Thomas Coraghessan Boyle (T.C. Boyle) is an American novelist and short story writer. He is the author of eight short story collections and 20 novels, which include World’s End (1987), The Road to Wellville (1993), The Tortilla Curtain (1995), T.C. Boyle Stories (1998), The Inner Circle (2004), The Terranauts (2016) and Outside Looking In (2019), among others. His stories have been published in several major American magazines, including The Kenyon Review, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Paris Review, Granta and McSweeney’s. Several of his novels have been adopted into major motion pictures, and he has been the recipient of numerous literary accolades, including the PEN/Faulkner Award for best novel of the year (World’s End, 1988), the PEN/Malamud Award for short stories (T.C. Boyle Stories, 1999) and the Prix Médicis Étranger for best foreign novel (The Tortilla Curtain, 1997). Until recently, he was a distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California.
You often write historical fiction; one of your books, The Inner Circle, documents Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s rise to fame in the 1940s and 50s. How did you do research for that?
Well, primarily with my wife.
That’s a joke. I went to University of Bloomington and went to the Sex Institute and so on. Then I read two biographies of him, and that gave me all the details.
In fact, I use the same sort of scenario in my latest book, Outside Looking In — it’s about LSD and the cult surrounding Timothy Leary. It has a similar situation in which a student falls under the spell of a powerful professor, who draws him into his world without constraints of any kind. So, for instance, when I was a student at the University of Iowa, I had a mentor there in the Ph.D. department, and what he wanted me to do was love literature and write papers. Great. But Timothy Leary, if you were his student, he wanted you to drop acid, so that you could have visions. And I’m glad that I didn’t have him as a professor.
So, I have to ask you this, seeing as you wrote this book: Have you dropped acid before?
Oh, I’ve done every drug imaginable. I shot heroin, I did it all. But by the time I went to grad school, I’d been there, I’d done that already and now I wanted to be a writer, and in order to do that I felt I had to be relatively straight. Everyone likes to romanticize the idea that, ‘Hey, it’s easy to do, you can be stoned and be in the club all night long and still produce great work.’ And maybe some people can, but I gave all of that up. I left New York and went to Iowa City. And I didn’t become a saint immediately, but I had something in life I really wanted to do.
I’ve never written a word stoned or drunk. Ever. I don’t want to mess with it. Now, LSD is not physically addictive, but it certainly is psychologically addictive. If you go for one thing narrowly, what are you excluding? Of course, that’s basically what we do as writers too — I mean, I exclude everything for writing. I don’t play any sports anymore. I don’t do anything; I wouldn’t play cards or chess or anything like that. All I want to do is be in my own mind, and write my own books and competitively walk in the woods by myself muttering — that’s about it.
I have been fortunate to find out what I want to do in life. It’s an obsession, it’s a compulsion. I can’t not [write]. Early on I began to get an audience and the audience followed me along, and here I am. And I’ve always been my own boss, and done exactly what I want and expressed myself as an artist.
When did you first start publishing books? How many are you at now?
I’m working on my 29th and 30th. My first book was after I graduated with my Ph.D., and it’s a collection of short stories, all of which I wrote while I was a grad student. And that was in 1979; it’s called Descent of Man, and I just published a book every year and a half after that.
Did you write fiction when you were an undergrad?
I wandered into a creative writing workshop, and that’s how I discovered what I do. I went to a music school to be a musician, and I flunked my audition, cause I could play saxophone, but I didn’t really understand the kind of music they wanted me to play, how it felt, which was classical music. Later, I became a singer in a rock n’ roll band, and I felt it, and that was different. Meanwhile, I was in college; I had to declare a major, so I declared history, which I’ve always loved. Then I took, sophomore year, a class in American short story and discovered Flannery O’Conner, and John Updike and others, and I declared a double major in history and English. Junior year, I blundered into a creative writing class. So this is why I am an advocate for a liberal arts education. It gives you a chance to find out who you are and what you can do—at least in my case it did.
Are you still teaching?
I have stepped down from my professorship as David [Lynn] is going to do. He says that he’s going to be retired; I prefer the term pre-dead. I founded the undergrad writing program at USC [University of Southern California]. I was the first writer they ever had out of grad school, so I went to L.A. [Los Angeles]. I built the program, and then we hired other people and then they built a grad program on top of that, and it was all great. But I think it was about four years ago, I decided I didn’t want to make the two-hour drive each way from Santa Barbara to L.A. anymore: on the coast, highways, heavy traffic. I was a road warrior, but I got tired of it. I’m always very productive anyway, and I could work on that schedule. And I do love talking with people who love the same thing I do, but I only taught creative writing. I never taught a survey course in British literature, which is what my Ph.D. is in. They needed creative writing, and that’s what I wanted to do and I love doing it.
Did you ever go back to British literature?
I would like to reread some of my favorite stuff — well, with poetry sometimes I do — but I haven’t reread the novels for the most part because I’m always writing a novel. And I think it’s almost impossible to read a novel in a different style from what you’re writing because of the voice leakage. I’m always afraid that if I’m influenced then a voice will leak in. When writing stories, it doesn’t matter that much because you write a story in two weeks and it’s over.
That’s kind of surprising. As an emerging writer people are always telling me, ‘You’ll stop copying everyone you read as soon as you develop your own narrative voice.’ Does that ever really happen?
No, that’s true. That is true. But, especially when you’re writing something longer, the hardest thing, over the course of a year or more, is to maintain the same voice and the same rhythms and everything else. And if you read something great, really powerful — if you read it in three days, okay — but if you read it in two weeks, then those rhythms and that voice can sneak in and disrupt the narrative you’re working on. So I save the novel reading usually for when I’m writing short stories. And when I’m writing novels maybe I’m reading nonfiction.
What’s your advice to emerging writers?
You develop confidence, and you learn to write not by being in class or by reading any textbook, but by absorbing the writers you love. And not necessarily that you’re imitating them, but you understand how they put it together. So for instance, you go to a movie and it blows you away. Then you see it again. And maybe it still blows you away. But now you’re seeing the way each scene is framed and how the plot is moving forward and so on. Same thing when you read a story ten times. The first time you’re completely swept away by the whole effect of it. But the 10th time, you’re noticing little details of how it is structured and how it holds together, and maybe that is absorbed into you.
We all are imitating other writers in some way, but of course it’s in a similar process, and you put it together in your own way with your own experience. This is why ours is the best art. It’s because you cooperate with the reader, and the reader anticipates equally—the reader is directed, yes, but nonetheless, the reader is making the movie of the book in their own head. So it’s interactive. We could both go to the movies and see the new Martin Scorsese film coming out. And we’d each take something different away, and we would see different things in the faces of the actors and so on. But it still is a limited vision of what it is: Robert De Niro looks like Robert De Niro. But when you read, you know, my piece that you just read about the beginning of LSD, you don’t attach any face to it except one that you invent while you’re reading it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.