T.C. Boyle (The Bat Segundo Show)

T.C. Boyle is most recently the author of San Miguel.

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Since Mr. Boyle has appeared four previous times on this program (Show #10, Show #70, Show #273, Show #385), we felt that it was essential to include him in Bat Segundo’s last stretch. This is the fifth and final conversation with T.C. Boyle.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Remembering his disastrous Diana-themed wedding ceremony to Doris.

Author: T.C. Boyle

Subjects Discussed: On being alive, the “Swiss Family Lester” article in Life, the advantages of working with scant details, not wishing to violate historical rules, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, the quest for quotidian atmosphere on an island, constant description of the wind, imagining what it’s like to live away from everyone as a fantasy, visits to the Channel Islands, rough seas, Boyle’s ineptitude as a sailor, the mysterious rangers who live on San Miguel Island, people who camp on the Channel Islands, why anyone would want to lay down $10,000 on a questionable capitalistic venture, comparisons between East is East and San Miguel, underplayed racial tension in San Miguel, Japanese fishermen who visited the Channel Islands, muting the irony, working within deliberate limitations, writing about a location that is starved of art and culture, staying original and avoiding the tendency to repeat, “Birnam Wood,” writing realistic stories without irony, Boyle’s tendency to use women as characters despite his efforts to write about men, carryover from Talk Talk and When the Killing’s Done into San Miguel, using character more as a writer, how Boyle’s stories have changed in the last fifteen years, the forthcoming Stories Volume II, John Updike, refusing to make adjustments to stories, “This Monkey, My Back,” the Ransom archives, academic methods of cleaning the house, the difficulties of giving up elements of the past, letters that Boyle didn’t give to Ransom, the morality of burning love letters, hiding financial disclosure, seeing writers of the past on TV and radio, George Bernard Shaw, Boyle’s insistence that society won’t exist in 100 years, Jack Kerouac’s disastrous appearance on Firing Line, whether author appearances and legacy even matters, the desire for literary gossip, literary biography, Carol Sklenicka’s biography of Raymond Carver, Blake Bailey, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, San Miguel as the obverse experience from Boyle typically playing joyful god towards characters, keeping San Miguel confined to the island, human efforts to control nature, despair, being a nature boy, having a sense of isolation, Thoreau living in nature, Alcatraz and Angel Island, writing fiction in isolation on a mountain, using the Internet with iron discipline, fiction which emerges from America in a glum economic and political state, Brian Francis Slattery’s Lost Everything, having a more muted view in advanced age, maintaining a clean conscience, the amniotic fluid of civilization, the addictiveness of handheld devices, the usefulness of smartphones, Occupy Wall Street, whether the experience of nature is lost on most people, biologists who have praised When the Killing’s Done, the recent shutdown of California parks, simulation as a way to confront reality, the 1935 film version of Mutiny on the Bounty shot at San Miguel, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” Lord of the Flies, Francophilia, language and civilization as a coping mechanism, spinsters, the surprising hope near the end of San Miguel, Boyle’s next novel about violence, deviation during a novel, how newspaper paragraphs turn into stories, and fiction vs. journalism.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I found this [handing over printout] — this “Pictures to the Editor” article from Life. I thought that you were just making this up, this whole “Swiss Family Lester” thing. But lo and behold, I found this. And I’m sure you found this before you had the Life reporter show up in your book. And this leads me to wonder. Because I was surprised by how skimpy this article was. I mean, I look at these photos and there’s plenty of information there for a writer of your sort to draw and infer and so forth. So this leads me to wonder. How much research do you need for something along these lines? Is it helpful to not have as many details? Or to just have a picture like this?

Boyle: Yeah, I wonder. That’s a great question, Ed. The first section of the book about the Waters family allowed me a little more freedom to invent. Because the diary from which I was working was fifty pages or less. Very fragmentary and only took up a six month period. With the Lesters, since they were very well known and were featured in Life Magazine and on radio shows all across the country, it was a little more difficult. Because I didn’t want to violate the actual events of history. But I think the two stories, in my mind anyway, blended fairly well.

Correspondent: So if you have to go ahead and abide by the rules of history, as a fiction writer you have to invent. I mean, does this get in the way?

Boyle: Yes. Well, this is a question with any of the historical novels. And I’ve written many, many historical novels and stories too. You don’t have to abide. You can do, for instance, what Philip Roth did in The Plot Against America. You can change anything. There are no rules whatsoever. You can have aliens come in in the middle of a realistic story. But usually when I’m giving historical elements, I love the true story so much that I want to give it to you. And usually it’s so bizarre. Like for instance, Stanley McCormick from Riven Rock or Alfred Kinsey or even Frank Lloyd Wright. The people I’ve written about. In this case though, I was trying, as you know, for something totally different and, as a companion piece to When the Killing’s Done, to give more of an atmospheric, moody, quotidian kind of approach to what it might have been like to be someone living on this island solely.

Correspondent: But then you have situations like constant descriptions of the wind. There’s a lot of wind in this book. This leads me to ask, well, what do you do to keep that original? I know that you are devoted to original prose, original description, and not wanting to repeat yourself. What do you do to keep that fresh?

Boyle: Aw shucks, Ed. I’m just flying by the seat of my pants. Everything works organically. And if it’s windy, it’s windy. You know, the book begins — for those who don’t know — with a series of very short chapters. This is a naturalistic book about people living on an island. And each one introduces a new element. And one of those elements is the fog, for instance. One is the wind. Many of them describe elements of the house: arriving at the house, the kitchen, the bedroom. It’s a way of my going deep inside these characters to imagine what it would have been like to live apart from everyone. I mean, this is a fantasy that so many of us have. Why the Lesters were famous in their day. Simply for living apart from the entire world on this island, in sole possession of it, during the Depression. When everybody else was lined up on the streets looking for a job.

Correspondent: Did you make any visits to San Miguel? I know you did that for Anacapa for the last book. Did you take in the terrain to know how to write about it? Especially when there are really no remnants of the homes, the domiciles, or even the sheep that actually appeared over there.

Boyle: Indeed yes, Ed. I made a single trip to San Miguel. Now I’ve made many, many trips, of course, to Santa Cruz and Anacapa, which were the setting of the previous book. As you know from having read San Miguel, this island is the farthest out and the most buffeted by the weather because of the currents. It’s not protected by Point Conception. It’s right off of it. So it’s getting everything coming down from the northern current from San Francisco, rumbling with the southern current coming up from Los Angeles and San Diego and spinning around in the Santa Barbara Channel. So it’s very, very rough seas. I’m told that I write very well about the seas, particularly in When the Killing’s Done, which opens with a shipwreck, as you remember. But I’m not a good sailor and my stomach doesn’t like being at sea. Especially in rough seas. Now it’s an hour and a half across to Santa Cruz in rough seas. But it’s four hours to San Miguel. And once you get there, you must stay in a campground for several days before the boat will come back to pick you up. I used a very, very simple stratagem to avoid this. I flew out. I flew out with the ranger, who is the sole person who lives there in the sole building on the island.

Correspondent: Well, that’s not exactly cricket if you want to mimic the experience.

Boyle: Well, of course, I have had the experience of going across the Channel many, many times.

Correspondent: Those extra hours, Tom.

Boyle: It’s true. It’s true. I never actually hung my head over and vomited. But I’ve been close on several occasions. I should say too, when I went to visit the ranger, I brought my son with me. I brought Marla Daily, the local historian who turned me onto all of this and published these diaries. And it was wonderful. Because the ranger himself is a historian of the place. And so is she. So I got to spend a full day with them looking at the rafters that were left in the ground of the old Lester house. There’s just a few remnants left. A little midden of cans and stuff. And just really get a sense of all of these places I had read about. And distances. And to walk all the trails. But what most intrigued me was that as you fly in, the beaches there — you’ve seen it probably on Walt Disney and the Discovery Channel — it’s a huge breeding ground for the elephant seal. And you see them, hundreds of them, lying below you like giant inflated sausages. And as soon as I got off the plane, I said to Ian, “Look, maybe I should be talking to Fish and Game instead of you. But is it a violation if I mate with one of the sea elephants?” And he didn’t miss a beat. He said, “You know, that’s a violation on every possible grounds.”

Correspondent: How long did the ranger live there? I mean, did you get to know him fairly well to get a sense…

Boyle: Well, I spent a day with him. A day and a night with him. He has to retire. He’s only like fifty or something. But they rotate them out. And I think he has to retire soon. But he’s been there for some years. And he’s not there permanently. I mean, he has relief. Because even people who like solitude might go a little nuts out there.

Correspondent: Well, as you depict in your book.

Boyle: A further statistic. In Santa Cruz Island — the big one, four times bigger than Manhattan, right across from Santa Barbara, you can see it right there — there is a public campground. And you can take this boat out and you can camp there. And I was told by the ranger there that some days, like a July 4th weekend, there might be as many as 300 people camping in that campground. On San Miguel, there are 300 campers per year. So it’s pretty remote.

Correspondent: It is a park, I understand.

Boyle: It’s part of the National Park. Yeah. All the Channel Islands are, with the exception of Catalina.

Correspondent: So if the ranger gets rotated out, and if you are only relying upon a fifty page diary or scraps or, in the case of the third part, considerable media attention — although that’s accentuated by the fact that suddenly they have electricity, suddenly they have radio and so forth — what do you do to mimic that experience of being trapped on an island? Do you go ahead and spend a week eating nothing but lamb? How does this work?

Boyle: I’m just using my imagination, of course. Again, in this one as a companion piece for When the Killing’s Done, which is so vibrant and wild and deals with a current ethical concern about how we treat animals and who has the right to do it and who owns the turf, here I wanted something much more muted, to give a kind of experience of what it must have been like. Because this is a fantasy of everybody. One of the memoirs — the one by Elise, Elizabeth Lester — is called The King of San Miguel. Herbie was the king. Who else is the king? It’s just him, his wife, and two kids.

Correspondent: Who wants to be the king?

Boyle: That’s another question. Who wants to be the king? And I think what intrigued me about the first diary, Marantha, and then the Lester book is that there were these tremendous correspondences between the two families, who were in sole possession of this. One in the 1880s and the other in the 1930s. Here are men who have a vision and really don’t take into consideration the costs on their wives. I think this is particularly true in the first one: Marantha’s story. Here was a woman. Upper middle class. Living in an apartment in San Francisco. Convinced by her husband to buy into this ship ranch. To buy essentially this island and live there and, of course, they make their living in the most essential way. They shear the sheep and sell the wool. What could be simpler? A life in nature. But everyone isn’t suited for that.

(Image: Teri Carter)

The Bat Segundo Show #492: T.C. Boyle (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: TC Boyle IV

TC Boyle appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #385. He is most recently the author of When the Killing’s Done. This is his fourth appearance on the program. He has previously appeared on The Bat Segundo #273, The Bat Segundo Show #70, and The Bat Segundo Show #10.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Considering a savage swim to the Channel Islands.

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle

Subjects Discussed: Whether one can look dapper while being under the weather, Boyle’s powerful immune system, connections between Wild Child‘s stories and When the Killing’s Done, fishing expeditions gone awry, early subconscious efforts to hone the narrative framework, the short story “Anacapa,” “Question 62,” who has the ethical result to control all creatures, details on the next novel San Miguel, the Channel Islands, the bleak winds of San Miguel, straightforward historical narrative vs. exuberant adventure, Boyle’s prodigious description of hair, folk singers and massive hair, writing about women, Ruth Dershowitz in East is East and Dana in Talk Talk, basing When the Killing’s Done on news accounts without meeting anybody involved, Dave LaJoy and megalomaniacs, readers who take hard sides in response to the book, whether the portrayal of an exuberant megalomaniac causes an unintended ideological tilt, sympathizing with an animal rights activist, not being able to look at the PETA slaughterhouse videos, Diane Johnson’s essay in the New York Review of Books, whether Boyle’s sense of the ridiculous overcomes moments of gravity, the role of literature within Killing, Madame Bovary “in the Jean Renoir original,” Island of the Blue Dolphins, Boyle’s pessimism, being thrust into the lap of the existentialists, Jeffrey Dahmer, the comforts of irrelevance, Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” spirituality, feeling the pulse of nature and being humbled by it, Boyle’s pilgrimages, blocking out terrible news, the role of art in a nihilistic viewpoint, the geography of Santa Cruz and Anacapa, Boyle’s mother-in-law, the degree of geographical exploration required for Drop City and When the Killing’s Done, the Judas pig, Tom Wolfe’s journalistic approach to novel writing, passages written by “Boyle the historian,” being in the clear when using real people for fiction, when fiction is more real than reality, riffing on history, Home Depot as “the loneliest place in the world,” not having material goods, and escaping to the mountain.

EXCERPTS FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to remark upon a recent essay by Diane Johnson in The New York Review of Books. I’m sure you’ve probably seen it by now.

Boyle: Yes, I have.

Correspondent: She wrote something that I happen to agree with. “Because his sense of the ridiculous usually overcomes his moments of gravity, he rarely departs from a comic mode that precludes tears even in the most tragic circumstances.” I think that this is a fair point, especially in this book. But if your book is informed with this sense of the ridiculousness, I’m wondering if this is going to impede upon writing in more serious or greater turf.

Boyle: It might. Which is precisely why I’m doing a non-comic straightforward historical narrative right now. Just to see how that might be and what might happen. Don’t forget. I’m the guy who wrote Water Music as my first novel, which turned the historical novel on its head and subverted and pulled the rug out and nudged you constantly about the unreliability of fiction and of history too. Now I am trying to write something without any irony or any comedy. Straightforward drama. Straightforward realism. Just because I’ve never done it before. I’ve done it in short stories. But I’ve never done it at length. And I found this wonderful story, a historical story, which I’m telling as best I can. We shall see what the results are. In fact, if we’re very lucky, you and I will be sitting here in three years discussing that one. And we’ll find out. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, maybe we will. But I want to see if we can get to When the Killing’s Done and this problem of adopting the comic exuberant tone. I think this book does really present some very important issues, which we were getting to earlier, about how does humanity play god in the animal kingdom. I mean, this is a very serious topic. And the comedy is almost a mask over something which is — well, if you think about it from either side — really depressing. So I’m wondering if, in not permitting us to share tears (as Diane Johnson believes), it almost trivializes the issue to some degree. Does it present a problem? Or is your strategy more laying a few comic exuberant bombs to blow up in the reader’s head in about a week or so?

Boyle: Wow. Neither of the above. I’ll go for Choice C. I don’t see this as necessarily a comic novel. Certainly there are many varieties of comedy, of course. And I’ve used every possible mode I can think of. This has its moments, of course. And I think it allows the reader to stand back at times and view the characters with some kind of ironic detachment perhaps. But I don’t see this as essentially a comic novel. I see this as a dramatic novel. And further — and we’ve talked about this in the past — I often find that using the comic mode can be more emotionally wrenching then writing a straightforward drama. Because it subverts your expectations. And in this one. Well, look at the ending to this book. It should punch you right in the heart. I hope it does.

Correspondent: But I don’t know. From my standpoint, it read very much like a comic novel. To me. Particularly every time LaJoy came up. I mean, this guy is such a hilarious…

Boyle: Because he’s exaggerated to a degree. And yet, and yet, he’s also real. And I wouldn’t want to say, as I said earlier, that he represents a large part of me. But certainly that part is there. And certainly, Ed, we are both of us pretty much perfect and beautifully emotionally adjusted. But a lot of people out there are not. There are a lot of people out thee who make LaJoy look calm.

* * *

Correspondent: Do you have anything that you feel optimistic or joyful about?

Boyle: No.

Correspondent: No? Nothing optimistic?

Boyle: No. Since I discovered death at a very young age, it has obsessed me. And the whole purpose of our endeavors obsesses me. And in a larger scale, of course, our human endeavors on the planet, which will of course be burned to a cinder in there and a half billion years anyway. So what does anything matter? Etcetera. As I probably have said to you before, you know, I went from a Roman Catholic boy with god and his heaven and Santa Claus at the age of eleven or twelve or whatever, realizing that it’s all completely phony and it’s just some myth that we’ve been fed to prevent us from committing suicide at a young age. And within three or four years of that, I was thrust into the lap of the existentialists. And I’ve never come back.

Correspondent: Then is work really the only way, the only reason to stay alive?

Boyle: All work is irrelevant. Everything is irrelevant. Our conversation is irrelevant. Literature is irrelevant. Films, love, everything is utterly irrelevant in the face of utter meaninglessness and death. That’s what we live with. Everybody lives with every minute of every day. On the other hand, if you’re not going to shoot yourself tonight, do what satisfies you. What satisfies me is making literature and then sitting here with you talking about it. And also I have honor. I really believe in the power of literature and I like to promote it. I’ve never cheated anybody or hurt anybody — you know, that sort of thing. And that’s simply because that’s my own code. It doesn’t make me any worse than Jeffrey Dahmer, for instance.

Correspondent: Who’s dead.

Boyle: It’s just my point of existence.

(Image: Mark Coggins)

The Bat Segundo Show #385: TC Boyle IV (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: T.C. Boyle III

T.C. Boyle appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #273.

T.C. Boyle is most recently the author of The Women. To listen to our previous interviews with Mr. Boyle, check out The Bat Segundo Show #70 and The Bat Segundo Show #10.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering new author taxonomies.

Author: T.C. Boyle

Subjects Discussed: How to conquer jet lag, Ellen Key’s The Woman Movement, the individual vs. the spirit of the time, feminism and Frank Lloyd Wright, notions of education, Miriam’s presence and hypercaffeinated prose, balancing the women in The Women, the ABAB narrative of the first section and Talk Talk, representing Wright through his women, novelizing a fictive novelist’s biography, Blake Bailey, the burdens of chronological order, parallels between Wright and Boyle, the question of what anybody really knows about history from hearsay, seeing the details through an ever-shifting prism, the novel as a suspect medium, Riven Rock, dashes, sentences, and parenthetical information, annotations and “the rest is commentary,” art standing above morality, balancing empathy and the satirical impulse, rejecting reader expectations, reputation and renown vs. not knowing, why cruelty is necessary, reevaluation, empathy and narcissism, and understanding an artist.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

boyleBoyle: I try to get it both ways. I try to involve you in something in a satiric way. And yet it should also move you. And of course, in this book, I had to do that because of the tragedy of Mamah, which will conclude the book. So you have to set the reader up for that throughout. And I think there is tragedy throughout the book. Tadashi’s life is incredibly tragic in many, many regards. So again, I’m playing one element against the other throughout. And there is commentary upon commentary upon commentary. And, for me, it opened up the structure and it made it fun. It made it invigorating. A lot of the footnotes exist to give you information that I would like you to know about Frank Lloyd Wright and his buildings and where he was at any given time. But a lot of them also, I just express surprise on the part of Tadashi. And I find the hilarious.

Correspondent: Well, the question is: Okay, the reader wants to know about the artist. And essentially you believe — your own particular view is — that the art should stand above any morality. This is interesting because we don’t know about the artists. And simultaneously, well, you do have many details about Taliesin, as well as the skies and the views and all that. But I’m curious if this almost runs counter to the impulse if you’re playing with the reader’s expectations. So that they will never know about the artist, even though this is, in fact, why they read your books. Whether that’s entirely fair to the reader.

Boyle: Well, don’t forget that when I am creating art, I don’t mean to be fair to the reader or unfair to the reader. Those questions lie right outside the parameters of what I’m doing. I’m dreaming something. I’m creating something for my own purposes. I deliberate to you. And I hope that you interact with it in some way. And obviously you do and other readers do. Sophisticated art, to my mind, doesn’t provide answers and doesn’t have an agenda other than art itself. So I think a book like this one, of all my books, is probably the one in which the reader will be most engaged to try and unravel the truth of what it is in its own right. And don’t forget. I’m not writing about an unknown figure here. Kinsey, as you know, was recognizable second only to the President in this country in his time. But by the time I wrote about him, everyone had completely forgotten who he is. No one knows who he is. And Kellogg too was lost to the mists of history. But again, Frank Lloyd Wright, there’s been a thousand books. There’s a cult. People are lined up in Chicago today, freezing, to get in and go on the tour. So this is someone who has been written about eternally and is very well-known. My interest is: How do I get a new angle on this?

Correspondent: So by him being more well known than Kinsey or Kellogg, you can then justify this notion of not knowing Frank Lloyd Wright. That’s what you’re saying. Of the reader not knowing.

Boyle: If this is your interpretation, I would say yes. But again, I think you do know him. You do see him from his point of view a few times. But I didn’t want to represent his point of view a great deal. Because then you know his motivation and you know what he’s thinking. I would rather have it — that’s why I called it The Women. I’d rather have him viewed from other perspectives so that you can make your own determination. And, yes, I think part of that determination is that he was incredibly narcissistic. Maybe one of the most narcissistic people who ever lived. And yet narcissism, as we talked about with regard to Peck Wilson in Talk Talk, can be very damaging to everybody around you. I like to hope and think that I am sympathetic to people whom I meet and with people who are close to me. And that far from damaging them, I might even be aiding them in some way. A narcissist like Frank Lloyd Wright though, or Kinsey or Kellogg, doesn’t view the world in that way. Everybody else is simply valuable, only as they fit into his regime. So I think that any reader, even the least sophisticated reader of this book, will have a portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright that may be more true than what you get from a biography.

(Photo credit: Christopher Felver)

BSS #273: T.C. Boyle III (Download MP3)

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