San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

May 14th, 2013
Q&A: Roger Boylan on the thrill of writing thrillers




Critically acclaimed author Roger Boylan will present the seminar on the basics of writing thrillers during a free seminar 1 p.m. Saturday, May 18. Both experienced and novice writers are invited to attend the workshop at the San Marcos Public Library, 625 E. Hopkins St.

Boylan will discuss practical focused ways to write a thriller including structure analysis, characterization, setting and plot. Participants may bring a synopsis draft of a proposed thriller for discussion.

Boylan will read excerpts from his novels, as well as from titles in a variety of genres, including Robert Ludlum’s “The Bourne Identity”, Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and James Hynes’ “Next.” Excerpts from films based on some these titles will be shown.

Boylan’s novels are highly lauded and his work has been compared to Laurence Sterne, James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett. His novel “Killoyle” was published in 1997 and has been reprinted four times. The sequel, “The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad”, was published in 2003. German versions of both novels, translated by the award-winning German translator and author Harry Rowohlt, were critically and commercially successful.

The third volume in the Killoyle trilogy, “The Maladjusted Terrorist,” was published in Germany in 2006 and is forthcoming in English. The entire trilogy was reissued in German in 2007 under the title “Kein & Aber.”

Boylan’s latest novel, “The Adorations,” in which a Swiss professor named Gustave, Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s mistress, the Archangel Michael, and a journalistic sexpot meet at the intersection of history and fantasy, has been published as an e-book and is now available on and other online bookstores. Boylan’s light-hearted memoir, “Run Like Blazes,” has also been published as a Kindle e-book and is also available on Amazon.

In addition to being a regular contributor to Boston Review, Boylan has written for many journals and reviews including The Economist, The New York Times Book Review and The Texas Observer, among others. Boylan has a website and a blog at

We talked with Boylan about his work, the writing process and literature, among other things.

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If you go …

What: Writing seminar with author Roger Boylan.

When: 1 p.m. Sat., May 18.

Where: San Marcos Public Library, 625 E. Hopkins St.


Buy Boylan’s books through the Mercury’s Amazon store. The Mercury receives a percentage of all sales made through our partnership with the online retailer.

San Marcos Mercury: You were raised, I’ve read, in Ireland, France and Switzerland. How has that influenced your literary tastes?

Roger Boylan: I had the privilege of growing up in two languages, English and French, and, living in the cosmopolitan environment of Geneva, becoming somewhat familiar with others: German, Italian, and Russian, mainly. I loved discovering Swiss writers –there are many, some great: Chessex, Ramuz– and great French writers—Proust, Flaubert, Zola, Maupassant—in their native tongue. From there it was a short hop to bilingual Beckett, and the rest of modern Irish literature, a discovery that was a profound experience from which I’ve never recovered; indeed, it made into an Irish novelist.

Mercury: You’ve said that your favorite writers include Nabokov, Joyce, Tolstoy, Beckett and Mark Twain, among others. How does one’s reading matter influence one’s writing do you think?

Boylan: One strives to imitate one’s betters, or should. Eventually, an original style will emerge.

Mercury: How do you get past the self-criticism, that most writers feel, I think, that their work will never equal that of the great authors of the past?

Boylan: I never wanted to equal the great writers of the past. I only wanted to learn from them and pay them back by doing a decent job with the abilities I have.

Mercury: Do you outline your work ahead of time or make a map of the fictional place you are writing about when you start your work? I guess what I’m asking is: what is your process?

Boylan: I never do an outline of the story, but I do draw a map of the place, if it’s fictitious, such as Killoyle in Killoyle and The Great Pint-Pulling Olympiad and New Ur of the Chaldees in Ohiowa Impromptu. If it’s a real place, as are Geneva, Paris, and Vienna in The Adorations, I rely on the Internet and my memory to provide me with the necessary maps and let my muse do the rest.

Mercury: Your work is filled with circumstances that taste of irony, both with humor and with a bit of existential tragedy. Do you think that writing with humor is more difficult and revealing than straight narrative? How does one walk the line between giving too much of themselves away and not giving away enough, if that makes any sense?

Boylan: My take on life is composed in equal parts of absurdity and pathos, best expressed in humor.

Mercury: How did you get involved with the Thriller writing seminar that you are giving for the San Marcos Public Library?

Boylan: I gave the seminar at the Writers’ League of Texas in Austin and at Gemini Ink in San Antonio and had a good turnout both times. I gave a related seminar at the library last fall, and suggested doing a repeat performance.

Mercury: You’ve been all over the world. Why did you pick Texas for your home?

Boylan: My wife, a historian, was offered a job by Texas State University, so we moved here from New York.

Mercury: I guess I already mentioned this in a way but do you think all writing is autobiographical in some sense?

Boylan: It has to be, doesn’t it? The only head you’ve ever been inside is your own, so whenever you write other peoples’ stories, they’re really yours, modified to suit the situation.

Mercury: Fiction is a good deal harder than non-fiction, in that it all has to be imagined, re-created from personal experience, and has to be somewhat consistent. What is your process for starting a new project as far as thinking it has the potential to be book length?

Boylan: I unleash a pack of stories and the one that stays in the lead grows into a novel.

Mercury: You are a connoisseur of words, you seem to choose them carefully. Do you ever just roughly flesh out an idea and then go back and sculpt the words to give the passage more, uh, literary glamor, as it were? Maybe “plastic surgery” fits the metaphor better?

Boylan: If you mean, do I edit my work a lot, the answer is yes. I’ve always subscribed to the dictum that all writing is rewriting. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

Mercury: What are the things you look for, as a reader, that make up a compelling read?

Boylan: Humor, characterization, and style.

Mercury: Your blog, “The Snug”, is charming and entertainingly educational. I had no idea Kant wrapped up like a mummy to sleep! Do you think that contemporary authors need to embrace the technology of the day in order to succeed, e.g. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, e-publishing?

Boylan: I think success is largely a matter of luck, but these days you can nudge luck along a bit by becoming known on social media without, if possible, becoming obnoxious. As for e-publishing, despite the stories one reads of overnight sensations, the jury is still out.

Mercury: You’ve had a variety of life experiences: educator, bartender, computer network administrator, editor, clerk, etc. An assortment of jobs can give a writer depth, can’t it? I mean, people who want to write should take heart that most writers have a long list of careers since the age of just writing for a living seems almost gone. Or is it?

Boylan: Yes, I believe varied experience can help in a writer’s development more than any number of MFA creative-writing courses, although one of the great virtues of such courses is the opportunity to acquire a network of contacts. I’ve never taken a creative-writing course in my life, although I’ve taught them, on the principle that you can’t teach people how to write but you can teach them how not to.

Mercury: If you could name just one writer that one should read before writing, who would it be?

Boylan: Charles Dickens.

Mercury: The thriller is a popular genre. What are the perks and pitfalls of writing something so involved?

Boylan: The perks are that the thriller contains all the essential elements of a good novel. If you know how to write a good thriller, you have the wherewithal to write any kind of novel, whereas the opposite—writing a literary satire, for instance—doesn’t necessarily mean you can write a thriller. The pitfalls are the same as in any realm of writing: avoiding cliché, mainly.

Mercury: Do you write every day? Do you have certain time that works best for you?

Boylan: When I write, the early morning works best.

Mercury: Writing tends to be lonely work, doesn’t it? What do you tell yourself when it’s hard to carry on? Or does it come easily to you?

Boylan: It comes easily once I get going.

Mercury: What do you think is the value of fiction?

Boylan: By scrutinizing the hidden lives of others, fiction brings us as close to reality and to making sense of life as is humanly possible.

Mercury: How much research do you need to do for a historical novel?

Boylan: Just get the names and dates right and make up the rest.

Mercury: You’ve been writing since you were a nine-year old, yes? I read you wrote travel pieces about imaginary places (which sounds like a great writing exercise). Did you always want to be a writer?

Boylan: Yes, from the moment I started writing a travel guide to Animal-Land (later Animalia).

Mercury: What is the most satisfying part of being a writer?

Boylan: Being in control of your own world. Bending language to your will. Inventing people.

Mercury: Conversely, what is the hardest part?

Boylan: Not getting enough readers.

Mercury: Speaking of the hardest part, what are your recommendations for coping with rejection, the thing most all writers both experience and fear?

Boylan: It’s the name of the game. Remember that Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was rejected 35 times and John Grisham’s A Time to Kill 45 times. We’ve all been there, unless we have direct connections to the penthouse offices of Random House.

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