom Waits and Nick Cave. “I always bring music into what I’m writing,” says Boyle, who works part-time at an Oxford store called The End of All Music. “There I get fed creatively.”
But perhaps his muse speaks most profoundly through beloved family members: “My mom, who struggles and works and prays. My grandfather, who never read a book and is the best poet I know. My grandmother, a saint, pure goodness. And my son, Eamon, who says things to me like ‘Go in the kitchen and be a sad volcano.’”
And there’s his wife Katie, “who is tender and tough and can knock you off your feet singing ‘The Irish Rover,’” says Boyle. “She’s wonderful, outgoing, bright. I used to suffer from black depressions but she’s cured that.”
At work on another novel, Boyle rises at 5 a.m., writes a couple of hours before classes start, and jots in a notebook as he walks to campus. He also has some “editing gigs” with his publishers and is teaching an online fiction workshop. Asked about advice to aspiring writers, he responds, “I’m ripping this off from [novelist and songwriter] Willy Vlautin: ‘... write about what haunts you most.’”
For his winning story in this issue, Boyle earned $1,000. Honorable mention awards, each worth $500, went to Anna Kushnir, who is majoring in biology at Rhodes College and applying to medical school; and to Karen Peacock, an art therapist who teaches at Christian Brothers University and facilitates the Art Therapy Access Program at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
We congratulate these winners and thank all who sent entries to the contest. We also extend sincere appreciation to our longtime cosponsors, The Booksellers at Laurelwood and Burke’s Book Store, whose support helps make this contest possible.