Vegas-bred author Charles Bock’s gripping debut novel about a 12-year-old boy’s disappearance features densely interwoven characters, including the city itself. Beautiful Children (www.beautifulchildren.net) will be available January 22 from Random House.
You’re still about two months out, but already you’ve got yourself a very hotly anticipated debut novel. What’s the feeling in Camp Bock?
It is no lie that I spent 10 years writing this book. And nine of them with no agent. The only person I really showed it to was my girlfriend, who is now my wife. At certain points I would show parts of what I’d done, but really it was the bomb I was building in my basement. And at the same time it was also, “Geez, it’s quite possible this bomb is going to blow up in my face and kill me.” It’s an all-or-nothing type of venture, writing. The time it takes to really do most creative acts well is so encompassing, and the task is so demanding. It was a huge deal. I’m really excited and very thankful that the book has a chance to have a life, that people who have read it have responded to it as well as they have. The fact that it does have so much support already—it’s already a success.
My editor is always bemoaning the fact that no one’s written a good Vegas novel in a long time.
There’s a number of books in the past 10 years or so where the characters go to Vegas or consider Vegas or something, but it is true that no one has really taken it on. Leaving Las Vegas was a very specific thing, and it’s little, and I don’t know if people even read the book, though it’s a good book. But I don’t know if the book has survived the movie. I know that after mine [there's] a novel that’s purported to be a Vegas novel, but it’s really a Bret Easton Ellis-type thing. It’s not what it should be. So your editor is right, that there’s a gap there. And there’s a lot of reasons. It’s hard to write well about Las Vegas.
Why is that?
The idea is “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” and people come to wash themselves in the sin and the glitter and the whatever, and that creates a certain one- or two-dimensional world. It’s hard to write well about a certain kind of spiritual emptiness, I think. And meanwhile, for anyone who’s lived there—in my case, I grew up there—it’s more than that. There’s all these people who work and who live and hope and love and all these things, who keep this place running and keep it working. It’s impossible to live there and not be affected by Vegas attitude, by the glitter and the 8 million signs on the side of the road with women’s breasts, and by every strip club and every payday-loan place. It’s impossible to not have it affect life. There’s so much going on, but to really write about it well is difficult, because on one level, if you just want to catalog all the crap in the Mirage or the Wynn or the Venetian or whatever the latest one that opens is, that’s 800 pages because it’s all so specific and so gilded. But to read it, it’s just a laundry list. It’s interesting, and it’s interesting, and then your eyes kind of glaze over. So writing about that is kind of difficult, and it was a very hard question for me to answer. It’s a hard question in general. How do you create a narrative or create a story or create characters that maybe on one level are doing one thing, and then on some far level may not even know what they want, or are searching for something different in a completely opposite way? It’s a difficult task. I’m sure right at this minute people far smarter than me are handling it with no problem at all, and there will be 8 million novels far better than mine in five minutes.
The casinos, the restaurants, there’s Fremont, the strip clubs, the suburbs ... did you deliberately set out to touch on so many different aspects of the city?
I tried really hard to not make it be a gambling novel. I do have a character that goes and loses all his money in four hands, immediately. First thing he puts it down and does it according to his little guidebook, and he loses it, but let’s move forward, you know? Let’s keep going. Because there’s a lot. There’s a whole adult side of Vegas, and how do you write about that without having a publisher immediately take the manuscript and pitch it in the trash? I lived there until I was 18, and my parents and my family are still there, so I go back a couple times a year, and I would take copious amounts of notes. I didn’t try to consciously, “Oh, I have to have this and have to have that,” but I tried to create something that really moved through the city as I kind of did and know it as I feel it to be true.
Tell me more about your Vegas background.
My parents still own and operate pawnshops, and now I have two older brothers, and they also work with them. I went to Clark High School. I think now it’s a specialty school. But at the time it was as far from a specialty school as it could be. I used to go places that I think of as being very “My Las Vegas Childhood,” the Red Rock Cinemas, which is now a strip mall, and the Cinedome Theaters next to Cashman Junior High School, which is now a shopping center. The Boulevard Theaters, yeah, they’re gone, too. Pretty much all the movie theaters of my childhood are gone. I was a very small boy, and I was not someone who was invited to high-school parties and things like that. I was a pretty unhappy teenager and found myself much more in my 20s than in my time in Vegas.
I detect a love for comic books in your novel.
I probably haven’t bought a comic book in 25 years, maybe 20 years, but up until the age of 14, 15, yes. I have an older brother who used to collect and was really into it, and I think he still has a mammoth, monster collection. One older brother was really into comic books, the other was really into basketball, so I loved comic books, and I also followed the old Runnin’ Rebels when they were actually really good, although I guess they’re starting to be good again. There was a time when the crustiest, metal, punk, art-school person, any of them, just had to know what was going on with the Rebels. It was almost beyond borders.
Right now, I find really good and serious fiction, literary fiction, to be about the single greatest thing on the Earth. Nothing against comic books; I know that graphic novels have really taken a serious leap forward and that’s awesome. But honestly, there’s just so many unbelievably good novels out there, so many good short stories. I really love my chosen craft, no matter whether it’s disappearing or disappeared from the mainstream, that’s really been where my mind and heart is.
Were you ever into the desert-party scene yourself?
My sister, who is a wonderful and beautiful actress now, when she was 11 or 12, she would go out and take pictures of the punk parties in the desert. She used to have blue hair, and she got kicked out of Las Vegas Day School for having blue hair. Those things happened, and my understanding is that they’ve been pushed out even further now, and there was an accident in a drainage pipe very recently. But those things still happen, maybe not to the degree that they happen in the book, but that part of it is a love letter to the fact that those were there.
You seem to be very attuned to the plight of runaways.
I was an unhappy teenager, and there’s just no way around it. The characters in the book are far worse off than I was, but I very much remember that feeling of not wanting to be somewhere. The feeling of everything being incorrect and wanting to get away from basically everything, including yourself. Through my teens and even into large parts of my 20s there was a lot for me to deal with and come into my own as a person. At a certain point it was not a very large leap from not wanting to be here to “What happens if the kid disappears?” I did do a lot of research, but I also have a huge amount of sympathy. Hopefully as you grow up you become a more sympathetic person in the sense that you see the world and you feel for other people and you believe in empathy, and if there is an answer to how to live this life, it’s with a certain amount of empathy for other people, even as they piss you off and you make fun of them and whatever. How else can you move through this world? Then there’s the matter of, “What about the parents?” And once I understood that question, that just opened up the book. That was probably on a second or third draft when I really started to understand how much is in this subject.
Has anyone offered the opinion that Beautiful Children paints Vegas in an unnecessarily grim light?
That’s a good question. I think there’s a wide range of characters, and there are degrees of hope. There’s a huge amount of desire for something better at the end, and certain characters do have hope and do move forward in a really good way. I believe that, but I could also understand if people take the book and see sensationalism and the fact that certain subject matters are intense and serious, and read that as being that the book is exploitative or nihilistic. I can’t do anything about that except say that a good, serious, fair, open-eyed reader would see why I wrote it.
I just wonder how people who live in Vegas versus how people who live outside of Vegas will read it, and if it confirms preconceived notions of the city one way or the other.
My parents have a pawnshop in Downtown Las Vegas for quite awhile. I grew up seeing people come in and want, need money so they could go and gamble again or so they could pay their bills or whatever reason, and try and sell items that were of value to them. I also watched when sometimes those items were worthless or weren’t worth much, and there could be arguments, and there still are to this day. It’s a hard job. That really has shaped how I view Las Vegas.
Las Vegas is many, many things. It is a huge, sprawling city, and between the time where this interview ends and the time it’s printed it will become larger and even more sprawling. It would be very possible to write an excellent book about a guy who is a higher-up at a Mormon church and a pair of married 21 dealers and a real-estate agent and a dog-walker. I didn’t write that book, and someone will. It will have their version of Las Vegas in it. I had to write about the Las Vegas that meant something to me. And it does address some seedier aspects, but no one can tell me anything but that this book is sympathetic to every single character that’s in it. More important to me than something being positive or negative is being humane and being sensitive and trying to foster something deeper.