PETER WILD INTERVIEWS TC BOYLE
"I've thought about the domination of the literary arts by theory over the past 25 years -- which I detest -- and it's as if you have to be a critic to mediate between the author and the reader and that's utter crap. Literature can be great in all ways, but it's just entertainment like rock'n'roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn't capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn't work. Nothing else will come out of it. The beauty of the language, the characterisation, the structure, all that's irrelevant if you're not getting the reader on that level -- moving a story. If that's friendly to readers, I cop to it."
Peter Wild interviews TC Boyle
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
I'm in Hay on Wye, a sleepy mile long town lodged like a beautiful tooth in the Welsh countryside (picture the scene: gloomy Manchester rain following me like cattle smell, damp green hills, bookshops as far as the eye can see, and crowds -- crowds of people here for the Hay on Wye literary festival, so picture lots of upper middle class people in scarves languidly slurping up furniture through expensive shop windows, and odd stray celebrities lurking like Raskolnikoff round and about, aware of their celebrity and awkward, purposefully striding from one place to another -- we see Rufus Sewell and Alan McGee over breakfast). It's a Sunday morning and it's raining, the floors of the portakabins housing ColmanGetty (PR running the festival) are squeegee wet, uneasy underfoot, and I'm nervous (okay!), running off at the mouth as I'm running off here meeting TC Boyle, the stringy 6"+ genius author of -- Jesus, count 'em -- 14 awesome books, the most recent of which, Drop City, he is in Hay on Wye to promote. We talk in one of the school rooms Colman Getty are using to hand out passes to journalists, hunched in a corner on a couch. It is Sunday, it is wet and Tom Coraghessan Boyle is warm and expansive.
We begin by talking about the book he's writing now. I ask him whether the "job" of being a writer (by which I mean the touring, the interviews, the performing aspect) ever gets in the way of the writing.
He said, "All my work grows organically from an opening line and I just follow it. Ideally that happens until it's done. But unfortunately because I have to tour so much every book gets interrupted. The last book I got to write straight through was Riven Rock in 14 months without having to go anywhere. But I'm getting used to dealing with that. It will probably be a week before I get back and clear the decks and go through and recover the mode I was in. Plus I'm in the middle and the middle is often the most difficult part of a book. You start the thing with a burst of energy, and you're beginning to have these visions of what it might be and you always come to a halt somewhere in the middle because that's where you have to figure out the structure of the book on a very subconscious level. But my experience has served me in the past. This is my fifteenth book: I know that I've done it before. I certainly hope I can finish it!
I was having lunch with both my editor and my publicist from Bloomsbury -- and my agent, my agent! -- and they said you should write more slowly because it's better to space the books out. I said (laughing) I don't write for commerce, I write for my own life. So perhaps what I'll do -- I'll write a bunch of books and just file them so that after death they can keep publishing my books like the great artist Jimi Hendrix who has been dead thirty years and still puts out a new album each year."
The previous evening I'd seen Margaret Atwood reading from Oryx and Crake to a packed auditorium of devoted readers. Interviewed after the reading, she said there were two novels she'd found herself a good way into -- and had to abandon.
"I've never had the experience of abandoning anything with the exception of perhaps some stories that might not add up to anything after a page or so. If I had to start abandoning a novel I would kill myself. I'd be in the mental hospital, at least. So I've been lucky in the way I work. It hasn't yet happened. I only work on one thing at a time, though. Strictly. Until it's done. I think many writers are tempted to have various projects going, and they'll go from one to the other but I would be afraid that I wouldn't be able to finish something. I think the temptation would be when you run up against a wall, to try your hand at something else. But I, instead, feel miserable and feel guilt until somehow I manage to work my way through."
We talk about Drop City. On one level, Drop City concerns itself with a bunch of hippies who decamp from California to Alaska in search of a life they think is no longer possible in the city. But you quickly see that what the book is about is people -- how people interact, the complexity of people, the rich, vibrant broth of community.
"Absolutely. It's about utopia. It's about community. How in any given community there are creative elements and parasitic elements. Probably the theme that has interested me the most throughout all of my work is human kindness, an animal species living on a planet with limited resources. In fact, the book is a direct outcome of A Friend of the Earth. In A Friend of the Earth I went ahead 25 years and now I'm going back -- because there was a back-to-the-earth movement. I wanted to revisit that period to see how it would play given what we know about today -- the fact that the entire human race is imminently doomed. 6.2 billion people, the resources are dwindling, all of the other animals are extinct etc etc -- there we have the plot of A Friend of the Earth."
It strikes me as interesting that each book sprouts directly from the one previously. I ask him, is that true of all of his books? Can he look back and trace the lineage?
"Sure, sure. Riven Rock dealt with schizophrenia, mental problems -- but also sexual problems. Which was the same as The Road to Wellville. Sex is an expression of our animal natures. And so part of what I've done with Drop City is talk about a counter culture utopia -- and part of that was the concept of free love -- which I had a lot of fun with. Now I've gone two decades before that -- to the 40s and 50s -- to examine where such notions might have come from. I'm writing about the sex researches of Dr Alfred C Kinsey who wrote these 2 monumental books on human sexuality and it seems such an absolute natural for me because I've got my mad scientist like Dr Kellogs (in The Road to Wellville), I've got human behaviour at its most elemental. I'm having a real good time with the book. It's my first first-person narrator since Budding Prospects and I'm writing from the point of view of an invented character who is part of the inner circle -- the book is called The Inner Circle -- part of Kinsey's inner circle and worked very closely with him in his sex researches. It's great. I'm having a lot of fun."
A lot of people compare you to the Cohen Brothers.
"They're my heroes by the way. My favourite movie of all time is The Big Lebowski. Number one."
In that, whilst you can predict a certain style and quality -- a feel -- you can never say where precisely they'll go.
"I want to be that kind of artist. I don't want to be pinned down. I don't want to be limited in any way. You pointed out earlier that Drop City -- you can boil it down: it's about hippies in Alaska. And you put the three words together -- BOYLE, HIPPIES, ALASKA -- everyone assumes this will be another Road to Wellville kind of satire. But I've already done that. So I wanted to (laughs) defeat your expectations. I don't want you to pick up any of my stories or books and have any idea what it's going to be.
"Art is supposed to be unconventional which is why I detest genre writing of all kinds. I mean, it's comforting for the people who read it -- but they are morons. (Laughs). Because they know that Joe will get murdered and somebody else will figure out why or how. Or some spy will figure out how to prevent terrorists from taking over the world. I don't really care. It doesn't interest me. I want to be taken away to a different place every time. Denis Johnson does this. He's one of my favourite writers in America. He's very unique."
We talk about Denis Johnson a little. I haven't read everything but I've read enough Denis Johnson to know that he and Boyle are quite different writers. You take a book like Already Dead, and you see that Johnson makes you work, at times. Boyle, on the other hand: Boyle displays a great love for his reader. He wants his readers to have a good time.
"That's true," he says. "I do feel that literature should be demystified. What I object to is what is happening in our era: literature is only something you get at school as an assignment. No one reads for fun, or to be subversive or to get turned on to something. It's just like doing math at school. I mean, how often do we sit down and do trigonometry for fun, to relax. I've thought about this, the domination of the literary arts by theory over the past 25 years -- which I detest -- and it's as if you have to be a critic to mediate between the author and the reader and that's utter crap. Literature can be great in all ways, but it's just entertainment like rock'n'roll or a film. It is entertainment. If it doesn't capture you on that level, as entertainment, movement of plot, then it doesn't work. Nothing else will come out of it. The beauty of the language, the characterisation, the structure, all that's irrelevant if you're not getting the reader on that level -- moving a story. If that's friendly to readers , I cop to it."
There's a movement, I say, in literature at the moment. Call it the new erudition. Writers like Jonathan Safran Foer and David Foster Wallace. Writers who display their erudition the way the Cheshire Cat displays teeth.
"I like David a great deal. Some of his stories are brilliant."
I interrupt. I say two words. The title of a David Foster Wallace novel. A book I spent an interminable summer decrypting. A book that is my benchmark for horrendous reading experiences. Infinite Jest.
"I know," Boyle says. "But it's a performance. And you know, there's always in art a whole dialectic between form and content and everything in between -- there are swings, and there are individual writers who prefer one or the other. And so in painting, for instance, especially in abstract painting, there are paintings that exist more for an idea -- an aesthetic idea -- and I think those things may be limited because they're hip to a period, but may be stuck in the period."
He changes tack, shifts in his seat from the right to the left, uses his right hand instead of his left.
"The artists that I admire -- somebody like Garcia Marquez -- he creates his own world and his own sweep of story, from the first thing he ever published to what he has published most recently. He has great aesthetic ideas -- A Chronicle of a Death Foretold -- that's its own point but nevertheless it's content that slightly dominates form. Whereas, with David Foster Wallace, for instance, perhaps form is dominating content. Each of us has to decide where we want to go with each work."
I want to return to something he said earlier. We were talking about his new new book -- the book he is in the middle of writing. The Inner Circle. He said he was having a lot of fun. Is that always the case, I say?
Boyle takes a minute and then he says:
"I think at the end of a project, yes. It's the best time in any writer's life. Because -- we were talking about this earlier -- you said Margaret Atwood had abandoned a couple of projects: there's always the chance you'll abandon something, that you won't be able to get through it. Once you get clear and you can see the end in sight, it's utterly exhilarating. All you want to do is work. Whereas at the beginning or the middle, you might find a lot of excuses not to work."
So at times it can be something of a struggle? There are days you want to tear your hair out?
"It will always come clear to you. It's very magical where it comes from. How you create the work, and how it presents itself to you, it is almost mystical -- you have to tap your own unconscious. It's exactly what the reader does when you're on the other end of this when you pick up a book and you can't be absorbed in it because something is bothering you or there is a distraction. You may not be able to read it. Two weeks later you pick it up and you read it straight through. The phone rings and you don't hear it. It is a way of making the reader's unconscious open up, but you have to do the same thing to create it.
"There's a real magic to literature. I mean, I'm always depressed about everything: the structure of the universe, the fact that literature has taken a third seat to film and music. You could go so far as to say a fourth seat, if you factor in games."
"Fair enough," he says, looking at his knees. "A fourth seat, but I do think it remains viable because of that magic. The reader creates it as much as the writer does and that can't be said of any other art form."
He stops. Looks at me.
"Except for maybe interactive games -- which is a kind of a novel . . ."
Boyle throws his hands in the air.
"Forget what I was saying, that's the doom of literature right there. It's all over, our time is up!"
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Peter Wild lives and works in Manchester, England. He's the co-founder of the Bookmunch website, which takes up a whole lot of time, but when he gets a moment free he's writing short stories and a(nother) novel. Either that, or he's catching up on the sleep his 20-month-old daughter deprives him of.