Greg Ames is the author of the award winning novel, Buffalo Lockjaw. I recently got to chat with him, a Western New York native, about what it’s like writing a novel set in Buffalo.
MIKE GAMMS: You’ve said before that you have a soft spot for Buffalo 66. Who paints the more accurate picture of Buffalo, you or Vincent Gallo?
GREG AMES: Ah, it’s not a competition, but I’d give him the nod. Anyone would. A film has so many more pieces than a novel. I sit in a room and type. The only obstacle is myself, my own mind. It’s intensely hard work but I don’t have to answer to anyone. Of course I do have to send my pages out, but it becomes my agent’s job to sell the thing. A filmmaker, on the other hand, has to deal with many more distractions: the need to secure financing, the personalities of actors and executives, location complications, the score, on and on. I’m always impressed by a great movie because there are so many places where it could and usually does go wrong.
GAMMS: Other than Gallo and yourself, there aren’t many other voices in popular culture talking about Buffalo outside of sports. Are you an unofficial spokesmen for Buffalo?
AMES: I’m not a spokesman. I just wrote a book, you know, and it’s set in Buffalo.
GAMMS: Fair enough. Have you seen a positive response from readers for setting the book in Buffalo?
AMES: I met a lot of great people at my readings and at bookstores. It confirmed for me what I already knew: Buffalo is a town filled with intelligent, caring, weird, interesting, artistic people.
GAMMS: Unfortunately most people don’t see Buffalo in the same light as you. Why do you think that is?
AMES: I’ve lived in other cities and other countries and I’m amazed by the disdain for Buffalo, almost exclusively from people who’ve never been there. I’m sensitive to the mockery because it’s usually class based. It’s so easy for “cosmopolitan” people to mock an industrial city that lost all of its factories. A lot of good-natured, hard-working people lost their jobs and many of them didn’t have any options or safety nets. That’s so funny. Hahaha. You know? I can’t get behind that type of judgment. Oh, and a lot of snow falls on these idiots too. Hohoho. Fuck them, right?
The mockery of Buffalo is so automatic that I hear it even in much smaller towns. Despite its many obvious faults, Buffalo still has a strong arts community, great architecture, amazing restaurants, the list goes on, but most people don’t know that. I have a theory that it’s because Buffalo tried and fell short. It was one of the largest cities in America a hundred years ago but couldn’t become the sort of Junior Chicago it attempted to be. It fell short and a lot of people (not me) laugh at losers. So many people only want to read about, think about, imagine being winners. They want opulence. I started asking these questions as a kid: Do we deserve this scorn? Does my life suck as they claim it does? That made me look around and see my city with a kind of double perspective. I was maybe eight years old when I received the startling news that I needed to be ashamed about where I was from.
GAMMS: Do you have any regrets about setting the book in Buffalo?
AMES: It was marketed and reviewed as a regional book and ignored on a national level, even though family dynamics, assisted suicide, Alzheimer’s, youthful indiscretions, beer drinking, etc., have nothing to do with Buffalo necessarily. Not exclusively, anyway. As I said, I’ve lived in other places, and I could have set a book in any of them, but I picked Buffalo. That was a mistake from a sales perspective but I can’t think about that when I’m writing. I worked on Buffalo Lockjaw for five years and I was glad to have it taken away from me. Otherwise I would have kept writing it until it was dead meat and I probably wouldn’t have written this second novel manuscript.
GAMMS: People sometimes refer to Buffalo, as “a good place to be from.” As a person who grew up there and got out, how do you feel about that assessment?
AMES: There were a lot of reasons I needed to get out of my Buffalo, but very few of them had to do with Buffalo itself. I wanted to be a writer. I was a writer, but I hadn’t published much yet except for a piece in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and a dozen or so short-shorts in local magazines. In my hometown I was stagnating—not because of the city but because of the choices I was making, doing the same thing night after night, hanging out with the same people. As I understood it, New York City was where you had to go if you wanted to launch a writing career. So I did that. I moved. But to get back to your question, Buffalo is not only a good place to be from. It’s a good place to be, if you have work that you love and friends and all that. Anywhere is a good place to be if you can deal with yourself.
GAMMS: Part of what makes Buffalo Lockjaw so entertaining are the oral history segments. They really capture the city of Buffalo and the people that populate it. What was it like writing them?
AMES: I had a lot of fun writing those. I think some readers thought those were voices of real people, as if I had done an oral history project like my narrator, but I don’t have the motivation to do something like that. It was more fun to invent them. I’m proud of the whole book but I think I’m especially proud of those. I wanted to do something I hadn’t seen before in a novel. It was a good way to get as many voices into the book as possible. It’s also really important to me that Buffalo Lockjaw opens with a woman’s voice. James’s mother can’t speak and he doesn’t have the best relationships with the two women he hooks up with, so I wanted to populate Buffalo Lockjaw with as many female characters as I could.
Buffalo Lockjaw taught me a lot. There wasn’t a hardcover edition or a book tour or many national reviews, but people have found it through word of mouth and I’ve received a lot of emails from readers in Texas and California and Michigan and many other states saying that my novel had an emotional impact on them. Good. It’s just about people, after all. Are people so different in Buffalo, New York? I have lived in enough places to know the answer. I was pleased when readers of The Believer selected it as the top book in their poll and when it won an award. Independent booksellers really supported it and they have pushed the book into the hands of readers. It’s nice to know that something I banged out on my keyboard sits on a shelf now a thousand miles away in someone’s living room. That’s pretty amazing when I think about it, pretty cool, but I don’t give it much thought until someone tells me about Buffalo Lockjaw. To me, it’s still just a bunch of black marks on a white screen in my hard drive.
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