Aspen Times Weekly cover story: T.C. Boyle riffs about writing |

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: T.C. Boyle riffs about writing

Hilary Stunda
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoCover by Afton Groepper

T.C. Boyle wasn’t given many breaks. He made his way up, “hand over hand, from the depths of the working class.” His career started with one brilliant story – “The OD and Hepatitis Railroad or Bust” – about a bleak, aimless and drug-addled era of his life. It ran in The North American Review alongside John Cheever, John Irving and Raymond Carver.

The fervor was unleashed. Boyle began writing seven days a week. 

His first novel, “Water Music” (1981), described in the New Republic as “pitiless and brilliant,” was followed by a series of hit novels: “World’s End” (1987), winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award; “The Road to Wellville” (1993), which was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins, John Cusak and Matthew Broderick; “Drop City” (2003); and “The Tortilla Curtain” (1997). 

Boyle’s style is lush and fecund. Erotic and original. Biting and outrageous.

Fascinated by famous and eccentric Americans, Boyle’s stories delve into such historical personas as sexual-behavior scientist Alfred Kinsey in “The Inner Circle” (2004), cereal inventor John Harvey Kellogg in “The Road to Wellville” and Frank Lloyd Wright in “The Women”.

Nothing is off limits for Boyle. Everything is game.

Hilary Stunda: Do you view writing as catharsis?

T.C. Boyle: Not so much. I’ll take on anything in any mode. I have no restrictions. I feel lucky to that degree. I think that’s why I’ve been able to be productive because there are no limitations. And many writers are uncomfortable with that. Many writers solely write autobiography. My mantra is not “Write what you know” but “Write what you don’t know, and maybe you’ll find something out.”

Hilary: Tell me about your new book.

Boyle: I am running around on a paperback tour for “When the Killing’s Done.” In September, there’ll be the next level, “San Miguel.” It’s not a sequel to this one, but it is also set on the Channel Islands, another story I discovered while doing this. It’s an historical piece about three women who lived on this island. It’s entirely from the point of view of women, which is something I’ve never done before. It’s also straight-forward realism, something I’ve never done before at that length. So I’m always trying out new things.

Hilary: Your works truly defy categorization.

Boyle: It’s because I’m curious. And I really can’t think about things deeply or what a scenario will be until I am actually making it. Anything can be a story in any mode. I’m just doing riffs, like a jazz musician. You find a theme, and you do a riff to find what it will be.

Hilary: And without the structure of discipline, you can’t pull it off.

Boyle: Yeah. I don’t want to sound mystical here. You have to force it. I work seven days a week – except when I’m on tour, of course. I work constantly. I don’t feel good unless I’m working. There is a kind of beautiful mystery to making art, but you won’t make any art if you wait for it to come. You have to force it. And some days it doesn’t come. You still must trod forward. This is especially true when you are doing a longer work, like “When the Killing’s Done.” You have to push through. When you’re doing something else altogether, some of these insights will come to you as long as you’re keeping your work moving forward every morning.

Hilary: Do you have a daily goal?

Boyle: I hope to get to the end of a scene or the end of a chapter. Sometimes it’s not possible. Sometimes other things intrude. Sometimes your brain goes dead and you just can’t get there. You just have to fight for inspiration.

Hilary: Have you ever created a character that was too close to home for you?

Boyle: The characters I’m inventing, whether they’re male or female, obnoxious or saintly, are all parts of me or people I know. I rarely take a character I know from life and put that character in a story. I’ve done it twice. Of all the characters I make up, the ones I relate to best are the sort of punk guys, the disaffected, like Ned Rise from “Water Music.”

Hilary: Has your style changed much over the decades?

No. My style is pretty much the same since the very beginning. I’ve always been a lush stylist. I love the language, and I love the way words sound, which is why I love to perform in public. I did two gigs at the book fair yesterday to huge audiences. The bigger the audience, the happier I am. I love to read aloud.

Hilary: Some people have said writing is not something that can be taught. You either have “it” or not. What do you think? Or is it about putting in your 10,000 hours?

Boyle: Both ideas have credence and value. Obviously, you can’t be any artist of any kind, whether that’s a graphic artist or a musician or an artist in words, if you don’t have a great talent for it. But many people do have a great talent and never discover it or develop it. You can’t teach somebody to be a great writer, but you can be their coach and encourage them and help them make the little discoveries they must make along the way to develop their own style. You know people who hear a great song on the radio and can sing it back to you – note for note. Perfectly. Now that’s a talent. The next level of talent is, can that person write his own song and sing it in his own style? There’s a huge leap between having a talent, an imitative talent, and making the leap to becoming an original artist. No one can teach you how to do that. You learn how to make an art through absorbing the art. You have to read everyone, and unconsciously, subconsciously, their style will help you to make discoveries about your own work.

Hilary: And then there’s the writing workshop.

Boyle: As far as teaching creative writing, a workshop is valuable because you’re simply interpreting the students’ work. A beginning writer can get an idea of how an audience perceives the work, interprets the work. It might or might not trigger some kind of impulse in editing. That’s about it.

Hilary: What advice would you give to a student who produces brilliant shards but has little cohesion?

Boyle: Well, they have to be bitten. They have to really want to do it at any level. When I went to the Iowa Workshop, I was there from 1972 to 1978 because I also got my Ph.D., many of our famous writers today were in my classes. There were an equal number who kind of vanished. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe they’re dead. Maybe they’re being held by terrorist groups in South America. Maybe they went into advertising or gave up. I don’t really know. The ones who make it are the ones who have a fierce desire to produce art. Almost to a drug high. And once you have that high, you can’t stop doing it. That student who isn’t quite pulling his work together may never do it.

Hilary: I think it’s amazing that you’ve been able to blend being an artist with being a father of three. I have two kids, and I had to kick them out of the house so I could make this phone call. I think it says a lot about them respecting the boundaries and you having your niche to do your art.

Boyle: We have to address their mother now. I’ve been lucky in that she has never had to go out and work. She has been home the entire time with the kids. It was pretty simple, even when we lived in our first house, which was really small, like 1,100 square feet. We had one kid then. She would take care of my daughter, and I would shut the door to the bedroom, where I had a desk and a very large stereo, and I would be in another world. And when I emerged, I would take over.

Hilary: How does music fuel your writing?

Boyle: I’ve never written anything without music. It’s because of the rhythm. Writing is extremely rhythmic. Prose writing has to have a beat to it. It has to be exactly right. Listening to music helps me feel the rhythm. Every now and then you get an editor who doesn’t really “get it.” “We want to take this word out of the sentence.” You can’t do that because the sentence will not read properly. It has to have a beat. So listening to music all day helps me to feel that.

Hilary: Any particular genre?

Boyle: When I am working I listen almost exclusively to classical music or jazz that I grew up on. That is Miles Davis, John Coltrane. When I am not working, that’s when I prefer rock ‘n’ roll. I love vocal music as long as it’s in a language I don’t understand. I listen to a lot of Bach; I listen to a lot of Puccini. If it’s in English, the vocals seem to intrude on my unconscious state when I write.

Hilary: Do you have a physical ritual before you sit down? A superstitious mode?

Boyle: Yes. Absolutely.

Hilary: Please divulge.

Boyle: And I advise any beginning writer to try to do this. It’s relatively expensive because I buy one chicken every day (laughing). I bleed a chicken into a dish pan and put my bare feet in it, and when the blood goes cold I am done with work for the day. Very simple.

Hilary: That sounds reasonable.

Boyle: In truth my ritual is to rewrite what I’ve done the day before over and over until I get into that unconscious state. Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. But there is a kind of deep pleasure that focuses you in the rewriting. It’s also a way of freeing up your unconscious mind to make a connection as to why you’re doing it and where it’s going. Nothing I’ve done, even if it seems airtight to the reader, has been planned beforehand. It all happens organically in the moment of composition. I don’t know what anything will be or what it means until I am well into it. I just follow it.

Hilary: Not even three bullet points on a napkin?

Boyle: No. That is too concrete. I’m dealing much more with abstractions. Every writer is different, of course. But I have this innate ability to structure things. That kind of structuring takes place in my mind, not on an outline or anything like that. Of course, there are points in a story or a novel when I begin to realize what’s going to go and what’s going to be.

Hilary: Can you give an example?

Boyle: “The Tortilla Curtain,” which is probably my most read book; it’s adopted in all the schools. That ends with a gesture. I didn’t realize until I got to that gesture that it was the end. I thought there was going to be more. But once that gesture occurred to me, I realized it was the place to end because it brings the reader back into the book and re-examines their own prejudices and what it means. But I didn’t know that until I got there. In “East Is East,” I remember I was up on the mountain working day and night. And now it was time to take my kids swimming. I remember pulling the car over. This is when I was two pages from the end. I was scribbling the last line because it came to me at that very moment. And there it was the next day. I don’t know how others work, but I presume intuitively as I do. I don’t write essays. I don’t care about things like that. I don’t want to give speeches. I don’t want to write screenplays. I just want this magical world where these discoveries come. It’s so exciting to start with nothing and have something.

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