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courtesy: Viking

Writer T.C. Boyle: “The pleasure of making up stories comes when the reader believes you. You’ve created a world that, whether it’s a little skewed or not, is believable.”

Issue Date: 01/25/99

A Trove of Short Stories for Boyle Fans

Critics love new collection of works by USC professor.

by Ed Newton

It was a T. Coraghessan Boyle kind of a moment. The fiction writer and USC English professor was talking about his recent switch in writing tool of choice, from typewriter to computer. He has put aside the Olivetti portable that his mother gave him years ago, he said, and taken up the PC.

“This will surprise a lot of people who know me as a crank and a Luddite,” he said. “I contacted a guy with dreadlocks who came over to the house and, for $25 and 12 cans of Bud, transferred the voodoo from the typewriter to the word processor.”

Just at that moment, as if voodoo had been unleashed over the telephone on which Boyle was talking, the reporter taking notes on a PC at the other end of the line experienced a freeze on his own computer. Cursor jammed in electronic gridlock. Words frozen on the screen. The interview was suspended as the reporter banged on the keyboard.

This wasn’t Boyleiana because of a surprise interruption by an ersatz supernatural event. No, the supernatural doesn’t play much of a part in Boyle’s fiction. (That voodoo anecdote – did it really happen or was this just another ironic Boyle tale?) It was more a matter of the callous inconvenience of the thing, the abrupt imbalance in the cold, unaccommodating world that Boyle’s long-suffering characters live in. Boyle’s recently released T.C. Boyle Stories is full of such intrusive moments – irritating, funny, lethal.

To have 68 such stories packaged in a single book – that represents a kind of plateau, doesn’t it? Boyle, who has produced five story collections and seven novels since 1979, agreed. To an extent.

“Most writers come out with their collected stories about two weeks before they die,” he said. “It wasn’t my idea. My editor felt that, with the warm response to my last three novels, there might be a new audience that didn’t know what I’ve accomplished with the short story.”

But then he began to see the appropriateness of it, he said. “Here I am, mid-career – I just turned 50 – and I might have a few good years left in me. Maybe there’ll be a second volume in 20 or 25 years.”

CRITICS HAVE, as usual, been uninhibited in their praise of Boyle’s writing. The New York Times talked of the book’s “overall inventiveness, flash and just plain entertainment value.” The Village Voice said that Boyle “writes like a kid at a carnival, tossing off firecrackers of language that explode like Roman candles in our minds.”

The stories come from a variety of sources. “I clip something out of the newspaper or listen to what people tell me,” he said. “I store up ideas and, before long, one clicks. When I’m in a story phase, I might work on stories for nine or 10 months. Then, after I exhaust those ideas, I might start hankering for something in a longer form.”

The stories are not all from his own experience. Boyle isn’t part of the great American tradition of writers toting up experiences through diverse jobs – merchant seaman, bartender, infantryman, white hunter. “Basically, everyone in my generation went through writing programs and became literary writers,” he said.

“He has galvanized an interest in the writing of fiction that’s unparalleled at any university in the country.”

– David St. John


MOST OF ALL, that famous Boyle texture and detail comes from one source: research. “For me fiction is an exercise of the imagination,” Boyle said. “It’s something you make up. The pleasure of making up stories comes when the reader believes you. You’ve created a world that, whether it’s a little skewed or not, is believable.”

Boyle even skews the old maxim about writing what you know. Turns it around, in fact. “I say, write what you don’t know.”

He worries a little about the future of the short story. “I’m surprised that a little more attention isn’t paid to it,” he said. “There are so many writers that came out of creative writing programs and started by writing stories. But the public still doesn’t buy short story collections anywhere near as much as novels.”

Still, the form is in good shape in America. “There are some great story writers – Richard Ford, Anne Beatty, Ellen Gilchrist, Lorrie Moore. And there are still venues for short stories” – though not as many as there were 50 years ago. “TV gives us our stories now,” he said.

Nowadays, the computer pulsates with Boyle’s entries for his latest novel, a lengthy tale about the environmental movement, which the author extends well into the new millennium. The year 2025, to be exact. “The weather is real bad,” Boyle said. “Because of global warming.” He adds that the new book will be a departure from his recent work. “I’d like my readers to know that this one is absolutely off the wall,” he said, “absolutely crazy.”

Boyle has been teaching at USC almost as long as he has been publishing stories. In 1978, he became an English professor. At the time, he was the USC creative writing program, the sole professor teaching the writing of fiction.

“He has galvanized an interest in the writing of fiction that’s unparalleled at any university in the country,” said David St. John, director of creative writing and a former classmate of Boyle’s in Iowa. “His wit and charm are equaled only by his ability to offer unique and perceptive readings of students’ work.”

In the beginning, Boyle said, teaching was just a job. He arrived at USC after going through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and earning a Ph.D. in 19th-century English literature from the University of Iowa. “I was just out of graduate school and I didn’t have any money,” Boyle said. “I wasn’t making any money from writing.”

He soon discovered, though, that he was an instinctive teacher. “Even in my public persona there’s something of the teacher in me,” he said. “You’re really serving a higher purpose in educating people about good fiction and how interesting, vital and hip it is. Maybe somebody will read a book today instead of watching the 18th rerun of ‘Happy Days.’”

AS HIS CAREER has blossomed, the demands on his time have increased, and the twice-a-week trips down to the campus from his home in Montecito have become more difficult. “Publishers across the world make huge demands on your time,” said Boyle, who, in recent years, has been taking every third semester off to handle book tours and the exigencies of writing books. “It becomes very hard for me. Still, I don’t foresee retiring. I really want to continue teaching into the indefinite future. I love what I’m doing and I’m proud of the program.”

The reporter’s computer has come back to life now, with a steady pulse beat visible on the once-petrified screen.

Boyle indicates that his own computer was sitting in front of him as he talked on the telephone. “My agent insists that the reason there are so many very long novels now is because it’s easier to write them,” he said.

A pause to ponder the smooth lines of the machine and its cool, latent power. “I hope to keep it in check.”

T.C. Boyle Stories, published by Viking, is a collection of 68 stories, divided into three categories: Love, Death and Everything in Between.

Volume #18
Issue #17


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