Writer T.C. Boyle

Celebrated writer discusses his latest novel, When the Killing’s Done.

One of America's most accomplished writers, T.C. Boyle is the author of 22 works of fiction, including the short story collection Wild Child and his latest novel When the Killing's Done. His work has been translated into more than 25 languages and won numerous awards. He also teaches 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 have T.C. Boyle on this program. The award-winning author is currently a Professor of English here at USC and author of the new novel, “When the Killing’s Done.” T.C. Boyle, I was just saying before we came on the air how much we are always looking forward to your return.
T.C. Boyle: Likewise, Tavis. My favorite show and you’re my favorite host.
Tavis: Well, we’re glad to have you on all the time and this is an annual appearance for you, it seems. Vanessa and I – our producer – were talking before you got here. I was asking, “Is T.C. writing like a book a year?” I can always count on seeing you at least once a year.
Boyle: And I’m pleased to be back. I mean, this is my job, Tavis. You see me as this elegant guy here. Look at this.
Tavis: You got the red Chuck Taylors? There you go. The red Chuck Taylors.
Boyle: But really, you know, I’m in this cold house with no heat on, dressed in rags, typing all the time. So you give me a year and a book is produced. That’s the way it is.
Tavis: What would happen if you sat at the computer or the typewriter – how do you type? You use a computer?
Boyle: Computer.
Tavis: Computer, okay. So what happens if you sit there and you’re on your regular cycle of cranking out one a year and it just doesn’t come to you?
Boyle: This is why I keep the loaded gun right next to it [laugh]. You know, some days you don’t get there and some days you do. Some days, I just can’t get anything, but I force it. I try to force it until it comes. It’s my joy.
You know, that’s all I do is write fiction. I don’t want to write essays or give lectures. I just want to do this one thing, so I’m my own boss and I push myself to do it because I want to discover something. I want to see where it’s going.
Tavis: How did that one thing – it sounds like a Kentucky Friend Chicken commercial: “We do one thing and we do it right.” – you do one thing, as you said, and you like to write. How did this one thing – why did this one thing become that one passion?
Boyle: It’s a long story, Tavis, but I’ll tell you –
Tavis: – we got time. Tell me.
Boyle: I’ll tell you quickly.
Tavis: We got time.
Boyle: You know, you mentioned I’ve been teaching at USC all these years. I love the idea of a liberal arts education. I come from a working class family in New York. We didn’t have any books around. We didn’t have much education. Good schools, though, good public schools. So I went off to college to be a music major. I played saxophone and clarinet. John Coltrane is my hero my whole life, you know. Flunked my audition.
I was at a liberal arts college, so I declared a history major. You know how I love history. So sophomore year, I had to take an English class. American short stories, wow. So I became a double major, English and History. In junior year, I blundered into a creative writing classroom and found what I wanted to do. So the idea of a liberal arts education is so great because you have time to grow up and find out what you can do.
Tavis: What, then, are you teaching these students at USC specifically?
Boyle: Well, I’m just teaching a creative writing workshop, fiction writing workshop. So I’m their coach, basically. These students, by the time they get to me, know what they want to do. It’s ideal. By the way, I always have my class on Friday afternoon as a test of their loyalty.
Tavis: Wow [laugh].
Boyle: It’s the only class in the school –
Tavis: – you wouldn’t have seen me, Professor [laugh].
Boyle: Of course, you wouldn’t have been a serious student of creative writing.
Tavis: I admit I would not have been there on Friday afternoon.
Boyle: What’s fun about it, though, is that they are into it the same way I am. And they’re brilliant and they love me and it’s back and forth. But basically, what they learn from me or any other writer is by example, like you learn as a musician from hearing other musicians. You learn as a writer from reading other writers. I’m their coach. I can help them make little discoveries that they might make in a few years anyway. That’s it.
Tavis: Seriously, I’m glad you made the point about having class on Friday afternoon to test their loyalty because I totally get that. What level of loyalty is required to do the fiction thing and to do it well? I ask that because I’ve written 15 or 16 books, but they’re all nonfiction, of course. I always have great respect for fiction writers because you guys create stuff out of the ether.
At least in the nonfiction world – and this is not a false sense of modesty – in a nonfiction world, at least you start with something to work on and you write about that thing. You agree, disagree or whatever, you expose it, but you start with something. You guys start with nothing, so what kind of [unintelligible] does it take to make that happen?
Boyle: Yeah, but [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, but. I like that.
Boyle: There’s that book in your hand right there.
Tavis: Yeah, exactly.
Boyle: This has a subject and it’s about an issue. This is about the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara where I live, looking at those islands for 18 years, driving up the coast wondering what goes on there.
I began to read in the newspaper – by the way, I have a clipping from the News-Press on my refrigerator door that says “Eagles Arrive As Pigs Are Killed.” It’s a headline from the newspaper, “Eagles Arrive As Pigs Are Killed.” This is about the removal of the invasive animals out there and the big fight over it between the PETA faction on one hand and the biologists on the other.
So I did have a ready-made subject like with a nonfiction book. I went out there; I met the biologists. I did the whole thing and yet, when I get down to it, I’m going to create characters and make a drama out of the actual facts. So that’s how it’s different. But I do have a basis. You know, like you with a nonfiction book, I’m taking notes, I’m studying a subject and somehow, while doing that, I begin to get an idea of a story.
Tavis: What I love – to talk about the book now, “When the Killing’s Done” – what I love about this book, I actually love this period is what I especially love about this book. I love sinking my teeth into stuff where, at the epicenter of it, there is this question of who should play God.
That whole notion turns me on when I’m reading anything because you know there’s gonna be some back and forth here, some good energy, some good tension about who should play God. Tell me about that at the center of this book, that notion.
Boyle: I quote from Genesis in the beginning, giving us dominion over all the animals. I’m just wondering about that. For instance, the book starts off on Anacapa Island ten years ago, actual events.
The Parks Service decided to bomb it with brodificoum, this rat poison – same stuff you use in d-CON – to get rid of the invasive rats that had got there in 1853 in the wreck of the Winfield Scott paddlewheel steamer. The rats had been there all this time. Meanwhile, they’re eating the eggs and the chicks of the ground-nesting birds, okay?
So this Parks Service bombed this and it worked. It eliminated the rats. But in actual fact and in this telling by me, a PETA guy and a buddy went out there with giant backpacks full of Vitamin K, which is the antidote to rat poison, and spread it all over the island and got arrested for feeding wildlife without a permit in a national park.
I mean, how could I make this stuff up, Tavis? I mean, it’s so great. So I just follow that story and create characters around it and put them in opposition.
Tavis: In the process of sitting there every day, as you said, and writing, what happens that lets you know, T.C., that you’re on to something, that this is going to work? How do you know when what you’re doing is making sense?
Boyle: Well, first of all, like any writer, like you when you’re writing, I get into an unconscious state. I don’t hear the phone ring; I don’t know where I am. There’s some music playing the background. I’m not really listening; it’s just there. I’m deep inside it. That’s how I know.
But, of course, any novel, as you know, when you get to the sex scene, well, the author’s feeling pretty sexy [laugh]. When you get to the food scenes, you know, it’s true. That’s how it goes.
Tavis: You mentioned music just a moment ago. You mentioned Coltrane prior. It don’t get much better than Coltrane and, for my money, “A Love Supreme,” I don’t know how you top that anyway. The role that music plays in your writing, I assume – literally you said there’s music playing when you’re writing.
Boyle: Always.
Tavis: What are you playing?
Boyle: I’m listening to classical and the jazz of my youth, which is Miles and Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and those guys, yeah.
Tavis: And what does that do other than setting – other than having a great tool?
Boyle: It’s rhythmic. I mean, the writing has to be rhythmic. That’s why I like to perform so much for crowds and read to them and perform because it has a beat to it. Another interesting thing about this is my poor long-suffering wife back at the hotel right now. Somebody’s got to do the eating, the sleeping and the shopping while I’m on tour. It ain’t gonna be me, you know [laugh].
But she has to listen to me every day read aloud to her. Not so much so she’ll say, “Oh, man, you’ve got to change that. This is ridiculous.” Just so she can hear it, you know. And when I’m reading it to her, I can feel this beat of it, the beat that the music has given me while I was writing it. Somehow, too, that frees up my mind to figure out what’s coming next. I have no program. I have no idea what it will be. Every day, I’m just following it.
Tavis: Since you’re putting these out – back to where we began. Since you’re putting these out at the rate of like one a year, you’re working on the next one already? Do you take a break?
Boyle: No, I never take a break. I’m a workaholic. Furthermore, the reason that I’m so productive lately, one a year, is because I discovered some years ago that you’re probably gonna produce more books before you die than after you die. So I’m gonna do it while I’m still breathing [laugh].
Yeah, I’m well into the next book and it’s also set on the Channel Islands. It’s not a sequel. It’s just a story that I discovered while I was out there. This one is set on San Miguel, the farthest one up the coast, the wildest one. It’s all blowing sand and sandstorms and everything.
I just discovered two historical stories. So this one is contemporary with some history and it’s about the ecology. The one I’m writing now is just about these two families that lived out there at different periods and what happened to them.
Tavis: As prolific as you are, are you at all concerned about the state of the publishing business and whether or not the business can keep up with you?
Boyle: Well, of course. We talked about the loaded gun next to the typewriter, yeah. Yeah, things are in flux, obviously. I still have a readership. I’m sort of an advocate for contemplative time, you know. Get unplugged. I mean, I have a cell phone in my pocket. It’s never on unless I want to call somebody because where are you, you know? I don’t feel obligated to look at the email every five minutes.
You know, get unplugged, get loose, settle down, read a book. I mean, that’s a kind of life that I think a lot of us don’t have anymore, but I do.
Tavis: Get unplugged, get loose, settle down, read a book. Bam! How about this one [laugh]? It’s the new book from T.C. Boyle. It’s called “When the Killing’s Done.” It’s a good one, as is everything T.C. seems to put out these days. T.C., always delighted to have you on and thanks for keeping us on your list. I appreciate it.
Boyle: Likewise, Tavis.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm