When I learned Charles Bock had written a new novel, I knew I had to read it, and as soon as I could. My reasons were not entirely leisurely. I had some questions, some serious curiosity.
Charles taught my fiction workshop during my first year in an MFA program. I know him as someone whose convictions about reading and writing fiction are specific, constant, seemingly close to religion. A man who connected emotionally to the stories presented in our class, who illustrated a story’s plot or direction with diagrams of seemingly disconnected arrows and shapes that somehow made perfect sense to me. He taught me so much about writing, advice both practical and ephemeral—I was anxious to see how those lessons showed themselves in his own work.
Bock’s new novel, Alice & Oliver, is based on his life, his late wife Diana Joy Colbert’s illness, the battle for life and dignity, and the meaning that followed. How to capture that experience, certainly one of the most wrenching and profound possible, and translate it to the page? The result is an intimate, devastating, and ultimately redeeming story of survival, of the best and worst things that can happen to us.
We met and talked in Brooklyn, spending a few hours on a cold January afternoon to sit in a quiet, sunlit room and consider some of the timeless questions this challenging and tender novel asks.
The Rumpus: Writers are often asked this question: what is real, what comes from your own life, what does not? Do you think that has value? Do you think it matters?
Charles Bock: I think it’s natural. You hope the story is really powerful and good, as someone who cares about art. It’s also true that part of the reason I wrote the book was for [my daughter] Lily to have some sense of what her mom went through, but also of her spirit. And there’s a level of truth to that. The only way I could do that was to fictionalize certain things. The male character does some things that I have to be able to live with people wanting to know, “Hey—”
Rumpus: Did you do that?
Bock: Yeah, I think that’s a question that is their right to ask. I’m pretty comfortable with who I am in my life. The novel has to stand up as a piece of art. There is a level of validity. I also believe that the book has to justify itself, and that if I didn’t believe in those things, I never would have been able to put down what I did, or take liberties that I took.
Rumpus: How did you make those decisions, as far as fictionalizing what was a true story? The work of creating and imbuing character—how did you make those choices? Was it conscious or not?
Bock: I think it evolves. The first version of Oliver, for example, I was trying to make some changes, do things very, very differently. I tried to make him into someone who came from money, someone with a financially stable background, and a very good reader read it and said, “No one with money would act like this.” So that was something that changed by evolution.
Alice, I think pretty early I got her voice. But there are definitely things that, in later drafts, became more specific. I knew that I didn’t have the emotional capabilities to neatly match things up from fiction and life and say, “It was like this.”
So there was some change, and I was slow in organizing everything. By the time I started writing, within the first hundred pages, I was sure I had her, and I was good on the changes that I’d made to her. But I felt like I had a character that I knew separately. She’s the beacon that makes everything possible.
Rumpus: It’s interesting you say that because a reader can tell. When we read from Alice’s perspective, there’s such an ease and flow to it. Her voice is so strong.
Bock: For the book to work, that has to be the case. That jump to first person, that jump into her head has to change that much more. I think it’s a sign that the other parts work that it does. We want her. It’s her we care about most. And I always knew that.
It’s interesting after the first book I wrote—I think for every writer, you want to show what you can do, and you should. There’s something awesome about saying: I can dribble the ball through my legs and around my back and you can’t stop me and you’re going to watch and enjoy it. There’s something wonderful about that. And this book, I think, is like knowing how to actually play the game. And knowing how to use it all at the right moment and not before. And then there’s the idea of what does a story do? A certain narrative or care about a character—it does pull you through. And there are times when a reader wants to go back to that. If you use that, if you start to realize what that can do, as the best and most compelling stories do, then you can use all your skills and really cause some havoc. For me, I think I whatever I was able to do, it’s more along those lines.
Rumpus: Do you think that’s an instinct? Is it spending enough time with your characters and knowing the story well enough? Knowing when to make that switch or knowing when to do a certain thing?
Bock: Honestly, it’s not something that’s easy to teach. It’s something that takes a level of distance, but when you find people who really have that sense, you get some freedom in essays and fiction. And that can be electrifying.
When I judge contests and read applications, and I see all these talented writers who don’t quite know what a story is—I think it’s a big deal. It’s a big hurdle to clear. Like Capote said, what a savage mistress structure is.
As a combination of syllables, that stayed in my head. Even thinking about things like Pulp Fiction and Infinite Jest. Some of these layered things. How are people doing this? And sniffing it out and pulling it apart. And failing. I wrote the first book by going through every way to not write it. And that’s when things started to fall into place.
Rumpus: Something you told me once that has stayed in my mind, almost like a mantra: Writing a novel is all about patience. Your first book took a long time to write. What role do you think that played in writing this book, particularly because it was such an emotionally fraught process?
Bock: I trust in the process of sitting down and working, and I knew that I didn’t need distance when I started because time was going to give me more narrative distance. I knew that I had done it once and it had taken a while. You grow and you change. I had enough distance from the beginning that I could begin. I also knew that I had a book under contract and there was no way it was going to be finished in time, but I knew it would be really good if I had a sense of where things were going. I think for this, it prevented too many flights of fancy. It kept things focused. It also allowed me to go deeper instead of turning it into a wider, crazier book. The people I care about, whose stories need to be told, are here. Who do they deal with? What challenges are facing them? It has to be connected. It’s going to be bigger because my mind weaves things a certain way. That will happen naturally. I believe in my ability to figure things out. I knew that with time that I would get to everything I needed.
Rumpus: Do you set rules for yourself while writing? Scaffolding for how a story should be told? I’ve found in my admittedly limited experience that they can be almost freeing.
Bock: I think you have to discover what your rules need to be. I started this book in several ways that ultimately didn’t survive. Then Diana fell sick, I knew things would change, and when she passed away, the book went away. There were times when she went out of remission and my work would stop and I’d become a full-time caregiver again, but I would keep taking notes and have thoughts about what I understood and what I thought would happen or not. When she got sick for the last time, it was apparent that I was going to tell this story, our story, in some way.
Rumpus: The medical case studies that are peppered throughout the book, was that a structural idea from the start or did that come later?
Bock: The first case study, the first one I wrote, which is not in the book, was my favorite part of an earlier draft. That gave me the idea—these people you come in and out of contact with for a few seconds, maybe there’s a way to weave their stories in. I had had a conversation with someone who’d read a book from the Middle Ages or the Renaissance in which everyone you meet—eventually all their stories come to bear in some way. And after that conversation, I thought, maybe I can save that and use it in some way. Then it became, how can I dabble and tell different stories in different ways. There’s a conversation with a nurse, a story about how you should listen to the nurses. We used to be very good friends with a woman who was a nurse and she told us some version of that story. I changed it and messed it up some. I remember writing it and transcribing it and changing it and thinking, this is really good. I should find some way to use this.
It evolves. At first it’s, how do I get this good stuff in there? And then the bar keeps rising, and it becomes, how does it need to be in there?
Rumpus: They’re interludes, the case studies, but they humanize this behemoth health care system that they’re a part of. It’s such a nice way to get a glimpse of that without detracting from the story at hand.
Bock: That was a question. How do you make Alice and Oliver belong? Otherwise, this, honestly, is a 400-page book about cancer. I can understand the resistance to that. One argument is to make it a shorter book, though that also makes it this intense thing that might be unbearable. So the question I always had was, how do I make it a great reading experience, not just an intense one? How do I make it something that has pleasure in it?
These case studies change the pace. They give you a chance to breathe. They start being used in different ways. The hope is that it adds something, that it never gets in the way of what is happening to Alice, it never gets in the way of what Oliver is trying to do for his wife, but it somehow gives a reader new perspective. Then, you’re ready for more.
Rumpus: There’s a lot of medical procedure in the book, a great deal of specific detail, and significant attention given to the insurance battles Alice and Oliver fight. How do you include those elements, which are essential to their experience, without becoming too technical or risk boring a reader?
Bock: A reader tells you—this is too technical or this is too boring. And then you walk it back.
Rumpus: Did you see it as a balancing act?
Bock: It always is. Something that’s going to be true—for a lot of writers it’s a struggle, because you can’t use everything you know or research or find out. How do you know what’s the best stuff? Hopefully the standards keep rising. It’s a good sign when you’re cutting stuff you love. What’s the stuff I wish I knew? What’s the stuff that drove me insane?
Rumpus: I thought about empathy constantly while reading this book. Was that a consideration of yours, how empathic your characters were to one another? What was your relationship to empathy while you were writing?
Bock: My first novel very much tried to have a huge amount of empathy and compassion for the people we cross the street to avoid. To what degree it was or wasn’t successful, it tried to do that.
In writing this book, it would be impossible for me to have more empathy than I did. It’s this woman’s heroic, tragic journey. And to write about that also includes her husband, all the pressure he was under, and it means exaggerating and going to different ridiculous lengths for how he snaps. Or not ridiculous, because it’s not, but thinking about that meant doing research into what was happening in 1994, when the book is set. Things like Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution and the fact that he left his wife when she was bedridden with cancer treatment. At some point, I confronted that question. Can you imagine? That you can be with someone who has been sick for a very long time and think, I can’t take this anymore? I have empathy for that. In my own life, I can remember saying, this has to change, but it can’t change because the only way it can change is if Diana dies. So, it can’t change. I can remember that. And then, working that kernel of thought back, like do I really want to empathize with someone like Newt Gingrich? I don’t want to do that, but I can work with that idea. And it does open things up.
The woman who sits in the hospital and tells you that you need to get new insurance or they’re not going to perform a life changing procedure on your wife. I have no empathy for her. But then, you can stand next to that lady in line for coffee and she can be very nice to you. It becomes complex. The good, hard questions of life that don’t really have the nice answers. But you still want your resolution. I think that’s what I was wrestling with. I’m someone who’s so averse to the saccharine and to sentimentality, but I also can see it and feel it. And you do. I came away from everything with an astonishing respect for life.
Rumpus: I think that’s what you gain, or are reminded of, from reading this book.
Bock: One of the best reactions I had was after reading one of the early sections at Yaddo. Afterwards, a wonderful writer came up to me and said, I have to go call my wife and tell her I love her. That was really powerful and also focusing. It was clear: this is what I’m supposed to be doing. At best, if that’s what you can be doing, at the highest levels, that requires no compromise.
Rumpus: You have to write to meet that kind of understanding or communion.
Bock: You need to push to earn that kind of emotion. Rise to earn it. The way I think about writing, which means slowing things down and being specific, being more detailed, being more nuanced, the complexity needs to rise.
Rumpus: Was writing this book an act of healing?
Bock: I think there are levels of healing. There are some things that you just live with or around. Writing this very much helped me learn how I was going to live with everything. There are some things you can’t come to terms with, but I can live with them. For me, for how I understand the world, and for how I wrestle with my place in it, I think there’s a level. You learn how to live with something. I do think I had to write it, to have a chance at being able to keep going and to have a chance with this as part of my history. I had to do that.