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—
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.
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.