Q&A with T. C. Boyle

On behalf of BookPeople and American Short Fiction, bookseller Liz Wyckoff recently had the opportunity to ask one of our favorite authors, T. C. Boyle, a few questions about his latest novel, the writing life, and what books he recommends for literary Austinites.

Boyle will be here on Monday, March 19, 7p to speak & sign When the Killing’s Done. Austin fans will also be excited to know that his papers have recently been acquired by the Harry Ransom Center, where they’ll reside alongside the archives of David Foster Wallace, Don Delillo, Norman Mailer, and many others.

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BookPeople: I’ve heard—and believe!—that you did an incredible amount of research for When the Killing’s Done, from amassing a thick folder of newspaper articles to camping outside with biologists on the Channel Islands. Do you usually conduct most of your research before beginning a novel, or do you research as you write, letting the facts guide your imaginative process?

T. C. BOYLE: Yes, I do like to absorb material before writing a novel. The process of seeing and experiencing and taking notes from reading is a way of going deep and beginning to have an idea of how a novel can be fashioned from the material. And yes, I did have the privilege of meeting with the field biologists of the Nature Conservancy on Santa Cruz Island and going out on their rounds with them. That was a highlight for me, absolutely.

BOOKPEOPLE: The book’s two main characters—Alma Boyd Takesue, a self-conscious ecologist, and David LaJoy, an activist with anger-management issues—are perfect opposites in so many ways. As their creator, do you feel more sympathetic to one over the other? Do you find it important to “like” or “dislike” your characters?

T. C. BOYLE: Both characters have their flaws, just like everybody else on this earth (except maybe me). The irony here is that they could have worked together for a common goal, but that their flaws prevented them from doing so. I sympathize with both their points of view. Though Dave LaJoy is one of those perpetually angry men–anything but a nice guy–he nonetheless has a bedrock belief in doing no harm to any creature. Alma is more practical.

BOOKPEOPLE: The chronology of this novel seems unique to me—within the primary narrative, set in modern day, you occasionally insert chapters and sections that flash back in time, providing information about changing ecosystems and characters’ family history. Could you tell us a little bit about the process of structuring this novel? Did you write various chapters as inspiration hit and arrange them at the end, or did you have a sense of the novel’s chronological structure before you started writing?

T. C. BOYLE: Each of my stories and novels finds its structure organically. I simply begin and follow through to the end. I have never written anything out of sequence–that would destroy the natural evolution of the story and structure. That said, I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed the way in which When the Killing’s Done is put together. As you may know, I am always searching for new ways to tell my stories, not simply to surprise the reader but to surprise myself as well.

BOOKPEOPLE: When the Killing’s Done is your thirteenth novel, and you’ve also written nine collections of short stories. To call you prolific feels like an understatement. Is there ever a moment in your day when you are not writing or thinking about writing? Do you consider writing your job or your passion? Or both? Or something else entirely?

T. C. BOYLE: I don’t feel right if I’m not activelty at work on something–and I account myself lucky in that I can go from the novel to the short story and back again, in a regular sequence. Right now I’m in a story phase, having completed the new novel–a companion piece to Killing set on one of the other Channel Islands. It’s called San Miguel and Viking will publish it here in the U.S. in September. The following September–of 2013–Viking will bring out T.C. Boyle Stories II: The Collected Stories of T.Coraghessan Boyle, Volume II. This will contain all the stories written since T.C. Boyle Stories came out in 1998 and includes an entirely new volume as well, titled “A Death in Kitchawank and Other Stories.” So, yes, I guess I am a bit obsessive/compulsive here. But as I have often joked, you don’t generally write as many stories after death as before, so you might as well get to it while you have the chance. More seriously, though, I should say that I feel a great and abiding desire to see what comes next and I hope that that will always be the case.

BOOKPEOPLE: Having attended one of your readings before, I can say with authority that you’re a fantastic reader of your own work. And I’m sure many of your fans are looking forward to hearing and seeing you at BookPeople on March 19th. Do you think a live reading adds something to your work that an audience wouldn’t get otherwise? How do you feel about reading aloud?

T. C. BOYLE: Well, I thank you very much for the compliment. I do enjoy performing. And I do feel that in presenting a story live I’m able to engage people in a different way. Actually, under the right conditions (theatrical setting, audience comfortably seated in the dark, functioning sound system) a good reader can take you all the way back to the earliest pleasures of literature, when parents or grandparents or teachers or siblings read aloud to you in childhood.

BOOKPEOPLE: What great books have you recently read (or reread) that you’d like to recommend to a bunch of book-loving Austinites?

T. C. BOYLE: Tons of things. Recent books by my former students Tea Obreht, David Bezmozgis and Bonnie Nadzam; Charles C. Mann’s eco-histories, 1491 and 1493, Dana Spiotta’s stunning Stone Arabia and a whole lot of other wonderful things I can’t recall in this instant.  But there certainly is a deep and rich literature out there and I salute all those wise and joyful people who share with me the special love of diving into a book (as opposed, say, to whiling away the time at the airport or the doctor’s office with your smartphone and the endless noise of our electronically oppressive society).  But don’t get me going.  Let’s just say that I look forward, once again, to entertaining all you Austinites to the very best of my ability.

When the Killing’s Done is now available in paperback.

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