Grant Farley worked as an English teacher for over twenty-five years and has taught at a Santa Monica alternative school, a barrio junior high, and a Marine Science magnet in San Pedro. All the while, he worked on Bones of a Saint, and excerpts of the book have appeared in various literary magazines and been showcased at a number of writers' conferences. Then one day his awesome wife insisted that he retire, which is when RJ’s story really took off. Now he writes full-time from his home in Los Angeles, CA, and volunteers at a lighthouse. Bones of a Saint is his first novel and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
First, I’d like to thank the library for this opportunity to express my gratitude. I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, and when I was eleven we moved from Reseda to Woodland Hills and I was too shy to make friends. My parents (both teachers) would drop me off at the little branch library in Woodland Hills and I would get lost, at least lost in the nerdy book sort of way. I remember a row of “All About Books” that I went through, especially Volcanoes and Dinosaurs. And I remember big, colorfully illustrated copies of Treasure Island and The Deerslayer. That library helped me find my place as a child and pushed me on my journey to become a teacher and writer.
What was your inspiration for Bones of a Saint?
One day I was at my desk working on another book, and this kid wandered into my brain and began telling me this story of how he sold his brother's toes. That was the impetus for Bones. However, an impetus and an inspiration are not quite the same things. An inspiration on a deeper level may have occurred many years before: I was eighteen and traveling through Europe. This was late in the Viet Nam War and I was caught between getting drafted or going to college. I came across the WWI battlefield of Verdun. White crosses as far as the eye can see, covering an unimaginable number of dead souls. The ground twisted, the trees deformed from the bombardments. At that moment the true impact of war washed over me. I guess that carried with me over the years and surfaced in Bones of a Saint.
Are RJ, Mr. Leguin, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
R.J. was his own creation. The rest were stitched from bits and pieces.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
The novel began as interwoven short stories told by RJ to a mysterious old man. Through various drafts, it expanded into a novel, with some of the stories being rewritten into the present tense of the story, while others remained as Tales. The old man’s character began to emerge and that changed some things considerably. A couple of the tales never made it to the later edits. One about the twins I really liked, but it didn’t fit into the structure of the overall book and had to go. There was a chapter later in the book where RJ and Manny get into a big fight. It also didn’t fit the tone at that point and had to go. There was a chapter/tale (I wasn’t sure which) involving the Blackjacks, some coyotes, and a rich man’s swimming pool. Alas, that had to go. My agent pointed out two places where there seemed to be lapses in the story, and so I added two chapters that became two of my favorites. And then, of course, there are the endless line edits. The most difficult of these was getting RJ’s voice just right. He deliberately shifts at times between different levels of correctness in his speech, depending on how he might best survive situations. You might say language is something of a weapon of survival for RJ. It was hard doing this without making it look like the author was inconsistent in RJ’s dialect.
A week before the final, final…absolutely final…corrections were to be made before print, I had this flash for a new chapter. I pictured it fully, where it would go, and even how I’d need to weave in some short bits elsewhere to set it up. It involved a whole new (though minor) character. It was too late, of course. And it was probably my way of not wanting to let go. But I worked it over in my mind and couldn’t let it go. So I sat down long after the novel was done, and wrote a finished draft, including notes about some other places I’d have to briefly rework. I filed that away on my computer never to see the light again. At least I got it out of my system and could let it go.
What inspired you to set Bones of a Saint in 1978 (as opposed to other time periods)?
In early drafts it was not set in a specific time or place. I experimented with it being a sort of mystical place—nostalgic, but dark and twisted as well. That didn’t work. I wanted to keep some of that feeling within the valley itself, but I needed something real and concrete to ground the reader and give contrast to the valley. 1978 first began as simply a practical choice, the timeline determined by Mr. Leguin and RJ’s father, whose experiences were set in specific wars. But within that possibility, it came down to 1978 because it felt like a between place, a transition between the 1960s (which spilled far into the 70s) and the vastly different 80s. In pop culture you had things such as disco vs. rock, Star Wars vs. Saturday Night Fever, The Grateful Dead (heads) vs. The Bee Gees. There was the illusion that war was fully behind us and far in the distant future (except for the looming nuclear threat). There were evil people in the real world as well, such as The Son of Sam and Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. Across rural California at that time, Cesar Chavez and the UFW had made great strides, but now we're being pushed back. RJ’s best friend Manny’s family was involved in this, as was Mr. Sanders and the trailer park he had built. 1978 was a year when idealism and hope teetered toward self-involvement and cynicism.
In your Author Note you state that Arcangle Valley, California is fictional. Is it inspired by a real location?
Not really. There are real landmarks outside the valley, of course. Big Sur. Camp Roberts. The Mission. But the actual valley, although generally based on rural California, is entirely fictional. I did use some memories from growing up in the far west San Fernando Valley before the area was built up.
Your biography describes you as working on Bones of a Saint for a long period of time. It also says you published parts of the novel as standalone projects earlier in magazines and journals. Where/when were these parts of the novel published? How long did it take you, overall to complete it?
The time part of it is tricky to answer. I came back to it many times between other projects. I wrote three or four other novels and some short stories in-between drafts of Bones. I’d send it out, get rejections, revise, bury it in a drawer, and finally send it out again. More rejections. I’d pretty much given up on it when I sent it out one more “last time” and Stephen Barr pulled it out of the slush at Writers House. If it wasn’t for him, it might never have been published. As far as the road it has taken out into the world, some of it was in a UCLA magazine when I was in the Writers Program; recently I can thank the editors at Silk Road in Oregon for publishing a version of the first chapter; a chapter was workshopped at the Squaw Valley conference (where an agent accepted the novel and then rejected it—an experience repeated several times); I read it open mic one night at University of Iowa Summer program; it took second in the Lillian Dead award (at the Cuesta conference) for opening pages of a novel way back in 2004, finishing second to another opening of mine to a novel Blood Fugue, which is buried in some file somewhere around my desk here. And so it goes. The greatest single influence on its long journey has been a powerful group of writers who have workshopped it many times over the years in our retreats at Asilomar.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
I have two books that are the most recent in series written by two L.A. crime writers: The Heartless, by David Putnam and Night Town by Timothy Hallinan. I enjoy books where I can follow interesting, flawed characters into the depths of L.A., both the places I have been, and especially the places I have never personally discovered. Southern California is such a diverse, amazing place—and a well written crime novel is a great way to discover it. I am also reading The Last Blue, by Isla Morley. I read Where the Crawdads Sing a while ago, but it remains on my nightstand because I don’t have the heart to let it go. There are some books piled up waiting to be read: Every Bone a Prayer by Blooms and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Vuong.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
The books and authors have become more of a colorful flow. Just to mention one author: Murakami is a writer who has influenced me quite a bit in my more recent years.
As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your book published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?
There is advice for planning a remodel of your house that goes something like this: Whatever the time and cost you think it will take, double it; and then allow for added time and expenses. That holds true for the publishing process. Every part of the process takes two or three times what you thought it would take. But it is so much fun.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
The World of Pooh. Wow, I just noticed for the first time in my life, and I have three kids, that that is a rather unfortunate, though apt, title for a children’s book.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Do ones checked out from the library count? There were those I mentioned before, Treasure Island and The Deerslayer. However, there are recent covers I see around me now that are really strong: The Last Blue is outstanding. Every Bone a Prayer is absolutely haunting. Where the Crawdads Sing because I love everything about that book. Since Covid, I go by what people have recommended, and sometimes don’t see the cover until it’s delivered, whether electronic or hard copy or audible.
Is there a book that changed your life?
Well, I don’t want to get religious here, but the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in its almost original form when I was a boy. I went to the Episcopal church every week growing up, and to be surrounded by the beauty of that language, even the parts I didn’t understand, had a huge influence on me. How mysticism and spirituality, Bible stories, and wisdom can be evoked through extraordinarily beautiful language.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
I am going to step away from the classics and give props to a recent book: Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke. I first heard it as an audible as I went on my walks, the audible reader is excellent. Then I read it to fully appreciate its depth. The language and imagery and setting are stunning. She masters the unreliable narrator like few have done in recent times. Extraordinary book.
Oh, I want to say something about Kate DiCamillo: Children’s writers are too often overlooked by the rest of the literary establishment. In novels such as The Magician’s Elephant and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane she achieves a depth through elegant simplicity that can stand beside many so-called literary novels.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
It’s Saturday morning now and I can hear my son (who is a high school senior) downstairs playing his trombone, auditioning online for Berklee Music Conservatory. It’s haunting on so many levels.
What are you working on now?
Funny you should ask. I am working on two projects:
LAmental is an evolving collection of twisted short stories spanning nearly a century, which explore both the psychological and physical landscape known as Los Angeles. At this very moment, you may spot Grant Farley in his alcove overlooking L.A. Harbor, huddled over his grandfather’s roll-top desk, a Springer Spaniel at his feet, as he furiously pounds away on his current passion, Illumination—a fantasy novel inspired by his love of Celtic lore, his cynicism of mystic triangles, and his experiences working in an antique lighthouse.