The Reckoning — David Halberstam

David Halberstam’s The Reckoning is too long by at least a third and maybe a half: my copy is a fat mass-market paperback that should probably go on a diet, like the American companies it describes. Learning about the machinations of 1950s Japanese auto unions is both tedious after a time and yet simultaneously lacks the depth it should have. Nonetheless, the book is fascinating mostly because you could take the problems it describes, change some names and dates, republish it today, and find that its issues remain essentially the same. American car companies overproduce giant, gas-guzzling cars and then face problems when competition and market conditions turn against their profit centers. Unions and dealerships make it difficult for such companies to compete. If the major American car companies survive this round of major problems, you can expect the same set of stories in another ten to twenty years.

The book’s many portraits of the intertwining of society and business fascinate. A section on residents of Grosse Pointe, Detroit’s once ritzy suburb, says:

The people who lived in Grosse Pointe were not bored with it, for they knew of nothing else and wanted nothing else. They could not conceive of life being different or better. Billy Chapin—grandson of Roy, the first sales manager of the pioneer Old Motor Company, and son of Roy, president of American Motors—said that the trouble with the awful creamed spinach at the Grosse Pointe’s club was that just about the moment you became influential enough to have it taken off the menu, you found that you liked it.

This piece of writing is brilliant and effective: a generalization rings true in the surrounding context and the anecdote about Chapin shows the community’s wealth and insularity through the microcosm of spinach. Meritocracy hasn’t arrived in Grosse Pointe, or if it once lived there, it has since died and moved out West to Silicon Valley or back East to Boston, where startups congregate Maybe it moved offshore with factories. Wherever it went, it certainly doesn’t live somewhere whose nepotism is as smothered as its spinach.

Others anecdotes and descriptions are less successful. Forty pages later, we learn entirely too much about a manager named Don Lennox, who “[...] simply liked manufacturing, enjoyed making something more than dealing with numbers and paper.” That’s nice in small doses, but the cumulative weight of such observations makes the paperback edition stack up to more than 750 pages including the bibliography. Much of it isn’t directly sourced, but rather narrated like something from a Leon Uris novel.

The sense of heroes and villains could also come from a Uris novel, with the Japanese usually heroes and the bumbling Americans usually not. One American, W. Edwards Deming, is presented in the heroic mode, but the American companies ignore him because they’re too pleased with themselves to listen to his production improvements (contrast that with, say, Wal-Mart, which is so hard to beat because it tries ceaselessly to to lower prices regardless of what its competition is doing). According to The Reckoning, many American companies believed managers to be interchangeable, and

On that subject [Deming] was an angry man. He acknowledged that many important American business educators thought men like him were old fashioned, but he was sure he was right and equally sure there would eventually be a severe punishment for companies that failed to stress quality.

He was right, of course, but that’s much easier to say after the fact when he’s been proven right. How many would-be Cassandras sing their song and turn out just to be naysayers?

The Reckoning could just as easily be called Success is Never Final, since its major theme is that, since World War II, American car companies believed that only broad, flat, and straight highways awaited them. Their attitude and union agreements struck while the good times rolled haunted them and continue to haunt them. The only way to operate at virtually any level, whether as an individual, family, region, or society, is to ceaselessly work toward being the best. But as one achieves that success, the culture underlying it erodes, decadence grows, and soon one’s fatally stricken platform totters.

The bizarre thing about the three American-headquartered companies is that their current problems, as I write this at the dawn of 2009, have been ongoing for 30 years. And they still either haven’t ameliorated their majors problems or are restricted from doing so by their dealer networks and unions. Whichever of those two to three hypotheses is correct, it’s still incredible to consider that such a ridiculous saga continues.

Evidently I’m not the only one who finds The Reckoning depressingly fresh: searching for it and “Halberstam” on Google brings a load of hits relating it to modern problems, like Why David Halberstam’s “The Reckoning” Should Be Mandatory Business School Reading and Halberstam’s “The Reckoning” Still a Must-Read. See a pattern? More generally, Slate’s The Big Money just ran an article called RIP, MBA: The economic crisis has exposed the myth of business-school expertise, the MBA being a symbol of problems with car companies and others, while The Atlantic ran The Management Myth in 2005. The titles of those posts overstate the book’s importance and understate its length—how many must-reads about formerly contemporary issues should really be 750 pages?—but it’s certainly a useful book to skim.

“Halberstam’s ‘The Reckoning’ Still a Must-Read” says that “[Halberstam is widely] recognized for his groundbreaking work, The Reckoning…” Maybe the book broke new ground in 1986, but that it’s still relevant indicates in many ways how far we haven’t come.

Billy Collins and Elmore Leonard at the Tucson Festival of Books

The Tucson Festival of Books began with a mystery friend—the designation is at the request of said friend—and I wandering the booths. Some monkish types tried to convince me to buy a copy of the Bhagavad Gita that I already had. We attended a nonfiction panel where one member spoke of the danger of “Not realizing the potential of the moment” and capturing “the spirit of the event” and asking “what is truth?” During the talk, I read the first 40 pages of Out of Sight.

The food tent came next, and with it most notably some excellent caramel corn:


A few hundred people heard Elmore Leonard, but the guy who interviewed him wasn’t particularly skillful (with questions about Westerns—Leonard hasn’t written them in decades—and ones that boil down to, “What writers have influenced you?” His answer, which I could’ve predicted, was The Friends of Eddie Coyle; see this post) and called Leonard a “man who needs no introduction.” Then why introduce him? Anyway, Leonard did say that he shifted from writing Westerns to “Easterns” and that Arizona highways in the 50s were filled with good stories that he used in his novels and stories.elmore_leonard_signing2

The novel he’s writing now is set on the East Coast of Africa, which is a greater stretch for Leonard than some previous novels because he doesn’t know how to relate to the story as well. But his forthcoming novel, Road Dogs, will be released in May and follows the more familiar teerritory Jack Foley of Out of Sight along with a few other characters from books I haven’t read. Expect to read more about Road Dogs in this space.

Leonard’s best response came from a question about his characters’ morality or lack thereof, when Leonard said “I have a kind feeling of all my characters… I like my characters, but I think most of them are just dumb.” He’s also difficult to imitate because “you have to imitate the emotions behind them,” which too many people seem to discount. An audience member asked about redemption and Leonard answered about money; he also repeated the advice he’s given to directors of movies based on his books: When someone delivers a funny line that’s not intentionally funny, don’t cut to someone laughing. To Leonard, that’s part of what ruined the movie version of Be Cool, which is better as a book.

The last speaker on Saturday, Billy Collins was a quiet riot, knowing that the better part of jokes often consists of holding back and the better part of delivery consists of practice. His reading was like a big-deal boxing match, with a few palookas warming up the crowd before the main card that served chiefly to highlight Collins’ skill. He took Leonard’s advice by not smiling as he said, “If it’s wrong to be writing to a reader, I don’t want to be right.” Next month is apparently national poetry month, and Collins said, “If you name a day or a week or a month after something, you know it’s in decline.” There is no national TV week.

His poems were wonderful; in “Tension,” one got the impression that Collins is a rule-breaker of the best sort. He’s wry and self-aware, as in “The Trouble with Poetry:”

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,


And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks

He’s contributing to the proliferation of poetry, so it’s obviously not so great a problem, and yet the poem shifts into a brief comment on life, when he mentions a book that “I carried in a side pocket of my uniform / up and down the treacherous halls of high school,” implying that perhaps poetry helped him to become a poetic thief and thus to encourage “the writing of more poetry.”billy_collins2

The tongue-in-cheek aspect continued through Collins’ poems; he read one called “On Turning Ten” that he said he wrote because he “wanted to make fun of poets who write midlife crisis death poems.” So there’s an elegy to all that’s lost upon attaining one’s tenth year. In “The Lanyard,” looking up the word “lanyard” in a dictionary functions as a “cookie nibbled by a French novelist.” The poem compares a child making a lanyard for his mother in payment for all she’s done:

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
SHe nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

The mock conceit reminds one of the disparity that must exist between most parents and their children, which can only be repaid by passing it on. But for Collins, the issue isn’t a heavy burden, or if it is, it should be addressed lightly, in a poem like “The Lanyard” that is aware of its own absurdity and therefore becomes more real in exchange of “thousands of meals” for a lanyard, “which I made with a little help from a counselor.”

I wish Collins’ attitude had been shared by the nonfiction panel. Alas: we can’t all be so reasonable.

If nothing else, being induced to read Collins made the Festival worthwhile. Hopefully I learned something and, to paraphrase something its participants said, this post captures the spirit of the event.

March Links: The Watchmen, Orwell, and Goldengrove

* “From Comic Book to Literary Classic:” Does The Watchmen deserve all the hype? The WSJ asks. Their answer is mostly “no,” a verdict I concur with.

* Speaking of Watchmen-related hype, Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes my feeling toward movies:

I think I’m mostly done with comic book movies, and big budget movies in general. I don’t think (with a few exceptions) that they’re made for me. Which is fine. But the more comic book movies I see, the more I value the imaginative space created by books.

(For more on this, see Why are so many movies awful?)

* Orwell wasn’t a mensch or a lout or an ideologue in the normal sense, and trying to define him is as much a challenge today as it must have been in his time. Julian Barnes tries to make some sense of him in “Such, Such Was Eric Blair:”

All prophets risk posthumous censure, even mockery; and the Orwell we celebrate nowadays is less the predictor than the social and political analyst. Those born in the immediate postwar years grew up with the constant half-expectation that 1984 would bring all the novel described: immovable geopolitical blocs, plus brutal state surveillance and control. Today, the English may have their sluggardly couch-potato side; their liberties have been somewhat diminished, and they are recorded by CCTV cameras more often than any other nation on earth. But otherwise 1984 passed with a sigh of relief, while 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall brought a louder one.

Orwell believed in 1936 that “the combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.” That “never” was a risky call. And on a larger scale, he believed throughout World War II that peace would bring the British revolution he desired, with blood in the gutters and the “red militias…billetted in the Ritz,” as he put it in private diary and public essay. And after the revolution:

The Stock Exchange will be pulled down, the horse plough will give way to the tractor, the country houses will be turned into children’s holiday camps, the Eton and Harrow match will be forgotten….

One out of four on the vision thing; and tractors were hardly a difficult pick.

I’ve mentioned his collected Essays before and will no doubt again; even when they’re infuriating, they’re enormously clever.

* Jacket Copy reports that, 27 years after John Cheever’s death, the man is everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except for my bookshelf: I’ve never read his novels, which are on the ever-expanding “to be read” list. This week’s New Yorker also has an article about Cheever. It includes this bit:

“How lonely and unnatural man is and how deep and well-concealed are his confusions”—no wonder Cheever’s fiction is slighted in academia while Fitzgerald’s collegiate romanticism is assigned. Cheever’s characters are adult, full of adult darkness, corruption, and confusion. They are desirous, conflicted, alone, adrift. They do not achieve the crystalline stoicism, the defiant willed courage, of Hemingway’s.

Really? I’m not sure I agree with the premise that Cheever is slighted in academia, and even if I did, I don’t think I’d buy the reason stated.

* The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, calls Cheever The Audubon of Suburbia:

“Cheever: A Life,” arriving as it does with the publication of Library of America editions of Cheever’s stories and novels, edited by Mr. Bailey, seems intended to spur a rediscovery of the author. It won’t be the first, or the last. Cheever occupies a secure place in the literature of the American dream, forming the link between Fitzgerald and Updike. The formidable achievement of his short stories alone ensures that he is destined to be the subject of periodic rediscovery, reassessment and biographical shading-in.

* Maybe I will read Francine Prose’s Goldengrove:

Prose’s book is filled with characters who comprehend their experience of the world through the lenses that art–high art, popular art, and everything in between–offers up. Even though Goldengrove tells a sad story, I found great comfort and pleasure in reading about these characters and their attachments to and imitations of art, and appreciated Myers’s identification of this kind of activity and attachment as a subject of the novel. “We learn what we were like as children from such books as The Mill on the Floss, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, and Goldengrove,” he says. Our experience of art is as much a life experience as anything else.

I didn’t care for The Mill on the Floss, but the overall point is well-taken.

* The best article on Kindle economics and bookstores that I’ve seen: Digital readers will save writers and publishing, even if they destroy the book business.

* Speaking of book publishing, MobyLives reports:

Exact data on how the used book market is eroding the market for new books is hard to come by but the consensus is — it ain’t helping.

The Wall Street Journal predicted in 2005: “While the market’s size is still modest — about $600 million, or 2.8% of the $21 billion that readers spent on consumer books in 2004 — it is growing at 25% annually. Jeff Hayes, group director for InfoTrends Research Group, suggests that it could reach $2.25 billion in U.S. sales by 2010, or 9.4% of a projected $23.9 billion in consumer book sales.”

Announcement: The Tucson Festival of Books is this weekend

tucson_festival_books_tents21I’ve complained before about the dearth of literary activity in Tucson, but this weekend ought to shut me up for a while: the Tucson Festival of Books is coming to the University of Arizona campus this weekend. Preparations on the mall are underway, as shown on the right.

I’m particularly interested in Billy Collins and Elmore Leonard, who are both speaking on Saturday afternoon. Expect a report next week. If you’re in town, be sure to come!

T.C. Boyle interview for The Women: Part 2

The first part of this interview is available here. I spoke to Boyle after he appeared at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, regarding his new novel, The Women. The last exchange prior to the questions below is:

JS: In some ways, given how Kitty [Frank Lloyd Wright's first wife] is portrayed, it’s hard to see her laughing at herself too.

TCB: No, of course not. She did fly a bit outside the parameters of what I was interested in in this book. She was probably the most difficult to deal with. First of all, she wasn’t going to be one of the principal players—I knew that. But it’s a little difficult too because what is she but a victim? You’d have to do an entire book about that relationship to really do justice to that sort of personality. And also a personality where a couple had married… young, for sex, joy and love. And he moved on. He went for progressively more sophisticated women. Mamah was a feminist, she was college educated as Kitty was not—and as he was not—and Miriam had her European connections and spoke fluent German. This was something exotic. It was something to aspire to. So I think he would have moved on in any case.

Jake Seliger: In another kind of book connection, do you like Robertson Davies at all?

T.C. Boyle: I’ve read a couple of his books, yeah.

JS: In The Deptford Trilogy and especially in Fifth Business, there’s a description that resonated for me with The Women and with Kitty. In that book, a character named Boy Staunton marries the village sweetheart and eventually really moves past her. [Dunstan Ramsay…]

TCB: Hell, Rabbit Run is a classic of that.

JS: Which I’ve never actually read.

TCB: A lot of writers, like Updike, like Wolfe, like Bellow, have written about divorces. But I always felt, I don’t want to write about divorces. I want to write about a windy day in the Shetland Islands. Or I want to write about shit and death in Africa. I don’t want to write about divorce. But in dealing with this particular character, his story had to do with divorce.

JS: And especially because of the nature of when it takes place. If you write about divorce today, you get a very different sense.

TCB: So one of the joys that I have in working is that there are no limits, and I don’t have to follow anybody’s limits except my own. And it’s very freeing.

JS: I think it shows in the final product as well, because each book is a very unexpected one. I don’t know what I expected about The Women, but I do remember thinking to myself, “Frank Lloyd Wright? Where does this come from?” Obviously there’s no answer to that. I’m not asking where the idea bank vault is. But it’s… gratifying to read as well. Who knows what’s coming?

TCB: Like Frank Lloyd Wright or Pablo Picasso or… many artists I admire, like John Coltrane, you follow them. They’re on a search. They’re on a journey of self-discovery. And if that can be communicated to the audience, then that’s what art is supposed to do. But I don’t have any consideration, ever, in anything I’ve written, except just what I want to do. I’ve been very fortunate in getting an audience and making some money along the way, and it’s great. But of course, I never even consider that. I have no consideration except exploring something and keeping it going. I’m excited about whatever’s going to be next.

JS: In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he has a little line where he says that when various people ask him in ways more polite or less polite, “Do you do it for the money, honey?” He says no, and I never have. I realize Stephen King has this rap as not literature or something below it.

TCB: He’s doing what he’s doing, and that is who he is. And you have to admire him for it. And furthermore, he’s a friend whom I love… he’s one of the most generous, and witty and good men I know. And a good reader. A deep and wonderful reader.

JS: I think On Writing shows that in many ways throughout. Actually, he references one of your books—

TCB: I know… I will never write such a book. I love John Gardner’s On Fiction, but I disagree with it because really there is no prescription. You can’t prescribe for any artist anything. And if you did try to make a prescription or a rule, I would then do my damndest to write the greatest story that proves that it’s wrong. John Gardner’s stating an opinion. And he’s demonstrating how he works. It may be of interest to everybody else who’s a draftsman too—

JS: Evidently it has been of interest.

TCB: Right. But it really has no relevance on any particular writer’s life. So many times when I’m doing a gig in public or going to a college, so many of the people in the audience are writers. They want to know if there’s some magic potion—I mean, they’re so interested how you do it. But how I do it is only interesting to contrast with how somebody else does it. It has no relevance to you as a writer. You are going to do it in your own way.

JS: In The Women, it seems like Wright is trying to dictate what’s going on with his apprentices.

TCB: It’s called being a control freak.

JS: Or even something more extreme than that, if that’s possible.

TCB: You couldn’t make this stuff up. He designed the house, the furniture, the plates, the cutlery, the drapes—

JS: The occupants.

TCB: —and the dress the housewife wears. This is true control freak territory. But I also relate to it. I’m a complete and utter perfectionist nut hole. I would be very upset if somebody moved into my home and lived in it. So he was upset when somebody moved into the house and lived in it… he was a con man and he had to get some patron to give him the money to build his design. But once it’s built, he was notoriously prickly about the actual owners who paid way over cost to get there to move into their house, because it spoils his design. And it’s crazy—it’s irrational. But on the other hand, I relate to it.

JS: I forget who it is, but I think it’s either Miriam or Mamah, who says that to get back at Wright… she’s going to hang doilies on the window—

TCB: That’s Miriam.

JS: I thought so. It’s one of these great little moments, where it showed her knowledge of the character and showed us a lot about Frank Lloyd Wright as well. What’s the ultimate thing you can do to get back him? Destroy his—

TCB: But mock it, or change it. Spray graffiti on it, in a way.

JS: [Miriam] has these little artistic pretensions here and there, like where she says she’s pondering a carving a block of “Carrara marble” and “doing something significant and lasting.” These pretensions never go anywhere, at least not artistically.

TCB: I keep using the term lucky. I’m very lucky in that I was able to discover what I could do, and then devote my entire life to it. And then do it, I hope, at the highest level. But think of all the other artists who are as engaged as I and desperately want to do it, but for various reasons do not. Maybe because they don’t have the abilities, or they don’t have the determination. Maybe they haven’t had the breaks. Whatever it is. So… [there’s a real pathos about the failed artist.] I give my life up to my art. That’s who I am. I could not live without it. I’m sure there are many many people who feel the same way, but they have no audience. They become discouraged. And maybe there are people like Miriam who love the idea of art and their own self-concept more than the art itself. They aren’t able to do it. Then again, these are real people. She really did do the real hands in the Louvre. I’m taking these wonderful actual facts and making them into symbols.

JS: I think those couple lines about marble were effective because she reminded me a little bit of those people who are wearing literally or metaphorically a beret and going around… but who don’t seem to produce a lot. Miriam seems like a follower in a way, yet she has this great passion and desire for some kind of control.

TCB: But she’s a dilettante.

JS: A dilettante. There we go.

TCB: You might know my essay, “This Monkey, My Back,” where I’m likening this joy of creation to a drug addiction. I’m extremely driven, and I judge my fellow artists and people in general in the world by what they produce. Not who they are—for admiration’s sake. I mean, I will take anybody… for human contact.

JS: I was going to ask, how does Miriam function in that respect?

TCB: I think you already know the answer. I am not going to be an acolyte of anybody. So I judge people by their work and their devotion to their work and the quality of the work. That’s when I become a fan of somebody—not because of their persona or propaganda or rumor or anything like that. And I’m sure you do too. You mentioned several writers tonight. You like them because their work turns you on. Same with filmmakers, etc. Those are my heroes. I don’t give a damn about politicians or generals or TV stars or anything like that. That’s beyond my ken. I don’t want to know about it.

JS: That’s funny, because it was a problem for me the other night when I was hanging out with a bunch of people the other night, and they were discussing reality TV shows in detail…

TCB: I don’t know anything about TV. But I have close friends… who are TV writers, and they are as dedicated to what they do as I am. However, I am the creator of my universe, and I am in charge of it, and I am uncompromising. Nobody lives in my book, nobody lives in Frank Lloyd Wright’s house. They [TV writers], however, are part of a machine. And there’s joy in that. There’s joy in collaboration… that’s like playing in a band. I’m part of nothing. I am just me. I am doing my own thing. And it might be crazy. Maybe I could collaborate with people. But there’s no way in the world I would ever consider making a creative decision unless it was 100% me. There’s no way I could work with anything else in anything, ever… I think that determination helps you create your art. I see that in people like Frank Lloyd Wright or Kinsey. Maybe that’s not entirely mentally healthy.

JS: I have a suspicion that the mentally healthy are not the ones who are changing history or changing the way we think. They aren’t the ones who are prying at the chink in society.

TCB: … If I were to make pronouncements about my own work, I would think that what I’m always writing about in many, many different ways, is us as an animal species living in a finite planet which has no reason that we can fathom… as with the Kinsey book, for instance. The distinction that Kinsey would make between romantic love and the mechanics of sex in the human animal [is virtually nonexistent]. Who are we? That’s what I’m always addressing.

JS: It’s interesting what you say about human love versus the act of sex because I have a pet theory that much of life and what meaning we find in life is what meaning we want to give it… in my mind, if we believe in romantic love, it exists for us, and if we don’t believe, it doesn’t.

TCB: And if you believe in God, then he exists for you, etc.

JS: In The Women, a lot of the characters seem to go from that belief in romantic love to the reality of living with…

TCB: Shit, misery, death and horror. I guess the point when you come down to at root—to create art is a display of control over the universe in your own small way. The search for meaning might be an evolutionary dead end. People… presume that evolution advances. But not necessarily. There are adaptations that are fatal. Perhaps our brains allowed us to dominate all other animals and build this place. Okay, great. But it might be a quick dead end…
It’s an obsession, and it’s an imposition of meaning on a meaningless and random universe. That’s all it is. That’s what art is. And I suppose to some extent you could [say the same of] going to work at a shoe factory… To make something out of nothing. That is the thrill. And then of course we get into all the things we’ve been discussing tonight—how is it beneficial for you the artist in trying to sort out your ideas, your philosophy, your feeling about everything around you, and then how is that comforting to the audience to whom it’s communicated? That’s a great thing—that’s the highest and greatest thing that happens on this planet.

JS: Maybe they’re all different functions of control—

TCB: Sure.

JS: —trying to find some kind of control over what’s going on. Or what’s life, or something else. I guess the question is how far that sphere of control extend. Wright’s extended to the Imperial Hotel in Japan, with that little footnote noting that it was destroyed in 1964? 1968? The building there was destroyed, so—

TCB: You have to put it in the historical context as well. Wordsworth famously carved some poems into a rock—into a rock face, because he didn’t trust paper to last through the centuries. But of course it does. Now it’s out in the ether of the Internet.

JS: And in innumerable Norton Critical Editions—

TCB: [Laughter]. Yeah, that’s right. There are so many of them that the planet is probably tipping toward the English-speaking world just from the weight of those Norton editions.

JS: Some of which I have on my bookshelves.

TCB: Yeah, me too.

JS: Which is interesting the way books travel. There’s a strangely serendipitous experience tonight. I came in late, and I was sitting in the architecture section [of Changing Hands, the bookstore where Boyle spoke]. A bunch of Frank Lloyd Wright’s books were sitting there, and someone next to me was picking them up. It’s the kind of detail that in a novel would be too convenient.

TCB: You might know that another book came out last year, Loving Frank by Nancy Moran. [It deals with] Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah. I haven’t read it, obviously, because I don’t want to get put in the position of contrasting them. With the Kinsey book, Bill Condon made a movie named Kinsey

JS: Weren’t there two Kinsey movies around the same time?

TCB: I don’t know about that. Maybe there were. But I did meet Bill Condon and we got on stage and talked about two artists doing the same thing. It’s fascinating to me. What if ten artists in the same year had written about the same historical situation, or factual situation?

JS: It would be a Borges short story.

TCB: It would. But [think of] how various they would be.

JS: It reminds me of something at Clark. I had a creative writing teacher there named William Tapply. He wrote mystery novels. His observation was that if he gave us a situation or a prompt and said, “All of you are going to write about this, no matter what,” by the end of the year we’d have ten or twelve or however many [stories] that were so different that they’d be unrecognizable.

TCB: Sure.

JS: I think that speaks to the variation of form that happens in many kinds of art—

TCB: And experience. With seven billion people and a mystery that’s inexplicable as to why we’re here and who we are, to distinguish yourself is quite extraordinary.

JS: It draws women like Miriam to you.

TCB: That’s right.

JS: For good or for ill.

TCB: Whether you would create something that’s absolutely crappy art or great art, nonetheless nobody else could have done it but you. Of all the billions who have ever lived, at least you have that. Because you’re unique in your DNA and who you are and you’re the end product of all the generations from the apes right on to sitting here at this table tonight… You have art by an individual, whether it’s the kid in elementary school finger painting—which was probably the last time I had any satisfaction with graphic arts—or James Joyce. That art can only be produced by you because only you have these particular experiences, and only you are you. And that’s a pretty exciting thing in an anonymous world.

JS: But one can have that kind of desire and expand to say, “How far can it go?” That might be where something like the Imperial Hotel comes up. There are these moments in The Women where [Wright] is anticipating the greatest hotel in the world.

TCB: And he used a very odd mix of styles. He was prefiguring the Aztec style of the textile blockhouses in L.A when building [the Imperial Hotel]. It’s part Craftsman, part Japanese and part Aztec. It’s so bizarre. I’ve only seen interior photos of it, but it’s got these walls of blocks, as if it were an Aztec temple.

JS: I actually know virtually nothing about Frank Lloyd Wright except for whatever’s in the zeitgeist and what I read in your novel.

TCB: You would know pretty much his whole career and what he did from this novel. My object is not—I mean, a thousand books have been written about him and his architecture by people who are experts. But I do love the history for itself. Any reader who comes in knowing nothing about it will now have a whole idea of his career and his personality and how people felt about him and so on.

JS: Especially about the trajectory of the women he was involved with, from the honeymoon period to its extreme opposite.

TCB: It’s a kind of horror story. And we love horror stories because they’re not happening to us yet.

JS: In The Women, Wright and some of the women—especially Miriam, who I keep coming back to—

TCB: Me too. She took over for me.

JS: Maybe that was part of the function of the novel. Wright, Miriam and others seem to perversely court the press they claim to loathe. There are all these descriptions about how they hate the press, and yet they seem to keep coming back to it.

TCB: It’s self-dramatizing, especially for Miriam. Now she’s famous. Now she can give press conferences, whereas before she was just someone who had a pair of folded hands in the Louvre. As Michael Silverblatt pointed out… I don’t think it’s as difficult to sculpt a pair of hands as it is to sculpt the whole bust or the whole figure. So she’s a dilettante. She interests me as much or more as the master himself. As you said earlier, what is the satisfaction level for these people and what do they want?

JS: Miriam wants recognition, in an almost Hegelian way. She wants to be in the spotlight. Or like a contemporary starlet.

TCB: Of course.

JS: If you want the TV metaphor, use the starlet, and if you want the intellectual metaphor use Hegel, but either way they’re working toward the same drive to recognition that Miriam seems to have—

TCB: It’s an age-old story, isn’t it? Because it furthers the other purpose to life, which is to procreate. Everything else is irrelevant. [Miriam] was, by the time she met Frank, too old to procreate, so she wanted something else altogether. I suppose to devour him, to be him.

JS: In her demands, she seems to be closest of all the characters to his mother. There’s this Freudian impulse running through [The Women] too, where his mother gets mentioned here and there.

TCB: He was a mama’s boy, and Anna was an extremely powerful figure. Again, my job is really a job of synthesis about this material. This could have been a 1,200 page novel if I want to give all the characters their due. You could write a fair novel about Anna herself.

JS: In some ways, if one were to group his mother and Miriam on one side, you’d have Kitty on the exact opposite. She’s weak, but to me, her weakness almost became her strength. It’s harder to attack or demonize somebody who’s not going to fight back. On page 335, there’s a wonderful little section with Kitty viewing Frank: “She heard him call after he, but she didn’t turn. And when she got to the motorcar—the chromatic advertisement of self and self-love…” that little phrase here between em dashes—

TCB: And that’s her point of view. She’s beginning to feel resentment. But I just believe she was more of a simple sole—

JS: Because he’s leaving her for Mamah—

TCB: She… was not ready to grow beyond the initial relationship she had with him when she was 16. And he is. It’s going on all around the world tonight as we’re sitting here in a million different households.

JS: She links his car to his development as person, and I think that’s what draws me to the phrase, “the chromatic advertisement of self and self-love.” She seems not to really understand him. The question arises: can anyone understand the great man or the great person at all? I’m not convinced that Milk, for example, understands Kinsey.

TCB: For me, the joy of such a scenario is that he… may never admit to himself what has happened to him, and the reader certainly draws back in horror. And there’s something of that going on in this book too. The quote that you’ve just given us indicates that for all her earth-mother qualities and so on, and her quality as a victim, [Kitty] is withdrawing herself from the cult of admiration of Frank Lloyd Wright—at least for that moment in her anger. And again, her role could’ve been greatly expanded. But it’s already 450 pages. Every story has to find its emphasis, and every story is a discovery. Which is why I cannot get enough of doing it.

JS: It was interesting discovering the antithesis of Miriam towards the back when we get to Kitty, who’s got this very different thing going on. The levels of growth in terms of Frank’s women parallel his growth as an architect.

TCB: Yes, I think so. And I don’t think Kitty could’ve imagined someone like Mamah. They were friends—they were in the same club together. Mamah certainly had designs on Frank. And again, I’m dealing with the truth of actual, living characters. She didn’t marry—Mamah—till she was 30, when [Edwin] was old for her. He asked her three times over the years to marry him, and she refused, so it wasn’t exactly a raging passion. So all the elements are. It’s so great—in any story of this dimension, you could write a whole novel about any moment in any one of these characters’ lives.

JS: Sure. It’s common to write novels about a single couple’s marriage.

TCB: Yeah. But that’s too confining for me.

JS: It wasn’t too confining for—well, I was going to say Madame Bovary, but that was chiefly about her leaving her marriage.

TCB: Or Anna Karenina, and I love those books. They’re beautifully done… but I make that comment because that’s simply not what my interest is. Yes, I have to deal with these kinds of relationships in here because the larger story and the larger explanation is what fascinates me, and this is part of it. And that’s good because I haven’t done something exactly like this before. Maybe I’m examining some of that with regard to Milk and Iris in The Inner Circle. I’m always trying to go someplace where I haven’t gone before. And so there are female protagonists, who I haven’t done so much in the past. Maybe eventually if I keep going in this vein I’ll eventually write novels that only concern cats. And everybody’s a cat. I don’t know I’m always trying to do something new.

JS: And then someone would say to you, “It seems like you’re writing science fiction.”

TCB: And I would say, okay.

JS: And then you can say you already did that in, um—

TCB: A Friend of the Earth. I do notice that in the book I’m writing now… there is an antagonism between a strong-minded young female and a Peck Wilson [from Talk Talk] kind of character… I can see some of these patterns repeating themselves. But I think there are endless variations that I can play on.

JS: Wasn’t that the old saying—you can say any novel is about, “A stranger comes to town or someone leaves town?” So the question is not so much about the abstracts as the particulars.

TCB: In the case of novel I’m writing now, it’s more like, “The golden eagle comes to the island and eats the fox.” [Laughter.] That’s the plot line.

JS: I’m going to have to make a note of that and remember. It’s still some ways off, but I’ll be wondering to myself [what happens].

TCB: I’m just shaking it out. Frank Lloyd Wright would say he’d shake out the design of a given building—well, that’s what I’m doing. I’m shaking it out… and so far I don’t see any end in sight.

JS: So you still feel a sense of freedom? Because [in the Women,] people keep talking about how they want to be free. And then they go get themselves entangled again, and there’s this running line about freedom.

TCB: It raises the question of what freedom is and if anybody has the possibility of getting it. And again I come back to this doctrine of art, where art is freedom. It enables you to control the world and enables you to escape it. You can be free at least in those moments when you are absorbing art from some artist who you admire, or if you’re the artist creating it. It’s absolute freedom. And art of course is not anything that’s done for any reason other than itself. It’s not done to push a program. It’s not done in order to make money or sell a product. It’s not done for revenge necessarily. It’s done for its own self, without compromise.

JS: There’s a little book by a guy named Gabriel Zaid called So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance. He’s got a line in there when he says that no newspeople will ever report that today a 14-year-old read Plato and felt free.

TCB: Yeah, of course. That’s a very cool thing.

JS: One starts to wonder if any of the characters in The Women might do well to occasionally do something and think, “Now I feel free,” as opposed to cursing the press or using the press.

TCB: [Which is] again wrapped up in our desire to control other people as well as control the world. Yeah, that quote you just gave is pretty wonderful. Art—at least literary art, and maybe film art—tends to dwell on the sensational and the negative and so on. I think the hardest thing for a fiction writer to do is to write something about someone who is purely good.

JS: It would be boring.

TCB: Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, for instance. Pnin. Pnin is one of my favorite Nabokov books. But of course it has tremendous pathos too… I would take it as a challenge. And I would hope someday to write a book and represent someone who is good without being venal about it, and without standing on a soapbox. And you also have to define what good is. For instance, as has been said a million times, by the time you get from Jesus to Milton the devil has already won the hour. I felt something of that sense in Talk Talk too. Peck Wilson is such a dynamic character. And I’m still wrestling with that in the new new novel too… there’s always a new challenge. That’s why it keeps going.

TCB: The people I’m intrigued by and admire have been freed and lucky enough to be creating their art without any other consideration. Many other writers who we both admire, I’m sure, [have this impact].

TCB: That’s what art is: it’s entertainment first, then it’s a communication. And I love to turn them on. And I took a lot of criticism for this in my early career, but of course I just piss on them from a great height. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I have the credentials. I can do anything I want.

TCB: [Reading] should be subversive. It should be something you want to do in order to say, “Fuck the world.” That’s why we do it. That’s why we’re doing it. So I like to remind [audience members] of that. I don’t believe that there’s this sanctity to literature, or that it only exists in the academy. It’s not. It’s a living art that’s supposed to turn you on.

JS: Many of the characters you’ve written about—and I’m thinking in particular of Kinsey—have a very subversive quality to them. That’s very profound in the society they exist in at the time. If you want to change things, you have to have a subversive quality.

TCB: I don’t know if I want to change things. I would be a politician or something if I wanted to change things. I just want to make art. That’s all. But of course I have a worldview, and that worldview is expressed in the art. Perhaps I will change things. Certainly if you read my work, you could take a hundred question questionnaire and know what I stand for. But art is not advocacy. Art is art.

JS: Do you think Wright would say the same thing about architecture? He seems to have a kind of advocacy for simplicity and a clean aesthetic.

TCB: I’d go with choice B. He had a very definite idea of what art should be, and he attacked what was not fitting within his categories. And he did create a new synthesis of art in the prairie-style house. And there was a kind of political statement being made.

JS: I keep coming back to Tadashi, [and on page 317 Daisy leaves]. When he talks to her, she just says, “Yes, I’m leaving.” He says, “Of course, all this happened a very long time ago and I’m aware that it is peripheral to the task at hand, which is to give as full a portrait of Wrieto-San as I can.” It’s very affecting in a way I can’t quite fully articulate.

TCB: Yeah, Jake, I was saying a minute ago that I would like to create a good character. Tadashi is a good character because he’s an innocent. The beauty for me in such a narrator—like The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which is one of my favorite books of all time—is the dawning realization that something is wrong. Milk has it too. Maybe you’ve devoted your life to something that isn’t worth it. However my dear fellow, we’re going to have to wrap it up shortly.

JS: My question, which I often end with, is “Is there anything else you want to say?” Or, that I might add, is there a question out there you wish someone would ask you but they never do?

TCB: Why have I been unable to save the whales?

JS: And your answer?

TCB: Because I’m not close enough with Obama, of course. He could simply pass his hand over the ocean and they would all be saved. I’ve learned very recently that he’s converting Lake Huron into wine.

JS: I look forward to drinking it. I’m sure I’ll see in Trader Joe’s shortly.

TCB: Of course I’m a Democrat and voted for Obama, but I think people place unrealistic expectations at his doorstop in a way that these figures I write about—comical figures—and they’re going to disappoint their followers, and followers want to recreate them in some God-like way. And they’re not God-like. They’re invested in their own projects.

JS: Interesting that you mention that God-like aspect. There’s a writer for “The Atlantic” named James Fallows who—

TCB: Yes, I know. I know his work.

JS: I really admire him. When General Petraeus was first appointed to oversee American forces in Iraq, Fallows said [Petraeus would suffer from the “New Jesus” complex], where some new person comes into a situation or organization—

TCB: And they’re going to redeem everybody.

JS: Right. The messiah is here! The problem is, inevitably you’re just a person, and if you’re trying to work in a complex or difficult situation, even your best efforts might not achieve—

TCB: That’s precisely why I made that Obama joke. People have to understand that they have to redeem themselves. That’s what I’m writing about.

T.C. Boyle interview for The Women: Part 1

T.C. Boyle is the author of 8 short story collections and 12 novels, including Talk Talk, The Inner Circle, Drop City, and, most recently, The Women. His new novel describes the architect Frank Lloyd Wright through the view of a fictional apprentice, Tadashi Sato, who focuses on Wright’s relationship with his three wives, his mistress, and his mother. Each influences Wright, paralleling his increasing sophistication as an artist.

Boyle spoke at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe on February 25. He wore red Chucks, black jeans, and a gold coat, looking a bit like the professor you imagine being even more fun at the bar after class or a faintly piratical psychologist—which, in a way, many novelists are. This interview was conducted afterwards, and the following is an edited transcript. Links have been subsequently added by me.

Jake Seliger: How’s your tour been so far?

T.C. Boyle: It’s really rewarding, huge crowds and a lot of dedicated readers. It’s wonderful, and I really love to meet the readers because I will never get over the thrill of having people liking my work and engaging with them. But I’m also exhausted. However, we are celebrating right now because this is the last gig.

JS: As I said on the phone, there’s a very interesting set of symmetries for me because I have a copy of Stories, which you signed on 2/9/99.

TCB: Wow.

JS: The very first time I went to a reading—

TCB: But it’s signed to Isaac.

JS: That’s my Dad. But I was there with him. Anyway, about your new book, which I really enjoyed, you mentioned [in his talk at Changing Hands] that there’s an obvious parallel between writing and architecture that goes on throughout The Women. There’s one scene in particular where the two come together on page 237: “He left the car running as he got out to swing open the gate, seeing the small things, the way the ditch along the drive had eroded in the previous week’s storm, the weeds crowding out the wildflowers, the iridescent blue of the damselflies threading the air…” it’s just one of these really interesting moments where you can see him looking at all these small things and see the way he might build these small ones into bigger ones.

TCB: Because he was a perfectionist and attentive to detail. Everyday he decorated the house, everyday. No matter what the season, he would send the apprentices out or he himself had tremendous energy to cut flowers or cut a branch off the tree in the winter, and always the house changing and flowing and big pots of full of things and bringing the outdoors in. And that was part of what he wanted to do.
JS: It’s interesting that you talk about a lot of the changes in the house because in some ways it seems like he went through a lot of interpersonal changes—obviously he went through a lot of changes in terms of the women he was with as well—and I think there’s a parallel there. Were you thinking consciously about that, in terms of the changing of architecture and the changing of people? It seems like a lot of that is going on in the book.

TCB: I think so.

JS: [Arizona] is very, very car centered…

TCB: Yeah, I hate that, that’s one of the reasons I left LA and moved to Santa Barbara. Where I’m living now, there’s just a village, and I can walk everywhere. I do walk everywhere. It makes your life a thousand times better because you don’t have to fight for parking spots, or worry about traffic. You just walk. You see nature. It’s just wonderful.

JS: There’s some descriptions in The Women too of Wright walking around, going on some jaunts of his own.

TCB: Yeah, he becomes my creature and my character of course, as does anybody you invent or write about. And I’m worried about the effect he has on his acolytes, what type of person he is, but irrespective of that I do believe that art has no ethical consideration. Art just stands for itself and what it is. So I admire him despite some of his personality problems. One thing I admire is that [Wright] was a nature boy.

JS: You do admire Wright, and he does have a lot of admirable qualities, and one thing I was thinking about when I was reading the book is that you see the admiration there, but he’s also not the sort of person one would want as a relative.

TCB: He would be impossible. If he were here, we wouldn’t even be able to say a word. He becomes a little bit of a satiric figure here. But I love to have it both ways in many of my stories and a book like this. Miriam, for instance. I have a lot of fun with her in a satiric way, although she’s sort of opéra bouffe, which is what his whole life seems to be—Frank Lloyd Wright with Miriam. But I also want you to feel something too… there’s a kind of dread hanging over the book, because you know that Mamah’s going to be burned because you read about it in the footnote. But you keep going backward in time, so you know you’re going to get there.

JS: It’s a reverse chronology. It’s interesting that you mention Miriam as an example of having it both ways because she’s in some ways the character who most fascinates me.

TCB: Me too. She took right over and I love her.

JS: … You’re introduced to Miriam as a harpy—

TCB: It’s going [chronologically] backwards [in time]. It gives you a chance to reflect on what loves relationships are like, when you meet someone and they’re great and you love them and then they turn sour. So when you first see Miriam and she’s this incredible harpy, this maniac, and poor Olgivanna. But then you backtrack and you see Miriam ten years earlier. I thought that was a really intriguing way to tell the story. And also it allows me to end with the tragedy of Mamah.

JS: Perhaps I was accidentally thinking of Miriam coming first because she seems to really cast a very long shadow across the first part of the book, and I’m thinking in particular of this passage: “For years now—longer than he could remember—he’d been rolling a stone up a hill, a boulder that picked up weight on each revolution like a ball of snow, and Miriam’s face was imprinted on the side of it…” you get this Sisyphean aspects of it, and I can imagine him looking at that face. To me, there’s this fascinating aspect of it, that she’s so present in his life.

TCB: Yeah, and in the actual history he seemed to be the sort of artist who needed lots of tumult in his life in order to create—to have someone to butt up against. I don’t think ever bargained for something as extreme as Miriam, because of her mental problems and her drug addiction and her grandiosity and desire to be as great as the great man that she’s allied with. Still, unlike me—

JS: I like how you add “unlike me.”

TCB: —who needs tranquility to work. I’m a little fascinated by the kind of artist who needs this tumult in order to work. The obvious metaphor, of course, is that to build a book is like building a house.
JS: You build one brick at a time or one sentence at a time.

TCB: Also, we see something. We have a vision first, and then we translate it to accomplish something concrete. He always began by just drawing a picture of a house in colored pencils.

JS: With soft lead.

TCB: With soft lead. There’s a lot of that going on to intrigue me. The other key figures I’ve written about who are the egomaniacs, Kellogg and Kinsey, were both men of science, and here I’m writing about an artist and trying to re-imagine it a bit… of course we have to stay inside writing our books and think inside our own minds. He got to do that sort of work in his drawing… but then he also got to go outside, and be physical, and work among the workers. And also, I don’t know how you work, but I’m improvisatory. You know, it just happens, it just continues to happen, step by step by slow accretion. So is he. He didn’t adhere strictly to plans over time.

JS: It’s interesting how you talk about the inside and outside, because I was listening on the way over here to an interview you did with Michael Silverblatt of Bookworm [a book radio show hosted on KCRW and available at] about your last book, Talk Talk, and that you as a writer can’t live inside your head for 365 days a year, and you need that teaching aspect or going out into the world to try to stay sane.

TCB: Absolutely.

JS: So would say that he has that built into his work?

TCB: Sure. He wasn’t simply a draftsman working for somebody—he was a creator. By the way, I did Michael’s show yesterday, and it was the best one we ever did. He was such a deep reader… it’s a pleasure to meet deep readers who are really engaged with it, way beyond “I like this, I don’t like this.” It’s a much deeper experience. He was very taken with the intricate structure of The Women and how it works and what it says about levels of meaning…
We don’t know any history of an event. Any biography of somebody has its biases, even in terms of what happened on a given day, or what the events were. So you’ve got an unsteady sort of revelation of truth anyway. Then when you take it from the point of view of Tadashi, who is learning about himself. He gives it another level altogether. And then, in my view—and this is part of the fun I had with it and the humor—Tadashi apparently has delivered a manuscript or reminiscences to his grandson-in-law, O’Flaherty-San, for translation and elaboration. So he’s now reading this text and writing footnotes, and sometimes he’s very surprised by what the footnotes say. And in the course of commenting on the text, as we get into the more tragic aspects, he then begins to reflect on his own self in the footnotes. So there’s a lot going on and yet it seemed to be the proper structure for this. It just began to reveal itself to me. And I had a great deal of fun with it as a result.

JS: Have you ever read Mordecai Richler’s book Barney’s Version?

TCB: No.

JS: I ask because it’s got at least a somewhat similar structure… it’s written [from the perspective of an] old man who is partially losing his memory, and his son is going back through his memoir reading, and it’s got all these little foonotes…

TCB: So they’re having a dialog in footnotes?

JS: Yeah, in a way they are. And it’s a very funny novel… in one of your other interviews, you said you like John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor

TCB: It’s utterly huge in my life.

JS: How so?

TCB: It’s picaresque, and it’s wild humor. And its subversion of history is something that really appealed to me.

JS: It seems like in The Sot-Weed Factor, Ebenezer Cooke is going on this journey, if not from innocence to cynicism, then from innocence to something else. It seems like in The Women, Tadashi-san is still very much revering the master. In a way he is, but in a way he’s also subverting the master.

TCB: Yes. That’s where I got my title, when he gives this speech at the end of the introduction, and he’s trying to sum up and he gets a little out of control. He says that Wrieto-san [Tadashi’s name for Frank Lloyd Wright] is this great master we revered and we paraded through the streets, who was a philanderer and abuser, especially of the women. So that gave me a dramatic context to let him try to discover something of himself.

JS: Is there an answer about what [Tadashi] discovers [over the course of the book]? I’m taken with a footnote on page 384, when Tadashi says that he thinks Daisy Hartnett [a white woman Tadashi thinks he loves but whom Wright sends away after discovering their affair] was certainly a force of nature. It’s a fascinating footnote because Tadashi reacts to being separated from Daisy in a way that you can’t imagine Wright reacting in being separated from what he wants. Tadashi accepts it. It feels like there’s this shadow plot flowing underneath with him and Daisy, and it just pops up here and there.

TCB: Yeah. I think so. And again, this is about relationships, and reflecting on relationships. How is this different from the kind of relationship that Frank Lloyd Wright had with his women? This seems to be much deeper.

JS: It’s so short with Daisy—[Tadashi says] “I can say that Daisy Hartnett was certainly a natural force, and I too much constrained by expectation.” It seems like he’s still constrained by expectation.

TCB: It’s a cultural thing too.

JS: You’ve got your combination of three big figures—Kellogg, Kinsey, and now Wright.

TCB: Yes. And don’t forget we also have Mungo Park of Water Music and Stanley McCormick [of Riven Rock] into the mix also. But they don’t fit quite so neatly into this little box set of the egomaniacs of the 20th century.

JS: The egomaniacs and the admired ones. Both in this book, you have Tadashi, who is a superficially passive figure. I say “superficially passive” in part because of those footnotes that are constantly interposing themselves. In The Inner Circle, you’ve got [John] Milk [the first-person narrator], who’s another person who seems very passive compared to the great man. In some ways, they seem to me like Carraway figures who are separated from the big man.

TCB: It’s a good observation. A number of people have been making that connection. It’s a time-honored way of getting at the personality of some larger-than-life figure. I’m not so much interested in investing Frank Lloyd Wright and writing about him from his point of view, although we get a little bit of it because the story needed it at certain points. I think it much more fascinating to veer—like [how] The Great Gatsby works. That is, to have a character who changes and observes the great man, but you learn about the character more than about the great man. And so you learn what the effect of a guru is on some people—to give yourself up to somebody. What is the cost to you? Because obviously I would never do that. I’m a fan of a thousand artists who I love dearly. But I’m not going to give my life up for them, or I’m not going to serve them. I want to be their equal. But many people are simply followers of not only artists, but political figures—

JS: I’m thinking back to Drop City.

TCB: Yes, exactly.

JS: I think in that book you have a very clear—well, perhaps not very clear—delineation between the followers and not.

TCB: So, what happens is—as you’ll discover in your own career—when you write many books, you can look back and see what your themes and obsessions are and why you choose the particular subject or character to write about. It’s great. I could write papers on my own work. I could sit and articulate about it.

JS: I think people have written papers on your work.

TCB: They may have. Of course, I don’t do that in the abstract beforehand. I am simply an artist. I don’t want to be a man of letters. I don’t want to write anything except fiction. It’s magic. It’s magic that I love. I don’t have time for anything else.

JS: So you don’t have those Fridays like John Barth did? Have you read his collections The Friday Book and Further Fridays?

TCB: No.

JS: He also wrote essays which I think are very good… He says four days a week he writes fiction and on the Friday he—

TCB: I would love to read them. I should. Updike was one of my heroes too, and he was our foremost man of letters. And he was quite consciously doing that. I am different though. I realized this a long while ago. Even though I got my Ph.D. in 18th century British Lit and I love scholarship, to me scholarship is only a tool for me to create a story. I am much more intuitive and much more an artist than I am analytical. I discovered this and I’m running with it.

And so far I don’t see any limits or any end to that. I don’t have Fridays to write essays because I’m working on Fridays on fiction. It’s all I want to do. And I think because anything can be a story for me and any mode and anything I want to discover, I can only think about deeply if I create a fiction. There seems to be no… burn out factor. There’s no end to the material. I feel very lucky in that way.

JS: I can see that, especially where you’ve talked elsewhere about wanting to be unique each time. I think you’ve done a remarkable job—I’ve pointed out parallels [among Boyle’s works], but that’s because at an abstract enough level you can see parallels in anything.

TCB: I still want to have a new way in to each story.

JS: That seems to be what Tadashi provides you.

TCB: Because it would be very easy to write another book like The Inner Circle, where a single “I” narrator revisits his integration with the master. But I’d just done that, and I was interested in something else altogether. Of course intervening were Tooth and Claw and Talk Talk.

JS: Talk Talk has Dana, who is a very figure in that. She’s a kind of driving person, and Bridger is an enabler—

TCB: As his name suggests.

JS: Right. I suspect there’s an obvious, freshman-year analysis of the book—

TCB: No, that’s great. Don’t forget, I was there too, and I made all these connections in the book, and I was thankful for them. So I’m greatly honored that other people see these connections, and that I have a body of work in which people can compare this story or that one or this novel and that one and see threads. It’s wonderful. I’m very happy.

JS: I think I do see that, with Dana… as a powerful figure. In that book, I think she’s more powerful than Bridger, and she’s the force of it, bringing others along—well, bringing Bridger along in her wake. In [The Women], I think Miriam in a way wants to do that, but if she found someone she could do it with, I don’t think she would be happy. Or I think she would then start moving on—

TCB: Right. These are really people, who were really attracted to one another for the psychological reasons that you’re suggesting. She needed the greatest challenge possible. And so did he. And again, I have to withdraw here, and I’m not anything like this. I couldn’t imagine the writers who marry other writers. It’s your enemy sleeping in bed with you. How could you keep from choking her to death every night?

JS: I’ll ask Michael Chabon that next time I see him, because he’s married to, um—

TCB: Ayelet [Waldman]. I know them both, yeah—

JS: I’m telling Noah about the flood, then.

TCB: —that’s really strange. For me [to imagine being with someone much like him]. I mean, everybody’s different. My wife is my complete antithesis. She doesn’t want to be on stage. She’s mathematical and scientific, which I am not. Her trick is that she’s imperfect, which allows me to be perfect.

JS: That’s good. If she were here and I said, “By the way, Tom says that your imperfections allow him to be perfect,” how do you thinks she’d respond? In a Miriam way, or in a Kitty way?

TCB: Don’t forget, the wife and mother-in-law of a comedian always take a beating. It’s just the way it is. She knows, she understands. I’ll tell you, this is true though, about Frau Boyle and myself, sometimes she goes on tour with me, and I do my little shtick, like tonight—I develop a shtick. You want to hear me being very original about the book—it’s in the first couple days. So, I just speak spontaneously to the crowd and then I do the reading and then I take questions. But there is a shtick involved—it might be a little different each night, but I’m going to come to the same basic points and make the same basic jokes. It’s like the tenth night, and she’s heard it ten times, and I see the whole crowd, and they’re roaring with laughter. Then I see her, and she’s roaring with laughter as well! And that’s true love.

JS: I can’t see Miriam laughing at herself if someone is making jokes at her expense.

TCB: No. She took herself very seriously.

JS: In some ways, given how Kitty is portrayed, it’s hard to see her laughing at herself too.

TCB: No, of course not. She did fly a bit outside the parameters of what I was interested in in this book. She was probably the most difficult to deal with. First of all, she wasn’t going to be one of the principal players—I knew that. But it’s a little difficult too because what is she but a victim? You’d have to do an entire book about that relationship to really do justice to that sort of personality. And also a personality where a couple had married… young, for sex, joy and love. And he moved on. He went for progressively more sophisticated women. Mamah was a feminist, she was college educated as Kitty was not—and as he was not—and Miriam had her European connections and spoke fluent German. This was something exotic. It was something to aspire to. So I think he would have moved on in any case.

EDIT: You can read part two of the interview here.


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