For bestselling author T.C. Boyle, writing is both an obsessive-compulsive behavior and the highest thing he can aspire to. He talked with Max Tholl to discuss the educative purpose of art, teaching creativity and the deepest desires of human nature.
The European: You have described your new novel San Miguel as your "first non-ironic, non-comic historical book." Is there any particular reason you decided that it was time to deviate from your traditional style?
Boyle: Each book -- and story -- finds its own way. In this case, since I was working from a fragmentary diary left behind by Marantha and a memoir written by Elise -- two of the book's protagonists -- it came to me to inhabit both women in their own personae. It happens too that I am about to publish the second volume of my collected stories, T.C. Boyle Stories II, both here and in the UK this fall. When put together with the first volume, this represents some 1.700 pages of stories. They are very various in their modes. Some, like "Chicxulub," are in the realist, non-comic mode. So there is precedent. I figure, why not stretch myself and try to do something different rather than repeat myself? And so: San Miguel.
The European: It is also the first book that you've written from a female point of view. Did you feel at ease writing from a woman's perspective?
Boyle: When I first began writing stories my wife would always complain that my female characters were flat. I countered by pointing out that my male characters were flat too. Back then I was interested more in language, design and idea than in character. I've grown up since. And I take it as a challenge to write from any point of view.
The European: San Miguel -- just like many of your other novels -- is largely based on historical facts and biographical accuracy. Yet it is still a work of fiction. Where do you draw the line between fiction and historical accuracy?
Boyle: There are no rules. I could have taken Dr. Kellogg of The Road to Wellville or Frank Lloyd Wright of The Women and transported them to the moon if that struck my fancy. But it didn't. One of the reasons I am attracted to these historical scenarios is because the stories -- the factual stories -- fascinate me. I want to communicate that fascination to my readers.
The European: You've said that you are very interested in "man as an animal and how our behavior is predetermined by our animal natures." What's your conclusion so far?
Boyle: My conclusion is so hopeless as to preclude any response here. Let us hope that God is listening and that he will come down to redeem us. In his absence we have Darwin; a depressing substitute. Personally, I have art and nature, my twin deities.
The European: San Miguel also reflects the savagery of nature and man's place in it. You are very much concerned with environmental issues and the toll we humans take on nature. Would you consider yourself a political or politically motivated writer?
Boyle: Not at all. I am an artist and my only concern is with making art. If I am deeply committed to social and environmental issues: so much the better. But I do not think the purpose of art is to push any political point. Art invites the audience in as an equal participant.
The European: Do you think that this position is widely shared? Is literature still a powerful political tool that depicts social ills and acts as agitator, or has it become mere entertainment?
Boyle: There are all sorts of books, just as there are all sorts of bands and all sorts of movies and plays, some engaging, some utter crap. This is called the democracy of the marketplace. I would like to think that my books touch people on the deepest level. If I didn't think that, I'd have trouble showing my face in public.
The European: But even in the entertainment sector, books are no longer the talk of the town - movies and TV series are. Does that worry you, or do you consider TV series like The Wire or Breaking Bad to be equally educative?
Boyle: Art is not supposed to be educative. Art exists for its own sake. As for the TV series you mention: yes, they are akin to the serial novels such as those by Charles Dickens that existed in the era before electronic entertainment. But, of course, and I am not the first to point this out, film is a medium in which the audience receives, while literature is a medium in which the audience participates. Further, the TV series are the product of multitudes -- they are collaborative -- while literature remains stubbornly individual. I could not imagine collaborating artistically with anyone, even for the space of a single breath.
The European: You've described writing as "an obsessive-compulsive disorder" that takes hold of you.
Boyle: Exactly. I should point out as well that all writers are egomaniacal, manic depressive, drug-addicted alcoholics. I am no exception.
The European: Is it true that you are also crazily competitive? Does that influence your writing?
Boyle: I do not think in the least of creating stories in order to sell them, nor have I ever, even when I was unknown and broke. I write for myself. That is what an artist does. If I have been lucky -- and I have been -- then it is in the way my readership has embraced me. I am eternally thankful for that.
The European: Do you know how your average reader looks like?
Boyle: Yes, in fact I know them all personally -- and their babies too.
The European: Do you think about what they might like to read during your writing process?
Boyle: That is beyond my ken. I do the best of which I am capable and I hope for the best. And I am dedicated, wholly, to what I do.
The European: David Foster Wallace argued that his writing style came out pretty much of what he wanted as a reader. Is that true for you as well?
Boyle: I never really thought of it in that light, but I suppose it's true. On the other hand, your style is a reflection of your personality and you really have no control over that.
The European: You teach creative writing. Do you think that creativity can be taught?
Boyle: No. You cannot make a great writer of someone who does not have a great talent. In fact you cannot make a writer, period. But many have that great talent and some do respond to the arena for creativity such a class can create.
The European: Your former teacher, the great John Irving, recently said: "If I were 27 and trying to publish my first novel today, I might be tempted to shoot myself". Do you share that pessimistic view?
Boyle: I must admit to being a bit blindered here. I am living in the world, making my art in my own way, and to me that is the highest thing I can aspire to. Writers write, that is the bottom line. I have had several recent students experience towering success: Tea Obrecht, Anthony Marra and Bonnie Nadzam, among others. This is the way it should be. And while literature does not hold the sway it once did because of our plugged-in society, it does have an advantage over film and popular music in that its pirating is relatively limited. There will always be literature. It's just that the literary chunk of the pie is getting smaller and smaller. So go ahead, you 27-year-olds, shoot yourselves. In fact, I don't really understand why we don't shoot ourselves every minute of every day. I suspect it's because we want sex. And food. And drugs.
The European: You have depicted Alfred C. Kinsey, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and Frank Lloyd Wright in your novels. How should a future writer depict T. C. Boyle?
Boyle: As a saint balancing a halo on his head and ascending directly to heaven.