‘The World is Funny’: An Interview with Kevin Boniface

by WJ Davies

Kevin Boniface is a writer, artist and postman. His latest book, Sports and Social (published by Bluemoose Books), is his first work of fiction. He has also published two books of observations gathered during his postal rounds: Lost in the Post (2008) and Round About Town (2018). We talked about shaping stories, moving between non-fiction and fiction, and how being a postman influences his writing.

Sports and Social is full of countless carefully observed details in what are ultimately very brief glimpses of your character’s lives. Could you talk about the process of writing your stories? How does your work as a postman feed into it?

I developed my process at art college. I suppose it’s basically a form of random selection which works as a constraint. The world is an impenetrable and busy place so, influenced by artists such as the Boyle Family, I decided the best way to make sense of it was to cut it into handy bite-size pieces.

When I became a postman and found myself wandering unfamiliar streets for hours on end, everything seemed chaotic and vast, so I applied the processes I’d developed at art college to try and make sense of it. Every morning before work I’d select a number at random between 0-60 and then — let’s say the number was 23 — at 23 minutes past every hour, throughout the day I’d stop for five minutes and make a closely observed inventory of my immediate environment. It was a way of circumventing my own preconceptions and looking at things afresh. After a while, I realised I didn’t need to be so prescriptive, just being a postman was in and of itself a perfectly good process by which to evaluate my surroundings. I have no say over where I go, my route is dictated by the addresses on the mail. All I have to do is observe — and deliver the post!

Perhaps the reason my stories are often only brief glimpses of my characters’ lives is because this is my reality as a postal worker. I’m constantly on the move so my surroundings are always in flux. Sometimes I’ll witness the beginning of would could be a fascinating story, but I’ll never see the ending. Sometimes a customer will let me into their lives: we’ll just be passing the time on the doorstep, there’ll be a bit of a connection, they’ll confide in me and I’ll never see them again.

Are there things you’ve seen or heard that you decided not to write about in the end?

Yes, of course. There have been things that I’ve just found too difficult because my skill as a writer can’t do them justice. Also, I obviously have to be careful not to abuse my position as a postman.

I find the way you write not only vivid but also very rhythmical. Do the way sentences sound matter to you when you’re writing? Do you read your work aloud while you write, for example?

I do read my work aloud to myself. I can get fixated on a passage and spend hours tweaking it. Sometimes the following day I’ll look at it and think, ‘Nah, it was better before’ and I’ll put it back to the way it was originally. I enjoy this tinkering, it might be my favourite part of writing, but I can get very lost in it if I’m not careful. Occasionally I forget about the rest of the book, or food, or drink. Once a book is published, all I can see are the sentences I could have made better.

Is it the same for how you structure your stories? Some of them are quite playful in Sports and Social. ‘Charisma Club’ is split into twelve months, for example, and ‘An Inventory of the Family Rubbish’ is described as an ‘annotated typescript’. Do you experiment with form while you’re writing?

I think the form and structure of the stories stems from the process. I’m not so much experimenting, just not intervening. ‘An Inventory of the Family Rubbish’ describes a family sifting through an old box of memorabilia and the recollections this prompts. I’d initially wanted to include photographs of each item of ‘rubbish’ but that wasn’t possible so instead I prefaced each chapter with a very flat, meticulous description of the item in question. Having done this, it occurred to me that the texts had the look of a page of script, so I just went with it.

‘Charisma Club’ derives from a year’s worth of collected material (photographs, found objects, overheard conversations, my own observations etc.) which I used to prompt the narrative. I had a folder of material for each month of the year. It was important to keep them separate so as not to disrupt any seasonal variations; I didn’t want fieldfares in the summer and swallows in the winter for example. Anyway, it just made sense to retain the monthly structure for the finished story.

This is your third book. What was different when you were putting together Sports and Social compared to Round About Town and Lost in the Post?

Although Sports and Social is fiction it covers similar ground to my previous works of non-fiction. All the books stem from my obsessive documenting of the world around me. For Lost in the Post and Round about Town the process was relatively direct: tweak my nerdy journals until I’m happy with the text and illustrations and that’s the book. With Sports and Social, I used my journals more creatively. I think I was partly inspired by what we mentioned earlier, I was intrigued to find out what happened in all the truncated stories I encountered. I thought, I know, I’ll have a guess.

It sounds like you always have plenty of material to work with. Would you ever consider longer art forms? Novels, plays or films, for example.

I’d like to have a go, and if I do, I think the ‘Charisma Club’ template would be the one I’d use. I loved writing it, it came very easily and it felt like there was lots of potential for it to be expanded in different ways. I had to tell myself to stop which is unusual. Normally, it takes me a week to write half a page of text after which I decide I can’t possibly write any more without ruining it.

One of the differences in this collection from your previous books are the stories exploring family memories, particularly ‘The Owl Ladies and the 1980s’. How do you approach turning your own life into fiction? Is it a similar process to writing about things you see on your postal rounds?

‘The Owl Ladies and the 1980s’ started life as a list of disjointed Joe Brainard I Remember style recollections of my family which I made quite a long time ago. In fact, it was so long ago I can’t actually remember many of them anymore and when I read them back, they feel like fiction anyway. In effect, I’ve got a long list of observational snippets very similar to those I make when I’m out and about on my post round. So, yes it was very similar to writing about the things I see on my rounds.

It's a very warm, funny story, and many of the others in Sports and Social have moments of unexpected humour in them. It is hard to ignore the recurring images of neglect that you include, though; litter, empty shops, discarded furniture and so on. You leave a lot up to the reader in your writing, but are you consciously trying to draw attention to this kind of inequality in the areas around you?

I used to find the world around me confusing because I didn’t really understand it. I made assumptions based largely on convention and received opinion which rarely matched reality. Now, when I write, I try to clear the clutter out of the way, present the facts, keep interpretation to a minimum and let the reader make up their own mind. Having said that, I do draw attention to the litter, the empty shops, the discarded furniture etc, but mostly I’m just describing what I find. Those things draw attention to themselves because, when you actually notice them, they’re genuinely dispiriting. The humour in the books is a bit of a counterbalance but it’s also ‘found’; it’s ‘found humour’, I didn’t put it there, I’m just describing it.

I love that idea of ‘found humour’.

It’s intrinsic, it’s there in plain sight, you just have to keep an eye out. The world is funny.