undefinedT. Coraghessan Boyle, ca. 2012. Photograph by Martin Prechelmacher

 

T. Coraghessan Boyle (Tom to his friends) was born in 1948, and grew up in Peekskill, New York, the scene of his novel World’s End, which won the 1988 PEN/Faulkner Award. A child of the sixties, he played in a rock band and was, by his own admission, “a maniacal, crazy driver, and a punk pure and simple.” He took to writing fiction to sidestep, he has said, the abyss.

In 1972, on the strength of a story, aptly enough titled “The OD and Hepatitis Railroad or Bust,” published in North American Review, he was accepted into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop; he received his doctorate in nineteenth-century literature from the University of Iowa in 1977. Two years later his first book, Descent of Man, a collection of short stories, was published. Its title story—about a man who slowly realizes he is cohabiting with a chimpanzee—appeared in this magazine.

Descent of Man was followed by ten critically acclaimed books: Water Music (1981), a picaresque, mock-Victorian novel about English explorers on the River Niger; Budding Prospects (1984), a novel about a group of enterprising “farmers” with an unusual bumper crop of marijuana; a second collection of short stories, Greasy Lake (1985); the aforementioned World’s End (1987), which describes three Dutch and American families over an arc of three hundred years; If the River Was Whiskey (1989), a third collection of short stories; East Is East (1990), about a Japanese seaman who jumps ship and tries to assimilate himself into American culture, among other places in a writer’s colony; The Road to Wellville(1993), about the inventor and health impresario John Harvey Kellogg in turn-of-the-century Battle Creek, Michigan; Without a Hero (1994), a fourth collection of stories; Tortilla Curtain(1995), about two couples in Southern California struggling with the realities of illegal immigration; and Riven Rock (1998), an historical novel about the schizophrenic breakdown of Stanley McCormick, whose father Cyrus invented the reaper. In 1998 Boyle’s short fiction was collected in T. C. Boyle Stories. At the time of this interview Boyle was working on a novel, A Friend of the Earth, much of which is set in Alaska. It will be published this fall.

His prose stands far apart from the pared-down minimalist traditions of so many of his contemporaries—lush, manic, overblown, satiric, highly imaginative and, on occasion, shamelessly melodramatic. Indeed, he has been referred to as the “maximalist novelist.” The author Russell Banks once said of World’s End: “What knocked me out was the book’s ambition. It took him out of the category of witty, clever social satire and put him in another league. He reached for the moon, and maybe he didn’t get it all, but he risked the talent, and that’s a scary thing to do.”

Almost as flamboyant in person as in his prose, Boyle is well-known for his readings at universities and public halls. He has given hundreds of them, including a legendary performance with Patti Smith in New York’s Central Park. He cuts a memorable figure, and is given to wearing a couple of silver ornaments in one ear. A self-caricature of both his looks and his outlook popped up in a story in The New Yorker’s 1995 summer reading issue: “A skinny man in his late forties, with bushy hair and a goatee who dressed like he was twenty-five and had a dead-black morbid outlook on life and twisted everything into a kind of joke that made you squirm.”

Married with three children, Boyle is a tenured professor at the University of Southern California, where he teaches creative writing.

The main body of this interview was conducted at a reunion at Boyle’s alma mater at the State University of New York at Potsdam. The participants sat behind a table set up with microphones, water jugs and glasses, yellow pads, the usual paraphernalia of the seminar lecture. A large and appreciative audience filled the auditorium. Boyle was very much admired—the return of the Prodigal Son . . .

 

INTERVIEWER

When did you first begin writing? 

T. CORAGHESSAN BOYLE

In a class in college. As a junior I walked into an elective class that consisted of all the lame, halt, and disaffected crazies on campus, one of whom was a reincarnated Egyptian princess and had the tattoo on her ankle to prove it. Hallelujah, I thought, this is just where I belong. Unfortunately, they were all poets—I didn’t know what I was yet, but it definitely wasn’t a poet. The professor was a great and inspiring novelist named Krishna Vaid, a Ph.D. from Harvard who had written several books in Hindi, which he then translated into English. People would bring their work into class and read it aloud, and everybody would kind of grimly talk about it. The poetry they were writing was utterly incomprehensible to me. I didn’t have anything to say, didn’t have a clue. So when it was my turn—Why don’t you put something up for next week, Tom? Krishna said one day—I wrote a one-act play called “The Foot,” in the absurdist mode, after the style of Ionesco and Beckett. It concerned a domestic situation in which a young boy has been entirely eaten by an alligator except for his foot, which is preserved in its ragged sock and tennis shoe in a shrine on the coffee table. It was funny. And Krishna, who had never shown the slightest glimmer of emotion throughout the semester, began to laugh as I read. Finally, when I was finished, he applauded, and then the others reluctantly joined in (I say reluctantly because of the fiercely competitive nature of the class, not to mention the natural divide between poets and nonpoets). I bathed in the glow of it, thinking, Hey, this is a pretty good gig, and I’ve never looked back.

INTERVIEWER

Why didn’t you write another play after “The Foot”? 

BOYLE

I soon thereafter found my métier, writing short stories. Plays, after all, involve staging, which involves working with other people, something I am incapable of. I like to live in my own mind, regardless of everyone and everything, working out the intimate puzzles that are my stories and novels. 

INTERVIEWER

Was your family supportive of your writing? 

BOYLE

My father and mother were both working class, my mother educated through high school, my father through the eighth grade. I went to school in Westchester County, New York, with people whose parents were educated and wealthy in comparison to us, but my parents always gave me all the advantages the wealthier students had. My parents made me feel the equal of anyone; they were very supportive no matter what I wanted to do. I will say that my mother never understood, I don’t think, really, what I wrote—she was very bright, well-read, but it’s just that parents have a difficult time understanding their children’s art. I read her the Lassie story, which I think is one of the funniest stories I’ve ever written, and she never cracked a smile. When I finished, she said, That was very moving. 

INTERVIEWER

What about your father? You dedicated World’s End “in memory of my own lost father.” Can you talk about that? 

BOYLE

My father died at fifty-four of alcoholism. A suicide, actually. A slow suicide. He had been raised in an orphanage. I never really knew him very well, although he lived with us until he died. He was very morose. My mother tells me that his personality had been a lot like mine—that is, antic and playful, with a rich appreciation for the absurd—but something happened to him during the war (he drove a tank in the Seventh Armored Division during the Normandy Invasion) that made him very depressed. I was an extremely rebellious and disaffected adolescent, and I never really had a chance to come to that rapprochement with your parents that you can have when you get a little older. He was dead before anything like that could happen. So I dedicated the novel (which involves a search for a father, not in an autobiographical sense, but in a metaphorical sense) to him.

INTERVIEWER

How old were you when your father died? 

BOYLE

Twenty-five. 

INTERVIEWER

Is your mother still alive? 

BOYLE

No, she’s dead too. Alcohol also claimed her. 

INTERVIEWER

How autobiographical is your writing? And in what way? 

BOYLE

To me, a story is an exercise of the imagination, and most of my work comes out of that spirit of game-playing or puzzle-solving, as I said earlier. I was and still am very taken with the playful work of writers like Borges, Nabokov, Calvino. So the short answer is, very little is autobiographical. But because I try to keep myself open to all the possibilities, I exclude no form or mode. Some of my best-known stories have autobiographical elements—“Greasy Lake,” “If the River Was Whisky,” “Back in the Eocene”—but they are inventions in which the autobiographical elements have been radically transformed.