Interview with Author Bill Rivers

by Matthew Nies

Bill Rivers is the author of Last Summer Boys: a Novel, an Amazon Kindle #1 bestseller in historical fiction.

He grew up along the creeks of the Brandywine Valley in Delaware and Pennsylvania. A graduate of the University of Delaware, he earned an MPA from the University of Pennsylvania as a Truman Scholar, one of sixty national awards given annually for a career in public service.

Rivers worked in the US Senate before serving as speechwriter for US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, developing classified and unclassified messages on national security and traveling throughout Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, NBC News, TIME, and The Hill, among others. He and his family live outside Washington, DC.

In a heartwarming interview with our Prose Editor Matthew Nies, Bill discusses his faith, debut novel, and future plans.

First, congratulations on an extraordinary premier novel! Last Summer Boys is a great read, rooted in hope and the enduring love of family, even, or perhaps especially, in the face of tumult and change. What prompted you to write this remarkable book?

Two things, really: first, I was fortunate to grow up in a family with a lot of love, big personalities, and some truly fantastic stories from earlier generations. I loved those stories and figured others would enjoy them too.

Second, American culture is going through a period of tumult very similar to the era in which the story is set, in 1968. We’ve got parallels with divisive foreign wars, bitter domestic politics, and social upheaval at home. We’re also pretty confused about some of the most important things about how societies work at a basic level — families and their key role in upholding everything else.

And our current crop of stories reflect that. They tend to be grim, despairing, nihilistic. And since we become the stories we tell about ourselves, that’s a recipe for a grim future.

I wanted to tell a fundamentally hopeful story. It’s not a naïve story or a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ sort of one that glosses over the bad. There are real dangers and real challenges. There is loss. But most of all, there’s a family with love for its members—deep love. They disagree about the changes going on around them, but they hold together throughout them. And isn’t that something we all want and need right now?

Last Summer Boys has been wildly successful. How do you see the book’s incredible success; did you see it coming?

I am thrilled about it, of course, but I didn’t necessarily expect it. As the writer, you always hope people will enjoy your work and draw some encouragement from it. I had a hunch that people would like it, but I had such a difficult time finding an agent that I wasn’t sure they’d ever get the chance. I queried several hundred or so, over a period of about four years. Many weren’t interested because it was a more ‘timeless’ kind of story as opposed to a topical one. There are no gimmicks to it.

Eventually, I found Dean Krystek at Wordlink. I queried him, and he called me. “This reminds me of my childhood in rural Pennsylvania,” he said. “I’ve got to represent this story.” And he did — and here we are! We’re closing in on 30,000 units sold within the first year of the book’s release. It’s been a blessing — and an enormously gratifying one.

You mentioned finding a haven for finishing the book at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. And many authors echo your sentiments in the importance of finding or creating an environment to write. Do you have a writing ritual—time, place, environment, etc.?

I think the most important thing when writing is the consistency of output. The words just need to get out of your mind and onto the page. They can be terrible—and most of the time, they are, at first—but they need to get out. For this, you need to be writing at the same time of day and ideally in the same place.

For me, my most productive writing hours are early in the mornings and later in the evenings. For Last Summer Boys, I wrestled with the manuscript for several years because I was inconsistent. I didn’t really have an outline. I would pick it up in my spare time and drop it when life got busy. It wasn’t until I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania that I had an opportunity to take a summer and truly commit to writing.

I had visited the Kirk Center as an undergraduate, and I knew they welcomed academics for sabbaticals and other writing projects. The library there was the perfect place to finish the book. I made an outline. I mostly stuck to it. I would do four hours or so of writing in the morning and roughly four in the evenings, after dinner. I would never have completed the novel without that dedicated time and the support of the Kirk Center staff.

Can you speak a little about your relationship with fellow authors? Are there folks you like to bounce ideas off of or—like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien with the Inklings—groups that help you create and refine?

My brother was one of the most important people for me in writing the manuscript. I sent him an early draft, and his criticism was just brutal: he thought it was boring. And he was right! He encouraged me to go back to the basics: “A story has a hero who wants something really, really badly. Any time they get close to it, put an obstacle in their way. Drive them up a tree and throw stones at them.” I went back to that over and over while drafting Last Summer Boys.

As for other writers, the Washington DC speech writing community—which I was fortunate to be a part of earlier in my career—is pretty close-knit. Few of them work in fiction, but they all wrestle with words for a living, and they’re some of the most intelligent, creative people I know. We are not quite The Inklings, but probably every one of us would love to think we could one day do for our culture what those authors did for theirs. The Lord of the Rings was—and is—a driving force in my life.

I want to turn now a little to your faith and its influence in your writing. You attended Salesianum School (high school in Wilmington, DE) and even had a chance to discuss Last Summer Boys with students there. Can you tell us a little about your faith journey and how it’s intertwined with your pursuits, to “Take hold and never let go?”

I treasure my Catholic faith, and I try every day—always imperfectly—to keep it as the operating principle for my life. Growing up, I was fortunate to have a family that prayed together, and I took it for granted that every human being is cherished beyond our understanding by a good God who is not cold or distant but deeply, intimately in love with each one of us, endlessly and inexhaustibly. Being loved like that also means we have to carry it to others. The talents and gifts we have are tools to help us in this work.

I try to see writing as one of those gifts and one of those tools.

As for the influence of the Christian faith on writing, I often reflect on the beginning of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was The Word.” It hearkens back to Genesis when God speaks the world into creation. (The Hebrew term “dabar” or “word-action” captures this idea.) There is a relationship between words and creation for us too. We can speak things into being—marriage vows, for example, or other solemn declarations. When we make promises, we say “I give you my word.” That means something, or at least it should mean a great deal.

As for Salesianum School, its mission is to teach young men in the example of the gentleman Saint Francis de Sales, who, interestingly enough, is also the patron of writers. If you’re not familiar, Saint Francis wrote a number of books that are filled with simple, practical advice for pursuing holiness in the day-to-day, and that just really resonated with me as a young person and even more now that I’m married and have kids. You have to make time in your day to pray, but you can also pray as you go through your day, sanctifying your work, offering it as a gift.

“Take hold and never let go,” is one of Saint Francis’s sayings, and it just feels more and more the way we need to think about our faith.

Do you have a favorite Bible verse(s) or teaching(s) you turn to for encouragement or perspective?

It’s hard to pick just one, but in recent years, I have found myself coming back more and more often to Matthew 13:17: “Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”

For me, this is a charge to keep a sense of perspective. For all Christians, we really cannot take for granted the gift of Jesus. And for Catholics, if you go to Mass every Sunday, you can receive Christ in the Eucharist every week, and you have to fight to not let that become just routine, just another part of your week.

How do you grow—and maintain—a sense of reverence for the sacred in your life? How do you keep the noise of the world from drowning it out? Not alone, certainly. And not without a lot of effort.

Last Summer Boys has not been categorized or marketed as a “Christian” novel, and yet I think it provides an engrossing story that would strongly appeal to a Christian audience. Do you write to a specific genre; do you have a particular audience in mind?

Right, and this was important to me. I didn’t set out to write Last Summer Boys as an allegory or just as a vehicle for conveying my beliefs about the world. I wanted to tell a good story and figured that my beliefs would naturally come through in the characters and the decisions they made. I do think you can get more out of it if you have an understanding of basic Christian concepts, however.

For example, at the climax of the story there is a moment where two characters must escape fire and pass through water to be safe. I didn’t necessarily realize it when I wrote it, but looking back, that’s a pretty on-the-nose reference to baptism. Similarly, I wasn’t consciously trying to reference the prodigal son, but there is a scene where the father goes out to wait for his boy to return after they’ve had a terrible argument. He waits all night.

I don’t think I knew who the story was for while I was writing, I just knew I had to write it. A college professor of mine warned me that was a deadly oversight, and I lived in fear of it right up until it was published. It’s a story where young adults are the main characters, but it’s got some pretty complex themes that maybe seem more appropriate for older audiences. I think this is why a lot of the agents I queried struggled with it. Is this young adult coming-of-age fiction? Is this historical fiction? Is it drama? Yes to all.

Some things you really only see clearly in the rear-view mirror. Looking at it now, the group that has most responded to it have been those who were young adults at the time the story was written. I cannot tell you how many notes I’ve gotten saying the story reminded them of their childhood in the sixties, of running out into the woods with their friends and being gone all day and it not being a problem.

An aspect of Last Summer Boys that I like is its setting: summer 1968, Vietnam War raging. And you touch on other details such as rioting and the assassination of Robert Kennedy as not only flashpoints in our nation’s history, but in the development of your characters. Can you discuss the importance of history and understanding it from a Christian perspective?

Understanding history from the Christian perspective is one of the most fascinating, and I think complex, questions out there. How does God work in human history? Why are certain terrible events permitted to happen if God loves us, as we Christians so radically claim?

I think there are going to be layers upon layers of intelligibility to this mystery that we uncover as we go forward through time, and most of it we will never know this side of eternity. The short answer is that God is the Lord of History by both his positive will and his permissive will, and for us, “even the very wise cannot see all ends,” as Tolkien wrote.

I don’t see history as some sort of an independent force of its own that hurdles through human societies carrying us all inexorably toward some enlightened end. That’s actually a pretty recent idea in the grand scheme, and I think it’s demonstrably false. Human beings have free will, and we use it for good or for evil. Whole societies can embrace terror or strive for virtue.

Thinking on it now, maybe all of history is the story of God loving humanity and humanity either choosing to accept or reject it.

For storytellers, for leaders, for everyone, history should be a guide, though. Not necessarily a how-to. In fact, it is too often a how-to-not. But we cannot ignore it or forget it. And you cannot change it. Learn from it and choose as best you can going forward.

What’s something you say to aspiring writers or advice you’d give to a younger you?

To writers, I encourage them to “kill the critic” living inside their head and just get the words out. Let them be terrible. You can go back and make them 2% better as many times as you need to, but they have to be out there first.

Then I say you have to do this consistently. Same time every day. Go to the basics. Outline your story first, as far as you can. It is not a straightjacket, it’s a map, and it is permissible to change it. But you won’t get to your destination without it. Remember that heroes have goals and your story is boring or exciting to the degree that their goals are meaningful and attainable.

As for my advice to a younger me, that could probably be its own book! But so far as writing goes, I would say exactly what I said above. If I had followed that, I would have written Last Summer Boys much, much sooner.

You’ve said you’re “…stealing pockets of time to work on a draft of novel number two!” (love that imagery, btw). And between writing and writing (op-eds, ax pieces) and speaking and being a husband and father, just to name a few ventures, I imagine prioritizing plays a big part in what you’re working on. That said, can you give us any details about what you’re planning?

I am too slowly writing novel number two, which I am calling “a thematic prequel” to Last Summer Boys. It’s set in the Great Depression, an era that is still hugely influential in the American cultural psyche (and certainly in our political and economic life, even almost a century later), but which is growing dimmer and dimmer as that generation passes. The research has been eye-opening to me, because I thought I was fairly well-informed on that era, and I’ve learned that I actually know very little. My understanding was almost entirely surface level.

This story still features young boys as its heroes, but the challenges they face are harsher, the surrounding environment crueler: hunger, privation, societal discord, crime. In short, it’s an environment where virtue can shine forth all the more clearly for the darkness around it. That’s a tall order made taller by two toddlers, a day job, and all the wonderful chaos of family life, but I am working it. And loving it!

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