James Boice will tell you that he's not much of a talker. And this will be an understatement. He will do no poetic waxing on the state of American fiction or the subtleties of his craft or why he favors sweaters worn over collared shirts. There will be none of these things because he doesn't care about these things; in fact, he finds these matters tedious and unimportant. James Boice, you see, is a writer.
What Boice—who, at 24 years old is one of the youngest writers ever to publish fiction in Esquire and whose novel, MVP (Scribner), was released this past May—does find important, is writing. And despite his pronounced loathing of all things unwriterly, despite his unconventionality and blatant abhorrence to the modern publishing world's desire to make authors into publicists, character actors and salesmen, here he is.
Either he's the first of a welcome new wave of young literati, or he's a throwback purist whose unwillingness to accept that survival in the modern publishing world means self-promotion will cause his work to die a quiet death.
Regardless, James Boice won't care. He's got writing to do.
SHUNNING THE SPOTLIGHT
Boice looks like a writer. He has a pleasant baby face—picture a literary Eminem—with a dimpled chin and the disheveled hair of someone who tires of constant upkeep. He's tall and dresses like a young, hip town librarian; favoring collared shirts beneath wool sweaters and khaki pants. His speaking voice hardly skews from a soft monotone, and although in possession of a piercing wit and dry sense of humor, he rations both cautiously. But most telling, he reviles discussing his work. What for most writers is a false modesty that's quickly betrayed by an unquenchable desire to discuss themselves and their work, Boice grows visibly agitated.
"Do I want to go on a book tour?" he asks, nearly spitting out his drink in a Harvard Square coffee shop. He shakes his head violently. "No way. I've never wanted to do that. The idea of standing in front of a room at Barnes & Noble makes me ill. Don't get me wrong; I want to meet people who read my books. But standing up in a room, reading and answering questions sounds like a nightmare."
Kelly Skillen, his literary agent at PMA Literary and Film Management in New York, echoes Boice's aversion to public life. "Self-promotion is such a part of the industry nowadays, and James," she pauses, choosing her words carefully, "James was like ... 'Does it have to be?' "
"But don't you have to do some sort of publicity for the book when it comes out?" I ask Boice. "Isn't that part of the job requirement for a modern writer?"
Boice looks at me like I've just asked him if he's ever considered lighting himself on fire. "I don't have to do anything. The whole process has been a trial," he says. He shakes his head and mutters again more to himself than to me, "I just want to write."
THAT CLACK, CLACK, CLACK
After high school, Boice, a northern Virginia native, briefly attended James Madison University before deciding in his first semester to drop out to write. As one can imagine, his parents didn't immediately take to his career choice. "They didn't like the idea at all, but I was 18, and it was my choice," he says. "They were just like, 'Writing is very hard so don't come crying to us if this doesn't work out.' " He pauses to take a sip of his drink and lets out a brief laugh. "Looking back, it was an insane choice, but at the time, it seemed to make sense." So Boice began writing full time while working menial jobs, including washing dogs, delivering pizzas, pumping gas and telemarketing.
Boice prefers to write in the morning. And he might be the only 20-something writer whose word processor of choice is a discontinued manual typewriter. "I can't write on a computer," he says. "I like having the noise. I can't handle a screen. They stopped making my Olympia. But I like that clack, clack, clack. Especially on the first draft. Then I rewrite it and type that on the computer."
From Boice's perspective, there was no immediate splash onto the literary scene. "For a period of a couple of years, nothing was happening," he says. "I was writing a lot and had a ton of stories making the rounds, and I was just constantly getting rejections. Over a period of three years, I had 50 stories rejected by one literary magazine. No note; no nothing. They probably thought I was crazy," he says. "But those years, I was learning how to write. My stuff was terrible, so I deserved the rejections."
Finally, in 2003, he began making headway, publishing a story in Fiction magazine and following that with acceptance in the McSweeney's New Voices issue. After a few "shitty" novels, he wrote a short story about a pro basketball player and sent it out. "After I was in McSweeney's, I started getting nice notes with my rejections, and so I got a note about this story, and the editor said, 'Yeah, this is pretty good, but it doesn't really tell us anything.' So I decided to write the rest of the story." A few months later, MVP was born.
Skillen got Boice's proposal as a cold query for a completed novel. "Originally I passed because I had no sample of the writing, and frankly, I wasn't interested in basketball or sports stars," she says.
Undeterred, Boice pitched Skillen's colleague who asked to see sample chapters. "He came in to see me with the pages from James' manuscript and goes, 'Am I smoking crack or is this really good?' "
Skillen began reading the manuscript and was immediately struck. "Literally, from the first sentence, I had one of those 'yes' moments." She signed Boice and, after cutting down the manuscript and doing some editing, sent it out to 30 publishers. The feedback was glowing.
"I'll admit I was very excited and optimistic when I first heard that publishers were into the book," Boice says. "But then everything just, you know," he makes a hand gesture like a plane crashing, "didn't go exactly as I imagined."
"There was a three-day auction that ended up lasting a month," Skillen says. "James was very frustrated."
But Brant Rumble at Scribner very much wanted to acquire the book. "I mostly do nonfiction," he says. "I do about a novel a year. But something in this one just compelled me to keep going. I enjoyed it to the point that I didn't want to skim—and it was a 500-page manuscript."
"Brant believed in it from the beginning," Skillen says. "But it really was a roller coaster, and several times I thought that it wasn't going to work out. This book drove me to drink," she says. "But it was worth it."
MANY VOICES INTO ONE
So the question remains: With hundreds of new novelists writing books each year, how is a quiet guy like Boice garnering so much attention? Well, Boice himself would refer you to his writing for the answer.
"I think James has a savage cultural eye and a clean, smooth style," says Tom Chiarella, the fiction editor at Esquire. "He's a little celebratory and very sharp in his opinions, but I don't think he's a provocateur."
Boice's book MVP (from which the Esquire piece was excerpted) is the story of superstar professional basketball player Gilbert Marcus. It begins with a terrible incident and then goes back in time to take the reader from Marcus' conception.
One of his most obvious literary talents is his ability to capture character. In his distinctive circular prose, this comes out a little like watching someone work on a jigsaw puzzle. If you don't get a clear picture of who a character is and what he's about the first time around, he'll keep throwing pieces at you until they fit.
"He seems to understand things in a way that's incredible for his age," Rumble says. "He's just 24, and yet he seems to know what it's like to be married for 15 years or be a security guard or a limo driver. His voice is confident and muscular, and he tailors it to whatever or whomever he's writing about, like he's incorporating hundreds of voices into one. It's really uncanny."
Lofty literary comparisons abound. "He's got the chops of DeLillo with the pop sensibility of Stephen King," Skillen says.
With the auspicious comparisons, I ask Boice how he hoped his novel would be received. "To be honest, I don't want anything crazy to happen," he says. "I'm in for the long haul. My favorite writers have long careers without phenomenal success. I just want to write for a living. It would be nice to sell the next book for a little more so I can quit my day job."
"I hope no one trashes it," he says. "I don't think it's a genius work. I've kind of moved on. A few people might read it, but life will go on. My brother's like, 'When your book comes out, and you're rich, buy me a Ferrari.' " He flashes a prescient smile. "That's not going to happen."
THE NEW GUARD
So can Boice succeed in becoming a new literary icon, part of a new guard of self-taught voices that marry an acute literary sensibility with hyperawareness of pop culture? Is he, perhaps, riding out in front of a new crest of writers rejecting modern notions of self-marketing and publicity? Will he, as Chuck Klosterman writes in his blurb for the book, "Crush the world"?
"I'm hoping he becomes the backbone of a new generation of great writers that's failed, as of yet, to emerge," Rumble says. "The young guard from before, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, etc., are now the middle-aged guard, and there hasn't been a new group. If he keeps going at the pace he's going, Boice could definitely be part of that new circle."
And as for his shunning a public life, it's not entirely without precedent, as Boice notes. "Look at guys like Cormac McCarthy," he says. "He's given like two interviews in his life. DeLillo. Pynchon. People act like they have to sell themselves out. But you don't have to, as long as the writing is there. And it will be, if you actually sit down to write instead of worrying about an agent. Just write."
His future looks both promising and maddeningly productive. Boice is working out the details for the publication of his next novel. He's contributed to book called The Enlightened Bracketologist (Bloomsbury) that was released in March and featured on the "Today" show, and he's penning nonfiction pieces for Esquire.
As we finish eating, I ask Boice what he likes to do besides write. "I don't really like doing anything else besides writing," he says. "If I say I'm going to be a writer, I'm going to write. I'm not going to walk around talking about it.
"But ask me in six months, and I'll probably be on the 'Today' show and 'TRL' saying 'I love you Beyonceé! Buy my book!' "
He laughs briefly and gets up to put on his jacket. "I'm kidding, of course," he says softly as we walk out into the cold Cambridge air. "I would never do that."