Interviewed at his home in Los Angeles,
CA. Sandye's note: My special thanks to Jef Tombeur for allowing
us to share this previously unpublished interview.
Jef Tombeur: Let's speak about your parents... What was the image you had of your parents at the time you wrote your first books and what do you make of it now ?
T. Coraghessan Boyle: I suppose you refer to my teenage years, which would be, as I'm a very young man, about six or seven years ago... My parents were working class people, uneducated, my mother went through high school, my father went up to the eighth grade, he was in an orphanage. He had not much to say to me, but he was always present, he supported me in anything I wanted to do, both of them did. Unfortunately, both died young...
I was 24 when my father died, and probably 32 or so when my mother died.
Like many American teenagers, I was very rebellious and very disdainful of them... And I regret that now.
JT: A few things have been said about them and the story goes that you just broke away from your family.
TCB: Like many American teenagers, I was really rebellious, very disdainful of them. And I regret that now because when you get older you regret this, you see your parents in a different way. I think it's necessary to feel like that in order to get away from the family and get off on your own. But then you come back and have a rapprochement with your parents. I never really got to do that...Because they died. I'd love to be able to know them and talk to them today. But that's impossible. My father was a very morose and silent man...
JT:Your mother was, in a way, the real head of the family?
TCB: Yes. I have a sister, three and a half years younger than I. She lives in Arizona, in my mother's house. My mother retired to Arizona with her second husband. She pretty much ran the household, no doubt about it. And that's maybe why I run this household, as you can see, in such a way as buying groceries and cooking and whatnot, and every detail I oversee. Except, maybe, of course, the shopping, the incredible shopping for every ridiculous article in the world that Karen perpetuates all the time. And I don't have any patience for it. But I mean, all the essential things here, I control. And that's maybe the response to my mother controlling it.
JT: And your father was rather absent?
TCB: Well, let's put it this way. He had a tremendous alcohol problem. He was a very pleasant, amenable, sweet guy. My mother used to say that his personality was like mine, prior to the war. But that the war changed him. And made him very morose. He was part of the Normandy invasion and he was one of the first to land and he also served a very long time on the battlefront and saw horrible things in it. She said it changed [him]. It changed his personality. Each day he drank... a lot. But he still went to work each day. He was never aggressive or mean or loud; he was just sort of sad. He was disturbed in some way... about life. I consider his death as in some way a sort of suicide. He drank himself to death. Consciously and purposely. At the age of 54.
JT: And what about your mother?
TCB: My mother died also of alcoholism. Or complications. She had many things wrong but she died of liver failure as a result of drinking at the age of 57.
JT: This could make a very sad environment for a young boy... But I suppose you've had as well some kind of happy boyhood.
TCB: There was a period when my father stopped drinking during my teenage years for maybe six or seven years and he became happier. He was in good spirits.
JT: Some have depicted you as being really poor at that time. Was it really true or was it just that compared to the kid next door you were considered rather poor?
TCB: Well, in America, as you know, nearly everyone considers himself to be middle class. Everyone. And so I guess I considered myself to be middle class. Looking back on it, it was not necessarily the case. I never was in need of anything. My parents denied themselves things to provide me with everything, within bounds, of course, and make me feel the equal of anyone. And encourage me to do whatever I liked. And for that, I'm eternally grateful to them. I grew up in a wealthy community and most of my friends are very wealthy.
JT: So you really didn't realize where you were standing in a way...
TCB: I think it was good to be like that. Because, in a way, I still discovered I had something to prove to myself, to prove that I could accomplish something, maybe. Some of my friends don't really push themselves too hard. They are comfortable. It's some part of it. I think I had to prove something. And also discovering that... You know, when an artist discovers that he can do something well in art, and enjoy the process of doing it, it's a gift, it's something given to you. To be able to make the discovery that you have the gift and pursue it is tremendously rewarding in itself. I think that combines with perhaps the drive to prove oneself, to be in the world, the need to be famous, recognized, loved, those two combine with a kind of perseverance that is needed to continue to work as an artist besides setbacks. These two make some kind of happy combination.
JT: But today it's there. You're recognized as a writer...
TCB: Ah, it gets beyond that. I think these are the initial impulses for doing it, you know, wanting to be famous and so on. I think then, when you're more mature, more in interaction with the art itself, you've got more interest in the art itself, it's not necessarily being famous or being more recognized that such or such other writer or musician, or whatever. You become more interested in making a great work of art. Or hoping that you will or thinking that the next one will be a great work of art. And seeing. You begin to see ahead of you. Years. I see years ahead of what I'm going to do. I have my projects map. I amaze my editors, I can tell them what I'll doing three years from now and when I'll be delivering the manuscript. And, unlike most writers, I do. I deliver the manuscript. It's a self imposed deadline, I mean, there's no deadline imposed upon me by my publishers...
JT: This is also the case for short stories collections?
TCB: When I write some short stories, I don't think they will make a full book. I'm going to write another novel about the Hudson, a story that occurred to me while I was writing the last one, World's End.
JT: You want to be the "historical memory writer" about the Hudson?
TCB: Well, certainly that fascinates me. This is an incident from history that I read about while doing the research for World's End. I realized that it didn't belong in that book, it needed a book by itself. And I'm pretty sure that's what I'll do next. I have another novel, as well, but I think I want to do this one next. I like to change cases. I like to do something different each time. After the three years of World's End, I had a lot of contemporary stories stored up in me that I was unable to do. And so the stories in If the River was Whisky are more like Descent of Man stories. Typical contemporary stories.
JT: Did you develop early a kind of jester attitude in order to feel more acceptable by others or was it because you had fears to express yourself to the full straight away?
TCB: My way of relating to the world through absurdity and humour always has been and nothing is calculated. The dedicatees of Water Music, the Raconteurs' Club is a group that I invented to put over seven of my life best friends. We all tell each other stories and we all have a very sardonic, lax sense of humor. Some of the people in the Raconteurs' Club I have known since I was three years old and they are still my best friends... or Pablo Campos who's my photographer now, who has done photographs for several books, and Alan Arkawy, who was in Washington with me last week. I had asked him, "Allan, have you been in Washington lately?" -- and he came, along with my friend Griff Stevens, who was a rock 'n' roll star, the three of us went, and it was almost like the Marx Brothers. Just a flow of wit. It's just fun. Just fun to be witty and to look at things maybe with a sort of a jaunty style, but it's the way I relate to the world. It's true humor and, especially, a sardonic humor. I think that it can be, as many people have said, that satire and humor can be a mask for hiding your deeper feelings and that's maybe true. To an extent. But I think in some of my more mature works and stories and in World's End, I found an happy medium between that sort of absurd sense of humor and also a desire to say real and true things about life in the world and very serious things. I don't make a distinction between comic literature and serious literature. I think that comic literature is very serious, deadly serious at its best. I make a distinction between, let's say, a comic piece that I'll write and a non-comic piece. I recall, hum... You're familiar with Greasy Lake. I'll call something like, er, All Shook up, better yet, Not a Leg to Stand on, a non-comic piece. And I like to work in both modes. When you read If the River Was Whisky, they're sixteen stories, all of which I've written, with the exception of one, since I've finished World's End, and they appeared in about eighteen months, and then I began East is East, on which I'm working at now. You find that four out these sixteen stories are in the non-comic mode, including the title story. One of the problems that the critics have had with me in the United States is that I'm not part of a, of any group... at all, you know. And I think that's good. I don't want to be exclusively a comic writer, although that is my major mode and at what I feel most comfortable, but if I feel that I want to write a moving, non-comic story in a traditional mode, I don't feel that I should be excluded from it.
JT: Well, Pynchon, for one, has done that... He has written both comic and non-comic novels.
TCB: Yeah, exactly. I want to be in that mode, just as Pynchon, Garcia Marquez, all of these have the same fundamentals as I make, which is to give you a reality slightly skewed, but to make very earnest points in a large way about the world. And that, I guess, is the tradition to which I come to. You know, history fascinates me. To imagine Manhattan wired to the European invasion is one of the impetuses that drove me to write World's End. Just to imagine it, in a pristine state, in a savage state, with the American Indians. Well, they lived in the Hudson Valley for seven thousand years in harmony with the environment. I'm not trying, indeed, to romanticize, of course, I know they ate one another and they peeled the skin from one another and all that. But, you know, here we are, a species that is overpopulating and decimating each other. We are five billion of us, we are too successful, we are going to destroy the whole planet. And we have certainly destroyed and polluted Manhattan and the Hudson River and everything else in my time. And I'd like to write about the Industrial Revolution and you can see this in World's End, too. In fact, this new book about the Hudson will be exclusively about the Industrial Revolution. But to think about the Algonquins living for seven thousand years, eating oysters from the Hudson River and being like animal species themselves, that didn't become too successful and overpopulated and lived between the bounds of the environment, that fascinates me. And that was one of the motivating facts just to write World's End.
JT: Would you say your humor is, as well, self-deprecatory or just a way to convey the self-delusion that people experience when they've tried to change the world and didn't change it much or got the wrong results? I mean, most of your characters are mostly making fools of themselves...
TCB: Hmmm, I think that they are objects of satire, definitely. No doubt about that. Well, I have done a shorter book of stories and then a shorter novel, and that is the phase I'm in now, East is East will probably be about the size of Budding Prospects, it's a contemporary book, set in the state of Georgia, about a Japanese man that jumps ship and is at large there. And, in a comic way, he's a loveable character, engaging himself in some sort of criminal activities, but in a very funny way. It's well under way. It should be out in the Fall of 1990. Next year.
JT: How do you usually depict yourself in your novels or short stories? Will you be in this one? For example, Tom Crane in Worldís End is rather close to you...
TCB: Well, I don't appear in any of them. Except from Descent of Man in the story Drowning. There's a character very much like me. Oh, I was in also... I was in Dada, I was in that story about Idi Amin [a former ruler of Uganda]. I was also in I Dated Jane Austen. But I don't appear in my stories. Tom Crane is very much based on a friend of mine. But, yes, he's like me too to some extent. But he's closely modelled on a good friend. Walter van Brunt, physically, he's not like me. This is something I took from Washington Irving, a lot of the Dutch I took from Washington Irving. The Dutch translator said so many of the Dutch are OK and I said, "I know." I took it from Washington Irving purposely-- it's a joke. Van Brunt is the character from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow who takes Ichabod Crane's girl from him. And, in fact, the only way to read the story is that Van Brunt, Brom Bones, terrifies Ichabod by throwing a pumpkin on the road and pretending to... You can read as a supernatural story, but I think Irving puts... has this code at the end to let you know that, in fact, Brom Bones had assailed Ichabod Crane late at night. A large part of World's End derives from the inspiration of Washington Irving. So Brom Bones is this very powerful, physical guy. I relate more to Ichabod Crane, who, in this hilarious story, is the object of satire, this total skinny guy with a big nose who never stops talking... You know, he's a schoolmaster, he loves the ladies, he's a dancer, he's just charming everyone... And I think I put some part of me in all the characters. In Walter Van Brunt, maybe not. Physically. But, maybe, I'm not quite as stupid as Walter Van Brunt. But his fascination about the existentialists, with Camus, with Sartre, with Camus' Meursault, this is all me, this is all that was current when I was in college. You were asking me the other night what French authors that I admire... Well, I began writing at seventeen, I was in college, they're teaching existentialism in the classroom, and it probably darkened my view of human life forever, irreversibly, you know... as it is with Walter. But Walter is a very limited character mentally, he's more buffeted by life, as his father says, "it's in the blood, it's in the bones, you have no choice... You have no choice but to be like this." And I think that's true, that's true to a large extent...
JT: But now you've got children. They've got their personalities, but they can change, evolve...
TCB: I think it goes beyond that. Anyway--you and I are sitting here today as the end products of all of evolution to this point. And so is this squirrel. I'm not saying something very significant about Man, the squirrel here is also the end product of all evolution--to this point, to this moment. If your parents had not reproduced, you wouldn't be here. With that comes all the various gifts that you are given and, maybe, also some problems, personality problems, problems with physical addictions, etc. And I think that, yes, World's End is a very bleak book. The critics in America loved the book, but they said how bleak it is. And I wish I had a better news for them, I wish I had a better message. And maybe I will. But this is how I felt when I wrote the book and I do believe it. You can't escape your destiny and there's no free will, you are an animal, you know. And it is probably my theme since the beginning, from Descent of Man where I'm so fascinated with science and evolution. It's not a happy view. I mean, I wish I could believe in things beyond what I see. But I can't. This is what Walter says. He... he's studied too much science, too much geology to believe in anything else and maybe that's bad. On the other hand, I very much believe in tradition. And regret that in America, we, you know, we're a mobile society, we have so little tradition. A lot of my L. A. stories are about that, that we have no traditions, that we are artificial and superficial.
JT: What about the female characters ? They are usually positive or, at least, not mischievous, with the noticeable exception of Wendy in Caviar, and Mardi in Worldís End. These two both reject the not-so-well-to-do male character who thrives for some kind of stereotype of a flashy girl.
TCB: I find Mary and Mardi total opposites. Mary is the wife in Caviar. Oh, no, you mean Wendy ? Yes, she and Mardi are very close. Last year, in May, when I won the Pen-Faulkner and I was in Washington D.C., I did a one hour live radio show with call-ins. People listening and calling. Itís called The Diane Rehm Show. Itís pretty popular in Washington, but I didnít know about it and I was a little weary; whoís going to call up for an hour to talk to me ? I was very surprised. A lot of people called up. Some were very frivolous, they just wanted to tell us that they were just listening. Three blind people calling, for instance, just telling us they were blind and listening. But a lot of people who knew my work called up and asked me all sorts of bizarre questions. And raising the issue of women. One person accused me of having been unsympathetic to women and women's liberation and so on in my early work. And, I had to admit, that might have been true, you know. I also admitted that, indeed, I am a man, that canít be redone, and maybe I did have some prejudices and some problems. I think that my women characters are possibly better rounded now. Iím speaking specifically of a character in East in East, it has a female heroine. She is the star of the book, this female. But, Mary and Mardi are types, no? Wendy, the other girl, that I know very well andÖ if itís not flattering, so what, what can I do? I canít please everyone, especially as a satirist. In East is East, Ruth Dershowitz, sheís like, most like in literature, Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair [a book by William Makepeace Thackeray], sheís very skinny, very, very skinny. But, hmmm, Iím not supposed to please everyone across the board, I just give my own perception of things.
JT: Letís put it this way: before meeting your wife Karen, did you have to suffer from this type of woman?
TCB: No. Iíve never spoken to even or looked at another woman but my wife (laughs). Only kidding. No, Iíve never suffered from that type of woman, but I was always suspicious of women. And thought that I might suffer. If youíre in love with someone, it is in some way a power trip, isnít it ? Itís like establishing any relationship, only itís like the supernova of relationships. Like an explosion of a relationship, to be in love with someone. They might win, they might catch you off, you know, so I was afraid of that and suspicious of that. And suspicious of women who might get the better of me, exactlyÖ And so I found myself a very sweet woman and before her I had found others who were very sweet, too, and no, I never had a bad experience, as youíve had maybe, but I tried to protect myself against it. Just as I didnít give a quarter to that guy this morning, and you did. [Note: it was a young beggar bumming around a grocery store on Ventura Boulevard, L.A. who happened to come our way.] Iíve seen it, guys exactly like this, a million times.
JT: Some of your friends say that you just pick up some of their doings and behaviors and fuel your books and stories with them. To what extent is that true?
TCB: I don't think my friends feel used. We talked earlier of the character who became Vogelsang in Budding Prospects. With Vogelsang, it was the first time, in that book, Budding Prospects, everything in it is essentially true. You know, when one of the people chases the bear on his moped, what will he do with the bear when it's caught ? He was not thinking clearly because he was a junkie. All of it is basically true. And the characters are amalgams of the true characters. With one exception. It's Vogelsang--which is an assumed name for a person who's one of my best friends today. And who likes this portrait of himself, even though he's the villain of the book, because he views himself as a bandit, as a bad guy. He loves it. That was the first time I had done that. The other character I could think of is the kind of naïve narrator of Descent of Man, Mr. Horn... It has a lot of me in it. It's the naïf goes against the hard grain of the world and learns a lesson. To that extent, there's a lot of me in some of the narrators of my stories. In Caviar, you know, that narrator, even though he's not an educated or sophisticated man in any way, he's still someone who's a very natural man confronting a harsh and duplicitous reality of our society. In there, I am. As far as my friends are concerned, I began to use them more. Two Ships is a story from Greasy Lake very close to me, about a close friend of mine, like... He would have been in the Raconteurs' Club, and mentioned, except that at the age of seventeen, he went off, he's been in the mental hospital, he was mad. And I've seen him recently in a wonderful way. But anyway, I quote him note for note, exactly, precisely.
And now I'll tell you a wonderful story: why Walter has lost his feet in World's End in two separate accidents. This is based on a story I've heard. There was a guy who grew up in my neighborhood and we lived in a suburb in New York, in a tract house. It was the baby boom, we're talking mid-fifties, late fifties, everyone has kids and all the kids play together all the time. All we did was play sports, my entire boyhood, so I did, play sports, day and night, that's it. Period. Nothing else. No reading, nothing. No girls, nothing. Just sports. Anyhow, this guy used to play sports with us, as a neighbourhood kid, and then moved away when he was about fourteen or so and I never saw him again. When we were all about nineteen, someone said ó and I'll just give you his initial: "Did you hear about B.?" He was driving his Harley Davidson, he had an accident, he went down and his right foot was severed. I said, "How terrible!" When we were all about thirty, someone said, "Hey, did you hear about B.? He went down on his left foot and ripped it off!" And, true enough, so he did. So that gave me an image for Walter Van Brunt, he's a man who drifts and he's not attached to the ground, so he's not connected, and so he can suffer the fate that he suffers.
JT: You get also inspired by cooking and fishing...
TCB: Oh yes, there's a graduate student who will do something about food in my stories. It'll be amazing. I'm really fascinated also by aquatic life. I fish. The fish is my totem animal. I love anything to do with fish.
JT: What's your zodiacal sign, by the way?
TCB: Ah, I don't believe in signs. I'm a Sagittarius. And the reason I don't believe in signs, by the way, is because I always assumed that Christ was a Sagittarius and so I was proud to be one. But then I realized he was Capricorn, he was the next one. So... hey, I'll finish the story about the guy with no feet. I'll read you a story that you don't know yet. Which I can read you tonight. It's called Modern Love, it was in Playboy in March of 88. It's about love in the age of infection, the age of AIDS, and it takes it to absurd degrees. And the heroine is a girl obsessed with cleanliness, in an obsessive- compulsive way. She's a very close friend of mine. And I wrote this story about her; in fact, I know her very well. In fact, she was Alan's girlfriend. She was my former student. And Alan is a man I've known since three and a half, my best friend, I've known him all my life. And she's still a good friend, but they don't go together anymore. Guess what? I went to New York last fall--went to New York with Alan-- and I spent five nights in New York. Three in the company of strangers, filmmakers, the Germans, and so on... Two, with Alan and with B., the man with no feet, sitting across to me at the dinner table. Alan, B., another girl and me. Why? Because, through my book, this is true, this as absurd as it may sound, she and B. had gotten together and are now lovers and deeply in love. Incredible, you know. Because of the book and she read the book and she turned him on to the book. I never discussed the book with him--he might feel insulted--I don't know, I didn't want to talk about it with him, but here he was, sitting across the dinner table, this wonderful, charming, delightful, handsome man, wonderful man, and this wonderful woman.
JT: Do you enjoy being with your students? And how does it feel to be taken by them for a congenial genius?
TCB: Hmmm. To be with my students really feeds me in a lot of ways. As you can see, for having spent some time with me, I'm sort of a perennial undergraduate myself. I mean, I've never really grown up, I've always had that sort of attitude of aÖbeing apart from society. Well, here I am, in middle-class suburbia, but, apart from society in some way and different from everybody else, you know. In some way. Maybe it's the old hippie attitude. It's the old sort of outsider attitude. I've always had that. And, I think, it's maybe an immature attitude and, hmmm... So far, I've not taught in college for ten years but, hmmm... I get along very well with the undergraduates. They speak to me in a way that reminds me of where I really am.
JT: And it is still the same with your friends... I suppose they speak to you in the same way.
TCB: I think that my family was not close. It was not very close and warm, although there was a lot of support and I admire and love them for what they did for me. There was only myself and my sister. My friends are my family. I speak about people I've known since I was three. I have a group of friends. OK, I'll give you another story. I have a man who Chuck and Donna have just visited--they're coming down tonight from visiting him--Rob Jordan. He's one of the Raconteurs' Club. He was my roommate, we've lived together, I've known him all my life. I love him. Absolutely love him without reserve. He's my brother. I can go to him penniless and stay as long as I want. He can come to me. We don't have to make excuses, we don't have to pretend, we just love each other, you know. And I have seven male friends like this, maybe eight or nine now. I mean it grows. People I just love. Hmmm... It's like a family, it's just so very close. Rob Jordan, for instance, when I first moved into this house five years ago and the house was in very rough shape and I'm kind of... you see me running around doing all this work, but it is maintenance, but actual skilful work I can't do. Rob has built houses himself and he's very skilful. He came to visit me. He brought all his tools and he fixed everything in the house, just for the hell of it, and you know what? He also said to me, "I've got an idea for your next novel..." And you know what the idea was? East is East, the novel I'm writing now. He gave me this and the beginning of World's End. I said, "That's a great idea, I'm going to save it." And I'm now using it. That is a friend. He comes and fixes tiles and gives you an idea for your next novel.
JT: But, now, you're also a family man. Are you like this because of Karen or did you really crave for the fulfilment of becoming one, in a sort of sitcom sort of way, as most people of our generation came to think of a family?
TCB: OK, I'll answer this in two ways. First of all, I made fun of the sitcoms in one of my stories, Heart of a Champion, and of the values, the false values, that are imposed upon us by American society and, I suppose, by the civilized world at large. I think one tends to gravitate towards one's opposite. And you tend to get what you need despite The Rolling Stones' lyrics ["I can't get no satisfaction..."]. And Karen has an enormous family. See this house? I've been here ten years in L.A. I would say, without any exaggeration, that ninety percent or more of the time that I have lived in Los Angeles, one of our family members has lived with me. The only reason you [I was invited over for a few days] have that room now is that Kerrie's younger brother is in Arizona for the week. But he'll be back. Christine lived with us for two years; her brother Eric, as well; her father lived with us for two years, in the garage, and then came to Ireland for four months with us, you know. I think it was some kind of happy accident or maybe, you know, on a Freudian level, something much deeper than that. I've met her and now I do have a family, I have children and I have all her brothers and sisters who do have a family...
JT: Is it because you felt deprived of the sense of belonging to a family?
TCB: Not on a conscious level, no. No, I related. I was like a Walter Van Brunt, I was stupid, just a defiant, dope-shooting, heroin-shooting, you know, car-driving maniac, and I just thought that that was the way to be. You know, to be some sort of existential hero.
Now I'm rejecting that attitude. I've seen another face of life. I need all of this, desperately, you know, it's a lonely universe, mankind is lonely. There are frightening things. I used to have a lot of nightmares as an adult and I willed myself not to have them. I used to go to the shrink--they thought I was a very disturbed youth--I used to go to the psychiatrist, went to many of them, and they prescribed Thorazine, you know. Thorazine is a pretty heavy drug. I rejected it finally and heroin and everything else, and tried to make something else which is more traditional and more satisfying for me. I couldn't imagine being like Mitch or like you, maybe even, on my own, trying, bumping around and looking for things. It's hard; it's very, very hard. The older you get, the harder it gets, too. Because the women are jaded, too, and they are all a little crazy. You know, we'll go to the bar and meet these women and they are wonderful, but they've all got their secrets and their idiosyncrasies and they're all very bizarre, and you get more sad anyway. So, hmmm, the bottom line of this is, I became dedicated to my art. I think I grew up at about the age of twenty-five or so. I went to Iowa to escape New York. I was in a very bad drug scene in New York, as you have probably read in these articles. But this all history to me. I went to Iowa because I had only heard of one writing program ever, I didn't even know, I had only heard of one: Iowa. Many of my heroes had gone there, graduated from there, taught there--Robert Coover, John Gardner--and I had had my first story published and I decided that I would apply there. I applied and they accepted me and I went there and I think that's where I began to grow up. I realized I had a gift for an art and that this was what I wanted to do above anything in life. Anything. And maybe having a family and all that is necessary because I don't do my art, and maybe cannot do my art, without some sort of stability from day to day.
Now maybe, also, I've grown up enough that if this family were eliminated, I could be a bachelor and still do my work. So far, my experience has been that I can't do that. I don't know. But, anyway, at twenty-five, this was my protection against the world of drugs and hustling in bars and so on. Because of the art, to make the art, to make a suitable environment to make art, and being committed to it.
JT: Did you feel encouraged to lead some kind of hippie, freewheeling way of life ? I mean, encouraged by your parents, by relatives or friends?
TCB: Oh, yes. Definitely encouraged by the parents. My generation, growing up in my neighborhood, and I grew up in one of the most liberal neighborhoods in America, Kitchawank Colony is a true place. I grew up amongst many Russian Jews who founded an anarchist colony which later became a Communist colony. One of the most liberal communities, certainly, in America. We felt... well, the Civil Rights movement, everything else had preceded that, and we felt very liberal about everything, radical almost. And, at the same time, our parents pampered us; they'd gone through the Depression-- they pampered us and gave us everything, even me, even the working class kid whose father was raised in an orphanage was given anything, any advantage, anything you want. So much so, that I rejected it at the age of seventeen or eighteen. Not even a generation had gone by, but I was already rejecting it. Yes, they made it possible for me to say, "Job? Who needs a job? Fuck a job, I'm gonna be an artist." You know.
JT: What's the story of that ring at your ear?
TCB: Oh, God, I don't know! When I was a hippie, I was so bizarre looking anyway that I didn't need to have an earring, you know. In later years, when short hair came into fashion, I had short hair and I decided, well, maybe I'll have an earring. So I put in an earring. Just for decorative purposes. That's all.
JT: Now, what is World's End all about? A quest for origins, a historical saga, a book about betrayal, a way to come to terms with some personal evolution in your lifestyle?
TCB: I think it's about all of those things. Definitely about all of those things. I think, you know, when you are writing a novel around 500 pages long that takes you three years to write, everything comes in. It if were only some kind of one note song, it would be very boring at that length. I think it has to play a lot of themes, it's like a symphony, it has to play a lot of themes, repeat them, do variations on them and it has to have... just to tell a lot of things, speak of a lot of things. I find that in writing a novel you're locked in for a period of time. I'm the kind of personality that can only do one project at a time. Nothing else can come in between me and the project. I can't write a story when I'm writing a novel and I save all the stories and they just burst out in the period of story writing. Three years is a long time. The most difficult thing is to maintain a consistent talent and an interest in the project over a period of three years. Because, each day, you're bombarded by new things, you meet new people, you've got new ideas, you change your perspective on things. Hmmm, that's the hard point. But, I think, that maybe, if that is expressed in a book of that magnitude, it's expressed in the themes, in the themes that grow, and there are several of them. Yes, it's about betrayal, certainly. But betrayal is an unexciting theme, a theme that goes from the beginning of literature to today, and will go on for ever, and it is a fact of human existence, but a small theme, you know. I think it is just part of a larger context. And I think the generational thing was very important for me there--the historical perspective of what New York might have been 500 years ago--the setting in three different periods. 1949 was a very important period because it was my parents' time and it was the time of the Peekskill Riots of which we had always heard about because it was sort of a blot on us, you know, a sort of shameful thing that had happened in that area. And then 1969. I originally planned to bring up the book up to 1988. Which would have preceded its publication. Actually, by a year [World's End was actually published in 1987). But, then I realised that it was not what I wanted to do. I wanted Walter to never mature, never to go beyond a sort of physical destiny, an evolutionary destiny...
JT: Maybe because you evolved yourself in these three years...
TCB: Perhaps, if you believe in that kind of Freudian psychology. Perhaps. I believe in this. You know, I was going to the airport with Alan--he was driving me to the airport--and he told me that he was having dreams in which he woke up in a very enclosed environment. He was very safe in there, very warm, and outside, there were these terrible animals. And I said, well, that's the dream of the wolves, of going back to the woods. And Alan pointed out to me, scientist that he is, that it's only appearance. I mean, I take it and, I presume, you do, too, we take things as facts, just as we take evolution as a fact. It just seems so reasonable that it must be, but, in fact, it isn't true, maybe, necessarily. Our age contains the MTV video, our age automatically transmits styles to the most remote corners of the world. I was in Montana years ago and the styles, from New York to Montana, in my age, when I was younger, would have taken ten years to get there. There would have been hippies when anybody else was a punk, you know. That's the way it would have gone. Now, I was in Montana, the teenagers are watching MTV, they are punks too, instantly. And it's true world-wide. Attitudes, styles, whatever, are running like every beat of the waves of the ocean, constantly, it just goes on and on and it's available to everybody all over, instantly. In the world that we know, I mean, not necessarily the Third World, although we affect the Third World, too, in ways that I cannot address right now, but in ways that make the most remote parts of the world perverted, changed, by our influence. Automatically, instantly, everyday, all the time. I could tell you a story, but I don't think you've got enough tape left. And, naturally, as I'm talking about cross-cultural pollination in my work and this kind of polycultural, pan-American society where all the Americans are linked culturally more and more because of immigration and the media--the media are the big factor behind all of this, endeavours seems to indicate a striving consciously to do it.
I don't strive consciously to be
the ultimate universal writer for youngsters and elders alike--I don't
strive consciously to do that. I strive consciously to make good art and
I hope, sometimes, eventually great art. I hope to be a great artist. I
don't know if I will or if I am, but that it is my goal. I always want
to be better than I am; I always see it; I can see it in the future, what's
going to be and how good it will be, how good it can be. On the other hand,
I'm a great fan of great writers and I look at them and I am amazed, ashamed
and stunned by how good other writers, musicians, painters are in reference
to me. But, I also have strength in myself and see more and more, as I
become more mature, just what my contribution is, just what I'm going to
say, how I'm going to say it, what it is, what it can be. That's what I
consciously want to do: to take what's given to me to its furthest limits
and to never fall back from it, never give up; to just pursue it as far
as it would go. That's what I want to do, it's to take what's given to
me, to its furthest limits. And never give up, to pursue it as far as it
will go. And I think it's gonna be great. That's what drives me. What drives
you, when you're immature, is to do it for fun. When you're mature, it's
to make great art. To discover what it is. It's in you! I have it
all, every word... somewhere. Every inspiration--can I get it out, will
I get it out? That's the question. Will I die tomorrow? Will I become a
drunk? Will I give up? Will I change my mind? Will I become a gardener
instead? But that's what I'm pursuing, that's what I'm pursuing. I'm fanatically
pursuing making the art, with a kind of clock ticking against me. So, yes,
I'd like to be, I'd very much like to be, the universal writer. But that's
not my conscious goal. My conscious goal is to be a great artist. My goal
is to make literature interesting, sexy, to bring literature back to the
jaded, dull American masses, especially the young people who don't have
an experience of literature and to make them realise that this is important,
as important as, for us, is rock 'n' roll.
© Copyright 2000-2001 Jef Tombeur - journalist and translator