Interview with T.C. Boyle

by Patricia Lamberti

Appears in Other Voices #33

T. C. Boyle is the author of the novels Water Music, Budding Prospects, Worldís End, East Is East, The Road to Wellville, The Tortilla Curtain, and Riven Rock. All of his short fiction was anthologized in T.C. Boyle Stories. Boyle was the recipient of the 1999 PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. Worldís End was the winner of a PEN/Faulkner Award. A former rock and roll musician, T.C. now lives in Santa Barbara, where he teaches fiction writing at UCLA. Patty Lamberti interviewed T.C. Boyle by telephone as he prepared dinner.

O.V. In what ways does writing terrify you?

TCB: The only way that it would terrify anybody who writes is if the writing stops.

O.V. Whatís behind your impulse to write?

TCB: Itís my greatest joy. Itís my way of filtering the world and figuring out what itís really about.

O.V. You seem to write fiction that is both comic and non-comic. Do you prefer one over the other?

TCB: Every piece of fiction I have written is absolutely serious, even a story as light as ďThe Champ.Ē My comic stories contain very serious messages about our society. What I like best of all, like in my new novel, Friend of the Earth, is to combine the two to make a tragic, yet wild, off-the-wall tale. That way the story catches you by surprise. This can be much more potent than a more conventional story told in realistic terms. The Tortilla Curtain, for instance, catches you off guard. Itís funny and satiric and then it suddenly turns very grim on you. I learned this from Flannery OíConnor. In Shakespeareís comedies, nothing bad will happen. But in my comedies, when something really desperate happens, it sobers the reader and makes an even greater impact. Like many writers, I work instinctively. I have a vision and pursue it. I donít know where it will lead me. The wonderful thing about interviews is that I can justify it all. But in fact Iím making everything up as we talk.

O.V. I never would have guessed. What other sorts of things did Flannery OíConnor help you notice in the world?

TCB: She was very satiric and kept a jaundiced eye on her society. She taught me about taking a microscopic lens and turning it on society. She wrote about a more local and regional society than what I inhabit. Although I was able to write a lot about New York, where I grew up. Now I suppose Iím a California novelist. In some ways I am hankering after becoming a regional writer like her.

O.V. Which of your novels or stories are you closest to?

TCB: The one Iím working on right now. Of the novels published, Water Music because itís the first and I didnít know if I could write a novel. Of the stories, the ones that are most popular, such as ďCarnal KnowledgeĒ and ďGreasy Lake.Ē But the ones I like the best are the ones no one else could write. Critics always like my conventional stories and Iím happy for that. But I like the very wild stuff like ďIke and Nina,Ē ďThe Devil and Irv Cherniske,Ē ďMiracle at Ballinspittle,Ē ďThe Overcoat II,Ē or ďMe Cago en la Leche (Robert Jordan in Nicaragua).Ē I donít think anyone else is crazy enough to write like that. If Iím making a contribution to letters, I want to contribute what no one else can do. Of course, the great thing about writing a story is that you are the only person, out of six billion people, who can write that story, because it comes from your own experiences.

O.V. Your details set you apart from every other writer. For instance in the ďApe Lady in RetirementĒ you wrote, ďHe spent the early morning half heartedly tearing up the carpet in the guest room, then brooded over his nuts and bananas, all the while pinning Beatrice with an accusatory look, a look that had nacho chips and Fruit Roll-Ups written all over it.Ē Details like nacho chips and Fruit Roll-Ups are so bizarre, so poignant, and so funny. Other writers would have ended the sentence at an accusatory look. Do details like these just come to you in a flash or are they a labor of love?

TCB: I love that youíre quoting that sentence. Iím very happy I wrote that sentence. Details like that just come naturally to me. I just get into the zone, as all writers do. I have a lot of fun with the language. Language is the key to stories that are purely comic. They are serious because they have the underpinnings of extraordinary language. ďThe Ape Lady in RetirementĒ is another story thatís close to me because I donít think anyone else could have written it.

O.V. One recurring theme in your fiction is that we are a doomed species. Is there really no hope for us?

TCB: Oh boy, wait until you read Friend of The Earth. There is no hope for us whatsoever. We are going to be exterminated imminently because of global warming, environmental destruction, and the dislocation of people that this will cause. Some remnant bands of headhunters may still exist in California, but theyíre the only people who will be left. This will happen very soon. Iíve been totally depressed for two years just doing the research for this novel. Iíve read most of the literature by environmental writers and thereís not a breath of hope in any of it. Pretty soon there will be a day when we go to the local food store and a sign is taped to the door that says No More Food. And the next day, all deer will be exterminated. The day after that, all dogs will be exterminated. Nope, thereís no good news in that quarter. Well, the only good news is that Iíve made a comedy out of it.

O.V. The genius of The Tortilla Curtain is that at so many points the reader identifies with Delaney and what he thinks about immigration. He thinks the things we donít want to say aloud. You said that when writing the novel you were trying to work out your own feelings about immigration. What was the ultimate verdict?

TCB: I take a Darwinian view on immigration. You cannot expect an animal species, our species, to understand the concept of national borders. Humans move where the resources are. National borders mean absolutely nothing in that respect. As far as the nationalistic aspect of what Delaney says, much of it is true. I also donít think there will be nations in the future as much as conglomerates. Thatís good. Perhaps this will help some of the less developed nations improve their standards of living. There are six billion people and there is not enough room for them. One third of the world is farming. One third is getting by. Then thereís the other third, us, eating lobster tails every night. Of course lobsters will be extinct in ten years. Itís sad. In this country we can absorb immigrants and have absorbed them. The book was huge in Europe as well because every industrialized nation is facing the same crisis. So itís a provocative book and itís meant to be provocative. People always say itís a political book but I donít think of it exactly like that. That implies I wanted people to join my party, that I wanted to extort people to my position. But I donít want to extort people. I donít have a perspective when I begin a book. Iím just trying to provoke the readerís thoughts.

O.V. Did the criticism of the book hurt you in any way?

TCB: I expected the book to be attacked when it came out. I was pushing some buttons. About half of the critics treated me as if I was Hitlerís son or as if Iíd just burned a baby. But what really matters is that the book has such a huge readership. That makes me feel wonderful. The best critics are of course the ones that are capable as writers themselves and have read all of your work. When critics read all of your work and make connections, thatís great. But most critics only read one of your books and sometimes their comments are just completely off the wall. They have their own axes to grind.

O.V. Did you find it more difficult than usual to write in the point of view of Mexicans who donít speak or think in English?

TCB: That was part of the challenge. I wanted to try something new. I donít want to be the kind of writer who repeats himself over and over again with the same story. I wanted to see if I could learn something. Once you become absorbed in the character, whether that character is a three-year-old child, a twenty-eight-year-old elephant, or a woman from Mexico who doesnít speak English, the writing comes naturally.

O.V. I know you think our species is going downhill. What do you think about contemporary short fiction?

TCB: Weíre having a real renaissance because of writing programs. People are starting their apprenticeships as writers of short stories. In the 80ís we were wrapped up in the minimalist realist thing. And some great stuff came out of that movement, like Ray Carverís stories. But Iím glad weíre over that. I think now thereís more room for the sort of short stories I do. I think Iíve influenced a lot of people in their writing. I hope theyíre getting published. Stories donít just have to be about upper middle class people anymore. Those were stories where nothing actually happened. There couldnít be any violence. For me stories are an exercise of the imagination. They should grab you by the nose. And they should be a joy to read.

O.V. Do your students attempt to emulate your style?

TCB: That would be their death. Some of the best writers make the worst teachers because they can only see one aestheticótheir own. They close themselves off to the student. Iíd like to think Iím different than that. Iíve been teaching since I was twenty-one and I really enjoy it. I donít have to teach if I donít want to. I could survive by writing alone. Maybe thatís why Iím a good teacher. Iíve always been amazed by the incredible gifts for writing that exist in the gene pool out there. I just try to coach my students into writing their way rather than forcing them into writing a given way. I help them figure out their own special contribution to literature. We always read books by contemporary writers to give them perspectives of different styles. That way they can grab onto one and say, ďboy that really wakes me up.Ē Itís a shame to teach writing classes without reading literature at the same time. I began writing because reading books is fun. Every other subject was horrible. You had to memorize dates and formulas, or cut things open on a table.

O.V. You recently wrote on your Web site that you rarely ever change the first line of a story or a novel. Do you have any other rules?

TCB: Thatís not an absolute rule. The first line usually just comes to me. I might tinker around with it. Everything goes from there. I also work page by page without a clear sense of where the novel or story is going. The first draft is pretty much exactly how the final draft appears, certainly structurally and almost every line as well. I think I developed this way of writing by being the laziest and worst undergraduate in history. Not only were my papers overdue, they were months overdue. I had to write them all on the last day. I had to write them directly on the typewriter. I just didnít have time to do drafts. People always want to know how I write. Theyíre curious as to how you do it. But thereís no blueprint. Everyone has to develop their own way of working. Iíll tell people to satisfy their curiosity but I donít think thereís any rules. Except that you have to write. And read.

O.V. Youíve got the wildest hairstyle of any writer I can think of. Whatís your secret?

TCB: My hair has been the curse of my life. Now thereís a lot less of it than there used to be. Itís just a kinky mass of hair. When I was a teenager I went to the black barbershop and had my hair straightened. The African American brethren would get their hair straightened and then put it up in rollers, like a James Brown pompadour. Well I loved that look, but I just came out of there looking like a shaggy dog. Then the hippie times came along and that was great because you could have any kind of wild, kinky, berserk hair. Then the punk times came along and I cut it, which kept the kink down a little bit. Now Iím just hanging out and doing the best I can. But I do like to have flair, to dress up and get on stage, to perform. I donít want literature to be academic and dull. Itís a performance. I strut my stuff.

O.V. Real estate agents are always such terrible people in your fiction. Whatís your beef with them?

TCB: Real estate is a great metaphor. In Friend of the Earth, pretty much everything occurs in condos. We live in a capitalist society in which you have to have products and you have to have consumers. But itís like a big ponzi scheme. There isnít infinite resource and there arenít infinite consumers so there canít be infinite products. Everything has to collapse. I think real estate is an example of this. Real estate is one of our chief economic indicators. Eventually everything will be a new house. The whole godamn world. There will be no animals left, there will be no wilderness left. We exterminate 40,000 to 100,000 animal and plant species per year because of habitat loss. Real estate is especially important in a book like The Tortilla Curtain. Itís the ironic juxtaposition of people who are selling mansions and arenít even living in them. And thatís shameful when we have people who are truly and literally living in the bushes.

By the way, you know the fire that was set by Candido in The Tortilla Curtain? A couple of months after I wrote the book, a fire just like that happened in one of the canyons. An immigrant was camping out, he set a fire, and the fire got out of hand. I predicted that fire in fact. A canyon hadnít burned like that until I wrote about it.

O.V. Youíre just like Nostradamus.

TCB: I told my artist friend Pablo that in my next book, Iím going to write about a painter and a writer who lead very happy lives in which everything goes well for them. Weíll see if that comes true. But I doubt it.