A Conversation with T. C. Boyle

by Luke Purdy

In a career spanning nearly forty years, T. C. Boyle has published a dozen short-story collections and sixteen novels, including 2016’s The Terranauts. He received the PEN/Faulkner Award for his 1987 novel World’s End, and several of his stories have been included in the annual Best American Short Stories anthology. Boyle’s diverse work deals with topics ranging from historical biography to ecological apocalypse. His stories often explore themes of environmentalism, fanaticism, and the unintended consequences of technology.
During his recent visit to Butler University as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series, Boyle sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Booth reader Luke Purdy.

Luke Purdy: Let’s begin by talking about your new collection, The Relive Box and Other Stories. When you’re writing short stories, are you thinking about putting them together as a collection?

T. C. Boyle: No, I’ve never thought in those terms. I think my concerns are too various. I’m just trying to run with an idea, as in, will this idea make a story? If so, what’s the balance going to be, and what’s the voice going to be? Once the stories are done, I organize them so maybe they’ll play off one another. Beyond that, not so much. I put together my first collection, Descent of Man, when I was a student at Iowa. For one semester my teacher had been John Cheever, who like most good teachers doesn’t do much more than say, “Okay, kid, you’re on the right track.” He’d done so many collections, so one day I said, “Hey, John, how do you organize them?” and he said, “Well, you put a couple of the best ones at the front and then another really good one at the end.

LP: Almost like an album.

TCB: It is. That’s the fun in putting a collection together. You find an epigraph because you look at the stories thematically to find something to pin them down with, and then you arrange them to play off one another. Maybe with one story you have an “I” narrative, and then a third-person narrative, back and forth.

LP: I think perhaps those cycles can happen subconsciously. For example, I see a lot of recurring themes in your work.

TCB: Oh, I’ve been working over the same themes from the beginning. You don’t know what your themes are until you’ve written a lifetime of books. I’m always working with the same themes because there are no answers to them. And the biggest themes, of course, have to do with our existence on this planet as an animal species, and as something a little more than an animal species, too. What is the relationship between our hormone drives and our supposed free will? I wrote World’s End to address that question to a degree. That is, if you inherit your looks from your father or mother, what about your intelligence? What about your propensity for certain behaviors? As we decode the human genome, we’re finding that we’re much more creatures of nature and hormones than we thought. And I love the idea of the rest of creation around us—each animal and how it goes about making its living. If it hadn’t been for the math, I might have been perfectly content as a field biologist.

LP: You’ve said that you vary between writing novels and writing sets of short stories.

TCB: Yes, exclusively one or the other. Never both at the same time.

LP: Why is that?

TCB: I think you have to push through the block—and there will always be a block. You start off and you don’t know where you’re going, and at some point you have to figure things out. The middle is always the hardest. I’ve always worked in this way. I’ll write stories for a period, and then the ideas and impetus for stories start to peter out, so I begin to think about a longer narrative. And that rhythm has worked for me—it’s just my way of working as an artist. However, I think it has also enabled me to be highly productive, because if you’re exclusively a novelist, unless you’re Anthony Trollope, you can’t just write the end of a novel and then start right in on the next book. There’s this parturition process, and a kind of exhaustion, to go from that world you’ve created into another world. So, yes, I have a period of exhaustion after a book, but then I can turn to stories instead of having downtime.

LP: You’ve also said that you don’t do much revision, in the sense of re-writing a whole piece.

TCB: Yes, somehow the structure is innate and I discover it. So I’m not doing major changes or shifting scenes. With almost everything, both stories and novels, I just work line by line to the end. The exception is the one I’ve just finished. I realized that one section would need to be recast in the point of view of another character. I was trying to do six different voices, but one of them didn’t quite fit. But that’s rare.

LP: You’ve mentioned that you’ve never stopped writing a novel you were working on, that you always finish what you start. Does that mean you sometimes end up with a piece you aren’t thrilled with?

TCB: I wouldn’t publish anything I’m not pleased with, that’s not as good as it could possibly be. And I’m a fanatic. I want every detail to be correct. I want it to be beautiful. But when it’s done, it’s done. There are some writers who work on something forever and ever and can’t let it go, but I’m not one of them. I want to see what comes next.

LP: To get into your most recent collection, The Relive Box and Other Stories: You deal with some apocalyptic concepts in these pieces. We see characters inundated with ants, a literal flood, and a drought in the Southwest. Are you pessimistic about where things are going?

TCB: Well, anyone addressing the world’s ecological problems needs to be pessimistic. In my lifetime, the world population has tripled. Global warming is raising the sea level. Look at the catastrophe of the Syrian refugee crisis, which was in part caused by environmental changes—a gang takes over because they want your resources. What will we do in 2050 when Bangladesh is underwater? Where are those millions of people going to stand, let alone sleep and eat? It looks pretty grim. And what we’re seeing in this right-wing takeover of America and Europe is that we’re going to turn our backs on the rest of the world. Like any other gang, we’re going to keep our resources for ourselves and essentially say “Forget it” to the rest of the world. So, yes, I’m pretty pessimistic about it—which isn’t to say that I can’t explore these issues and have fun with them. I’m exploring the absurdities, but underneath is the problem of resources.

LP: You’ve described yourself as “utterly and hopelessly addicted” to the writing process. Do you think obsessiveness is necessary for producing quality work?

TCB: Well, writers are all mentally unstable, and the act of writing fiction is an obsessive-compulsive disorder. But once you have it, what are you going to do? It gives my life focus and purpose to make art, and I’m lucky to be able to do it. In the long run it really doesn’t matter: individually and as a species we are doomed. But while we’re here, we can let our spirits soar and make art.

LP: I want to talk about some of the stories in this collection. “The Designee” was one of my favorites. It’s about a retired widower named Mr. Alimonti who gets caught up in a 401K scam and loses everything. You’ve written about scams before, notably in your 2006 novel Talk Talk. What attracts you to frauds and con artists? Is there a conscious reason for that connection?

TCB: Well, look who our president is. Scammers are the really bad guys of the world. They’ll take what you’ve got, and it particularly affects the elderly. In the case of the character I created here, I’d read an article about a retired UCLA professor in his eighties to whom this happened. I also had a friend who owned a restaurant in Santa Barbara, and he got sucked into a scam like this and lost everything. People told him it was a scam, but after a certain point you can’t admit it to yourself, because then everything you’ve been or done is a waste and is tragic. So I wanted to explore that. And I also enjoyed writing from the point of view of an elderly man, while in the same collection I’m also writing from the point of view of a college girl and a guy in his early twenties. I like challenging myself with different scenarios and different voices.

LP: It seemed to me that Mr. Alimonti knew he was being manipulated, or at least part of him did. It reminded me of our country’s gullibility, especially when we’re told something we want to hear. How did you arrive at the ending for this piece?

TCB: I didn’t write the story to reflect on the last election. In fact, the story was written before that. There’s evil in the world, and it takes many shapes. One of them is to scam people out of things. How does it happen? How could someone be so gullible? You have to want something desperately in order to be conned. Maybe it’s a cautionary tale for myself. But as far as how the story ends, it just evolved scene by scene. It’s not planned; it just occurs on a subconscious level as the story progresses.

LP: So how do you decide when a piece is finished?

TCB: When you’re getting to the end, you see the themes, the characters, and the plot all come together until they make the right connection. I don’t know—it’s a feeling, an instinct. I don’t know how to explain it. That’s why there are no real guidebooks to writing. It’s all irrelevant. You have to find your own way into your own story.

The way you learn to write is through reading, and you begin in mimesis. But then you develop and assimilate everything you’ve read and experienced. If you’re lucky, your own style and your own concerns come out in your own way. How can you apply that to anyone else? In all my years of teaching, in all my workshops, all I’ve been concerned about is whether a story works. Could it have a different ending? How do you interpret this ending? I think that, often, beginning writers don’t know how an audience will read their work because writing is so individual and so self-involved. A workshop can suggest that, if fourteen committed and excellent readers are befuddled, maybe you should tweak something. And that’s it. There’s no prescription.

LP: You’ve said that your ultimate goal in writing is to create art for its own sake. How does your audience play into that?

TCB: I don’t consider the audience at all, except in the way that any composer of a symphony or poet or writer will be addressing someone. They’re always addressing someone. Not yourself. You’re writing it for yourself, and exploring things for yourself, but you are addressing someone, and that is how art is shaped and what defines art as opposed to chaos. It is shaped exquisitely. It has to be beautiful, and it has to make sense in all its elements, its style and its structure in particular. The structure has to be innate; it can’t be imposed on it. That’s why I always say, “It just happens.” I know that’s not very helpful to a beginning writer, but there is no formula. You discover it by doing it. You have to make your material cohere structurally and in terms of its theme and its maximum impact as a work of art. Otherwise it doesn’t exist. It’s not art.

LP: Your work often explores the dangers of communes and ideologies gone awry—most recently in The Terranauts, but also in novels like The Inner Circle and Drop City.

TCB: And also in the novel I just finished, Outside Looking In, which is about a small group of people exploring communal life through the bond of consciousness expansion. So, yes, you can trace that idea through many of my books—the idea of the small community and of the guru who will lead you to salvation. This is one thing that obsesses me.

LP: Why do you think that theme recurs in your work?

TCB: I suppose it’s because I’ve been lucky to live in a free society and be able to do and say what I want. You’re taught in school to be a free thinker and to be suspicious of politicians who try to mesmerize you with their propaganda, as the current administration is doing with its takeover of America. I stand opposed to that, so I’m always wondering about following a guru.

There are no explanations in life. We have religion and science, but there is no ultimate explanation, and people desperately want it. Fanaticism develops because you have to have something, and you can’t question it; otherwise you’ll lose it. It’s like Kierkegaard’s leap of faith: you know it’s absurd to believe in God, but you make that choice anyway. But I wonder about the costs to the advocates and followers. And why are there leaders and followers? What is that relationship, and what does it mean?

I like to say that maybe I’m exploring my own role as I go out on the road and perform for audiences. If I am a guru of some sort, it’s benevolent. I don’t want you to do anything. I just want you to experience the joy of art. 

LP: People often look to writers as gurus, I think.

TCB: And so writers talk about politics a lot. I do. I make my views known very strongly, but not usually within the context of art. I don’t want to be hijacked by events. But in this recent collection, ISIS and radical Islam snuck into three stories, maybe because it’s the same issue in terms of a leader or dictator, someone organizing your life and thoughts for you, which is essentially what ISIS did. It’s just a gang, and the world is run by gangs. It always has been. It’s a miracle to be part of a democracy—or a formal democracy, anyway.

LP: In your foreword to Stories II, you wrote, “The professional dictum has always been to write what you know, but I say write what you don’t know and find something out.” This reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s idea that fiction should be a form of reporting. Do you see your work as a kind of journalism?

TCB: Well, I’m bringing the news, more than most writers. I’m writing what’s happening right now, particularly in the short stories but sometimes in the novels, too, like in When the Killing’s Done. I absorb the news and reflect on the news. So, in that sense, yes. But I have never written journalism, and I’m not coming from that background at all.

LP: What advice would you give to new writers who want to explore topics they don’t know much about? 

TCB: Well, fiction is an illusion, and anything that strikes a false note will pull a reader out of the story and destroy the illusion. You want to get the details right. When I wrote When the Killing’s Done, even though I don’t like to go and interview people, I thought, “Boy, if I could meet a biologist or two, that would be great.” And so I became close friends with a woman who ran a nature conservancy, and I got to go with her on her rounds and trap foxes, collar them, and release them. I got a wealth of detail there serendipitously, and I hope a biologist would feel that the details in the book are correct. The book I’m writing now has some chemistry in it, and I will have someone very close to me—my son in medical school—vet those sentences to make sure there’s nothing howlingly wrong. And I’ve had other experts over the years. For instance, I have a gun and motorcycle expert, Chuck, who is a good friend. I’ll say, “Chuck, in 1956, what kind of motorbike might a fourteen-year-old have had?” And he can tell me, just like that. For my story “Sin Dolor,” about a boy who can’t feel pain due to a genetic defect, I ran a few things by my doctor and said, “Does this sound okay?”

LP: Are there any topics you find difficult to write about?

TCB: When I was writing my first couple of books, my wife would say, “Your female characters are very flat,” and so they were. But I countered her by saying, “So are my male characters.” I think I’ve learned to deal with characters over the years just by writing novels and settling in. Characters for me don’t necessarily dominate a story as they do for some writers who are great at creating characters. For me, they are one element in the larger canvas of making a story. But maybe I give characters more primacy now simply because I’ve learned to work with character more deeply through experience.

LP: You served as editor for the 2015 edition of Best American Short Stories, where you worked with Heidi Pitlor. In the 2014 edition, she wrote that it sometimes seems as if more people in this country want to write than read. In particular, she mentions that many readers of the Best American series belong to MFA programs and read the stories to improve their craft. Do you think there’s a supply and demand problem in the literary world?  

TCB: Obviously the audience has changed and diminished because of electronic media and the obsession with it. Look on airplanes—people used to read books, and now they play with their phones. Yet there is still a dedicated audience. One of my objects in life is to turn people on and remind them of the special joys of literature. A lot of people see literature as a school assignment, like a geometry lesson, and most people don’t do geometry for fun after they get out of school. The subversive element of a good book is something I like to throw out to the audience—that it’s something you live with and grow with, and fill in with your own mind, as opposed to other forms of entertainment that are just presented to you. So, we’ll see. If you’re a writer, you write, whether there’s an audience or not.

Luke Purdy is an MFA student at Butler University, a lawyer in Indianapolis, and a good-humored contrarian. He’s interested in human rights and prison reform, and his fiction has been published in Blue Monday Review.