What makes interesting fiction: Stephenson edition

In his Salon interview,* Neal Stephenson says this about “the broader vision of what science fiction is about:”

[Science] Fiction [is fiction] that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.” If it’s got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That’s really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it’s become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.

The implied vacuousness of “arty lit” is clear and, more depressingly, accurate. It’s something a lot of people who like to read but who don’t care much for a lot of contemporary lit fic feel but don’t always articulate. It’s a tendency I’ve been been noticing in one form or another for years. It helps to account for why nonfiction may be winning the perceived quality race. A lot of highly praised fiction is, at bottom, boring, and about boring people.

Many self-consciously literary novelists and critics don’t seem to mind. So lit-fic books accumulate blurbs that make them sound like the next coming of Shakespeare when they’re actually about dull people leading dull lives, but with interesting language that is supposed to elevate dull people above their surroundings. Sometimes this works (Raymond Carver, Ulysses). More often it doesn’t, or, even if it works, who cares? Murder mysteries are popular for many reasons, but one may be that there’s automatically at stake. Per Megan McArdle:

Eventually I decided the truth is this: We watch so many crime dramas because there are no big stakes in middle-class American life. The criminal underworld is one place where decisions actually matter — and can be shown to matter, dramatically”).

Science fiction also tends to focus on encounters with aliens, threats to the human race, jarring technology changes, and so forth. The stakes are high. Literary fiction writers might want to take some cues from Stephenson and, strangely enough, TV.**


* Collected in Some Remarks, which is a way of collecting previously published pieces in one convenient place and turning them into money.

** Stephenson is also fond of novels with plot:

What I’m doing here is writing novels, and novels — never mind what anyone else might tell you — novels are pop entertainment, and they have to tell a story and they have to engage the emotions. There are a few basic tricks they use to do that. One is to tell a good yarn and the other is to make you feel empathy for the characters involved in the doings of that yarn, but you’ve got to have that yarn. That’s what I seize on first. That’s what gives me confidence that I’ve got a pony I can ride. Characters tend to come out of that, and ideas — I don’t know where they come from. The yarn that got me going on “Quicksilver” was Newton pursuing and prosecuting an archvillain in London at the same time as the dispute with Leibniz is at its peak.

Don’t Fuck With My Money; or How I Stuck it to the Man and You Can Too!

A friend wrote this story and sent it to me, which I post both as a warning and for its own sake.

rack_city_3Police officers have a long and storied history of lying during arrests, on police reports, and even perjuring themselves under oath. They’ve lied about me, in front of me. As Americans, we’re fortunate to live in a country where the burden of proof lies upon the law enforcer instead of the lawbreaker. This is why routine traffic stops should follow strict protocols. Even ruthless murderers have gone free because of technicalities. My particular story contains more of the former (protocol violation) and none of the latter (murder), but if you follow my recommendations you may find yourself where I was this morning—at the end of a gavel hearing the words, “Case dismissed.”

Throughout my life, I’ve had piss-poor luck when it comes to getting caught by authority figures. I nearly got suspended in middle school for de-pantsing a friend in biology class. Freshman year I was suspended for dicking around in English class (and inexplicably promoted to an honors class as a result). Junior year was a whirlwind of parties, subpar oral sex, and death threats from parents of said subpar fellatio perpetrators. The cherry on top of this year was a cold, rainy weekend in November where the police caught me drinking before a football game with a freshman girl. The very next night, I had the supreme idea that I should drink a beer and get behind the wheel of a drug dealer’s car. This left me with one DUI, a narrowly avoided felony possession charge, a night in jail, and $10,000 subtracted from my parents’ bank account.

In college I had a few brush-ins with the law. A couple of fake ID charges, a minor in possession conviction, and assault charges (dropped because I was defending myself, of course). My point is this: I clearly never had a future as a cat burglar, or any other kind, and learned that I have the dubious ability to get caught every time I do something bad and/or illegal.

I live in Los Angeles now, a city which not only thrives on the fumes of automobiles but willfully ignores the need for public transportation. About 45 minutes south of LA lies the idyllic, WASP-y cove of Newport Beach, made famous by moronic reality television depicting the spoiled teenagers and the neurotic housewives who produced them. One of my best friend-girls, “Anastasia”—not her real name, but it’s equally stripper-esque—was dating one of Newport’s denizens and invited me to join her on his massive yacht for Memorial Day. She promised enough silicone to keep me afloat for days should the boat sink, and unlimited expensive booze served by nubile models and tennis instructors. Needless, to say, I agreed.

I invited “Kelly,” another of my best friend-girls along for the ride. Kelly is the rarest kind of woman in LA: an attractive blonde with a brain better served for advanced biochemical formulae than destroying douchey pseudo-actors in Hollywood, but she regularly used it for both (this will be important later).

The day passed as you might expect: I hopped onto an 80-foot yacht with thirty incredibly attractive women and five men I didn’t know, and I proceeded to drink and eat my way into perpetual bliss. Just kidding—you wouldn’t expect that unless you’ve been living in Los Angeles for long enough to meet these types. I met Anastasia’s boyfriend, “Alladin”—the owner of the boat. Curious about his opulent lifestyle, I asked him what he did for a living. He mumbled something about buying and selling “web properties.” I was in a similar industry at the time, but I elected not to press for details: I’ve learned many things in LA, and one of them is that if someone can’t explain to you what he does for work, you probably don’t want to know.

Several glasses of a champagne, a few beers, a couple Grey Goose and tonics, at least five makeout sessions with some of the MILFier attendees, and one botched threesome attempt in the captain’s cabin later, we found ourselves heading back to shore. We ordered enough Chinese food to feed a clan of Hutts and watched the sun go down over Newport Harbor. Three hours later, after Kelly and I made the expert determination that I hadn’t imbibed for several hours and thus was capable of driving, we said our goodbyes.

This was my first mistake of the day, aside from failing my attempt at a threesome. Kelly and I were busy jabbering about how awesome our day was and how we couldn’t wait for our next yachting adventure. About fifteen minutes after getting on the 405 freeway (known as the “four or five hours” to LA residents), Kelly noticed a black-and-white pacing us. I remained calm—I wasn’t speeding and, to my knowledge, I was no longer drunk.

It turns out that the opposite was true in the eyes of the law.

The cop, who will henceforth be known as Officer Dipshit, turned on his flashers and directed me to get off the freeway. Before I could let out the breath I didn’t realize I was holding, he’s yelling at me over his PA system. Within five minutes he’s at my window telling me he detects the odor of alcohol and administering a preliminary eye test (without my consent) known ominously as the “Nystagmus.” He’s asking me to exit the vehicle. He’s asking me to submit to voluntary tests. Remembering my first encounter with a potential DUI in Washington State, and the video “Never Talk to the Police,” I raise my hand and emphatically state, “I REFUSE.”

Police don’t like their authority being questioned. They especially dislike it when a citizen knows his rights and chooses to exercise them. Read these words very carefully: voluntary DUI tests are designed for you to fail. You can be Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt on a midsummer’s day in 2012, sober as a rock, and still fail the tests. DUI tests were created to stack evidence against you in order to give the officer a defensible reason for arresting you. Let me repeat: if you have had anything to drink, ANYTHING AT ALL, do not submit to these tests.

Some of you are familiar with Tucker Max’s work, but most of you haven’t read his poignant piece (written with friend and business partner Nils Parker) about the different types of people who become cops. My arresting officer was certainly a “High School Napoleon”—5’4”, 220 lbs of seething, blubbery vengeance for all the wedgies and rejections from women throughout his life. I’m not stupid enough to be disrespectful to a cop. Should you find yourself in my position, do what I did: give him short, courteous answers, do not admit any guilt, and above all do not submit to his tests, no matter how much he tries to scare you.

Upon rejecting his voluntary DUI tests, Officer Dipshit threw his pad into the air and informed me of my imminent arrest. He pushed me against the car as he slammed the cuffs on my wrist, whispering that his colleagues had “Fucked up bigger guys than me,” and tightened the steel links until my hands went numb. I knew that I was in for a joyous night. The officer then proceeded to threaten Kelly, telling her that he was going to arrest her too, asking her if she would like to spend a night in jail. The only thing I was guilty of thus far was driving a red sports car with a hot blonde in the passenger seat.

I was arrested, taken to the police station, and booked for DUI. After sixteen miserable hours, I was released to my disappointed mother. Eventually they got around to testing my blood. You must submit to this test, otherwise you’ll be automatically convicted of a DUI and your license revoked for a year, but you want to have it administered at the police station. The results wouldn’t be known for weeks, but it turns out that my Blood Alcohol Content was .09, otherwise known as the equivalent of a little more than a beer per hour. In the eyes of the law, I was intoxicated. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re drunk. It only matters what your blood says (Dexter Morgan would appreciate this sentiment).

After receiving a citation for a DUI, you have a few options. You can go to your hearing, plead guilty, go to your alcohol classes, attend the M.A.A.D. panel, install the breathalyzer in your car, and deal with a suspended license for six months. Most people choose this—especially the ones that have an egregiously high BAC. All told, your first DUI will cost around $5,000 even if you choose not to hire a lawyer. This doesn’t count the peripheral costs, like explaining to your employer why your license is suspended, telling your date why you have to blow into a tube before you can start your car, or attempting to bum rides from your friends while you’re carless.

I hired a lawyer and went to war with Officer Dipshit. The truth is that most of you won’t be able to do anything about your DUI. Your case will be open and shut, the same kind of case that passes through municipal courts hundreds of thousands of times a year in the U.S. However, there are a few things that you can exploit to your advantage:

  1. If you were smart, you didn’t take the voluntary tests. Now the officer has to prove that he had a legitimate reason to pull you over in the first place.
  2. Your lawyer should subpoena the dashboard video of your arrest. Ever gotten stoned and watched an episode of COPS? It’s hilarious, right? Not so much when you’re the perp. Luckily for you, most states require police to videotape their arrests—thanks, Rodney King!
  3. The dashboard video will sometimes allow you to systematically refute most of the cop’s police report. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, police will almost always embellish or outright lie on the police report. In my case, the cop claimed that I was speeding, swerving, driving erratically, refused to pull over, stumbled upon getting out of the vehicle, displayed an aggressive demeanor, and generally acted like a drunk lunatic. None of this was true. Cops, incidentally, are trying to eliminate the ability of citizens to record them, because they dislike objective evidence that documents their actions.

My lawyer built a case against Officer Dipshit, culminating in this morning’s hearing. Officer Dipshit took the stand and said all the “facts” in his police report were accurate. The police report was inadmissible as evidence – the dashboard video, however, was admissible, and showed him contradicting himself. Officer Dipshit lied his way into a corner, and the prehistoric judge presiding over the hearing ruled that he was an idiotic, lying, power-tripping asshole, just as we suspected all along.

Total costs:

Lawyer fees: $5,000

Hours spent worrying: countless

The look on the cop and district attorney’s faces when they realize that their asses have been handed to them on a silver platter: priceless

Your life lesson: Don’t talk to cops, and learn how to fight the system.

Guy pounds on my door and screams that he's going to kill me

I wrote this on Friday morning at about 3:00 a.m.

I’ve probably just had the most immediately frightening experience of my life: a little before 2:00 a.m., I’m mostly asleep when I hear someone running up the stairs to my apartment. This is doubly curious because my neighbor, Josh, moved out a few days ago. Some guy starts pounding on my door, demanding that I open up. This scares me, I shout at him that I’m calling 911 (which I do), and tell the dispatcher where I am. The guy is yelling stuff like “open up.”

I grab the couch and push it in the front of the door and grab the chair and push it in front of the couch.

In the meantime, the pounding is sometimes louder, sometimes not, and the guy is shouting things like, “open up,” “I’ll kick your ass,” “open the door and I won’t kill you” and “if you don’t open the door, I’m going to fucking kill you.”

I pile books on the couch. Hundreds of them, probably. Heavy library ones, hardcovers, paperbacks, whatever I can grab off the shelves.

Does this guy have some kind of mental illness?

Most of the time I’m not piling books, I’m hovering at the border between my bedroom (where there’s a window) and the common room (where I can dash for the door). If he breaks down the door and comes in, I’ll flee out my window. If he breaks the window, I’ll try for the door, which I’ve barricaded, which means I’m probably done.

The Tucson PD shows up about 14 minutes (thanks iPhone! And 14 minutes? WTF?) after my initial call to 911. I hear a cop shout for the guy to come down. I am never happier to hear or learn about a cop in my life. I thank the dispatcher profusely. She kept saying things like, “I can’t hear the guy shouting” and variations thereof while we were waiting. In other words, she thought I might be crazy. But a cop did get here.

Eventually Officer Miller knocks on the door, and I open my window (since the door is barricaded). He says the guy is drunk off his ass and thought my apartment was his buddy’s apartment. Meanwhile, I’m still fucking terrified (as you probably would be in the circumstances). The adrenaline still hasn’t worn off as I write this.

The guy did some damage to my door, which still shuts (for the time being). I have a victim report number for management. When Miller said that he was just some drunk fool, I was relieved. Miller’s observation: if this had been his house, the guy would’ve been staring down the barrel of a gun. My observation: I start to see the appeal of gun ownership.

He goes down. There’s also a cute blond cop; she comes up to ask a few questions, leaves. She’s not much older than me, if she is at all, and reminds me a bit of my students, except she’s strapped. I start cleaning up all those books.

Nothing like a stranger threatening to kill you to make your night more interesting.

And now my library is totally out of order.

Guy pounds on my door and screams that he’s going to kill me

I wrote this on Friday morning at about 3:00 a.m.

I’ve probably just had the most immediately frightening experience of my life: a little before 2:00 a.m., I’m mostly asleep when I hear someone running up the stairs to my apartment. This is doubly curious because my neighbor, Josh, moved out a few days ago. Some guy starts pounding on my door, demanding that I open up. This scares me, I shout at him that I’m calling 911 (which I do), and tell the dispatcher where I am. The guy is yelling stuff like “open up.”

I grab the couch and push it in the front of the door and grab the chair and push it in front of the couch.

In the meantime, the pounding is sometimes louder, sometimes not, and the guy is shouting things like, “open up,” “I’ll kick your ass,” “open the door and I won’t kill you,” and “if you don’t open the door, I’m going to fucking kill you.”

I pile books on the couch. Hundreds, probably. Heavy library ones, hardcovers, paperbacks, whatever I can grab off the shelves.

Does this guy have some kind of mental illness?

Most of the time I’m not piling books, because there are only so many I can pile before they slide off the couch. Instead I’m hovering at the border between my bedroom (where there’s a window) and the common room (where I can dash for the door). I have a chef’s knife but this is Tucson, where everyone is armed. You know how they say don’t bring a knife to a gunfight? I like it better as a metaphor.

If he breaks down the door and comes in, I’ll flee out my window. If he breaks the window, I’ll try for the door, which I’ve barricaded, which means I’m probably done.

The Tucson PD shows up about 14 minutes (thanks iPhone! And 14 minutes? WTF?) after my initial call to 911. I hear a cop shout for the guy to come down. I am never happier to hear or learn about a cop in my life. I thank the dispatcher profusely. She kept saying things like, “I can’t hear the guy shouting” and variations thereof while we were waiting. In other words, she thought I might be crazy. But a cop did get here.

Eventually Officer Miller knocks on the door, and I open my window (since the door is barricaded) to talk to him. He says the guy is drunk off his ass and thought my apartment was his buddy’s apartment. Next time I worry about the caliber of my friends, I’ll think of this guy. Meanwhile, I’m still fucking terrified, as you probably would be in the circumstances. The adrenaline still hasn’t worn off as I write this. I’m writing in lieu of sleeping because sleep isn’t an option right now.

The guy did some damage to my door, which still shuts, sort of, for the time being. I have a victim report number for the apartment management. When Miller said that he was just some drunk fool, I was relieved. Miller’s observation: if this had been his house, the guy would’ve been staring down the barrel of a gun. My observation: I start to see the appeal of gun ownership.

Miller goes down to his car to do whatever cops do. There’s also a cute blond cop; she comes up to ask a few questions, leaves. She’s not much older than me, if at all, and reminds me a bit of my students, except she’s strapped. Too bad I’m seeing someone. I start cleaning up all those books.

Nothing like a stranger threatening to kill you to make your night more interesting.

And now my library is totally out of order.

May 2010 links: soap operas, Kindles, systems and stories, and more

* People’s lives are more like soap operas that most of us realize.

* I admire Jeffrey Lewis’ website.

* Peak everything? Not really.

* Academia isn’t broken. We are.

* The most popular passages highlighted in Kindle books. This is a fascinating yet creepy reminder of how much Amazon knows about you.

It also demonstrates the lousy taste most people have in books, with Dan Brown and someone named William P. Young at the top of the list. Young’s book, The Shack, is described as “a one of a kind invitation to journey to the very heart of God.” I’ll pass, thanks. The first book I see on the list that isn’t shlocky is Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, which you can (and should) also watch on YouTube.

* Comcast awarded the “Golden Poo” award as the worst company in America. This is doubly funny to me because my internet access comes through Comcast (because I have no other effective choice thanks to Qwest in Tucson offering anemic DSL speeds). A few weeks ago, a market research firm conducting a survey for Comcast called to ask what I thought of the company on a scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (best), and I kept saying “1… 1… 1…” over and over again. But I’m stuck with Comcast and its high prices because they have no real competitors.

* United States sovereign debt is the number one thing to fear right now. But almost no politicians are dealing with it in any way, let alone a realistic way.

* Systems and stories.

* Why don’t men read books? Or, as an alternate question, “It’s worth asking, then, why there are so few men in publishing. Could it be the low pay, low status and ridiculous hours?” (This is all in response to Jason Pinter’s essay).

* The Second Pass’s review of Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow. I’m probably going to pass—”Even in his best fiction—Money, London Fields—he has relied on narrative gimmicks and trickery to support creaky storylines, and The Pregnant Widow is no exception”—perhaps in favor of rereading Money.

Davidson also says that “Amis is famously fond of playful character names (which can be a weakness), and this novel is full of them: Pansy, Probert, Amen, Dilshak.” This probably isn’t a major problem for me, as I just finished Henry James’ The Golden Bowl for a grad seminar, and in that novel a character is named “Fanny Assingham,” with many plays on what said name could mean.

Malcolm Gladwell on Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird

I have two fundamental problems with Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker concerning To Kill a Mockingbird: one is philosophical/moral, and the other aesthetic. The philosophical/moral problem is that incrementalism is not necessarily an invalid approach to major social injustice. Gladwell says:

Old-style Southern liberalism—gradual and paternalistic—crumbled in the face of liberalism in the form of an urgent demand for formal equality. Activism proved incompatible with Folsomism.

That’s true: but it doesn’t mean that the James Folsom approach—who was progressive by southern standards in the first of the twentieth century—wasn’t an improvement over what came later as part of the unjustified backlash. Gradual change can set the stage for radical change, as it did with the Civil Rights movement, and pragmatism is sometimes more effective than attempting to radically alter social, economic or political life.

The Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy describes the philosopher Richard Rorty this way: “Rorty is a self-proclaimed romantic bourgeois liberal, a believer in piecemeal reforms advancing economic justice and increasing the freedoms that citizens are able to enjoy.” Rorty gives a convincing defense of those piecemeal reforms in his various books, and I’m not wholly convinced of Gladwell’s interpretation that To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic for that reason.

And this idea applies to more than politics. Megan McArdle just posted a piece on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernacke that ended, “As it says in To Kill a Mockingbird, Bernanke did the best he could with what he had. It was not perfect. But looking around at the mostly employed people on the streets, I’m glad he was there.” From what I understand of the recent financial crisis, I basically agree with her assessment: Bernacke and the other players in Washington did the best they could given the information they had at the time, which is based on pieces like The Final Days of Merrill Lynch in The Atlantic and Inside The Crisis: Larry Summers and the White House economic team in the New Yorker.

The second problem is aesthetic: like Nabokov, I don’t think novels need to play the role of social arbiter or champion. A novel that is sufficiently abhorrent—like one that actively praises segregation in the fashion that Soviet novels would advance inaptly named social realism, or one that shills for retrograde religious ideals—would probably be bad by virtue of their social commentary, but I think To Kill a Mockingbird is subtler than that, and to me the novel’s most interesting component is the development of Scout as a person. That’s inherently tied up with morality and politics, of course, but how and whether the novel succeeds in that respect ought to be the major consideration in evaluating a novel.

In other words, once the novel passes the relatively low bar of not being actively abhorrent, it should be judged on other principles than whether it conforms to what appear to be a person or age’s moral norms.

T.C. Boyle interview for The Women: Part 1

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.

TCB: Wow.

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.

TCB: Absolutely.

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?

TCB: No.

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: So you don’t have those Fridays like John Barth did? Have you read his collections The Friday Book and Further Fridays?

TCB: No.

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.

T.C. Boyle interview for The Women: Part 1

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.

TCB: Wow.

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.

TCB: Absolutely.

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?

TCB: No.

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: So you don’t have those Fridays like John Barth did? Have you read his collections The Friday Book and Further Fridays?

TCB: No.

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.

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