An Introduction to the Interview
by Kendra Tuthill, Fiction Editor
T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE, NOVELIST, SHORT-STORY WRITER AND ENGLISH PROFESSOR AT SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA UNIVERSITY, IS PERHAPS ONE OF THE MOST PROLIFIC, AND POPULAR WRITERS OF OUR AGE. Since his first book of short stories, Descent of Man, published in 1979, he has gone on to write eighteen more books (and is perpetually working on new ones), including Water Music, World's End, A Friend of the Earth, The Road to Wellville, Drop City, and Inner Circle. Boyle publishes regularly in the New Yorker, Harper's, Atlantic, and Playboy. He received his MFA from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1974. Boyle is best known for his widely anthologized short-story, Greasy Lake, and his novels, The Tortilla Curtain and The Road to Wellville, which was turned into a film in 1994, directed by Allen Parker, and starring Anthony Hopkins, Bridget Fonda, and Matthew Broderick.
T. C. Boyle is a writer dedicated to his craft and his productivity. While he gets a vacation now and then (and one can read about them on his site, tcboyle.com), and can take a moment to breathe in his Santa Barbara home (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), Boyle writes, reads, re-writes, teaches, and is still able to visit his forum, talking back with questioning messagistas. Often using historical figures as main characters, such as Dr. Kinsey, Dr. Kellogg, and, well, Frank Lloyd Wright, Boyle also researches extensively, often for a year, before writing. His novels and short-stories are imaginative, gripping, informative, and moving. Every line, and every page of a T.C. Boyle novel grabs the reader with its poignant and often quirky descriptions, its ridiculously complicated sentence structures (which read beautifully), and, let's not forget the story, which pushes forward, and is always relevant to our politics, our worries, and our current (often sub) culture(s). His characters are round, fleshed-out and, (let's just say it) cool. They might be hippies, punks, beats, or health-freaks, for example. (Check out the first page of Drop City for my favorite paragraph of all time.) Often compared to Charles Dickens and John Irving, who Boyle studied under for one term at Iowa, to read T. C. Boyle, is to study the work of a master who learned from masters.
When I think of T.C. Boyle as a human being (and not just as a writer), I remember that the difference between me and any other writer –the difference between you and any other writer (dear Ourstories submitter) is not whether you have a gift, or a knack for the art (though gifts and knacks help). It is the amount of sweat and time you put into your work, and the amount of dedication you have toward bettering your craft. We could not have chosen a better writer to prove our point, a man who has kept going. If you want to be a better writer, and a published writer, read, read, read, work, work, work, and, perhaps—as Boyle says, "have a wealthy family," to support you in the meantime.
Thank you, T.C. Boyle, for this interview. We are humbled. We are inspired.
--Interview conducted by Alexis. E. Santí and Kendra Tuthill--
We're really honored to get a chance to talk to you. Thanks a lot for doing this. Can you tell us a little about what's been keeping you busy?
-- Trying to keep from dying.
What's in a name T.C.? You were born Thomas John Boyle. Later you started going by T. Coraghessan Boyle, and now just T.C. Boyle. Born Alexis Enrico, I have gone by Alex, and lately find myself writing A.E. at the top of my short stories. I wonder if you could share your thoughts on the importance of your name.
For someone who just knew he was very, very special, Thomas John Boyle, Jr. didn't cut it. I knew I was special at the age of seventeen though how or why were questions I never asked myself. Still, a fine, fancy name was just the thing to make me think things were going to work out all right. We all reinvent ourselves. Novelists just do it more often than most.
I've been reading your archives on your website, http://www.tcboyle.com, it seems that you're always finishing one thing, and starting another which must be a tremendous feeling. Here's one excerpt from June 30th, 2007:
Does it ever get boring to continuously be finishing material? Why not just let things hang for a while, T.C., take some time off and pick up surfing? What has writing been in your life?
Working is a way of connecting and staving off the inevitable. Once, I thought art was all-important. Now I understand that it is as irrelevant as any other human activity. However--and please see my essay "This Monkey, My Back" in this regard--I am hooked on the joy of completion. It is what keeps me functioning.
What have you learned about your development as a writer over the years?
Nothing much more than that development is an infinite possibility wedged into a finite lifetime. Ideas excite me. Aesthetics excite me. Stories are my way of relating to the universe. So here I am.
I've learned that you're moving towards the terra firma of terra firma (so to speak) of the environment, is this a reflection of your political and social ideology as of late? What is it about this itch that makes you want to return to it?
You're referring to my next novel, which will deal with ecology, as so many of my stories and novels have (see A Friend of the Earth and The Tortilla Curtain). Increasingly, I am fascinated by biology, by biological imperatives, and by what our species has wrought here on earth. People say we're killing the planet. That's not true. The planet will succeed us until the seas begin to boil in a billion years, but we are destroying the eden which gave rise to us. I wonder about what that means. I worry about it. And so, I write about it.
Are all writers failed philosophers or philosophers failed writers?
All writers are failed musicians.
What was your first big break after graduating from Iowa?
Getting a job at USC. My first collection, Descent of Man, was accepted for publication and I was a third of the way through my first novel, Water Music. Teaching at USC gave me something to do two days a week so that I didn't have to go quietly insane staring at the page before me.
When I finished reading The Tortilla Curtain, I was struck by the grim nature of the American dream. This was no novel where everyone lives happily ever after in utopian multi-cultural communities. It is as if, between these two cultures of Mexicans and Americans, there is no way of cohabitating, but perhaps you were aiming to critique the gated community life of suburban Americans, the life of absolute privilege, power, and control over the environment. The decisions made by América and the situation of Candido were shocking to read. On page one, Cándido is hit by an SUV, an emblem of white, upper-crust, American life. This is the long way around to ask, "Hey hombre, can't we get along?"
That sounds suspiciously like an interpretive question. I ask only that people read the book and form their own opinions. Your reading seems especially grim, but then grimness--amidst all the fun, of course--is, I suppose, a hallmark of my worldview.
You took quite a bit of heat from The Tortilla Curtain. Now it looks like America is having the same sort of discussion about race again, as we see in Barack Obama's speech. Had any thoughts on this?
Sad to think that The Tortilla Curtain is more relevant now than it was when I wrote it fifteen years ago. We are fighting the first in a long string of wars for resources. And rest assured that we will demonize and dehumanize anybody who stands in our way or seeks to butt in on what we have now.
You've had one novel made into a movie and three shorts produced from your work. In addition, according to your website, you have eight works that are currently optioned such as Tooth and Claw (that I'm really excited to see one day) and four other works that are currently in development, The Tortilla Curtain, Talk Talk, King Bee and Drop City. What are your thoughts on the translation of a novel into a movie?
I love movies. I especially love the concept of movies made from my books in that I hope such movies will attract more readers to my work. That said, I have never participated in any movie project and never will, other than maybe having a nice congratulatory dinner with the director or speaking on the phone with the prospective producer and outlining for him or her just how a film might be structured from the novel. I work on the page, alone, and couldn't imagine working with anyone else in any capacity.
I recently saw The Road to Wellville which had a brilliant cast and was a very impressive movie in scope and breadth, yet, I wondered while I was watching it, "Did they try to get too much of the novel into this flick?" It's now been fourteen years since its release. What are your thoughts looking back at it now?
I agree. I love Allen Parker's film, but perhaps--and this may sound crazy--it is too faithful to the book. I had four hundred and more pages. Alan had two hours. Given these considerations, I do believe he made a great and unfailingly hilarious film that does capture the spirit of the book. Too much story, though, and too little time. It's a fancy dance. Amazing that he could pull it off.
Our Stories, founded in 2004, is a literary journal committed to giving writers feedback on the stories they submit. We give advice to those writers whose work isn't quite ready for our publication. I'd like to know your thoughts on our submission process and the Our Stories model?
All I know is what you've just told me regarding your model, but it sounds ideal. How do you find the time?
Because you write a lot and rather quickly, I'd like to know how many drafts a T.C. Boyle novel goes through? Do you let anyone see your first draft? Do you map out a novel and then shade in the details afterwards?
There is one draft to all stories and novels, but that draft is worked and reworked daily. When I reach The End it is time for one long fine-tuning and then press SEND. Each of the works is organic, developing structurally day by day. This is the only way I've ever worked. (It may derive from my undergrad days when I would compose very late papers in a single draft because of a great and pressing need.)
You often use enclosed societies as setting for your novels. In The Road to Wellville, the story takes place in a health institute (a wellness center). In The Tortilla Curtain, the characters live in a gated community. In Drop City, half of the novel takes place on a commune. From a writer's point-of-view, it looks like you use these physical and social limitations to force the characters to rub against each other. Are you attracted to enclosed communities because the characters are automatically limited and given automatic desires (to get out, to stay in, or to keep others out, etc)? Or does it have little to do with craft and more to do with investigating the motives of those who, in an attempt to create a tiny pocket of utopia, block out the (ugly) reality of the world? Are you perhaps saying that the ugly isn't out there as much as it is in here?
I love these observations, which, in effect answer the questions they pose. Yes, I've been concerned with groups and gurus for some time now--I find the narcissistic personality absolutely compelling, as so many artists possess it. We are gurus. We develop cults around ourselves. But at what cost? The new novel, The Women, due out in February, addresses another egomaniacal group-meister, Frank Lloyd Wright, and is told from the perspective of his wives and mistress, as filtered through the sensibilities of one of his apprentices, a Japanese by the name of Takashi Sato. FLLW follows in a line of succession that stretches from Peck Wilson of Talk Talk to Norm Sender of Drop City to Alfred C. Kinsey of The Inner Circle and John Harvey Kellogg of the aforementioned The Road to Wellville. The world in microcosm.
On the matter of teaching: I would like to know how you critique a student's work -and how you won't critique it. For example, I feel that it is helpful to give the writer another point-of-view on the language, the characters, the setting, plot and so on, but I no longer believe that we ought to critique a person's taste or subject matter for these are the reasons the writer writes at all- because of her own interest in the ideas and world of the story. What will you say in a workshop? What won't you say?
The workshop is confined to interpretation. We have all read and written on the work and now we try to understand it. The writer merely listens. At the end, he/she reads the reviews and receives a copyedited manuscript. From me. This allows the writer to see how an audience might interpret a given story and how it might be improved or left alone. That is the writer's choice. All I can do is respond to a given work as objectively as I can. As we all know, there are no rules and each piece makes its own world.
Do you believe novel-writing can be workshopped, and if so, how is workshopping a novel different from workshopping a short story?
More difficult with a novel, of course, because what we get to see is not self-contained. And yet still, we can speculate and certainly we can talk to style, character, structure, etc. Finally, it gives the novelist a chance to air the work in public, benefiting as he/she would in a story workshop or from communicating the work to anyone at any time. Getting it out is all-important.
I'd like to close with a question that I usually do— what advice do you have for beginning writers? Any pearls that you enjoy repeating?
Come from a wealthy family.
T. Coraghessan Boyle is the author of nineteen books of fiction, including, most recently, After the Plague (2001), Drop City (2003), The Inner Circle (2004), Tooth and Claw (2005), and Talk Talk (2006). He received a Ph.D. degree in Nineteenth Century British Literature from the University of Iowa in 1977, his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1974, and his B.A. in English and History from SUNY Potsdam in 1968. He has been a member of the English Department at the University of Southern California since 1978. His work has been translated into more than two dozen foreign languages, including German, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Danish, Swedish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian and Finnish. His stories have appeared in most of the major American magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The Paris Review, GQ, Antaeus, Granta and McSweeney's, and he has been the recipient of a number of literary awards. He currently lives near Santa Barbara with his wife and three children.
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