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T.C. Boyle examines complexity of American violence in his latest novel

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now we turn to books and to the latest addition on the NewsHour Bookshelf.

    T.C. Boyle has just published his 15th novel. In "The Harder They Come," he explores the violence and darker corners of the American dream.

    Recently, he sat down with Jeffrey Brown at Busboys and Poets. It's a restaurant and bookstore chain in the Washington, D.C., area.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Welcome to you.

    T.C. BOYLE, Author, "The Harder They Come": Hi, Jeffrey. Glad to be here.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, this novel I have read is based on real events. But what pulled you in? What has to happen for you to say, I'm going to write this story?

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    It's a story about American violence, particularly American gun violence, the lone shooter.

    So, like everybody else in the country, I'm disturbed by why this happens, where it's happening. And so I found a news story set in Northern California in which a lone shooter, who happened to be schizophrenic and supplied with automatic weapons by a generous society, killed two people and was at large in the woods.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Story right from the headlines.

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    Right there, yes, right from the headlines. Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So there's this story that you have and you build up that, but then there's also this quote at the beginning of book by D.H. Lawrence. "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never melted."

    The American soul, you're also somehow exploring that?

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    I need a template to build the book. All right, I have a ready-made story of this killer. I'm changing the names, but I'm using the locale and the police report and so on.

    But what does it mean? You don't really know what it means unless you put it in context. So, the title "The Harder They Come" and this quote from Lawrence kind of provides a template for me to then paint around.

    My novels are — my stories, novels are all organic. It just starts, I see something, and I follow it. So this was important to have this quote. Is that true? Is it true? Has it melted? Are we really like that? That's the proposition that I want to find out about.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And you're exploring it through fiction?

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    Exactly. I mean, I don't — as an artist, I don't have an agenda. I'm not pushing a point of view. I'm exploring something and I'm inviting you in to explore it with me.

    That's the difference between, let's say, writing a piece of fiction and an essay.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You have characters here who are part of fringe groups in the hills, against the government, anti-authoritarian.

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That exists in our world. Do you research it? Do you look into it, or do you start with something and then just imagine your way through it?

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    I will take choice B on that one, Jeffrey.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Choice B? OK.

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    I have never come from a journalistic tradition. I have only simply been an artist all my life. I don't do anything else. I just write fiction. It's kind of a miracle for me, because I don't know what it will be. I dream it up. It's so very exciting.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And what is it that interests you about this underbelly or this violence you see in our culture today?

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    Again, I read the newspaper every day, and I'm worried. I worry about everything. I have written a lot about the environment and environmental degradation, global warming.

    I just wonder what's happening to our society. How is it dissolving? What's wrong with compassion? What's wrong with negotiation? It seems to be like in some of the Hollywood movies we see, where there's an exclusively good guy and an exclusively bad guy. The first 15 minutes, the bad guy does something terrible to the good guy's family, and the rest of the movie, the good guy comes back and wipes them out, and we all cheer.

    I think it's probably a little more complex than that. And so I write a novel to find out.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I know you're also a professor of literature. Is there a lot of — do you see a lot of writing about this kind of stuff, you know, I mean, the hard stuff of American life? Do you wish there were more?

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    No, I don't wish there were more. And I also don't see a lot of it.

    Every writer chooses his or her own territory and does what they're going to do. So I really don't have a wish to see one kind of writing or another. I just want to see good writing. But, yes, I do — I am very socially engaged and I do write about such things often and have all my career, because that's what interests me.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I read that you grew up in a working-class neighborhood yourself, household without a lot of books around?

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    No books.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    No books?

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    My father was raised in an orphanage and educated to the eighth grade. My mother was the salutatorian of her high school class, but it was the Depression, and she lived in a family without a father present and couldn't go to college.

    So they both encouraged me to become educated. We had a wonderful public school system. I went to a state university of New York, and for graduate work state university in Iowa and Iowa City. So I am a product of moving up through education, and is one reason why I continue to teach and believe in especially a liberal arts education, so that you can have time to find out who you are and what you are.

    I didn't even know that one could be a writer until I was an undergrad.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Really? That's when books came into your life? That's when literature…

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    Exactly.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The idea of writing.

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    Yes.

    I started out as a music major, flunked my audition.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    And I said, oh, my God, what am I going to do? What — I was in a liberal arts college, so I had always loved history. I said, I'm a history major.

    But then we took a course in which I read stories by Flannery O'Connor. I said, all right, I'm a double major, history and English. Junior year, I blundered into a creative writing classroom, and here I am.

    So, I really love the idea of allowing a young person to grow and discover what he or she can do in life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, Flannery O'Connor. What other writers turned you on and made you want to write?

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    In that era, of course, Hemingway. All male — young male writers read Hemingway.

    John Updike was writing then. Shortly thereafter, when I started to write myself, it was the whole wave of the absurdist, the absurdist playwrights, and then people like Garcia Marquez, and Gunter Grass, and John Barth, and Robert Coover, people who had a large canvas and had this wicked sensibility and were highly literate. I just loved that sort of stuff, and still do.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You're a fairly prolific guy, right?

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    Well, I'm still extremely young, as you can see on camera.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I see, yes.

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    This is my 25th book.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    So I figure I will write another 25 more, and we will see what happens after that.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, this one is "The Harder They Come."

    T.C. Boyle, thanks so much.

  • T.C. BOYLE:

    You're welcome. Thanks, Jeffrey. It was a lot of fun.

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