A life in writing: TC Boyle
'Writing is the best rush I've ever found. I'm utterly, hopelessly addicted to it. I go into a kind of dream every day'Interview by Richard Grant
Saturday 28 February 2009 00.01 GMT
ife, says TC Boyle, "is tragic and absurd and none of it has any purpose at all." He is sitting contentedly with a glass of wine in the west room of his Frank Lloyd Wright house in Montecito, California. "Science has killed religion, there's no hope for the future with seven billion of us on the planet, and the only thing you can do is to laugh in the face of it all."
T Coraghessan Boyle, as he used to call himself, has always enjoyed making mincemeat of conventional pieties. He emerged in the 1980s as a satirical novelist and short-story writer with a black sense of comedy and an exuberant prose style. He dressed like a rock star, and his self-chosen middle name, pronounced Cor-rag-essan, sounded like a battle cry. In 1993 he gave a famous free reading in Central Park with Patti Smith, and today, at 60, with 12 successful novels and a 750-page volume of short stories lined up in hardback on the burnished redwood shelf above his fireplace, he still looks like a punk Mephistopheles.
The house is a low, spreading, cruciform structure of redwood and glass, built in the prairie style with a Japanese influence, and Boyle's latest novel, The Women, is about its architect. "I really didn't know much about Frank Lloyd Wright when we bought the house in '93. Living here, I got curious and started reading about him and found out what a bizarre, outlandish character he was, with all this incredible turmoil in his personal life, and I knew I had to write about him."
Architecture is touched on in The Women, but the novel's main concern is Wright's scandal-racked love life and how it was experienced by the four women involved. "All the events in the book are taken from the newspaper accounts and biographies, and I really put my soul into trying to keep the details accurate," Boyle says. "Where the fictional process is at work is when I enter the heads of the characters and imagine what they were thinking, and why they did what they did." He based his main narrator, a Japanese apprentice called Tadashi Sato, on the many international architecture students that Wright charged for the privilege of doing his cooking and cleaning, and who were required to obey all his commands without question.
Wright's first wife was the long-suffering Kitty Tobin. They married young and had six children, and then he fell in love with one of her best friends, an early feminist called Mamah Borthwick Cheney, who was also married with children. Publicly announcing their freedom to follow their hearts and hounded by the press, Frank and Mamah went off to live together at Taliesen, a shimmering country estate in Wisconsin that Wright built as his own private utopia. In 1914, while Wright was away on business, Mamah was murdered there by a crazed manservant with an axe. In the same rampage, he killed her two visiting children and four other adults, wounding two more and setting a fire that burned Taliesen almost to the ground.
The next woman in his life was Maude Miriam Noel, a passionate, morphine-addicted Southern belle, and for Boyle, the most enjoyable character in the novel to write. "Miriam was beautiful, delusional, heartbreaking, and she did all these wild, insane things which to her made perfect sense. She came to dominate my life and the book because I found it so interesting being inside her head."
After she left Wright, and he realised he no longer wanted her back, Miriam became consumed by vengefulness and spent the rest of her life trying to destroy him with increasingly deranged lawsuits, criminal complaints and media campaigns. Wright, meanwhile, had taken up with Olgivanna Milanoff, a statuesque Montenegrin beauty and follower of the Russian mystic Gurdjieff, who bore him two more children and became known as "the Dragon Lady" among the coterie of apprentices at the rebuilt Taliesen.
"Wright was a classic narcissistic personality," says Boyle. "The kind of person who doesn't care what other people want, or who they are, and can't even imagine that they might have emotions and desires of their own. Other people existed only to serve his needs, and I find that fascinating in a cautionary way."
Frank Lloyd Wright is not the first domineering genius to move from the pages of history into a TC Boyle novel. That distinction goes to John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of corn flakes, who was the subject of his 1993 novel The Road to Wellville and the film of the same name. Then came the sex researcher Alfred C Kinsey in The Inner Circle, published in 2004. "I suppose the three of them do make a trinity, although I didn't realise it when I started on Wright," Boyle says. "They're the great egomaniacs of the 20th century. I don't think any of them would have made a good companion, let alone a husband, and if the three of them had ever met, they probably would have killed and eaten each other."
All three surrounded themselves with acolytes whom they abused in various ways, and all three were genuine visionaries, who permanently changed the way we see personal health, sex and the possibilities of architecture. "The most bizarre was certainly Kellogg with his enema regimes and his crazed health-food obsessions, but he also had some good ideas - that we should eat less meat, take exercise and get fresh air. Kinsey was essentially a sexual predator who was bisexual at a time when that couldn't be admitted, especially in his position as a respected professor of sex research. And Wright was a con man and he had to be. For me to make my art, all I need is a room, a computer or a typewriter and a ream of paper. For him to make his art, he had to convince a patron to lay out all this money, and it was never enough for what he wanted to do."
Wright had very few repeat clients, and it wasn't just because of financial chicanery. "He was so much of a control freak that he hated the idea that someone was going to move into his house, bring in their baggage and ruin his beautiful design. In a couple of cases he got all his own furniture made for a house and even designed the clothing of the housewife. It's like a kid playing with a dollhouse and manipulating figures who aren't really human."
Similar criticism has been levelled against Boyle's fiction. "Boyle is not psychological," Lorrie Moore has written. "He's all demography and zeitgeist." The critic Bill Seligman has argued: "[He] can write and he can imagine, with more energy than any of his contemporaries. But energy isn't enough; there's only so far you can go on sheer technique. And until he goes further, he'll remain a satirist cut off from the oxygen of morality."
He has been accused of lacking proper sympathy for his characters and taking too much pleasure in heaping calamities on them and watching them squirm and flail. "It's my universe, and by god they're going to suffer," Boyle says with a laugh. "Look, when I write funny, satirical stuff, I get criticised for not being serious. When I write moving, naturalistic stories, I get criticised for not being funny."
More broadly, he's been denigrated as an entertainer, a crowd-pleaser and laugh-getter, and to this he pleads enthusiastically guilty. "If we lose sight of the fact that writing is entertainment, then writing is doomed. Books are up against TV and movies and video games and a multimedia society that is so busy that people don't have contemplative time any more. I worry deeply about this. In fact I worry about everything all the time. I used to be a punk. All I wanted to do was tear everything down, and that was so much easier."
Boyle grew up in the leafy suburbs of Westchester County north of New York City. Born in 1948, he was a child of the 1960s and alcoholic parents. When he was young, he tried particularly hard to please them, as the children of alcoholics often do, and then at 15 he rebelled, rejecting Catholicism and embracing vandalism, alcohol, drugs, maniacal driving and the writing of Aldous Huxley, JD Salinger and Jack Kerouac. At 17 he arrived, saxophone in hand, at a small liberal arts college in Potsdam, New York, intending to study music and become a musician. He failed the audition and signed up instead for history and English, which had been his only good subjects at high school.
"One of the classes was the American short story, and that's where I discovered Updike and Bellow and Flannery O'Connor, and it really changed everything. Then I got into black humour, Beckett and John Barth and Robert Coover, and the Latin Americans like García Márquez and Borges, and it was all a big inspirational stew that kept getting stirred. Then I blundered into a creative writing class and here I am."
It wasn't quite that simple. There was a weekend heroin habit that lasted two years until a friend overdosed and scared him into cleaning up, which took another two years and a lot of pills and alcohol. He wrote a story about his heroin experiences called "The OD and Hepatitis Railroad or Bust", which was published by the North American Review. That inspired him to apply to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where so many of his literary heroes had studied, or taught, or both. He was accepted on the strength of that one story.
"Iowa is like a conservatory for writers instead of musicians. You go there to study with a master and that master may impart nothing to you, or he may be your coach and push you on your way, and you take your chances. I had three teachers - Vance Bourjaily, John Irving and John Cheever - all of whom were extremely generous to me and essentially said what I needed to hear: you've got talent, you're on the right track, keep it up. I got time to learn, and time to write, and be in a place where writing is revered, and so many great writers came through there to read their work and stumble around drunk."
He spent five and a half years at Iowa and left with a degree in creative writing, a PhD in 19th-century British literature and a friendship with Raymond Carver. "He was a very unpretentious, shy, demon-haunted and beautiful man, and I admired him greatly." Carver was the leading short-story writer of his generation, well known for his bleak, minimalist style. Boyle yearned to emulate him but his style was already in the opposite camp - hectic and garrulous, full of quips and asides - and when he left Iowa, he hurled himself into a novel, writing in the morning for four or five hours, seven days a week.
That first novel was Water Music, a picaresque comedy about the 18th-century explorer Mungo Park, published in 1981, and Boyle has been working to the same schedule ever since. Despite the pessimism of his worldview, he counts himself as a happy and fortunate man, and this is because he takes such pleasure in his daily hours of writing. "It's the best rush I've ever found and I'm utterly, hopelessly addicted to it. I go into a kind of dream every day. It's wonderful."
He writes in his study upstairs, always to music - "gloom, rain and suicidal cello concertos are best" - or in a remote house in the mountains of northern California, where he sequesters himself for weeks at a time, hiking, snowshoeing and fishing in the afternoons. Like so many contemporary American writers, he also teaches creative writing and is currently professor of literature at the University of Southern California, with a very light teaching burden.
"I have this wild-man image and I am a little crazy," he says. "But at the same time I'm a tenured professor, hardworking and diligent and a good family man. Karen and I have three grown children and I must be the only American writer of my generation who has had only one wife."
Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, who required chaos and tumult to create his art, Boyle needs calm and order, a good dog and a restful night's sleep. He begins his novels in a burst of creativity, slows down in the middle as he works out the irksome problems of plot and theme, and then, with the end in sight, goes into a frenzy to reach it. "I'm too exhausted at that point to begin another novel, so I write short stories instead. And when those peter out, it's usually time to begin a new novel. It's a good cycle for me. It keeps me from having that horrible blockage and downtime that so many novelists have after finishing a project."
A new collection of his stories, Wild Child, will be published next year, and he has amassed another volume of his lifetime collected stories. This summer he hopes to complete his 13th novel, about ecological restoration in the Channel Islands off the California coast. "More and more what I write about is man's relationship to nature, and my take on it is extremely depressing," he says. He tackled climate change and ecological collapse in A Friend of the Earth, published in 2000, and now he has even less hope that an apocalyptic future can be averted. "I think it's going to turn out like Cormac McCarthy's The Road within 50 years. We'll eat everything left to eat and then we'll eat each other. But my plan, personally, is to die. That's how I'm going to deal with it."
Boyle on Boyle
None of the doctors could help her in Los Angeles or the provincial outpost of San Diego either, little people all of them, sniveling types, handwringers, an army of effete bald-headed men in spectacles who were mortified of the law - as if this law had any more right to exist than Prohibition, because who was the federal government to dictate what people could and couldn't do with their bodies, their own minds, their personal needs and wants and compulsions? Were they going to regulate needs, then? Dole them out? Tax them? Miriam was so furious, so burned up and blistered with the outrage of it that she must have been overly severe with the cabman - the driver with his hat cocked back on his head and his trace of a Valentino moustache - because when they got to the border at Tijuana, he stopped the car, turned around in his seat and demanded payment in full. Insolently. Out of insolent little pig's eyes.
• From The Woman, published by Bloomsbury
"This is my first chance to deeply inhabit a close third-person point of view of Miriam, the crazy harpie wife who would ultimately try to destroy Frank Lloyd Wright. She is clearly outraged about something but the reader doesn't yet know what it is. Miriam, my favourite character in the book, is a woman with multitudinous problems, but here, as I introduce her, her problem is very simple. She needs morphine."