T.C. Boyle is one American fiction’s most vivid and productive characters. The inaugural 2016 winner of the Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award just saw the release of The Terranauts, his 26th book. In it, four men and four women devote two years of their lives to an Arizona experiment prompted by climate change. These scientists live in E2, a model of a possible off-Earth colony. The book’s principal narrators, fictionalizing a real 1990s mission, are operatives Dawn Chapman, a youthful ecologist, and Ramsay Roothorp, a libidinous wild man.
Sex permeates many of Boyle’s novels—The Inner Circle plunged into the world of pioneering Indiana sexologist Alfred Kinsey, while Drop City satirized a hippie commune—and environmental concerns are often close to his heart.
Boyle’s had many short stories published in Playboy since the ‘80s. His work’s international impact is reflected in its translation into over 25 languages, including Farsi, Hebrew, Vietnamese and Serbian. Still passionate about writing, the 67-year-old novelist and short-story writer is a gracious and entertaining conversationalist. Our freewheeling talk bounced around creativity, addiction, guns, free speech and much more.
What do you want The Terranauts to accomplish?
I hope people take great joy from it, as from all my work. Even the most depressing subject and depressing story ever, like my story "Chicxulub,“ which is probably my most popular story, about the apparent death of a child. I hope that I’m producing good, thrilling art for people to engage with.
What’s the secret to your famed productivity?
I have an essay called "This Monkey, My Back,” in which I liken artistic creation to a kind of drug addiction and a drug high. When you get to the end of something, whether it be a story or a novel, you have this incredible rush of gratification and joy to see this come together. And because you’re addicted, there’s the crash and then you must do it again and again. The world is endlessly fascinating to me.
Your previous novel, The Harder They Come, plunges into gun violence and anti-establishment resentment in America.
I wrote The Harder They Come in order to try to understand what this penchant for American gun violence really is. I chose one actual story to write about but I could have chosen any of dozens, sadly. I’m taking the details of that actual story from a police report of a crime that occurred in Fort Bragg. Here we have a very disturbed young man, quite obviously mentally ill, acting out. And his uncle gave him, for his birthday, a Chinese assault rifle! After I delivered the book, there was a similar attack here in Santa Barbara on the campus, by a young man very similar to the schizophrenic I wrote about. If it weren’t for the NRA and their grip on both houses of Congress, their reign of terror over them, perhaps these automatic weapons wouldn’t be as available and we wouldn’t see quite as much violence and destruction.
Congress refuse to acknowledge that gun control works, as it does in Australia.
I don’t think right now in America we’re really living in a democracy anymore. All the special interests have a grip on our democracy. The NRA is foremost among them.
Is it true you keep a loaded handgun on your writing desk?
I do, as a kind of way of fighting off writer’s block. It’s just a joke. We talk about gun control, but a handgun can be very valuable because it provides a person like me with retirement security, for instance, and again the solution to a writer’s block… I don’t have it present right now. But the idea of it is enough to motivate me.
In 1995 you wrote The Tortilla Curtain with memorable empathy and understanding of the struggle of Mexican immigrants in America. As William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I do like to write novels set in the past. Even if it’s a rather recent past, like The Terranauts, set in the 1990s. To reflect on how we got here from there; to wonder about what conditions were like then and how they gave rise to what we’re seeing today. There’s a kind of cyclical nature to events as you mention with regard to The Tortilla Curtain. All the way back in ‘95 we were debating the illegal immigration from Mexico, and now we see it as a major topic in the presidential race. We see the destruction of countries like Syria by gangs and all the dislocation and the refugees that that produces. We’re seeing it from global warming as well.
On a somewhat related note, you shared a stage with Donald Trump once.
He and I were staged together for a book event, around 1990. We were both fairly young and we were both punks. It was him, me and Angela Lansbury, and we each had 15 minutes to address this huge bookseller’s thing. I got along fine with him, but I didn’t realize what he was to become. It’s an outrage—to think that he would even presume to be in that office.
To be a fiction writer you have to be manic depressive—you have to be a drug addict and an alcoholic and a lunatic, obviously.
Why do you have enemies?
The same reason that my role model, Jesus of Nazareth, had enemies. Because I am pure and I spread love to the world and many, many people resent that.
Hemingway and Fitzgerald romanticized self-destructive addiction to alcohol and other drugs. Unlike you, they didn’t manage to beat it.
Tom Dardis’ book The Thirsty Muse takes a look at six American writers—the aforementioned ones, Eugene O’Neill, Faulkner, of course—and pointed out how alcohol controlled their lives. In O’Neill’s case, he did recover. The others never did. Wow! It comes with the territory. To be a fiction writer you have to be manic depressive—you have to be a drug addict and an alcoholic and a lunatic, obviously. But how much is under control and how much is out of control? In order for me to make work I have to have absolute control of it. In order to get into that state where your mind is free of the fact that you’re working. You’re suddenly in this flow, this moment. I can’t get there if I’m stoned; I can get there only in the freshest of consciousness, in the morning and early afternoon. After that—well, then I feel free to do whatever I want.
Do you believe that the left can be too censorious when it comes to art and culture?
We can all agree to be civil in society and respect to everyone’s rights and so on. But to have this dictated to us and to have our speech abridged as a result of it is just dead wrong. When I published The Tortilla Curtain in 1995, people came out and attacked me because how could I dare to write a book from the point of view of a Mexican, when in fact I am not Mexican? Could you imagine anything more stupid? So then only men could write about men, only dogs could write about dogs, only women could write about women. It’s highly preposterous. But this is how far the memory of the politically correct can take us. It becomes a kind of fascism in itself. Even though, of course, its underlying principles are what I’ve stood for all my life.
The answer to bad speech is more speech?
Yes. Sometimes the notion of what is politically correct becomes the exact opposite of what it was really intended for—that is, to broaden our horizons and make us see issues from the point of view of someone unlike us. There should be no prohibitions in art. Art stands apart from such considerations, which narrow it and limit what can be said and done. Again, our democracy and our principles, especially a journalist’s and novelist’s, subscribe to the fact that we can do and say anything, whether it’s offensive to somebody or not. Who knows to whom it’s going to be offensive?
There will be, as you are suggesting I think in this question, the censorship of the society at large, and they will vote by not buying or trafficking or talking about something that is weak or offensive or irrelevant.
Is there anything you wouldn’t write about?
Yes, in a free society here in America, where I have the ability to say and do anything I want, there are exceptions. I cannot write anything about previous girlfriends, or my wife’s family [laughs].
Anything special you tell your writing students at USC?
Why did John Coltrane play saxophone? He really had no choice. Why do the great artists pursue what they do with all they have in them? It’s a kind of magic, it’s a kind of addiction. You find it and it’s almost beyond your freedom of will not to pursue it. If you have that ability and you find that joy, then you don’t need any coaching, you just do it. One thing I should add to that is how lucky I am to have been able to do it. I suppose if no one ever paid me anything and I was constantly reviled, would I do it to the degree that I’m doing it now?
That urge to create is potent.
Anything we do, Flannery O’Connor’s misfit would agree with this, is completely and utterly useless because there is no point to human existence and you have to fill your time in some way. I find it incredibly satisfying to fill my time by indulging in the art that I love most. Everybody has to fill the hours of the day, and when you think about it in existentialist terms, however you do that is equally valid, whether you’re murdering people and drinking their blood, sitting in solitary confinement, drinking at 7 a.m. or putting on orange make-up and running for president: It’s all the same. We have restless minds and we have needs and the world is shrunk and we don’t have the places to explore physically that we once had. Maybe we explore them mentally now.
Do you have a favorite out of your many short stories published in Playboy?
“After the Plague,” which is the title story of my 2001 collection and deals with many of the issues that came forth in A Friend of the Earth and have come forth since. This one is a kind of joyful little look at what happens when the inevitable microbe will come and cut our numbers back. A joyful look at the death of humanity.
Are you tough on your characters?
I am the God of my universe and in the universe in which we live, whether there’s a God or not, we must suffer. So, as the God of my particular universe, I am in control of the suffering of the characters. And by God, I am going to make them feel the pain.
Jonathan Lethem had a good line about how he keeps his edge: “Time is a motherfucker and it’s coming for us all.”
I have a similar attitude. People have asked me for years, “Why are you so productive?” And I say, “Well, because I think that most artists generally produce more art prior to death than after death, and the only exception is Jimi Hendrix.”
Alexander Bisley is a writer contributing to many varied publications, including the Guardian. Follow him here.