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10 Questions with T.C. Boyle
T.C. Boyle’s new novel, Talk Talk, is at once a thrilling road trip across America and a moving tale about love, language, and who we are. The bestselling author of The Inner Circle and Drop City, his new novel is about a woman in desperate pursuit of a man who has stolen her identity. Bill Leggett asked Boyle about the influence of life on fiction, the difference between short stories and novels, and his approach to writing.
BL: You have enjoyed success as both a novelist and short story writer. Have you felt pressure to publish one genre over the other?
TCB: The only pressure I feel is internal (and no, I'm not talking about digestive problems). I work for myself only and put pressure on myself to make art because I understand that our time on this planet is limited. As for my publishers and the public so eagerly clamoring (and clawing) for my works, they seem happy to open each of my books as if it were a special gift wrapped in opaque paper and infused with all the mystery and joy of discovery. I write stories because I like to. I write novels because I like to. Somebody, somewhere, buys them, and somebody else sends me a little check in the mail. This is very encouraging.
BL: How do you know when your work is a short story or a novel in the making? What triggers that decision?
TCB: Usually, while writing a novel, I find myself jotting down truncated ideas for the stories to come, most often regarding subjects that pop bewilderingly out of the pages of the newspapers and out of the mouths of people with whom I come into contact (mainly in bars). Very rarely do these ideas grow larger than the confines of a story because I have selected them specifically for stories. There are exceptions. The new novel, Talk Talk, began with the notion of exploring identity theft, and I saw it at first as a story but quickly realized that it needed a fuller expression because of the notion of identity itself. Who are we and how do we know who we are?
BL: A number of the stories presented in Tooth and Claw show characters in conflict with a harsh and indifferent world (“Tooth and Claw”, “Chicxulub”, and “The Swift Passage of the Animals”). Is this how you see the world or is it a characteristic particular to the times in which we live?
TCB: Yes. And yes. This is how I see the world, a place densely obscured by the Veil of Maya and operating only on the observable principles of Darwinian reality. It has always been like this, as far as I can imagine, and it will continue to be like this long after our species has erased itself.
BL: For This is My Best, an anthology comprising selected writers’ favorite short stories, you chose “Filthy with Things.” In your introduction to that story you mentioned it was inspired by your wife and her penchant for collecting. Does your work often spring from moments or details in your own life?
TCB: I am not an autobiographical writer. To me, a story is an exercise of the imagination, and my imagination would be woefully constricted if I had to create fiction solely from the stuff of my own life. Let's say, though, that certain of the irritations and limitations and mysteries and recalcitrant thumps and toils and worries of daily life do leak through, as in the aforementioned story. Or "Peace of Mind," for instance, about the couple puzzling over the fact of their new house-alarm system. We are all trying to engage the world even as the world grinds numbingly round its axis, intent on crushing us. In the process, things can get pretty funny.
BL: When I read your work I often have to go to the dictionary to look up a definition. From where did your love of words emerge? How did you develop your menagerie of fitting and unusual words?
TCB: The love of words—and sentences and the rhythm and beauty of them--is integral to reading and loving literature. I collect odd words, I suppose, in the way that anyone does, but my profession allows me to rub your collective noses in them.
BL: In your most recent novel, Talk Talk, your villain, William Peck Wilson, is gradually eroded. From family man to loner, gourmand to fast-food patron, and professional criminal to obsessed stalker he loses every sense of his identity. Does his punishment fit his crimes, and does he learn from the experience?
TCB: I very much like your take on Peck's loss of the identity he has created for himself. Whether he learns from the experience or deserves his downfall is not for me to say. There are people far more astute and deserving than I who will provide the answers to these questions (and they are, of course, the readers of this book, who are invited by the fact of its existence to enter its world in a fully sensory and interpretive way).
BL: The protagonists of Talk Talk, Bridger and Dana, suffer greatly, but gain an understanding about their own identities that would not have happened otherwise. Did they exit your novel better or worse for their experiences?
BL: I understand you spent time as a young adult in the Hudson River Valley in New York and then moved to California. Talk Talk brings characters from California to New York’s Hudson River Valley to resolve their conflicts and regain their identities. Was this a conscious parallel with your own life?
TCB: Yes, very much so. I will always feel a bit of an outsider here—in a positive way, one that allows me to cast a cold eye about me—and this has enabled my work to grow in directions it would not have if I had clung to my native turf (yes, yes: down on my knees, holding fast to the biggest rock in Westchester County). It all works out. At least I haven't been consigned to the Gulag yet. As the Dead Kennedys said, "California uber alles."
BL: You have recently released a short story collection for young adults, The Human Fly and Other Stories. Has becoming a father changed your perspective on writing?
TCB: I expect so, just as aging has. As much as I would have liked to remain juvenile in all attitudes, postures and thoughts, I have had, like everybody else, to count up the attrition of the days. The Human Fly, however, was not written for young adults, but rather it was put together at the behest of Sharyn November of the Penguin Young Adult Division. She collected a group of my previously published stories (together with one new one) that she felt would have special appeal for young readers. I wrote an afterword for the book, speaking a bit about each story, its composition and valence, and I am mightily pleased by it. Recently a fourteen-year-old reader sent me a letter (a consummately literate and entertaining letter) about the stories in the collection and her own aspirations as a writer and she appended a story of her own. This is pretty awfully amazingly marvelous and I am very pleased. To reach young readers in any way is a triumphant thing. (Not that they don't read my books on their own initiative, but to find the readers who browse the Y.A. section is something altogether different, like getting an extra dollop of whipped cream on your pie).
BL: What’s your next project?
TCB: I am just tidying up four months' worth of research on an historically based fiction and preparing to tear my brain out over the page as it creeps into being. I've also written a number of new stories toward the next collection, including "La Conchita," which appeared this past fall in The New Yorker; "Question 62," from the March Harper's; and "Wild Child," the novella written by Dana Halter, the heroine of Talk Talk, which appears in the current McSweeney's (#19); as well as "The Unlucky Mother of Aquiles Maldonado," forthcoming in Playboy.
And thank you, Bill, for asking.
T.C. Boyle, Santa Barbara