Author Gambles on 'Beautiful Children'

Writer Charles Bock grew up in his parents' Las Vegas pawnshop, a scene rich with human drama and powerful characters. Bock mines that personal history for his critically acclaimed novel Beautiful Children.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Okay. We're going to go next to an interview that I did a little while back with author Charles Bock. He wrote a new book, his new book is called "Beautiful children." And it took more than 10 years, almost 11 years for Bock to write this book about his native Las Vegas. He himself grew up in Las Vegas and the book focuses around kids who are living on the streets in Vegas. Trials and tribulations of being a young person there.

And he delves into a lot of Las Vegas that you don't ordinarily see. It's not the tourist route in Las Vegas, Alison, it's the unseen edges of the city…

ALISON STEWART, host:

The town's great.

MARTIN: …where real people are living…

STEWART: That sounds great but it's not like…

MARTIN: No, but the idea…

STEWART: …great, interesting subject matter for a book.

MARTIN: Yeah. Real people living their lives, having the same kind of struggles that everybody else has but in the backdrop of this kind of crazy place. And the book's getting a lot of buzz. He's in The New York Times magazine profile, book reviews. And this is his life's work. He's pretty passionate about it, and so we sat down and talked to him about what it took to put this book together.

Here's my interview with him.

Thanks for being here

Mr. CHARLES BOCK (Author, "Beautiful Children"): Rachel, it's an absolute joy. Hello everyone out there in NPR land.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. I'm going to ask you the tough question first.

Mr. BOCK: Anything.

MARTIN: You are - you're 38 right now, right?

Mr. BOCK: Yeah. That's right.

MARTIN: Okay. That's not the hard question. You were then - it took you 11 years, so you were like 27 when you started this endeavor?

Mr. BOCK: I was really probably 26.

MARTIN: Twenty-six

Mr. BOCK: Or it's between 26 and 27.

MARTIN: You kind of changed a lot over those particular 11 years.

Mr. BOCK: I did change a lot. Yeah.

MARTIN: How did the book change as you were writing this? Over the course of 11 years, I imagine the book was kind of different things at different stages.

Mr. BOCK: The first is a good question. The first draft was angry. It was angry book written by someone trying to show everything he could do, and it was very self-conscious; it was very showy. And there wasn't a lot of probably love for the characters in there. Or what there was, there was a difference between what I thought there was and what was on the page.

As I matured, I became a smarter person, a more sensitive person, a more thinking person. And the book helped me and kind of directed me in that. And the book also evolved. It evolved in terms of form and craft. And instead of someone trying to show what everything they could do - look at me, look at me. Probably everything that I could do I can learn to do better, and I learned to do in service of this crazy story that I had.

MARTIN: Describe the story. I mean as critics, and on the back of the book, it says, you know…

Mr. BOCK: Yes.

MARTIN: …young, urban, kids…

Mr. BOCK: Yeah.

MARTIN: …how do you describe this story?

Mr. BOCK: Thank you for asking. A 12-year-old boy, Newell Ewing, growing up in Las Vegas. He goes out on Saturday night with an older friend. He doesn't come home. There's - it's written with a lot of hope. It's written with a lot of love. I think it's one of the love stories to people who kind of fall by the wayside. It's how - is one way I thought of it. And there's a lot of pretty good jokes in there too.

MARTIN: There is that tension. It's a very sad story but there are some moments of real humor…

Mr. BOCK: Oh, good.

MARTIN: …in that and I think this passage in particular illustrates this. If I could have you read it, this is a part of the book where the mother of the main character - her child is missing and she's kind of reflecting on that. And I'll have you…

Mr. BOCK: Absolutely.

(Reading) He was not able to drive pass a schoolyard without breaking down, and she cannot prevent herself from cruising schoolyards, from going by that comic bookshop. The boy had never been to a Hooters, but he had known that men like Hooters. And whenever Lorraine used to drive past, he'd enjoyed chanting, Hooters, Hooters. Therefore, she can no longer turn right on Lindell.

MARTIN: That is such a funny and sad and poignant scene.

Mr. BOCK: It's - there's some dark material, but the truth is you start - you know, it doesn't start off necessarily that way. It starts off with tragedy, and we start off learning about people that hopefully we're going to care about. And we - as the book goes, you care more and more and you meet more and more people who are maybe weirder and more on the fringes and you start to learn about them and care more about them too.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about the character of Las Vegas…

Mr. BOCK: Yeah.

MARTIN: …in this book.

Mr. BOCK: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You write about a - you grew up there.

Mr. BOCK: Yes, until I was 18.

MARTIN: And you tell a story of not the Vegas that we might see…

Mr. BOCK: No.

MARTIN: …if we go for a weekend of gambling and so. This is real, quote, unquote, "Las Vegas"…

Mr. BOCK: Right.

MARTIN: …where people live outside of The Strip.

Mr. BOCK: Right.

MARTIN: And I'd like to have you read another passage here that illustrates that, if I could.

Mr. BOCK: (Reading) Here the vibe is tangibly different from on The Strip. All the overblown pretenses and fantasies have been stripped away. Frequent-player slot clubs provide senior citizens with rebates at area grocery stores, and Pick the (unintelligible) football contest require a Nevada driver's license to enter.

Money still flows to the casinos. There's still enough energy in the air to rival any big-named joint. But out here the energy is shaded with blue-collar pragmatism. Career dealers and waitresses occupy untold seats around Blackjack tables. Log-rolling is constant as is the business of watching and washing backs. You'd never know, the guy you broke in dealing poker with 10 years ago could show up as a pit boss. The husband of your former secretary might end up a head waiter.

MARTIN: What do you want readers to know about Las Vegas after they read this book? What are you trying - what role is that character Las Vegas in this book for you?

Mr. BOCK: Las Vegas is about taking the flash of the American dream and a bigger, faster, glitzier-now part of it. I focused on that as one part of Las Vegas. I also tried to focus on the idea that there's people there who live and work and love and hope. I think that A has an effect on B whether it's subconscious or conscious. So it's a complex organism.

MARTIN: I'd be remiss if we didn't talk about the kids who live on the street…

Mr. BOCK: Yeah, I think it is good.

MARTIN: …and this element of kids who ran away. And I mean, you spent 11 years on this…

Mr. BOCK: Yeah.

MARTIN: …and it's your first book. Of all the things in the world that you could focus on, why was that an appealing narrative? Why did you feel compelled to tell the story of these kids?

Mr. BOCK: Well, one simple - simply, I could have been that kid. And there's a writer who I love - William Bowman(ph). He says that his - one of his missions is to write beautiful words and put them in beautiful sentences and create great paragraphs and great stories about the people that most of us cross the street to avoid.

I've lived in a lot of places where there's been a large runaway culture. I've always, at a certain point, writing wise, I realized it wasn't a large leap from the memories of me not wanting to be in my body to, well, what would happen if I did disappear and then to create a narrative. And then to think what would happen to the parents of that kid, that fictional child if he did disappear.

And it took me down some roads towards an idea of lost promise and towards the reality that there are, you know, there are hurt people out there - young men and women - who have no recourse. And the recourse they choose, most of the time, does not end well. And that seems - it's a great subject. It captivated me. A writer has to write something that they're - sit down with or are interested in every day of their life. And this did; this killed me. And I had to get it right.

MARTIN: Did you write this purely from anecdotal experience - personal experience or did you have to go out and do some research? Did you get on the streets and talked to people?

Mr. BOCK: Yeah, I did lots of research. I also, you know, I would talk to lots of street kids. I never had any money while I was writing this book but I had more than those kids. And so I would - you know, I always give whatever I have to whoever is on the streets anyways. I would engage a lot of people in conversation. I studied police reports. I read clinical studies. I also went of my way to make sure that my characters were fictional creations and that I did not exploit or put any real life stories into the book. It is fiction, but fiction is a lie well told. And my - hopefully, I did justice to the subject.

MARTIN: You were not writing this book part-time for 11 years, right? This was a full-time gig. How did you feed yourself and how did you psychologically sustained yourself over what I imagine was a really difficult period of time to be working on the same thing?

Mr. BOCK: I didn't have a lot of great jobs. I was a third-shift legal proofreader. I did office work for people where a friend might say, hey, we need someone in his office and then I will have a month or two weeks or whatever somewhere. I was - I taught fiction workshops.

I also - a friend of mine named Mike Wise(ph) gave me a tremendous break and I was able to help him ghost - where I was a ghost editor on a celebrity biography for Shaquille O'Neal - celebrity (unintelligible) autobiography. Mike was also was one of those friends who would have a big party and at the end of it, he would give me all the leftover chicken wraps.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOCK: And so then I would have four days of food.

MARTIN: But that - it'd get annoying when you would show up and see your friends and they'd be like, so Charles, how's that book coming?

Mr. BOCK: Yeah. It is annoying. It is annoying. It was probably annoying to J.D. Salinger when he took him 16 years to write "The Catcher in the Rye." And it as probably annoying to Joseph Heller who wrote "Catch-22" and published it at '38.

Art, you know, art and fiction, especially in big books, you know, it takes a while. And I didn't, you know, you don't strap on knowing how long it's going to take. I was halfway in and I realized how deeply over up my head I was. And I was - I could either give it up and go for the shore and start over and then be 30 - let's say, 33 with nothing or I could figure this out.

I always had belief that there was a way through. And I always believed that if I read enough and studied enough and listened to the story, I would end up with a book that did not read like it took 10 years, but read it like always existed. And I don't know if that happened, but I know I did the best I could. Yeah. And on the next one, I hope it doesn't take 10 years, but I'm going to do the best I can on the next one, too.

MARTIN: These are - finally last question. These are characters, though, that have - they were born from you.

Mr. BOCK: Yeah, completely…

MARTIN: These are creations - you have lived with them for a decade.

Mr. BOCK: Completely, for a decade.

MARTIN: Are you sad? Is there loss in your life now that they live in books on the shelves?

Mr. BOCK: It's weird to see the books on the shelves. It's weird to have - it's a bizarre experience. It's very gratifying. And it's weird to not have these characters as part of my head and my conversation. And they play such a big part of my emotional life fro such a long time that it's now weird to try and move beyond them and do new work. And at the same time, it's wonderful and life, you know, does move forward. And, you know, thank goodness, it worked out this way, right? And I hope that they're going to live for a long time with a lot of people and maybe do some good.

So that's pretty excellent. That's a nice hope to have.

MARTIN: Charles Bock is the author of a new book, "Beautiful Children."

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