T.C. Boyle

An email dialogue with Cameron Martin

T. C. Boyle’s fictional oeuvre is unmatched in verve and range among contemporary writers. He’s the author of eight short story collections and 12 novels, including World’s End, a PEN/Faulkner winner, and Drop City, a finalist for the National Book Award. Boyle is perhaps best known for The Road to Wellville, his fictional take on eccentric cereal king John Harvey Kellogg, a novel that was later made into a film starring John Cusack. His latest novel, The Women, examines another towering eccentric, Frank Lloyd Wright, the architectural genius who made as many headlines for his romantic entanglements as he did for designing the Guggenheim Museum, the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, and Fallingwater, the iconic home he built for the Kaufmann family in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. Boyle tells Wright’s story by through the experience of the wives and mistresses who both influenced and reflected his life. Our email conversation with the author took place in three installments in December and January and was conducted for the Review by Cameron Martin.

The Barnes & Noble Review: You've written several works of historical fiction, including The Road to Wellville (about Dr. John Harvey Kellogg), The Inner Circle (Alfred Kinsey), and now The Women, about the wives and mistresses of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. How much do you think readers are helped or hindered by advance knowledge of the historical figures they encounter in fiction, be it yours or others? What books of historical fiction, written by other authors, have left the biggest impression on you? And why?

T. C. Boyle: I don't subscribe to the notion that history is made by the generals and potentates, or certainly not exclusively. What interests me are the passionate oddballs whose obsessions play down through the generations, deciding what we eat (in Kellogg's case, cornflakes), codifying and thus liberating our sexual practices (Kinsey), and inventing a new sort of structure for us to inhabit (Wright). All three men were great egomaniacs (much like a few novelists I know), who created great and enduring things but at the same time, as classic narcissists, did not see or regard others except as they fit into their schemes. As far as readers' impressions of these figures go, I would think that they will be surprised by the intimate and individual take on them in my novels -- in The Women, for instance, we see Frank Lloyd Wright through the points of view of his three wives and mistress, as well as through the lens of one of his acolytes, Tadashi Sato, who, as it turns out, has written the book as a memoir of his master. Of course, in fiction there are no rules, and so one can violate historical reality if he likes -- see Philip Roth's The Plot Against America -- but in my case I've chosen to hold true to the history because the history in itself is so oddly fascinating. Not to mention hilarious and just a bit, well, sticky. Books of historical fiction that have held me spellbound include a number of works by E.L. Doctorow, especially Welcome to Hard Times and Ragtime, Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum, John Barth's The Sot-weed Factor, Robert Coover's The Public Burning and many, many others. Why? Because of their subversive reimagining of the received notions about our history, which, of course, is a kind of fiction in any case.

BNR: You live in a Frank Lloyd Wright home in California, known as the George C. Stewart home. How did you come to own the home? And how long have you been interested in Wright, both as an architect and as a possible novel subject?

TCB: Pure love and luck. We are the fourth owners of this redwood house, built in 1909, Wright's first California design and the only Prairie house west of the Rockies. The Stewarts and their successor, Mrs. Blickenstaff, lived here for the bulk of this time. The third owner, Jerald Peterson, owned it for six years -- during which every architectural student in America tramped through, breathing its rarefied air -- but he never lived in the house. We have been here sixteen years and for most of that time we've been restoring the house. We began by pouring foundations (it was sitting on stone piers and listing to the east) and doing an earthquake retrofit (it survived the notorious 1925 earthquake that devastated Santa Barbara -- see my 1998 historical novel, Riven Rock -- and we hope it will survive the next one as well). Finally, just this past fall we got around to removing the paint from the woodwork in the three public rooms -- paint on woodwork was anathema to FLLW (Frank Lloyd Lincoln Wright) and we'd been putting off this odious task until we could put it off no longer. Just as this two-month process was completed, the Tea Fire hit the hillside above us, but fortunately -- for us, but not so fortunately for all those who lost their homes -- spared the Stewart house. As far as doing a novel around Wright and his work and life, I'd been contemplating such a book since we first moved in. I just got around to it recently (I realize I've published eleven other books of fiction since we moved in, but everything in its time), having delivered the finished manuscript to Viking in July of 2007. We waited publication till now both to avoid the publicity brownout of this past fall's election and to coincide with the centennial of the house.

BNR: Several of your books have been set in the early decades of the 20th century, including parts of The Women. What is it about this period of time that you find so fascinating?

TCB: I like thinking about how we got to where we are now and how our life in the present era contrasts with life prior to the great dislocations of the twentieth century, the world wars and then the period of technological innovation that succeeded the second war. I have the advantage of historical irony, of course, when developing and addressing the characters who populate my stories set in the early nineteen hundreds, and yet, I do admire Kellogg and Wright a great deal (and relate to and sympathize with Stanley McCormick, of Riven Rock), even as I see them as delightfully and tragically flawed.

BNR: You once said of writing, "You have to be really cocksure of what you're doing, and really have faith in your own vision, that's for sure, because no one really gives you encouragement, or very few give you encouragement. People don't like to see others succeed, somehow." If a cocksure attitude has helped your career, what's a character trait that might have derailed it at some point, and what did you do to overcome it? Who are some writers you've been happy to see reach a wider audience in the last few decades?

TCB: The character trait that derails everything is the very egomania I was talking about above. In order to create you have to believe in your ability to do so and that often means excluding whole chunks of normal life, and, of course, pumping yourself up as much as possible as a way of keeping on. Sort of cheering for yourself in the great football stadium of life. The rest of the people in the world, who may have their very own agendum which may even be in direct conflict with yours, aren't necessarily going to embrace you and fall right into line. I've never cultivated anyone in a position to advance me -- in fact, I've stayed strictly away from literary and film circles, choosing rather to speak directly to my audience. Have I missed out? Maybe so. But I have been pleased and honored to have a wide readership for my books and it is to that readership that I owe my loyalty. As for other writers I've been happy to see gain a wide readership, they are legion. Off the top of my head: Kent Haruf and his magisterial Plainsong; Denis Johnson, not only for Tree of Smoke, but for Fiskadoro and Jesus' Son; Ray Carver, for everything; Cynthia Ozick; Kazuo Ishiguro; Louise Erdrich; Sherman Alexie; Richard Ford; Martin Amis. Why? Because they are true literary artists whose books inspire, amaze and delight me.

BNR: As a teacher of creative writing at USC since 1986, you've spent a lot of time working with students. How has that experience influenced your development as a writer? If you'd never become a teacher of writing, how might your style and fictional interests have developed differently?

TCB: I've been teaching since I was twenty-one and I hope to keep on teaching as long as I can evade the zombies blocking the fast lane on the long, tortuous road to L.A. If I didn't teach -- that is, get out of the house one day a week in order to discuss literature at the deepest level with young (and often, not so young) geniuses whose fire burns every bit as brightly as mine, I would most likely be writing this from the subbasement of the old mental hospital in Camarillo, if my keepers had been so kind as to loosen the chains, that is. To live inside yourself seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year, is to coax mental instability. For many years, I taught two classes a week, so that for fifty-four days a year I was interacting with other minds. Now that figure has been cut in half, but the time spent with students still recharges my batteries, oh, yes, indeed. Of course, that's the selfish reason for continuing to teach. The altruistic reason (but let's not get carried away here, USC does pay me) is to spread the word and act as mentor for young and not so young writers. I had a series of great mentors in my life, from my eighth-grade English and history teachers, Donald Grant and Walter Greenstein, to undergraduate icons like Kelsie Harder, Vincent Knapp and Krishna Vaid, to grad school rocks like Vance Bourjaily, John Irving and John Cheever, to editors like George Plimpton and Lewis Lapham, and my agent, Georges Borchardt. They saw me. Plucked me up. Held me. Guided me. I hope I have been able to do the same for so many, many others. Isn't that the fun of life, anyway?

BNR: You said that the process of creating "often means excluding whole chunks of normal life." What are some of the conventional things you've sacrificed because of your writing, and do you have any specific regrets about the life you've chosen and how you've gone about pursuing it?

TCB: Like many of my fellow novelists, I am a very competitive person. I cannot enjoy being an amateur at anything. I don't play tennis or golf or cards or chess or anything of that kind. Why? Too obsessed. And, of course, I don't like losing. Thus, my activities have dwindled to these: writing, teaching, performing my work (I am a ham, I admit it), strolling in the woods and along the beach, cleaning up after my wife, walking the dog. What I've given up is music -- singing and playing the saxophone. I just can't imagine starting again and being godawful and then not having the time to practice and develop. Sad, sad, sad. I hardly even sing along with records anymore, let alone with real live people. Woe is me.

BNR: How did you settle on Sato Tadashi, the memoirist, as the conceit for this novel? What other approaches to the material did you consider? Is his name taken from Tadashi Sato, the Japanese-American Abstract Expressionist painter who died in 2005?

TCB: Employing Tadashi as the motive force behind the book really opened up the structure to me. I'd been re-reading Pale Fire at the time, and I guess Nabokov's playfulness was infectious. There was no other approach, as everything I do is organic and simply begins. Then I follow it. As for the painter, this is a coincidence: I had not known of him until another reader pointed out that he shares a name with my Tadashi.

BNR: The women in Wright's life are introduced in reverse order, with his last wife first. Why did you choose to do introduce the stories in this way? What would have been lost by developing the story in chronological order?

TCB: The book, I hope, is doing a number of things. One them is to allow me and you and any others intrepid enough to jump into this fictional world to reflect on our relationships, how they begin in sunshine and maybe possibly occasionally end in rain. So for me there's a wonderful irony, not to mention joy, in for instance dramatizing FLLW's relationship with Olgivanna while the castoff Miriam becomes the gorgon, and then moving backwards to give you the sunshine of the awakening relationship with Miriam all those years before. Plus, going backwards allows me to end with the conflagration and tragedy of Mamah and Taliesen I.

BNR: Of the women described at length in this novel -- Olgivanna, Miriam and Mamah -- who was the most challenging fictional character to create? Who was the most fun? Mamah's tragic death is foreshadowed early in the novel. What was gained by mentioning it then? If she had never died, do you think Wright would have left her eventually?

TCB: Kitty was the most difficult, as she was simply the victim. Hard to fathom too how she would have defended Frank to the press while he was off in Europe with Mamah after having deserted her and his six children. Amazing, really. Miriam, as should be evident, was the most fun. She was, in real life, as I portray her here, but by inhabiting her point of view I was able to dramatize her thoughts and actions. As for adumbrating Mamah's death -- since Tadashi is looking back and giving an overview, mention of the death (for the first time in one of his scholarly footnotes) can only heighten the reader's anticipation of and curiosity about it. Mamah, incidentally, seems in truth to have been FLLW's soulmate, at least for the short period in which they were together. Hard to say whether he would have left her or not, but certainly he did seem to have serial attachments and to be susceptible to the charms of the newest woman to come along.

BNR: Before writing the novel, did you visit Taliesin, Wright's long-time summer home in Wisconsin, and the setting for much of this book? Why or why not?

TCB: One of the joys of writing this novel was in learning more about the architect who designed this house, and one of the refined joys was in visiting Taliesin, as well as his home in Oak Park and many others of his buildings. It was essential to visit Taliesin, of course, because so much of the action is set there and because it becomes a kind of metaphor for his cycle of creation and destruction. The first time I visited -- with my wife -- was out of season and we had to arrange a private tour. The second time, after the novel was completed, we were invited to spend the night at Taliesin. Just the two of us, alone, in a very cold house -- this was in the fall -- while the ghosts were roaming and whispering and pounding at the walls. Pretty exhilarating, all the way round.

BNR: Can you expound on the playfulness of Nabokov in Pale Fire and how that work influenced the design of The Women? You mentioned how everything you do is organic and simply begins. Has there ever been a novel that simply wasn't coming together for you, and which had to be abandoned? Also, have you ever begun one of your numerous short stories and realized it would support the length and development of a novel? Or has every novel been planned as such?

TCB: I reread my three favorite Nabokov books -- Pale Fire, Lolita and Pnin -- while writing The Women, just to savor the richness of them. There is a sly, sophisticated hilarity to Nabokov's approach (not to mention worldview) that I find very appealing. I don't really know how his playfulness, verbally, structurally and philosophically, relates to mine, but the concept of the scholar taking over the author, which was a favorite ploy of another of my heroes, Jorge Luis Borges, does tend to open up all sorts of possibilities. As for failed novels, the answer, thankfully--sing hosannas now--is no. I suppose experience has taught me when something will work and when it will not. And, as I work equally in both the short form and long, I will say that I've been able to compartmentalize and have never confused the short story and the novel. I had been toying with the idea of expanding my story, "Going Down," into a novel -- and what fun it would have been -- but then the movie "Benjamin Button," from the old Scott Fitzgerald story, intervened, and I feel it will be best to move on.

BNR: Of the women in Frank Lloyd Wright's life, for whom do you have the most respect? The least? Wright is already an established architect when we meet him in the novel. To what extent, if any, do you think his wives and mistresses influenced him as an artist?

TCB: Good lord. I don't know. But Miriam is the flame by which the novel burns. Turn the jets on high! As for Wright and what Kitty must have done for him to enable him to have a base from which to operate: isn't that the way with all artists? We all need someone to love us unconditionally and feed our egos as we rage out against the world (his motto, in fact, was "Truth Against the World"). FLLW had his very formidable mother; I did not, because she died before I'd established myself. But the dedicatee of this novel -- my wife -- gave me what I expect Kitty must have given Frank.

BNR: I understand you spent the holidays with your family at your vacation home in Sequoia National Park. When you're away from home like that, how is your writing routine affected? Do you stop altogether or write intermittently? What's an instance you remember when someone in your family lamented your need to spend time writing, even though you were supposed to be spending that time with them? How was the matter resolved?

TCB: I do not have a vacation home -- having a second home is not only environmentally insensitive, but the worry over said home would have put me in the madhouse by now. No, no, no. The lot I own up there in the Sierras will forever be the Boyle Squirrel Preserve, and I will continue, thankfully and joyously, to rent. And yes, I do write seven days a week, and write far more fanatically on the mountain than down here by the sea. Why? Simple boredom. The days slow there, without access to the wider world, without the newspaper, for that matter. And I do feel more relaxed as a result. Read more, work more, contemplate nature a whole lot more. Finally, there has never been a time when anyone in my immediate family has questioned my need to go into that dim little room and stare at the screen. When the children were very little and I had set up my desk at the foot of the bed, they knew not to rap at the door no matter how loud that music might be, because Daddy was working. Of course, I have been extremely fortunate in this regard not only in having sane and self-motivated children, but a wife who has been able to devote herself to their nurture since the birth of our first.

BNR: In your fiction, you've explored the lives of several 20th-century figures, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Alfred Kinsey and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Please discuss other historical figures whose life stories intrigue you, and who might provide the basis for good historical fiction. Hopefully this isn't asking you to tip your hand about a future project; but is there one subject whose life story seems particularly rich (yet under-mined) as a source of historical fiction?

TCB: There are infinite stories out there waiting to be gathered in. I have a love for history, a love for imagining how things might have been. I've written of Mungo Park, Robert Johnson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, random Norsemen, the figures you mention. What intrigues me, especially, is the narcissistic personality, and the ethics involved in what those personalities produce. Does this hit close to home? You bet.

BNR: According to your Web site, you're currently working on a new novel, When the Killing's Done, which you hope to release in two years. As much as possible, can you tell us what it's about? You said you've written half of the book. Is it simply experience that tells you how long it's going to be and when you can expect to publish it? Or do you have the ending in mind already?

TCB: When the Killing's Done could, of course, fates willing, be released sooner than that, but we are on the five-year plan here, and second in line is the new collection of fourteen stories, Wild Child, to be released at this time next year. Since we last talked, Killing has moved forward dramatically, but the tours for The Women both here and in Europe will bring it to a standstill. Nonetheless, I do hope to finish sometime this summer. Somewhere in there -- I guess at the five-year limit -- will be Volume II of the Collected Stories. The length of Killing will play out when I work through it, but I expect it will be in the range I've already envisioned --that is, 375-400 pp. How can I say that? Don't know. I'm not a prognosticator or a betting man. But I'm willing to give you odds. That said, thank you, Cameron, for a far-ranging and very stimulating (at least on my part) interview.