T. C. Boyle is the author of twenty-two books of fiction, including, most recently, After the Plague (2001), Drop City (2003), The Inner Circle (2004), Tooth and Claw (2005), The Human Fly (2005), Talk Talk (2006), The Women (2009), Wild Child (2010), When the Killing’s Done (2011), and San Miguel (2012). He currently lives near Santa Barbara with his wife and three children. His story can be found in the Fall 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story “Slate Mountain”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
Inspiration comes buzzing in like a hummingbird to hover just over the back of my head (which is why I always wear a reversed baseball cap while writing). In this case, I was up in the Sierras, where I spend a whole lot of time, and heard of a Sierra Club hike (60-plus) that went wrong in just the way of the story. Slate Mountain is the big rearing black slab of granite I see out the window each day when I’m up in the Sequoia Park. I have mounted it myself. And because I know the search and rescue people, this one was delivered to me, neatly wrapped. Then all I had to do was snatch the hummingbird out of the air and squeeze it real hard.
Your story centers around a hike for a “sixty-and-up group.” As you have aged, do you find that your characters have followed suit? Are there stories that are available to you now that weren’t when you were in your thirties?
One of the great compliments I had early in my career was from my mentor at the University of Iowa, Frederick P.W. McDowell, who chaired my PhD committee. Kindly, and with genuine enthusiasm, he read my work as it appeared in various magazines and books, and he would write me detailed appreciations and analyses. The compliment? That I seemed to have a real grasp on the thought processes and unique problems of the old (and I was young back then). Of course, that is what we are meant to do: inhabit characters different from ourselves, as for example, in my most recent novel, San Miguel, which is delivered exclusively from a female point of view. Do I channel the old more intimately now that I am, ahem, very close to hobbling among them myself? Sure. Yeah. I’ll cop to that. (But don’t forget that the protagonist of A Friend of the Earth (2000) was a very old—and vigorous—fellow himself.)
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
That it is very hard. Beyond that, that it is the true joy of my existence, the only way I can mediate my experience on this mysterious and fatal planet. To dream while awake is a truly great thing. And to get paid for doing it, well, that just takes existence to a whole new level.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
I have a Jones. See my essay, “This Monkey, My Back” (at tcboyle.com), in which I compare the making of art with a drug high and subsequent addiction. Also, if you’re interested, I speak to this more fully in the Preface to T.C. Boyle Stories II.
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
Well, I suppose I’ve limned this subject above, just a bit, but again, my fullest meditations on this art we’re engaged in are in the essays I’ve mentioned above.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
I am within six nice uninterrupted weeks of finishing my next novel, The Harder They Come, which deals with the American penchant for violence and how this ties in with our frontier mentality (yeah, and don’t you dare tread on me!) Unfortunately, I have only two weeks left (I’m writing this in late August) before I must go off to Austria and Germany on books tours that will eat up just about all of September and October, after which I will do my one-week residency at USC. So: the novel will have to sit and simmer until the latter part of November. I hope to finish by the end of the year or perhaps early next year, for publication in the winter of 2015 (I know, I know, this impossible date seems pretty remote, but it’s hurtling at us like an asteroid even as we sit here chatting in the Cloud).