Interview of T. Coraghessan Boyle
Liam Callanan | October/November 2001
T. Coragessan Boyle
T. Coraghessan Boyle is the author of 14 books. His most recent novel, A Friend of the Earth, was published by Viking in fall 2000, and his most recent collection of stories, After the Plague, will appear in fall 2001, also from Viking. He has been honored with numerous prizes, including France's Prix Medicis Étranger for best foreign novel, and the PEN/Faulkner Foundation's award for best novel, as well as its Bernard Malamud Prize in Short Fiction. His short fiction has also appeared in Best American Short Stories and has received a number of O. Henry Awards.
Born in New York in 1948, Boyle attended SUNY Potsdam, where he studied English and history. He then went to the University of Iowa, where he received both an MFA (in fiction) and a PhD (in 19th-century British Literature). He has taught at the University of Southern California (USC) since 1978.
Liam Callanan: How did you get from New York to Los Angeles?
Boyle: I grew up in a suburb of New York, in Peekskill, 28 miles north of the city, on the Hudson River. It was kind of a provincial little place, but it did have the urban influence; I come from a working class family. I had never been west of New Jersey until I was 21.
I began to write stories. I sent them out, and they were published. And on the strength of that, I applied to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the only one I'd ever heard of. Even though Columbia and NYU were right down the street, I'd never even heard of them. Iowa accepted me. So I put my girlfriend and my dog in the car, and drove there, never having been there before. After finishing my PhD, I applied for jobs at various universities, and the one that offered me the best deal was the University of Southern California (USC). And that's it. Simple as that.
Callanan: Had you always been writing? Were you one of those people who had stories in their desk drawer since sixth grade?
Boyle: No, I hadn't. I never even dreamed of writing as a profession or as an art. I was just a kid. But I went to college and got turned onto various things, one of which was creative writing.
Callanan: So you graduated, and became a writer.
Boyle: I graduated at age 21 and went back to Peekskill to teach at a high school there. I was eligible for the draft, but if you taught in the area where you grew up, especially if it was a depressed area, you could get a deferment. And in that period I began to write seriously and send the stories out. I was very much a beginner then-much, much less sophisticated than my students today and much less far along.
Callanan: How long did you teach high school?
Boyle: For four years, and at that point, the draft was over. I had published stories, and I wanted to go back to school.
Callanan: How did you find high school teaching?
Boyle: I think it was great in that it gave me something to do in a time of my life when I was very much involved in drugs and the kind of life that could really have gone the other way. It taught me to command an audience, often a hostile audience, and that has served me in good stead in going out and giving readings. It also gave me a love of teaching. Today, I don't have to teach if I don't want to; I do it because it's great. On the other hand, it's probably one of the most exhausting jobs anybody could ever have.
In high school, you're teaching five or six courses a day, day in and day out. I was very young and energetic, but I can't imagine people doing it into their 50s and 60s. We really need to reward teachers more and find some way of making it less like a prison for the kids. There's got to be some way of opening it up a little. The teaching I do now is an absolute joy. I have the best students; I pick them for my advanced workshop. I know we're doing well, because so many of them go on with scholarships to MFA programs.
Callanan: What do you think of MFA programs? Was your MFA experience useful to you?
Boyle: The MFA program gave me time to write, a reason for it, and a support group. But I don't think I was a particularly good workshop participant. I was too competitive and angry, probably as reflected in East is East.
Callanan: Nevertheless, you stayed on for a PhD.
Boyle: Sure. From the first day in the workshop, I began taking PhD courses. To be a writer, I really thought I should know something about literature. Up to that point, I hadn't been a very good student and hadn't done what I was supposed to do. One of the first classes I took was a survey course on the 1890s, and I just loved the idea of the '90s, being a hippie and being stoned and everything. And the teacher was amazing-Frederick P.W. McDowell, whom I've cited elsewhere. He was very inspirational for me.
Callanan: People do like to knock MFA programs, though.
Boyle: It seems to me that the people who are opposed to MFA programs are those who have little or no experience with them. The old guard, the generation before mine, felt that novelists must live in the world: they should work in the slaughterhouse and the coal mines, write a great proletarian novel, and become self-educated. And of course that may have been the case to a degree, but they also had great editors like Maxwell Perkins to bail them out. I think that now we don't have great editors. We have editors who are basically trying to hold on to their jobs and who publish good books once in a while. They're basically cheerleaders for the books. They're not editors, really. They're incapable of being editors; they don't need to be. Because editing is done-self-editing is done-through the apprenticeship in the writing programs. Nearly everyone from my generation on to your generation and beyond will have been through an MFA program. It's just the way it is now. It's a different world. It's essential.
Callanan: To play devil's advocate, then, what are some of the dangers of MFA programs?
Boyle: The pitfalls are angry, disappointed, disaffected, lousy writers teaching because they have nothing else to do, no other way to earn a living. They hate the world and their students, and they're poor at what they do. That's the biggest danger. The next biggest danger is someone who is so captivated by himself and his own work that he really creates clones of himself. I think, too, that can hurt the students by forcing them to write a certain kind of story. I've never had that problem with my students, especially since I have been teaching undergrads all these years. They don't have as big an investment as the grad students, among whom rivalries form, with factions, hatreds. Undergraduates are a little more open. I'm able to just give them a nudge in the direction that they're going in and help them realize what that direction is.
Callanan: Do you find teaching creative writing draining? I recall reading that Stephen King once said teaching is like hooking jumper cables up to your head.
Boyle: I don't see it that way. No, I don't find it creatively draining at all. Teaching is a different kind of thing from the writing itself, and yet you have the opportunity to be like a coach: while he doesn't play baseball anymore, a coach has a bunch of people whom he sees have the gift and the love for what they're doing-and he's going to make them better. There's a lot of satisfaction in just that. And students love you. They worship you. They want to be like you. And that's great if you believe in what you're doing. I've had several mentors who've been very important in my life, and I want to give that back. I strongly believe in undergraduate education, in creative writing in the schools, in being stimulated by people who love what they're doing. Plus, if I'm in the middle of a novel, it helps. I go in on a Monday and a Friday. It's a long drive. I can't really write on those days. It's all right. I say to myself, "OK, look... I know you're driven, I know you're obsessive, I know you want to finish this book. But you're going to take a day off now." It's somehow very refreshing, especially if I'm having problems with the book.
Callanan: Does teaching feel different now than when you first started?
Boyle: Yes, it does. When I first started teaching, I was maybe 31 or so; most students were around 22. I had a couple of students who were in their mid- to late-20s. I felt pretty much like them. I feel a little bit more of a formal distance now. I also found out who I am. Then I was just a guy with no novel. Now they can brag about me to their friends, and they've all read my work in high school, so it's a little different. But I teach the classes exactly the same way. I have respect for my students, and I try to help them. The class is always amenable and funny.
Callanan: You have been at the University of Southern California since you left Iowa. What's it like to be a writer in Los Angeles?
Boyle: The rap has been that LA has no serious writers, but I think that's a thing of the past. There are a lot of writers living in town simply because it's a great city. Many writers are attracted to Hollywood, of course, to write films and make their fortunes. USC has been a beneficiary, as we've always had adjunct people teaching who are brilliant. Aimee Bender, for instance, is teaching for us now and has been for a couple of years. It's a great thing in that way.
Callanan: What about your forays into the film world? I read that you didn't get involved in writing the adaptation of The Road to Wellville because you felt the film was a separate entity, a separate work of art.
Boyle: Right, but also because, as a writer, you have no control over the film. And if you are the sort of writer that we are, then you want to control the product totally-it's your own art. You're an artist. I think a screenwriter is not an artist; a screenwriter is an artisan, maybe-somebody who's working like someone on a crew building a house. And there's a general contractor, and that's the director. I don't think it's very satisfying in the way that producing your own novel is. Which is why some writers, like John Sayles, become directors, because they love the medium of film, as I do, and they want to be involved in that way. I don't feel that it's my job in life. As I see it, my job is to do my writing and to help inspire the next generation of writers. You know, we're certainly in battle with the clutter of our culture and the prominence of the electronic media.
Callanan: Who's going to win? What is the state of fiction today?
Boyle: I think that our writers are better now than they've ever been. They're more sophisticated and more intriguing and interesting. But I liken all this to Kafka's "Hunger Artist;" we're performing amazing feats never before seen or heard of but no one knows and no one cares.
The reason some think that the early 20th century was a golden age of short stories was because the electronic media hadn't taken over yet. Radio began to steal some of the fire from stories, and then of course, TV arrived. We need stories. But then the other mediums usurp from us. It's sad. So many kids at school only read as an assignment, and that is sort of a death of literature. If literature's not something that's for pleasure, if it is simply an assignment in English class, then that's pretty much going to kill it.
Society is so frenetic. Everything has to be instant. We're always afraid we're going to miss out on something if we're not right there, right now. I think that kind of destroys the tempo of life. That's why it's necessary to read and to write. It's one of the reasons I like to come up to the mountains. And often I'm here by myself. I have this huge, endless forest to walk in and I've found that it's kind of boring, yes, but I read and write a whole lot more when I'm up here than I do at home. I was back in New York for the Collected Stories tour a year ago. It was a very warm fall November day, and I went up the Hudson to this place where I'd last lived in New York. I know the trails there very well, so I went out and hiked. I was absolutely shocked to see other people on the trail. I'm so spoiled. In my 22 years on this mountain, I've walked out the back of my house into the forest, but have never seen anybody in the woods, ever.
Callanan: The West, then, is still a land of opportunity and discovery.
Boyle: That's what's fascinating to me about Alaska, the site of my next book. People often ask me about having an oeuvre, in which all the books are one and one leads logically to another. And I never really understood that until I looked back on them and saw how the books are connected and what my obsessions and themes are. The Tortilla Curtain is a book about racism, certainly, but it's also a book about a kind of biological imperative, about overcrowding and overpopulation. And that led me to A Friend of the Earth, which deals with the environmental movement, especially the radical environmentalism of the '80s and '90s, and what the result will be-which of course is an absolute disaster from overcrowding and global warming.
For my next book, I'm going back in time a little bit. I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing, at least in the initial stages, but I want to write about Alaska. In its time, maybe 25 years ago, Alaska was truly the last frontier. There was no grocery store, and you had nothing except what you made yourself or those essentials you got by trapping in the winter and selling the furs. But only a very few can do this now, because otherwise, everything would be trapped out in a year and that would be the end of it. That's very fascinating to me, in terms of our species and its survival on this planet-and I don't have a lot of good news to deliver about that. Really. When I started A Friend of the Earth, I spent months reading all the environmentalists, and there isn't a breath of hope in any one of them. That's why people are so bored by environmentalism, because it's nothing but doom.
When I was putting together the Collected Stories, I looked at a little piece called "The Extinction Tales," which I had written as a student at Iowa in the mid-'70s. I was the narrator of that story. I was bitching and bemoaning the fate of the earth, because there were 4 billion people. That wasn't that long ago! Now there are 6 billion people. It's just impossible. What we're eating here today is all dependent upon a kind of Ponzi scheme.
You have to sell product; you have to produce product. You can't have an economy if you don't. Well, eventually there won't be any product; there won't be anything. What do you do then? It's frightening. The Alaska book is a kind of way of meditating on man and nature. If you know Bill McKibben's book The End of Nature, you know there is no nature anymore. The only people who would debate global warming are the shills from the oil companies. No one, no reputable scientist, would debate it. This was the warmest winter ever, worldwide.
People don't understand about greenhouse gases and what the effect is. They think of a greenhouse, "Well, it's kind of nice. It's warm in there, you grow plants." But the image I like is, you're in the San Fernando Valley, on July 15th. You go to the mall. You shut the door and roll up the windows. You get back in the car, but the windows don't roll down anymore. That's global warming. And the warmer it is, the more evaporation there is worldwide, the more moisture there is in the air. Which is the biggest greenhouse gas-water vapor. This makes the weather patterns less and less stable. This is why we're seeing the 100-year-flood every year. That's why we're seeing this rash of hurricanes, storms, flooding, and droughts. It's already happening-and imagine adding another billion or 2 billion or 3 billion people. Or when all the Chinese have automobiles. What is going to happen? It's a disaster. Unless some plague comes and wipes everybody out, there's no chance for our species to survive. I mean, isolated people will, but with the kind of world we have now, there's no chance.
Callanan: What's it like to write in a world like that?
Boyle: Hemingway would constantly bitch and moan about how hard it was to be a writer-how emotionally straining and how terrible it was. In his day, he wrote a book and went to Europe, and, in return, received royalty checks. People read; people bought books. Now, nobody knows how to read, nobody buys books. You can't go to Europe, because you have to trot from Tulsa to Albuquerque trying to peddle your book, and furthermore, there is no immortality because science has instructed us that the earth will be gone in 500,000 years. I thought we had 3 billion left, but now it's only 500,000. And there's no God, there's no reason, there's no nothing. It's bleak. I think as artists, though, we can just respond to that. And that's what I've been trying to do in the last several books-respond to this kind of existential despair, which will eat you right up. I think the only solution is a kind of a carpe diem, live in the day. But on the other hand, if everybody lives in the day, then the end comes all the quicker. You can't simply guzzle resources, trash the planet, and pollute things.
That's why I'm writing about environmentalists. We're caught between a despair for everything that is inevitably going to come crashing down and a desire, nonetheless, to put a finger in the dike, to help in some way. I do what I can. But, of course, as my hero in the novel points out, I'm a criminal just like you because I happen to live in this society. We're doing 250 times more the damage to the earth than someone in Bangladesh, for instance, does, simply by having material goods.
Callanan: So you're not letting anybody off the hook?
Boyle: There is no hope. That's the problem. And that's what I'm trying to address in the new book. But of course I'm making it a comedy. And it has a happy ending, by the way. With the world completely turned to shit, it nonetheless has a happy ending. In The Tortilla Curtain, one of the things that interested me was building a narrative on a series of multiple ironies. Delaney takes this $300 sleeping bag and some wine and goes out into the canyon and spends the night. He's out there just to enjoy it, to listen to the spring peepers and the coyotes, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's great. But in the context of what's going on in the book and what's going on in the world, it's almost like a criminal act.
I'm very interested in small communities; I didn't realize why or how for awhile. I suppose it goes all the way back to Budding Prospects, where these guys are very isolated. But I really began to think about it in World's End, and then in East is East, where we have this isolated community. I think I'm trying to create a microcosm by reducing things to a smaller environment. Even in the novel I'm contemplating now, it would be such a small environment that there are only a couple of people. Maybe this is all in response to the fact the larger world is so disturbing, chaotic, and difficult to appreciate or understand. Maybe by drawing down to small communities, like the Arroyo Blanco people in The Tortilla Curtain, I can understand it better as a microcosm. I'm just an instinctive artist who is disturbed by things, and stimulated by things, and makes art out of it.
Everything to me is a story. It's true. I don't really know how to respond to things. I'm horrified by things, and I also love things. So I have to write stories. In fact, I've often said that in my satires, I make fun of things that I really hate and that I really love. That's right-nobody gets off the hook. When I criticize Delaney, I'm criticizing myself, you know. And writing that is a cautionary tale to myself, too, to not be a knee-jerk racist even though we are going to be fighting for resources at certain points-every new immigrant to our country makes the country smaller and the resources less. Of course, it helps build the economy, but as I've said, the economy is a giant Ponzi scheme which is going to come crashing down eventually. This makes the idea of these survivalists in the woods all the more interesting to me.
Now, my plan, of course, if it all comes crashing down, is a very simple one to pursue. I will simply die.
Callanan: You don't want any part of Armageddon?
Boyle: The new novel kind of takes on that whole idea, and has a lot of fun with the idea of Armageddon. As does my story, "After the Plague," which is the title story of the new collection of 16 stories which comes out this fall. The story kind of dovetails neatly with the novel. I didn't realize it; my editor pointed this out to me when he bought the book. Both works are set in the future, when things collapse. And they are both dealing with that situation-in a humorous way, certainly, but also in a kind of radical way, in that it's not the expected vision of the apocalypse. In fact, in A Friend of the Earth, it's not an apocalypse so much as what will really happen. It's just a slow deterioration.
Callanan: Talking about parallels in your work, I've noticed that many of your novels have twin poles. Not just characters and their foils, but twin realities. Where do you think that comes from?
Boyle: I hadn't really thought of it. You're the first to ask me this question. But it occurs to me that it makes for good fiction if polarities come together. Sometimes, when I'm looking through my idea book for stories-and the ideas are just a single sentence usually-I'll discover that I've combined two of them in a given story I've already written. And I think that makes for the best stories. Where you take two elements that don't necessarily belong together and force them together in order to see what will happen. "Captured by the Indians," the story that was in The New Yorker, is an example. I've taken actually three disparate elements and forced them together to see what would happen.
Callanan: How does your "idea book" work? Is it a place to jot something down that strikes you and then later come back to it?
Boyle: Yes, but not in the way that you would think. It's not that I'm carrying it around. I just have ideas for stories that I save up. I might have a newspaper clipping. But it's only just a line. I might only do 20 entries in a period of two years. But whatever it is, it's something that has interested me while I'm locked into a novel, so that when the new period of stories comes along, I can begin to pursue that. Of course, as the new period of stories evolves, other stories occur to me. I've just finished this period of writing stories in mid-January. As I said, there are 16 new stories-actually there are 18, but I only included 16 in the book.
Callanan: How do you determine whether an idea is going to lead to a short story or a novel?
Boyle: They're all stories, but the novel requires a lot more space, and I know from the initial idea that it will require more space and I'm set to give it more space. Otherwise there's no difference. If they both begin in the same way, I write the first sentence and then I follow that. It's like a puzzle; you have to find what the solution is.
Callanan: How do you start?
Boyle: It depends on the story. It's hard to say. I think there's a magic moment of inspiration where you've been thinking about a subject or an idea, and suddenly a line occurs to you, directed by a narrator or spoken by a character, and you're off. I know it's very mystical in some way and hard to explain to people who haven't experienced it. But I think everyone's experienced it-everyone's written a term paper. Everyone has read about the Constitution for their history class and then written a term paper. It's the same process. What is the first line of that paper going to be? Maybe you've got it more structured if you're writing a paper, but it's the same sort of process. You're inventing a form and a shape for certain material.
Callanan: Do you push through a short story draft in one sitting?
Boyle: No, not at all. I write very slowly, line by line, so that at the end of the story, that's it. The story is finished. There's no shifting scenes around or changing things. There might be a final polish or revision, but every line has been written over and over as I move along. So the answer is no, once the draft is done-and now that I work on a computer, it only takes me maybe a day or two to go through and make little corrections-basically that's it.
Callanan: What about when you're writing a novel? What was it like when you sat down to write your first novel, Water Music?
Boyle: I didn't know if I could write a novel. Again, many people who are not writers think that you just know how to do it, just as if you're a painter, you know how to paint horses and abstracts and trees with icicles hanging from them. But that isn't the case. You might have a talent for it, but you have to develop it, and you learn how to write a novel through reading novels, of course, but to actually do it, to actually write one, that's how you learn.
I often tell my students that I can help accelerate the process of discovery they're going to make. I can help make them better, and our class is a great thing. However, I'd like to try this experiment. The next semester, we take the same class and we lock them in individual closets with a little slot for the pizza to come in at the top and a little slot at the bottom for the story to come out. And every time a story comes out, there's a $500 check attached to the pizza box as it goes in. After two months, each person would have written 100 stories, they'd be rich, and they'd be the best story writers who ever lived. It's just the process of doing it. The more you do it, the better you are able to do it, or the quicker you discover how to do it.
Callanan: What's your daily work schedule?
Boyle: I would say I get to work at about 9:00 or 9:30 in the morning at home. I work four or five hours, and then I'm done. I go out and do something physical, out in nature. I live in Santa Barbara, where I have the ocean and the mountains right there. I think it makes for a nice balance to do something physical and not have to sit at your desk all the time.
Callanan: I've heard you like to listen to music while you work, and that while writing Riven Rock, you only listened to John Coltrane.
Boyle: I just got into a Coltrane phase, and kept playing the tapes over and over. But I mainly listen to classical music while working. I always listen to something while working. Very rarely do I work with no music. I think you just need some kind of rhythm in the background. You may not even be consciously aware of it, but I do think it helps. I've always used it.
Callanan: You don't need absolute peace and quiet?
Boyle: I've worked anywhere I've been. When I was a young assistant professor with one book, I was writing Water Music, and we had a little house in Tujunga (California) in this horrible neighborhood with killer dogs and junker cars and all that. I just put a desk in the bedroom and did my work, and wherever I go now, I have a little office and that's nice. But it doesn't matter. You do it because you do it.
Callanan: You seem to like using real-life situations as a springboard.
Boyle: I'm interested in creating a fiction, another world, a work of art that takes what fascinates me in the historical situation and explores it. Water Music in particular is about a kind of cultural imperialism that interested me. It seems that with the eight novels now, four of them are historically based and four look into the present or future. And that seems to be a good pattern for me, to go from one to the other. I don't know why, but I'm happy with it.
Callanan: Do you ever find that truth sometimes outpaces fiction? The story behind Riven Rock, for example, is incredible.
Boyle: Riven Rock is the closest I've ever come to actually telling the story as it really is. But of course I'm interpreting and dramatizing. It was such a fascinating story. It was like a novel itself, like a soap opera. No one could conceive of a story so bizarre. And so the novel itself just leapt out of it.
With others, with the Kellogg book-The Road to Wellville-for instance, I simply began to explore the idea of health food, where it came from, what it means, and why do we need it, and why are we so obsessed with it? How does this relate to love, life, and death? I gradually began to realize that of all the nuts out there-and there were lots of them, like Sylvester Graham, for instance, and Post-Kellogg was the most interesting to me because he was a little martinet. I am so suspicious of people who are willing to, in a fascistic way, take our lives into their hands and lead us to the promised land-whether they be religious leaders, political leaders, or, in the case of Kellogg, nutballs. Certainly, many things that he promulgated were great. But that's not what interested me so much as, say, how does someone like his son George respond to this? How does some poor schmuck like Will Lightbody respond to this? What does this mean? So I think there are elements in given historical stories that are fascinating to me. And once I've absorbed the elements, then hopefully I will do some kind of spontaneous take on them. I never have an outline or know what I'm going to say or where it's going to go. I have to discover that, day by day.
That's why I'm only interested in writing fiction. I don't want to write biographies, or essays, or even book reviews anymore. I just want to explore this kind of magical thing that happens in fiction. For example, "The Love of My Life," a story about a teenage couple who kill their baby that appeared in The New Yorker. Yes, it originated in the news a couple of years ago. But I didn't really follow the story that much. I just wondered, well, beyond the facts of the newspaper, what is it? What is love like, and how can this happen? Of all the stories I've written recently, the response to this one was enormous. I don't know exactly why. But this one, for some reason, many, many people have responded to.
Callanan: Was it the visceral subject matter?
Boyle: I don't know. It's a non-comic story. I think, perhaps, a realistic, non-comic story is a mode that the general public can relate to better than some of the more wild or experimental things I've done. And yet, by the same token, those wild and experimental things are the things that I think I'm giving to American literature that others are not. I'm proud of the realistic stories, but other writers could have done those.
Callanan: Are you surprised you don't have more people following you pell-mell down the imaginative path?
Boyle: Obviously, every writer has an enormous ego and wants every reader in his camp. As I've said many times, one of the things I do want beyond what I have now-and again, this is just a wish, if I continued as I'm doing now, I'd be totally happy-but I want to fight for literature. I want literature to take its place in the top 10 bestseller list. Kent Haruf's Plainsong is wonderful, and it was on there-Hallelujah! But it's mainly vampire books and Tom Clancy and all the rest of it. I don't understand why we can't make our books more available to everybody-not by compromising what we do, but by popularizing them, getting them out to the public. So that's a goal I have, to keep expanding the audience. But that's a goal that's kind of artificial and happens after the work is done.
Callanan: Do you think that will require you writing more non-comic, realistic fiction?
Boyle: I don't think it's for me to say or for my publisher to say. It's for me to write what I like and for my publisher to publish it and hope that we find an audience. I'm sure they have this debate all the time in Hollywood. "Gee, you know, Titanic sure did well. Let's make another 10 movies exactly like it." But then a period goes by before somebody does something totally different, like Being John Malkovich, or the Indiana Jones movies, or whatever, and then everybody makes movies exactly like that. I think an artist is the person who creates something totally unexpected and new.
Callanan: Are you a cook? Food seems like a perennial theme in your work.
Boyle: Yes, but I'm not a foodie. I guess I am obsessed with food as theme and image, but I am asked that question so often that I've come up with an answer that I think might be true. I do see food in many of the stories as a metaphor for conspicuous consumption. We are stuffing ourselves with every delicacy possible and we're miffed if it's not the freshest possible thing. Whereas the seas are depleted (the oceans are over, by the way; that's another thing that's coming up in the new book), and one third of people are starving to death.
I recycle everything. I have a bucket outside the door where every scrap goes in, and it becomes the mulch pile. I tell my kids that one third of the people in the world would kill each other to get the contents of this mulch bucket-and it's true. So to be a restaurant critic is absurd to me. By the way, that was the start of the story "Sorry Fugu," but once I wrote the story, I realized it was about the function of criticism, and the way the critic stands in opposition to the artist. And it, of course, was my little love letter to the critics of the world, who didn't take it well. They did not take it well at all. One critic said, "This is a good collection, but this one story is a diatribe against critics." A diatribe is the incorrect word. It is a sly, subtle... attack.
Callanan: What do you think of the state of book criticism today?
Boyle: It's a terrible thing. It shows the death of the world of letters. Of course, the university hasn't helped, with the new schools of linguistic-based criticism coming out of France over the past 30 years-which is just busy work for scholars, so they can try to demean the place of the author, instead of helping to interpret and review literature.
I think it's tough. There is no profession of "man of letters." Critics are very scattered. The guy reviewing your book might be a part-time teacher at the community college in New Mexico, and he's only read one or two of your books, and he's not read many other people's books. And he just doesn't have a very good fix on what you're doing or how sophisticated or unsophisticated your work might be. It's a really hit and miss proposition. For my first several books, I was known as the critics' darling. Once I came out with The Tortilla Curtain, some of my enemies, the people who resented me, began to come out of the woodwork, thinking, "Now he's weak, now we can attack him." Of course, the book has been my most read and now it's an acknowledged classic. But at the time, it sure hurt.
Even early, when I was being praised, I felt that sometimes the interpretations were wrong, or that I was being praised for the wrong reasons. So I wrote a book like East is East to talk about how criticism can be very... arbitrary, almost. I think the critic has to be like Matthew Arnold-or John Updike. The critic has to be someone who is a writer, who is as good or better than the writer he's critiquing. You can't just be a fly-by-night person who has a political ax to grind, as some of the reviewers of The Tortilla Curtain were, for instance. Or people who have a feminist perspective. Or whatever-a New Historical perspective. They see art in only one light. And if it doesn't meet the standards of their very narrow, monomaniacal views, then it's no good. You have to have a very catholic approach as a critic and as a teacher. One of the reasons why I have succeeded as a teacher, why I pride myself on being a teacher, is that I do have a catholic approach. Anything in any style, mode, or voice that the students are doing is OK by me-as long as it's great, as long as it's perfect. As long as they can make a great work of art, I'm happy. And the critic must be like that.
I also think that critics become overwhelmed and jaded by the fact that there are so many books. No one could keep abreast of them. And it's their job, it's their work. They've got to read this goddamn book, you know? It's tough. Movie critics, all they do is go to the movie, but book critics really have to love it. If we established a foundation which paid $350,000 a year, per critic, to live in their shacks and write nothing but criticism and dream over books, then maybe it would be different.
Everybody has forgotten that literature, like all art, is, at root, entertainment. It is supposed to entertain you. It's not supposed to be some conundrum to be resolved by some professors in the university. It's not a game. It's not masturbation. It's art. And I think great art is great on all levels. But the first level on which it must be great is that it must be entertaining. And that entertainment could be as in Ulysses, a new way of approaching language, but it's still visual and entertaining and enjoyable. And I think that the joy is lost to a lot of critics. I think it's an irresolvable problem.
But then again, we do have university professors who will take a retrospective look at a writer's career. They will sift through the reviews: some are good, some are idiotic, and so on, and begin to develop an idea about the writer and the writer's oeuvre. That is all in retrospect, though, and that is after the writer has written 10 or 12 books. Further, I am often misunderstood by my critics-I don't mean literary critics, but critics who criticize me for being who I am-because they feel that somehow, by demystifying what literature is, by being engaging and funny and giving a good stage show, by going on Letterman or the Today show and telling jokes and disarming the public, that that's somehow giving away the sacred nature of literature or something. It's demeaning to literature, in a way. I think that's complete crap. I think we need to go out and shake up the audience and get to the audience, especially the young audience, and do what it takes. I'm not saying-as I am often misunderstood as saying by those who mean me ill-that we should pander to them and write crap. We write what we write. But I don't see any problem with giving a great stage show and selling it. It's a shame-it would be great if we were like Hemingway, and we could go live in France and let the royalty checks pour in, and everybody read our books because there was no Internet, no movies, no radio. But it doesn't work that way anymore.
Callanan: How about your in-house critics? Does your family read your books?
Boyle: My sons are fairly young. They're old enough to read the books, but they don't seem especially interested. My daughter is a writer and she's in college now. She has read my books mainly to pick arguments with me, but I think she's beginning to understand that I'm OK and the books are OK. Her writing is very different, which is great. My oldest son is 16; he's the one who does my website. He's very technologically oriented-very bright in terms of math and science, which I presume comes from his mother's side of the family; that's what she's good at. He doesn't read much. He's a computer kid. Literature's not his thing. He's been with computers since he was born and that's what he does. In his junior year, his school required The Tortilla Curtain and my entire Greasy Lake collection. It's horrible for him, because they expect him to have special knowledge of the books, and so on. But I told him I'd help him write the paper.
Callanan: Over time, which have you enjoyed writing more, the novels or the short stories?
Boyle: I feel very lucky that I can do both. I like to think-and again, it's not really for me to say-that I'm equally good at writing novels and stories. Most of my contemporaries are better at one form or the other, or they only pursue one form or the other. I feel very lucky in that I do not have to face a long period between books, as you must, necessarily, if you only write novels. People don't understand how mentally and emotionally draining it is to write a novel, and to finish a novel, and to be living in that world for a year or two, or three years sometimes, and then have that world gone. For me, yes, it takes some kind of acclimatization, but it's brief because I have story ideas, and stories begin to pop up. I had finished A Friend of the Earth by the end of May, and I wrote "Captured by the Indians" in July. Then I took a little trip to get the novel out of my head. Within a few weeks, a month, I was writing stories. How do you know when you're done with stories? It just feels natural; I'd been writing stories for eight months. I was satisfied with that. It was time to try another, larger project. It seems to keep going in this cycle. I just hope it continues to go on forever.
Liam Callanan is an MFA candidate in fiction writing at George Mason University. His work has been read on NPR's Morning Edition and published in The New York Times.