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Earthquakes, Critics and the .600 Nitro: 
An Interview with T. Coraghessan Boyle

Originally published in Hayden's Ferry Review, Issue 18, Spring/Summer 1996.

Interviewer: David Appell ,(  Conducted October 5, 1995, by the pool of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Phoenix, Arizona.

Hayden’s Ferry Review: In her review in The Nation, Barbara Kingsolver called The Tortilla Curtain "the most political of your books." What are your feelings about the reception that the book's been getting?

T.C. Boyle: Well, you know, I've never had as viciously bad reviews in my life, nor as passionately good reviews. Nobody is indifferent towards it. I guess I'd be disingenuous if I expected to make fun of people and have them love me for it, especially in so sensitive an area as their own racism.

I think, too, people are coming into the book with preconceptions about the issue, and whether they feel along with me or they don't, and I think that's part of it. Then there's there whole fascism of the politically correct, where some people don't feel that it's my prerogative to write from the point of view of someone of a different ethnic origin, or sex, or whatever--which of course is patently absurd, but that doesn't stop them. 

And then I think also what's operating is at this point everyone perceives me as being on top. I've been very productive--I've had three books three years in a row, they're tired of reading about me, and they think, "Well, let's take this guy down a peg." 

So, I've got all of that working. But I think the ultimate effect is, it publicizes the book. It's not fun to be called "human garbage" on the radio, as I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago--I thanked her for the compliment, by the way. But I guess that's what your publicist wants, is some kind of controversy surrounding the book. It's doing well. I keep building my audience every time I go out on the road.

HFR: Do you set out deliberately to cause a controversy?

TCB: No. This is the third book I've written on the subject of racism. I lived in L.A. all that time, I heard all of the kind of scapegoating that goes on at the cocktail parties that the white liberals like Delaney and Kyra attend and give, I read the Times every day, articles on illegal immigration. I just wanted to sort out my own feelings on the issue. And as I said earlier, there are plenty of people who are willing to say that I have no right to sort out my feelings on the issue, or to write from the perspective of a Latino. None of the people who say that are Latino, by the way. I think that it's, for me, anyway, an obligation to try to challenge myself, try to do something different, and I think that a good novelist should be able to inhabit anybody--and I always have. I've always written from other points of view from other cultures, the other gender, whatever. If you take this kind of argument to its conclusion, it's absurd; only then could a Mexican write about Mexicans, and only could a Mexican appreciate it. Only could a woman write about women, and only women could read it. It's just absurd to place that kind of limitation on any artist. 

HFR: That's a nice lead to my next question, which is, of the two lines in the book, Delaney's line and Candido's line, which came more naturally to you? Which was easier to write?

TCB: They were equally easier to write. As you know, I often range between different points of view in the books, like in Water.

HFR: Did you do anything special to. . . .

TCB: . . . I mean, "equally easy"--that's not to say that I whipped it off in my spare time! It's always a struggle day-by-day to get the book going, but neither point of view was harder than the other. What was hardest was reining in my natural propensity to make fun of everything in an absurdist, flat-out comedy. I wanted to do something different here. I wanted to produce a sort-of fable, and to do that I had to curb some of the hyperbolic tendencies that I have. 

It was particularly hard in terms of Delaney's columns. I wanted to make those even more absurd, but I realized that I couldn't, because then they wouldn't be credible as having been written by Delaney, who feels that what he's doing is good. 

HFR: That was one of my questions: I thought those were some of the funniest parts of the books, actually, his attempts to be his own type of Annie Dillard. Was it hard to write mediocre, to find that type of mediocre kind of voice that Delaney writes in?

TCB: It was hard. The whole thing was hard to rein in my own voice and try to do something a little different here. I realized as I went on with the book that this sort of comedy. . . well, I realized this when I was first starting it, or was on the Wellville tour, people asked me "what are you doing," and I said "well, I'm writing another novel that is comic, but by definition only." I realized I wasn't going to do my usual sort of comedy. I just wondered if I could do it, and I realized about a third of the way into the book that, yes, if I'm going to point out satirically some of the foibles of people like Delaney and Kyra, I'm certainly not going to make my Mexican characters be saints, because that doesn't work either; Candido beats his wife, for instance. Jose Navidad rapes and robs people and is an evil man, etc. But I thought there had to be some kind of moral center to the book. . . or not a moral center, really. A center to the book, and I think that winds up being Candido--he simply is an animal like all of us, trying to survive. Basically, that's it. I think you can put own interpretation on that last line and how that all lines up. 

Another thing I tried to do in making Delaney a naturalist was to talk about the ethos of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath in terms of 1995, when we have five and a half billion people on the planet. To someone like Delaney--to me, for that matter--the enemy of everything that we hold dear is us. 

HFR: In this book you play a lot with names and the symbolism behind some of that names: Candido, his wife America, Delaney's last name [Mossbacher], and Arroyo Blanco, the white upper middle class enclave where Delaney and Kyra live. As a writer, what are the pros and cons of doing that--what do you see as some of the advantages and some of the possible dangers?

TCB: I think those names are subtle. And I think they fit, especially in the context of a fable, where you have a moral revealed at the end. Of course, I would never want to interpret that for the reader--they can make of it what they will.

The danger, I suppose, would be in drawing too much attention to the character's name, so that you would get a sort of Pilgrim's Progess kind of allegory, which I didn't intend at all. Candido and America are both fairly common first names in Mexico, and America's name has a lot of ironic resonance because we tend to forget that there are other Americas besides our own. And Candido, of course. . . like many of my characters, he is the guy, like Voltaire's Candide, who gets all of these problems heaped upon him. . . . One of the things I've been reading from the novel in public has been the little incident in which Candido gets the free turkey and accidentally sets the forest ablaze. Readers of my work will know that when he gets the turkey and he feels, "this is my lucky day and I'm so happy," that that's not going to last for long.

HFR: Wasn't Mike Bender trampled to death by an elephant in an earlier story?

TCB: Ah, good reader, good reader. The way I defended that in my own mind, because I couldn't resist using Mike Bender in this one too, was maybe that story happened after this one too. . . .

HFR: . . . Yeah, I was thinking that too. . . .

TCB: . . . Even though I wrote it first!  No, I knew that would be a problem in terms of the mythology of all the characters I've created. That's how I explain it to myself--yeah, Mike died a year later. . . . Although really some of the details of that story would set it pretty firmly in the time that I wrote it, which would be about, I guess, '93. . . .

HFR: Which details do you have in mind?

TCB: When the young girl talks about killing and how Bridget Bardot and the New Kids on the Block are against it. It's inevitable that you do place a thing in its time context. 

And another problem with this book in terms of its time is that I was predicting the fires that swept through the canyon, and I was writing about those fires as they were happening and had planned to write about them well in advance; and I had planned also to have an illegal immigrant set off the fires. The case with the real fires in Topanga Canyon was that it was an arsonist. But at the same time there was a firestorm in Altadina which had been set by an illegal immigrant from the Middle East who was just cooking his dinner. So I kind of had predicted some of those things, and I wondered how I could set that into its time frame. A couple of people who have reviled me in print with this are not very close readers and have somehow mistakenly felt that there's an earthquake in the book. I do mention the earthquake that had occurred, and that kind of puts it in its timeframe, because that was January of '94. 

HFR: The L.A. Times reviewer called it an earthquake at the end, but it was just a mudslide, right?

TCB: Yeah. I haven't seen that review, but I've had some parti selecti read to me, and again, some people are just out to tear me down no matter what, and they have preconceptions about the book. I think that review, the one in Time magazine and the one in the Washington Post are unfair, because reviewing, supposedly, is disinterested; that is, if you know the person you're reviewing, or you have some bias for or against them, you're supposed to beg off. But these people are taking this opportunity to give me every shot they can unload. I don't think it's right, but again, you really can't respond to that. Most of the criticism of this book and of other books has been favorable. You win some and you lost some. I've always been worried about the reviewers because they are sometimes not really capable, I don't think, of understanding what I do. They're often second-string writers themselves, as in the case of the people that we've just mentioned, who are harboring a lot of jealousies and animosities for anyone who's making it. 

Also, I think sometimes they're not deep readers. I'm always stunned when people don't get the fact that the book is satirical. For instance, they don't really get it, they don't understand what I'm doing. They would take Jonathon Swift's Modest Proposal and they would say, "This man is evil, he is a child-killer and a cannibal." They just don't get it. That kind of surprises me that the editors would let that go through, that kind of, really, character assassination and personal attacks. 

On the other hand, if it's some second-stringer who loves me I don't mind. So I guess you have to take your lumps when they come, and it was inevitable that they would come now, because, as I say, people are very jealous of my status, and they feel that this is a weak moment because this is an issue book and they can line up, self-righteously, on whatever side of the issue they feel is the right one.

But, of course, I reserve my favorite British expression for them: "I piss on them from a great height." You know, who are they? I've never heard of any of them. I have total confidence in my vision and in what I'm doing--the next book is already ready, I've written seven new stories. You have to let it slide off your back, I guess. But it does hurt, that people are so malicious and so unwilling to even read the book closely enough to find out what happens on a factual level--they're so quick to take a chance to take a shot at you.

HFR: The reviewer in the New York Times Book Review ended by calling you "perhaps the most contemptuous of modern novelists."

TCB: (laughter) Well, he's welcome to his opinion. Again, this is another inveterate second-stringer who may have a little bit of jealousy seething between those lines, I think. He's also a guy who doesn't seem to understand what satire is. If I recall this was the guy who thought, felt that all the Mexican stuff was very moving and correct, but I was too hard on the white characters. Well, if you read between the lines, maybe it hits a little too close to home for him, makes him reevaluate his own feelings and his own prejudices in a way that makes him angry. Angry at whom? Moi

What can you say? The guy doesn't understand that satire has to hurt somebody, it has to have teeth in it. I don't think that the behavior of the guy standing on the street corner with the bag of oranges needs that much correction--he's just trying to survive. But I think the people behind the gates and the walls, the people who are writing these reviews, for instance, maybe they need to just reevaluate for a minute when they condemn a whole group of people carte blanche because they don't know them, they're worthless Mexicans, Guatemalans are worthless, they're ruining our country. I would take this reviewer and put him in that category of those people, and I think maybe my book cuts a little too close to the bone, which says to me that I'm doing my job.

I had a great off-hand compliment from one of the fact checkers at The New Yorker recently. You know how fanatical they have a reputation for being--well, they are. I had a story out a couple of weeks ago called "She Wasn't Soft" set in Santa Barbara, and in it a minor character is described in very precise detail. He's named "Little Drake" after a famous surfing spot, he's got a very specific and unique physical description, and what he does and who he is and how he hangs out in bars and what his job is and so on. The fact-checker wondered if publishing this would discomfort any barfly in Santa Barbara, and I pointed out that I don't know anybody like that, it's purely an invention, every detail. So I was tremendously thrilled by that, because she felt that I was using a real person. But in fact those are entirely invented, every character in there. I don't know my fellow writers, I avoid them. It's pure invention. 

You know, it's great--you get slammed for doing your job well. (Laughter.)

HFR: You said satire takes a punch at someone near, and maybe the reviewer didn't like that. Does satire need to take a punch at everybody, or do you see some people above that, like Candido in this case?

TCB: You can do whatever you want--there are no rules. In this case--I think even in the case of, let's say, The Road to Wellville--I think Will Lightbody is the center of the book, he's the Everyman, he's the schmuck to which everything happens, and I think you can say the same about Candido in this book--he has Will Lightbody's role. And I think you can go back to my other books--he has Hiro's role from East is East. Even in Evelyn Waugh's books, there's usually somebody like poor Tony in A Handful of Dust--he's a schmuck and everything happens to him, but you kind of like him because he's the Everyman character. I think in this case that's Candido. As I said earlier, for my purposes, in writing this fable, I thought that he should be that character, so that I didn't want to satirize him in the same way, let's say, that I satirized Delaney and Kyra and the other members of their community in Arroyo Blanco Estates. 

Although, again, as I said, I didn't want to make a false picture of him either. People don't believe that--that's not credible if he's perfect and he's saintly. I think he's very real. I think all the characters are real. I disagree with the guy who felt that I'm too disdainful to Delaney, because in part I write these books as a cautionary tale for myself as well, to curb my own tendency to say, "Oh yeah, these Mexicans, they're crowding our street corners." I want to say, "Wait a minute, what are you talking about?--these are human beings like you." There's part of me in Delaney, certainly, just as there is part of me in Candido.

HFR: I notice all the characters you're referring to in your previous work are from your novels and not from your short stories, and that's understandable to a large part. In your mind, how do you think of your short stories versus your novels? When you think of one of your short stories--you can choose one--how do you think of it, what does that story mean to you? If it doesn't mean as much especially in terms of the characters, what's notable for you about your short stories?

TCB: Well, they do. More and more the stories are centered on characters, whereas in the beginning they weren't so much, they were more centered on ideas. If I tend to, as we were just talking, refer to the characters in novels, it's because they're developed in much greater length, obviously, so they have more presence to me and to the readers. But I don't really make much distinction between stories and novels--they are all stories for me, whether they're two pages or five or ten or three fifty or five hundred. They're just stories, they just need some more space. And there are little jokes, as you point out, with Bender reappearing--characters do reappear from story to story, like the "Ape Lady in Retirement." I guess talking in larger terms you just think of the characters that are developed in more length.

HFR: For short stories, when you remember writing the story, do you key in on, say, an idea, or some "Aha" moment that crystallizes the story for you where you saw what it was?

TCB: Well you have to discover that "Aha" moment, as you phrase it, and you might not know what that's going to be until you get there. I don't really ever know what's going to happen in a story or a novel--it just has to evolve and work itself out. 

HFR: You never have an outline?

TCB: No.

HFR: You just start with an idea and see where it goes?

TCB: Start with a voice, form the idea, and then follow it--very slowly at first, especially, until you begin to get a sense of what the problems are and how this puzzle might resolve itself, and you don't really know until you get to the end. I had no idea that Kellogg would kill George until about a week before it happened. 

I think that's part of the magic of doing fiction. If I knew how I felt about Proposition 187 and illegal immigration and could encapsulate that in a phrase in the way that so many reviewers seem to want me to do, then maybe I'd write an essay about it. But I don't think it's a problem that admits of such an easy solution, and I'm simply trying to feel my own way out of the problem. And I think I do--I think it is resolved at the end and I think you know where I stand. But it is a problem that some people who accuse me of not thinking deeply can't even imagine the depths of, especially in terms of the biological imperative and the fact that there are five and half billion of us and that is the problem, and that we are an animal species whether we like to admit it or not, and we're in for some big, big, big trouble, real soon. I think that the more population pressure there is, the more racial scapegoating there's going to be, the more tribalism, the more us-against-them--as evidenced in the O.J. verdict the other day.

Except that by the time we print this, no one will remember who O.J. is.

HFR: In the ending of The Tortilla Curtain: when did you know what the ending would be and did you know that it was the ending whenever you wrote it?

TCB: I knew that there would be this cataclysm--after the fire, always the flood. And, of course, it also echoes the end of The Grapes of Wrath. I knew that had to be, particularly in terms of a fable--I think you pull out the stops, and you're going for a statement the reader can grasp in terms of a moral. So I always realized, early on, that there would be this cataclysm at the end which would result in this final line and this final gesture, which is the moral and the emphasis of this fable. 

HFR: Have you ever wondered what Delaney is going to do when he actually comes above the surface and looks Candido in the face?

TCB: I love to think about ten minutes after the novel ends. Candido is going to bring him up onto the roof, they're going to sit there in the rain, and I think if there was another chapter then it would be Delaney's point of view, and he would be reevaluating I think. I think he would be reevaluating. I don't know if it's going to change his behavior back, because in one sense the novel is an anatomy of what racism and scapegoating are. There are two occasions in which Delaney blames a Mexican for having done something that we know he hasn't. And in the second instance, the graffiti instance, he's so far gone at that point when he finally realizes that it wasn't Candido, it was Jack Jr., it doesn't matter--he just forgets about it, it doesn't matter--this guy is evil anyway. I'm just trying to show how that sort of attitude can evolve from a guy who--OK he's a schmuck, but he means well, and he is real, despite what some people may say. He is very, very real. And I think the readers who are coming to the book and responding well to the book realize that these characters may make them feel uncomfortable, but they know these people. He's a liberal, sure, but is he willing to act on it when the time comes? What does he think about when he hits Candido? He thinks first about--is his car damaged, and he thinks about his insurance, then he thinks, "Oh my God, I hit somebody." I think that's very human, sad to say.

HFR: Actually you surprised me with him, because when I first started reading about Delaney, I thought the book would go where he would gradually soften up, become more liberal and start building a bridge towards Candido.

TCB: I think the negative reviews would be not so negative if this were the case. I think that's what they want. I think that's what everyone wants, a kind of icing on the cake, the sit-com, Bunky ran over the garbage can and Sis got a new one before Dad got home and it's over at the end and there's no issues to take, nobody feels bad. I want people to feel bad. I don't want any icing on the cake. I want to rub your nose on it. And again, I'm taking some hits for that. But I stand above it--I don't care. I'm not going to compromise what I do to make some reviewer in New Jersey feel good about himself. That's not my object in life. 

HFR: It seems to me that one of the pitfalls about writing fiction with political undertones is that you as the author can always get out of it by saying, "Well, that's not me, it's my character," and so in a sense it's hard to really take anything seriously from a fiction writer if they can invent anything they want. Is this something you dealt with when writing this book?

TCB: You mean, you want me to state a political position, like how do I feel about 187? This is what some people expect. Some people say, well Steinbeck really is writing a muckraking book. I think things are much more complex today, as I've said, and that was why I wrote the book, to see how it would work out. And I don't always know how I feel. I feel on both sides of the issue--I feel that illegal immigration is wrong, it makes a mockery of legal immigration, it should be stopped. How? I don't know, because we are an animal species, as I emphasized throughout with the parallel to the coyotes and the canyon wrens and everything else, and when times are bad in one area animals tend to migrate. On the other hand, as the book went on, I felt that, despite that, what I object to even more is a kind of racial scapegoating, where, as I've said about three times already, "all Mexicans are bad, they're ruining our society, send 'em back to Mexico." I think ultimately that's how my point of view evolved.

So the good reviews--you mentioned Barbara Kingsolver--I think she is much more committed to a certain cause than I am. I'm not committed to that cause. But that doesn't mean I'm a nihilist, either. I think that some people don't realize that this fiction is more subtle than they take it to be on the surface, because if it's pushing their buttons, they're angry, they're berserk, they think they agree, they disagree--they don't look. And as I said earlier, I think a lot of people, standard daily reviewers, not academic critics, are maybe not capable. They also may not know what else I've done. All they know is my image in the press, and they don't like that. If you look at my ten books, I think you have a real good idea of where I stand on the issues, and what I am and who I am. 

It's interesting--you start out your career, and you don't think, "Well, these are my psychological problems, these are my obsessions, these are the political statements I want to make." It doesn't work that way for me. I'm not a political novelist--despite the fact that this is my most political novel, I am not a political novelist. I don't have a platform that I want to urge you to go for. I think fiction is much more seductive than that. I'm going to seduce you to my point of view. I may make you angry to get to my point of view, and when I begin the book I don't know what that point of view is. I know what my point of view has been from the previous nine books, because I can look at them and see, "Oh, yeah, I see how that adds up, and this is who I am." But it's always evolving, and it's always evolving in different directions.

HFR: How do you think your writing has evolved over the years?

TCB: Well, we've already addressed this to a degree. I think when I began I was more interested in form and concept, over character. The characters were almost incidental to me, especially if you look at some of the stuff in Descent of Man. I think through writing novels I've learned to deal more with character, and I think maybe I'm into more conventional territory in a way with the last couple of books because this is a new tool I have now, to work with characters. The new stories that I've written coming out of The Tortilla Curtain are very much influenced by it--they're much longer, they're realistic and they focus on characters. It's just a new toy for me to play with. I only write half a book of stories at a time because I want to have a fresh approach to the next half of the book, that is after the new novel. So I think you'll probably see me going in a more comic direction again. I just didn't, with this book, want to replicate another Road to Wellville, which would have been easy. But I tried to do something totally different. 

HFR: What's it like to have one of your books made into a movie?

TCB: I loved it. I was thrilled to see it. It's very exciting to see how someone else might interpret something of yours, just in the way that when actors read my stories over the air, it's just very thrilling to see the emphasis they put on different phrases and how they pronounce things and the rhythm of it. On the screen, it's even more exciting because now someone has taken your work and selected a face to go with it--it may not be the face that you envision, but it's kind of thrilling. 

This is the third film made of my work--the first major film, the other two were half-hour films, one of "Greasy Lake" and one of "The Big Garage." All three, I thought, were really superb efforts. I think you could direct some criticism at Alan Parker's film, but I like to, unlike some critics, emphasis what he's done right. And what he's done right is capture the spirit of the book. If he's had a problem it's maybe taking a book as rich, complex and as long--it is 500 pages, after all--and trying to work it into the two hour format. Maybe there are instances where he has some exposition that isn't necessary, like with Charlie Ossining and his aunt, and what their relationship is, and how she had sort of adopted him. We don't need to know that, maybe, for a two-hour movie. So sure, there are some rough edges, but I thought overall it was great. I thought it was very unique. Most films--in fact, the trailers to most films that I see--I've seen the film a hundred times already, I know exactly what's going to happen, they're totally predictable and formulaic. With The Road to Wellville, or, I think, hopefully, any of my stories, you have no idea in the first paragraph what's going to happen or where it's going to go. It's not formulaic, it's original. I think that was true of Alan's picture. If you hadn't read the book, you went into the theatre, within the first ten minutes you have no idea where this is going or what this is. I think we need more of that in the film industry, and less formula.

HFR: When you think about that book now, your book, do you think about the characters and the locations in terms of the original conception in your mind, or in terms of what the movie showed?

TCB: Choice A. 

And I think that's why many people didn't care for the movie. I think if a popular book is made into a movie, it doesn't go down well with the public, because the director really is invading their turf, because they each have directed it in their minds and have their own idea what it looks like and what the characters look like and how the scenes go and so on, and so he's now codified it in one way. Better, I think, a film of a book or a script that no one knows--it's just a film. I think it's hard to make films from books. 

HFR: What about films from books that you didn't write, say, a book you had read once and then later you saw the film, which image prevails in that case for you?

TCB: You'd have to be specific--I think every situation would be different.

HFR: Say, The World According to Garp.

TCB: I think that the reading experience of that for me was so strong that the movie really was secondary to it. 

But take A Clockwork Orange: I think the movie is as brilliant a work of art as the book. They are each amazing. 

So I think that's specific to the book. And to the director, and how great the director is. Again, I felt very lucky that it was Alan Parker who made the film. I haven't had a bad experience yet, although, of course, I've never worked with Hollywood and I never will. Alan wrote the script, I had nothing to do with it. But still, if that happened and it was a movie that I felt was really bad I might change my mind about letting people have access to the work. You don't have to sell them the film rights. I do because, number one, I think it's a sort of marketing tool for the book. Now obviously Wellville has been my most popular book in terms of sales, so far, and the movie had a lot to do with that, in paperback version. And, of course, they pay you money, and money is handy to have in this society. 

HFR: Is there going to be a movie in the works for The Tortilla Curtain

TCB: I don't know. There are two very prominent people in the industry vying for rights to it. No one has made the sort of offer yet that I think is appropriate, so as of October 5th, 1995, I don't know. I hope so. But I hope, again, in the wrong hands this could really go wrong. Because of the wide variety of reactions to the book, and the wide, bizarre interpretations--one review will say, "This man is a nihilist, he has no moral center, he should be shot, he's taking advantage of a painful situation," and the next one will say, "Here is Boyle once again on his moral high horse shoving his morality down our throats." I just can't help but wonder how we can get two such radically different readings. I think this one will be real tricky, and I hope that a good filmmaker will do it, if it's ever done. It's not your typical Hollywood fare. It could be very moving and very compassionate and it could really be thought provoking. On the other hand, it could be soppy and sentimentalized . . . .

HFR: It could be Bonfire of the Vanities?

TCB: Actually I didn't think Bonfire of the Vanities was that bad of a movie. I don't think it approached the book. I saw it when it came out; I disagreed with most of the so-called critics, who couldn't make a work of art if they had the next fifty centuries to do it. I thought it was pretty good, and pretty true to the spirit of the book. I then read the wonderful, wonderful book by Julie Salamon, The Devil's Candy, about the making of the film. Then I went back and saw it again with a whole new view of it in terms of what it took to make it. I wouldn't criticize that one necessarily. There are some dreary movies made of books though that I think hurt the book, ultimately.  What's Margaret Atwood's futuristic book about the women?

HFR: The Handmaid's Tale

TCB: The Handmaid's Tale. That movie was so bad and so humorless and so wrong, that I think if you hadn't read the book, you wouldn't want to. It can be dangerous. With a thing like The Tortilla Curtain, Hollywood could really, really blow it with this one, because they tend to want to paint in broad strokes, they don't want to provoke people, they want people to buy popcorn and go to the movies. They want people to feel good. So, they would probably, I think, tend to sentimentalize Candido's story and, maybe make that last sentence a great big moment of happiness and joy and everyone comes back together again, where in my version it's just the tiniest moment that might lead to something better and might not. 

HFR: I'd like to back away from the book a little and ask some questions that maybe you're not going to get from people who have to write for the next day's newspaper.

TCB: Good, because that's why I enjoy interviews like this one.

HFR: Are you a walking writer? Do you think about writing when you're walking around?

TCB: Yep. I certainly do. Sometimes consciously, sometimes just let it seep down and ferment deep in the unconscious. Also, sometimes I whisper the names of my characters just before I fall asleep, as well. (Laughs.)

HFR: Cynthia Ozick--maybe not your typical writer, but--she said, "If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage." Does courage play any part in your writing? Or has it?

TCB: Hmm. That's an interesting quote. I think it's more an obsessive-compulsive disorder, to tell you the truth. You have to be really cocksure of what you're doing, and really have faith in your own vision, that's for sure, because no one really gives you encouragement, or very few give you encouragement. People don't like to see others succeed, somehow. Right from the beginning I wanted to be a writer and people said, "You're crazy, how can you be a writer, writers don't make any money." Then I wanted to be a professor and they said, "There are no jobs for professors, you can't be a professor." And I always felt, fuck it, you know, if there's one job for a professor it'll be mine. If one person's going to be a writer, it'll be me. So I guess, in that way, you need to fairly sure of yourself. I don't know what Ozick meant exactly, but again, with five and a half billion people all clamoring for attention why should we give you attention? Why should we care what you write? So that's all part of the process too, in communicating what you write, in making it into a work of art, making it seductive and attractive so that you can communicate to an audience.

HFR: Did you ever go through a period where the desire to be a writer and a successful writer got in the way of your writing?

TCB: Yes. The first five years of my career, and they went like this. Before Iowa--my apprenticeship as I like to say. I discovered that I liked creative writing, and could do it, in my junior year in college. And, for the next three or four years my apprenticeship consisted of backing people into dark corners at three or four a.m. in bars, stone drunk, and telling them that I was going to be a writer. Because I wanted fame and glory. After awhile I figured, well gee, maybe I ought to write something. From then on it really hasn't come into play at all, despite what, again, some of my enemies may think. I do exactly as I please, I do my work as best I can, and then I realized starting in '87 with World's End, that there's another job involved with this, and that is going out and pointing out to people that your work exists. It is true, and I think it will continue to be true, that great writers like Ray Carver or Don DeLillo who do not like going before the public, will emerge anyway. On the other hand, it's a real catfight out there. I'm not concerned about other literary writers so much. I think the good literary writers will get their audience, I'm glad they get they're audience, I admire them, I like them. I'm concerned about all the genre crap that's out there. I just want to, by going before the public and seducing them in a public arena, to let them know that literature's OK. It's self-serving, yes. It's my literature I want them to know about. But I want to get that in there and wedge it in amongst all the vampire books and the rest of the crap that they read--I don't understand why they shouldn't read mine as well. The story is certainly as good, the language is better, and there's sure a hell of a lot more to it in terms of its structure than genre writing. That's one of my missions, which has caused some of the press to say that I'm the savior of literature, or the next best thing that literature has, or whatever. And I've been happy to take that mantle on. Sure. And of course this provokes my enemies too, niggling reviewers, wondering, "Well, gee, why aren't I the savior of literature?" Well, maybe because you haven't written any books yet, you know? Give me a break.

HFR: Were you always so confident that writing is something you would be successful at?

TCB: Yes. Because if you're not, then you don't do it.

This is not to say that I don't have my doubts, daily, about a given project. If you don't, then maybe you just reproduce something you've done before. Maybe you're just going through the motions. I think there's a lot of--I don't know if I want to call it torment exactly--a lot of turmoil involved in resolving all the problems of a given work, whether it be a story or a novel or whatever, and maybe that involves doubt. I've never gotten to the middle of a book without doubting that I could finish it, that despite the evidence I had ever finished any other books, or, even, despite even larger evidence that anyone had ever been able to write a novel, cause it's so impossible. So, in those terms, yes. But as far as the gift I've been given and what I plan to do with it and what I have done with it and what I plan to do with it in the future if the great white doesn't get me, I have unshakeable confidence. I know exactly what I'm doing in a book like The Tortilla Curtain or The Road To Wellville or Without A Hero and I hope that that will play over into the new book that I'll writing in December.

HFR: Is writing still as much fun for you as it was when you began? Is it ever a chore?

TCB: It's always a chore, every day of my life. I think, if anything, it's less of a chore now, though, because it tends to absorb my entire life, it's what I do. And I know I have to do it. There are fewer distractions in my life than there were when I first began writing. 

HFR: Is it ever difficult to sit down in the morning?

TCB: Every morning it's difficult to sit down. Except when you get toward the end--then you're eager to sit down. But that's only a small percentage of the time that you spend writing.

HFR: Your imagination stands out in your work, especially your early work. Do you do anything to pump your imagination, to prime your imagination?

TCB: It's just a gift. We all have different gifts as writers, and you can try to develop them. As I said, I've try to develop my knowledge of characters and my ability to create characters and work with characters, which I didn't do in the beginning, which many writers have as a gift, like Ann Beattie, who is so great at creating characters. It's just a gift of being able to picture things in words. I don't think it's something that you develop, except that you develop it by writing and reading.

HFR: Let me give you an example: your story "Bloodfall" in Descent of Man. I love that story for the turn of point of view, for the idea of the story, of it raining blood. . . . 

TCB: It begins as an image. That story began as image, almost a dream image, an image of blood in the snow that I sort of dreamed. Most of the stories don't come from dreams, most of the stories come from, you have an experience, someone tells you something, and you write down a line, a story about. . . that's it. And then you think how that might go when it's time to write that story. This one was unusual in that it began with just a single image. I guess it's the only allegory I've ever done. It just. . . happened, and I can't really say how.

HFR: If you wrote that story today, would it end the same, where after raining blood it rains shit?

TCB: If I were to do another version of that story it would probably be longer, and you would get into the characters more. That would be the only difference.

A number of people have asked me on this tour, and at this conference on my work, if I would at some point go back and revise the old stories and change them and so on to make my life's work complete. I think it is complete, and I would never change anything. That's the way it was, that's an historical fact, that's who was then, that's what I emphasized, that's what I wrote. I don't worry about what I've done--I worry about what I'm going to do.

HFR: One of the things that stands out for me in your stories are small, little nuggets that lend authenticity to the story. For example, in "Big Game" you drop in the "Ngorongoro Crater," and later you have "Bender's .375 Holland & Holland, the lady's Winchester .458 Mag and his own stopper--the .600 Nitro." What type of research do you do for your stories?

TCB: You look the stuff up! What kind of guns would they use to shoot elephants? How do I choose the Nitro? Because it's the funniest--it has the best name. What a great name--"the .600 Nitro!" I mean, you could probably shoot this building down with a .600 Nitro. I don't know what it is--I don't care. It's accurate--they do use it to kill elephants. . . . But I could have chosen several other guns, maybe ones that are more modern, for instance. But I like the name. I think it has to be a real gun, because there's some gun nut reading the story who will write a letter to the magazine and say, "this is inaccurate, Boyle doesn't know what he's talking about." And you are casting a spell on the audience that suspends their disbelief. If you pull them out of the story because there's something factually inaccurate then they're going to mistrust the whole spell that you're casting. . . .you do have to be accurate with those details. 

HFR: What about a story like "Beat"--how do you get in the mood of that story? Do you do certain reading or listen to certain music?

TCB: Well. . . . I guess I probably just read a book by Kerouac at the point. I think I read a biography too, to get some of the details, and just let it fly. I'd love to read that one in public sometime. I never have. I think it would be really fun. You'd have to be really on your mark though, because of the speed of the language. It might be exhausting for the audience, but I'd like to try it sometime.

HFR: For The Tortilla Curtain, did you go stand down in Topanga Canyon next to some little trickling stream and see the garbage strewn about, or does that come out of your head?

TCB: I lived right there, and hiked in there all the time. I know it intimately, and people are camping there. So that was easy to see.

HFR: How is literature faring in today's world given the domination of television, movies, the Internet and everything else clamoring for people's attention to which they seem to want to give it?

TCB: I think it's harder. This addresses what we were talking about earlier, in terms of my role of being out before the public. I do feel I need to wave some flags and bring some attention to literature, and try to get literature back in the position of selling as well as detective books or vampire books or whatever. 

I think it'll always be necessary, because it's a type of entertainment that is very special, that nothing else can give you. I think that the Internet is great. . . . People were wondering about the telephone and how it had superceded the writing of letters, that people didn't write anymore. Now the computer has superceded the telephone and people do write to each other again. We can't predict what's going to happen. That's got to be good, people writing to each other again. One of my students is in a workshop just like the one he takes from he. He's made some good friends, they workshop their stories. It's great. 

I do feel that books and literature will be around--as long as we're around! I have less optimism about that.

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© Copyright David Appell

Reprinted by permission of the author, 16 May 2001.

--Sandye Utley, Cincinnati, Ohio

Last Page Update: 16 May 2001