It’s hard to pick up T.C. Boyle’s new collection, Stories II, and not think about his place in modern literary history. For starters, Stories II is literally hard to pick up. Weighing in at a wrist-withering 918 pages, it comprises fifty-eight short stories, fourteen new and the rest reprinted from three earlier collections. Most writers would call that a pretty good career. But the sixty-four-year-old Boyle is well into his fourth decade of cooking up high-grade literary tales (his fiction has filled enough pages of The New Yorker to make Malcolm Gladwell blink), and these pieces only represent his most recent output. Not to mention, during the same fourteen years he was composing them, he also managed to write a few novels—seven to be precise, with an eighth due out next year.
But Boyle’s stature as one of the major writers of his generation doesn’t just stem from his prodigious bibliography. Unlike so many of his fellow baby boomers who came of age in the sixties and seventies, he managed to survive those hedonistic years mostly unscathed and evolve beyond their narrow fixations. He credits his work ethic for this longevity, and his love of storytelling, but his rampaging imagination is what really makes him not just consistent as a writer, but consistently interesting. Boyle’s style is a lot like the autumn weather in his native upstate New York. If you don’t like it at the moment, just wait a little while; the next story or novel is probably going to be completely different.
This try-anything approach is on full display in the newest pieces from Stories II. In the space of a few pages, he veers from a wrenching family drama, “A Death in Kitchawank,” to a rollicking adventure yarn, “Los Gigantes,” about a group of giants being used to breed a race of super soldiers. One story, “In the Zone,” takes place in the irradiated no man’s land around the former Chernobyl nuclear plant. Another, “Burning Bright,” is told from the perspectives of several real-life characters involved in an infamous tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo—including the tiger. To borrow a phrase Boyle repeated several times when I met with him on a recent morning, “Why not?”
The Rumpus: In the Preface to Stories II, you reference “This Monkey, My Back,” an essay you wrote back in 1999, when the first stories in this collection were probably being written. In that essay, you almost angrily rejected the idea of retirement or slowing down as a writer. You’ve always been very productive, but you’ve been working at a solid book-a-year pace since then. Do you feel any extra urgency now that you’ve entered your sixties?
T.C. Boyle: I like to joke that you usually write more books before death than after death, so that’s why I’m doing it. But really, I remain engaged with ideas. There are so many things happening that turn me on and I just want to examine them.
As with any of my previous novels or stories, I don’t know what it will be before I start. I just see where it goes. Things interest me, like “Burning Bright,” about the tiger attack here in San Francisco. That was right up my alley because it has to do with man and nature and how we’re in a place we’re not supposed to be and so is this tiger. But what it does it mean? I don’t know. I was intrigued by the news story and I wanted to dramatize it and make it into a work of art. That’s what I do. That’s my life.
Rumpus: Your stories are always so tightly constructed and they’re often spring-loaded with a twist or reversal at the end. It’s hard to believe that you don’t have some kind of plan for them going in.
Boyle: No. I don’t. They evolve. If they’re tightly constructed, it’s because they’re revised constantly as I move forward each day. That’s where the structure inheres. It’s all organic.
I’ve had many students over the years, sometimes even very sophisticated students, who will be writing and will hit a wall. Often I find it’s because they’re working out of sequence. Maybe some people can do that, but I don’t think that’s how fiction works. It’s a discovery. You don’t write the kitchen scene just because you’re eager to do it that day and you’re avoiding something else. I think it has to move slowly, step by step. I pride myself on the construction of my stories but it’s not something I impose on them.
Rumpus: So you don’t skip around as you’re drafting your pieces, even your novels?
Boyle: Absolutely. Nothing moves around, it just goes straight from the start to the end. The final draft on the final day, that’s it, same for the novels. What I turn in is what you see. There are some exceptions, but almost always I can see exactly what it’s going to be.
Rumpus: And you revise as you’re writing, but not afterwards?
Boyle: Yes. I can’t move forward until I’m sure of what’s behind me. And in a novel, I might be worried about the smallest things until they’re corrected.
Rumpus: Like what?
Boyle: Facts and details. The hardest thing in a novel is time. You’ve got [a line like] “two weeks later, he woke up with a headache,” and you’ve got to add up that entire two weeks and what the date is and whether it works. That kind of stuff drives me crazy and if I don’t have it exactly right, I can’t move forward because I don’t feel confident.
The hardest part is always the middle of anything because at that point, on some unconscious level, you have to figure out what it’s about and why you’re doing it and what it means. You don’t know that in the beginning.
The title story of the last section [of Stories II] is called “A Death at Kitchawank.” I’d been trying to write that story for years. It’s about the death of my best friend’s father. I decided to tell it from the point of view of the mother but also, in an experimental way, to enter the story myself in these bracketed sections. That story has a beginning, middle, and end, of course, but the question is, where do you start it exactly? It’s about a guy who is murdered in a fistfight, but how does it evolve and what does it mean? That’s what I discovered scene by scene, and this innovation of coming in as a first-person narrator was a complete surprise to me. It just happened.
Rumpus: The first-person sections in that story are very striking, but I wouldn’t have guessed that the narrator was so closely based on you or your experience, because you’ve always said that you avoid autobiography in your work.
Boyle: I have very rarely written autobiographical stuff. “Greasy Lake” and some other works have some autobiographical elements, as does “Birnam Wood,” the one I chose to end [this collection] with. I lived in that house and some of my feelings are expressed in it, but it’s not autobiography. It was not me and that didn’t happen exactly that way.
I feel that a story can be anything, and in any mode. Most of my life, I’ve ruled out autobiographical stories but if one occurs to me and I want to write it, there it is.
Rumpus: You were a double major in English and history in college, and those twin obsessions seem to have stayed with you. Many of your novels and stories are historically-based, which seems like a bit of a contradiction to me. Your work is so varied and you’re so willing to go wherever your imagination takes you, I find it curious that you choose to confine yourself to writing about “actual” events and people. Do you feel a special responsibility to your subjects in those pieces? Do you feel like you have to get it right?
Boyle: No. Because I don’t know who they are. They’re entirely invented characters. Maybe that’s how I’ve been able to write so many books, because there are no boundaries for me. I can write a completely fantastical story like “Swept Away” or “Blinded by the Light” and then a non-comic drama like “Chicxulub” or something like “Birnam Wood” that has autobiographical underpinnings. Why not?
One of the problems I have with many writers is their stories are all somewhat similar. They might be very good, but they’re always on the same turf. I don’t have those limitations.
Rumpus: But one of your biggest early influences, and one of your friends when you attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was Raymond Carver. You could say he tended to stay on the same turf as a writer.
I always try to take on new challenges. With San Miguel, the challenge was could I write entirely from the perspective of women who lived more than a hundred years ago, including a fifteen-year-old girl? And the answer was, why not? If that’s what the story requires, why not stretch myself and accept the challenge?
Rumpus: You knew Fredrick Exley at Iowa, too, and he strikes me as an example of someone who didn’t produce a lot of work and was sort of oppressed by his own story. Was he too autobiographical to be productive?
Boyle: Alcohol had a lot to do with it, too, and mental instability. All writers are narcissistic, manic-depressive drug addicts and alcoholics, and I am no exception.
Rumpus: But what kept you from the same self-destruction that got Exley and Carver and also another of your Iowa mentors, John Cheever?
Boyle: Work. Work saved me. Literature saved me. It sounds corny but it’s absolutely true. I was going in the wrong direction, but after the 9,000th night at the bar doing dope with a bunch of Dead Heads, I began to think there was something more.
Maybe [Exley, Cheever, and Carver] were more tormented souls. Maybe they were more mentally disturbed than I am. I don’t know. But that can be productive of great work. If everything is equable and you’re a perfectly normal person, you’re probably not going to be writing novels or creating art. I do it obsessively because it staves off the darkness and it’s also a way of getting my mind out of the world.
Rumpus: While you were at Iowa, you decided to pursue a PhD in 19th Century English Literature. Cheever was very dismissive of this decision. Why?
Boyle: John was self-educated. He was kicked out of the Thayer Academy at the age of seventeen for smoking. That ended his formal education, but he was as deep and brilliant as anybody I’ve ever met. He identified himself solely as an artist, and a working artist who didn’t have any other job. So he was suspicious of academia, and maybe a little intimidated by it. He felt that an artist doesn’t need an academic side, but I felt that I did, because I had been such a punk when I was younger and formal study seemed very exciting to me, so when I first got to Iowa, I immediately started taking PhD courses.
Rumpus: It seems like writing was a vehicle for upward social mobility for you. For a lot of people, it goes the other direction.
Boyle: I’ve never thought of it in those terms, but yeah. I’m a product of state schools. I had a working-class family. We had no books. I was the first to go to college. But I didn’t really think about it, or about making money. I was just going to be an artist, and I’ve been fortunate. I’ve never had to work for anybody nor have I had to write for money. Maybe that’s another reason that I’ve been able to be productive. I haven’t had to use my writing to make a living.
Rumpus: Your father was a victim of alcoholism, just like Carver and Cheever and Exley, and he also died fairly young.
Boyle: He died the first year I was at Iowa. My father had a personality very much like mine. He was very lively and funny. But the war changed him, according to my mother, and he drank himself to death out of depression. My mother also became alcoholic and died early. After moving to Arizona with her second husband, she was dead within three years.
It’s something I explored in World’s End. Somebody called [that book] a “fictionalized autobiography.” I don’t know who my mother’s father was. I don’t know beyond my own father’s grandfather. I’ve never been interested enough in genealogy to find out. I don’t want to know. I’d rather imagine it.
Rumpus: Wait, you’ve written a number of historical novels about real people from the past but you’re not interested in your own biological history?
Boyle: There are things I don’t want to know.
Rumpus: What are you afraid of?
Boyle: I don’t know. There’s a kind of mystery to our being and from my point of view, regarding my own parents and their parents, I’d as soon let it lie than find out who my mother’s father was.
Rumpus: Do you ever worry that you use your fiction as a kind of escapism? A way not to face yourself?
Boyle: Of course it’s escapism. Everything we do is escapism, because we’ll all be dead and everything we do is completely meaningless. Why brush your teeth? Why not be in the park with the bums passing a short dog? Why pay taxes, why get educated? Of course literature is an escape. You have to fill the hours.
Rumpus: Are you afraid to write more autobiographical work or study your own family history because it might drag you down? Are you afraid you might get depressed and stop writing?
Boyle: Maybe. My Aunt Millie came back into my life at one point. My father had seven siblings and my Aunt Millie was, like the rest of the family, very much an alcoholic and wild. I hadn’t seen her since I was a little kid and there was an article in the LA Times Magazine about me early on, ’85, and she is so powerful and persuasive, she harassed them until they gave her my phone number. Can you imagine? She was a force.
We were drinking one day and I told her, “I’m afraid I’m going to go the way of the rest of the family and be a drunk” and she burst into laughter and she said, “You’re too old. You’ve already escaped it.”
This work ethic and this determination is all part of escaping the depressive side. Of course I’m manic depressive, maybe not to the degree that Exley was, but I think all writers are. There are highs and lows. Look at David Foster Wallace.
Rumpus: You were friends with him?
Boyle: We’d been on stage together a couple of times, and I’d blurbed his books, and I can imagine the toll of writing The Pale King. It’s so depressing. It’s not working. You’re not getting the joy out of literature that it gave you. This is the danger of what we do. Look at Hemingway and so many others. You devote your life to one thing, that is what you are. It’s artificial but it’s all you have. If you lose it, then you’re nothing and there’s no point in going on.
I was joking earlier when I said that all writers are manic depressives, but it’s a joke with a lot of truth behind it. For fiction writers and poets, too, there’s something wrong with you and you do this art as a way of correcting it or addressing it in some way.
Rumpus: You write very movingly about what got you into fiction as a young person, specifically a teacher of yours in junior high who would read adventure stories, by people like Jack London, out loud to the class on Fridays. I have to say, the stories of yours that I appreciate the most are the campfire-style yarns, the tall tales like “Wild Child” and “Los Gigantes.”
Boyle: I love those kind of stories, too, like “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Headless Horseman.” They’re like folktales and I love to create modern folktales. Gabriel García Márquez is one of my heroes. “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” those are my two favorites. He calls them children’s tales, but of course, they’re not children’s tales.
Rumpus: And yet they appeal to something childlike within us, in that we’re being given this thrilling new experience.
Boyle: Yes. They hearken back to campfire tales. From my point of view, why shouldn’t I work in every possible mode, to see if it’s viable? “Los Gigantes” would not have worked as a straightforward, naturalistic tale. Part of the fun of it is that it’s so preposterous and yet at the same time, it could have happened. Think of eugenics. Hitler certainly would have been doing it if he could have.
Rumpus: There’s that germ of believability, right, that all tall tales need to be good?
Boyle: Right. And that’s why I set it in that period when eugenics was in the fore and the Nazis were coming into power.
Rumpus: You put a lot of energy into your public readings, and you take a lot of pride in your skills as a reader.
Boyle: Yes. I think it’s a great thing to hear the author reading. I’ve listened to CDs of Cheever and Updike reading their stories and Hemingway. To hear what their voices were like is amazing. Whether they’re reading well or not, it’s great to listen to the intonation and the beat of the guy who wrote the story.
Rumpus: What was Carver like as a reader?
Boyle: Ray was very shy. He didn’t want to be on stage, so he was not dramatic and read in a muted voice—unlike Stanley Elkin, whom I mention in the Preface [to Stories II]. He was the best reader of all. He was a crazed actor on stage.
Rumpus: You’re definitely more in the Elkin mode as a reader.
Boyle: I don’t call it reading, I call it performance. Of course, I have many enemies and they all think I’m being highfalutin calling it performance, but the word “reading” has a connotation of something academic with the lights on and you’re going to get a lecture. I’m looking to blow my audiences away by giving a fine, dramatic performance and reminding them of why they love stories. Especially students. I love to turn them on to a story. Some of them have to go see me as an assignment, like kids from the schools in New York will go to the Y. I want them to know why I love this and why they should too.
Rumpus: You want to give people the same pleasure you felt as an eighth grader listening to your teacher read aloud.
Boyle: Yes. I’ve always been a huge fan of theatre and performance. The idea of just the human voice and just this night. Live music is the same. They’re doing it for you right now. It’s an amazing thing. And if you perform a story properly, it can be a transporting, too.
I always listen to music while I’m working and I always read aloud to my wife. I love to read aloud to an audience because there’s a cadence and a beat. There’s a music to the language that’s very important to me.
Music is, by far, the best art. Nothing even comes close. It’s so immediate and emotional. In writing, maybe ninety percent of it is the unconscious and ten percent is control. In music, I think it’s probably more like ninety-nine percent the unconscious. It’s just a beautiful thing happening through you. And so, too, is writing a great story. When you’re in the midst of writing, it’s a beautiful thing happening through you. Many people have said that it’s not you, it’s the soul of humankind and so on, I don’t know. But it has the same effect [as music]. It takes you out of your body and out of this planet.
Rumpus: You’ve made no secret of your disdain for literary theory. Is that because it can stifle or prevent this kind of transcendence you’re seeking?
Boyle: The reason we love nature is because it’s fascinating and we love all the creatures, but if you watch any nature film, there’s always a lesson: “the creatures are all dying and life sucks.” The same is true of literature. If you focus on literature through only one small element of it, like the more scientific element of linguistics, then where is the joy that brought us literature in the first place, which is to have a story?
That’s the reason that I go around with my books so much and why I love to perform on stage, to remind everybody that the lights are off, the phones are off, and for this hour, it’s going to be like your mother reading to you. We’re going to remember why we love stories. I think that gets lost in over-intellectualizing. Maybe that’s what Cheever was so afraid of when he was so rigorously anti-academic.
Criticism can be wonderful, especially in making connections in an interpretive way. But by applying theories randomly, it’s an interesting exercise, but I don’t think it illuminates the literature. And I don’t think we need a critic to negotiate with the audience. People say, “Who are you writing for?” I’m writing for myself but my audience is anybody who knows how to read. I think a story should engage anybody who knows how to read. And I hope that my stories do, maybe on a different level for more sophisticated readers than, say, a high school kid, but still a story has got to grab you. That’s why we read it.
Rumpus: Before we finish, I can’t help returning to Cheever and Carver one more time. You say that while you were all at Iowa, they would sit on barstools for hours and talk together.
Boyle: Yes. They would go The Mill. They would get there in the morning and set out their cigarettes. I wish that was on film somewhere.
Rumpus: What would they talk about?
Boyle: I have no idea. I was always at home working.
Featured image of T.C. Boyle © by Jamieson Fry.
Second image of T.C. Boyle © by Julie Ellerton.