An East Coast native, T.C. Boyle — the provocative, often peacocking word wizard responsible for some 13 novels, 9 short story collections, and myriad other literary wanderings — and his family have been calling Santa Barbara home for much of the past two decades. He loves it here and wouldn’t have it any other way, though he is, in his words, more of a mountain and lake man than a beach boy.
The world of the 805 has often helped inform whatever story — be it a novel or short piece — Boyle is working on. Books like The Women, Riven Rock, Drop City, and The Tortilla Curtain come immediately to mind. And now, in what many critics (myself included) are hailing as his defining masterpiece to date, Boyle has taken a cue from the island-dappled view that we wake up to here on the South Coast in his latest tome, When the Killing’s Done.
Riffing on a very real-world environmental story from Santa Barbara’s not-too-distant past, Boyle spins a fantastic and haunting fictionalized tale of what exactly we may be up to as we try to undo our legacy of development and restore those majestic “Galapagos of North America” back to their unbridled native selves. Even if you are not a fan of T.C. and his sometimes adjective-hyper and satirical ways, you will enjoy this work, as the topic and tale are just too perfect a match for Boyle’s unique skill set. Even better, it will make you ask questions about your own view of nature and the views of those we like to label “environmentalists.”
On a recent sunny day, wedged between a lot of rain, The Independent sat down with Boyle in his beloved backyard and turned on the tape recorder. What follows is but a portion of that conversation.
The Women was about the life of the guy who designed your house and When the Killing’s Done is about the islands in your backyard. What’s going on here? Low-lying fruit, or are there really just stories everywhere? Really, I just wanted an excuse to go out there and find out about the Islands. (Laughs.) No, I have always written about nature in my fiction right from my first book, Descent of Man. And I am always particularly interested in invasive species and with tinkering with the environment and who has the right to do what and how do we do it and why do we get it catastrophically wrong most of the time, etc. So this was a natural for me — ready-made, really — the kind of thing I am always writing about, and here it is, as you say, in my backyard.
What is it then about this sort of nature drama — the putting of the genie back in the bottle, so to speak — that attracts you? It is a turf war. Who owns it? Who has the right to be there on the island? It is so interesting to think about what animals are privileged and [which] have to go. Like in my telling, there is a raccoon there, and it might have rafted out, so then it belongs there even if it is going to screw up the ecosystem, you know? What’s your baseline and how many species should be there? And who decides if they can stay? It is all random, and it is fascinating.
So it is the dynamic and unpredictable balancing act of an ecosystem? Yes, and we are the invasive species, of course, and that is also what we are talking about … The big irony of the book is, if [the main characters, Alma and Dave,] weren’t so hard-headed, they could be good friends. They are vegetarians, they want to preserve the Earth, but it is a turf war, people fighting over who has the right to be there and who has the right to manipulate it — like all of our land [battles] really.
The two compelling main characters are both environmentalists but also mortal enemies due in large part to their shared passions. What is the message here? Or maybe I should ask, are you an environmentalist? The answer is yes, of course I am because I like to be left alone in the woods … No, I am not out there trying to stop the Japanese whalers — though I do support the efforts to stop them. It’s just that that is not my way. My way is to meditate and write … But I’m not a muckraker, and I don’t want to take sides; if I take sides, it destroys it for the reader. If the reader reads that I believe in this or I am pushing that, then why bother reading the book? There would be no surprises. And so there are no saints in this story.
Left alone in the woods, huh? Now we’re talking. I feel bad for the people who have only lived in a city and don’t have any experience of nature except they go outside and it is raining and they see some rats and pigeons and maybe some scraggly street tree. To be alone in nature, like out on the islands, that is a great thing — it takes you out of yourself. We are animals; we are meant to be in nature, yet we are increasingly closing ourselves off from it, and I think it is to our detriment psychologically and spiritually … But I’m not preaching with this book; I am just opening up a world for people, and they can enter it if they want, and hopefully I can seduce them to think about some of these things and ask questions and come to their own conclusions.
Is the alone-in-nature jones an endangered species? Well, yeah, and also just people having contemplative time … Everybody is just so wired. I don’t want to surf the Web because I want to do something else. I want to be outside, I want to read a book, I want to have contemplative time. A lot of people don’t know about that anymore. Like the people who live in the apartment all their lives and don’t know about nature; they don’t know there is such a thing as contemplative times. They will flip through every channel on the TV, they will be on the computer, they will be texting and tweeting … All of this erodes any notion of contemplative time, whether that is walking alone on the beach or walking deep in the woods or reading a book by the fireplace. Whatever [the cause], we seem to have less experience of that … We always have to be new and faster and better. Sure, it is great to have email and to be able to communicate without having to wait days to send a letter over the Atlantic, but then, do you really need to be instant texting? Do you really need to be tweeting or reading tweets? Do you really need to be spending all your time on the Internet? I certainly don’t. We have already paved everything over, and the species are all dying, and it is only going to get worse.
Depressing food for thought. Yes, are you kidding me? And further things, things like the condor. I love the condor program, and I love the idea of it. I love the fact that we have taken this great big carrion bird back from extinction even though we decimated it to begin with. And now they are out there flying around again. It is incredible. But you have to put it into a perspective … One-third of the people in the world right now are starving to death, and we spend a lot of money on an individual condor. So that condor is worth many thousands of human beings in India or wherever they are starving to death. But we don’t know them personally, and they are a drag on the environment even though they have as much right to be here as we do, and I am sure they are just as intellectually curious as we are … And we have to make preserves like the [Channel Islands] or Yellowstone just to try to preserve something wild; otherwise, everything would simply be a refugee camp. It is terrible to think about the fact that we waste all these human lives yet we are so passionate about saving all these animal lives. There are not enough resources, there is not enough space, and our species is too successful, and the crash will come, obviously. As with any animal species that over-breeds and outstrips its resources; then there is going to be a crash — whether that is through a war over territory, which we are already seeing, or climate change, or the microbes coming up to take advantage of our massive protoplasm. It is going to come. I just hope I am dead before it comes. It is very depressing to contemplate.
But your stories and your characters also offer hope, albeit in an occasionally dark and twisted way. So obviously you have to see some of that in the world, too. Absolutely. Cleaning out my pond after the raccoons have torn all the stuff up. I can’t do it right now because the water is too cold, but I will get in there for an hour or two, and it is the most Zen thing I could ever do because there is nothing that worries you. You are in up to your waist in water and slime and you are dragging slime out and throwing it on the shore and you don’t think about anything — you are just there, and the dragon flies are flying around and the fish are coming up. Sure, it is a chore, but it’s one that is great because I am completely outside of myself when I am doing that, and I love it.
The world around you is actually enough. What a concept. Yes. And don’t forget we have booze and drugs, thank god. To sit outside with a glass of wine in your hand on a sunny day — there is nothing better than that. Or even inside on a rainy day, looking out at all this. [Laughs and gestures to the sky and the Santa Ynez Mountains.]
Simple question: How the hell do you write so much? Simple answer: It’s my job. [Laughs.] It is what I do every day, and I am privileged to do it. It is a great thing to have encouragement from the public and to have fans and have people who really care what you are doing and when it will come out. It just makes you stimulated to do more. … The only way I can think deeply about anything is to make it into a story. I don’t know why that is, but it is how it is, and so I write.
You have told me before that writing is a very regimented daily thing for you — you wake up and you go. So of all these words coming out of you, how much is a product of your training and discipline and how much is, well, just you? What a great question. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I was a pretty degenerate youth, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I hated school, and I hated everybody and everything. It took me a long while to realize I wanted to be a writer, but when I did, I just went for it full bore. If I worked in a factory, I wouldn’t be so eager to get up and go to work. I have been lucky to be able to get up and do what I want … I really want to do it; I feel bad when I am not writing something.
Do you do crossword puzzles? No. That is interesting you ask, and I have reflected on this many times. I hate all puzzles. I have never done a crossword and never want to. I hate math. I used to be a tennis player, and I used to be a musician, and things like that, but I have just narrowed it down to one thing, and it takes all my energy to try and perfect this one thing rather than do many things. I can’t imagine being a Renaissance man — or anybody being a Renaissance man, really. How do they do it? From my perspective, anyway, you can only be great at one thing, and everything else has to fall by the wayside. … I often joke that the most competitive thing I do now is I walk by myself in the woods. That is it. And I write and read, and I enjoy nature and try to have not too big of a footprint — though that is impossible if you are an American or you have to go on book tours.
So what is next for T.C. Boyle? The book I am working on now, which is two-thirds done, is set on San Miguel Island, and, I should say, it has nothing to do with the ecology except peripherally. It is just a straight historical narrative about the two families who lived out there — one in 1888 and one in the 1930s … I am hoping to finish this book sometime over the summer, and then I will do some more short stories. Then, I don’t know what it will be, but I am hoping to do just a crazy-ass insane, dirty, slimy, black-humor, satiric novel set in the present. … Really, I don’t know what any story will be, where it will go, what it means, what the themes are, or how it will end. Everything just happens. I see something, follow it, and day by day, it just grows.
Must be a fun way to live. Yeah, it is. I am very, very lucky, but as you know, some days it doesn’t go so well or you are in between stories, and then you are suicidal.