Thomas Corghessian (TC) Boyle was born in Peekshill, New York and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has been teaching at the University of Southern California since 1978. Including Drop City, his latest, he has written nine novels: Water Music, Budding Prospects, World’s End, East Is East, The Road To Wellville, The Tortilla Curtain, Riven Rock and A Friend of the Earth. TC Boyle’s short-story collections include: Descent of Man, Greasy Lake, If the River was Whiskey, Without A Hero, TC Boyle Collected Stories and After the Plague. Boyle’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The Paris Review, GQ, Antaeus and Granta, and he has been the recipient of a number of literary awards. He lives with his family outside of Los Angeles.
Robert Birnbaum: Is Drop City a funny book?
TC Boyle: Well, what a great question. I just started to read from it in public and I chose Chapter Six, when they are still in California from Ronnie’s point of view. And it does get some good laughs out of the audience. But in my view, this is my first non-comic book. Some would argue with that. Some would talk about Riven Rock, which I think, by the way, is fairly hilarious. Others would talk about World’s End, but I think from my point of view the mode and the voice is non-comic. Certainly you’ll get some chuckles out of it. And there are some comic scenes, but essentially it’s played as realism and it’s not the kind of satiric tone that I would usually bring to a work like this. Just to do something different and see if I can do it.
RB: That’s a good reason to do something. I know that some of the story is supposed to be funny, but I didn’t think it was funny—emotionally. In part, because I lived that era and I didn’t take it all that seriously, but still there is a sepia cast of melancholy about that time…
TCB: Yeah I suppose. Certainly, it’s not meant to be funny. And it’s also not meant to be nostalgic. I’m not interested in writing about this period in the way that so many people wrote about in its time. I have my own program and my own life going on here. And all the books are allied in one way or another. This to me is an outgrowth of, first Tortilla Curtain, which is about illegal immigration on the surface but the subtext is about the environment and our overpopulation and our being animals in nature and how do we the deal with all of this? Then I did that full blown in my last novel, A Friend of the Earth, which is set in 2025. I’m extrapolating from everything that happens today. Well, if it’s all true, global warming and of course we can see it in Boston right now, this global warming by God [it’s very cold outside] then what will come of it? So, now I felt if I am going to add twenty five years I would like to go back a given period and in this case thirty years, to when we had a Back-to-the-Earth movement. And people felt we should throw off some of the accoutrements of this consumer-based society and live closer to Nature and live more simply and recycle and so on. I just wondered how that would play, out especially in a time when there were only a mere four and half billion people on Earth. And further I chose Alaska and the year 1970 because that was the last year on this continent forever on which you could homestead and live like the pioneers. You could go to Alaska until then and find a nice lake, "Hey beautiful!" Cut down trees, kill your moose and live there. That’s over. That’s over forever.
RB: What ended that?
TCB: The Native Claims Settlement Act. Oil. We are talking oil. The Feds, the state, and the Indians, the Inuit and so on divided it up and now there is no more land. Which is a good thing in many ways. I think it’s nice to know that Alaska exists even for people who don’t go there. Or the Arctic Wildlife Refuge—it’s a place where other creatures still exist aside from us. But again, going back to 1970, I am just wondering it’s the end, it’s absolutely the end. So I am wondering what is it like to really truly live off the land in a primitive way.
RB: You have been at this writing game for a while. At what point did you develop your "program"?
TCB: Only in retrospect.
TCB: Only in retrospect, Robert. It’s not as if you know what your themes are and what your obsessions are. You don’t really know that at the beginning. I look back, and I can see how all of the books are allied. But especially the last six or seven. They seem to be going in a succession and including the one that I am in the middle of right now. Riven Rock talked about a sexual dysfunction, the ’98 book that is a novel based on a true story of the McCormack family and Stanley became schizophrenic. He was called a sexual maniac. He was put away. That also reflects back on the Road to Wellville, which is about Dr. Kellogg who never consummated his marriage but in another way. So the book I am working on now, which also has to do with "man is an animal," is about Dr. Kinsey’s sex researches in the ’40s and ’50s. Everything seems to suggest the next thing. I am just riding it. I just want to see where it will go. I write these novels in order to try to understand the world a little better for my own self. And if I help my fans and readers to go along on the journey, that’s great.
RB: Did you expect to have such a substantial output when you left Iowa City in 1978?
RB: You have always been a hard-working, steady, persevering type guy?
TCB: No, (Both laugh). So two questions. Let’s address the second one first. It’s a question of growing up I guess. I was a very disaffected youth and not very much at school. I didn’t like school. I was a poor undergraduate, barely got through. But I did discover certain things. Like literature. Writing and history. Then I had a few very rocky years, and it was part of this hippie culture and drug culture. But I grew up. I was about twenty-four or so. I just felt this ability to do things. A kind of power, that I could do it if I wanted to. When I went to Iowa—by the way I had never been west of the Hudson River before that—I knew that this was what I wanted to do and I was a great graduate student. I got my Ph.D. and I am very proud of the fact that while I was a screw up prior to this, now I got a perfect 4 point through all of graduate school. And that’s pretty rare there. I am just really proud of that. I knew what I wanted to do, and my whole life was transformed, and I have been going at it ever since. It’s my life. It’s what I want to do. Everyday.
RB: Was this before the great writing program explosion and before Iowa was known to the world as a writing Mecca?
TCB: I was there from ’72 through ’78. Five and half years in all. But I went there because it was a Mecca for writers. All of my heroes had gone there or had taught there. Flannery O’Connor was one of the first graduates. That’s when the program began in the late ’40s. It was good for me. Many of the writers in my classes became well-known writers of today. A lot of them disappeared. I don’t know how that works. I think perseverance plays into it and so does luck, to a degree.
RB: You leapfrogged across the continent. You went from upstate New York, to Iowa City and then directly to southern California where you have been for twenty-five years.
TCB: Absolutely. What’s hilarious about it is when I got to LA, the first year or so, the New York Times Book Review was asking me to review books by western writers. (Laughs) Hey, I’m a western guy, "Sure, give me a cowboy hat, I’ll do it." I didn’t wind up doing it. I didn’t feel very qualified. I don’t know anything about Western writers.
RB: Who were considered Western writers?
TCB: I don’t remember at the time. I did do a review for them recently though, of two Edward Abbey biographies. I don’t like to do reviews. I do it only as a kind of obligation, once in a while. But they just struck a chord to me with Abbey because I had done A Friend of the Earth much inspired by his work, and so I was able to do that for them.
RB: I remember those reviews. You haven’t done any non-fiction in book form…
TCB: No, I haven’t and I have no intention of doing so.
RB: Why not do a biography of Abbey since in your review you pointed out certain deficiencies in the two biographies under discussion? Given your devotion to Abbey, I thought, "Why doesn’t Boyle do it?"
TCB: (laughs) In a novel, of course! I though the books were informative in a buddyhood sort of way. I spoke to that, actually. The Jack Leffler book would break your heart. He was one of the inner circle there. I felt that they weren’t really the definitive biographies, but I loved reading them because I loved reading about the arc of Abbey’s life. And I felt it was my obligation, in my opinion, to tell people about that.
RB: You wouldn’t even do one of these biographical essays as published by Viking?
TCB: The Penguin ones? I love that series. I was asked by the editor of the series when he first came up with the idea. No, because it would take a year out of my life. And it would take one book out of my life. No, I am only interested in pursuing this whole fiction oeuvre. It will all be together at some point and I just want to see how far it’s going to go. And what’s next. That’s really what interests me, is what is next.
RB: What is your recall of what you have written?
TCB: On TC Boyle.com…
TCB: Which has become a wonderful, wonderful part of my life. We get five thousand hits a day. The people on the message boards are fanatics. I am sure some of them will read this. One guy, in Chicago, his name is The News You Can Use, he will do contests on my web board—all quizzes from my work. And no one has won, though people came close. I couldn’t do it. What is my recall? I couldn’t win the News quiz and I wrote the book.
RB: I guess you are not concerned.
TCB: Well, what is so interesting, Robert, is that when you get to talk to an author they are in the middle of a new book and have forgotten the others. You read it yesterday. I may sound a little flippant. I don’t mean it exactly in that way. I stand by what I have done and I am proud and pleased and particularly of Drop City because this one of all the recent ones seems to be getting the most attention. And the most positive attention. Nonetheless, if you are a creative person you are well into the next project by the time you come around with this one. In fact my publisher held this one for a while. This was done eighteen months ago. Done and delivered and ready to go. They have their managing people and they do their things. And so I trust them and listen—whenever they want to do it is fine with me. I think what has happened is the press seems to enjoy interviewing me because I am somewhat more flamboyant than other writers.
RB: You strike me as a rock of stability. What’s this flamboyance thing?
TCB: And I say things that are interesting and they like it, and so maybe I got a little too much attention, and so I have too many books coming out. So they like to space them a little bit. So I listen to my publishers and when they want to bring the books out, that’s fine with me. But it’s been eighteen months and I am totally in to the new one.
RB: Are you taken for granted because you are so prolific? Like Joyce Carol Oates…
RB: To some degree Roth…
TCB: He’s the monk of literature now. I am very impressed with his last four or five books and what he is doing. And there was that great Remnick profile of him in the New Yorker in which Roth is basically going to sit in that house and write books and forget celebrity, forget sex, forget it all. He’s just going to write books. That’s hallelujah, you know.
RB: Is that happening to you?
TCB: I still enjoy sex, Robert. I am going to continue to do that, in fact that’s why I am writing about Dr. Kinsey. And that has been really tough on my wife.
TCB: I promised her that the next book will be about a monk.
RB: Are you reading sections aloud to her?
TCB: It’s been tough, let’s put it that way (laughs).
RB: I was referring to your prodigious output. I was looking at the NY Times archive and it seems that at least the last six or seven books have been reviewed.
TCB: They have done all my books, all fifteen of them.
RB: That would seem to be a benchmark of success and certainly spurs book sales.
TCB: I don’t know anything about that. I don’t know how the industry works or whatever happens. I don’t know about it. I’m a cottage industry sort of guy. I do my thing, and I am very pleased if people respond to it. What I have seen over the years of my career is that the audience is constantly growing and becoming more and more aware. Again, the web page, there are constantly students contacting it for help on papers on my work, and on all sorts of my writings, not just the recent work. Every journalist I talk to, anywhere now has gone to the web page first and gone through and gotten material. There is an allied web page from one of the fans called TCBoyle.net, which is infinite. If you started today it would be a year before you got through that. So there is a lot of interest and I am very pleased. I am an academic guy. I am professor and I was a graduate student. I admire writers and writing. I wrote papers on writers and am very pleased that kids from high school on up to scholars are writing about me. I am honored. It’s great.
RB: You seem to be one of those writers that journalists use to bridge high and low art?
TCB: I operate on the highest level of art. I always have. That’s what I want to do. But, I made many enemies in this way. And I am a professor, a Ph.D. I believe in all of this. I’ve made enemies because I have tried to demystify the whole process. I am also a regular guy. I am also a showman. I love to be on stage. I give readings that people enjoy. There is some kind of mystique with being a writer where you are an intellectual, need a bunch of critics in the university to be intermediaries between you and the audience, I think that’s just crap. No matter what we want to make of it. Art is for entertainment. You can put it in the university but it is for entertainment. And if a book doesn’t entertain it’s useless. Everything else must derive from that. And so I am an entertainer. And yet I am often misunderstood or maybe willfully misunderstood by my legions of enemies, who say, "He wants to dumb it down." Of course they haven’t read my books. Not at all. I am doing exactly what I am doing for the very highest audience possible. But I also want anybody who knows how to read to be able to enjoy this as a story. They may not get all the subtleties; they may not know all my work. They may not know all of literature. But they can read this and get a charge out of it. That’s what it’s about. It’s entertainment.
RB: Why does it seem that more and more people want to become writers?
TCB: I am the first writer they had at USC in the English Department and I started up their undergraduate program and it’s huge. We took over the entire department. I think writing and reading are unique in this—in all of human culture—but particularly in this electronic culture, this busy culture, you can do it on your own. You can be an independent agent. You can be a punk. You can be a crank and a crazy and you can do it and you can find an audience for it. On the other hand the audience for serious fiction dwindles while the number of writers increases. I hope that there will be some point at which that legion of writers—some of which I am helping to push in to the world—will be become the readers of the future. That is probably the best end of this trend. Not every one will be a writer even if they take creative writing, but at least they will understand it and appreciate it.
RB: Most of them won’t become published writers…
TCB: I don’t know about that. There are no guarantees. It’s an art when you get to me at my level as a student it’s almost as if you have gone to the academy now. It’s like you have played your instrument in high school and you are really good and now you are at Julliard and I’m going to coach you and push you on your way. Who you are, what your work becomes, is nothing that I can help with. I just want you to do it in your own individually way and be as good as you can be and, "By the way have you tried this?" Or my opinion on this, you can take it or leave it. Or structurally, what if you did this? I’m teaching a graduate class now. We just started a graduate program with a Ph.D. lit. And some young novelists are in there; all struggling against the enormous structures of the novels that they have dedicated themselves to. All trying to be as good as they can. And I have had tremendous success that makes me feel great, finding a key for them. One guy in particular is having his book published. He just needed someone to say, "Well, what about structurally if you did this?" And he did and boom it worked. So that makes me feel great if I am able to do that. I am not always able to do that. I am only able to give them an opinion. This is what I think, take it or leave it.
RB: It’s probably too large a question to deal with to think about how writers fit into our culture, so I will try to trim that one down…
TCB: I’ll take a stab at that. When I meet people out of the reading and writing and university loop and they don’t know me or who I am, they say, "So what do you do?" I say, "I’m a writer." "Wow, man, you’re a writer. I can hardly read." (laughs) So that’s my function. (Laughs)
RB: Oh yeah, there’s that too.
TCB: They are impressed but they don’t care. I’m not a soap opera star. I’m nothing. I’m joking about it. I am well recognized. People know who I am, that’s not a problem. Hmm (pauses), for the general public, it’s somewhat off-putting that your profession is writing. It’s untrustworthy. They don’t know exactly how you do it, what you do. What that means. They are impressed though. They think. "Well, this pretty good he is a writer." It’s not like you are an oncologist. You know what the oncologist is going to do for you. They don’t know what the writer is going to do for you. But that’s great. That’s why we are writers. We are loose cannons. We are beholding to no one. We do exactly what we please. And again that may be why so many people are attracted to writing because it is such an individual expression and this society at least you can get away with it. In this free society you can get away with it.
RB: You have a prodigious output and at the same time you have been teaching steadily since ’78.
TCB: Since birth.
RB: Since birth? Why do you say that?
TCB: Only kidding.
RB: There is no such thing as a joke in these matters.
TCB: It seems like it.
RB: Would you prefer just to write?
TCB: If I preferred just to write, that’s what I would do. Because the prodigious output that you point out has garnered me many fans around the world and has given me—maybe even as long ago as fifteen years ago, the income to turn my back on teaching if I wanted to. It’s a very important part of my life. As I say, I was a student. I had great mentors who turned my life around. I want to do that for other people. And I want to keep literature viable. Again part of this demystifying process. I want them to know that it is hip, that it’s okay. We have things in our culture beyond the latest movie and MTV or TV shows. We have literature too and it’s viable and it’s great and it can do things for you that the electronic media can’t. It’s a kind of a campaign and that campaign involves going on the road an giving public performances, writing the books and encouraging people who are like minded. My students, for instance. So yeah, I will continue to do that as long as I possibly can. I love it.
RB: Give me sense of your view of Southern California as a literary hotbed. Is there a lot going on?
TCB: Hmm. I have to step back first because I have an after-thought here. I now live a hundred miles from USC. So it’s a haul to get in there. I teach one class in the spring and two classes in the fall. And so I have to listen to books on tape and fight the traffic and so on. I could do it forever if the Dean will agree to drive me in a limo both ways, but I want him to sit up front a wear a little cap.
RB: (Kind of laughs)
TCB: He’s balking at the cap. I don’ t think I am being unreasonable.
RB: A black cap?
TCB: Yeah the chauffeur’s cap.
RB: That’s a little rigid for a freewheeling guy like you.
TCB: (Laughs) Southern California. When I first arrived there in the late ’70s, there wasn’t much of a literary scene. There were some novelists and of course writers have always been attracted out there by the lure of Hollywood. And many screenwriters, of course, that’s changed in the intervening years. We are such a peripatetic society. People choose to live there who have nothing to do with movies and there are a lot of good writers in town. And there is a pretty good literary scene going on. LA Weekly is great. There is Beyond Baroque, it’s been there forever, a writer’s program. And many of the universities have adopted, now, writing programs and of course they have invited writers to move to town. Cal Irvine has a great program that has produced lots of great writers too. See I think it’s a pretty lively literary scene, as lively as any other town with the exception of New York, I suppose.
RB: I always think of LA as a crime-writer central.
TCB: There are a lot.
RB: Besides you, I can’t think of a literary fiction writer in LA.
TCB: There are a lot. I’m not going to mention them. I agree with you as far as genre writers.
RB: Why not? You may forget some? (Laughs)
TCB: That’s exactly right. Where I live now in Santa Barbara it’s mainly genre writers. Almost all, because no one else can afford to live there. I’m just lucky that I am the literary writer who can afford it. (Laughs) They sell a hundred books for every one I sell. I have something that they don’t have, which they crave. Which is respect. But on the other hand, they never get reviewed or rarely, and they never get attacked. So they can just make their millions and be happy.
RB: You don’t think that’s changing?
TCB: No, it’s not.
RB: People still try to break the walls down. Every year there is one other guy who writes in a genre but is supposed to be more than that.
TCB: Well that’s good. Hallelujah. I don’t want to diss any writers, we are all in it together, but I’m a not a genre fiction guy. I don’t read it, don’t like it, don’t think about it. I have never read any science fiction, never read any detective novels, thrillers. I am just not interested in them because they are conventional. That’s why people like them. They want the same thing, the same characters. Great writing to me is, you open the book and you are surprised each time out. That’s what I want to do. That’s literature. Genre writing is limited not only by the fact that it is a genre and so that are certain expectations that have to be fulfilled. Like filling in the blanks. But also, the writing isn’t usually as good as it is in literary fiction. And I need to read something that is as good or better than I can do or it doesn’t interest me.
RB: That would be a high standard.
TCB: Yeah that’s right. Well, there are a lot of great books to read. If human life lasted ten thousand years, I couldn’t get through the books I want to know about. So why waste my time? It’s thrilling t o read something that is a literary book that is great. Much more than reading some whodunnit or thriller. They are so standard. I have no objection to going to movies to see a thriller or a SCI fi movie or something. Two hours, my mind goes numb I’m having fun. I love it. It’s great. But I am not going to waste my time reading a pulp book when I could be reading great stuff.
RB: There are writers who recognize that one of the problems with genre is that the good guy always comes out alive…
TCB: But Robert, I know anyone who reads this will think, "Well what a schmuck Boyle is." I am not coming down on these people. I am just expressing my opinion. It doesn’t interest me. And yo, okay, so you change the formula slightly and the good guy gets killed. Who cares? It’s still the same convention. People fudge the margins a little bit. Look at Borges, what fun he had with the idea of detective stories.
RB: Umberto Eco.
TCB: Yeah Eco. Calvino even. Much more with folk stories, which I loved. There are people who can do new things with it, and then there are people who are part of the genre because that’s what they love and that’s what they know. Fine, let them do it. It doesn’t interest me.
RB: Do you look at current literature and say there is a book that people will be talking about in a hundred years?
TCB: Of course I am a great fan of many, many writers and many books.
RB: Part of your criteria is that a book will last?
TCB: Right, it’s one man’s opinion. Just as I have an opinion on genre writers in general…Raymond Chandler, I’ve read him; I like him the fact that he takes me back in LA history. But I am always disappointed because it has to adhere to the conventions. Ian McEwan just won the National Book Critic’s Circle for Atonement. That’s one of the best books I have read in years. The Remains of the Day by Ishiguro is a masterpiece. To me is one the best books ever written by anyone at any time. Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is a masterpiece. Denis Johnson’s books, Fiskadoro and Jesus’ Son, brilliant writing going on out there that is utterly new, utterly unconventional. Beautifully wrought, beautifully structured, thought out. It’s amazing stuff. The Hours…why would I want to…? I couldn’t get through all of these books if I had a million years. So these are the books I want to read. By the way, I read popular books. I had never read Seabiscuit. Because I don’t like horses. Their eyeballs are too big. I don’t like racing and I don’t know anything about it and don’t like it. But people kept telling me. "Ya gotta read this." And I just finished it, and I had tears in my eyes. It was wonderful. I now love horses. That’s a popular book that is just brilliantly done. It’s not conventional in any way. I was blown away by it.
RB: It’s somewhat neat that a book like that sold. I wonder if they thought it would be big.
TCB: I don’t think they know what fiction will sell either. Fortunately for some of us who have a track record and I been with the same publisher all this time [Viking] and all my books have always been in print which I love and it’s a kind of miracle in itself. They will look at what I give them and put it out there and hope for the best. I can’t say why one book gets more attention than another. But for some reason Drop City is back in the loop and getting huge attention including from my own publisher. When the NY Times ran its cover story you open the page and there’s the full-page ad. I haven’t had that before. I’m very pleased.
RB: Who is your editor at Viking?
TCB: Paul Slovak. He edits a few writers whom he has really has loved over the years. The late Ken Kesey was one of them. Bill Vollman is one of them. I think Bill Kennedy might be one of his authors. This got us off the subject—we were talking how editors edit my books. I am a nutball perfectionist and now with the computer what I deliver to them is pretty much what you are going to see. Which is not to say that I don’t appreciate comments and sometimes adopt them. For instance, in A Friend of the Earth, there is a scene when which the two protagonists as protest against environmental destruction and logging strip naked before the press, hand them their clothes and walk off in to the Sierras for one month to live off the land. With nothing. Paul said this is a great scene. Why don’t you extend it a little? And he was absolutely right. I had a lot of material to get to in that book and to move this story, Perhaps I had summarized too much of that. And I went back and added four or five pages and I think the scene is richer for it. That sort of thing can be wonderful. This book, Drop City, is exactly what I gave them. Exactly, that’s it.
RB: How many drafts did you do?
TCB: I can’t really say because it is all done in one draft. One long repeated draft.
RB: Sentence by sentence.
TCB: Over and over, over and over before I move ahead. And the next day I go back to where I was the day before. Over and over until I move ahead. So it’s one single draft that has been gone over many, many times in the process of writing it.
RB: Usually people who work that way take a very long time.
TCB: I work a little faster than most because I began to realize that you generally produce most of your best work before death. So that’s a stimulant. What I am doing right now is the problem; it interrupts the flow of books. I am flying on this book The Inner Circle, the Kinsey Book. And I didn’t want to stop. I got farther than I even thought I would before I went on tour.
RB: Wasn’t there a Solzhenitsyn book by that title?
TCB: He had book with circle in the title…The First Circle.
RB: What’s your response when a critic makes an judgement that Drop City is a hundred pages too short?
TCB: Yeah, I’m glad. I think that’s wonderful. Many people felt this about Tortilla Curtain too. Each book, each story has its proper moment to end and sometimes the author doesn’t know that until he gets there. I’m delighted, that means he’s thinking beyond it and he liked and wanted it to go on. In many of my historical novels, I give you a coda, like with the Road to Wellville, or Riven Rock or Water Music. This is what happened in subsequent times. But with books like this one and Tortilla Curtain I feel like I have come to a point when you can write the ending yourself. You know what’s going to happen the next day, the next week, six months from now. And to limn that for you would be wrong. Because the best books—and genre writing doesn’t do this—invite you in as much as possible to create the book yourself. At the very end of this book I am glad that you want it to go on. Obviously, we can go on…all of the questions the reader should be posing for themselves.
RB: Occasionally people come back to a novel they have written—Richard Ford with Independence Day, Julian Barnes with Love Etc. and Frederick Busch is writing one for Girls—and a few years later want to write a sequel.
TCB: I’ve never written sequels of my own work. Of course I have written sequels of classic works. I wrote the sequel to For Whom the Bell Tolls in fifteen pages. Also, wrote the Overcoat II, to help the memory of Nikolai Gogol, The Devil and Irv Cherniske. I love to do that. I love to play with literary form and classic stories. I have never written a sequel yet. Because I am so caught with what’s next and what’s new, I don’t want to look back. I don’t want to go back. When I present something to the public I have put everything that I possibly can into it and I have made it as good as I thin it can be. I don’t second-guess. I don’t go back. When I did the Collected Stories in ’98 I looked at some of my very earliest stories and I obviously I would write then differently today. But I didn’t want to change them at all. Why do a collected stories? Especially, at that stage in my career. I hope to do a second Collected Stories. Well, it’s for the interest of people who want to see where I came from. Whether they be scholars or students or people who just want to be inspired. Or just have a good laugh. Here it is. As far as my next book will be this Inner Circle but the following book will be another collection. I have half of that ready.
RB: Gee whiz.
TCB: Of course, of course. I am totally committed to the short story and I will always write them equally with novels.
RB: I brought up the sequel idea because I see an opportunity here because a child is about to be born at the end of Drop City which wouldn’t compel you to…
TCB: Rehash the old characters…I am kind of sly in the way that I have learned from Vonnegut when I was kid. By making references to my other works In this book, for instance this was proceeded by the story Termination Dust in my last book, After the Plague, which is also set in Alaska in a town I invented called Boynton. Some of the people in that story were young then. I am waiting for an irate fan or astute geographer to point out that I have changed the geography of the Boynton from the story to the novel. I did that intentionally.
RB: For some people you are in the heart of Babylon in Southern California. The last time I talked with you mentioned that you were going to have a TV program.
TCB: I had a television show going down. I don’t watch TV. I’m not a TV guy but I will do anything to get my stories out to a greater audience and my agent came to me that Fox would do a series of my stories and I would be the host. I would only have to be the host. At the last minute they went with a horror anthology instead. Which I understand is no longer on the air. I hadn’t invested much in that but I had hopes for it. I love when my books are made into movies because it will get a boost for people reading the books.
RB: What has been made besides the Road to Wellville?
TCB: It looks like next we’ll see The Tortilla Curtain. Luis Mendocky will direct it; he’s a Mexican director who did The White Palace. Robin Williams and Helen Hunt will play the Mossbachers and Benjamin Bratt and Eve Mendez will play the Rincons and it will be financed through HBO films for theatrical release. And they are going to start filming in May. But you know, with movies until you have the extra buttered popcorn between your thighs and it’s playing on the screen, you never know. I loved the idea. Really it was a thrill—when Alan Parker made the Road to Wellville—to go there and see characters that you’d imagined and lines that you had written, there and appearing on the screen even if it’s in a different version form how you pictured it. It’s just a thrill. And it helped to broadcast the book. That’s my only interest. I don’t work for the movies, I don’t participate in any way. I don’t go on the set. I don’t care about that. But if it’s a really sappy horrible movie (laughs) I’ll have to distance myself from it because after all I didn’ t do the movie and people will blame me for the movie. So it can cut both ways.
RB: So whose picture will go on the cover of the paperback?
TCB: They put Anthony Hopkins and Bridget Fonda on the cover of The Road to Wellville. And I resent that. To a degree. But it sold lots and lots of copies. Benjamin Bratt is extremely handsome and young…
RB: Did you see his movie Pinero?
TCB: Yes I did. He’s handsome, he’s young and doesn’t look like Candido. I’m hoping he’s going to go the Robert De Niro/Raging Bull way, gain thirty pounds and let his hair fall out and get real dirty and sleep in a pit for a couple of weeks. Otherwise, I don’t know…I also hope that they use Spanish for when the Rincons start talking to each other. If they talk with an accent which Hollywood will probably do, I think it will spoil the effect. I have nothing to do with this. I am sure they are not going to listen to me (both laugh) but I really hope that the Spanish portions are in Spanish. But don’t hold your breath.
RB: You are here with me in Boston talking about a book you finished a year and half ago. And you are almost finished with the next one. When will it come out?
TCB: It depends on the endless book tours. And when I get my life back together again. I will have the summer I hope to be finished by fall.
RB: And you have a story collection…
TCB: Once the novel is done, I will start writing new stories again.
RB: It’s a collection?
TCB: I already have nine.
RB: They have already been published?
TCB: Yeah some were published. The first came out in January of last year, "Swept Away," in the New Yorker. I’d finished this book and then I put together a textbook for Heinley, a book I have always wanted to do—for classes like—mine of contemporary writers. It’s called Double Takes. Thirty-two writers, each one has two stories, I’ve done head notes and an introduction. It’s an anthology. It a lot of work. Then I began to write stories. I went up to the Sierra Nevada. I always do. And the first I wrote is a very whimsical piece based on the notion, I had read about the windiest town on earth, it’s in the Shetland Islands and cats blow by, so I wrote my flying cat story called "Swept Away." I continued to write stories until May and then I began the research on this Kinsey book. I went to all the biographies and histories and went to Bloomington [Indiana] and I began writing the book on Halloween, a propitious day. I’m writing better and faster than I ever have. It’s the first ‘I’ narrator of a novel since Budding Prospects. I’m really enjoying it.
RB: Your daughter is writing now.
TCB: I am very proud of my daughter and a little jealous of her, by the way.
RB: Is she better than you are?
TCB: Well, of course she is. What’s great is she is a very different writer. She is very textured with dense beautiful writing. As if William Gass were her father instead of me. Her name is Kerry Kobashe Boyle. She just published her first story in McSweeney’s, a great place to publish. On the strength of that she has gotten into two anthologies and NPR has asked her to be a commentator. Now when I published my first story nobody cared, nobody noticed. (Both laugh) And furthermore she is in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop right now.
RB: Somebody at Slate wrote a piece on fam fic, children continuing the work of their parents or relatives…
TCB: Has that ever happened?
RB: Well that was the premise of the piece. Tolkien, Jeff Shaama, Brian Herbert. As well as the Godfather saga continuing, a sequel to Gone with the Wind…
TCB: I think it is mainly unhappy…the best example I can think of that seems happy to me, although I don’t know the circumstances, is Martin Amis and his father Kingsley. Both brilliant. In fact, I think Martin is more brilliant than his father. But they both have successful careers as writers.
RB: I am more interested about the legitimacy of one writer continuing another’s work. Robert Parker finished a Raymond Chandler book at the behest of the Chandler Estate…
TCB: I have no idea why anyone would do that. I would never do that. When I have done rewritten classic stories, It’s for my own purposes in order to make a point. And it’s somewhat of a homage to the story, but it’s not an attempt to write in the mode of that author but rather to do a riff on it for fun. To make a comment on how this story holds up now and the attitudes of this story hold up now. The Over Coat II, I wrote in the mid ’80s and it retold the story with the same characters and the same scenario except that it took place in the worker’s paradise. And it was rather harsh commentary on the Soviet System. I haven’t been fully credited for this, but it was I who was responsible for bringing down the Soviet Union by having written that story.
RB: I will inform the rest of the media. (laughs)
TCB: Thank you.
RB: Are you familiar with the Will Self book Dorian?
TCB: No. But I know Will and I have read Cock & Bull and his Great Apes, which is a wonderful book. He has new one?
RB: Yes, and he calls it an imitation.
TCB: Oh. Dorian Gray?
TCB: I’d be interested because he is a guy who could really ring changes on that. He has an amazingly idiosyncratic point of view.
RB: I’m not sure what the conclusion is but that other than for commercial reasons to continue an author’s work.
TCB: I think it is corrupt actually. The writer’s work is individual, and we love the writer for having taken us someplace we have never been before. And to imitate for commercial reasons is kind of artistically bankrupt. It’s like writing the novelization of a movie or something.
RB: Wait, you aren’t suggesting that multi-national corporations that publish books are corrupting the arts?
TCB: Well, I don’t even know what the subject is exactly. I hadn’t even heard of this. You asked my opinion and there it is. (Both laugh)
RB: Let’s end there before we provoke dark forces… Thanks.
TCB: Thank you.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing