T.C. Boyle is the author of 8 short story collections and 12 novels, including Talk Talk, The Inner Circle, Drop City, and, most recently, The Women. His new novel describes the architect Frank Lloyd Wright through the view of a fictional apprentice, Tadashi Sato, who focuses on Wright’s relationship with his three wives, his mistress, and his mother. Each influences Wright, paralleling his increasing sophistication as an artist.
Boyle spoke at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe on February 25. He wore red Chucks, black jeans, and a gold coat, looking a bit like the professor you imagine being even more fun at the bar after class or a faintly piratical psychologist—which, in a way, many novelists are. This interview was conducted afterwards, and the following is an edited transcript. Links have been subsequently added by me.
Jake Seliger: How’s your tour been so far?
T.C. Boyle: It’s really rewarding, huge crowds and a lot of dedicated readers. It’s wonderful, and I really love to meet the readers because I will never get over the thrill of having people liking my work and engaging with them. But I’m also exhausted. However, we are celebrating right now because this is the last gig.
JS: As I said on the phone, there’s a very interesting set of symmetries for me because I have a copy of Stories, which you signed on 2/9/99.
JS: The very first time I went to a reading—
TCB: But it’s signed to Isaac.
JS: That’s my Dad. But I was there with him. Anyway, about your new book, which I really enjoyed, you mentioned [in his talk at Changing Hands] that there’s an obvious parallel between writing and architecture that goes on throughout The Women. There’s one scene in particular where the two come together on page 237: “He left the car running as he got out to swing open the gate, seeing the small things, the way the ditch along the drive had eroded in the previous week’s storm, the weeds crowding out the wildflowers, the iridescent blue of the damselflies threading the air…” it’s just one of these really interesting moments where you can see him looking at all these small things and see the way he might build these small ones into bigger ones.
TCB: Because he was a perfectionist and attentive to detail. Everyday he decorated the house, everyday. No matter what the season, he would send the apprentices out or he himself had tremendous energy to cut flowers or cut a branch off the tree in the winter, and always the house changing and flowing and big pots of full of things and bringing the outdoors in. And that was part of what he wanted to do.
JS: It’s interesting that you talk about a lot of the changes in the house because in some ways it seems like he went through a lot of interpersonal changes—obviously he went through a lot of changes in terms of the women he was with as well—and I think there’s a parallel there. Were you thinking consciously about that, in terms of the changing of architecture and the changing of people? It seems like a lot of that is going on in the book.
TCB: I think so.
JS: [Arizona] is very, very car centered…
TCB: Yeah, I hate that, that’s one of the reasons I left LA and moved to Santa Barbara. Where I’m living now, there’s just a village, and I can walk everywhere. I do walk everywhere. It makes your life a thousand times better because you don’t have to fight for parking spots, or worry about traffic. You just walk. You see nature. It’s just wonderful.
JS: There’s some descriptions in The Women too of Wright walking around, going on some jaunts of his own.
TCB: Yeah, he becomes my creature and my character of course, as does anybody you invent or write about. And I’m worried about the effect he has on his acolytes, what type of person he is, but irrespective of that I do believe that art has no ethical consideration. Art just stands for itself and what it is. So I admire him despite some of his personality problems. One thing I admire is that [Wright] was a nature boy.
JS: You do admire Wright, and he does have a lot of admirable qualities, and one thing I was thinking about when I was reading the book is that you see the admiration there, but he’s also not the sort of person one would want as a relative.
TCB: He would be impossible. If he were here, we wouldn’t even be able to say a word. He becomes a little bit of a satiric figure here. But I love to have it both ways in many of my stories and a book like this. Miriam, for instance. I have a lot of fun with her in a satiric way, although she’s sort of opéra bouffe, which is what his whole life seems to be—Frank Lloyd Wright with Miriam. But I also want you to feel something too… there’s a kind of dread hanging over the book, because you know that Mamah’s going to be burned because you read about it in the footnote. But you keep going backward in time, so you know you’re going to get there.
JS: It’s a reverse chronology. It’s interesting that you mention Miriam as an example of having it both ways because she’s in some ways the character who most fascinates me.
TCB: Me too. She took right over and I love her.
JS: … You’re introduced to Miriam as a harpy—
TCB: It’s going [chronologically] backwards [in time]. It gives you a chance to reflect on what loves relationships are like, when you meet someone and they’re great and you love them and then they turn sour. So when you first see Miriam and she’s this incredible harpy, this maniac, and poor Olgivanna. But then you backtrack and you see Miriam ten years earlier. I thought that was a really intriguing way to tell the story. And also it allows me to end with the tragedy of Mamah.
JS: Perhaps I was accidentally thinking of Miriam coming first because she seems to really cast a very long shadow across the first part of the book, and I’m thinking in particular of this passage: “For years now—longer than he could remember—he’d been rolling a stone up a hill, a boulder that picked up weight on each revolution like a ball of snow, and Miriam’s face was imprinted on the side of it…” you get this Sisyphean aspects of it, and I can imagine him looking at that face. To me, there’s this fascinating aspect of it, that she’s so present in his life.
TCB: Yeah, and in the actual history he seemed to be the sort of artist who needed lots of tumult in his life in order to create—to have someone to butt up against. I don’t think ever bargained for something as extreme as Miriam, because of her mental problems and her drug addiction and her grandiosity and desire to be as great as the great man that she’s allied with. Still, unlike me—
JS: I like how you add “unlike me.”
TCB: —who needs tranquility to work. I’m a little fascinated by the kind of artist who needs this tumult in order to work. The obvious metaphor, of course, is that to build a book is like building a house.
JS: You build one brick at a time or one sentence at a time.
TCB: Also, we see something. We have a vision first, and then we translate it to accomplish something concrete. He always began by just drawing a picture of a house in colored pencils.
JS: With soft lead.
TCB: With soft lead. There’s a lot of that going on to intrigue me. The other key figures I’ve written about who are the egomaniacs, Kellogg and Kinsey, were both men of science, and here I’m writing about an artist and trying to re-imagine it a bit… of course we have to stay inside writing our books and think inside our own minds. He got to do that sort of work in his drawing… but then he also got to go outside, and be physical, and work among the workers. And also, I don’t know how you work, but I’m improvisatory. You know, it just happens, it just continues to happen, step by step by slow accretion. So is he. He didn’t adhere strictly to plans over time.
JS: It’s interesting how you talk about the inside and outside, because I was listening on the way over here to an interview you did with Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm [a book radio show hosted on KCRW and available at http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/bw] about your last book, Talk Talk, and that you as a writer can’t live inside your head for 365 days a year, and you need that teaching aspect or going out into the world to try to stay sane.
JS: So would say that he has that built into his work?
TCB: Sure. He wasn’t simply a draftsman working for somebody—he was a creator. By the way, I did Michael’s show yesterday, and it was the best one we ever did. He was such a deep reader… it’s a pleasure to meet deep readers who are really engaged with it, way beyond “I like this, I don’t like this.” It’s a much deeper experience. He was very taken with the intricate structure of The Women and how it works and what it says about levels of meaning…
We don’t know any history of an event. Any biography of somebody has its biases, even in terms of what happened on a given day, or what the events were. So you’ve got an unsteady sort of revelation of truth anyway. Then when you take it from the point of view of Tadashi, who is learning about himself. He gives it another level altogether. And then, in my view—and this is part of the fun I had with it and the humor—Tadashi apparently has delivered a manuscript or reminiscences to his grandson-in-law, O’Flaherty-San, for translation and elaboration. So he’s now reading this text and writing footnotes, and sometimes he’s very surprised by what the footnotes say. And in the course of commenting on the text, as we get into the more tragic aspects, he then begins to reflect on his own self in the footnotes. So there’s a lot going on and yet it seemed to be the proper structure for this. It just began to reveal itself to me. And I had a great deal of fun with it as a result.
JS: Have you ever read Mordecai Richler’s book Barney’s Version?
JS: I ask because it’s got at least a somewhat similar structure… it’s written [from the perspective of an] old man who is partially losing his memory, and his son is going back through his memoir reading, and it’s got all these little foonotes…
TCB: So they’re having a dialog in footnotes?
JS: Yeah, in a way they are. And it’s a very funny novel… in one of your other interviews, you said you like John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor…
TCB: It’s utterly huge in my life.
JS: How so?
TCB: It’s picaresque, and it’s wild humor. And its subversion of history is something that really appealed to me.
JS: It seems like in The Sot-Weed Factor, Ebenezer Cooke is going on this journey, if not from innocence to cynicism, then from innocence to something else. It seems like in The Women, Tadashi-san is still very much revering the master. In a way he is, but in a way he’s also subverting the master.
TCB: Yes. That’s where I got my title, when he gives this speech at the end of the introduction, and he’s trying to sum up and he gets a little out of control. He says that Wrieto-san [Tadashi’s name for Frank Lloyd Wright] is this great master we revered and we paraded through the streets, who was a philanderer and abuser, especially of the women. So that gave me a dramatic context to let him try to discover something of himself.
JS: Is there an answer about what [Tadashi] discovers [over the course of the book]? I’m taken with a footnote on page 384, when Tadashi says that he thinks Daisy Hartnett [a white woman Tadashi thinks he loves but whom Wright sends away after discovering their affair] was certainly a force of nature. It’s a fascinating footnote because Tadashi reacts to being separated from Daisy in a way that you can’t imagine Wright reacting in being separated from what he wants. Tadashi accepts it. It feels like there’s this shadow plot flowing underneath with him and Daisy, and it just pops up here and there.
TCB: Yeah. I think so. And again, this is about relationships, and reflecting on relationships. How is this different from the kind of relationship that Frank Lloyd Wright had with his women? This seems to be much deeper.
JS: It’s so short with Daisy—[Tadashi says] “I can say that Daisy Hartnett was certainly a natural force, and I too much constrained by expectation.” It seems like he’s still constrained by expectation.
TCB: It’s a cultural thing too.
JS: You’ve got your combination of three big figures—Kellogg, Kinsey, and now Wright.
TCB: Yes. And don’t forget we also have Mungo Park of Water Music and Stanley McCormick [of Riven Rock] into the mix also. But they don’t fit quite so neatly into this little box set of the egomaniacs of the 20th century.
JS: The egomaniacs and the admired ones. Both in this book, you have Tadashi, who is a superficially passive figure. I say “superficially passive” in part because of those footnotes that are constantly interposing themselves. In The Inner Circle, you’ve got [John] Milk [the first-person narrator], who’s another person who seems very passive compared to the great man. In some ways, they seem to me like Carraway figures who are separated from the big man.
TCB: It’s a good observation. A number of people have been making that connection. It’s a time-honored way of getting at the personality of some larger-than-life figure. I’m not so much interested in investing Frank Lloyd Wright and writing about him from his point of view, although we get a little bit of it because the story needed it at certain points. I think it much more fascinating to veer—like [how] The Great Gatsby works. That is, to have a character who changes and observes the great man, but you learn about the character more than about the great man. And so you learn what the effect of a guru is on some people—to give yourself up to somebody. What is the cost to you? Because obviously I would never do that. I’m a fan of a thousand artists who I love dearly. But I’m not going to give my life up for them, or I’m not going to serve them. I want to be their equal. But many people are simply followers of not only artists, but political figures—
JS: I’m thinking back to Drop City.
TCB: Yes, exactly.
JS: I think in that book you have a very clear—well, perhaps not very clear—delineation between the followers and not.
TCB: So, what happens is—as you’ll discover in your own career—when you write many books, you can look back and see what your themes and obsessions are and why you choose the particular subject or character to write about. It’s great. I could write papers on my own work. I could sit and articulate about it.
JS: I think people have written papers on your work.
TCB: They may have. Of course, I don’t do that in the abstract beforehand. I am simply an artist. I don’t want to be a man of letters. I don’t want to write anything except fiction. It’s magic. It’s magic that I love. I don’t have time for anything else.
JS: He also wrote essays which I think are very good… He says four days a week he writes fiction and on the Friday he—
TCB: I would love to read them. I should. Updike was one of my heroes too, and he was our foremost man of letters. And he was quite consciously doing that. I am different though. I realized this a long while ago. Even though I got my Ph.D. in 18th century British Lit and I love scholarship, to me scholarship is only a tool for me to create a story. I am much more intuitive and much more an artist than I am analytical. I discovered this and I’m running with it.
And so far I don’t see any limits or any end to that. I don’t have Fridays to write essays because I’m working on Fridays on fiction. It’s all I want to do. And I think because anything can be a story for me and any mode and anything I want to discover, I can only think about deeply if I create a fiction. There seems to be no… burn out factor. There’s no end to the material. I feel very lucky in that way.
JS: I can see that, especially where you’ve talked elsewhere about wanting to be unique each time. I think you’ve done a remarkable job—I’ve pointed out parallels [among Boyle’s works], but that’s because at an abstract enough level you can see parallels in anything.
TCB: I still want to have a new way in to each story.
JS: That seems to be what Tadashi provides you.
TCB: Because it would be very easy to write another book like The Inner Circle, where a single “I” narrator revisits his integration with the master. But I’d just done that, and I was interested in something else altogether. Of course intervening were Tooth and Claw and Talk Talk.
JS: Talk Talk has Dana, who is a very figure in that. She’s a kind of driving person, and Bridger is an enabler—
TCB: As his name suggests.
JS: Right. I suspect there’s an obvious, freshman-year analysis of the book—
TCB: No, that’s great. Don’t forget, I was there too, and I made all these connections in the book, and I was thankful for them. So I’m greatly honored that other people see these connections, and that I have a body of work in which people can compare this story or that one or this novel and that one and see threads. It’s wonderful. I’m very happy.
JS: I think I do see that, with Dana… as a powerful figure. In that book, I think she’s more powerful than Bridger, and she’s the force of it, bringing others along—well, bringing Bridger along in her wake. In [The Women], I think Miriam in a way wants to do that, but if she found someone she could do it with, I don’t think she would be happy. Or I think she would then start moving on—
TCB: Right. These are really people, who were really attracted to one another for the psychological reasons that you’re suggesting. She needed the greatest challenge possible. And so did he. And again, I have to withdraw here, and I’m not anything like this. I couldn’t imagine the writers who marry other writers. It’s your enemy sleeping in bed with you. How could you keep from choking her to death every night?
JS: I’ll ask Michael Chabon that next time I see him, because he’s married to, um—
TCB: Ayelet [Waldman]. I know them both, yeah—
JS: I’m telling Noah about the flood, then.
TCB: —that’s really strange. For me [to imagine being with someone much like him]. I mean, everybody’s different. My wife is my complete antithesis. She doesn’t want to be on stage. She’s mathematical and scientific, which I am not. Her trick is that she’s imperfect, which allows me to be perfect.
JS: That’s good. If she were here and I said, “By the way, Tom says that your imperfections allow him to be perfect,” how do you thinks she’d respond? In a Miriam way, or in a Kitty way?
TCB: Don’t forget, the wife and mother-in-law of a comedian always take a beating. It’s just the way it is. She knows, she understands. I’ll tell you, this is true though, about Frau Boyle and myself, sometimes she goes on tour with me, and I do my little shtick, like tonight—I develop a shtick. You want to hear me being very original about the book—it’s in the first couple days. So, I just speak spontaneously to the crowd and then I do the reading and then I take questions. But there is a shtick involved—it might be a little different each night, but I’m going to come to the same basic points and make the same basic jokes. It’s like the tenth night, and she’s heard it ten times, and I see the whole crowd, and they’re roaring with laughter. Then I see her, and she’s roaring with laughter as well! And that’s true love.
JS: I can’t see Miriam laughing at herself if someone is making jokes at her expense.
TCB: No. She took herself very seriously.
JS: In some ways, given how Kitty is portrayed, it’s hard to see her laughing at herself too.
TCB: No, of course not. She did fly a bit outside the parameters of what I was interested in in this book. She was probably the most difficult to deal with. First of all, she wasn’t going to be one of the principal players—I knew that. But it’s a little difficult too because what is she but a victim? You’d have to do an entire book about that relationship to really do justice to that sort of personality. And also a personality where a couple had married… young, for sex, joy and love. And he moved on. He went for progressively more sophisticated women. Mamah was a feminist, she was college educated as Kitty was not—and as he was not—and Miriam had her European connections and spoke fluent German. This was something exotic. It was something to aspire to. So I think he would have moved on in any case.
EDIT: You can read part two of the interview here.