By Alan Gottlieb
(an edited version of this piece appeared in the October 22, 2000 issue of The Denver Post)
Q: The role of freak accidents in Friend of the Earth ...
TCB: There is a kind of voodoo involved. If God doesn't exist and you don't have guardian angels and you have no purpose on earth, then it is a mighty mean place which is ruled by accident, which has kinda been my unfortunate, bleak outlook since I discovered that when I was probably age 17. It does play a big role in this book, but I think it belongs here because it just points out that we are at the mercy of nature and we are animals living in nature, no matter how we might protest to the contrary or feel that we are in control of the situation.
Q: Is there something in particular that happened at age 17 that led you to that conclusion?
TCB: Well, I think, I was raised Roman Catholic in a largely Jewish community and most of my friends who were either Jews or atheists. With their influence and then studying science in school, I told my mother that I wasn't going to go to church and I didn't believe anymore. And I guess through most of my life I've been trying to find something to believe in because it is so depressing. And science seemsto fill the bill for most people these days, but science is ultimately voodoo too, because what we want is purpose and it doesn't offer us any purpose. It doesn't give any final solutions or purpose to what we're doing here. For me, I guess I just have a very Darwinian view of our species. That is about the best explanation I can find. That seems to me very reasonable and true. I'd like to have a lot better news for everybody, but I don't.
I like that people are discussing on the web page whether FOE is pro or anti-environmentalist. It's great. I am an environmentalist and I believe in it. But on the other hand, environmentalism is very elitist. I write these books to sort out my own feelings and also as a corrective to my own behavior. As is the case with TheTortilla Curtain. As Ty says, what is an environmentalist? Well, that's somebody who already has his mountain cabin. When I moved into the place I live now with my wife, a very nice neighborhood, I said, "Well, you know, now I'm against everything. "
To answer those people on the web page, I think it's for them to decide. It's certainly not anti-environmentalist. I believe in being an environmentalist, in trying to preserve the other species. But I'm also kind of hopeless, as well. I think it doesn't matter anymore. I don't want people to read the book and be so depressed they feel, 'all right, let's throw our garbage in the street,' you know, 'let's pollute all the more.' I don't have a message, I'm not running for office, I don't have a platform, I'm not supplying answers. I'm an artist. I'm creating entertainment, part of my life's work, and I'm writing it in order to see how I feel. I don't know how I feel about anything unless I write about it. It's a way of deep thought, somehow, for me.
Q: When you conclude the last chapter with, "what did all this accomplish? Not a thing," you seem to inject a note of hope after that with "and I'm a human being.."It left me feeling bleak, that all the suffering etc amounted to nothing, and earlier, you talk about the piggish way we live,but if it doesn't make a difference...
TCB: I can't interpret my own books, because it's not fair, I think. It belongs to the audience. That's why the "is he for or against"-- that's for them to decide. Ty says, what has he accomplished, absolutely nothing. And yet he says, but I would do it all over again. It's about a character, somebody a lot like me, probably a lot like you. And the end result of environmentalism is misanthropy; man is the enemy. To be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people. But Ty does understand something about himself, kind of in an epiphany at the end. I'm a human being. Yep. That's a dog and I'm a human being. It was kind of a magical moment for me. I don't know what's gonna happen. It's art. It works. It invents itself as you go along, and your mind is unconscious but leaping and leaping ahead and what does it mean and how do you conclude it? I was really happy when he discovered that about himself. I felt that it's a mutedly happy ending, you know? It's a love story on one level. The guy makes a discovery about himself.
Q: The stuff about how people live now, how Americans live. You can take stock. But then to think, aggh, maybe it doesn't matter, even if you change your own behavior, it'll make you feel better, but it's not going to save the world.
TCB: That is the bleakest view of it. I think at least we're aware. I worry about everything. I'm aware of everything. Maybe I read the newspapers too much, you know? I was trying to figure out why people are responding so well to this book. Truly, we've got about 30 reviews in now and there's not a negative word amongst them. It is a misanthropic book, to degree, it's deeply pessimistic and maybe even devastatingly depressing. Yet, on the other hand, there is a liveliness to it and an entertainment value and fun. Maybe what it is ? I just discovered this yesterday, by the way, on a talk-radio show maybe it's that everybody feels as I do; guilty on the one hand and yet, I'm here. I've got to draw a breath, I've got to eat a sandwich. Wanting to do the right thing, but then being frustrated by the doomsayers. I mean, every environmental writer screams doom. We're interested in nature because we're part of it and we love it. It's just fascinating that there are other creatures. The unconscious moments that Ty has occasionally, like when he's naked in the wilderness. When you're not thinking about your job or your career or your life or God or anything else; you're just not thinking. You're just experiencing. We all want that. And yet, the narrator comes over the nature show and says, yes, and all these glorious creatures will be dead in five years. Everybody just rebels against that. There's nothing but bad news. And maybe my approach is honest but subversive in some way. And maybe that's how people want to view it. Are you going to laugh, are you going to cry, what are you going to do?
Q; Sierra in some ways is the heroine, because if you're going to take it to its logical extreme, that's how you have to live. Or admit that you're not going to live that way and make whatever accommodations you're going to make.
TCB: The real model for her, Julia Hill, who went up in the tree while I was writing the book, and came down from the tree after I'd finished it, was an inspiration. She brought attention to a grave problem. I have a lot of sympathy for eco-sabotage and for the radical part of the environmental movement in drawing attention to these problems. I like extremes. Extreme cases. She (Sierra) is an extreme case, but she becomes a martyr, and the question is, has the movement used her? Has her father used her? Ty also is an extreme in that he becomes the loose cannon. Is he environmentally committed, or is it a war? Is he just out for revenge? Is it anger? Is it beyond control? It makes the characters more human than if theyíre just kind of stick figures in some program I have. I don't know what theyíre going to do or how they're going to behave. But it sure is fun to justify it after it's written. I'm glad I don't have to interpret the books and tell about my deep meaning, which is certainly there and I certainly have my own interpretation, but I don't think it's fair for me to say what that is.
Q: But it sure is fun to talk about it with the person who created it because you can have your own ideas, and people may disagree with your own interpretation.
TCB: Yeah, well you just told me the debate on the web page--is he for or against?
Q: So have you gotten angry reaction at other times when you've gone out there after publishing a book?
TCB: The Tortilla Curtain, they ripped the flesh from my bones. I was reviled from one end of the country to the other. Insulted, called human garbage on a call-in show in S.F. (I thanked her for the compliment, by the way), irritating everybody. The right-wingers said, "Oh, you're too soft on immigration. These Mexicans..." And the liberals said, "He's an apostate. We're not really that bad." But the only people who liked it were the Mexicans themselves. Someone's calling attention to the problem. My justification has been the book is an acknowledged American classic after only five years in print. It's got double any of my other books in print. It's read all over the world. Every California school child reads it in the 11th grade. My own son had to read it in his school. It's had a huge impact around the world. And yet at the time, I felt terrible. I was skulking through Denver like this (holds jacket up over his face) defending myself. I'd sit down with a journalist, they'd say, "So what do you think about that review of so and so?" What do I think about it? I think it's unfair and I don't like it. It was a hot-button topic, a yes or no topic. And to an extent, so is this one. And I guess it provoked a lot of people. And really, it wasn't that much fun being attacked, but I guess I really did my job well. At least it got people excited.
Q: And it ends with much more an element of hope than FOE.
TCB: Yes, it does. There's help for a larger number of people. At the end of FOE, the hero and heroine have come to an accommodation with themselves and the earth. I think in the end of TC, I don't expect that Delaney and Kyra will change their behavior radically. Maybe slightly. But yet there is a gesture of hope for everybody. For all of us. I loved where it ended. Many of my books have codas. That one ended in a place where I could have gone on a great deal more. It ends in a place where what happens in the next second is really important. I thought that was just where I wanted it to end. So that you can supply the ending yourself.
Q: I think you really hit some deep truths in that book...
TCB: I'm really glad you feel that way. I haven't heard from a lot of Mexican writers, but I have heard from some, and they feel that I have captured some deep truths about their culture. Which is, to my mind, an accomplishment I should be proud of because I put it as a challenge to myself to try to enter the minds of someone from another culture, another sex, and see if I can do that, see if I can humanize them, make their problems real and vital for us, for the readers, most of whom are going to be people like me.
Q: It seems that you do a fair amount of research, yet it's unobtrusive. How do you do that?
TCB: I know what you mean. I don't know, Alan, each writer works in a different way and my way, I guess, is to dream something or imagine something, to exercise my imagination in a given story. So the research for me is not all important. It's necessary to kick-start a story. I'm also not the journalist type of fiction writer, like Tom Wolfe, for instance, or James Michener, who feel they must go and interview the fireman and join the society to protect the earth and meet everybody and write little capsule summaries. I don't feel comfortable doing that. It might be interesting for me sometime to do it, but I just don't like to do it; I don't feel comfortable with it. I'd like to imagine them, invent them. A journalist, his job is to represent the truth as best he can or what he feels is the truth. My job is to seduce you into my world view and to make it seem real. So the details have to be accurate, otherwise it takes you out of that picture and ruins it. Beyond that, though, it is fiction. I have no need to be exact, beyond convincing you that this is true. My first book, Water Music, is set in Africa.I have never been to Africa. And yet at almost every reading I give, even to this day, someone from the Peace Corps will pop up and say they passed that book around Africa, they really loved it and I got it exactly right. I love that because I invented it. Thatís what fiction is; itís a kind of testimony to the power of the imagination, to invent it and for the imagination of the reader to decode it and reinvent it.
Q: But imagination can also spin wildly into stuff that isn't even remotely close to what anyone would consider reality.
TCB: I'm lucky, just lucky. I don't know how to explain it other than that. But I certainly know what you're talking about when writers get bogged down in their research, because they're so involved in the subject they want to show it off. And maybe the research in certain areas takes precedence over the story. I've never been that way. I just want to tell a story or make a story out of some information. It could be an experience I've had, something you tell me, something I read in the paper. It could be everything I ever wanted to know about the beginning of the cereal industry, you know? I find joy in that material. I find it absurd and crazy and I want to communicate that to us, to everybody who reads it. But not in a way that is going to be a tome or ponderous or an essay or a lecture. In a way that catches you by the nose and drags you along and by the time you wake up, you've got it all. It's all there it's done, you're not drawn out of the story at all. The story takes primacy. It seems like an obvious thing to say, that the story takes primacy. But many writers aren't able to remember that or to make that happen.
Q: Or flat out don't believe it.
TCB: There always are literary fashions and, in some quarters, it is fashionable to write stories that move by indirection. That move, for instance, by a shared image from scene to scene rather than plot. Some would say this is the post-modernist way and is the best way. I don't say what is the best or worst, or better or worse. There are different approaches, different ways. My approach has always been to tell a story. Literature is entertainment. One of the reasons I always go out on the road and entertain audiences, and I teach students, is to try to remind them that literature is entertainment at root. It's fun, it's not some assignment in a textbook. You don't need a critic to mediate between the audience and the work of art. It should speak directly to anybody. That's my war, and I guess I'm losing it.
I'm often criticized for this [his theatrical readings]. People think that I'm demystifying literature, that it's holy or sacrosanct in some way. I don't agree. Like the plastic arts, like music, even the most complex and beautiful music, it still is an entertainment.
Q: You're extremely prolific. What is the source of all this? Where do the ideas come from...and you seem to write in a very consistent voice. Have you ever experimented with really different voices?
TCB: I'm really pleased that you can pick up any of my books and know it's mine without seeing the title. Every writer develops his own style and his own voice, and that's my voice. I do experiment with other voices. By having different narrators or different points of view especially. It's nothing that I would work out abstractly. It's not that mystical a process. Not that abstract a process. It just happens, it evolves, if you're lucky, over time. Where do I get the ideas from? Again, I feel a story is an exercise of the imagination. You don't write what you know; you write what you don't know so you can discover something. So, for me, instead of feeling circumscribed by my own experience, as many writers are, I've always felt I can write about anything that interests me, anything I've learned, anything that amazes me. My title story out of Descent of Man, for instance, came out of a fact that I had discovered in the mid 70s when I was a student at Iowa that apes can use language as we do. Our justification for our dominance over all the other animals, and killing them and herding them into cages and torturing them, etc., is that we are superior and the proof of that is our ability to use language. Well, that was when they were first doing experiments with gorillas and chimps with computer boards, where they could make sentences and so forth. I wondered, well, what does that mean? So I write a story to find out. And so, I'm always looking for anything that's fascinating. Look how much our lives have changed due to technology in the last 30 years. I have to respond to that. I just had a story in Esquire about Internet voyeurism, you know, come and see the sexy co-eds 24 hours a day with the camera in the toilet, etc. Why? What does that mean? So I write a story to find out. So there are infinite ideas, you know? Infinite. Whatever interests me, I'm going to chase it down. And, of course, they all recycle. All the ideas keep recycling and become my themes of my whole life's work. As I said earlier, this book comes directly out of The Tortilla Curtain.
Q: "Unfriendly Skies,"which appeared recently in The New Yorker, takes an everyday experience, one to which we can all relate -- flying on a plane-- then has something over the top happen. You do this quite often.
TCB: I suppose, if you stand back, you could say, well, that's a comic method that I employ and other writers employ. It's a kind of hyperbole or exaggeration. It's taking a standard situation or a disturbing situation to its farthest conclusion, it's wildest possible or most surprising thing that could happen. It makes for good comedy and, in fact, I don't know if you've noticed, but I do have different approaches to each book. They are comic sometimes almost by definition and, yet, I will also write stories that you laugh aloud over as well. What I've been working toward, I think, is not so much just a satire, which is kind of limited, but a mode that is not really satiric exactly, or ironic exactly, but also can have a heart and can turn on you and surprise you and be genuinely passionate and moving, as well, all in one mix. So that the reader is always very uneasy as to are we in a comic universe in which everything will work out OK and I don't have to worry, or is something really dark going on here that is going to be disturbing to me? So you laugh, but the laugh sticks in your throat. I think I tried to achieve that in TC as well as this one. Though TC is a different kind of humor than FOE, which I guess is more absurdist really. The other one is closer to reality.
Q: Your approach to satire. You skewer some of your characters, but in a certain gentle way, so that you never--even someone as infuriating as Delaney, he's got some sympathetic qualities. You're a little gentler than a lot of satirists.
TCB: It's not conscious.
Each of these characters is part of me. And part of me says, 'close the
gates, keep them out,' and there is a corrective part of me that says 'how
can you say that? How can you put yourself above anybody, ever?'
So, yes,the characters are all reflections of myself in one way or another,
even Candido, who like his namesake in Voltaire, just has things happen
to him. You know, a world of accidents. He's not perfect, he's not the
sappy hero of a polemic. He comes from a macho society, he's disturbed
the fact that his wife is working and he's not. He beats her up.
Q: He also whines about his fate..pinche vida.
TCB: He whines about his fate. But he also has admirable qualities, in that, like all of us, he wants to work. He wants to build what we consider the American dream. He wants the house. He wants the basic accoutrements of life.
But there are some bad guys. There
are some bad guys who get skewered. In Big Game, the Benders, the real
estate people get their comeuppance at the hands of Bessie Bee, the elephant.
And I was really pleased to be able to write it from Bessie Bee's point
of view, if only briefly. But I guess I'm not as nasty as some satirists
are. And I don't know why that is. It's so hard to explain your method,
you know? Because your method is 95 percent natural. It's what shakes out.
You move as an artist, you move toward your strengths. I admire many, many
writers, and many of them do things very well that I don't do so well and,
hopefully, I do things very well that they don't do so well. It's a mix,
and everybody gradually plays toward his or her strengths. Maybe that's
where the voice comes from, and why you can have a distinctive voice and
why you can pick up any of my books and say 'oh, yeah, that's Boyle.' I
couldn't identify exactly what that is. But I'm glad to have it, because
you do want to be distinctive. It's like music, pop music. Many songs sound
alike. Then there people that the minute you hear the arrangement or their
voice, you know exactly who it is, no
matter what song theyíre doing.
Q: Maybe that's what I was getting at, talking about trying out other voices. Like Russell Banks, ranging from a street kid in "Rule of the Bone" to "Cloudsplitter" and its stilted 19th century language.
TCB: It's very difficult to do a historical novel. My historical novels are almost anti-historical novels or post-modern historical novels. It's not the history, I like the history, but it's not the history that overwhelms me. I don't want to recreate a historical situation as much as have fun with it as it reflects on today; as we were talking about the Kellogg example of Riven Rock. I think the biggest problem with the historical novel, the traditional one and why it doesn't work is because the author wants to replicate a moment in history because he loves it. Well, how did they talk then? Take the film Gladiator. Have you seen it? It's heroes and blood and guts and all that. But they talk in the only way they could possibly talk in such a movie, which is this kind of pseudo-Elizabethan, mock-Shakespearean, what the hell else could they talk, know what I mean? And it makes a mockery of it. At the end, I burst out laughing. I think novelists have the same problem. How do you have them talk? I solved the problem in Water Music by writing it as an anti-historical historical novel. It's narrated by a wise guy from the 20th century, making fun of the genre, but also using it to tell the story. So that, for instance, of the 104 chapters, there's one called "And Mama, Can This Really be the End?" That sort of thing. You have to stay true to the era and know the era perfectly in your research, but that doesn't mean you have to be a slave to it. It depends on your approach. All the approaches are different in all my historical novels.
Q: In both "Riven Rock" and "Road to Wellville", you're writing from a contemporary point of view.
TCB: Absolutely. That's why, again, the distinction I'm trying to make. The traditional historical novel is often dull. The author is perhaps too true to the historical moment and so loses the story in the process. Some novels get lost in the research because the author loves the research and wants to bring it forward and entertain you with it. But maybe it's not as entertaining as the research in context or in the service of a story. Of course, it's easy for me to sound so articulate about all of this in hindsight.
By the way, I only know how my books are linked and what I'm doing because of going on tour and talking to journalists and scholars and wondering about it. I'm just pursuing something that I don't know what it is. It's just my life to find out what comes next.
Q: What's next?
TCB: After the Plague, 16 new stories. It comes out next year at this time. The stories I'm pretty pleased with. I just did my collected stories two years ago and I did not write a preface to it because I view it, if the gods grace me with a long life, as Vol. 1. I'll write the preface to Vol. II. I wanted to sort of demonstrate to the critics that I'm only half-way done yet and here's a really solid collection following up.
The novel I've just begun, and I don't know whether it'll be successful or not, is a non-comic novel, which I've never done before. And it's told in the voices, the very, very close third-person voices, of three different characters. It's set in hippie times. I've gone 25 years in the future; I'm going 25 to 30 years ago, as an outgrowth of this book. A different approach, but it's an outgrowth of it. That was the last time there was a back to the earth movement. People were extremely suspicious of technology and trying to draw back from it. I wanted to remember that and see how it plays out in the light of what I know now, about the environment. Further, I spent some time in Alaska this summer. In Alaska, until 1973, you could homestead. You could live like Daniel Boone. You could go there, go into the woods, find a nice place by a river, cut trees down, build your own home, live off the land; trap animals, sell their fur, prospect for gold, grow your garden, and live exactly as people lived for hundreds of years. What about that? Is that possible, is that conceivable? It seems to me that even then it was not. But I want to find out. I really want to find out, because it intrigues me. There's a great book by Billy..Billy...Four Seasons North by Billie Whitelaw, I believe her name is. She and her husband went up there and they were sort of old hippies. I think she did this in the 70s. Went to the Brooks Range and lived there for a year. Built their cabin, lived off the land. And she makes it sound very magical. And she's very connected with the earth. And yet she makes no qualms about the fact that they have to live the hunter-gatherer existence; they have to shoot their moose and kill things without mercy because they must survive.
Q: A more prepared version of Ty and Andrea.
TCB: Exactly. She makes a point of warning her readers, "Don't try this." Because really, we can never go back from the population we have and the civilization we have. To exist as she did, you'd need 20 square miles of virgin territory full of critters. There are no more critters. There's nothing left. If you read E.O. Wilson or you know that what is operating here is island biogeography. What operated in evolutionary terms on islands operates throughout the continents now because in essence animals only live in islands. The rest is shopping malls and condos, you know? So I wondered how it would be to go back to that time, with that hippie ethic, the back to the land ethic, in Alaska. Would it work? Especially starting a new community, in the commune movement. And, by the way, I'm doing research on the period. It's wonderful. I think it was always too close to write about before. If you notice, World's End only goes to 1968. But now, I've read a couple of books written in the period, The Hippie Trip, written by a sociology professor, and he went out like a sociologist and explained to the world who are hippies, what is their tribe, what do they want, what do they eat, what is their sex life like, what are their ideals. And it's like ancient history. So I think the time is right. I'm kind of excited about it.
Q: Why is it not a comic novel?
TCB: I don't know. I just have no idea why it's not a comic a novel, and it's kind of difficult. I've been having a difficult time. It started writing itself , but then, as always happens because you have to figure out what does it mean and where is it going, suddenly I've come into some more difficult parts of it and I think I'm seeing clear of it and getting some structure and so on, with maybe a quarter of the book done and finished. Now I'm here and I've forgotten entirely about it. There's no conceivable way of working on the road. If you want to talk about craft, another thing, for me, anyway, I must have no worries, no problems, and have a regular period of many, many, many consecutive months of every single day to let it grow. Anything that intrudes on it destroys that. I would prefer not to interrupt books by being on the road. But because I have to do this so often, the truth is the last several books have been interrupted by being on the road, and I feel that if I've been able to do it before hopefully I can do it again.
Q: Does the interruption change the books?
TCB: Boy, I don't know. I hope not. I hope--I like to think I can take up where I left off because that's the way life is going to be from now on. Riven Rock I believe I wrote straight through, with only a minor interruption, going to Germany for two weeks or something. A tour like this is a major interruption. I will be out of sync with my work habits till Thanksgiving. It's tough. I also feel it's necessary. Although I may be wrong. After all, there is not a control group here. There's not a me who did not go out before the public. Maybe I would have been just as successful if I was Thomas Pynchon. I doubt it. But maybe. Unlike most writers of my generation, all my books have always been in print. And unlike most literary writers, I have a strong following and do very well. I don't know whether it's because I really enjoy doing publicity and being on stage and the word gets around, or it's simply the work itself. I don't know. But I'm not going to take the chance and, furthermore, I enjoy doing it, and I also, and this may sound corny, but my publishers around the world have a big investment in me and I'm loyal to them. I have a long relationship with them. I want the books to succeed and they feel that going out and shaking a leg onstage helps. I'd hate to have to go back to the beginning again. I'm very pleased and gratified that the fans are so supportive worldwide.
Q: When you talked about Alaska and your new novel, I wondered whether you had read Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild?"
TCB: Read it twice and read it again as research into this book. The guy who went out into the wilderness in that way is a very interesting type for me. Because he was sort of cocksure that nature would support it. I suppose this little bit where Ty and Andrea go out and strip naked in the woods is the same kind of thinking to a degree. I guess that's what I'm concerned with in the book I'm working on now. Is nature nurturing? Can it support us? Will it, does it? Or is it purely harsh and will we be wiped out because of our own excesses?
Q: And the answer to that, I suppose, depends on your own theology or lack thereof.
TCB: I would love to believe in something and I'm struggling towards it, I think. Maybe that's another reason people feel interested in these books I've been writing in recent years. I think they are an honest reflection of my searching for some answers. I don't have answers. I don't have the message. I'm not a guru. I'm just working it out on my own terms. In this forum, which is the only forum I know. That's why I don't work for the movies. I don't write book reviews if I can avoid it. I don't write essays. I just want to do this.
© Copyright 2000 Alan Gottlieb. Used with permission of the author
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Last Page Update: 18 February 2001