Writer Bill Littlefield had a quote in the back of his mind while writing his latest novel. It refers to questions that many of us often ponder about the meaning of life.
The quote is, “We’re here to get each other through this thing, whatever it is,” by memoirist Mark Vonnegut, son of the late writer Kurt Vonnegut.
Littlefield thinks that guiding each other through life is a form of charity. He called his new novel “Milost”.
The book is set in an upper-middle-class suburb of Boston, where the lawns are manicured and the characters range from an elderly couple with a young son to a mob boss named Arthur Baladino, who has returned home after a long stint in prison.
Bill Littlefield is best known for his decades at WBUR, where he spent 25 years as NPR’s sports anchor. Just a game. He is also a longtime author. WBUR’s All things considered host Lisa Mullins invited Littlefield back into the studio to discuss his latest book.
Highlights from this interview have been slightly edited for clarity.
Highlights of the interview
On the premise of “Grace”
“I wish I could say that the idea of mercy inspired the whole thing, but it didn’t. I started with a little vignette about a little boy playing an imaginary baseball game in the backyard with his dad watching. And his dad tells a friend that he’s really embarrassed due to the fact that the boy asked him what happens when you die. And the man explains: ‘I just didn’t know what to say. I tried this. I tried that. , my God.’ And his friend tries to convince him that he did well. And the proof that he did well is that they look out the back door and the little boy is playing this imaginary baseball game and he’s just having a great time. So whatever the father said he didn’t even in what way he defiled the boy. … He worries that whatever he would say would pervert the child into something that would make him miserable and prevent him from sleeping at night.”
About how that story led to a series of vignettes, with mercy at the center
“I think the beginning of mercy is with the friend comforting the father, saying, ‘Just don’t worry. It’s going to be all right. Look, he’s happy. Look at him outside.’ … But as I began to write other stories that took place in the same neighborhood, I began to see that there were connections between the stories and between the characters. And the connection was that they had all either achieved or were about to achieve forgiveness and mercy, and had to were to be comforted in some way. And sometimes they did it by remembering things that had happened and things that they had known and seen and experienced much earlier in their lives, and some of them had experienced creating new relationships.
“[In terms of] Arthur Baladino, a man who has spent most of his life in prison and comes home to die, his widow is left alone in a large house. Sure, she was alone for years because he was in prison, but at least he’s still alive. And she establishes a new relationship. He finds life in a new relationship. And it is the mercy that rains on her, that changes her. And all the characters, to some extent, have that connection.”
About all the different forms of mercy and Bill’s favorite scene in the book
“One of the characters is kind of an associate of Arthur Baladino, a mob boss, and he’s had a terrible life. And he lives alone in a miserable room, and the traffic outside is noisy [as he’s sleeping at night]. But much earlier in life, as a teenager, he is sick, hungover on the beach after debauchery and just wants to be left alone. And a young woman he doesn’t know comes and grabs his hand and drags him into the ocean, and he falls on his face and the waves roll over him and it’s freezing cold. And he suddenly jumps. And at first, of course, he is confused and angry about why this happened. And then he realizes that he doesn’t have a headache and that he feels wonderful, and the cold water has completely cured him. And he says to the young woman: ‘Hey, how did you know how to do that?’ And she just shrugs her shoulders, because she doesn’t know how she knew how to do it. She did just that. She just gave birth. And it is a merciful deed. … He remembers her much later throughout his life, and of course, he remembers her as beautiful. She must have been pretty, right? Think what she did! She must have been! That’s his point of view.
“It keeps him going in the sense that he remembers it and remembers that he’s worthy of the act. He wonders if anyone will ever be that good to him again.”
On the lasting effect of acts of mercy
“They don’t disappear from people’s lives. And some of them are far more long-lasting than that very brief encounter on the beach. Some of them involve people’s lives changing, people falling in love. And that’s basically the message of the novel: Some of the acts are very big , and some of them are very small. I mean, a relationship where two people commit to each other for life is very big, at least in the lives of those two people. And the young woman pulling the young man into the sea is very small, but very big in at that moment for a man who suddenly got well.”