A Conversation With T.C. Boyle
by Matt Kettmann
In the wide, wild world of contemporary fiction, there are few names higher on the list of literary superstars than our town’s very own T. Coraghessan Boyle. For the last 25 years, T.C. Boyle — the 57-year-old New York native who emerged with constant creativity and prolific grace from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1970s — has bombarded readers around the world with characters as colorful as any in the history of literature. He’s taken historical fiction to new heights, simultaneously created and criticized what we consider modernity, and made the short story a thing to be reckoned with once again. He rides the face of the pop culture wave like a tactful surfer, ducking his head backward into the tube for inspiration and insight while keeping his typewriting toes forward on the nose and always ahead of the curve.
In one more of a growing string of accolades — which include, among others, the PEN/Faulkner Award for best novel of the year (World’s End, 1988) and numerous O. Henry awards for best short story fiction — Boyle will be presented with the Barnaby and Mary Conrad Founders Award at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference next Thursday, June 29, at the weeklong event’s new home on the water at the DoubleTree. After that private event, he’ll read aloud to the paying public — one of his other unique talents — and sign his latest novel Talk Talk, a tale about a deaf woman whose identity is stolen, which hits the streets on July 6.
One sunny Monday afternoon this month, I met the author on the patio of Peabody’s overlooking Coast Village Road, a favored haunt of his where everyone knows him, curiously, as “Doc.” I came upon him as he was reading Heinrich Boll’s Irish Journal, sipping a Qupé chardonnay, and wearing a black corduroy jacket, an Independent skateboard trucks T-shirt, a skull pinkie ring, a backward tweed cap, numerous black plastic bracelets, and a blue bead — was that Femo clay? — necklace.
Over his two glasses of chard and my three Telegraph Ales, we spent the next two hours talking about everything from the writing process, personal identity, and religion to evolutionary psychology and grizzly bear grease. What follows is a heavily condensed version of that chat, a lengthier version of which can be read online at independent.com.
So you’re getting the Founders Award at the S.B. Writers Conference. Is this the first year they’ve given the award? I’m not sure. My experience with the writers’ conference thing is pretty limited. When I first moved here, they embraced me and asked me to do a reading and it was a lot of fun. Barnaby had a party at his house — it’s a very embracing town in this way. But I’m often on tour and am busy all the time, and I haven’t been able to do anything with them for some years now. So this is a nice way to reconnect with them.
They’ve been ramping up the conference during the last couple of years, too. Well, you know, the Miramar had a bar. Westmont [the site of the conference for the last 5 years] does not have a bar. I don’t know how you have a writers’ conference with no bar. So this first year at the DoubleTree, it’s got to be reinvigorated because there’s a bar.
I heard that a 25th anniversary edition of your first novel Water Music is coming out. I read that it took you three years to write that one. How did you pay the bills in the meantime? I started the book at Iowa when I was a student there and it was that year that I moved to L.A. because USC gave me a job. I was the first writer they’ve ever had at USC. Then I taught classes and continued to write the book. I’ve been doing the same thing ever since. That book was a pretty enormous undertaking, and it needed a lot of research. And also, you don’t know how to write novels or stories either. You find out by doing it, so I was kinda working my way through. That’s the way it is.
They didn’t teach you how to write novels at Iowa? You can’t teach anybody how to write anything, as you well know. You learn how to do it by reading other ones and writing on your own.
That book [a historical novel about tracing the Niger River] obviously required a ton of research. My first two novels both had a set story already. [Water Music was based on] Mungo [Park]’s journals … and the second novel, Budding Prospects [about pot growers in Northern California] was a true story. My friends were engaged in doing this pot plantation, so I had a story that had shape to it. And of course, you have to decide what you’re going to do [with that factual information]. Then World’s End also took three years, another enormous book with lots of research, but there was no story. The same thing happens with short stories: Some require research and others, you just jam it up.
I read that your write in the mornings. Yeah. I’m running later in the mornings than I used to. I start around 10 a.m. and go ’til 2 p.m. or so. It depends — if it’s going well, like it has been, I go longer. I worked ’til 3:30 p.m. today. You want to ride that while you can, ’cause there’s gonna be dead spots.
When do you get tapped out? Not tapped out, exactly. Most people don’t understand how art works. You have no idea what it will be or how it will evolve. It just happens day-by-day in this magical unconscious place and at some point you get into it and you have to figure out why you’re doing it, what it is, what the themes are, what it means, how it comes together, how the characters evolve. It’s not something you can write down on a piece of paper. Sure, you can jot down ideas and think that this might happen, but you don’t know how it can get there. There’s a point in the middle of every story — and especially every novel — when you just are dead in the water because it’s so enormous what you are trying to pull together. … But I always remember that I might have written something in the past and I might get through it and that helps me.
You’ve been a teacher at USC for almost 30 years. How much of being a good writer is innate talent and how much can be learned? Ninety-nine percent is an innate talent. … None of my writing teachers taught me how to write, except through their work. It’s like being a track coach. Here’s a kid who can run like hell, so you say, “Kid, we love what you’re doing; maybe tuck in your arms a little more, but we love what you’re doing.” And they learn through doing it. Art is competitive, more competitive than anything, except maybe tennis. [My students] don’t work for me, they work for each other. … They’ll stay up all night and they’ll pass up the club, they’ll pass up anything, in order to blow everybody away! That’s what art is, at the beginning — but then it is a way of life. This is your religion, this is your identity, this is who you are so you do it for the love of doing it.
4•1•1 T.C. Boyle will read from and sign his new novel Talk Talk at the DoubleTree Resort as part of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference on Thursday, June 29 at 7:30 p.m. The event is $15. See sbwc.org or call 964-0367.