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Birnbaum v.

T.C. Boyle

If we spend so much of our lives thinking and worrying about sex, is it any surprise the involved emotions are tied to chemicals? A conversation with maverick author T.C. Boyle in a lively back-and-forth about Dr. Alfred Kinsey, contemporary fiction, and the role of the husband in the kitchen.

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s name is not unfamiliar to readers of literary fiction; he has published 16 books of fiction, including 10 novels; the most recent of which are After the Plague (2001), Drop City (2003), and The Inner Circle (2004). His books are available in a dozen languages and his stories have appeared in most major American magazines, including the New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, the Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, the Paris Review, GQ, Antaeus, Granta, and McSweeney’s, and he has been the recipient of a number of literary awards. He received a doctorate in 19th-century British literature from the University of Iowa in 1977, his master’s from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1974, and his bachelor’s in English and history from SUNY Potsdam in 1968. T.C. Boyle currently lives near Santa Barbara with his wife and three children and pets.

The Inner Circle, published last fall, was inspired by pioneering human sexuality researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey, and is a novel about the men that worked for him. (A Bill Condon-directed film, Kinsey, was released in November 2004 with Liam Neeson in the title role.) As Boyle observes in our chat below: “I am not a biographer. I am not writing history. I enjoy history because it enables me to reflect on who we are, how we got there and what it means. And always, as in my very first novel, Water Music, which goes back in history to 1795, I am always using current slang. It’s a sort of anti-historical novel. That was the beginning for me. Where I am reminding the reader constantly that we are perceiving this through different eyes and through a different culture altogether. And that’s true of all the historical fictions I have done, including this one.”

Due to motive and opportunity, this is my fifth conversation since 1991 with the prolific Tom Boyle. Like reading his fiction, talking with Boyle is a lively and entertaining enterprise. See for yourself.



All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
 

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Robert Birnbaum: Do people call you Tom?

T.C. Boyle: Yes, they do.

RB: Thomas?

TCB: Tom is what people call me, but my closest friends call me T. Strangers call me T.C. So if somebody is driving by in the street and they say, “T.C., how’s it going, man?” I know that I don’t know them. [chuckles]

RB: It strikes me that at some point in your brilliant career that you took pride in being, or were at least identified as, something of a bad boy of modern fiction—

TCB: Uh huh. Aren’t we all at one point? [laughs]

RB: No.

TCB: [laughs] Well, who is the good boy of fiction in my era of being the bad boy, then? I wonder.

RB: I don’t know. Do you think you are still looked upon with that lens? Or have you achieved legitimacy?
TC Boyle, photographed by Robert Birnbaum
TCB: God, I don’t really think about such things. Not in the slightest bit. All those handles, anyway, are simply something the press devises in order to make it easier to write the profile. It’s kind of amusing, actually. Misinformation is then run through various filters and on and on and on. In fact, one of the most amusing is that I have been authoritatively identified in some text somewhere as having been born in Peterskill, N.Y.

RB: It’s Peekskill, right?

TCB: Of course. Yes. Peterskill is the town I invented as a stand-in for it in World’s End. [laughs] No, I really don’t think about such things. I really don’t care. I hope that I am regarded as a good artist who is surprising the audience each time out.

RB: I barely know you, but I know some of your work and it occurs to me that at this point, looking at the—I’m going to avoid using the pretentious French word—at the sum total of your writings, I suspect there is a larger plan there.

TCB: I think there is. But what that plan is and who is directing it, I have no idea.

RB: It’s not conscious?

TCB: I am not consciously developing an oeuvre but I think, more than many of the writers of my generation, perhaps you could apply that term [to me]. As I look back, I see how thematically many of the books and stories are linked and sort of what my obsessions are and how they keep playing out in different form and with different scenarios. But I don’t come into a subject like Dr. Kinsey’s sex researchers, thinking, “Wow, this fits right into my oeuvre and this would be so great for scholars and students to write about.” That doesn’t play into it at all. I become interested in something and I am not exactly sure why. I do research and I begin a book, to find out why.

RB: This is a guess and probably full of holes but there is a ‘40s and ‘50s book, there is a ‘60s and ‘70s book—I don’t know exactly how to place Riven Rock.

TCB: Turn of the last century and on up. There are two of those, Wellville also. Well, I admire August Wilson and I admire that he is doing American history decade by decade. No, I don’t have a plan like that. I go where the spirit takes me. The book I am working on now is contemporary. And most of the stories are, too.

RB: I know you make note in The Inner Circle that everybody is fictitious except of course for Dr. Kinsey and that you did research and read the various biographies but what is your commitment to the reality of this character? Are we being presented with the character Alfred Kinsey, or is this [the actual] Alfred Kinsey?

TCB: Yeah, well, whenever you use a historical character in a work of fiction, that character becomes yours. I have learned as much as I could about him. Not having known him myself, personally, through his biographers primarily and I want to assess what I have learned. I want to make him walk and talk and deliver speeches. But as with Dr. Kellogg, in The Road to Wellville, I don’t want this character to be central. I want this character to put in motion what will happen to invented subsidiary characters, so that the narrator of this book, John Milk, is a man who works with Kinsey. A fictional creation.

RB: There was in fact an inner circle around Kinsey?


I will say that the fictional Kinsey in this book, many readers have found him to be controlling, autocratic—the term “creepy” has come up.


TCB: Yes there was. As far as I know two of them are still alive, in their 90s. I wouldn’t want to use the actual names of those people. Because they are very little known. Their names are on the spine of the second volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, 1953, because by then he had colleagues. Fine, but nobody really knows that much about them outside of the biographies. And I would feel [pauses, searching for a word] odd, taking people who are alive and having them say and do things that they might not have said and done. For instance, Kinsey’s children are still alive. And in the novel they appear only by name and they might walk through a room.

RB: Two girls?

TCB: Two girls and a boy. I don’t have them say things. I’d feel uncomfortable about that. Whereas with a historical figure like Kinsey, who is long dead, I don’t feel so uncomfortable. I don’t feel that I have to present any sort of version of his life. [The] more he became a character in a fiction—

RB: This is not a version. This is a fiction. Is it a version?

TCB: No. I’m saying I don’t have any obligation to present a version. I am not a biographer. I am not writing history. I enjoy history because it enables me to reflect on who we are, how we got there and what it means. And always, as in my very first novel, Water Music, which goes back in history to 1795, I am always using current slang. It’s a sort of anti-historical novel. That was the beginning for me. Where I am reminding the reader constantly that we are perceiving this through different eyes and through a different culture altogether. And that’s true of all the historical fictions I have done, including this one.

RB: Do you mean to suggest—do you feel that the fictional Kinsey is an admirable character? Do you like him?

TCB: I will say that the fictional Kinsey in this book, many readers have found him to be controlling, autocratic—the term “creepy” has come up. Because he is, in fact—he is, as any guru does—he is using people for his own purposes. The historical Kinsey, on the other hand, was admirable in many ways. For instance, opening up our ability to talk about sex in public. Opening up the sexual revolution that succeeded the publication of his studies. And yet as the two biographies of the ‘90s revealed behind the scenes, he was a sexual enthusiast of the first stripe. And I am not drawing any moral conclusions here. I feel, as Kinsey did, anything goes between consenting adults. Nothing, really is perverted.

RB: Well, there is a gray area.

TCB: Exactly. And yet in my contemplating all this and in inventing a character and a scenario, I am asking the reader to question what it’s like to give your allegiance fully to anything and anybody and what that does to you as an individual.

RB: Did the research really deal with six- and seven-year-olds and even toddlers?

TCB: There’s a scene in this book in which Kinsey and Milk interview children. And as far as my research tells me this was completely above board. The parents were always present. The parents themselves had given their sex histories and believed in this project, too, “What’s wrong with it, the taxonomy of human sexual practices?” And he did interview children very much in the way I present it in this book and a thing about the historical Kinsey was, he was amazingly charismatic and he had an ability for people to open up to him and to trust him immediately. And supposedly he was amazingly receptive to children. And vice versa.

RB: I wasn’t thinking his research with children wasn’t legitimate but still it’s questionable to me. One has to be really skillful to ask questions about sexuality without leading or prompting them.

TCB: Yes, exactly. But the questions would be in the form of a conversation as I present it, “Hello, Mary. I see you have a sister.” “Yes, I do. We play outside” and so on and so on. “When you go to school, do you have more boyfriends or girlfriends?” “Oh, I have…” I don’t think it was anything [pauses] that would be damaging to the child.

RB: Have to believe that this part of your story overlays the historical Kinsey, which is that he really was totally committed to the project, the research, and he was driven by it and so he believed that whatever histories and information he accumulated was helpful.

TCB: Yes, but the reader of The Inner Circle can judge for his or herself how far his obsession had gone beyond what they themselves would agree is legitimate and how it may have been damaging to people. Perhaps to children that he questioned. Perhaps to some of the members of his inner circle.

RB: Was the closing scene in the story where he talks in front of 9,000 people at Berkeley, did that take place?

TCB: Yes. Oh yeah. Because these were students and as all students, are interested in intellectual discipline. No, they were there because he was talking about sex. [laughs] He was like a carnival barker, eventually. Because he would, as the book begins, give these lectures unexpurgated and it was titillating. That’s why they had 9,000 people in the Berkeley field house coming to his single lecture.

RB: Somewhere I think you suggest, and I might have also read, that he is one of those characters, that in his time, was one of the most well-known people in the world. Making it onto the covers of many magazines.

TCB: Exactly. According to his biographers—Time magazine, Newsweek—he was second only to the president in visibility, and he was the most recognized man in America in that period, from ‘48 to ‘53 and ‘54.

RB: More recognized than Joe DiMaggio?

TCB: Well, I said according to the biographers.

RB: Right, what about today? Given my belief in the ahistoricality of Americans—

TCB: I think most people aren’t aware of Kinsey and young people of our age, for instance, this passed us by. We were too young to know about any of this. That’s good for me. Again, to speak to writing fiction set in a historical period, I’m not doing it to illuminate the period—that’s part of it. But I’m doing it in order for us to see the oddities of American culture and how they affect us now. So I’m glad that I am reawakening interest in Kinsey. Sure we all ate Kellogg’s corn flakes but I had no idea who invented them or what he was like—John Harvey Kellogg, as a character. Or that the Battle Creek sanitarium in 1900 was the place to go, in the country. And that health-food movements were sweeping the whole nation in 1900. Sure, we forget about this and the history books don’t tell us. They tell us about the battles and so on. I want to explore the sociology of a given period or a given character and then we are reading it today and see how we feel about it now.

RB: I would argue that many people are indifferent to history, as Nicholas Lehmann once remarked in the New Yorker [in an article on the FCC’s Michael Powell], that “history education teaches too much history.” That is, the battles and the lines of succession and the details of the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which don’t excite the imagination.

TCB: [laughs and repeats] There’s too much of it.

RB: Who needs all the details? Give us the juice. Tell us the interesting human stuff.

TCB: One of my mentors when I was an undergrad, he has passed away now, Vincent Knapp, he was a PhD in history. He taught at SUNY Potsdam, a little college where I went to school in upper New York state. And he became quite well known in later years because he did precisely this—he wrote about disease and diet in given historical periods. And it is fascinating to me. Utterly. Or, for instance, when I was writing Riven Rock, set in 1905 in that period, or even going back to 1795, to write about Mungo Park. Yes, I needed to know what events were occurring, obviously, but the books that most interested me were ones about how people live. Like in London, with no sewers when they shouted, “Gardyloo”—you crap in a bucket and you throw it out the window and everybody walking by better watch out because it’s going to go into that central drain and eventually when it rains it will all go down to the Thames. That kind of detail—

RB: That would explain the popularity of hats then.

TCB: [laughs] Yeah, right.

RB: I thought it worth noting that this book takes place in a small college town in Indiana. And two characters, the photographer and the man recruited from Princeton, make a point of commenting on the difference in the tone and pace of life.

TCB: But, of course, they had an agenda, which was the filming of live sex in Dr Kinsey’s attic. I go where the books take me and the story took me to Bloomington, Ind., which is very much like any other college town, although who would think that this would be the center of sex research or that it would evolve there?


What Kinsey said had a great basis in reality if you want to look at the fact that as we learn more about the components of our bodies and brains, pretty much everything is chemically driven, which includes emotion and love.


RB: Why did he end up there?

TCB: In the same way I wound up at U.S.C. He got his PhD and they offered him a job. And he was a member of the zoology department. All the facts about him in the book are true. He was an expert on the gall wasp.

RB: A wasp that doesn’t fly.

TCB: It doesn’t fly. They creep. All of this is true. If he had wound up at Boston U or NYU or any place else, that’s where I would have gone for the story. More interesting to me that it happens in 1939 through ‘56 in small town in Indiana.

RB: The collection of the sexual histories stops when Kinsey died—they had accumulated about 18,000 or 19,000.

TCB: For the most part.

RB: Wasn’t the goal to get 100,000?

TCB: Without his driving force, things went in other directions. For instance, the Kinsey Institute still exists. It was called the Institute for Sex Research; now it’s just called the Kinsey Institute. I am no expert on what they do there, although I’ve been there. Now they have psychologists and they deal with problems of sexuality and so on, all this sort of thing.

RB: Master and Johnson were the logical successors?

TCB: Yes, the next step. Where they actually filmed people. They’d bring them into the lab and put them on the table and have them go at it and they would measure blood rate and so on. Kinsey did this unbeknownst to anybody. Had he done it in his time—had anybody known, it would have brought his whole enterprise down.

RB: What did Europeans think about Kinsey? Did he make a stir in Europe?

TCB: Oh, absolutely. He was famous the world over. And the books were translated and published everywhere. They [the Europeans] were quite happy to see Americans taking the physiology of sex very seriously and discussing it in public. Toward the end of his life he went to Europe, supposedly on a vacation but he spent all his time with prostitutes and roaming the streets with the cops and going to erotica shops and collecting pornography. And he personally loved Denmark. Because of the openness of sex there as opposed to what he had discovered in America, particularly in his youth.

RB: Would you say he was responsible for what people called the sexual revolution?
TC Boyle, photographed by Robert Birnbaum
TCB: I don’t know if he is responsible for it. But certainly his is a big contributing factor. What’s wonderful is that we are all naive about sex and we all find our own way, in any era. Obviously, there are 6.3 billion of us. [laughs] I think it was certainly easier in my era than it was in his. The reason he started the “Family and Marriage” course at Indiana University was the students asked the school to provide such a course because during the ‘30s there was a big VD epidemic in America and people were uninformed, even to what it was or how it was transmitted and so on. And the students came to him, as they did on many college campuses and wanted such a course that would prepare them for marriage and for their own awakening sexuality, and so he took on the task.

RB: After reading Inner Circle, I do agree with Margaret Mead’s observation that he took the fun out of it—all the clinical language, the measurements, the repetitive—

TCB: Yeah, this is what got me going on it to begin with, his claim that he could separate the physiology of the act from any kind of emotional content. I wondered how would that play out and so I set him into motion with some fictional characters, like John Milk, whose first sexual experience was with Kinsey, the second was with Kinsey’s wife, and the third is the girl he meets in college who becomes his own wife and then on and on. I rather doubt that sex can be divorced from emotion. Even casual sex, even sex with strangers. On the other hand, what Kinsey said had a great basis in reality if you want to look at the fact that as we learn more about the components of our bodies and brains, pretty much everything is chemically driven, which includes emotion and love.

RB: That seems to be right. But who has figured out what the interfaces are or what the chemical balances and valences—

TCB: [emphatically] Yes. Yes.

RB: As intelligent as psychopharmacologists may be, they are still not far from waving chicken claws at their clients.

TCB: That’s the beauty of life on this mysterious planet. Everything ultimately is voodoo—no matter how much we know. Yes, no one can pin down those interfaces between the chemical reaction and the physiology and what is love and what is our spirit and what is our humanity? What is the beauty of our species?

RB: As you said, the issue of separating emotion and physical things is most clearly played out in the protagonist Milk and his wife. Both characters who have problems, unlike the rest of the group.

TCB: I think may people have seen Iris [Milk’s wife] as the center of this book, or at least a kind of moral center. And not moral in the conventional sense, that this is bad or that is good but she is able to be independent and say, “Enough is enough.” Or, “Who appointed you God?” she says at one point to Kinsey. And she will not buckle under the regime. And the regime is “you do as I say,” essentially. “You screw him or the other because I say so.”

RB: She was admirable by her independence not because she represented any particular moral stance. I was so glad she didn’t allow Milk to buy the house Kinsey picked out for them.

TCB: [laughs] Yes, in my version, Dr. Kinsey controls every aspect of their lives. Their wedding, when they are going to have their wedding, where they are going to have it. At his house, of course.

RB: Apparently he wanted it to be later in the season so that the flowers in his garden were in full bloom?

TCB: Exactly. The interesting thing for me with this is my first “I” narrative since Budding Prospects. Usually I do a novels in the third person. Although, A Friend of the Earth was both first and third. I like this point of view in this particular book because John Milk is giving an apologia pro vita sua [a defense of his life]. The book has a prologue in which Kinsey has just died. Then we go back to the beginning when Milk first met him, when he was a student and on up to this point again. And so he comes across as being maybe selfrationalizing. Maybe somewhat naïve. I think the fun for the reader here is to be one step ahead of him and to foresee the consequences of what he is doing before he does himself. That’s one of the great limited points of view that first person can give you in a text like this, where we are really having this guy explaining the value of his life and of his mentor.


I think of Philip Roth, at least as he appeared in that article that Remnick wrote about him in the New Yorker a few years back. He has done his thing. He’s married his movie star. He’s post sex. And he is just going to be the monk of literature and by God, hallelujah, I’m glad he is.


RB: The last time we talked you had said something about writing this and jokingly referred to how it had affected your sex life—

TCB: [chuckles] It affected it very well. What I discovered was that sex is good.

RB: [laughs]

TCB: I kind of suspected that, but now I know.

RB: Do you feel as that the writing of this and the ongoing exhibition of the various characters in various sexual modes, was that arousing?

TCB: Of course. Of course. Good fiction, when there is a sex scene, you get horny. When they are cooking breakfast you feel hungry. Oh, c’mon. When they are enraged you feel enraged. Of course, the reader has to feel along with the characters.

RB: I’m not talking about the reader.

TCB: And the writer too. If the writer doesn’t feel it the reader is never going to feel it. I’m dreaming my dream. I am transmitting it to you and then you dream that dream, in your own way, with your own pictures. But of course. And it should be sensual, too. On the other hand, here’s a book entirely about sex with plenty of sex in it and yet it’s not the Harold Robbins kind of sex. It’s the kind of sex I’ve had in any of my books. Or the kind of violence that I would have in a book where the suggestion is so much more powerful than the words on the page. Any good writer knows how to compose a scene and when the scene is done. That doesn’t mean that you have to get into the thrusting and the heaving and the sighing and the rest of it. You know?

RB: I found the most erotically charged moment when Milk has two buddies going off to the Army and invites them home with their “dates” and—

TCB: Because they don’t have a place to go.

RB: So he gets up in the middle of the night and he stumbles into someone and the next moment he is having sex with this stranger. That really worked.

TCB: It’s a kind of a sexy scene. Again, this stuff just occurs to me as I am writing. It also reflects on John Milk’s interest in his work. He calls her, as he finishes, he refers to her as “another friend of the research.” The irony there for the reader is apparent.

RB: How much do these stories and characters haunt you after you are done with them? Do you just easily move on?

TCB: I move on. We have spoken before about the fact I am equally devoted to short stories and novels and so that when a novel is finished I am able to shift gears. It takes a while. I mean I don’t go directly. I have on one occasion but I don’t usually go directly into writing stories. There is a tremendous period of parturition, yes, you’ve lived with these characters. You have intensely lived in this world for a long period of time. It’s not so easy to shift but I am able to because of writing short stories. So that even as this book was completed—let’s see, about a year ago or so, I began to write the stories for the next collection which comes out in the fall.

RB: [laughs]

TCB:—Tooth and Claw. Fifteen new stories and that is done and I am well into the next novel for the following year.

RB: So—

TCB: —and that’s where I’m living right now. And as you know from talking to so many authors, it’s so strange for us because the interviewers and the public have just read the book. It’s fresh in their minds and we have [laughs] entirely forgotten about it. [laughs]

RB: Especially in your case, because you have become more prolific, perhaps accelerated your output, does it get easier?

TCB: I’m not sure if it gets easier or if I am just more committed and more mature. I think of Philip Roth, at least as he appeared in that article that Remnick wrote about him in the New Yorker a few years back. He has done his thing. He’s married his movie star. He’s post sex. And he is just going to be the monk of literature and by God, hallelujah, I’m glad he is. And I feel somewhat the same way. I’ve been given this vision and I just want to see what it is. And so I’m eager and there are fewer distractions in my life.

RB: So you have greater endurance in sitting and writing?

TCB: [laughs] No. It never becomes easier in any way. But I am more—I have always been intensely committed to what I am doing. Maybe there is an easier path to it because I understand that this is my obsession. You spoke earlier of having an oeuvre. And we said perhaps that’s true but I can only see that in hindsight, but that hindsight now exists and I can look at new projects not as they fit into this but knowing that everything that I have done before comes along with it.

RB: I assume you are concerned with not repeating anything, I guess?

TCB: I don’t want to repeat myself. I definitely don’t want to repeat myself. The artists I most admire are people who surprise me each time out and are always looking for a new form, a new way to express things. And yet all artists do have certain themes that they work with over and over and I am delighted that that’s the way it goes. It gives you a lifelong quest.

RB: Do have a fear that you are going to run out of ideas?

TCB: Not necessarily, because unlike an autobiographical author I have from the beginning written about anything I please. The way I think is to write fiction. I don’t think deeply without actually getting into a scenario and then something clicks in my brain and able to think in a deep way about what bothers me, what I like, what I hate. So any possible thing, a newspaper clipping, something you tell me, a face I see on the street, anything can be a story. I am not confined by what I know. I feel you should write about what you don’t know and find something out. By the way, I don’t rule out autobiography either, though I have rarely done autobiographical stories and when I have, of course, they are fictions. And they are not absolutely true. The concluding story of the new collection, “Up Against the Wall,” which was just in Playboy in August—

RB: I just look at Playboy for the pictures—

TCB: [chuckles]—goes to a period of my life when I was 21 and teaching at a school in New York and having some hard times and it is not purely autobiographical but it uses a lot of autobiographical material and it’s straightforward. In the same book, the second story in there is called “Swept Away”; it’s a little piece I wrote after finishing Drop City, and the New Yorker published it. It’s a piece about something I had read about, that the Shetland Islands are the windiest place on Earth. And cats blow off rooftops, etc. So I wrote a whimsical story about what that would be like, narrated by a Scotsman in a bar who sees just such a scene happening. So we have stories at almost polar opposites in terms of their intention and their mode—but why not? I think that’s what my more dedicated and fanatical fans appreciate in the work, is that it’s going to surprise them and that here is a tremendous range there. And that they can be affected in different ways by different modes of story telling.

RB: Do you think that what you do is important?

TCB: Heh-heh. Ah—

RB: He laughs. [laughs]

TCB: Let’s say yes and no. Earlier on I thought that. Only what I am doing or what we writers are doing is important. And it gave me tremendous brass. I could walk into parties with neurosurgeons. “Oh man, you’re a neurosurgeon. That’s cool. That’s all right, man. I’m a writer.”

RB: You were not shy about saying you were a writer?

TCB: Absolutely [not]. I felt from the beginning that this is the greatest thing a human being could do. I still do. But there is the “yes” and “no” to this. And the “no” part is being old enough to understand how fluid everything is culturally. How technology leaps ahead. How the things that we really love, like baseball and writing, will soon be dead. There will be other things.

RB: How dark. Say it ain’t so, Tom.

TCB: Yeah, I’m afraid so. And also I am very ambitious and I work constantly and my closest friend, lifelong, he’s a party animal and a ne’er-do-well, a genius but he’s never really found his metier. And he’s the optimist and I’m the pessimist. And he has always said that he just wants to have a good time. That his object in life is to have as much fun as possible and not be weighed down by the philosophical problems of our species, and more and more I begin to see the wisdom in this. Although it’s not going to affect me in any way. I am who I am.

RB: You’re tenured at U.S.C. Last time you joked that you wanted to wangle a chauffeured conveyance back and forth from your home to school. Has that happened yet?

TCB: No, that hasn’t quite happened. I have announced to the dean and the press that I do intend to retire when I get to be 95, though. So they can get somebody to fill in. It’s one of the joys of my life. I will always teach as long as I can. Even though it’s been a long while since the income part of it has been significant in my life.

RB: That must make it better.

TCB: Yeah, it’s my choice. Some teachers, particularly in high school—and boy do they have the hardest job in the world. I know because I did it for four years. They get burned out. But they must get a pay check. And we see the same thing in college, of course. I am teaching three classes a year. One, one semester. Two, the following semester. So it’s 39 days a year. I’ve got some of the foremost young geniuses in the world. They’re eager. I’m eager. I had great mentors. I hope to be a mentor to them. All that is to the good. Since this schedule is very flexible: For instance, I am just teaching one course all year, so I can go on tour. I had to do 16 cities for Drop City in the winter, for the paperback. That part of my life is more complicated because they are all foreign publishers as well. I am trying to keep a handle on it. I’m trying to remember that the most important things I do are the writing of the books, number one. And the teaching of students. So I will never cheat them or overextend myself so that I have to cut back on what I am giving them. What I give them is everything I have for that day that I’m there.

RB: Certainly when I read references in New York publications to Los Angeles about any literary scene, it’s basically something snide like, “What literary scene?”

TCB: That was true when I first moved there, in ‘78. The Los Angeles Times would keep interviewing me whenever they needed a writer to speak up about something. And I said—which I shouldn’t have said, I made a lot of enemies—”Well, yeah, I’m the only one in town.” [laughs] But that’s no longer true. The proliferation of writing programs, the ease with which we can be in contact with one another, has dispersed writers all through out the country. Yes, New York City remains the writers’ capital of the world. That’s where the industry is and it’s where a majority of writers live. But at one point, I mean 1950, every writer lived in New York. Anyone who, lived in even New Jersey was considered an outcast. Now it’s not true, and L.A. has a whole thriving scene in so many ways. You know better than I, so many writers who are located there. It doesn’t matter where you are located anymore. Certainly some writers get advanced in their careers by schmoozing and knowing so and so and going to literary parties. If I had stayed in New York I wouldn’t have done that anyway. That is the last thing I want to do. The reason I’m a writer and only a writer is because I’m a crank. I can’ t deal with anybody.

RB: [laughs]

TCB: It’s either my game or I’m taking my bat and my ball and I’m going home, you know.

RB: There are some web logs out of L.A. that exhibit many reading and literary happenings and new magazines. Black Clock edited by Steve Erickson. And one called Swink that is bi-coastal, L.A. and New York.

TCB: I know about Steve’s, and I haven’t heard of the other one.




TC Boyle, photographed by Robert Birnbaum


RB: Your department is a hotbed. Percival Everett

TCB: Percival’s Erasure is a great book. We were lucky to get Percival, and he is incredibly talented. We have also have Aimee Bender who is a marvelous teacher as well as great writer. The poets are David St. John and Carol Muske-Dukes. We will probably find another fiction writer along the way. Because we need ‘em. The program has grown enormously since I started the undergrad program years ago. Now we have a PhD lit and we are in our fourth year of that.

RB: What are those students looking for?

TCB: They are looking for what you get in any good MFA program, where you have some time to yourself to do what you need to do outside of the real world and to find out if you are going be a writer—if you can finish a book and if it’s worthwhile.

RB: Is that what’s required for a master’s, a book of stories or a novel as a thesis?

TCB: In most places. But we have an MPW program separate from the English department—master of professional writing—they write their own thesis and do their own thing. Though many of them come to me for given course work. Our PhD lit is rather new and it’s a combination of doing creative work and scholarly work.

RB: “Scholarly,” meaning?

TCB: You know, traditional PhD—as I have.

RB: Are you an L.A. lifer? Is there any other place you might live?

TCB: Well, I escaped L.A. 12 years ago for Santa Barbara. But it’s still Southern California. Yes, I have one more move, to the graveyard on the hill. I have the view picked out already. I’m pretty happy to have found this place.

RB: Does it matter to you, that is, are you connected to Southern California, or is it that you found a life that works for and is congenial to you?

TCB: Choice B primarily, but my connection is to U.S.C and to all the friends I have made over the years—it used to be more to the club scene. [laughs] No more. Yeah, yeah, I guess I am connected there. I am connected even more to this mountain where I have been going for 27 years. It’s my favorite place on earth—the Sequoia National Forest. So I can go from an urban scene and get what I want out of that and go to the mountains, it’s pretty much ideal for me.

RB: Any movie action with any of your novels?

TCB: Oh, it’s perpetual.

RB: Do you care about that?

TCB: Yes, I care very much. I want people to make movies of my books because it will attract the audience I don’t have. That is, people who don’t read the New York Times Book Review but go to the movies and then they will read my book, as with Road to Wellville, for instance. I don’t participate in Hollywood in any way, as you know. When I sell film rights I just hope for the best. There is a deal under way for Drop City, which I think would be a great film particularly in this era, but we shall see.

RB: Any interest in writing a film or making a film?

TCB: I have no interest whatever in even going to the set or being involved in anyway whatsoever.

RB: Your commitment to the narrative arts is just in writing?

TCB: That’s correct. Just fiction. When Alan Parker bought the rights for The Road to Wellville, I met him had a celebratory dinner with him. I like him very much, by the way, and I like his ouevre and it’s like mine in that he will try anything and he can master it, too. I next saw him at the screening and the premier. It’s his film. I’d be insane to think that I am going to have any influence on him. He’s as big a nutball as I am. There’s no way that I would have any influence on him. So, he can do what he likes.

RB: You mentioned your retiring at the age of 95. Are your parents alive?

TCB: Both my parents were dead in their 50s.

RB: Heredity doesn’t speak well for you.

TCB: It depends what your habits are.

RB: I take it from all that we have said up until now you will be writing until you no longer can?

TCB: I hope so. I don’t really know what else to do with my life.

RB: What are you doing when you are not writing?

TCB: What everybody else does. Clean up after the dog, buy the groceries, make sure that my wife has a lovely gourmet meal to eat every night. That sort of thing.

RB: You cook for your wife?

TCB: Of course. I do it all. I do 100 percent of all work connected with our household. I make all the money. The only thing I don’t do is give birth to the children. But everything else, I take full credit for.

RB: You chose the dog?

TCB: The dog was inflicted on me, as were the cats. But I’m the one who cleans the kitty pan and I’m not complaining. It’s a good bargain. I wouldn’t want to have to bicker with my wife.

RB: Have you grown closer to your animals?

TCB: Oh yeah, you’d have to be a son of a bitch to live with animals and not love them. And obviously I’m their god, I’m the one who takes care of them. But my wife humanizes me. I wouldn’t have had children or animals probably if it weren’t for her.

RB: I guess that’s love, right?

TCB: There is a complementary thing going on here, you know? She provides what I am lacking in my psyche and vice versa and if I am the guy who has to clean the kitchen more power to it. [laughs]

RB: Have you thought about writing a novel about the subject of love?

TCB: Well, yeah, I have been working on it for a while there. And the kind of perverted—the kind of love that goes the wrong way, like in Riven Rock or to a degree in The Inner Circle, yeah. I enjoy that.

RB: Was that love in the case of the McCormicks [in Riven Rock]?

TCB: Well, Katherine McCormick—

RB: She was an amazing woman.

TCB: Yeah, she was an incredible woman and certainly she loved Stanley. But I wonder if it was in the way that many men and women love each other. That is a way that is mental and sexual as well, fully realized. I think perhaps Katherine’s love for Stanley was more like for some kid who has a problem or for a dog or something?

RB: More maternal.

TCB: More maternal, yeah. I don’t think it was fully equal on both sides—because of his schizophrenia.

RB: Well, anything we didn’t cover, I guess I’ll see you in about a year and half.

TCB: Let me tell about the cover. You know how important I feel the covers are and this is the 16th book with my publisher, and they listen to me and I asked them to get something that wouldn’t have nudity or be too overt. I thought maybe a period picture of a guy and girl making out passionately, maybe with a hand on her knee. That’s exactly what they have given me. A guy with a great haircut in the clinch of all times in a car and he has his hand on her knee and it’s an extremely sexy picture. But not overt.

RB: Sixteen books with Viking Penguin.

TCB: Paul Slovak is my editor and as you may recall he was a bachelor when I met him. And I introduced him to his wife in my living room.

RB: [laughs]

TCB: Now there’s a love story. And they are getting along great and they have a kid and I take credit for introducing them and everything but, on the other hand, what if they end up hating each other and getting divorced? I’ll have to look for another publisher. But it’s not going to happen. [laughs]

RB: To quote Fats Waller, “One never know, do one?” Thanks very much.

TCB: OK, Robert, a pleasure as usual. See you next time.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum