Best-selling author T.C. Boyle

Known as a master of short fiction, the award-winning author talks about his new collection, T.C. Boyle Stories II.

One of America's most accomplished writers, T.C. Boyle is the author of 25 works of fiction and more than 100 short stories. His work has appeared in such publications as The Atlantic, Esquire and The New Yorker, been translated into more than 25 languages and won numerous awards. He's also a professor at the University of Southern California, where he founded the creative writing undergrad program. Boyle, who holds a Ph.D. in 19th-century British literature, is an Iowa Writer's Workshop alum and an inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His latest publication is a second volume of short fiction, T.C. Boyle Stories II.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: T.C. Boyle’s written 14 novels, over a hundred short stories, almost all of them acclaimed, and many of them dealing with contemporary issues, including illegal immigration and environmental degradation.

Along the way he’s collected a slew of awards and has consistently been on the best-seller list. He’s just published his second volume of stories. It’s called, appropriately enough, “T.C. Boyle Stories II.” T.C., good to have you back on this program.

T.C. Boyle: Well thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Get the Chuck Taylors – you got them, Jonathan? There you go. He always has his Chuck Taylors on. I love it.

Boyle: Well as you know, Tavis, I’ve told you before, you never know when you’re going to be called upon to dunk.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) You did tell me that before, and I laughed the first time, and it’s still killing.

Boyle: Furthermore, it matches the color of the book.

Tavis: Yeah, but this thing would be hard to dunk at 918 – you see that? – 918 pages. This is pretty dense.

Boyle: Well, it’s also – I’m sorry. I wrote a preference for it, and it’s a little bit valedictory. (Laughter) This is my career; this is what I’ve done. On the other hand, I’m feeling pretty good, and I think I might have a few more good years left in me. So maybe we’ll see volume three someday.

Tavis: You say that like at some point you might have questioned whether or not you had a few more good years in you.

Boyle: Well no, I’ve been in perfect health and perfectly happy all my life. I don’t take any pills; I just get up, clean up after my wife, and start typing every day. (Laughter)

Tavis: This book has – it’s 918 pages because it has three books in it, basically, and 14 short stories.

Boyle: Yeah, right, okay. So there’s 58 stories in this one. In ’98 I published “T.C. Boyle Stories” and that was my first four collections. They squeezed. The pages were a little more narrow then, but it was a big book, I think 700 pages or something.

So now all the stories written since then. Instead of just coming out with “A Death in Kitchawank,” the last part of this, a new book of stories, I figured it’s time to make a kind of grand statement with this big book.

Tavis: For the readers, your fans, is there something linear about this book, about the short stories, or is it -

Boyle: Well, it’s a little different. In the first one, I divided them up into love, death, and everything in between. Just for the fun of it. This one, it is more linear. It’s more traditional, where it’s basically chronological.

So you come up to these new 14 stories, which I’ve written, by the way, since the last two times I saw you. I write them in between the novels, and they’re as various as anything, whatever I feel like writing.

So for instance there’s one in here called “Sic Transit,” which happens to be in “Harper’s” this month. My wife and I had moved into a neighborhood in Santa Barbara, and we would walk down to our favorite restaurant.

It’s nice houses, but one house, you couldn’t see. It was completely overgrown, and there was this old American car listing in the driveway. I said, “Probably some old person there, and once they’re dead, they’ll clean this up.”

They came in with bulldozers and took this whole person’s life, car, everything, the house, gone. Everything – trees, shrubs, right down to bare dirt. So I wrote a story about that, “Sic Transit.” “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi,” “So go the glories of the world.”

Tavis: That only happens in Santa Barbara because the property values are so high.

Boyle: I make a good point of it in this story.

Tavis: Indeed you do.

Boyle: They need the view. The house had a view. They needed that view.

Tavis: Absolutely. That’s how it works. When you said a moment ago, T.C., that you write these short stories in between novels, for some people, that process would just completely wreck them.

Because once they start on a particular project, they stay with it until it’s done. But in between writing novels, you’re doing short stories. You don’t get conflicted or confused in that process of writing?

Boyle: No, I’m pretty hardcore, Tavis. I stick exactly to what I’m doing. So I write a novel in one period, and then I’ll write stories in another period. I only work on one thing at once, because I’m afraid that I wouldn’t finish what I’d started.

Tavis: Hey Jonathan, put that quote up for me. There’s an interesting quote – I find it kind of funny, actually.

Boyle: That’s a recent quote.

Tavis: Yeah, I know it is. Read it.

Boyle: “All writers are egomaniacal, manic-depressive, drug-addicted alcoholics. You want to have that fix again.”

Tavis: Yeah, you said that. (Laughter) So “All writers are egomaniacal, manic-depressive, drug-addicted alcoholics,” and after you do it once, you want to have that fix again.

Boyle: Yeah. Unlike all the politicians you have on this show, these guys are straight arrows.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Boyle: It’s a slight exaggeration, Tavis.

Tavis: That may be true of talk show hosts as well, as I think about it. (Laughter)

Boyle: I don’t know. I’m just having fun making jokes and writing books. But you see me once a year, I come on when I have a new book out, but basically, I’ve got my nose to the grindstone and I’m doing what I’m supposed to do in life, which is make stories.

You know me – I don’t write film scripts, I don’t give speeches. I just love to be an artist and do what I’m doing, and that’s what I’m talking about in the preface of this book.

Tavis: What is it about the process, all jokes aside, what is it about the process of writing that is so addictive for you?

Boyle: It’s going into another world. Same thing that the reader gets on the other end. We’ve all had the experience of you pick up a book, you can’t get into it, you can’t concentrate.

Then one day you pick up the same book and you don’t hear the phone ring. You’re totally absorbed. Same thing I have to do every day. When you get into that special place of unconsciousness – you get it listening to great music or seeing a great movie – it just takes you out of yourself, out of this whole world. There’s no feeling quite like it.

So when we talk about you have to get that fix again, it’s sort of like a drug high. You make something out of nothing. You get to the end of it, you feel great for a little while. Then the rush goes away and you have to do it again.

Tavis: How much do you enjoy, to the extent you do, interacting with readers once the book is done? Is the fun for you – because I’m no T.C. Boyle, and I haven’t written as many texts as you have.

I always dread the process of writing because I’m not a writer. I’m an audible guy, I’m a verbal guy. I love to talk. I write a book every couple years, but it just takes everything out of me to get a book out.

The part I look forward to is when the book is done, getting on the road to actually talk to people about the book. I love that. Do you not like that part, or do you like that part as well?

Boyle: Well, I do. I do. Again, most writers are introverts. That’s why they’re writers. They don’t want to deal with anybody. I’m a little different. I used to front a rock and roll band.

I love to shake it out and give a performance that I go on stage in a darkened theater and I read a story as an actor. It brings people back to the first voice they ever heard.

In my case, it was my mother who taught me how to read. So yeah, I love to be sitting here with you and to be doing interviews and meeting the readers. That’s a great thing. But of course I can shut that off when I have to go home and write another book.

Tavis: You spend so much time, and I know this, again, because I do see you once a year. It’s like a standing engagement. We know that once a year, somebody from T.C.’s office is going to call us and say, “The next book is out.”

Of course I usually know that anyway, because “The New York Times” and everybody else is already chomping at the bit to review it before it even comes out.

But I get the sense that you’re writing so much, do you ever have time to read? If you do have time to read, what does T.C. Boyle like to read? We know you like to write. What do you like to read?

Boyle: Yeah, good question. I can’t be reading novels when I’m writing a novel, because somebody’s voice creeps in. The hardest thing to do is keep the tone and your attitude over the course of a year or however long it takes.

But when I’m writing short stories, which I will be doing shortly, I can read anything I like. Right now, I’m reading nature books. I love nature books. I’m reading a book about the urban bestiary. What creatures are living amongst us?

In my case, it’s rats. It is rats. (Laughter) And we talked about “When the Killing’s Done” two years ago.

Tavis: I remember this, yeah.

Boyle: There’s an animal rights activist in it. I began to feel – please excuse me, folks – sorry for the rats. (Laughter) So lately, Tavis, you have to add a new title to my distinguished career of titles – professor -

Tavis: Rat-lover?

Boyle: Rat-deliverer. I’m catching them in a Hav-a-Heart trap, and I’m not taking them to anybody’s house. I’m taking the rats and letting them go in the woods where maybe the coyote will eat them, but at least they’re not rolling Coke bottles through the walls of my house anymore. (Laughter)

That’s what they do, by the way. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a rat game at night. You probably have a lot of ratologists on the show, and they’ll tell you the secret of why rats are rolling those bottles through the wall all night long.

Tavis: Even before you fell in love with the rats, (laughter) which is, to your point, about nature, you’ve always been – I don’t want to say always. Maybe you have been. But you certainly of late have been very passionate about a variety of environmental and other social issues.

Boyle: Yes, absolutely. You’ll see it reflected in these 58 stories. You can trace the themes all the way through. I tell jokes and I have fun, but I tend to worry about everybody and everything throughout the entire world.

This population explosion, the extinction of the animals, global warming – don’t forget in the year 2000 I wrote “A Friend of the Earth,” projecting to 2025 about global warming. My joke is I should have made it 2013, (laughter) because we’re here already.

Tavis: We’re here, yeah.

Boyle: So I think readers will find a lot of that sort of thing and can trace some of the ideas through. But basically for me a story can be anything. Anything you tell me, anything I read in the newspaper, in any mode. I don’t have any restrictions.

Some writers just write about their own lives. Well, I don’t want to do that. I want to have a really boring life. A quiet, boring life so no one wants to write a biography. As you know, I’m the only writer in history only to have one wife, for instance.

Tavis: Mm-hmm. (Laughter)

Boyle: It makes life easier.

Tavis: Who’s here today in the green room, watching. (Laughter) Yeah, yeah. As we tape the show, today’s your daughter’s birthday.

Boyle: Yes, and she’s -

Tavis: Happy -

Boyle: – a big Tavis fan, and she’s here with her college roommate.

Tavis: Happy birthday, Ms. Boyle. Let me close with this. This is your own assessment of your work. You said recently that you think that your work is maturing, that your writing isn’t as whimsical as it used to be. What do you mean by that?

Boyle: I’m talking about this in the preface. Overlooking my whole career and so on, when I first started out, that first volume of stories, I wrote some of those when I was still a student in my early twenties.

I was more interested in idea and design and telling jokes and having fun and just absurdity. But as I began to write novels, I began to discover the idea of writing about characters.

So I think you see a fuller, richer sort of story here than in the early ones. Not that I reject them, it’s just different. And as we mention this, just before – I’ve just got back from a tour in Germany and Austria. Just before I left I finished the next novel, so I can come see you next year.

Tavis: So you’re ahead of schedule.

Boyle: Oh, yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s why I love this guy. He cranks them out, and they always seem to be good. How he does it, I do not know. So we will see him in a year, since he’s done with the next novel, but for now, the one we’re celebrating is called “T.C. Boyle Stories II.”

Three books in this collection, 14 brand-new short stories you’ll, I’m sure, find enjoyable to read. T.C., until next year, my friend.

Boyle: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you.

Boyle: As always.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

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Last modified: October 29, 2013 at 3:08 pm