SCOTT VON DOVIAK's twenty-year pop culture writing career includes a stint as a film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and an ongoing role as television reviewer for The Onion's AV Club. He is the author of three nonfiction books including the acclaimed HICK FLICKS: THE RISE AND FALL OF REDNECK CINEMA. CHARLESGATE CONFIDENTIAL is his first novel. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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Dave Watson: You’ve written a specific, intricate, mystery that probes three different times and touches on many issues. How did the book come about? How did you come across this story?
Scott Von Doviak: The first inspiration for the book was the Charlesgate building in Boston’s Back Bay. It opened as the ritzy Charlesgate Hotel in 1891, but I came to know it almost a century later when the building was my Emerson College dormitory. The Charlesgate is a notorious haunted building in Boston lore, and although I never had any supernatural experiences there, it continued to haunt me. I wanted to write something that would incorporate the different eras of the building, and I’ve always loved Boston crime novels and movies, so I took that approach. I used the real-life Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist as a launching point, though I took some liberties; the heist happened in 1990 and I moved it back in time to 1946. The story unfolds in three intertwined time periods: 1946, when the Charlesgate is controlled by the Mob and the heist happens; 1986, when the building is a dorm and a student journalist digging into its history stumbles on a possible connection to the heist; and 2014, when a murder in the Charlesgate luxury condos sparks another hunt for the still-missing art and the valuable reward for its return.
DW: Your book also incorporates several characters and never confuses us. Was this a juggling act?
SVD: Keeping track of the three time streams and the characters in each was a bit of a juggling act. It wasn’t mapped out in advance, and I wrote the story in the order it appears in the book, so I was constantly jumping from era to era. That kept it fun and interesting for me, though. I’d leave myself little cliffhangers at the end of each chapter and figure them out later. The 1980s characters were the easiest for me to develop, as they were mostly based on me and my friends, or composites thereof. The 1940s characters were largely influenced by the postwar film noir movies, so I worked hard to keep the lingo as period-appropriate as I could. The present day section has older versions of some of the ’80s characters and some police procedural elements I tried to make as contemporary as possible, though I was largely reliant on crime fiction and cop shows for that. I’m glad to hear it’s not confusing—a couple of readers would disagree, but mostly people seem to get it.
DW: Did you work as a journalist before?
SVD: I’ve been a freelance pop culture writer for almost two decades. I always feel like “journalist” is a bit of a stretch, although I’ve done interviews, feature articles, and other journalistic things. I was the backup film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for almost ten years, and I’ve been writing about television for the Onion’s AV Club since 2010 or so.
DW: This book is based in a historical section of one of our most historically-revered cities, yet some books and films don’t delve deeply into the history, therefore storytelling matters. What part of the writer’s craft is most challenging for you?
SVD: When I’m writing a first draft, I like to dive right into the storytelling and I don’t bother so much with setting up the scene—location descriptions, character descriptions, mood. All of that comes later and is much more challenging for me. I think my strengths are dialogue and concise action; I’ve never been the sort of writer who can spend three pages describing a room. For this novel, there was a fair amount of research in terms of getting the different eras right, especially the 1940s, since that’s the one I wasn’t around for. That ranged from finding the box score of a Red Sox game from a particular date to researching what a certain part of town looked like at the time.
DW: One strength is that you don’t appear to judge these characters and achieve empathy through the story and character actions. Did you have this in mind at the outset?
SVD: I don’t think that was a conscious decision, but when I’m trying to get into a character’s head, it only makes sense that I would develop some empathy. Everyone has their reasons, on either side of the law or riding the line between, so I don’t judge them. At the same time, I never want to sugarcoat the characters—even the semi-autobiographical first person narrator of the ‘80s section is highly flawed.
DW: Who were some of your inspirations as writers?
SVD: When it comes to Boston crime, you start with George V. Higgins and his 1970 novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, later a movie with Robert Mitchum. Higgins, especially in his early work, told his stories almost entirely through dialogue. You have to really pay attention to the conversations the characters have, because that’s how the story emerges. I didn’t do that to the extent Higgins did, but I still found that to be the most interesting and fun way to tell the story for me—colorful characters shooting the shit in bars. Structurally, Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places tells a story in two timelines that alternate throughout the book. Of course, Stephen King’s It does that as well, and King was also a big influence on me as a teenager in Maine. I devoured his books, and knowing he lived about an hour away gave me hope I could do the same one day. Getting a blurb from him for Charlesgate Confidential was like coming full circle in a way. It still feels unreal.
DW: Sounds like you pull from different genres. Do you find mixing genres comes easy? Naturally from the story?
SVD: I think the multiple timeframes lent themselves to a mixing of genres. Hard-boiled noir, caper comedy, police procedural, memoir, even a little horror all found their way into the book. That might not have worked if it stayed with one setting and group of characters. On the other hand, maybe I’ll try that next!
DW: What’s next for you? You’ve written several books now.
SVD: I’ve done three nonfiction books on film and pop culture, and this is my first novel. Unless I get an irresistible idea for another nonfiction book, I’m planning to stick with fiction and the crime genre in particular. I’ve got an idea for an Austin-set series and I’ve done quite a bit of work on that, as well as some other projects. It sort of depends which one, if any, catches fire first.
DW: Finally, what is your favorite cinematic moment? One that inspires you to this day?
SVD: Quint’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis from Jaws. Here’s a movie that’s always credited/blamed for starting the blockbuster craze, and it has plenty of thrills, but its best moment is just three men on a boat in the quiet dark, one of them telling a mesmerizing, hair-raising story to the other two. A lot of things are missing from the big CGI spectaculars of today, but that scene is the clearest example I can think of.
DW: And a quiet scene in the middle of a thriller. We get to know the characters and lighten up a little right before the climax.