Writer T.C. Boyle

The inventive storyteller and English professor explains the premise of his new novel, San Miguel.

One of America's most accomplished writers, T.C. Boyle is the author of 23 works of fiction, including his latest novel San Miguel and more than 100 short stories. His work has appeared in such publications as The Atlantic, Esquire, Harper's 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 is an Iowa Writer's Workshop alum and holds a Ph.D. in 19th-century British literature. In '09, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Tavis: Always pleased to welcome T.C. Boyle back to this program. The perennial “New York Times” best-selling author is once again on the “Times'” list with his latest. It’s called “San Miguel.” In addition to the new book, he continues at his post in the English department at USC. T.C. Boyle, good to have you back on this program.

T.C. Boyle: Well thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Do you want the book first or you want to talk politics first?

Boyle: Whatever you want to talk about is fine with me.

Tavis: (Laughs) Since last night was the last debate, are you as relieved as I am that we’re at least past the debates now?

Boyle: I certainly am.

Tavis: Yeah. What do you make of the fact – I mentioned that you’ve been a perennial “New York Times” best-selling writer. What do you make of the fact that these races for the White House now seem to be perennial campaigns. The campaigning never stops, so that if you lose, like Romney did last time, the campaign continues for four years, and if you win like Obama did, the campaign still continues. It’s all perennial.

Boyle: Well, I think we need to change the Constitution. I think there should be one six-year term, period.

Tavis: Wow.

Boyle: Yeah. The president can do what he wants to do and not have to worry about reelection all the time. I’ve got a whole five-point plan to reinvigorate America.

Tavis: Give me more, come on. (Laughter) That’s one. Okay, give me some more. I’m serious.

Boyle: All right. Number one, I would legalize all drugs and sell them at the CVS pharmacy tomorrow.

Tavis: All drugs?

Boyle: All drugs.

Tavis: Wow.

Boyle: We’d be in the black in a year.

Tavis: Okay. That’s number two – what else you got?

Boyle: Number two, I’d cut the defense budget by half and double the salary of every teacher in America. Number three, I’d reinvigorate the CCC, give everybody 20 bucks and healthcare, and fill some potholes.

Tavis: I like it.

Boyle: Keep it going. Number four, I would mandate every car in America has to drive on hydrogen fuel in five years.

Tavis: Wow.

Boyle: You know, come on.

Tavis: That would solve the energy dependence problem.

Boyle: Yeah, but there’s a few guys who pay a lot of money to our politicians in the oil industry who wouldn’t like that so much.

Tavis: Right, yeah.

Boyle: So in short, what I’m saying is in order to do this I’d have to seize power in this country, and I’m too busy writing books. I haven’t got time. (Laughter)

Tavis: What do you make of the fact, though – some of the things you’ve just said are really common sense ideas. It makes sense, particularly the one about the cars that we drive.

Boyle: And the teachers and our schools.

Tavis: And the teachers. That makes common sense. What do you make of the fact, though, that so much of these campaigns now, so much has to do with getting away from just common sense ideas, because I sense that we’re so wed to ideology on either side that we look right past good ideas.

Boyle: We are. It’s war. It’s war out there, and it has been for the last 20 years or so, and it’s a shame. Our president wants to be ecumenical, and I hope that he can be in his second term, and I hope that the other party will listen to that.

Tavis: I like your word choice, “ecumenical.” That’s one way to put it. But I think almost to a person, every guest I’ve had on this program, certainly every guest who supports the president, believes – I hear this almost every other night on this program – they all believe that in a second term he is going to be just that. More ecumenical, more progressive, pick your word. What gives you reason to believe he’s going to be more of that?

Boyle: Well, it depends on Congress as well if he can actually get anything done, if the other party will agree, and we’ll see what Congress looks like after the election as well.

Come on, Tavis, politics, it’s sort of like every four years talking about movie stars getting divorced or married. Let’s not talk about things like that. Let’s talk about the real core things that really matter in this world, like literature. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah. I promise I’ll come to that. One last question and we’ll come back to what really matters – literature. Where foreign policy is concerned, that was the subject of the last debate last night with Mr. Schieffer, and in the coming days people are going to be deconstructing, as they already are, who won, who lost, what the real distinctions are in foreign policy between these two gentlemen.

Where there really are no distinctions between the two of them. On foreign policy, though, do you think Mr. Romney’s ready for prime time? Because prior to last night, of course, the rub on him was that every time he opened his mouth about foreign policy or took a trip overseas he put his foot in his mouth. Is he ready for prime time on foreign policy?

Boyle: I like when our president points out that in fact he is the president, and he’s been dealing with this for four years. That gives a little bit of a stamp of authority, doesn’t it?

Tavis: Yeah, we shall see what happens just days from now. Are you an in the booth kind of guy or are you a vote by mail kind of guy?

Boyle: I have to vote by mail this time because I’m on a long book drive. I’ve been out on the road since September 18th and I won’t be home for it.

Tavis: I guess that makes sense.

Boyle: But I’m a lifelong Democrat and if I voted my self-interest, I’d be a Republican. But I don’t, because I actually believe in social issues.

Tavis: Yeah. I hear you, and I feel you on that in more ways than one, especially when money is concerned. (Laughter) I digress on that point. Since you mentioned what really matters in the world – literature – let me offer this question as a way into the conversation about the new book, “San Miguel.”

In one of the earlier debates – a lot of things have not been discussed in these debates, but at least in one of the debates, I think it was the town hall meeting, the last one, second to the last one, we had a conversation where somebody asked, a young lady, as I recall, asked a specific question about education.

A young lady, young man, asked a question about education, so we did get some conversation about education in this country. Let me ask specifically what the value is these days of a liberal arts education. You have one of those educations.

Boyle: Yes.

Tavis: It’s getting, to my mind, pooh-poohed more than ever now, a liberal arts education, so make the best case you can make on PBS tonight for a good liberal arts education.

Boyle: Me, sitting right here. I’m the first of our family to ever go to college. My father was raised in an orphanage, educated to the eighth grade. My mother made it to high school, but it was the Depression, she couldn’t go on to college.

I’m solely a product of state schools and state universities, and for liberal arts – and by the way, this is why I continue at USC, because I love the idea of it. It transformed me. I went at 17 to SUNY Potsdam, the music school, as a saxophone player. I wanted to be a musician.

I loved John Coltrane. He was my hero. I wanted to be just like him, although he was a genius and I was not. I flunked my audition. (Laughter) But I was in a liberal arts college, so what am I going to do? I said I’ll be a history major. Sophomore year I went into a required class in the American short story and I discovered Flannery O’Connor, so I was a double major, history and English.

Junior year I blundered into a creative writing classroom, and here I am, sitting talking to you. So this is the value of liberal arts. A lot of young people don’t know who they are or what they want to be, and I think it’s great that we can be exposed to a whole panoply of things. Would there be a psychologist alive if we didn’t have to take psych 101? (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah. I wonder, though, realistically, because everybody – you mentioned John Coltrane and you made a funny joke, we all laughed, that he was a genius and you weren’t so you flunked your audition. There are a lot of folk who will get a liberal arts education, but they’re not going to become T.C. Boyle. You are a genius. Just like Coltrane is a genius at playing his horn, you’re a genius at writing books. It’s what you do.

So everybody’s not going to become T.C. Boyle. So you go to school and you get a liberal arts education, and you come out and you do what with it? How do you answer that question practically for young people who today want to get a job, and as we saw on these earlier debates, there just aren’t enough jobs out there for them?

So as opposed to looking for what the world needs and trying to plug in to a degree that way, what do you do?

Boyle: I got out of college at 21 and I had no idea what to do in life, and I wound up teaching. Again, let’s get more people into the teaching profession who have a brain and an ability. That’s one thing that we could do.

Tavis: But if you’re not going to pay them, and moreover, if you’re going to attack them –

Boyle: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. No, we need to –

Tavis: – how do you convince people to be teachers?

Boyle: Well, a salary. Remember my five-point plan here. (Laughter) Absolutely.

Tavis: I forgot, you’re running, and you’ve got a five-point plan here.

Boyle: Absolutely. Yeah, I’d double the salary. I’d make it an attractive profession. It’s the essence and the lifeblood of everything we’ve got going in this country, and we’re neglecting it.

Tavis: Yeah. So a liberal arts education still matters.

Boyle: I think so.

Tavis: Yeah.

Boyle: By the way, you asked the specific question, what are we going to do with them?

Tavis: Yeah.

Boyle: Well, I’m teaching fiction writing, and obviously, everybody who wants to be in an art, like me wanting to be a musician, isn’t going to make it at that level, but there are many other fields that they go into, a lot of my students. They can go into journalism, they can go into film.

Since they’re very creative, about half of them, you see them out on the boulevard here with very creative signs, begging for change. (Laughter)

Tavis: Ba-dum-bump. Let me go right to the book now, “San Miguel.” I’ve been dying to ask you a very simple question. So how does it feel to be a woman?

Boyle: Yeah, good, election. (Laughter) Well, you remember when I was on last time, we were talking about “When the Killing’s Done,” also set on the Channel Islands.

Tavis: That’s right.

Boyle: Well, I discovered this story set there, and it was from a diary that I found, and then a memoir by women. When I first started the book, I thought I would alternate the view of the husbands and the wives here, but as I got into it, I realized that I just wanted to channel these women as a challenge. Can I do it? Can I inhabit the persona of a woman? I took it as a challenge. It wasn’t easy to do, but I’m happy that I did.

Tavis: What do you think of what you did? I know you obviously put the book out, and “The New York Times” has it on the list, which means a lot of people think you’ve done a good job, but what do you think, in retrospect, of how you’ve inhabited these women, and do you think that’s going to change years from now?

Boyle: It’s not for me to say. Let me just put it this way – my mom loves it.

Tavis: Okay, that’s all that matters, then.

Boyle: That’s all that matters.

Tavis: That’s all that matters. (Laughter) Forget the “Times.” If your mama likes it, that’s all that matters.

Boyle: I will say, though, that while I was composing this book I did wear a skirt, and it helped. (Laughter)

Tavis: It helped.

Boyle: Next year, I’ll see you again next year; I have the collected stories volume two, that’s another thing. But I’m just about to begin a new novel. I’ve done research for it, and to contrast with this one from the point of view of women, it’s going to be your basic hairy-chested man’s novel.

Tavis: Oh, okay, so you’ll be back in your (unintelligible).

Boyle: I’ve been shaving under here all this time. (Laughter) I’m just going to let it go and climb out. No, I’m only kidding, but of course you don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. I’m always trying for a new way in. I’m an artist. That’s what I do in life.

I’m not interested in giving speeches, except if I do seize power, I guess I’ll have to give a few of them.

Tavis: Yeah, give a few of them, yeah.

Boyle: Or really even being a man of letters. I’m just interested in this art. It’s fascinating to me. I begin a book like this, or any book, I have no idea where it’s going to go or what it’s going to be. It’s a process of discovery all the way through, so it’s exciting.

Tavis: The skirt aside, what did you find most challenging about trying to give voice – although it is a historic novel, I should say that. So historic novel, but what was the most difficult part for you of trying to channel and to give voice to these women, these three different characters?

Boyle: Yeah. Even more difficult, it’s the first long book I’ve done that is not comic, or doesn’t have any irony. I kind of grew up as a wise guy and I’ve worked more easily with irony and comedy. So I’m taking a lot of challenges here.

I think the hardest thing was the second part of the book, about the daughter, Edith. My own daughter, who is now 31 years old, she insisted that I should tell this story of the 15-year-old girl out on this island in 1888. Again, I took it as a challenge to try to do that. I should probably, for those who don’t know, tell a little bit about the story.

Tavis: Please. I was about to ask, so go – you jumped ahead of me.

Boyle: It is two narratives going on here. The first is 1888. I discovered this partial diary by a woman called Marantha Waters.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because I was going to ask you how we’re pronouncing the name. It is Marantha?

Boyle: Marantha, Marantha. She was living in San Francisco with her husband and a piano and a cat in a nice apartment, her second husband. He said to her, “Look, you’ve got $10,000 from your late first husband. Let’s invest in San Miguel Island.” San Miguel, for those who don’t know, is one of the California Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara, where I live; the farthest out, the windiest. Well, the problem with her is she had consumption. It’s 1888. The only cure that they knew was a rest cure with fresh air, and she was in San Francisco. As we all know, it’s foggy, it’s cold, it’s miserable there.

So her husband, Will, said, “Look, if we go to San Miguel itself, it’s all the way south by Santa Barbara. It’ll be warmer, it’ll be good air, it’ll help you.” Well, guess what? It’s even worse than San Francisco. The wind blows, it’s eroded, they have sandstorms, so she didn’t do so well. She lasted six months. Two years later, she died.

Meanwhile, the husband, like in some fairy tale, the stepfather took the young girl, Edith, out of school and brought her back out there to live with three men and be sort of their servant and take care of them. Now, whether she escapes or not, I’m not going to tell everybody. They’re going to have to read this book.

Second part, I was amazed at the correspondences between this other story. 1930 to 1942, a second family lived on the island, trying to do the same thing. To raise sheep and live apart from America, live your own utopian world, no taxes, no nothing.

Again, a war veteran, a woman who was also 38. She was a librarian from New York City. He brought her out there and things went pretty well for them until World War II came along. Of course there’s a lot of misery involved. Why would I write a book without misery in it?

So for people who really want to be miserable, I think they ought to just take a look at this.

Tavis: They should read the book, yeah. (Laughter) Speaking of World War II and speaking of misery, you wrote this book during our Great Recession. How does the timing of writing a book for you impact the writing of the book?

Boyle: Yeah, that’s a great observation, actually, in the form of that question. The second story takes place during the Depression, and in fact the Lester family became quite well known as a result. They were featured on “Life” magazine, with photos – “Swiss Family Lester.”

The whole country was in a depression – bread lines, soup kitchens – and they fixated on this family as living apart, in their own country, almost, and being self-sustaining. They had two young daughters while they were there, and the daughters had never been ashore.

So when they first came ashore to Santa Barbara, they were like four and seven years old. The press followed them around. The girls had never seen a tree. There are no trees on the island. They’d never seen a house; they’d never seen a car. Their first ice cream cone was recorded by photographers. It’s pretty fascinating.

So yeah, I think the fact that they were living there during the Depression kind of fascinated everyone. Why couldn’t we all live like this, be independent?

Tavis: Yeah. Talk to me about the notion of escapism. You don’t hit this directly in the novel, but as I go through it I sense that the Channel Islands, although it didn’t turn out the way Edith thought it might or at least the way the husband laid it out to her, I sense that these islands, San –

Boyle: San Miguel?

Tavis: – San Miguel, represents a sort of escapism for some of these characters.

Boyle: And for me too.

Tavis: Yeah.

Boyle: We’ve talked about my last four books together here. More and more I’m interested in our impact on the planet, writing about environmental themes. Seven billion of us on a finite planet – what is to become of that? So all the other animal species are going extinct; we’ve depleted the oceans. Where do we go from here?

So yeah, there is an element of obvious – idea of a utopia in my work. You can trace it back through several books. I don’t have any solutions, unlike, of course, my political solutions, which of course –

Tavis: Yeah, your five-point plan.

Boyle: – would put us in the black in a year and et cetera. (Laughter) But right, I’m just posing the question, and I explore things in these stories for my own benefit. I just want to put myself inside these people and see what they might have actually said, how they might have felt.

Tavis: Tell me more about – I don’t know that I’ve ever had a chance to ask you this in all the conversations we’ve had that you referenced earlier, but tell me about your process. I know you’re away from USC now because you’re out on tour, so you’re not teaching this semester, but how does your process work?

When you’re putting out these best-selling books, these best-selling novels and teaching at the same time, so how do you do all that?

Boyle: Well, look at me. I was born hyperactive. (Laughter) In my day, when I was a kid we didn’t have psychiatrists and Ritalin. We just had a back door.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Boyle: So I spent most of my life, winter and summer, outside. I just have a lot of energy. Even now as an old man – you know I’m going to be 87 in December?

Tavis: Yeah, whatever. I know better.

Boyle: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: I know better.

Boyle: I don’t know, I just, it’s just I’m a workaholic.

Tavis: Do you write in the mornings?

Boyle: Yes.

Tavis: Do you teach during the day?

Boyle: Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Tavis: Is that how you do it? Yeah.

Boyle: It’s so funny, because whenever people say – I write every day, but not today, because I’m on tour. (Laughter) But you won’t see me, you see me once a year. I’m locked away, dressed in rags, shivering, typing. That’s my life.

I try to keep mentally healthy by realizing I’m not going to work 12 hours a day. I might work three, four, five hours, depending on what stage I’m in, and the rest of the day I go and do something physical.

Of course, I have to clean up after my wife. That keeps me busy. I do yard work, I walk on the beach, I hike. As you know, I rent a place up in the Sequoia forest. I spend a lot of time up there by myself, like Wordsworth or Whitman, walking out in the wilderness, muttering to myself, with tears streaming down my cheeks. (Laughter) This is my hobby.

Tavis: You have said, to your point now, you have said that you do art to the exclusion of everything else. When you focus in on this, it excludes everything else. Tell me why I shouldn’t read that as an elitist statement coming from an artiste?

Boyle: Maybe it is, but I consider it more just pure luck that I’m able to do what I want to do. You look at me today, this elegant man sitting before you, Tavis. (Laughter) You could never imagine that I might have been a scruffy, rebellious degenerate.

Tavis: From New York.

Boyle: Yeah. I don’t do well with authority or actually even agreeing with anybody on anything, so to have this kind of loner profession is ideal for me.

Tavis: Yeah. There are points that I could go back to just in this conversation, to say nothing of the almost half-dozen prior conversations we’ve had, where it finally occurred to me last night going through my research for this conversation to ask you whether or not, given that you grew up, that you were born in New York, and then of course came to California, would you have written these kinds of books with the – you see where I’m going with this.

Boyle: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Storylines, the narratives, the characters. Let’s start with “San Miguel.” Would you have written this kind of stuff had you stayed in New York and not come to California?

Boyle: No way in the world, and my wife and I were talking about this the other day. We all have these decisions or choices to make in life, and we don’t know where we’re going to wind up. I was saying to her – I did my graduate work, my Ph.D. and my MFA, at the University of Iowa, where the Writer’s Workshop is.

So I wanted to be a professor, and I interviewed at a couple places, including Minneapolis. USC gave me a job, I came here. Maybe I’d be writing about Swedish immigrants if I lived in Minneapolis. (Laughter)

But I came here, and it was the height of the debate over illegal immigration from the south, and so I wrote “The Tortilla Curtain” to try to address that. Now I’ve written several books set in California. I would have been a totally different artist if I had stayed in New York or had gone to Minneapolis or stayed in Iowa City. It’s just where life takes you. We’re all curious. I’m extremely curious about where I live and what goes on there.

Here were these Channel Islands. By the way, before I wrote “When the Killing’s Done,” I’d never been to the Channel Islands. There they are, sitting right off the shore, I see them every day. I wondered what goes on out there. Now I know.

Tavis: But you, as I read the back story to writing this book, though, it’s not like you spent a whole lot of time there, though, trying to research for the book.

Boyle: I did – when we last talked I was lucky enough to meet some of the biologists out on Santa Cruz island, so for “When the Killing’s Done,” I went to Anacapa and Santa Cruz many times. I don’t do well at sea, and just to get across to Santa Cruz is an hour and a half on rough sea. Now, I didn’t actually streak the boat with vomit, but I was out there in the wind thinking, man, this isn’t so good. (Laughter)

Oh, and I also had a wonderful experience not long ago going out there. By the way, I recommend it to everybody to go out to Santa Cruz Island for the day. Hour and a half out, you spend four hours there, hour and a half back. You always see wildlife in the channel, it’s very lively, the Santa Barbara Channel, so the captain of the boat will pull up for the dolphins and the whales.

I had an experience that very few of your viewers, I’ll bet, have ever had. I got to go home after one of those trips and wash whale snot out of my hair.

Tavis: Wow.

Boyle: Yeah, yeah, so –

Tavis: (Laughter) And you want to recommend that to the rest of us?

Boyle: Well, no, it was a joy, a great joy. (Laughter) There was a humpback and her calf. Where the captain pulls up, they’re right there. Right there it is, and we’re watching, it’s so beautiful. It blew off a little bit, you know? The smell isn’t so bad, it’s like you put a hole in a can of sardines and leave it on the sidewalk for a week. That’s kind of what it smells like.

Tavis: Yeah, not so bad.

Boyle: So I recommend that highly. (Laughter)

Tavis: Not so bad. Let me close this conversation where we began. We began this conversation talking about the election that is so important just days away now, and I want to go back to one of these earlier debates where Mr. Romney made a great deal of news when he uttered that phrase, “I have binders of women.”

What is there for us to learn in a contemporary moment about women, about what matters to them, about their issues? You tell me. You tell me, given “San Miguel.”

Boyle: Well, I saw a bumper sticker yesterday somewhere on one of these trips, and it said, “Why would any woman vote for Romney?” (Laughs) That pretty much says it all right there. As far as what I learned from trying to inhabit these women’s personae, I don’t know. I’m just trying to grow as an artist.

My wife, when I first started writing, would say, “Oh, your woman characters are so flat,” and I said to her, “Yeah, but so are my male characters,” (laughter) because I didn’t really know much about it. I was more interested in design, language, idea, jokes. So I’m hoping that I’m growing as an artist as I move along.

Tavis: Yeah. Well, T.C. Boyle doesn’t have binders of women, but he does have a book that is bound about three women. The book is called “San Miguel.” It’s the latest novel, already on “The New York Times” best seller list, so – and his mama likes it.

So if those two recommendations (laughter) don’t make you get it, then I can’t help you. T.C., good to see you.

Boyle: As always.

Tavis: You’re welcome back here anytime.

Boyle: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: I’ll see you another year or so from now.

Boyle: We’ll do it.

Tavis: All right. That’s our show for tonight. You can get our app on the iTunes app store. See you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

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

Last modified: October 25, 2012 at 6:07 pm