T. Coraghessan Boyle
T. Coraghessan Boyle is the author of twenty books of fiction, including, most recently, The Women (2009). He received a PhD degree from the University of Iowa in 1977, his MFA from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1974, and his BA 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.
Fiction Editors Sara Scoville and Rebekah Richgels had the chance to interview T.C. Boyle before his reading at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. His most recent novel, The Women, focused on the lives of the four women in Frank Lloyd Wright's life. Both interns were excited for the opportunity to speak with such a seasoned author—he has 22 published books and two on the way—in such an intimate venue. He filled his answers with humorous and touching anecdotes. Scoville said this of the interview, "T.C. Boyle's work has inspired my own writing since I read Greasy Lake during my junior year at ASU. One of the things I absolutely adore about his writing is his ability to create beautifully constructed sentences, which often become scenes within themselves. Meeting one of the most prolific authors of our time was an incredible thrill, and an experience I will never forget."
You can view the podcasts of the interview here.
Superstition Review: We are here interviewing Mr. T.C. Boyle. His new novel is The Women, which is about Frank Lloyd Wright and the women in his life—How appropriate that we're here in Phoenix, home of Taliesin West.
T. Coraghessan Boyle: Even more appropriate, I'm in a room full of women! [laughs]
SR: My first question for you is, similar to The Inner Circle and The Road to Wellville, The Women is based on actual historical events. What about Frank Lloyd Wright drew you personally to write about him?
TCB: Well, he fits in perfectly with the other egomaniacs I've written about from the turn of the century, Kellogg and Kinsey. When I first told my editor that I was working on a book—a novel—set around Wright, Paul said, “Well great. We can do a box set—The Great Egomaniacs of the Twentieth Century.” It fits in exactly with the kind of figure that fascinates me. A kind of a narcissistic, powerful guru who attracts followers and maybe uses them for his own purposes.
SR: You were saying that Frank Lloyd Wright was a bit of an egomaniac. What was one thing that you learned about him through all your research that you were surprised by or interested in?
TCB: The thing that surprises me most is that he needed in order to create, unlike us, we're writers, and we need solitude. At least I do—I don't know about you two, but I need absolute placidity. I can't be worrying about anything, or it creeps in to that unconscious dream I'm trying to get out. Now obviously this is the first time I've written about an artist, and there is a central metaphor here of being a novelist is kind of like building a house. You have to find the architecture and the structure of it and so on. But he famously needed to have lawyers pursuing him, debt collectors, police, irate clients, the press, just in order to get his back up enough to work, and feel that he was going to show everybody.
SR: When you were researching, what method did you use? What sort of avenues did you explore to find out all of this information?
TCB: The same method I've used all my life—the turn paper method. I absorb a lot of material, and there have been something like 1,000 books written on Frank Lloyd Wright and his work—his life and work. So, I read everything I could, took notes, and then I went to see the actual locations in the book—Oak Park and Taliesin East. Then I came home—oh, and also there in the Wisconsin Historical Society—I went through a lot of newspaper accounts of some of the historical events I'm talking about. And all of this takes about three months or so. Then I came home and went through the notes with my red pen and began to have some ideas. And then I saw some of the pictures and started to translate it into words and followed that, and never really referred much to the notebook anymore.
SR: In one of my classes right now, we're discussing The Great Gatsby, and how it's written in third person observer—you seem to have done that with The Women. Why did you make that choice?
TCB: Well, the choice is made for me. Every story is different, and each has to find its structure. I had just done The Inner Circle about Alfred C. Kinsey, and that was a straight, first person narrative of an accolade talking about his career with the master once the master has died. I could easily have done that again, but the writers who interest me are artists who are always looking for a new way to tell a story, and who don't repeat themselves. Unlike, let's say, genre writers. You know, the detective so-and-so lives in a house with three dogs and wears a dress on Tuesdays and pants on Wednesdays, and after a series of events somebody will be murdered in some location. I know that's very comforting for some people, but not for me. So I don't want to repeat myself at all, and I like your observation. There is a little bit of “The Great Gatsby” here because we do have a narrator—Tadashi Sato—who is telling us about his association with this dynamic figure, and in the telling, even more so I think than with Caraway, he is reevaluating his relationship with this man. And I suppose this is a time-tested way of telling a story, but it's also a way of getting at truths that the character—the narrator—may not have been aware of in his own self as he reflects and goes through this. And of course this is a very and tricky sort of narrative too because Tadashi is the purported writer of this, and he gives introductions to each section. In fact, we don't know how much English he really knows, and how much the collaboration with his grandson-in-law —O'Flaherty-San—has come into play here. So then I came up with the concept of footnotes, which are very interesting for me because Tadashi is responding to the text he's reading, and it's not exactly what he thought it would be. So he's got that going on, and at the same time, since this has been novelized by his grandson-in-law, he's reflecting on his own relationship with the master. So all of this sounds very elaborate, and maybe it is. Maybe I did some kind of structure that might do justice to Frank Lloyd Wright himself. Nonetheless, it's the structure that's suggested itself to me as I was looking for ways to enter the story.
SR: What really surprised me about The Women is it is written in reverse chronological order, beginning with Olgivanna, then to Miriam, and then to Mamah. What was your reasoning behind that? Why did you make the decision to take that path?
TCB: Aw shucks! You guys know I'm just doing what comes natural just as you do. The structure reveals itself as it goes along, and I hit upon this idea of course early on for a couple of reasons. One, first of all, I have Tadashi's story moving forward as an introduction, and that gives you all of Frank Lloyd Wright's life from the 30's to his death. Secondly, it enables me to get both a first person perspective and a close third person perspective. Telling The Women story backwards did two things. One, it enabled me to end with the tragedy of Mamah and the murder and, secondly, it enabled me to reflect on love relationships. You meet someone and this is terrific—you love them, you want to be with them every minute, they're dynamic, they're beautiful—then maybe something goes sour. Maybe they become an ex wife, or some kind of harpy from hell trying to destroy you. So, by telling the Olgivanna story first will seal the valiant as a victim of Miriam. And Miriam comes into—in fact we're going to read about Miriam tonight—as this demon, surely crazy. But then, by moving backwards, we then see her when Frank Lloyd Wright first meets her, and we see her at her best, and so on, with Mamah. And it allows me to reflect on relationships, as well as the relationships of these particular historical figures.
SR: Moving on from The Women, we appreciate you answering all those questions about your brand new novel—
TCB: Oh it's easy enough. I have to tell you because you may be in this position one day yourselves. I finished this book and delivered in July '07—I haven't looked at it or read it since [laughs]. All the interviewers and all the readers out there know it far better than I, but I'm pretty slippery.
SR: You wrote it. You would know it best.
TCB: I vaguely remember having written it.
SR: One thing that I've noticed in your writing is how well you know your characters, and how able you are to make them seem so very real. I was hoping you would tell us a little bit of how you get to know your characters.
TCB: Of course I'm writing about all sorts of different characters of different nationalities, different ethnic groups. I'm this sort of writer—and I'm happy to be this sort of writer—forming anything into a story. There's nothing I wouldn't write about, or try to find out about. When I get interested in something, then I can explore it, and so the characters have to be germane to whatever particular subject I'm writing about. And again, I don't mean to sound mystical about it because I know what I'm doing and I can sit here and explain it to you beautifully, but I'm following some pulse, some impulse, so that with a short story for instance…let me give you an example. One of my favorite short stories of mine of recent times is called, “Swept Away,” and it deals with this: I had read that the windiest place in the world is the Shetland Islands off of northern Scotland . It's so windy in fact that flowerpots blow over, cats get blown off of roofs. And so I just did a little research on that place—I've never been there—I've been to the Arctic coast of Scotland as I like to call it but I've never been up to the Shetlands. This is a little awkward too because somebody who has a magazine on the Shetland Islands wants to interview me about my experiences there. Anyway, that was the spur of the story. What would that be like? And so, in my town, I pictured an earnest, young, good looking, American ornithologist, who's come to study the other birds there. And as the story opens, it's narrated in the first person plural—we, the whole village, we do this and we think this—and we don't really know who the narrator is. He's standing back, it's a moment that I love—it's like a folktale, a tall-tale, and the “bird woman,” as they call her, Junie Ooley is walking up from the ferry. She's just arrived, and she's got her backpack with all of her camera lenses, and she's very beautiful. She's wearing black leggings and striding against the wind, and here are all the slugs of town watching her outside the window—this is the “we”—they're watching her outside the window of the pub, and in that moment, Robbie Baikie, he's sitting there. His big, fat, pigeon-fed Tomcat that weighs twelve pounds is blown off the roof and cold-cocks her right in the street. Meanwhile, old Duncan Stout, the oldest man in the village, who only drives at ten miles per hour is coming down the street in his car, doesn't see her. And Robbie Baikie, this slug, has to run from the pub and pick her away just as the car comes by. Voila! I have my characters. And of course, this is a love story between the bird woman and poor Robbie. By the way, I love to read this story in pubic, but I'll never read it again, because twice now, I've heard a Scottish actress reading it, and I could never begin to get that accent down—the way they do it—you know, the grand way that they do the story. So, I don't know. I just try to imagine who the characters might be and how they might feel.
SR: Now I actually stumbled across “Bulletproof” featured in Best Life Magazine
TCB: Well that's great because Best Life is a new magazine and I don't know how many people saw it in that. Of the new group of stories I've written it's one of my favorites because it's about something that really matters to me. Sorry.
SR: Oh, no, go ahead
TCB: No no, go ahead
SR: No, I'd like you to talk about it
TCB: I want to hear your question first
SR: I'm curious, you know, could you talk a little bit about the piece. Where did this whole idea come from?
TCB: I wanted you to finish the question because I thought you might say, 'how many times did you use "and" in that story?" Of course I'm fully prepared: fifty-seven!
TCB: In stories like this, this is a story about an issue, or it may be a non-issue, under the last administration that incidentally raped our country and destroyed it forever, the gang of thugs who took over our country for eight years, we now had a religious orthodoxy creeping into our politics, and it was reflected in the fact that the religious right was involved, actively involved in politics and so there were a couple of court cases in which text books of biology had to have stickers on them saying that evolution is only a theory, that is, so that, you know Intelligent Design and other theories are equally valid. And so of course I stand opposed to this but I wanted to explore it from the points of view of people who would be involved in such a thing, and maybe somebody who's not involved at all but becomes involved so the reader can decide for him or herself. And so we have Bulletproof in which our hero is drawn into this because his good friend's daughter has this sticker on her book and the friend drags him to the meeting and he becomes involved. And yet, and yet, the hard thing, the challenge, is to represent the opposing point of view. That opposing point of view is the character of this young Christian girl. And I hope that I've resolved it in a way that is engaging and maybe even beautiful. I hope, but I never know. I'm just going for the best that I can do.
SR: I was curious, are there any emerging novelists that you think are going to have a great impact on the future of literature?
TCB: Hard to say. But certainly there are many great writers coming to the floor. One of the reasons I will always continue to teach is because I am amazed by the astonishing pool of talent there is amongst my students. I have one student now, his name is Josh Burnstone, he's writing a novel about being in the Israeli army and putting into perspective all the various prejudices that are going down in Israel and it's quite astonishing. I think he has a chance at being a major voice among literature. On this tour, curiously, his parents popped up and I haven't heard from him or seen him since December—I'm not teaching now because I'm on tour—and he had had to go back to do his duty over Christmas break and that's when the whole Gaza thing went crazy and I was wondering if he had been in danger but apparently he was behind the lines and he's back now. And I have many students of equal gifts, who have the chance to do anything, to have a whole career. I think it's very rewarding to have a career and to have a lot of work too because you can see what your themes and obsessions are. You don't begin with that idea, you can only see it in retrospect. And you can only sit here before a camera and explain it in retrospect even though as I've pointed out I've already completely forgotten about this book, the new book of stories comes out next year at this time and I'm three-quarters of the way through my next novel.
SR: Wow. Could you tell us a little bit about it?
TCB: Sure. Of course, you run the danger of me saying this very same thing to the crowd tonight. The new book of stories is called Wild Child. If you know my work very well you'll know that I didn't really writeWild Child, it was written by Dana Halter, the deaf heroine of Talk Talk who had her identity stolen. I had written this as a 60-page novella that was appended to the end of the novel but my editor talked me out of it. And so Mcsweeney's published it and it was wonderful for me because they published it in their issue when Talk Talk came out and so many people, many nights when I was doing a book signing, people would also have Talk Talk from Mcsweeney's. At any rate that anchors this collection of 14 stories and of course “Bulletproof” is in it and some of the others that' you've seen coming out recently. I delivered that last year at this time. So in the interim I'm working on a new novel, and it's through the Channel Islands of California. Again, I'm so lucky. If I want to find something out I just write about it. I've been driving up the coast of Santa Barbara for 16 years looking at those islands and wondering what goes on there. Now I know. There's some amazing ecological restoration underway. I often write about nature and the environment but that's the thing that most interests me of all, and I thought Gee it would be great if I could meet a couple of biologists and go out there. I've met them all, I've been with the fox lady up and down the mountains. I have observed, taken out of the cage, the little dwarf foxes and dwarf skunks, which are the top predators on the island. They exhibit dwarfism because of island biogeography, because of being isolated. It's really quite a fascinating story. And, um, I'm having fun with it too. It involves two set pieces to open each section of the novel and these set pieces are almost like novellas in themselves and you wonder how the connect and you find that they connect because these people are related to - in one case the grandmother, in one case the mother—the antagonists of the current story. It's called When the Killing's Done and the killing is the park service and the nature service they have to kill off the invasive species so the original species can survive and so you have a conundrum because you're dedicated to preserving and here you have to go and kill.
I've been toying with the idea of taking a short story that I wrote "Going Down," which has a similar scenario and making it into a novel just for the fun of it, but of course now I couldn't do that. And I suppose I have read the Fitzgerald story on which it's based but I completely forget it and I have no idea that I had read it in the past. And I have now reread it just for the fun of it
SR: Little easier to re-read than to write.
TCB: Is it?
SR: Probably, at least, for me.
TCB: Yeah, okay.
SR: Where do you see the future of literature going, especially fiction?
TCB: Well, we already talked about the extinction of our own species, which is imminent, so it's all looking pretty grim. So I don't want to be too grim about it. It's hard to foretell what's going to happen. It seems as if our society is being more and more locked away—everyone's locked away - there's no larger society anymore. Video stores are closing, bookstores are having a hard time. Yes of course now we have online sales, but with this particular book I'm traveling with—it's totally changed from two and a half years ago. The internet has a much bigger role in all of this. But, you know, we don't live in villages, we don't see each other, we don't go and browse the bookshelves like around here or go to the video store for something and see something else, yes you can do that online, but it's even different and much more private. It's hard to foresee what technology will bring us. For instance—now there's a ray of optimism, here's a ray of optimism! When the telephone first came into use, people refuted because now the grand tradition of letter writing would die. And it did, they were right. But who would foresee then that the telephone would be almost useless to us in terms of communication—I mean aside from other than to order a pizza or something—and we write to each other in email. Now that's pretty amazing, you can't really tell what's going to happen. So I think we keep on doing what we were born to do and we love it. Of course, we writers always resent we're not the only show in town anymore as we once were years ago. But if you're dedicated or addicted to something, what are you going to do? And I'm not complaining…a huge amount of audience—it's so touching and every night people come to me and say, oh, they met each other or married each other or met each other because they both read my books; or one particular story made them into a writer. All these wonderful stories. You know, they found the book on a train, or they drove three hours to see me tonight. That is incredibly rewarding, and I could never understand authors that would turn their back on the crowd. I'm thrilled that you both like communicating—to engage people. It's great, there's no end to that.
SR: I've noticed a number of your characters are fairly well versed in the culinary world. Is that something you researched, or is it something that you yourself enjoy?
TCB: Well, look at me, you know. I've been starving since birth. I have the metabolism of a weasel. I eat my body weight everyday. I'm not a foodie. I have friends that are foodies, and I think it's a little obsessive, especially in a world with declining resources. But that said, I've dined in nice restaurants around the world and, sure, I suppose I'm somewhat sophisticated and I like it. I love to cook, but I certainly don't obsess over it. And of course I began to examine the restaurant critic as opposed to the artist who is the chef. Because I first thought it ridiculous, you know, restaurant criticism. People are starving. Again, as the story progressed, I realized that this was about the larger issue of the artist versus the critic to begin with, and so the story sort of uber extends as my little love letter to the critics.
SR: Have you seen the movie, The House Bunny by chance?
TCB: No, I haven't.
SR: It stars Anna Faris, and there's actually a scene in [the movie] where she's in a college classroom, studying literature—
TCB: But she's a bunny. She's a sexy bunny.
SR: Well, former bunny, and then of course the sorority she gets in to [the girls] are socially inept.
TCB: Then she teaches them makeup and vavavoom?
SR: Yes, it goes something like that, but they also in turn teach her how to be more intelligent. In this particular scene, on the blackboard behind the professor there are four names: Baldwin, Cheever, Checkov, and Boyle. So, you've made it into pop culture.
TCB: Wow. You know, that's always fun. That's really fun and it's very exciting to see something like that. There have been other little things, like in “The Sopranos,” Dr. Melfey was reading Riven Rock, which is about a psychiatrist. But that's because two of my closest friends wrote “The Sopranos.” I think there was one, a movie from a Stephen King novel a few years ago, with Johnny Depp in it, and he was reading one of my books, but I think it's because Steven King is a sweetheart and he likes my work. So that's really nice.
SR: A number of your works have been translated into other languages. How much say do you have?
TCB: [holds up his hands, touching fingers to thumbs to represent a circular shape] Absolute zero.
SR: Do you like it that way?
TCB: I have no choice. Absolutely no choice. You know, I can read the page in Spanish and compare it to the page in English; compare a page in French with a page in English. But, I need a translator myself. You have to have faith in your publishers picking someone who they think will do a good job because translation is always very free anyway. But I've made good friends with my translators over the years—I can trust them. One unique experience in Germany though—I don't speak German, I never studied German—but the Germans of course are very conversant in English though so I do an English and German show, and I really like to have a German actor with me, and read through consecutive portions of the story, and I follow along in the German text while the actor is reading, and I have to be on my toes to come right back and read English. So I can see exactly how it's translated, and feel the audience, and hear it. It's great, it's really great! On the mark as far as I can tell. Great way to learn a language, by the way. Standing in front of a thousand people, reading along in the English text while the German guy is doing it in German. Or girl, sometimes it's a girl. And I'm doing that in about a week and a half.
SR: With which?
TCB: With The Women. The Germans are so hot on it that they translated it right from the manuscript, and it's already out. Usually it's a year after, it takes a while to translate.
SR: Thank you so much for taking your time with us.
TCB: Thank you for taking the time to make up questions.