T Coraghessan Boyle is one of America’s most prolific and acclaimed
writers. Now in his early 70s, he has written 17 novels and more than 100 short
stories. Many of them, like his 2000 story After the Plague, are of an
apocalyptic nature. "Everything I write seems to come true," he told me. In Jubilation,
for example, residents of a gated community have to don protective gear when it’s
afflicted with various infestations. "It was Vicki, dressed like a beekeeper…'Christ,'
I said… 'Is this what we’re going to have to start wearing now?'"
He lives in Santa Barbara, California, with his wife Karen, a
college sweetheart (Boyle has said he "must be the only American writer of my
generation who has had only one wife"). The couple have three grown-up children,
one of whom was just about to qualify as a doctor when we spoke. "So I have the best in-house
medical care." He says he's most at risk from Coronavirus not only because of his age but because he's a pessimist. One aspect of this singular man is that you never quite know when he's joking.
TC Boyle has just finished his latest (as-yet-untitled) novel, and
a short story about COVID-19.
What’s the new novel about? I don’t even know its title…
The title is not decided. It was originally called The
Familiar but my agent thinks people won’t know what a familiar is so the
title may change. It’s set in the 1970s and early 80s and it’s about trying to teach apes how to speak.
Humans and animals – that’s always been your territory, hasn’t it?
Oh yes it has. It goes all the way back to my very first book, Descent
of Man when I was still a student. That was when I first discovered we were
trying to teach apes language. I have been fascinated throughout my life about
our place in nature as another animal species, and I keep revolving these
questions over and over: what is the difference between us and the other
animals? Is there a soul? The basic question is, What are we doing here, and
what does it all mean? When I finally get an answer I can stop writing and
you’ll be the first to hear. But in reality there is no answer, nothing but the
lack of God, and hopelessness, and I try to address that. A lot of writers want
to make the reader feel better – I want to make them feel a whole lot worse –
that’s my goal.
I know it’s been said before but the COVID-19 pandemic could
be one of your stories
In 2000 I wrote After the Plague [its
opening lines are: “After the plague – it was some sort of Ebola mutation
passed from hand to hand and nose to nose like the common cold – life was
different. More relaxed and expansive, more natural. The rat race was over, the
freeways were clear all the way to Sacramento.”] It was far more lethal of
course; it [the story] is blackly and joyously hilarious, as is the new story.
Tell us about the new story
It’s called The Thirteenth Day and it’s about
COVID-19. I wrote it in its moment: I finished a week ago. It took me two or
three weeks to write, in the early stages of the pandemic. It’s a kind of
absurdist comedy but with this blackness underlying it, about a ship that
visits with a bunch of tourists on it. I don’t know when or where it will be
published. It could be months and months from now.
You’re in Santa Barbara, the heart of wine country; I
hear you only drink the local wines, is that right?
For the most part. Many of my friends are foodies and
oenophiles and I really appreciate going out with them, and investigating their
wine cellars. We’re just over the hill from the Santa Ynez Valley; I’ve
explored the local wines and I am very content with them. I’m drinking Pinot
Noir at the moment: we have Cambria and Byron and Foley and Meiomi, all of
which I like very much.
Did you see Sideways [the 2004 film set in Santa Ynez
It’s hilarious and brilliant and I love it – I’ve rarely had
Merlot since! The evolution of drinking wine in my household took a while. When
we were young we didn’t know anything about it. Every year we had a Superbowl
party and people brought beer -then one year everyone brought wine, and no more
beer…Then ten or 12 years ago I broke my leg in a freak accident and I had to
be confined for a bit. At that point I decided, Now you’re mature maybe you
should drink mature wine, so I switched to red and I’ve never had white wine
Do you ever think about winemaking as an art?
Not really. I do know some winemakers – that’s inevitable
out here in California – but the artistry of wine is not my chief concern in
life. I enjoy a glass of wine and I give all praise to the winemaker in his
beneficence but beyond that I’m not overly concerned. I’m not really a gourmet;
I love fine dining, but unlike some of my friends I’m not obsessed with it. I
feel the same way about wine: I’m glad it’s there, if I like it I will buy a case,
and I’ll buy another case when that’s done.
I get the feeling that part of you is enjoying the
tranquillity of lockdown?
Last night I was out in the yard and there was absolutely no
human sound – only the tree frogs. I couldn’t hear the railroad or the freeway.
It was kind of magical. Of course the infection is more difficult and more
worrying in cities – but here, I’m
leading the kind of life I want to. I read books, I make a fire, I watch a
movie on Netflix. I prepare a meal, hike in the woods. I’m very gregarious so I
miss communication, but other than that it seems like a respite. For most
Americans and I’m sure the British too, we don’t have a lot of time for
contemplation in our lives. We are pedal to the metal all the time – and now we
can now kick back and think about life.
Do you have a sense of vindication – “I told
you so” – that life is imitating your art?
Not vindication, just a kind of grinding
superstitious fear. Everything I write seems to come true.
You’re often described as being very detached,
relishing the awful situations you put your characters in. Is a part of you now
observing your fellow humans with equal detachment?
I am a large-hearted and compassionate man, a
lover of nature and my fellow human beings. Art is my outlet. The beauty of
writing fiction is that the writer becomes the God of his own universe.
Someone (I forget who) said that there is a
savagery at the heart of American life. Do you agree?
There is a savagery at the heart of all human
life—we are animals, after all. As for the nature of Americans, I chose an
epigraph from an English writer, D.H. Lawrence, reflecting on our penchant for
violence, to suggest the themes of The
Harder They Come (2015):
“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has
never yet melted.”
When we first spoke [in the second half of
March] you seemed remarkably sanguine. How do you feel now?
My level of worry is off the charts. I am in the
highest risk group, not simply because of my age, but because I am a pessimist.
Isn’t it the pessimists and the realists who are
best equipped to survive?
To say that, my dear fellow, you must be an
read somewhere that Coraghessan is an invented name – is that
right? Where did it come from?
Don't believe everything you read.