Auteur Rock Star Strikes a Chord
Passing the torch — T.C. Boyle wants to be for his students what his mentors were to him.By Susan Andrews
February 11, 2010
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Video by Mira Zimet
Listening to a brooding cello concerto, the writer strikes the keyboard as he begins his short story or book. He begins, yet does not know where it will end until he arrives there.
"You know, it's hard for me to do this -- to sit still for a few minutes," he said. "I think of all the things I have to do around the house." The house that the USC Distinguished Professor of English refers to is the first that Frank Lloyd Wright built in California, and the home that Boyle shares with his wife, Karen, and their three children in beautiful Montecito near Santa Barbara. Wright is also the subject of his 2009 best-selling novel The Women (Viking).
How does he get into the mindset to write if sitting still is a challenge? “When I write, I try to get into a mind trance. And sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t,” he said. “When I am really into it, I don’t notice the time and sometimes hours can go by.”
Boyle always looks forward to his next story and announces that he is about to begin another very soon. “I will be interested to see what it is. So that is a spur for me to write. It’s so satisfying to see something come to a conclusion.”
In the Beginning
Boyle’s literary odyssey began at SUNY Potsdam, where at first he majored in music as an aspiring saxophone player. “That did not work out because I did not have near the talent of my colleagues,” he said. “I became a singer in a rock band.”
From music, he drifted toward history. Ultimately, he settled upon both English and history. Boyle channeled his creativity into fiction writing, where he has become a literary legend — no less a rock star of literature.
Boyle has a striking appearance, dresses like a rock star, and has piercing green eyes that make you feel as if he knows something about you that you don’t.
His 21 successful books to date and his precision-delivered reading performances are a testament that good literature is musical.
Literature, for those of us who revel in it, is no trifling matter. It’s a path to unfamiliar and exotic countries, colorful cultures, organic plots and multi-dimensional characters of both good and evil and in-between. So, Boyle’s failure to flourish in one art, music, is a gift to us in another, fiction writing.
The first of his family to attend college, Boyle earned his M.F.A. and Ph.D. in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. Soon after, he left the heartland for the West Coast.
About his Craft
Boyle’s average time to research a book is three months. For example, to prepare for The Women, he read as many books as humanly possible from the roughly 1,000 volumes written about Frank Lloyd Wright. He traveled to Chicago and Oak Park, Ill., to experience Wright’s architectural wonders and visited his home in Wisconsin, Taliesin, which is the primary setting of the book.
Boyle loves to craft a work steeped entirely in fiction with no real people, as was the case with his newest book, about the restoration of the Channel Islands. When the Killing’s Done is to be released in March of 2011. He enjoys in fiction no restrictions given to a character’s life.
However, Boyle said that the fascination in writing about Wright and actual people is that life is often stranger than fiction. He gave an example from his book Riven Rock (Viking, 1998): It is really true that Stanley McCormick’s (son of Cyrus McCormick and heir to International Harvester) mother and mother-in-law tagged along on his monthlong honeymoon. “Can you imagine? Can you make that up?” he asked incredulously.
Boyle defies the oft given advice to write about what you know best. Instead he writes about that which interests him the most. This includes the great egomaniacs of the 20th century. In his books about John McCormack, Alfred Kinsey, John Kellogg and Wright, he writes about the men’s obsessions. They each have their project, which is an obsession that consumes their worlds. “Many novelists are like this, and I wonder, how do I fit into this?”
Writing is an obsession to Boyle, as is the case with most great writers. A few of his friends who are writers have not found the balance that he enjoys in his life. “I love physical activity — hiking, cutting firewood, snowshoeing, boogie boarding ... ”
Likened to that of America’s favorite author and humorist, Mark Twain, Boyle’s writing is deliciously infectious. His masterful use of wit and dark satire pepper the pages with a focus on social exploration in contemporary times.
In fact, Boyle was recently inducted into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters, a 250-member club that boasts the likes of Twain, Henry Adams, Mark Rothko, Edward Albee and Toni Morrison.
You won’t find him writing multiple stories simultaneously, though. “I only work on one thing at a time. I think that gives writers a reason to bail out when they are juggling a few projects at one time,” he said.
It excites him to turn people on to what is good in literature and possibly affect their taste in reading material. “I love to catch people unawares. They bring their boyfriend and girlfriend to one of my public readings. And they think that maybe this literature stuff is not that bad,” he said.
“I love to be on stage and give a show,” he said. “It’s a happy wedding with two sides of me.”
But Why USC?
“USC struck first and I really liked what they had to say. I was lucky they gave me a job and I hope that they don’t regret it.
“I have a simple way of dealing with the world. If you love me, I love you. And so SC loved me and I came here in 1978. And by default, we started the undergraduate writing program when I came here,” he continued. “I was the first creative writer they ever had.”
When the Department of English wanted a poet, Boyle contacted his friend and former Iowa Workshop classmate, David St. John. He asked him if he knew of anyone interested in joining the Department. It turned out that St. John was interested and came on board. The Department brought on Carol Muske-Dukes. And then Aimee Bender joined and so on, he explained.
One mentor he did not let down was Vance Bourjaily. At Iowa, during his first semester, Boyle had a chance to work with one of five formidable writers: Bourjaily, Frederick Exley, Gail Godwin, John Irving or Jack Leggett. He chose Bourjaily and he calls it the right choice.
Boyle credits three of the writers he was fortunate to work with — Bourjaily, John Cheever and Irving — as being exceptionally generous and supportive.
It appears that he has succeeded in passing the torch to his students. If you walk by Boyle’s office on a Monday afternoon, you will find a long stream of students waiting to be the next in his company.
Boyle loves the idea of what has been done at USC College with the Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing program: “The students I teach, advanced undergraduate and graduate students, are great, great talents and go off and set the world on fire and succeed in film, journalism, medicine and other fields. It’s been marvelous.”
The students in the program produce their art. Then, Boyle and the students write, talk about and try to interpret it. “Creative writing is always new. Each discussion is utterly new,” he said. “Why does a character do this or that, and not this? If an ending is unclear and the class suggests this or that to the artist, well maybe he or she will rewrite it, or maybe the artist will think the reader is ignorant and they won’t get it.”
Boyle views his role as that of a coach who copyedits and offers comments. He gives students confidence in their work and tells them not to be afraid.
“A writing workshop can easily degenerate into bitterness if the person organizing it is not in control and people begin to view things dispassionately,” he continued. “It can turn into this: If you don’t like what I wrote, I don’t like what you wrote. I want my students to feel good about being writers and about being in the workshop.”
In addition to his mentors, Boyle was influenced by those he describes as having “a marvelously black view of things”— Harold Pinter, Robert Coover, Flannery O’Connor, and Gabriel García Márquez.
Life in the world today is more complicated and it is more difficult to approach a subject as a writer than it was in the past, according to Boyle. “Not only do we have to deal with a lack of meaning in our own lives, but the overall lack of meaning in the universe. Especially as we are coming upon 7 billion people, we are destroying the very environment that has allowed our species to thrive. ... Bad times are coming for our species,” he said.
On Great Art
Can great writing be taught? According to Boyle, it cannot. What teaching can bring is a deeper appreciation for literature if you have tried to make it yourself. What great teaching will do is accelerate the talents of those with a gift.
“And by the way,” Boyle inserts into the conversation, “I love the idea of a liberal arts education. It worked for me.”
Yet, Boyle’s first love is biology. “But of course that field was closed to me by mathematics. I hate math and puzzles — it bores the hell out of me,” he said.
In his writing, Boyle frequently brings up environmental issues. For instance, in A Friend of the Earth (Viking, 2000), he writes a story of environmental destruction that is set in 2025. “I found it interesting that a debate took place on my blog as to whether or not I am an environmentalist,” he said.
While he readily admits to being an environmentalist, he cites the debate as an example of his equitability in showing opposing points of views in his work. He allows the reader to come to his or her point of view.
“Everything we do is wracked with guilt,” he continued. “Turn on electricity, buy clothes. There’s no hope, no good news from environmentalists. I remain depressed and hopeless. And yet I have a lot of fun. What else are you going to do?”
His love of nature is one of the reasons he takes hikes in the woods with a book. Every year if he is lucky, he spends two months in the Sierras. “I work every day — a little longer, and a little harder, because I am bored.”
The Moral of the Story
There isn’t one. That is unless the reader finds one. “I am not preaching to anyone. You may or may not know where I stand in The Tortilla Curtain (Viking, 1995), which is probably my best known book. But my stand is not what is important,” Boyle continued. “The more important question is what is this work and how does it affect you? Any good work of art will have its own moral compass.”
Boyle said that many readers of The Tortilla Curtain have equally called him a right wing racist or a left wing immigrant lover. He refuses to be drawn into that. Said Boyle, “Artists engage readers so that they remake the book in their own way and decide for themselves where to stand on an issue.”
Boyle concluded the interview with a reading of a passage from his new collection of short stories, Wild Child. The story, “The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado,” is about a Venezuelan baseball player whose mother is kidnapped and held for ransom. Not to give away the story, but it has a happy ending. Boyle foretells that it is the only story in the book with a happy ending. And, why is that?
“Life does not have a happy ending,” he said.
So, What’s Next?
Boyle can’t imagine not writing. “I think everybody’s powers decline at some point. But, so far so good,” he reported. He finds joy in making art and has an audience with expectations. “You want to show them what comes next.”
When asked what he has a burning desire to write about, he wryly answered, “If there are topics I have a burning desire to write about, I am certainly not going to tell you right now.”
And so, the author and his faithful readers anxiously await the next surprise ending.