Las Vegas Sun

October 25, 2014

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Q+A: Charles Bock:

From Vegas, a literary hero emerges

Our small tragedies writ large resonate across the country

Charles Bock’s “Beautiful Children” is being hailed as one of the best debut novels in years. Esquire placed it on its list of 100 things you should know about and The New York Times Magazine devoted six pages to profiling Bock and his hometown of Las Vegas.

Everyone, it seems, is anxious to dip into the first serious novel from a Vegas voice.

Bock spent 11 years writing the novel, released last month by Random House. But the story has been brewing since childhood, when he spent nearly every day in his parents’ downtown pawnshops. There he watched desperate people trade in a part of themselves to keep life going a little longer, whether it was gamblers hawking their wedding rings or watches or locals just trying to scrape up money for rent.

“There’s no doubt that seeing them take care of people who need loans so they can keep their lights on, need a little extra money or need an extra month so they can pay their bills influenced me,” Bock said from his New York City apartment. “I also saw moments when people needed their generosity and they simply weren’t going to get a loan because the diamond was no good and seeing some really hard scenes that could play out afterward.”

Audio Clip

  • Charles Bock on fiction in Las Vegas

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  • Charles Bock on what he is waiting for

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  • Charles Bock on support for writing in Las Vegas

Beyond the Sun

IF YOU GO

  • What: Charles Bock
  • When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
  • Where: Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo Road
  • Admission: Free; 507-3400

Maybe that’s what gave the sensitivity and understanding to the complicated lives, vulgar moments and small tragedies in “Beautiful Children.”

Bock overlooks nothing, chooses to not glamorize the damage. He brings readers into a very real and not-so-perfect world, set in a city he describes as “the apex of our cultural indulgences.”

But “Beautiful Children” isn’t so much about Las Vegas as it is of Las Vegas — a story that grew from this town’s casino life, sprawling suburbs, seedy underbelly, fragmented communities, beating sun and transient nature.

The story revolves around the disappearance of 12-year-old Newell and the damage it does to his parents’ marriage. Throughout its unraveling, we meet Newell’s sidekick, Kenny, who is a teenage outsider trying to break into the comics industry. We meet Cheri, a stripper whose boyfriend, Ponyboy, is about to pimp her out to a darker life, and a cast of runaways living amid the complicated rules of the street.

Maybe it’s all the research, writing, rewriting, studying and contemplating of these characters by Bock that gives the book its power. But it’s his love for them that makes it so beautiful.

The author kicks off his book tour Wednesday in Las Vegas, where he will read from his book at the Clark County Library.

Bock talks to the Sun about his journey as a writer, Las Vegas and the effort that went into writing a thoroughly researched and serious book:

You were reluctant to write about Las Vegas. Why?

Early in my writing life I didn’t want to write autobiography and putting it in Vegas it made me think that I would be doing that. And so when I was a student at Bennington I wrote a lot of short stories about other places. Toward the end I finally did a short story that took place in the Circus Circus rotunda.

How was it?

It was horrible. It was not a good short story. I’d be afraid even to look at it although it is part of my senior thesis and is in the library at Bennington College archives. So someone could go and look at that and think, “Boy oh boy, this guy sucked, this guy couldn’t write at all,” or that I was packing so much in there that it was a mess. It’s embarrassing, but the truth is it was the genesis of this journey.

Why hasn’t a solid, lasting novel come out of Las Vegas?

It’s easy to get Vegas superficially right. It’s hard to get at the nuts and bolts of it ... The material is there. The way it can influence is there. There’s a grandeur and a glitz to Las Vegas and a sadness to it that is epic and that does sing of great art. So the potential is there. A challenge is the fact that some of it is so easy that it doesn’t necessarily result in art. It results in pop.

Do you think the Vegas mystique helped build the intrigue among some critics and readers?

You don’t know. You think “sure” because Vegas explodes and explodes again and it’s just spreading. People love hearing about it. They love to hear that you’re from Las Vegas. There are TV shows left and right, but the publishing industry is a pretty rough business. It’s hard to get people excited about books. It’s hard to get support for books because so few of them do well and dark subjects are something the publishing industry is not so thrilled with. You think teen runaways, porn, everyone will love it.

Speaking of which, the book has its brutal moments. Did you ever think, “I can’t believe I’m writing this”?

All the time. Sometimes I was amazed at where things were going, but I lived as much in this world as I lived in the physical world around me. I spent more time working on this than I did going out and doing stuff in New York City. I really just wanted this flawed, complicated group of people and like a love letter to them and to the idea of lives that just don’t go the right way.

Why runaways?

I was a very unhappy young man and Newell is probably an extension of that. But he is not me at 12 or 13; it was a fictional creation. It was not hard to make that leap of that memory of not wanting to be in my body to, well, what happened if someone disappears. And that was a jumping off point.

Did you know that it would become so involved?

You have no idea what you’re getting into. I thought I knew what I was doing and I didn’t. After three or four years I was deeply in over my head and I had a choice of “Do I just put the thing in a drawer?” or “Do I figure this out and go forward?” ... If I was going to take this on I had to get it right because so many people fall through the cracks and so much of it is ignored.

How did you research that lifestyle?

One easy way is you see someone and you stop and you talk to them. Another area was police reports. I combed police reports. I got all the literature from every major national runaway organization. I had enough then to use my imagination and that’s also part of my job because I made sure not to exploit the stories and tragedies of people because I did not want to appropriate anyone’s life for this book. I didn’t want someone saying, You gave me a dollar; you took my life.

What about the porn industry?

Early, early on I contacted someone and this was before the giant porn explosion in America and they let me hang out for a while. They never let me on a set, but they let me kind of hang out around offices and talk to people. I struck up a friendship with one person there and he would send me tapes before they hit the market or as they hit the market. Every once in a while I would get a new tryout tape. At a certain point I had to stop that because it was just warping.

Why get so graphic with the porn scenes?

My wife is an ardent, ardent feminist and she read various versions of the big porn scene and that question of where is the line and what is too much is a hard one and different people have different sensibilities. I have nothing against the idea of porn. In the book there is someone who is making a very, very good argument for porn and that it does exist. I’m not unsympathetic to those points. At the same time, I wrote a scene where there are big sleazy guys that are pressuring someone into doing something. I did a lot of research for that part of the book.

It’s a rough, rough business. Everyone involved in it is damaged in some profound way. That’s just how it is. When you talk about actresses and the women in that industry it gets bizarre — simply because you can’t have people you rarely met or kind of know (expletive) the living eyes out of you two and three times a week without having some part of yourself close off or shut down. Most of the riches go to the (expletive) who run things. The whole business model ... has been built on sleazy men exploiting women.

Even now?

There’s an argument and there’s an idea that things might be slowly changing. Big contract girls at the big companies make a lot of money. Jenna Jameson and Tera Patrick both have companies that, from my understanding, take care of the people who take care of them ... And there are female-owned porn companies that seem to care about people in the industry as well.

In my humble opinion, and I could be wrong, those are the exceptions. There will always be the exceptions. That’s the nature of the business. That’s who gets involved and the nature of what the business is. And there is just a huge, huge trail of broken lives left down by the side of the road. And if I was going to take it on, I couldn’t blink.

What’s next?

I’m a writer. I keep writing. That’s what I do. I have another novel in store for me. When all this dies down I will go back into my cave, sit down and try to do better.

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