T.C. Boyle nonchalantly raps spoons against his blue jeans as he crosses his living room. His Frank Lloyd Wright designed home, built for George C. Stewart in 1909, is exquisite. An artificially low ceiling, which threatens to clip Boyle’s nimbus of hair, abruptly opens up into a majestic rectangular receiving room, framed by an elegant staircase leading to his office upstairs. At the foot of the stairs is a bookcase filled with every published volume of Boyle’s bestselling books and short stories. He sinks the spoons into the cups of tea he’s brewed for his guests and, with the hyper-vigilant cool only the accomplished exude, settles into his authentic prairie-style chair.
Boyle is a poignant satirist, a professor, a no-bullshit kind of experimentalist with a bent for ecology and the preservation of mankind. His previous twenty-one novels have touched on race, 18th century Africa, marital discord, culture shock, historical dissonance, nature, the end of nature, the end of humanity, and also tourist-trap sushi restaurants in Pasadena. His 22nd novel, When the Killing’s Done, is, in his words, “a disgusting, maniacal story about the battle between preservationists and ecologists.”
The only constant in Boyle’s work is his ability to bring out the emotional longing of his characters with a rare empathy and unflinching clarity. In a single Boyle story, you can experience the dregs of the sixties, the elation of young love, and the sing-along haze of a cross-country bus trip, where the bus has a fascinating and emotionally wrenching back story all its own. As a writer, he never berates the reader with detail. His stories possess a richness and freshness most akin to the work of another notable satirist, Mark Twain. As to the wide range of geographical settings for his work—Alaska, Los Angeles, the Shetland Islands—he doesn’t even have to be there to be there.
“I’m making it up,” he explains. “That’s what the fun of this is for me. I’m letting my imagination run free. However, that said, anything I say or do of course could possibly be a story. When I do have to go to a location—like when I was writing Drop City and went to Alaska—I don’t know what I’m looking for. I’m just there. I did know, by the way, when I went to Alaska the story would be set in the bush around Fairbanks, because I had been inspired by John Haines, who wrote wonderful essays about being a trapper there in the 50’s after World War II. Beyond that I didn’t know. So I just absorbed things for a month. The most interesting stuff was going to an Inuit village on the Kobuk River, north of the Arctic Circle. And that only wound up being used in a sidelight at the end of the book. But you know, it was so powerful and unusual and a great place that I thought that would be very large in the book, but it wasn’t.
“I don’t always have to be in and see a place. Often I write stories set all over the world, places I haven’t been. My favorite is Swept Away, about the windy Shetland Islands. This story appeared in The New Yorker. It was reprinted recently in The Shetlander. They wanted to know how many years I’ve lived there, which I think is a great testament to the fact that fiction is creating an illusion and the illusion must be real. So if the Shetlanders believed it, then I guess I’m doing my job. But what I did was simply meditate on it. And, of course, I’ve been to places like that. I’d been to, as I joke, the arctic coast of Scotland, where I nearly froze to death. So, I projected and selected details, physical details—names, places. In all of these stories, the names are actual names. The things are actual things. The customs…and so on. But in order to have written all those stories I’d have to be 300 years old. The trick of my sort of fiction is that I’m just [in my office], making it up.”