Ultimate Truths: a conversation with T.C. Boyle
There is no need to introduce T.C. Boyle. With the recent publication of The Harder They Come, Boyle’s 25th book in 36 years, he is clearly an institution. If you are a reader, you have at the very least come across his name, a couple of his books, or a story or two of his in a major publication. I have been reading Boyle’s work for half my life. It is a little surreal to be able to say that about a living writer, but it’s comforting, too. He writes and publishes with such consistency that I look forward each year to a new novel or story collection.
Admittedly, there hasn’t been a book by Boyle that I haven’t enjoyed, but The Harder They Come is his most action-driven novel since Talk Talk, and his most engaging plot since The Women. In many ways it is a culmination of a lot of his previous work, his prose and his imagination are firing on all cylinders.
Boyle and I spoke by phone, he in a hotel room in St. Louis and I in an empty office at my day job in southern Oregon. We spoke about geese flying by his window in the shape of a “T,” how I read his 2006 novel, Talk Talk in a single sitting during a 9-hour layover in the Seattle airport, and what he deemed ultimate truths. And all that was before I forced myself to be disciplined and actually interview him.
RWB: One thing that struck me was a review that likened the opening of The Harder They Come to a Clint Eastwood-esque revenge. That irked me. It seemed short-sighted. I think violence and violence as a response isn’t inherently equal to revenge, and in the case of the book it’s more about a reclamation.
TCB: I like your take on it and I agree with you. I haven’t read hardly any of the reviews, so I haven’t seen that one, but I agree with you totally. This is a kind of an instinctive act that Sten commits. It has nothing to do with revenge. You look at the typical American movie, a thriller or revenge thing, and the bad guys are exclusively bad and the good guys exclusively good. And the first half hour, the bad guy, you know, rapes the good guy’s buddies and then sets his house on fire and beats him up. And then in the last parts of the movie the good guy blows him away and we all cheer. Well, I think things are a little more complicated than that. So, the joy for me in writing something like The Harder They Come is to enter deeply into these three characters who are very different from me and to try to appreciate their points of view. And again, this is what literature can do that film doesn’t necessarily do, or that literature can do better because it’s a one-on-one with the reader, and the reader has to reconstruct this for him or herself. So, yeah, I’m with you there.
RWB: Film has to be such a distillation. I grew up around film, filmmakers, and it was what I originally went to school for, but there is definitely a limit to what you can get across in an hour and a half or two hours.
But I think literature can uniquely give you the kind of point of view that is not available in any other art form.
TCB: Absolutely. I love film, incidentally, and you know the new phenomenon of these series on TV, that’s where film is headed, where you’re getting thirty episodes of something. It’s like, War and Peace if it was a trilogy and you could get deeply into each character, and it’s great. Don’t get me wrong, I love film. But I think literature can uniquely give you the kind of point of view that is not available in any other art form. Simply, again, because it’s a one-on-one, reader and writer, and you are filming it in your head.
RWB: Returning to reclamation, the more I thought about it, the more I started to see it in your other work as well. From trying to reclaim identity in Talk Talk or reclaiming the environment, which has come up in multiple titles, and everyone in The Harder They Come seems to be trying to reclaim something. I mean, Sten is trying to reclaim his youth or at least his usefulness, and Sara is trying to reclaim her independence from government or from people she sees as trying to have authority over her, and Adam is trying to reclaim some kind of, I think, an independence that is almost amorphous to him, but definitely involves taking back this sense of belonging to the environment rather than belonging to civilization.
TCB: Yeah, I love it. I love your take on the characters. That’s brilliant. [Laughs] That’s all you have to do, just write that.
RWB: Do you think that concept of reclamation is inherent to human struggle or is there something in that that you’re particularly interested in uncovering?
TCB: Wow. Every story or book is totally different and I just follow it. I don’t have an outline, I don’t have a statement to make, I just follow it. Obviously, I love your interpretation and I could write a thesis on each of my books, but that’s not my job and it’s wrong for me to try and interpret because that kills it for the reader. So, yeah, I like the idea of this reclamation of all three characters as you have expressed, that’s just perfect. I don’t know if this is natural to us. It was natural to these three characters as the drama unfolded. I worked day to day, it moved forward, I made little discoveries, and I see what their interplay is, and that’s how it worked out in this particular book. And I like how you’re tracing it to other books as well. Certainly it’s got to be one of my themes. You know, you don’t begin writing with your themes, you don’t even know what your themes are. You don’t even think about it, you just do the work and then you can see as you go back how it all lines up.
RWB: I never realized how often I used ribs, the imagery of ribs, in my poetry until someone pointed it out and then I got very self-conscious about it.
TCB: [Laughs] Yeah, don’t let it worry you. It’s going to happen with your work, that’s what makes your work individual from everybody else’s, so I don’t let it worry me. I don’t really care what people say about the work or what their expectations are because if they like what I’m doing they have to follow me and they have to trust me, you know. And then on my webpage you always hear people come on and say, ‘aw, I wish you would write more crazy off the wall stories like you did in Descent of Man.’ All right, great, I don’t reject that, I still will. I’ve still written a couple like that every story session, but, you know, follow me. I don’t know where I’m going and I hope it’s going to be worth your while.
RWB: That’s got to be part of the fun, I think, not only for the reader, but as a writer. If you don’t know where you’re going then you get the ability to surprise yourself.
I love writers who take you to a new place every time and you don’t know where it’s going to be, but they’re going to turn you on.
TCB: Right, and so you’re not doing the same thing over and over. I know it’s comforting to some readers, like when you were stuck in that airport surrounded by crap. Some readers love crap, because crap is comforting, you know what’s going to happen. It’s always the same, it’s the same detective, somebody dies, and then they figure it out. To me that’s totally boring. I love writers who take you to a new place every time and you don’t know where it’s going to be, but they’re going to turn you on. That’s the writer I hope that I am. That’s what interests me most of all.
RWB: Yeah, I think I’ve found that. I mean, at this point I think I’ve read at least 85% of your books and the rest are in my to-read pile.
TCB: Well, for instance this book follows San Miguel. San Miguel was difficult for me to write because it’s very hermetic, it’s just three women on an island from their point of view and in a historic period also, and I wanted to do it without irony. My natural form of discourse is to be a wise guy and use humor and irony, and I wanted to see if I could do it. First of all, it’s coming out of a fragmentary memoir and a diary, and these women don’t use irony and I wanted to be true to that. It’s hard for me to do, but I wanted to see if I could do it. So, now this book opens the world up. Now you’ve got action and we’re out in the wide world, but they both have to do with nature and trying to live in nature, or with nature, or apart from nature. Or, as you explained it, to try and reclaim your place in nature outside of society all together.
RWB: And I think looking at your novels versus your short stories, when I started The Harder They Come, that opening chapter with Sten and his wife in Costa Rica, that almost felt to me like I was reading one of your short stories, so it was really interesting to see how you went from there and opened up this whole universe around that.
TCB: I should say that I didn’t write it as a short story, it’s just the first chapter, even though it was published in Harper’s last month as if it were a complete story. But as you can see, you turn the page and we are in the same scene and the story continues. So, yeah, it did have a kind of set piece quality to it, but I think you could say this also about the opening chapter of When the Killing’s Done, which has the same effect for me. But still, it’s just part of a larger piece. I didn’t conceive it as a story and expand it. I’ve never had the experience, in fact, of having a story and expanding it to a novel or vice versa, shrinking something down. I’m very, kind of singleminded. I write a novel and I’m going to stick with it until I’m done, then I’ll write stories until they peter out, and then I’ll write a novel and so on. So, I’m glad it has that effect, but it is part of a larger piece.
RWB: Another thing that really fascinated me about the book is the look at mental health, regarding Adam. I’ve read about the inspirations behind that with schizophrenia, as well as the true stories that inspired the book.
TCB: You read the thing on Buzzfeed? The little essay?
RWB: Something I worry about in terms of mental health and the gun violence we see in this country is not only the stigma that exists already, but when you see someone go shoot up a school or something and then find out that person was bipolar or schizophrenic, to me that feels like it’s going to concern people more. Do you think exploring that in art is a way we can combat that stigma?
TCB: I’m only examining individual cases. I mean, we could say that anyone who shoots up a school or a movie theater is insane in one way or another, right? You’d have to say Hitler was insane, yes? That’s just a definition. I’m just concerned with individual cases here, I don’t know if schizophrenics will be stigmatized. Obviously the smallest percentage of schizophrenics are like Adam. My friend didn’t shoot anybody, you know. Actually the two schizophrenics I’ve known well are totally non-violent. So, I don’t really know how to respond to that exactly. Except that you have to look at individual cases. As you know, we have these psychotropic drugs we can give to people that are mentally disabled in one way or another and they can help balance out the problem. However, then we throw them out on the streets and they don’t take the drugs and they’re there screaming on a street corner all day long. It’s a real problem of our society where people need care but we threw a lot of them out on the streets and closed down the mental hospitals. I don’t know if that’s doing our society a lot of good.
RWB: After writing a character like Adam do you feel like you understand something about that that you didn’t before?
TCB: Well, certainly the challenge here was to enter into Adam’s way of thinking and try to give that to the reader, and I would hope that, you know, as I said earlier that all three characters are very different from me and from most people who will read the book, I think you should understand them and sympathize with them to a degree. I mean, we can’t condone that Adam killed two people, we can’t condone, necessarily, that Sten killed this man even if it was in self-defense, and I don’t know if we can condone Sara’s attitude towards being against all society and paying her taxes and not being a citizen. Yet, I hope that we could understand them, and so that’s what I’m trying to do in the case of Adam.
You know, I’ve written a schizophrenic before in Stanley McCormick of Riven Rock. But I had his complete psychiatric record. A thousand pages of it. So, what he saw were the actual things he reported to his psychiatrist. In the case of Adam, I do have this fifty page police report of the actual guy. And some of the odd things mentioned in it, that he was arrested for going to the Chinese consulate and throwing these Chinese stars he’d made over the wall. What do I make of that? I tried to see a possibility from the character’s point of view of why he would do these things. And my discovery of his obsession with [John] Colter seemed to bring that all together for me, the Chinese as aliens and the new hostiles and so on and so on.
RWB: That was one thing that fascinated me, was that subtext of the Chinese consulate episode, because there’s not necessarily a lot of detail on it but there’s a lot of little clues that you leave along the way that his lack of stability has been increasing over time.
TCB: Right, and so how does this disease develop, or this imbalance develop, and what do you do about it, and how might this individual be perceiving the world that’s different from us? You know, when I published Riven Rock, back in ’98, I happened to be on tour. I’m constantly on tour. [Laughs] I was in Seattle, and I have media escorts in every town and I know them well. They’re wonderful, they get me where I need to go, radio stations and so on, and the woman there was sick or something and she had one of her employees, a new person, a middle aged woman, and she told me that the book was very moving for her because her brother was schizophrenic and she hadn’t seen him in ten years. He refused to take his drugs, he dropped out of society, and she had just gotten in contact with him a couple weeks before. He was living by himself in a little apartment and he brought her over, and what he does is, everyday, he does a hit of straight LSD. So, can you imagine? This is how he is trying to self-medicate to bring his wiring into some degree of normalcy. I mean, that is just astonishing. So, every case has got to be totally different. And it’s very hard for us to try and imagine what perceptions are. It’s hard for us to understand anybody’s point of view or anybody’s perceptions, but particularly in this case.
So, I wrote that essay because of my friend, two friends actually, but my very closest friend. It just presents a tremendous narrative challenge and I think that was probably one of the motivating factors of writing the book. I did research on a lot of shooters. Sadly, they are very similar in a lot of ways and there’s a kind of competition amongst them, of course, to up the ante. Like ISIS, for instance, are outrageous and violent and callous and horrible and the next. But this one individual spoke to me because of the nature connection.
RWB: It seemed like there was a big difference from some of your other work, but that is something that makes it make sense in terms of your work as well.
TCB: We go into nature to heal. One of the things that motivated my writing Drop City was a book by John Haines, the Alaskan poet who went up there after World War II and he wrote a book, it’s called, I think, The Stars, the Snow, the Fire. After WWII, he was in post-traumatic stress, and he went and lived in this fur trapper for a couple of years near Fairbanks at the time. He went there in order to heal. To just be in nature and you’re focused in nature on just surviving and living within nature day-to-day without the accoutrements of civilization or the aggravations of civilization or, actually, the competition of other people.
We go to nature to heal, and in Adam’s case he wasn’t able to fully let go of civilization. He had to constantly go back to Sara even though he belittled himself for it, he knew it was weak, but he had to go back and get the medicine for giardia, for instance. He couldn’t be fully in nature, and again, this is the proposition in Drop City, too. That was during the hippy era when there was the back-to-the-Earth movement. Let’s drop off this capitalist wheel which is taking us to destruction of everything and let’s try to live more simply. Well, that’s great, but is it possible with seven billion people and nature shrinking?
RWB: It almost seems like a cruel irony. We’ve put ourselves so deep into modernity that going away from that completely is getting harder and harder no matter what our intentions are.
I am in this deep trance each day for hours. I’m popping back and forth, in and out of it.
TCB: I don’t know about you, but I am able to get out of everything through writing. I am in this deep trance each day for hours. I’m popping back and forth, in and out of it. That’s one way. But, I like to spend time in nature for the same reason. I shut everything off. When I’m done with work I’m not going to worry about emails or anything else. I’m just done, that’s it, it’s over for the day. And I like to go out and do something else, something in nature if I can, whether that’s going out in the backwoods of the yard or keeping the house from falling down or up on the mountains when I’m done with work. During the summer I’m just in the mountains hiking around with the dog. I need that. I need that so much, and a lot of people in society have no experience of it. We say save the forests or save the environment, but most people don’t have any experience, they don’t even know what we’re talking about.
RWB: Especially in the continental states there’s such a distance between where we are and where there’s true nature without distractions.
TCB: Absolutely. Now more and more, we’re an electronic society where there is no society, where everybody is living a virtual reality, everybody is locked inside behind their gates and their apartments, their condos, everything is delivered to them, there’s no kind of village life where you walk to the bank and see people and make jokes. There’s nothing like that. Everything is delivered. The last place, the last bastion of people seeing people is bars. You know, of course, in my basement lab I’m working on a bar app so you don’t have to leave home, it just springs up around you in your apartment and you’ve got your babes there and your drinks. [Laughs] Why go out?
RWB: That app would be very dangerous.
TCB: It would be very dangerous. Do you, by any chance, know my story “The Relive Box” in The New Yorker?
RWB: I remember seeing you post about it on your site.
TCB: It’s one of those inventions like this. It’s about gaming, video games.
RWB: I’m on the precipice of that age, I grew up with computers and so a lot of my life has been involved in technology, but there’s still a cut off. There are still things that younger generations are doing, playing games that I just can’t wrap my head around.
But people don’t know how to shut off, they’re afraid to be missing something.
TCB: Everything in its place. Like TV, for instance, the reason I resent TV is because I grew up in a working class family. The TV went on when we got home from school and work and went off when we went to bed. That was the whole thing, there was nothing else. It’s okay, if you know how to shut things off. But people don’t know how to shut off, they’re afraid to be missing something. The 24/7 news cycle. Give me a break. When I’m home I read the newspaper every morning and I’m depressed and life sucks, but up on the mountain there is no internet and there is no newspaper and after a couple days I feel a lot better about life and humanity. It’s simple.
RWB: I can’t read the newspaper. My wife does, cover to cover, and I tell her that, I can’t read it for that reason, it just makes me too depressed about things.
TCB: And enraged, not to mention.
Another aspect of the book that really grabbed me was Sara’s hope to be a sovereign person, she mentions all the time that she doesn’t have a ‘contract’ with the government. Between California and Oregon we have a lot of those folks, we had an incident here last summer with a gentleman who was trying to claim he was separate from the government and it didn’t end well. And, I found that really fascinating with Sara, because on the one hand she put herself right in the thick of being involved with society, she hasn’t gone to the Adam lengths of trying to go back to nature, but she still wants to be divorced from everything she doesn’t want to personally be involved with. It’s kind of selective.
TCB: Exactly, and Adam, too. Adam’s just more extreme about it. This is where the themes of the book start to come to me, when I discovered Sara and wrote her after the first Sten section, so it’s about American anti-authoritarianism. I’ve been taught from the youngest age to be skeptical of authority and not march in lockstep with everyone else, think for yourself, etc. But, where is the line between that and this bogus sovereign citizens movement, where as I imply a little in the book, they have this belief about the universal commercial code that absolves them from paying taxes, and there are gurus like Jerry Kane, who was killed in a shootout with the police, who are just violently anti-government and have some kind of program to ‘prove’ it’s okay. And, of course, I’d love to not have to pay my taxes or wear my seatbelt. Or, you go to a park and there are all these prohibitions. Or, the “nanny state” where you can’t smoke and all this stuff. Okay. Again, where is the line between we all agree to cooperate and have a society or we all are going to be just, or at least a third of the world is ruled by bully boys and gangs at this point. Especially all these societies in the Middle East and Africa that are rundown and just taken over by gangs. All of that, I think, these questions are raised by The Harder They Come.
RWB: There is just so much about the book that fascinated me. I was really impressed with the way all those themes managed to tie together, even as related as some of them are, I thought it was impressive that they came together so strongly.
TCB: Thanks so much, Ryan. I love to hear that. You’re one of the readers I’m writing for, that really get it. But, on the other hand, like you when you’re writing, I’m just following it. Yes, this is my twenty-fifth book and I love to do it, this is my life and I write in order to make something and also to order my thoughts and reflect on things. I couldn’t do it otherwise. And I’m glad that you see it all comes together so tightly, that’s very pleasing to me because when you make something, whether it’s a pot that you’re going to fire or a story or a piece of furniture or whatever it is, you’re just following your own nature to see how it turns out. The joy of it is to see if it turns out. And how it’s going to turn out. And as I’m moving through it, day by day, I’m seeing how it’s alive and how all the scenes come out and how it is going to be tightly structured and that’s part of the joy of making something that you feel is good. But really, wow, I’m just doing what comes natural.
RWB: I’m sure it helps having the longevity that you’ve had, it probably ingrains a bit of that.
TCB: Yeah, and I don’t want to repeat myself. A lot of writers burn out and keep writing the same books over and over. I won’t mention any names here, but even good writers who get locked into something and write the same thing over and over. I keep trying to mix it up to keep myself and the audience interested.
RWB: Speaking as a reader, I think that is part of what makes waiting for the next book from a writer so worth it and so exciting.
TCB: Well, good. I always blab about the next book, and you already know about it, The Terranauts. It’s got two women and one man as narrators and they’re “I” narrators, and I’ve never quite done it that way before and it’s proving to be kind of fascinating as a technique itself, because as you know, one “I” narrator can contradict another. So, it’s sort of like a close third person point of view, but they are in fact first person narrators.
RWB: I’m really excited to see where that goes. Just based on what you’ve mentioned.
TCB: Me, too. [Laughs] I mean, I’ve only got it half done but I can see where it’s going and I can’t wait to get back to it. And I’m going back to environmental themes. So we had San Miguel locked down on this island, and then we blow it open with The Harder They Come, and now we’re going and taking a man-made environment, a man-made world, a biosphere, with 3,800 species locked inside. Can we have a self-generating biosphere? Can we make that if we needed to when this environment collapses? I wonder.