T.C. Boyle will appear at the Boulder Book Store Tuesday for what he calls a “performance” of his two most recent books, his ninth short story collection, Wild Child, and the paperback release of his twelfth novel, The Women, which examines the life of architect Frank Lloyd Wright from the perspectives of the women in his life. I interviewed Boyle on the phone from his home in California. We spoke about his writing process, his favorite themes of natural disasters and the animal nature of humanity, and his thoughts on the future of books.
New West: Last time I interviewed you, for Talk Talk in 2007, you described The Women as being part of your “egomanics of the 20th century” series, along with Alfred Kinsey in The Inner Circle and John Kellogg of The Road to Wellville.
T.C. Boyle: I’ll cop to that.
NW: Are you done with egomaniacs? You said it was a trilogy.
TCB: Well I guess so, at least for now. For the next novel I’ve returned to my environmental themes. It’s a novel set on the California Channel Islands about the big fight over the ecological restoration. It’s called When The Killing Is Done. Because of Wild Child it won’t be out until March of next year. But I’m sure there are more egomanicas out there, lurking in the wings.
NW: Speaking of egomaniacs, I think my favorite character in The Women was Frank Lloyd Wright’s second wife, Maude Miriam Noel.
TCB: Yeah, mine too.
NW: She seemed like a character you’d have to invent if she didn’t already exist.
TCB: That’s the wonder of doing these historical novels for me. I don’t have to invent anything. The real stuff is far crazier than anything I could ever dream up.
NW: Were you sad to leave Maude Miriam Noel behind when you were done with the book?
TCB: Absolutely. But as the book progressed I realized that by telling it backwards and after the fact, I could bring her back and bring the whole thing full circle at the very end.
NW: You made some interesting structural choices with The Women—one was to have one of Wright’s apprentices, Tadashi Sato, narrate the story, and the other was to present the stories of Wright’s love affairs in reverse chronological order, so the reader learns how each of Wright’s love affairs ends before he learns about how it began. Was your point in reversing the chronology that certain patterns repeated so regularly in Wright’s life that the timeline of it begins to seem circular?
TCB: Well you know I’m not allowed to say things like that. But I very much like your interpretation. Sure, it enables me to reflect somewhat on the pattern of not only that love affair but many other love affairs that people have had over time. You know, where you’re obsessed with the lover and want to spend every minute with him or her, and maybe it doesn’t turn out so well and they become the worst person in your life. So at each stage of this novel, we see the horrific harpy in the wings, and then we see her in the light of redemption as it moves on. And furthermore, to use Tadashi Sato and his grandson-in-law in writing this is something I was inspired to do by Nabokov, for instance. It’s just very playful and it allows the reader to reflect on history and versions of history and what’s true and what’s not.
NW: In dealing with a larger-than-life character as you do with Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women, is it easier to have a different character narrate it? Because you did a similar thing with Alfred Kinsey in The Inner Circle, which was narrated by one of Kinsey’s associates.
TCB: I guess so. Look at The Great Gatsby. I don’t really consciously think about these things. Every story just comes to me after a while and I follow it. But it does give you a good way of viewing a character—whether that’s a historical character or not, a central figure kind of character—from the outside. And then of course the reader can make a judgment as to what the effect of this character—in the case of these egomaniacs—is on their followers.
NW: In The Women and several of your other novels based on historical figures, you’ve said that the events that happen in the books are historically accurate. Is it more challenging to work within the framework of the events that history gives you or to invent events in your other novels that aren’t historically based?
TCB: Each has its own pleasures. I was a history and English double major as an undergrad, and I’ve always loved to find stories in history and present them to you with my own little twist on them for my own purposes. But still, I love the actual history. The challenge, of course, is to find a context for it. As you suggest with The Inner Circle for instance, it’s an “I” narrative, and it’s told by an acolyte. I could have done the same sort of thing with The Women, but I’ve already done that, so I looked for a different kind of structure, one that might reflect on the way an architect structures things. You know, something a little more elaborate. But to make a story up from whole cloth, as with When the Killing Is Done or Drop City and so many of my novels, that works too.
I don’t want to bore myself. I don’t want to write the same thing over and over again. I can’t understand these detective novelists who write the same crap eternally, over and over again. I’d hang myself. I want to keep on my toes and not to repeat myself and to write in many different modes and from different perspectives. Each story suggests its own way of telling it.
NW: Many of the stories in Wild Child seem like they might have been sparked by items in the news.
TCB: Yes, many are sparked by items in the news. Anything for me could be a story. Anything you tell me, anything I read, anything I find out about or I’m curious about. In some cases there are memory pieces, things that have happened to me. There’s a story of mine coming in the January 18th issue of The New Yorker called “A Death in Kitchawank,” and it’s just a memory piece, something I knew about from thirty years ago. Those are a little rarer with me, but I don’t reject them. Anything that lights my fire, you know. I’m always looking for stories. That’s the way my brain works, I guess. I really can’t reflect deeply on things unless I put it into the context of a fiction. I don’t know why that is, but I’m happy about it.
NW: Do you keep a notebook, or how do you organize your ideas?
TCB: No, I don’t. I wish I did keep a notebook. I just jot down little ideas here and there and plow through them and think of what scenario would work and what wouldn’t and start off and see what happens. Sometimes I have to abandon things, but I’ve learned over the years to abandon them early on.
NW: Do you work on more than one thing at once?
TCB: No, I would never consider it. I’d be in the mental hospital if I had to do that. I think that you’ve got to push through to the end. If you’re working on more than one thing at the same time, and when you’ve run into a roadblock with one, you shift to the other—well I think in my case, anyway, my fear is that it would dissipate the energy of both and you might not finish either one. So no matter how stuck I am or how hard it is, I always plow through and only work on one thing at a time.
NW: Your stories plunge the reader into their situations immediately in part because they feature a lot of sensory detail, and I noticed that you especially always include a description of how things smell. How do you come up with these sort of details—do you imagine how things smell in the moment when you’re writing, or do you make note of different smells and sensory details and then incorporate them in your fiction?
TCB: No, nothing like that ever works. You can’t write down lists of words or lists of smells or anything to incorporate in some future thing. It just is spontaneous, as the language is spontaneous. It’s a kind of miracle. It’s why we write. It just happens. You don’t know exactly why or how. So with sensory details and putting the reader in the place—it’s what novels have always done, to allow you, the reader, to open it up in your own mind, to have smelled something like that or to have seen a scene like that. But the beauty of the novel as opposed to the movies—I also love movies—is that you, the reader supply that exact face or that exact smell. Now we have 3-D movies and I hope they’ll bring back Smell-O-Ramas.
I examine something, I begin to see some pictures, and a character emerges, and I begin to follow it. I have no idea when I begin a story where it will go. That’s the joy of writing a story.
NW: Many of the stories in Wild Child feature characters of different ethnic backgrounds than you, such as the young black woman in “Admiral” and the Japanese couple in “Ash Wednesday.” The narrator in The Women was also Japanese, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentices. Are there any special challenges to writing from the perspective of a character of a different race?
TCB: Well I want to make it credible, that’s for sure, but I do feel a good novelist should be able to inhabit anybody. So I certainly try. I don’t really worry about it much. Readers of The Tortilla Curtain–Latinos, Mexicans, have said it seems pretty good to them, so I guess I’m doing my job.
We select our details and play to what we know, and leave an ellipsis for what we don’t know. So you’re seeing something that is refined and presented through a consciousness that seems to be real. That’s what you have to do whether you’re writing about a white male or anybody.
NW: Do you feel it’s important for white writers to include characters of different ethnicities in their fiction?
TCB: No, I don’t make any rules for anybody else. I only do what I’m going to do as an artist. Any writer can do anything he or she likes.
NW: But you do it as a way to incorporate different experiences and people in your fiction?
TCB: Exactly. For me personally I think it’s very important and a large part of what I’m doing. But again I don’t choose this consciously. It just sort of happens. I might write a whole bunch of stories that have nothing to do with that in the future—I really don’t know.
NW: Several of your favorite recurrent themes surface in Wild Child—natural disasters, especially mudslides and forest fires (which figured in the ending of The Tortilla Curtain, were a part of the environmental disaster book A Friend of the Earth, and are in several stories in Wild Child), and the animal nature of humanity, which was also your major theme for your last story collection, Tooth And Claw, and in some ways was the theme of The Inner Circle. Are these themes that you could write an endless amount of stories about?
TCB: I think so. For this too, that’s why I chose to have “Wild Child” anchor this whole book—those themes are playing through. With regards to random chance and natural disasters, I think I’m trying to work out exactly who we are and what we’re doing here, and how our animal lives conflict with the rest of the environment and with our intellectual and spiritual natures and so on. That’s of vital interest to me and it’s a conundrum, it’s a mystery, I’m just working on it, trying to understand as best I can. Of course those disasters like “La Conchita” make us feel how vulnerable we are. La Conchita is just below Santa Barbara, and I wasn’t present for the moment, but I certainly was very much aware of it.
I take great joy in creating art. That’s what I’m alive for. On the other hand, what we’re all alive for, and what’s happening to us, and what our inevitable end is, and our irrelevance in the face of the universe is pretty depressing.
NW: Do you see your career as being divided into different stages?
TCB: I don’t know. Certainly the early stories in Descent of Man, for example, were a lot wilder and more surreal and absurdist, even up to the Collected Stories, Volume I. I still write in that mode and still enjoy it. But if a change came about it was probably from the experience of writing novels, which helped me get more deeply into characterization, which didn’t really interest me much when I first started as a short story writer. I was much more interested in design and language and idea. That still interests me, but maybe there’s a better balance as I’ve grown through all these various books I’ve written.
NW: The past year has been a rough one for the publishing industry. Do you care to make any predictions or offer your opinion on how everything will shake out with ebooks, the demise of newspapers and book reviews, or any other aspect of the publishing business?
TCB: Well, we’re doomed, not only as writers and readers, but as a species. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe new forms will emerge. Maybe writing on the Internet will replace writing on paper, I don’t know. I am just doing what I’m doing. There is no way I could do anything else. As I’ve said often, I feel like the farrier in 1900, watching the Model A’s roll by. But we can’t always tell what technology will bring. And I also adduce this: when the telephone was invented, people said, it’s terrible, now this great tradition of writing letters will be over. And of course it was. But then in came the Internet and email and now people write to each other again.
So it’s hard to say. It looks pretty bleak but maybe new forms will emerge. I’m still an old-fashioned reader who likes to hold a book in his hands. I like to smell the book’s pages, I like to hold it up and look at it and stroke it and read it and put it on my shelf. It’s a thing, it’s an object. I don’t have a Kindle. When I’m traveling on these perpetual tours, I bring a couple of paperback books because they’re lighter.
One of my great fears in life is being stuck in some airport without enough books to read, so you have to have some backup. And there are plenty of readers like that still. I have a huge readership of very dedicated and determined, good, deep readers. Whether this will go on for future generations I don’t know. One of the reasons I do tour so much and perform on stage is to keep that alive and remind everybody that art is an entertainment. It’s supposed to give you joy in some way, even if that’s the joy of being horribly depressed or horrified or whatever. To me it’s ultimately and utterly viable.
T.C. Boyle will visit the Boulder Book Store on Tuesday, February 9 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free for those who purchase either Wild Child or The Women or tickets are available for $5.