T.C. Boyle Interview
by Max Talley
Portrait of T.C. Boyle by Jamieson Fry
It has always been the aim of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, since its debut in June of 2018, to reach out to prominent authors in Santa Barbara County and feature their thoughts on writing. The subsequent list that we bruited about was fairly short, but near the top was T.C. Boyle, who has resided in Montecito in a Frank Lloyd Wright house for at least twenty years, and has been a member of the English Department at University of Southern California since 1978. Starting in 1979 with the Descent of Man collection, Boyle has written twenty-eight books, bouncing back and forth from novels to short story collections. His fully developed writing style in the eighties ran counter to the popular minimalist authors of the time. Boyle never met a metaphor or simile he couldn’t use, and his prose resembled a roller-coaster ride of ideas, descriptions, and the quirky behavior of his bizarre characters. Early books were savagely funny and also sometimes bleak. He wrote present day stories, historical fiction, and went dystopian with the After The Plague collection in 2001. Some of my personal favorites are World’s End (winner of the PEN/Faulkner Prize for best novel), Budding Prospects (one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read), Without a Hero, and Drop City—based on the early ‘70s Westwind commune in Northern California. He made his fame and fortune with The Road to Wellville, which became a Hollywood movie starring Anthony Hopkins and John Cusack, and The Tortilla Curtain, in which a rich couple from a gated Topanga Canyon community get in a car accident with two Mexican immigrants, subsequently affecting all of their lives. I’ve read perhaps twelve of his books, but the f%#ker is just too fast for me to keep up with. At a time when many readers are reading less, he has maintained his daunting pace of turning out a book about every sixteen months since 1979. I had no expectation that Boyle would consent to an interview, but he graciously squeezed in these exchanges at the end of his spring tour for book #28, Outside Looking In, which took him to Europe and Japan. —Max Talley
Max Talley: You mentioned once that you listen to John Coltrane while writing. Is it the elastic, timeless nature of jazz improvisations that helps get you into a creative zone? Personally, I find the searching quality of Miles Davis records inspiring. You were a Grateful Dead fan in your youth. Would their epic-length space jams like “Dark Star” work for you, or does jazz translate better? T.C. Boyle: I listen mostly to classical music and jazz while writing, as the music gives me joy and peace and provides a rhythm that reminds me of the musicality of the language I am translating to the page. Rock—even the Dead’s long jams—is something I reserve for periods when focus is not quite as all-encompassing. Listening to some rhythm and blues right now, in fact.
Talley: From the outside, it appears as if you write and publish a novel one year, a short story collection the next, then rinse and repeat. Almost effortless from the distance. Do you ever hit dead ends? Novel ideas that don’t gel after starting them, or short story ideas that don’t rise to the level you expect from yourself? Things you set aside? Boyle: Speaking of rhythm, I do work in periods, as you’ve divined. I will write a group of stories—as I’ve just done, six new pieces appearing in Esquire, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and Playboy—then a novel, then the stories that will conclude the next collection. I’ve never had the experience of expanding a story into a novel or vice versa. As for abandoning projects, I’ve not done that. Yet. The closest I came was with San Miguel because of the challenge I set myself in that novel of writing without (for the most part) using humor or irony. I fought through, made the discoveries I needed, and completed the book to my great joy. It remains one of my favorites. Talley: Many teachers say that good writing cannot be taught. As a university professor for years, do you agree? Can odious writing habits at least be killed or discouraged? Do you set out to teach any certain style of writing or just try to push students farther along the path toward their own individual style? Along those lines, I’ve noticed writing teachers and workshop leaders advise to remove all adverbs and most descriptive adjectives from writing, annihilate any rhetorical questions, and never begin sentences with conjunctions. Are such bromides similar to a dietary fad, basically a bunch of happy horseshit? Should most writers write in the pared-down style of a Raymond Carver or Ernest Hemingway? Boyle: I like your characterization of these suggestions as “happy horseshit.” Ignore all mandates from anybody as to how to approach your own individual work. Each artist must find his or her own way and there are no rules whatever. You learn to write by reading deeply and then writing as best you can, not in imitation, but in a kind of inspired assimilatory process.
1973, by Alan Arkawy
Talley: Your new novel Outside Looking In focuses on LSD. You were quoted in The Independent as saying, “When I was doing drugs, we weren’t looking for God. It was all about getting high and going crazy.” Before Haight-Ashbury Be-Ins and Acid Tests, some unusual people believed in LSD’s possibilities. Whether the psychiatrists treating Cary Grant and Hollywood celebrities with it, or conservative scion Henry Luce (and Claire Booth Luce) of Time Magazine espousing acid’s values, or John Coltrane saying after sampling it in 1965, “I perceived the interrelationship of all forms,” or even Catholic priests having ecstatic, visionary experiences. The negative stereotype emerged when widespread usage brought bad trips, Brian Wilson lounging in a sandbox, Art Linkletter’s daughter jumping to her death, bad brown acid at Woodstock, and of course...Charles Manson. After writing your book, do you see any positive value to LSD? Or is it the mind-destroying drug that the U.S. Government made illegal in 1966 then listed as a Class A drug—along with addictive substances like amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin? Boyle: I would have loved to include Cary Grant in the book, but the narrative just didn’t go there. I am an artist. I explore my material without prejudice. That is, I have no agenda in writing stories and novels other than to discover a narrative path, a theme, a meaning. As for what drug dependency—or even drug experience—does for you, see my short stories, “Up Against the Wall” and, especially, “Back in the Eocene.” Talley: I’ve read interviews about your writing influences and recall mentions of John Updike and John Cheever. From reading your 1980s and 1990s novels’ mixture of extreme humor, history, and a sometimes bleak take on humanity, I wondered if John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. were influences as well? Boyle: Before Updike and Cheever, there were the writers who formed the groundswell of my creativity—the absurdist playwrights like Beckett and Genet, Coover, Barthelme, García-Márquez, Grass, Calvino, Borges, Asturias, Pynchon, et al. I am a novelist and storyista of that provenance. Later, writers like Updike and Cheever helped expand my horizons by damping my prejudice against realism and character-oriented work.
Talley: The recent Netflix documentary Murder Mountain described the escalating violence and missing persons in the Humboldt County marijuana scene. In Budding Prospects, one of the funniest novels of the last fifty years, you described a more pastoral time during the early 1980s in Humboldt when the book’s pot growers only had to face redneck neighbors, a single dedicated cop, and a pot-eating bear. Do you ever reflect on your earlier works or consider revisiting characters from them like Edward Abbey did with his Monkey Wrench Gang? Is Vogelsang still funding marijuana grows or could he have moved on to working with the current administration? Boyle: Great question. When Amazon revived the book for a series last year (Terry Zwigoff made the pilot, but the studio killed the series thereafter), I felt it would be a wonderful ironic counterpoint to the current liberalization of drug laws. As for me, I like to look forward and move forward, and so have never (yet) considered revisiting my previous work. I never say never, though, so we shall see. At present, in addition to the new stories mentioned above, I am just beginning the next novel. Talley: A piece of yours about the tragic mudslides in Montecito from The New Yorker last year read as nonfiction. You grew up at a time of fantastic essayists like Joan Didion, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe, so have you ever considered a collection of essays: Boiling Point? Boyle: I dwell in my fiction. I want to pursue it as my life’s work (books #29 and #30 are now in the works, as indicated above) and have little interest in writing essays. My form is the short story, which gives me infinite space to explore what I like. The essay you refer to—“The Absence in Montecito”—was a result of the magazine asking me to respond to the tragedy, which shook me deeply; I was grateful to the editors for asking, as it gave an opportunity to sort out my own feelings. Subsequently, The New Yorker published my short story, “I Walk Between the Raindrops,” which makes use of some of that material in a deeper, more philosophical way, methinks. As things now stand, that will be the title story of the next collection.
1985, by Alan Arkawy
Talley: I’ve met you at local readings and at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and you seemed a most amicable fellow. I was surprised because some of your book jacket photos depict a man of almost saturnine countenance, glowering at the reader as if a member of Frank Zappa’s original Mothers of Invention. I’ve noticed certain writers prefer the don’t-fuck-with-me-I-live-in-an-Austrian-castle-with-a-moat pose, or the seriously constipated scholar with the coke bottle glasses poised in front of a library bookshelf. Does a smiling author photo imply a Forrest Gump simpleton? Or a Hollywood celebrity flush with the happiness of hiring a ghost writer to pen their memoir? Boyle: My various photos, mostly taken by friends, are inspired by the rock album covers (remember those?) of my youth. Yes, I’m a bad boy, but for good reason—that’s what the photos say. What I’ve always tried to avoid in my work and live performances is any hint of the dry and academic—I want my art to be alive and set you on fire. (Take a peek at the photo gallery at tcboyle.com for more, including a wildly grinning photo taken in Germany a few years back.) And then, of course, there’s the Avedon photo for The New Yorker that I like to call, “Portrait of a Noble Savage.” What insuperable fun it is to be alive! ~End~ The T.C. Boyle Interview is featured in Volume 4 of "Stardust."
Max Talley is a writer and artist who was born in New York City and lives in Southern California. Talley’s fiction and essays have appeared in Santa Fe Literary Review, Fiction Southeast, Gravel, Hofstra University – Windmill, Bridge Eight, Litro, and The Opiate, among others. His near future novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, was published in 2014, and he teaches a writing workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. www.maxdevoetalley.com