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The key to Dave Boling's novel success

September 2, 2009 | 11:01 am


Dave Boling's 2008 novel, "Guernica," was a surprise hit with critics and booksellers -- a lush, multi-generational family saga looking at a Basque town destroyed by the blitzkrieg tactics of the Luftwaffe in the lead-up to World War II. Hardly had the book appeared than it was already being likened to "The English Patient" and "Captain Corelli's Mandolin." Not bad at all for a first novel.

This month, the novel appears in paperback from Bloomsbury, and what's just as intriguing as that story is the one about how Boling wrote it. You see, Boling's a sportswriter for the News-Tribune in Washington state. When he started writing that book, he was a 53-year-old longtime journalist, traveling for the paper 50 to 75 nights a year and writing three or four columns a week. He had plenty of passion for his subject -- he said an important inspiration was marrying into a Basque American family -- but passion doesn't seem as if it would be hardly enough, does it?

Jacket Copy: How, I want to know, do you pull off a novel when you're on the hook several times a week for articles and you're constantly moving between hotels? Doesn't that ruin your concentration? 

Dave Boling: Sportswriters are accustomed to operating in extreme circumstances -- pep bands playing in your ears, cheerleaders shaking their pompoms in your face, the big-voiced radio guys chattering next to you.

Especially on deadline, you have no choice but to shut out the distractions and focus in on your story.

Once I decided on a topic and started research, I would slip into that fully focused mode whenever on a plane, or a layover at Gate C-21 at O'Hare, and found myself able to kind of withdraw into my laptop.
Sometimes it didn't work at all. But surprisingly often it turned into something that I can only assume was like self-hypnosis. Seriously.

When it was really working for me, and the distractions were walled off, I almost felt like I was there with the characters, hearing their voices, smelling their food, looking at their surroundings. I'm not sure I was even aware of the passage of time. I'd suddenly hear the "tray tables and seat backs in their fully upright positions"  and realize I'd been writing for hours and might have several thousand words in place. Strangely, the copy that came from some of those sessions was the best and needed the least editing.

JC: What part did your wife's family play in the writing?

DB: From them, of course, I heard of the 1937 bombing of Guernica by the Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War. As I started fishing around for a topic, it was in the post-9/11 era, of course, and we were involved in another war. I had thought since 2001 that few Americans had even heard of the slaughter of defenseless civilians in Guernica, and fewer still recognized it as a crucial early moment in this type of attack. The contemporary relevance deserved to be explored, I thought, as a reminder, if nothing else. There already were a number of great historical accounts of the event, but I had never seen it used as a backdrop for historical fiction.

Some of my characters grew from reflections of my wife's relatives, immigrants who came to America early in the 20th century to herd sheep in the mountains of Idaho. They were hard-working, family-oriented, high-character people who also knew how to have a great deal of fun. In trying to capture the Guernica of the 1930s, I wanted to create an environment filled with these kinds of good and honest people trying to live their simple lives the best they could when incomprehensible violence literally dropped unexpectedly from the sky. I thought if these characters could respond to that kind of hardship in inspirational ways, there might be something that we all could take away from it as we deal with tragic acts in the 21st century.

JC: How long did it take before you completed the manuscript?

DB: I ended up cranking out a manuscript of about 165,000 words in a little over a year -- on top of some 200 sports columns. I often would get up at 4 a.m. and just sit in the dark to get in a couple hours of writing before getting started on my column for the day.

JC: You must've been extremely disciplined.

DB: I guess it involved a good deal of discipline, but it didn't seem like much of a drain since it was so much fun. Because the writing of fiction in this learn-as-you-go way was so different from the writing I did for the paper, it felt like recreation -- not just more work. I saw it a little like cross-training: It was a similar exercise, but I used a lot of different muscles. I think that's why it was so easy to "toggle" back and forth from fiction to journalism. And I hope that doing one makes me better at the other.

JC: Now, as the book is being published in paperback, have you learned any lasting lessons from the experience of writing it?

DB: I guess the biggest thing I learned is a simple lesson: Apparently, nothing is impossible. Now that I'm involved in the publishing process, I've learned how tremendously fortunate I've been. There's a zillion great writers out there who are aren't getting published, and the odds of a first-time fiction writer scoring nicely with a book are extremely lean. But I'm proof that it can be done.

-- Nick Owchar

Photo: Dave Boling. Credit: Bloomsbury USA