Interviewer: Nathan Leslie


Nathan Leslie: You tend to gravitate towards what one might call the fish-out-of-water story--stories about outsiders (for instance East is East, The Tortilla Curtain, many of your stories). Do you think the outsider helps reveal American culture?

T.C. Boyle: Well, that certainly puts it under a big rubric, I guess. I don´t really think in those terms so much. I grew up in a rather poor working class family, and you know, had a kind of spotty life until I discovered literature, went to Iowa, and became a writer. I do definitely have a lot of sympathy for the underclass, and for a kind of rebellious attitude, I suppose. I don´t know how that helps define American culture. I guess it´s important to me in that it keeps everything from being the kind of America that George Bush wants it to be.

Certainly artists go their own way, and the great thing about being alive at this time in this country is that you´re still allowed to do that, and I have great sympathy for people who do. So I think that´s where I´m coming from with regards to people like Candio [from The Tortilla Curtain], for instance. I did an interview with a German magazine and they asked me who my favorite characters are from my own work, and, as I thought, it´s mainly the characters who step across the line and are very deeply flawed, like Ronnie Summers from Drop City or Walter Van Wart from World´s End. I guess I identify with them more than I do with my more straight-laced types.

Nathan Leslie: You also seem particularly drawn to writing about subcultures. Some might even call them cults, I guess.

T.C. Boyle: It´s almost a codicil to this question. I´m very suspicious of authority figures, and cults always have some guru at the head of them--whether it be the vegan movement of “Carnal Knowledge" or Dr. Kellogg´s regimentation of his patients at Battle Creek [from The Road to Wellville], or you know my other Dr. K--Dr. Kinsey [from The Inner Circle]--these are charismatic figures who are cult leaders and require obeisance from their followers, and I often wonder what is the cost to the follower of giving up his identity and his being under the aegis of some great wise man.

Nathan Leslie: Do you find yourself acting as an anthropologist when you are writing novels like The Road to Wellville?

T.C. Boyle: That´s a great way of putting it. I had never thought of it in those terms. But yes, absolutely. I´m constantly fascinated by what is going on--not only in our culture, but worldwide. When something interests me or disturbs me, or when I like or hate something a great deal, I have to explore it through fiction to find out why: which is why I think I will never run out of topics--every day there is something perplexing going on in our society, and I try to address it in order to figure out how I feel about it.

Nathan Leslie: Here´s another macro question: in general do you consider yourself an idea-driven writer?

T.C. Boyle: I think, yes. I think more than many of my contemporaries. Not only idea-driven, but also someone who maybe harkens back to an earlier era when writers had more of a social consciousness and tried to examine the larger picture of society. I think I begin with an idea or a concept, or just a subject that then begins to percolate into a fiction. Typically with a longer work I will do research for some period of time--usually about three months or so--and take notes, and maybe visit a place like, for instance, Bloomington, Indiana, and begin to form an opinion on the subject matter. But I really don´t know what that will be until I have a complete work. It grows organically and I never have any idea where it will go. So to that degree, yes: it begins with an idea about a subject, but it´s not a fixed idea, and the themes of the book emerge naturally.

You may know that while I was working on The Inner Circle unbeknownst to me (at first anyway), Bill Condon was working on his movie Kinsey; we became friends and cross-promoted and were on stage together and talked about our different approaches, and he, unfortunately, was a little bit handicapped by having to do a biopic with a budget behind it and some expectations, and to show that Kinsey was a great figure. I don´t have any preconceptions when I go into such an area. I´m just interested in what it would it would be like to have met him; what about his Darwinian notions with regard to our sexuality; how does that play out? Then I let it fly and see what it means over the course of having made the work rather than having the work conform to some preconception. I think that´s always a mistake.

Nathan Leslie: In many of your novels and stories, such as The Inner Circle and The Tortilla Curtain, your characters build to a flush of anger or frustration, caught within a system that they can´t escape.

T.C. Boyle: Yeah, I guess I do have the pleasure and privilege of standing a little bit apart from society even while society sustains me and my readership sustains me and my commitment to The University and literature sustains me, and yet I´ve never had a boss; I´ve never had anybody tell me what to do. I have been exactly what I want to be. I dress as I like, and I do as I like. That´s very important to me. And so, yes--I guess I sometimes do have fictional scenarios in which characters have to butt up against the system and then come to some determination on their own as to whether to follow the regime or step aside from it.

Nathan Leslie: Do you think this reflects some aspect of contemporary society--individuals being squashed by forces outside of their control?

T.C. Boyle: Wow, absolutely. What amazes me is--and I get into this with A Friend of the Earth--we´re living in a capitalistic society and, you know, hallelujah, here we are: we´re talking on these beautiful phones, and I´m sitting in a beautiful house, and I have readership and can do as I please without having to plow the fields and starve. And yet it´s all a gigantic Ponzi Scheme: you can´t have infinite product and infinite consumers, and we´re going to be paying the piper pretty soon. If you read Jared Diamond´s Collapse and Elizabeth Kolbert´s series of articles in The New Yorker about global warming, it´s a pretty frightening prospect for the immediate future. What can you do? Nothing. I´m like Ty Tierwater [from A Friend of the Earth]. There´s nothing you can do.

It´s over. It´s a difficult time for any thinking person--whether that person´s an artist or not--to be alive. In the past, writers would think that they would be sustained into the future by people reading their work; they would think that their children would live on and remember them, and that society would go on. I think all of that is really in question now.

Nathan Leslie: Perfect segue. You said once that you have a “fascination with worst-case scenarios." I´m sure A Friend of the Earth qualifies, as does Drop City, and some of your other novels. Why is that?

T.C. Boyle: I suppose any writer would say--and I guess I will too--that it´s a kind of voodoo: if you create the worst possible scenario, maybe what actually happens won´t be as bad. It´s like the horror genre, you know, where you´re scared by the boogeyman jumping out of the closet--but he´s not jumping out of your closet. You´re sitting in your chair with a seventy degree temperature wafting over you. I suppose it´s something like that.

There´s a lot of “what if" too. A lot of my stories are generated--as I´m sure most writers´ are--by what-if scenarios (as you said, the fish-out-of-water scenario). I think you want to put things in collision in order to see what the result will be: Mungo Park and Ned Rise [from Water Music], you know. I guess it´s just a standard modus operandi for storytelling.

Nathan Leslie: Health and the environment both play significant roles in your fiction. I´m thinking of Friend of the Earth and The Road to Wellville, as well as a number of your short stories. One in particular which I teach is “Top of the Food Chain."

T.C. Boyle: I love to read that one aloud to audiences. It´s fun. Keep in mind, by the way, that story is true. The escalating scenario is true to fact. As I´ve presented it, of course, it´s a little absurd, but all of that actually happened.

Nathan Leslie: The snowball effect.

T.C. Boyle: Yeah. It´s amazing to me. In the absence of God, we have science. And in science--specifically in biological science--we have Darwin. You know, my first collection was Descent of Man, and the collection coming out this fall is called Tooth and Claw. Each book quotes Darwin´s The Descent of Man. I´m very conscious of trying to see what the boundary between the animal and the spiritual or mental is in our lives. The Kinsey book is an example of this.

I guess it goes back to my religious upbringing. Until thirteen or so I was raised a Catholic, and everything was in its place. There was a reason for the universe, and life would go on. Once that was abandoned by me, then I had science to console me and I wanted to put our species in perspective with the rest of the species--even in “Carnal Knowledge" where I´m making fun of the extreme animal rights people. Nonetheless, what right do we have to enslave and eat other animals, and so on, and do we stand above them? Even “Descent of Man"--that story--evolved from my discovery that we were teaching apes how to use language, and that was what distinguished us from them, supposedly. Science, of course, is voodoo too because it doesn´t have any absolute or final answers. And I´m wresting with all of that, and always will.

Nathan Leslie: You have obviously done immense amounts of research in writing your novels and short stories. Do you ever find it a challenge to incorporate your research into fiction, to stay focused? How much do you end up not using?

T.C. Boyle: I think a lot of writers make the mistake--we could tick them off--of overwhelming their fiction with the research. I´ve always felt that the research is necessary to initiate some kind of fiction, and then I will follow the fiction. I don´t know what direction it will go in. If it goes in an unforeseen direction, I can always go back to my notes or do additional research. I don´t feel obligated to incorporate it. In fact, after taking notes for some months, I very rarely look at those notes again. You know, it´s like writing the term paper in high school: Yes, you do need certain facts. You have your texts to get those facts. You have to check them. But the notes themselves for me are more a way of absorbing the material. It´s also comforting in that the information is there if I do need it.

But more and more, I´m not consulting that notebook so much as I am remembering things and steaming forward with them, and of course in a book like the Kinsey or the Kellogg one, I have to check the details in the text and sometimes in the notes. But I feel no obligation to incorporate things, except as they delight me. For instance, in the Kellogg book, the Sears White Star liquor cure is mentioned. I discovered that by reading in the Sears catalogue from 1900. I had to incorporate that because it speaks so clearly to what I´m writing about. So yeah, I think you can be overwhelmed by research and I´m leery of that. I want the story to come to life, and especially with historical settings I´m wanting to turn you on to something historical that really excites me. You know, I´m not writing a typical historical narrative in which I want to take you back to the given period and replicate how life might have been then. I´m not interested in that as much as how did we get here from there and what does it mean to us.

Nathan Leslie: Here´s a different spin on the “influence question." You´ve remarked elsewhere that Flannery O´Connor has influenced your work greatly (which I see). How about Franz Kafka?

T.C. Boyle: Kafka, too. I forget Kafka. Kafka is one of the earliest influences before I even discovered Flannery O´Connor. Absolutely. Again, I don´t even know how old I was--probably seventeen or so, when I first went to college. Kafka produced a different kind of story from what I had been familiar with. More akin to skewed folk tales than the realist stories of the fifties and sixties--the early sixties anyway. You know, Hemingway and Steinbeck and so on. His work was a revelation to me. To this day I reference “A Hunger Artist" all the time because it speaks so much to what we do in our work.

Nathan Leslie: Back to Tooth and Claw for a second. Congratulations first off on the book. I think the title story is wonderful, and I was glad to see it was included in the Best American Short Stories collection this year. How do you think your fiction--especially your short fiction--has changed from Descent of Man to Tooth and Claw?

T.C. Boyle: I think the stories are more integrated in terms of the various tools that I´ve acquired. I didn´t work much with character in those early stories. The characters were merely foils within a larger design of what the fiction was. They were more formally experimental, and more surreal. With Tooth and Claw I tried to do all sorts of stories. The first story is “When I Woke Up this Morning Everything I Had Was Gone" (which had been in The New Yorker), and it combines three narratives, but they´re realistic. The second story, though, is “Swept Away," which I think harkens back to the very whimsical stories of the first collection. It´s my flying cat story. There´s a story that Dave Eggers published in McSweeney´s about a similar situation in Punta Arenas in Chile where there´s a hole in the ozone layer (what does that mean?), but it´s told in a very whimsical way. It´s called “Blinded by the Light." The collection runs the gamut from those stories to the concluding story called “Up Against the Wall," a very straight-forward realistic piece, a memory piece, very much auto-biographical.

It´s just that I feel like I´d like to try to do any kind of story. Originally there were supposed to be fifteen stories in the collection. The fourteenth, which is a nice bridge between the two longer stories, is called “Three Quarters of the Way to Hell: A Christmas Story." I tried to do this genre: what is a Christmas story? I felt like doing one. Unfortunately it won´t appear in a magazine until this December, so I had to save it for the next collection.

Nathan Leslie: You mentioned the words “surreal" and “experimental." Some might call Descent of Man magical realistic in places. Is that something you´re interested in continuing to explore?

T.C. Boyle: Of course. I love Garcia Marquez, Cortazar: all those guys had a tremendous influence on me when I was first starting to write. I think you can see it in World´s End, as well as Water Music, and many other of my works. Garcia Marquez claimed Faulkner as his favorite writer, and I can claim that succession because I love both of them.

Nathan Leslie: Some critics are seemingly awed by your prolific production. Do you think there is a compulsive side to writing in general, or maybe to your writing?

T.C. Boyle: I´ve joked about it a lot by calling it an obsessive compulsive disorder. I don´t feel comfortable unless I´m working on a fiction. I´m not comfortable now because I´m not working on a fiction and I can´t until I come back [he is currently on a reading tour], but I am thinking about it. I think some writers produce an awful lot of work and it´s uneven. I would like to think (and maybe others would disagree) that I´m being productive but that the work is of a very high quality--as with Updike, for instance, who is amazingly prolific. It´s my life. It´s what I do. It´s how I view the world and how I sift things. It´s my contemplative time. It´s my space away from the craziness of life, and if that results in a lot of work, fine.

I think another motivating factor is what we talked about earlier: I have this tremendous wonder at what this is, at what this universe is, why we´re here, what it means, our amazing technological leaps (from year to year there are new things we have to deal with that were inconceivable even ten years ago). I try to address this: what does it mean? The story in After the Plague called “Peep Hall," for instance. Why would you want to watch seven sexy coeds sleeping and taking showers? Yes, of course, it´s titillating but more to the point, it´s a way of seeing how other people live to measure themselves, which comes back to the capitalist society. From birth we´re told that we´re not good enough unless we have such and such a product. We´re sold products from birth till death. The result is that people are insecure and wonder if someone else has the key that they don´t have. They´re told this every day on TV. You know, if you don´t have this PalmPilot, the other guy gets the job--so you better get hip to it. If you don´t have this haircut or these shoes, or whatever it is…. The explosion of “reality shows" reflects that, this voyeurism in every possible walk of life. You want to see how do other people do it and how do I measure up, rather than being an individual and having self-confidence and doing as you like and letting other people follow you. I mean, look at our last election and how this regime controls the country through propaganda, the most naked doublespeak. And none of their constituency is really educated enough to know that they´re being manipulated.

Nathan Leslie: “Big Game" [from Without a Hero] ends with the sentence “Tacky, tacky, tacky." Does that sort of sum it up for you?

T.C. Boyle: The whole world, everything? Oh, I don´t know. I wouldn´t want that to be inscribed on my tombstone, although there are worse things. It certainly sums up the mode of thinking of Mike Bender. And by the way, everything I write about, of course, comes true a few years later. I was going to see my father-in-law, who lives about thirty miles from here, and you have to drive through a somewhat rural area. There was a sign for Bender realty out there!

Nathan Leslie: We hope A Friend of the Earth doesn´t come true, although I think you´re onto something.

T.C. Boyle: Yeah, read those Elizabeth Kolbert articles in The New Yorker.

Nathan Leslie: How would you like to be remembered as a writer?

T.C. Boyle: I would like to be read. Again, if there will be paper, and there will be people, I´d like to be read. I would like to be remembered as someone who bridged the writers of the late sixties and early seventies and the realist writers of the eighties, someone who created a kind of fusion and did something a little different and pointed in another direction. As someone who was totally absorbed with and deeply engaged in what he was doing. It´s my whole life, this art. I´ve given up just about anything else. It´s what interests me and what sustains me.

My hobby is teaching at USC. I continue to do it, even though it is a two hundred mile round trip drive, because I had great mentors who ignited in me and then kept burning this flame of literature. I´m doing the same thing. It´s important to me. More important than writing some crappy script for a TV show and making a bunch of money. I don´t need money. I´ve never wanted money. I have it--thank God--because my books are read widely. But that´s not my purpose in life. My purpose is to create art and turn people onto it.

I´d like to be remembered, too, as a good performer. I really take pride in waking up an audience and giving a great show, letting them know that literature is okay. You know, it doesn´t always have to take a back seat to the latest CD or the latest movie or the latest TV show.

Nathan Leslie: Thank you so much for your time. It's been a real pleasure and honor for me.

T.C. Boyle: A pleasure to talk to you, Nathan. I love to talk to people who have read all of my work.



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