The Empty Boulevards by Willis Gordon

by HST UK on October 20, 2012

“Many memories came back to him; too many to single out, as he took a feeling of weightlessness down the trail.”

Willis Gordon is a gifted story teller; his characters are haunted figures that drive across the States, caught in the never ending search for their place in this world. The observations made in this collection are incisive, and bravely honest, in that wounds and weaknesses are bared for all to see. His stories are relevant commentary on American Life in the 21st Century.

Such is the skill of Gordon, you find yourself taken aback by the hard truths of fiction based on life’s harsh realities. There were times here that as a reader I had to take a breather, because the stories spoke to me, and cut close to the bone. I cannot recommend this collection enough, but if you do need convincing then let us look at the stories that make up ‘The Empty Boulevards’. I asked Willis some questions relating to each of the stories…

‘Demons’:

The opening paragraph of the story paints a bleak, if ultimately realistic portrait of the 9-5 life. You’re soon to leave the Armed Forces and head back into civilian life. Do ex-servicemen fear the daily grind?

I can only really speak for myself, but I know a few guys who swore up and down they’d never have another boss after the Navy. Then again I know some other guys who just want to get a job out here. Some of us will just take what we can get. Not everyone is a self-employed writer…

Evidently there have been many stories involving drugs in popular culture, yet ‘Demons’ comes from a real place. Does it bother you that drug addiction is often glamourized by those who’ve not experienced it’s true horror?

I try and keep my storytelling as real and natural as I can. You’ve got to make people feel it, you know? As far as the drugs are concerned, everyone’s got their own experiences, man. You can glamorize it all you want, but until you go through a nasty 3 day cure yourself you’ll never know the other end of it. There’s horror to it sure, but then again it’s a lot of fun. That’s why people do drugs, innit? The key is balance. There’s nothing wrong with losing your mind, as long as you find it eventually. It doesn’t bother me any, they should just recognize the real deal when they see it.

‘Peace in the Valley’:

‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ is one of several albums, and musicians mentioned in the collection. What are your thoughts on ‘The Boss’? Is he one of America’s greatest storytellers?

Oh, God. What can I say about Bruce? Easily the greatest songwriter and live performer of his generation, and I’m hugely indebted to his brand of American storytelling. I mean you listen to “Darkness” “The River” and “Nebraska” and you’ll see he’s just as important as a Hemingway, a Mailer, a Raymond Carver, a Steinbeck…I could go on all night, man. Without Bruce, there is no Willis. That goes for a lot of people, I’m the result of a strange myriad of influences. From Casanova and Byron to Ali, Malcolm X, and Huey Newton.

I get the impression that you’ve gone for many long drives across America. Can you only see the true America by road?

I suppose that’s got some truth to it. I-95, I-80, 295, Route 66, Highway 61, Highway 10, those are American landmarks just like the Grand Canyon or Mt. Rushmore. They’re the veins of the nation and the people you meet on the road are the ones you can’t meet anywhere else. It’s a unique view of the country, and it cuts through the bullshit of tourist nonsense. Those barbecue joints you find on the side of the road on Highway 10 are all you need. That and a case of beer in the backseat.

‘I love you, Jim Morrison’:

We’ve spoken before about rock n’ roll; I believe, speaking as a music hack, that rock is terminally ill, and very much in deep decline. The spirit has gone. People dress up, and pretend to be rock n’ roll, but they do so in High Street clobber and they recycle personalities from the past. You seem to disagree, citing the recent Pussy Riot case as an example that the spirit of rock is alive. Explain what you meant by this?

Pussy Riot embodies that rebellious spirit of rock n roll that made it the music of outlaws and freedom fighters, scoundrels and Hellraisers. But I’m not so worried about Rock n Roll as I was say 5 years ago.

The Black Keys are the biggest band in the world right now, the Killers are back on tour (Brandon Flowers is the only true 21stcentury frontman we’ve got) Murder By Death is on the road, as is The Gaslight Anthem, Jack White and The Boss himself. Not only that, but the Stones are doing 50th anniversary shows this winter. We haven’t been in this good of shape in ages. I’m racking up tickets as we speak.

Jim Morrison is an artist that gets rediscovered by every generation, only recently he appeared on dubstep sensation Skrillex’s track ‘Breakn’ a Sweat’. Unlike The Stones, or the Beatles who appear omnipresent, it appears that the work of The Doors has a more personal connection. Did it help their legacy that Jim Morrison died young?

Well it certainly didn’t hurt. No shitty solo albums, no serious in-fueding and divorce and drama, but that’s part of what makes the big rock n roll circus. Jim dying so young gave him the mystique people are looking for. He distant, he’s untouchable, forever young.

‘Sister Morphine’:

The story reminds me strongly “No Pain Whatsoever” from Richard Yates’ classic collection ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’. Have you read any Yates? Who are your favourite short story writers?

I’ve heard brilliant things about Yates, but I’ve never read him. I’ll have to pick that one up, Rich, thanks.

Hemingway is tops for as far as short stories go, damnit he was just a titan. So much in such a compact frame. Raymond Carver, Arthur Conan Doyle, James Baldwin. Just to name a few.

In the UK we have several charities to support our servicemen and women who are coming back from Afghanistan, though at times it appears the government isn’t doing enough for the troops. Does the US government properly look after those who’ve come back handicapped or mentally scarred?

There are programs set in place, but that doesn’t change the fact that 25% of our homeless population are veterans, and the veteran unemployment rate is 4 points higher than the national average and climbing. I’m doing all I can on my end. I’ve got a benefit in December for Disable American Veterans in Ohio and I plan on making that a regular thing throughout the year.

Wounded Warrior Project is a group that’s doing a lot of good here, but they exist because the government isn’t covering everything. You’ve really got to just get in where you fit in here.

‘A Quiet Place’:

One of the shortest stories in the collection, yet incredibly vivid. Do you dabble often in shorter forms of writing, such as flash fiction? In the Twitter age, should a writer be looking to succinctly capture a moment, as opposed to dazzling the reader with in depth description?

I’m glad you liked it, man. It was the anniversary of Jarrod’s murder and I decided I was going to meditate on death. Kind of face it head on. This is what came out. I believe in being succinct and leaving most of the iceberg beneath the water, you know? I’ve been toying with the idea of submitting some cocktail napkin fiction to Esquire, I think it’d be fun, and as far as the different styles, I think a good writer should be able to do both on the same page.

‘The Fifth Round’:

Why do you think the sport of Boxing translates so well into a story, whether it is in writing – I’m thinking about classic books from FX Toole, Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates. Or in film – such as the Rocky Franchise, Raging Bull, The Fighter, Cinderella Man?

Ok, I’ll try and be quick with this one, because I know you and I can (and have) go all day about boxing.

It’s combative in nature, so no symbolism is really needed, but if you put it in there right, it can be dynamic and even more powerful than usual. There’s something so gripping about two men putting it all on the line there in the ring. Not just their bodies, but pride, money, family, their very future can depend on a fight and that intensity and grit is easy for me translate onto the page.

On film, you’ve got built in action sequences that can do more than just serve up some blood n guts. You can see hope, desperation and fear flash across someone’s face in a film. Then that moment when you know you’ve got him. The stunner jab that opens him up for the big right hand. The hero drops the guy and the crowd explodes into cheers and applause and there’s this huge feeling of triumph in the theater. You can’t beat that.

‘Invitation’:

The character in the story deliberately puts himself in an socially awkward position, thinking almost, to hell with the consequences. Have you ever found yourself in such a situation?

All the time, especially the “Hell with the consequences” part. I don’t have an embarrassment reflex, so if I’ve got to do something, then it’s got to get done. That story was particularly liberating, some of my favorite descriptive work is in there. It was grounded in real life through the lens of an old Etta James tune. It’s my Chess/Motown/Stax Soul song in this book.

‘Eggnog’:

My favourite story in the novel, tell me about the plans you have to turn ‘Eggnog’ into something bigger?

Absolutely. After the next book, which is a political one, I’ve got a novel called “Wasted” in the cannon. Charles Robinson is my protagonist and Eggnog is certainly a part of that. I won’t reveal anything else, but Eggnog has probably been my most successful story to date. Lots of feedback from around the world. So the readers will not be disappointed, this novel is gonna be a rocker.

I think that Viki the cab driver could have major potential as a character that gets to tell her own story. Do you think you can effectively write a female central character?

Time will tell, Rich. Time Will tell. Cathy Ramirez was pretty prominent in the first book, but who knows if I can pull that again. We’ll see.

‘Bourbon Street’:

Is New Orleans really the ‘land of dreams’? (I used to sing the Louis Armstrong classic ‘Basin Street Blues’ at Primary School, and it has stayed with me ever since.)

Ahh, good ole Louis. That depends on the dreams you’re having. I can tell you back in 09 when I was there last I had a few dreams come true. I ought to put “Exile” in the CD player and make another trip back, it’s been too long since I’ve tasted a Hand Grenade.

‘The Empty Boulevards’:

Childhood memories flitter throughout the collection. How often do you get taken back to the good old days?

Not very often, man. I try not to look to the past. Draw lessons from it sure, but the only way to look is forward. Keep moving, keep pushing, don’t stop. Here and now is what counts and you’ve got to work like Hell to outrun yourself sometimes, it’s best to let the past lie where it is.

Since your curiosity has now been stoked, you can purchase the book here:
http://www.amazon.com/The-Empty-Boulevards-Willis-Gordon/dp/1477253785

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https://twitter.com/WillisGordon1

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