Two weeks ago, when I sat down with internationally best-selling author T.C. Boyle at Café Del Sol across from the Bird Refuge, I had three things on my mind.
The first was selfish. I wanted personal confirmation of what two different reporters had told me a year ago: that my writing on the Channel Islands had inspired the Montecito author’s two latest books, When the Killing’s Done (a fictionalized account of eradication efforts on the islands, published in 2011), and San Miguel (a dramatized version of three memoirs by people who lived on San Miguel Island, released this week). “So your story on Santa Rosa Island a few years ago, that was one of the things that got me interested in the islands,” said Tom, as he’s known to friends, as we settled into our iced teas. “That article was so great, and those pictures — I just wanted to be there. That, and the reporting on what was going on with the animals on Santa Cruz Island.” Mission one, accomplished with ease.
The second was the actual premise of our meeting: to discuss San Miguel, a novelized version of what life was like for three women — a mother in the late 1800s, her daughter, and a wife from the mid 1900s — who once lived on the windswept, sand-blasted scrap of soil perched off Point Conception. Unlike many of Boyle’s fast-moving and densely wrought previous novels, San Miguel is pensive and brooding, colored more by despair and dread than adventure or intrigue. Whereas When the Killing’s Done and Water Music are fascinating books to burn through, San Miguel is like historic literature, and some are already saying it might be Boyle’s best effort yet, after 23 books and hundreds of short stories.
“San Miguel is different for me,” admitted the 63-year-old, who was clad as usual in mostly black. “It’s straightforward realism, which I don’t usually do, except in short stories. And it’s non-comic and non-ironic, which I don’t usually do.” That approach was largely dictated by what was offered by the three memoirs — which are Elizabeth Lester’s The Legendary King of San Miguel; Betsy Lester Roberti’s San Miguel Island: My Childhood Memoir, 1930-1942; and “Mrs. Waters’ Diary of Her Life on San Miguel Island” by Marantha Waters, a chapter in A Step Back in Time by Marla Daily — and the supporting research found in other correspondence and newspaper clippings. “It’s more meditative, but that was sort of what I wanted to do: try something different,” Boyle explained. “That’s what the material seemed to want. It’s day-to-day life. What is it like to live there day to day?”
Lastly, I wanted to hear how a fellow writer had managed to live his life strictly on invented words alone, never having to deal with weekly deadlines or management duties or even those pesky things called facts required by journalism. “I don’t have any obligation to give the truth to anybody,” said Boyle. “I’m just an artist. I write like a painter paints. That’s what I do in life, and I don’t really care about anything else.” Unlike many a struggling writer, Boyle’s prose proved an immediate hit. “I’ve been lucky,” he said. “From the beginning, critics have liked my work, and I slowly built up a fan base that is quite large and multinational. I just kind of grew into it. I never had to strain for money or a deadline or get an advance. I never did that. I just worked at my own pace.”
Beyond my three inquiries, I also learned that Café Del Sol has become a hangout for happy-hour refugees from Peabody’s on Coast Village Road, which is currently under remodel. And that Boyle spends much of the year in a cabin in Sequoia National Park. He’s also publishing a collection of stories next fall followed by a “hairy-chested man” novel on American violence, for which he has been taking research trips to an undisclosed location in Northern California. You can safely expect more diving into what Boyle does best. “What I seem to be writing about through all my books is us as animals in nature,” he explained. “We deny being animals and yet we are.”
T.C. Boyle will sign copies of San Miguel on Tuesday, October 2, 7 p.m., at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State St.). Visit tcboyle.com for info.