T.C. Boyle on Doom

Tom Coraghessan Boyle (better known as T.C.) has stolen a deaf woman’s identity [Talk, Talk, 2006]; gotten into bed with famed sex researcher Alfred Kinsey [The Inner Circle, 2004], and married, divorced, and even murdered the loves of Frank Lloyd Wright’s life [The Women, now out in paperback]. He’s published 12 novels and more than 100 stories and has been the recipient of the PEN/Faulkner and a Guggenheim fellowship. To say that he is a prolific writer is, perhaps, an understatement.
But it’s not the volume of material that Boyle has produced which has established him as one of today’s most interesting literary talents. It’s his characters, often ill-fated and always fallible; his always-changing story structure, which fools readers into sometimes undeserved empathy or harsh judgment; and his vivid descriptions, which sometimes take readers to places Boyle himself has never visited.
In his latest short story collection, Wild Child and Other Stories (Viking), Boyle punishes a boy who cannot feel pain and asks a young girl to lie for her alcoholic father, among other ambiguous adventures in morality. The common theme throughout: What does it mean to be human?
LUCY SILBERMAN: You grew up in New York, but you’ve lived in California for quite some time now.
T.C. BOYLE: I’ve been out here for 32 years. Right now, I’m sitting on the third floor of a cabin in the Sequoia National Forest, at 7,200 feet, looking at lots of snow and gigantic trees. I always workâ??wherever I amâ??but I find this is a good place to begin and end books, because you’re just away from the hassles of normal life.
SILBERMAN: I understand that you renovated your other home.
BOYLE: Yes. That one is Frank Lloyd Wright’s first California house, the George C. Stewart House; it celebrated its centennial last year. We’re only the fourth owners.
SILBERMAN: Was moving into that house the beginning of your interest in Wright?
BOYLE: Yeah. I knew about as much about him as most people doâ??he’s such an iconic figure; a cult figure, really. I wanted to learn more about him. I’ve written other books about men like him: Dr. Kellogg of The Road to Wellville and, more recently, Dr. Kinsey of The Inner Circle. He fit right in with this sort of American, progressive megalomaniac that I’m interested in. I considered writing about him from the very beginning.
SILBERMAN: Is there something about that personality that especially appeals to you?
BOYLE: Growing up as a free American, and as kind of a punk, not having to do anything I didn’t want to do, I’ve always been very suspicious of authority. These men are so fanatically devoted to their projects that they really become gurus, and dictators in a way. I often wonder, “What is the result of following, of being a follower?” Writing about Frank Lloyd Wrightâ??it’s the first time I’ve ever written about a fellow artist and his inspiration. I felt closer to him than I did to Kellogg or Kinsey, who were scientists.
SILBERMAN: You don’t tell Wright’s story in The Women from his point of view, although he’s obviously the central figure.
BOYLE: I’m always looking for a structure to tell a story. I don’t begin with blueprints; intuitive leaps occur throughout the process. In The Women, I was using this sort of Nabokovian layer of narration, where you don’t really know what’s true and what’s not. I always want the reader to be aware of the fiction going on, and the fun that I’m having.


SILBERMAN: How do you get interested in the subjects you write about?
BOYLE: I don’t really know how I feel about anything until I write a story about it.

SILBERMAN: I wanted to ask you about the title story in your new collection, the novella, Wild Child. It’s your telling of Victor, the wild boy of Avignon. How do you rework a story that has been the stuff of lore for centuries?
BOYLE: I’ve been asked before if I had seen the Truffaut film, L’Enfant Sauvage. I had, but when it first came out, a long time ago. While writing this, I found a copy on the Internet. I thought I should see it immediately, but then I didn’t, and I haven’t yet. I didn’t want it to interfere with my own telling. In this case, it’s basically the same story (of course, with certain liberties).
SILBERMAN: You know, many of your characters have experienced terrible, terrible things.
BOYLE: You mean, why do the characters suffer so much? Well, because in the universe in which we live, we are without control. But in the universe that I create, I am the god and creator, and by god, my characters are going to suffer. [LAUGHS]
SILBERMAN: I wanted to ask you, do you think you’re a pessimist? An optimist?
BOYLE: Absolutely a pessimist. We are all doomed.

Wild Child and Other Stories is available now from Viking.