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Jam It Up

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.

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