The Chronicle of Higher Education published a multimedia piece on electronic literature including an article (archive), a video piece, and a podcast interview with N. Katherine Hayles. Look for video link under the screenshot of the Electronic Literature Collection, and the audio interview off to the right. The Chronicle covered the Open Mouse/Open Mic reading at the ELO’s recent “Future of Electronic Literature” Symposium in College Park Maryland. Although the preoccupations of the reportage are a bit noob-ish (the video reporter mentions that the reading was plagued with technical difficulties when in fact it was a comparatively glitch-free evening in comparison to others, and many of the reporters’ questions were focused on the fact that there is not a massive popular audience for electronic literature rather than more interesting concerns — Who is the Stephen King of electronic literature? Well, ahem . . . King is a tough one but Robert Coover is sort of our Oprah . . .), it is nonetheless great see this esteemed weekly showing an interest in electronic lit, and Hayle’s audio interview is well worth the price of admission (particularly if you already subscribe to the Chronicle).
I was recently interviewed by Simon Mills for framed, his retrospective project of interviews contextualizing digital art and writing between 1998-2004. The interview took shape in the form of several email exchanges over a period of few months. I appreciate the opportunity that Simon gave me to contextualize my past and current projects, in addition to my thoughts on the current state of the field of electronic literature more generally.
The frAme: Online Journal of Culture & Technology which published new media writing, art, interviews and essays from 1995-2004, has stopped actively publishing new work, but it’s going out with a bang rather than a whimper. Simon Mills is editing a project, framed including retrospective interviews with many of the writers and artists whose works were published in frAme. The first installment of framed includes provacative interviews with Mark Amerika, Matthew Fuller, Christy Sheffield Sanford, and Alan Sondheim. More interviews are coming soon.
Stuart Moulthrop, Jill Walker, and I were quoted in an article by Stephanie Shapiro, “The Me Everybody Know” in the Modern Life section of last Sunday’s Baltimore Sun (archive). The article is a solid and intelligent survey of perspectives on the ways that web technologies including webcams, blogs, and sites such as my space and flickr are being used for self-representation.
There is a superb interview of Robert Coover available in RealAudio from KCRW’s Bookworm program. The first part of a two part interview was broadcast December 8th, and the other half will be broadcast on the 15th. The first part of the wide-ranging interview provides an overview of Coover’s career and some insights into his process, themes, methods and interest in formal innovation. There are some gems in the interview, such as the fact that Coover finished writing The Public Burning, his novel about the Rosenberg execuations and Nixon, in the British Library while sitting on the same hard wooden benches where Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto.
I was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic, Julia Keller, for an article published in the Trib this Sunday, “Plugged-in Proust: Has e-lit come of age?” (archive). William J. Mitchell, head of the Media Arts and Sciences program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was also interviewed for the piece, which examines the relationship between control and reading technologies.
Transcript of a chat with Sister of My Heart Author Chitra Divakaruni. February 22, 2000–9 P.M. EDT
Scott: Welcome to the chat room, Chitra
Joanna: Hi Chitra!
Chitra Divakaruni: Hello everyone, I am pleased to be here with you
Vev: Hello Chitra! I loved Mistress of Spices and Sister of my heart!!!
Vev: When can we expect your next book?
Chitra Divakaruni: Thank You
Chitra Divakaruni: I am working on a collection of stories, it is titled The Unknown Errors of our Lives. It will come out in January 2001.
Vev: I have to put a reminder on Amazon to remember to get it!
Vev: I also want to read Arranged Marriage
Tata: do young men in India experience the same ceremonies of life as the young women.
Chitra Divakaruni: Tata – when we talked about young men and young women, we have to remember that there are many different kinds of lifestyles that they are leading in India from the very traditional to the very modern. Overall I’d say that the rituals and ceremonies undergone by young men in traditional lifestyles are different from those that women undergo. In modern families, though, there are very many similarities. In Sister of My Heart I am portraying a very traditional family. In Bengal, so the rituals are quite unique.
Vev: Chitra, were did you get the inspiration for Sister of my Heart?
Chitra Divakaruni: That’s a tough question, I think partly from growing up in Calcutta in a rather traditional family partly it was from reading about the mis-uses of amniocentisis to select and abort female fetuses. The two characters, Sudha and Anju, came from my imagination.
Tata: Is it true that the misuses os amniocentisis will give India a severe shortage of females in 20-30 years?
Chitra Divakaruni: It is hard to say. The womens movement has been fighting against this and has had a law passed to abolish the abortion of female fetuses, however some abortions do occur in secrecy. One has to remember that this occurs in only a small percentages of pregnancies, however I feel that even one such abortion is too many and that is why it was important for me to write about it.
Joanna: Can you talk a little bit about the women’s movement in India?
Chitra Divakaruni: The women’s movement in India has gained a lot of strength in the last twenty years. Unlike the western feminist movement, there are two distinct branches: Urban and Rural – the urban branch consists mostly of educated middle class or upper middle class women, and the rural movement is a grass roots movement, often involving women who might not have had any formal education at all, who are forming co-ops.
Vev: Chitra, i really like a foreign film I saw afew months back called Fire-I believe it is part of a trilogy are there any plans to bring Sister of my heart to the screen?
Joanna: Are you affiliated with either branch?
Chitra Divakaruni: Just a moment. My previous novel, Mistress of Spices is being made into a movie and I am pretty excited about that. We don’t yet know about Sister of my Heart.
Vev: for the big or small screen?
Chitra Divakaruni: Big Screen
Chitra Divakaruni: I am involved with a couple of womens groups in the US, since I live here full time.
Scott: The novel has an epigraph from Chinua Achebe "It is only the story . . . that saves our progeny from stumbling into the spikes of the cactus fence." Does this point to the purpose of novel, and/or your view of writing in general?
Joanna: The Mistress of Spices seems like a difficult film to make into a movie, don’t you think? But with the right director/screenwriter, it could be great!
Chitra Divakaruni: Scott–this points particularly to Sister of My Heart, which is a novel in which storytelling takes on a great signifigance. The two women are brought up on traditional tales and myths by their aunt. This affects their visions of the world and their place in it. Later, when they through times of trouble they will re-tell these stories to each other and gain strength from them.
Scott: were you exposed to the same kind of stories in your youth?
Chitra Divakaruni: I was very fortunate to have a grandfather who told me a lot of the traditional folk tales and some of those tales are the same ones I have put into Sister of my Heart.
Scott: one of the most fascinating things about SoMH was the mix between folk tales and other traditions — Virginia Woolf was quite important. Did her work play any framing role for you as wrote the novel?
Chitra Divakaruni: Because I have studied both eastern and western literature, I also like to bring the two together in my writing. I feel it is a way to enrich both traditions. I have been influenced by many of the feminist ideas of Virginia W. as I was growing up, somewhat in the same way that Anju was influenced by them. The central idea that women need to have a room of their own is an important concept in Sister of My Heart, particularly as such an idea is foreign to traditional Indian society
Tata: Who are popular female writers in India
Chameli: TypeChitra, where are you located. I read one of your books about arranged marriages. I was wondering if you could come to my Human Behavior class (graduate school) to present something.
Chitra Divakaruni: There are writers in many different languages. Some of the ones from my languages, Bengali, are Mahasweta Devi and Bani Basu and Taslima Nasrin, among women writing in English. Either here or in India are Anita Desai, Bharati Mukherjee and Arundhati Roy.
Scott: Do your books sell back in India? It seems to me your books present a compelling voice for reform.
Chitra Divakaruni: Scott – the books have been published in India and widely reviewed. I would like them ultimately translated into the Indian languages. I have had a few pieces translated, but I am always looking for more.
Scott: You have a great sense of detail, in particular when it comes to cooking and food. What’s your background in, well, cooking and eating?
Joanna: Chitra, many of our members posted questions for you on the forum.
LongNLean: Chitra what do you have to say about so-called western perceptions of the traditions of India?
Chitra Divakaruni: I just love food Scott, and I am interested in herbs and spices for many years. That is what led me party to write The Mistress of Spices.
Chitra Divakaruni: Any other questions?
Scott: When you teach writing, What advice do you give to young writers?
Chitra Divakaruni: I tell my students to read wisely, to take a lot of time with their writing, to revise carefully and to take risks.
Scott: When did you decide to become a writer?
Joanna: Okay Chitra — Maritav asks if you are planning a sequel — she feels SISTER ended "abruptly" and wonders if this was youur intent.
Chitra Divakaruni: I started writing about 13 years ago, that was many years after I came to this country. Unlike some writers who know right from their childhood that they want to write, I discovered it much later, after I had finished my education and started working.
Chitra Divakaruni: I wanted to end Sister on an open-ended because as a reader, that is what I like. Stories that a reader keeps on thinking about the characters after the book ends. However I do think I will continue the story of the women, just because those characters have taken hold of me and I can’t seem to forget them.
Chitra Divakaruni: The background out of Calcutta comes out of my experience–all of the concerns with the challenges that women face both in India and in America are of course, very close to me. Other than that, the rest of the story is imagined.
Joanna: JasmineDoe asks what you see as the biggest challeneg for American women today and how that challenge differs for the crosscultural woman.
Chitra Divakaruni: I think a real challenge for both main stream American women and bi-cultural American women is balancing the roles, the many roles, that we have taken on–Roles in the home and outside the home–Roles as professionals and as mothers.
Scott: Do you make it back to india often? there must be some strange moments of disjunction between Calcutta and Houston.
Chitra Divakaruni: I do go back to India regularly, my mother lives there. It is a strange experience to go back, I love India, but I am not at home in it the way I was before I left. I see things with an outsiders eye, and of course that is my experience in Houston as well.
Chameli: Scott, in fact both has advantages and disadvantages.
Chitra Divakaruni: Are there one or two last questions?
Chameli: In fact, outsiders become outsiders everywhere, no matter how much you acculturate.
Scott: Thanks very much for coming tonight Chitra.
Chitra Divakaruni: It has been a pleasure chatting with everyone and I wish all of you much good reading. For me, reading has always been a way to enter life and experiences that otherwise I would never have known about. I hope my books will do that for you, no matter what background you come from.
Chitra Divakaruni: Good night to all of you.
Transcript–Chat with Fight Club Author Chuck Palahniuk
November 22, 1999–9 P.M. EDT
Scott Hi Chuck, welcome to the chat room.
Chuck Palahniuk Hello from Portland, Oregon
Scott How is the weather out there tonight?
Helen Chuck, I was given your book for Christmas, last year. It was terrific.
Chuck Palahniuk Pouring rain, excellent writing weather.
Scott So are you gearing up for your trip to France?
Chuck Palahniuk France is cancelled–I’m up to my waist in writing a new book.
Helen I waited for the movie to come out, and was disappointed by the ending of the film. What were the producer’s notes or studio notes that led to the new ending?
tonyb Chuck, what type of fighting background did you have before you wrote the book?
Chuck Palahniuk My dad was a boxer in the Navy, but the only fighting I’ve ever done was in brawls.
Scott Did you get in a lot of them?
Chuck Palahniuk LOL. A dozen, maybe.
Helen Where did you grow up?
Baitsell Hey, you know your TLA’s, are you on the net a lot?
Chuck Palahniuk Burbank, Washington
Scott Fight Club was your first novel, you’ve written two in the interim between its publication and release as a major motion picture. Has it been strange for you, to sort of have to move back in time, and talk about your first novel?
tonyb Do you like the movie adaptation?
Chuck Palahniuk Yes, very much. Sometimes I can hardly remember what Fight Club was about.
Chuck Palahniuk Yes, I loved the movie adaptation. I think it’s terrific.
Scott Did you get to play any role in that? Did you want to?
Chuck Palahniuk David Fincher asked me if I wanted to, but I hated the idea–I didn’t want to be in the movie.
environment.guide I like Brad Pitt. Were you on the set as the movie was being shot?
Chuck Palahniuk Yes, I was. I like Brad Pitt, too. Brad’s very likeable.
Helen Did you work closely with David Fincher during any rewrites of the screenplay?
Chuck Palahniuk No, I didn’t. I met with the screenwriter before the first draft. But that was my only contribution.
Helen What was your primary concern as you translated the book to a screenplay during the first draft?
Chuck Palahniuk As the screenwriter translated the book to a screenplay, my primary concern was writing my next book. I know nothing about screenwriting.
Baitsell Have you had any offers to option Invisible Monsters?
Helen Does Marla represent a particular theme in your novel?
Chuck Palahniuk We’re still negotiating on that. But the option is still open.
Baitsell It would make a kick ass movie.
MarkHazen What was your initial reaction to your first view of the finished film?
Chuck Palahniuk Not denying if you’re screwed up, not trying to hide your faults.
Helen Oh, that’s good.
Chuck Palahniuk Shock.
tonyb So is Fight Club based more on a true story or more on a made up story?
MarkHazen Shock in a good sense, or shock as in ‘what the hell did they do with my plot?’
Chuck Palahniuk Instantly wanted to see it again, a second or third time.
MarkHazen ::grin:: I can relate to that kind of shock. =)
Helen I thought Marla was representing the chaos in the real world–the reason he shouldn’t have to create anarchy.
Chuck Palahniuk I was overwhelmed with how much was there.
Baitsell The movie’s had that kind of affect on a lot of people. . . .
Helen How did you start writing Fight Club?
Chuck Palahniuk Marla also represented the next step in his becoming an adult by committing to a relationship.
Chuck Palahniuk I started writing with a pen and a piece of paper at work, during a really boring day.
Baitsell Does that mean you see Tyler as the adult?
Helen But he committed to Marla first through Tyler
Helen And Tyler seems to be more of the Rocky Horror Show type.
Helen I mean, he seems to be the id.
Chuck Palahniuk No, but Tyler is the next step in Jack becoming an adult, Tyler is sort of the missing link.
Baitsell Will the Adult emerge in a sequel? (hint hint)
Helen Did you know the plot first, or did you know the character first?
tonyb so, is the book based more on a true story or a made up story?
Chuck Palahniuk Sequel? No, never. I don’t write sequels, but Fox has that right.
Baitsell Ewwww… you’re going to let someone else destroy your characters?
Chuck Palahniuk 80% true, 20% made up.
Chuck Palahniuk I sold that right. It’s out of my hands. LOL.
Helen Do you still have that first piece that started Fight Club? You can sell that, too!
Chuck Palahniuk Let’s hope the original makes enough money that they want to do a sequel.
Baitsell I was noticing that all of your books have been told in flashback. Are you working on a fourth (and is it in the same style?)
environment.guide hi Chuck, I’m down the street from you (in Oregon). It’s raining here, how about in Portland?
Chuck Palahniuk I still have it, it was published in an anthology in 1995 before Fight Club was a book. The anthology was called, The Pursuit of Happiness.
Helen Chuck, I graduated with an MFA in Film Producing from USC, so this is really a question for a new producer. Did the producer contact you after reading the book or did you know each other? At which stage did you get contacted by Hollywood execs?
Chuck Palahniuk Yes, I am working. No, it will be significantly different than the last three.
Helen I meant, for a new producer’s benefit.
MarkHazen How sick of the question “where do you get your ideas from” are you by now? =)
Chuck Palahniuk Fox optioned the book and signed it to an independent producer and he called me via my agent.
MarkHazen Just wondering, as your writing definitely broke the mold.
Scott Do you use your writing to process things you’re going through, as a kind of catharsis?
Chuck Palahniuk I use writing to process things I’m going through, but not always.
Helen So, Fox found it first. I always assumed the producer brought it to Fox.
tonyb What advice do you have for someone who wants to write a book and has never done one?
Chuck Palahniuk Write one scene at a time.
Chuck Palahniuk And: try to suprise yourself.
Scott So what’ s your writing work routine like–do you have a set schedule?
Helen AAAGH. I will never be able to compete with the studio’s deep pockets.
Helen Sorry–non sequitur.
Chuck Palahniuk Not set schedules, but I never start writing until I have a huge amount of research and notes done and I know something about where the book will begin.
Baitsell Where did you get your inspiration for Brandy Alexander?
Chuck Palahniuk At a female bodybuilding contest where I was working as a security guard.
Helen Did you already know about how to make soap, bombs, and what the automobile industry does about recalls, or was that research for the book?
Helen Love that
Baitsell She was divine…
Helen Baitsell, you’re so cool!
tonyb Do you ever use a tape recorder to talk out portions of a book?
Helen Great question!
Chuck Palahniuk Everything is research. My freind Alice taought me how to make soap. My brother Matt taught me about the bombs. I learned about the recalls by watching 60 Minutes.
Scott Did you completely understand the metaphors you were using in Fight Club as you were writing it, or was a lot of that subconscious?
Chuck Palahniuk No, I hate to transcribe tape, I hate the sound of my own voice.
Chuck Palahniuk LOL. No I don’t completely understand anything in the world.
Helen haha, I’m still amused!
Scott So how did Matt learn about the bombs?
Baitsell Are you gay? And if not did you “research” the “community?”
tonyb Do you know if using a tape recorder to talk out a book is a commonly used practice by other authors?
Chuck Palahniuk Matt is an engineer for the Chevron Corp.–besides all that stuff is on the Internet.
Helen tonyb, if it works for you, you should do it. A lot of screenwriters do it, too.
Chuck Palahniuk None of the authors I know do it that way.
Chuck Palahniuk I do talk out my books with my housemates while I’m plotting them.
Scott So I was booted off for a lil bit so I’m not sure if this was asked yet–what other writers do you like/were influenced by?
Helen wasn’t asked yet, Scott
Chuck Palahniuk Amy Hempel and her collections of short stories, Brett Ellis’ collection The Informers, and the third book would be Denis Johnson his collection called Jesus’s Son.
environment.guide My apologies if this is too personal, you said housemates, what’s a famous writer like yourself doing living with a bunch of other people?
Chuck Palahniuk LOL. They are cheap and I am lonely.
Helen Have you ever read part of your work at Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley? I used to be a student there, and listening to authors speak their work and answer questions was so delightful.
Helen Would you do that in LA somewhere?
Chuck Palahniuk No, but I’ve always wanted to read at Cody’s. I did stop in there once and sign all of their stock. It’s a really cool store.
Scott Have you had any weird encounters since the movie came out–people making assumptions about you from seeing the film?
Helen Do a reading in LA!!!!
Helen That would be so much fun!
Baitsell The new thing you’re working on, is it still first person narrative?
Chuck Palahniuk No, pleasantly. No weird encounters yet. But I’m pretty unrecognizable.
Chuck Palahniuk Some of it is first person, but not necessarily all of it. It is the most comfortable voice for me. I feel the least like I’m playing God if I’m writing in first person. I hate writers who pretend to be God by writing in third person.
Helen Have you ever translated your friends into characters?
Baitsell Is that a more comfortable voice for you? It seems like it would be hard to get into some of your characters heads with that voice.
Chuck Palahniuk Yes, pretty much all of my characters are friends.
Helen Do they have a difficult time reading themselves? I was translated into a character for a play once, and I was surprisingly sensitive about it–it really made me nervous.
environment.guide that’s interesting, Helen, any play we might know?
Helen AAAGH, maybe, if you watch John Fisher plays.
Baitsell Have you thought of pulling a McInerney on all of us and force us to read something in second person. I think you could pull it off 😉
Chuck Palahniuk No, my friends love seeing themselves and the things that they say in print. They especially loved being quoted by movie stars in the movie.
Scott So was one of your buddies Brad Pitt?
Helen Say hi to your friend who is Marla, because she’s caustic and sharp and really cool!
Chuck Palahniuk I’d like to try, but second person feels a little hokey–if it goes too long.
Baitsell Are you still writing short stories?
Helen What about doing a site on the Internet?
Chuck Palahniuk Sorry, I am not buddies with Brad, but he was great to spend time with.
Chuck Palahniuk LOL! My friend Marla IS very cool. And she’s a fifth grade teacher now and she has head lice.
Scott So what’s it like reading reviews of the movie–a different feeling from reading reviews of your books?
Chuck Palahniuk Yes, right now I’m writing a lot of short stories.
Baitsell LOL that’s friggin awesome!
Helen Tell Marla not to spread it back and forth to the 5th graders. That would suck to be her on Parent Teacher night.
Baitsell Any in the pipe? I’ll mess up my ramen budget for some magazines if you have anything coming out soon 😉
Chuck Palahniuk I would say, it was frustrating because I really wanted people to understand and appreciate David Fincher’s movie. I don’t give a rat’s ass what people think of me, but I do get bent out of shape when people criticize people I admire or care about.
Scott Yeah some of the reviews seemed to simplify the film.
Baitsell Yeh, The Nation was especially caustic (bastards)
Chuck Palahniuk I would tend to agree, some people never saw past the surface of things.
Helen When my friend and I walked out of the theater, I heard a lot of comments that didn’t really seem to fit what the movie and book were about.
Helen They didn’t understand.
Baitsell Yeh, I heard guys wanting to buy Fight Club action figures (and assorted merchandise).
Helen Oh, Baitsell, that was the perfect illustration of what I meant!
Scott What about those that characterize it as a “guy” movie? Do you think that’s valid?
Chuck Palahniuk oh God. The studio put together a fake catalog of merchandise and made fun of the whole merchandizing side of things.
Baitsell I’d love to get some Fight Club soap though…
Helen ha, so would I.
Chuck Palahniuk I would refer you to www.tylerdurden.com
Helen Is there merchandise for sale there?
Scott The soap thing I’ve got to admit was the most disturbing element of the film.
Chuck Palahniuk Sorry to distrub you.
Scott in a good way.
Helen My favorite part of the book was the lye
Scott That’s one of the jobs of a writer, aint it?
Helen Not the lie, the lye kiss.
Baitsell Holy shit! You just took care of all of my XMas shopping for me.
Chuck Palahniuk The job of a good writer, a bad writer just holds your hand.
Helen Hey, Chuck–I run a charity. Do you do item donations for charity auctions? Sorry to solicit you directly–normally, we send letters to PR agents, but you’re here.
Scott Helen, can’t take you anywhere.
Helen You can’t even dress me up!
Chuck Palahniuk I’ve given away pretty much everything except a few things I really care about. So I have nothing left to give away at this point. In fact, my little nephew has most of it.
Helen Okay, thanks for not scolding me
Scott So the sort of Buddhist shedding of the material life in Fight Club comes straight from the heart?
Chuck Palahniuk LOL, it does?
Chuck Palahniuk I was trying to make fun of faux buddhists.
Helen What kinds of things did you care enough about to keep? Paper, blanket, socks, pen?
Helen As we can all tell, I’m freezing and my feet have turned to ice.
Baitsell . . . motorcycles, drugs, vinyl . . .
Chuck Palahniuk Things I use on a daily basis.
Helen Fight Club Soap?
Scott So would you say you were satarizing the sort of grunge Kurt Cobain nihilism attitude?
Chuck Palahniuk Like my Fight Club clock.
Scott Speaking of time, I think we’ve got about five minutes here. Any last questions for Chuck?
Baitsell Is it an alarm clock 😉
environment.guide Chuck, you seem like an ordinary guy, how did you stop fame from going to your head?
Helen This was so much fun! Thanks, Chuck. Please put up a website so we can read stuff by you on a regular basis!
Chuck Palahniuk No, I’m not satarizing that, but trying to take it a step further to say that if nothing matters, then why does it matter if we care about something? And doesn’t that give us the freedom to commit ourselves to anything?
Scott does it?
Chuck Palahniuk I live in Portland, Oregon. I don’t have tv.
Helen That’s exactly what you got across in the book!
Helen But even if you have that freedom, if nothing matters, why commit?
Chuck Palahniuk Yes, nihilism lets us determine what matters.
Helen Whoops, I’m lost.
Baitsell If it’s all shit, whatever doesn’t float matters.
Helen If we’re nihilistic, doesn’t NO THING matter?
Scott Nothing matters except what’s left after the head lice have had their way with you.
Helen LOL–5th grade matters
Helen Question–doesn’t comfort play into this?
Chuck Palahniuk Comfort sucks.
Helen I mean, all these things (and head lice) are really about being comfortable or uncomfortable.
Baitsell Spoken like a man with house mates!
Helen Or like a man who writes about people beating themselves up to feel alive?
Chuck Palahniuk I’m currently doing everyone’s laundry today.
Baitsell LOL, good to see this stuff hasn’t gone to your head.
environment.guide Do they pay you to do their laundry?
Helen Pour detergent on it Put it outside in the rain
Helen Bring it in to dry
Scott Thanks a lot for coming Chuck, and if you’re ever in Chicago, I’d love for you to buy me a beer.
Scott assuming you’d be comfortable with that.
Baitsell Hey, if you’re buying, come to Athens, GA too!
Helen And let me know if you read at Cody’s–I’ll fly up
Helen How you would remember to let me know (and how) is beyond me.
Chuck Palahniuk Next time I’m on tour, I will buy beers for everybody!
environment.guide I’ll make the drive up I5
Chuck Palahniuk If I read at Cody’s it will be advertised, I’m sure.
Helen Environment.guide and I are going to carpool, to save our natural resources!
Helen All the way down here?
Helen I’d better get myself on the mailing list.
environment.guide thanks Helen
Chuck Palahniuk Goodnight from Portland, Oregon.
Scott I’m sure Elizabeth (who’s typing) is getting tired. I’m buying Chuck’s other two books, and you should too.
Baitsell Thanks for your time
This is a transcript of a chat that took place on the Authors site at About.com.
Friday Night September 24th, 1999 at 9 P.M. EDT
Kinky Friedman Hello
Scott Looks like Kinky Friedman has joined us. Welcome, Kinky.
Kinky Friedman Thanks Glad
Scott So where are you at geographically right now?
Kinky Friedman It’s been a financial pleasure.
Kinky Friedman Atlanta Georgia, I think.
Kinky Friedman Last stop on the book tour.
Scott So do you do tours separately for your CDs?
Kinky Friedman When possible, yes, I have a schizo audience half read the books half are into the music
Kinky Friedman half dont give a damn.
Scott So do you consider yourself more of a writer, or a recording
artist? How do you balance the two?
Kinky Friedman I’ve been touring since Christ was a cowboy in other words–three weeks
Kinky Friedman Definitely more of a pointy headed intellectual novelist.
Kinky Friedman But I still sing in the shower and in europe.
Scott Do you ever write on the road?
ing kinky, whats the apartment no. in vandam st ?
Kinky Friedman impossible to write on the road, wish I could.
Ryan If anyone has a question for Kinky, feel free to ask it now. If-
more people join, I’ll start a list of people to avoid confusion.
Kinky Friedman It’s hard enough to find time to eat on the road.
Kinky Friedman The real number is 99.
Scott So how did you make the shift from recording artist to writer.
What inspired that move?
nudnick kinky, you can always find road kill.
Kinky Friedman You have to fail at one thing before you succeed at another.
Kinky Friedman nudnick–thanks for the tip, it would be cost effective too.
Scott So you’re a character in Spanking Watson, and in other books. Is
it weird having a fictional identity you named after yourself?
ing kinky, how long did it take to belt out this last novel?
Kinky Friedman Spanking Watson was fast, just sort of threw the plot out the
window and went from there.
Scott Do you ever take events from your life and work them into the fiction?
Kinky Friedman I am going to Europe to do 55 shows starting October 7 with Little Jewford, from the Texas Jewboys.
Kinky Friedman I expect to come back bigger than Robert Frost.
Scott At least more alive 🙂
Kinky Friedman – absolutely, of course my life is a work of fiction, but I have effectively erased the line between fiction and non fiction in my book.
ing dont suppose your including Australia in your tour?
Kinky Friedman Almost everything is true.
Scott So your real pals become characters in your work?
Kinky Friedman ing – sure would love to go, probably will get there in January.
Kinky Friedman I miss my goddaughter and my kookaburras.
Kinky Friedman–Yes–it keeps me company when I am writing alone on the ranch.
Ryan how do they feel about that… or do they know about it?
Kinky Friedman Most of them are enjoying the ride.
Kinky Friedman You would have to ask them.
Kinky Friedman No lawsuits yet.
Kinky Friedman kinkyfriedman.com is where you can find the itinerary for the upcoming European tour.
Scott I love the fact that you came out with a self-tribute album. Does your music help sell your books and vice versa?
Kinky Friedman The Wildman from Borneo Tour.
Kinky Friedman I would have to defer that question to a marketing genius like
Kinky Friedman Thank God he hasn’t written a book yet.
Scott So what other novelists do you admire?
ing kinky, tell us what eat drink and be kinky is, i’ve just discovered this title and want to know is it a recipe book?
Kinky Friedman Most of them are dead: Robert Louis Stevenson, F Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski.
Jeannie What is the worst advice you were given when first
beginning to write?
Kinky Friedman I also like Robert B Parker.
Scott Noticed Camus made a couple appearances in SW.
Kinky Friedman Outline everything first was the worst advice, that is always a mistake.
Jeannie I agree; find that outlining is very constricting–limiting, that is.
Scott So you pretty much work without knowing where the stories headed? Without a net, sort of. . .
Jeannie reminds me of outlining in English class in high school; hated it.
Kinky Friedman – yes along with another great frenchman LePetomane.
Jeannie So, what is the BEST advice you’ve gotten?
Kinky Friedman Outlining results in formulaic New York times bestseller crap.
Kinky Friedman Write the book to a silent witness, like a cat or a dead person or a long lost lover.
Jeannie Kinky, as you may have assumed I am a writer. I prefer to bascically go to the computer and just start writing.
Scott What’s your favorite book that you’ve written?
Kinky Friedman Write the book LIKE A LETTER to the cat, lover or dead person.
yazzle anyone here written any good EPILGOUES lately?!?!?!
Kinky Friedman–always the next one.
Scott other than that one?
Jeannie So, you ingnore the ‘censor on your shoulder’?
Kinky Friedman The Mile High Club is the next one and it is the best one, and
it is finished. It actually has a plot–but dont hold that against it.
Kinky Friedman Jeannie–I have an angel on my shoulder.
Jeannie Good way to look at it, Kinky. 🙂
Scott So you know Bob Dylan–what’s he like in person?
Jeannie I do my best, when writing, NOT to think of what someone may think when they read what I’ve written
Kinky Friedman – he gave me a cuban cigar in Dallas last week, thought that was very nice.
yazzle Jeannie–are you published?
Scott Do you still play with him?
Kinky Friedman He’s a very funny, gentle, ruthless, thin kind of guy.
Jeannie locally; I’ve had some articles published, but none of my fiction has been–yet.
Ryan aussiebob, Welcome to the Chat Room, with special guest
author Kinky Friedman. … Feel free to ask Kinky a question. If the room
gets crowded, however, I’ll be starting a discussion queue.
Kinky Friedman Jeannie, that is exactly right, you have to write with a
disregard for the reader, that is the only honest way.
yazzle Kinky–do you write every day?
Jeannie I think too many sit down and write for the public.
Kinky Friedman No to playing with Bob Dylan, we are thinking about doing some traveling out west, Way Out West.
Jeannie Romance writers especially.
Scott How does the publishing industry compare with the music industry from your exp. as an artist?
Kinky Friedman yazzle–yes when I am not on the road. Of course it helps to be unemployed.
yazzle are you sort of strict in the discipline? like–ok–between 9am and 5pm I write . . .
Jeannie Don’t you think that telling a neophyte writer to write every day
without fail may take away some of the fun?
Kinky Friedman I think the music industry is a bit less honest if that is
yazzle Jeannie–that’s what I was wondering . . .
Kinky Friedman yazzle–NO, I just keep a page in the typewriter and work when
the mood hits me. Of course the only two people in America who still use the typewriter are Kinky Friedman and the Unibomber.
Jeannie I write because I love it; not because I have to. It’s not a job to me; it’s fun, and like Stephen King says: I’ll stop when the fun goes out
yazzle do you rewrite a lot lot lot???
Kinky Friedman No, just a bit–
Jeannie King uses an IBM Selectric.
Jeannie I LOVE revising.
Kinky Friedman I think the editor should earn his money.
Scott Have you had good relationships with your editors?
Kinky Friedman King–that figures, haven’t run into him lately.
Unknown Who’s your agent Kninky?
Unknown Kinky, sorry.
Jeannie was that a joke?
Kinky Friedman Great relationship with my editors. Chuck Adams, my old editor was Jim Landis, also Jane Cavelina. Esther Lobster Newburg is my agent, and I will defer any questions to her.
yazzle do you send your manuscript through to your editor as you write, or just when it is finished??
Scott So do have multi-book contracts, or do you pitch them one at a time?
Kinky Friedman But It doesnt pay to change agents, as Joseph Heller said, every change is for the worse.
Jeannie I read recently that someone else used your agent; think I read it in Writer’s Digest or Fiction Writer.
Kinky Friedman I have a three book deal with Simon & Schuster.. .two of which are written, one of which is still out there.
Jeannie I’ve got three sequels in mind to the novel I’m currently working on.
Kinky Friedman Two books are written but not published yet. The Mile High Club and Stepping on a Rainbow.
Scott I caught some touches of Heller in your work. You a big fan of Catch-22?
Jeannie how would that sound to a publisher?
Kinky Friedman I think it’s a great book– although it hasnt caused as many deaths as the bible, it has
caused a few people to think about the nature of life.
yazzle sorry to ask twince … but do you send your manuscript through to
your editor as you write, or just when it is finished??
Kinky Friedman yazzle–just when it is finished . . . when I think it is finished, he doesn’t always agree.
yazzle and how long does it take you to write a book?
Jeannie Would a publisher be excited to know that I have three sequels in
mind, using the same basic characters, to the novel I’m currently working
Scott You’re a real master of the great title–Need to say that the
title of The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover is classic in and of itself.
Unknown I noticed in Spanking Watson you cited Ginsberg & Camus, practically in the same paragraph . . .
Unknown Which one is your favorite of the two?
Kinky Friedman Jeannie, yes that is all to the good. But first you need a
ing kinky,in your new novel do you get it on with winnie?
Kinky Friedman yazzle–maybe two or three months if life doesn’t get in the
Jeannie It’s nearly finished; am doing the second draft of the first book. What is my next step?
yazzle wow! that is FAST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
yazzle I just wrote one and it took nearly two years.
Unknown The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover. Kudos on the title. Actually, can
I use that?
Jeannie yazzle, same here.
Kinky Friedman Ginsberg is the devil I know.
yazzle THREE MONTHS!!!! I bow down
Kinky Friedman yazzle, I pretend that I am Oscar Wilde behind bars with my hair on fire.
Jeannie took me six months of research and then took another 3 months to
write the first draft.
Kinky Friedman Unknown, Be my Guest!
Scott What would you say to beginning novelists about promoting their
yazzle I trashed everything I wrote in the first 9 months.
Unknown Thanks man.
Kinky Friedman yazzle, Not always that fast.
Dirk Uh, hold on . . .
Kinky Friedman Okay Unknown.
Ryan since we’re getting a little crowded in here, I’m going to start a
queue for questions. If you have a question for Kinky, please type a “?” or a “!” and I’ll add you to the list.
Kinky Friedman Georges Simenon could write a novel in two weeks.
Jeannie Kinky, thanx for talking with me; good luck on your next book (s).
yazzle mon dieu.
Kinky Friedman Jeannie–Good Luck on your book.
yazzle Good luck, Jeannie!
Kinky Friedman yazzle–I don’t speak Italian.
Jeannie Thank you!
Unknown ? Kinky, did you meet Tom Waits?
Kinky Friedman Yes, Tom and I were old friends in LA, twenty years ago.
Kinky Friedman Now we are penpals.
Dirk How’s he doing?
Dirk Waits writes well.
yazzle Can you tell us about marekting? There are so many great books out every month–how can you get ‘noticed’?
Kinky Friedman No one knows, he is the Howard Hughes of modern music.
Kinky Friedman Waits is a genius.
Unknown Why do you think Ginsberg is the devil?
Kinky Friedman yazzle–That is a tough one. The best way is to have an affair
with Sharon Stone.
Kinky Friedman If you can’t do that, go on Oprah.
yazzle great idea! shame she’s married and I’m straight!
Unknown I did that actually.
Scott How is Sharon?
Unknown She’s fine.
Kinky Friedman Nothing has changed, the best writers are still dying in the
Kinky Friedman I say Devil in a good way.
Scott From drink or lack of sales?
yazzle Do you think every new sends their book to Oprah?
Unknown Living large in the gutter. Unknown.
Kinky Friedman Ginsberg was an important Jewish troublemaker, not unlike Jesus himself. And he was not afraid to mingle his life with his work.
yazzle what do you mean– “mingle his life with his work…”?
Scott So do people ever make assumptions about you personally from reading about your character in your work?
Kinky Friedman All great writers have been alcohololic.
Scott Has that ever put you in an uncomfortable situation?
yazzle Why do you think drink and drugs are so writing-inducing?!!!??!!??!?
Kinky Friedman most of them didnt sell very well in their lifetime. None of
them sold as well as Dean Koontz.
yazzle Would you ever admit that in public???
Scott Noted you’re a Jameson’s man.
Unknown Your fictional charcter named “Kinky.”
Kinky Friedman They would be quite correct in making those assumptions.
Unknown I like Jamesons.
Kinky Friedman and it never puts me in an uncomfortable position. Nothing bothers the Kinkster.
Dirk Kentucky bourbon.
Dirk And cigars.
Kinky Friedman Yes, but I am not heavily Guinness. The drink that kept the Irish from taking over the world.
Kinky Friedman WHOOPS.
Kinky Friedman I am NOW heavily into Guiness.
yazzle watch your waistline, kink.
Scott You’ll have to drink with The Unknown sometime.
Unknown That passage about the city, the Ginsberg part, was cool. In
Unknown Drink with me.
aussiebob Kinky, any plans to come back to Australia soon, for music or
Dirk Were you ever a starving artist?
Scott I think we have time for five more questions, or so, then we’ll let Kinky get back to the business of writing.
Kinky Friedman Thanks Unknown, you are a discerning American.
Kinky Friedman Aussie, will be down there in January, for what purpose I am
yazzle Come on down!
Scott So what’s the most fun you’ve ever had as a writer, Kinky?
aussiebob we’ll all watch out for y’all.
Kinky Friedman TO paraphrase Truman Capote, having written.
yazzle Kinky–do you ever HATE what you have written? And then love it
Kinky Friedman Starving artist, probably, cannot remember the first half of
Unknown Thanks. And thanks for the great title. Who’s the most dangerous
artist you’ve ever drunk with?
Kinky Friedman aussie–Look forward to seeing you little buggers down there.
yazzle It’s sunny here in Sydney today.
Dirk Me neither.
ing no its not sunny here yazzle
yazzle it’s sunny in Bondi!
Kinky Friedman Tom Waits or Abbey Hoffman.
Unknown Oh man. Abbie.
Kinky Friedman sorry . . the spelling.
Unknown No prob.
Unknown He was a yippie freak.
Unknown Like me.
Kinky Friedman Yep.
Scott One last ? here if you had to choose: Beatles or the Rolling Stones?
Unknown Beatles. Oh you’re asking Kinky. Sorry.
yazzle Van Morrison, actually.
Kinky Friedman Well the Beatles say “I believe in Yesterday.” The Rolling Stones say, Yesterday don’t matter when it’s gone. I say, “Find what you like and let it kill you.”
Unknown Ruby Tuesday.
yazzle Except when you get your gorgeous 20-something mistress preggers.
Unknown Yeha. Unknown.
Kinky Friedman That’s a good one.
Scott Amen. Thanks for joining us tonight Kinky.
yazzle thanks Kinky
ing yeah, ta kinky.
Unknown Thanx Kinky.
Kinky Friedman Remember, the Lord helps those who help the Kinkster. If you are driving folks, don’t forget your car.
aussiebob thanks cobber.
Kinky Friedman Thanks very much, it’s been a financial pleasure.
yazzle bye then
Scott Have a good night. May you be paid well in all future endeavors.
Kinky Friedman Bye.
Kinky Friedman lives in a little green trailer in a little green valley deep in the heart of Texas. There are about fifty million imaginary horses in the valley, and quite often they gallop around Kinky’s trailer, encircling the author in a terrible, ever-tightening carousel of death. Even as the hooves are pounding around him in the darkest night, one can hear, almost in counterpoint, the frail, consumptive, ascetic novelist tip-tip-tapping away on the last typewriter in Texas. In such fashion he has turned out twelve novels, including Blast from the Past, Roadkill, The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, God Bless John Wayne, Armadillos & Old Lace, and Elvis, Jesus & Coca Cola. A pet armadillo called Dilly, a small black dog named Mr. Magoo, and two cats — Dr. Scat and Lady Argyle-can sometimes be found sleeping with Kinky in his narrow, monastic Father Damien-like bed.
This is a transcript of a chat that took place on the Authors site at About.com in September 1999.
An Interview with Bettina Drew
Bettina Drew, the author of a biography of Nelson Algren, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, recently published Crossing the Expendable Landscape, a collection of essays on the development, or re-development, of American cities over the past twenty years. In the book, Drew examines the consequences of built environments that fail to recognize regional, historic, aesthetic, and social values. In many cases, the cities seem to have been custom-built to suit the needs of corporations who can provide a tax base, while ignoring the needs of the people who live and work within the municipalities. Drew advocates the work of the New Urbanists, a group of architects and planners who focus on the human use of urban environments in planning development.
Drew was recently in Chicago to give several readings from her new book. I sat down with her for lunch at a small restaurant off the Polish Triangle in Chicago’s Near-West side. We had the following conversation over plates of cheese blintzes and cabbage pirogues.
Scott: After working on your Algren biography, what in particular drew you to writing this book, about development in American cities?
BETTINA DREW: Two things. After writing a biography and spending a lot of time in archives with books and so forth, I found that I really wanted to look. I like the orientation of just going out and looking, and seeing what I could discover just by looking.
Also, because of my experience publishing the Nelson Algren biography: before that, I had basically been a teacher, an adjunct, so I never really had contact with the for-profit world. I was pretty stunned by my treatment by the big conglomerate that published my first book. Because of my experience, I became aware of how literature has become seen as just a product. It made me aware of how the corporate egos have invaded American culture. I wanted to write about this, but I didn’t want to write about my own experience, because people might think “Oh, that’s just sour grapes.”
So I wanted to take something that could not be denied. Physical buildings are there. No one can say that they’re not.
Scott: Speaking of corporate treatment in the publishing world, is your Algren biography out of print?
Bettina: It was in paperback from University of Texas Press, but the last I checked, it was out out print there as well. But I’m going to place it with the Authors Guild, they have a new service for selling out of print books. I know that there are still copies extant for both the hardcover and the paperback.
Scott: I was kind of surprised when I went to look for it online and it popped up out of print. As the only substantial biography of a major American author, it is exactly the kind of thing that publishers should be keeping in print, especially now that the big publishers have access to print-on-demand systems, which could keep their backlists available for short runs.
Bettina: Tell your readers to be sure and look it up with the Authors Guild.
Scott: The “New City” chapter of the book, focuses on Stamford, Connecticut, which, at least from your description, seems like an example of developer just tearing down the heart of a city, its downtown area.
Bettina: Well, he didn’t tear it down, the Urban Renewal Commission tore the buildings down, and then sold it to a single developer. The head of the Urban Renewal Commission was a wife and mother who had been active in civic issues, and not someone who had a background in civic planning. She went to HUD in New York, and they said, “Well the easiest way to do it is just to get a single developer.” So they did that, and in fact they’re the only city that ever did that. I don’t want to speculate, but it may have been some sexism on the part of the HUD guy in New York, who saw that this woman didn’t really know anything about urban development.
In that way, it was really the government’s fault. Usually I’m on the side of government. But as I write in the last line of the essay, “The government of Stamford reduced its citizens to the bottom line.” It was all for a tax base. It was a completely rational, unsympathetic treatment of both the buildings and the people in Stamford. It was all just about money. They thought that that was what civic duty entailed. This is something that I see at work in the United States on a large scale.
Scott: Where there’s not much of a sense that a city should have a city center, a civic center?
Bettina: Right, where downtowns are being sacrificed but more, just places for the public good, places where people can come together as a community. Certainly, people can come together in a mall. But there used to be places like village greens, parks with promenades, community oriented spaces, that a city might build.
Scott: And as you note, the mall is now the only place for that in Stamford.
Bettina: Well, it is downtown retail now. All the little businesses were forced out. It is a bald, upwards concentration of capital.
This is another one of my pet peeves. I live in a rural community in upstate New York, and our town can support only a small shopping area with a drug store, liquor store, and laundromat. The drug store owner retired and was bought out by a chain, Rite Aid. Did Rite-Aid use the existing drug store? No. They built a brand-new structure which we really didn’t need, and now we have an empty structure in the shopping center. And the same thing has happened, only with a different chain, in a neighboring town, Cairo. These decisions are being made in corporate headquarters, and they have very little to do with the locality into which they are coming. They just buy the land, and most localities, especially in rural areas, are not used to considering their property as worth something, so they don’t have effective zoning, or a land-use plan.
I think that we need to think of land as a resource, as a communal resource, and that we have the right to decide whether our cities are going to be ringed by strip commercial roads, or by green belts.
The American way of life, it seems to me, is increasingly less and less not only about learning from the past, but also less and less about preparing for the future. There isn’t a coherent vision that we’re striving for.
Scott: I guess that given the way that capital flows, maybe it’s inescapable. For instance, in Chicago, the mayor’s been big on beautification. Here on Ashland, for instance, the street has been boulevarded, blown out, and there’s a median with flowerpots in the center. Which is great, it’s nice to see, but on the other hand, the beautification always seems to come either right before, or right after, some major action by developers, which is usually to buy the old buildings, often to tear them down and put up new constructions, which are often quite hideous. And then of course, the people living in the previously low-rent neighborhood get shifted out. So it has the effect of pushing poverty west. So it’s okay if that part of the city has poor services and look like crap, as long as the downtown area is secured for the middle and upper class.
Bettina: The poor are always the first hurt and the last helped.
Scott: It always flows down to money somehow or another–and usually not money for the community as a whole.
Bettina: Right. Bribery.
Scott: It seems like Real Estate’s loaded with it.
Bettina: A developer says “Here’s seven thousand dollars,” and a public official is thinking, “My god, my kid needs braces . . .”
Scott: Graft’s a powerful thing. In the “Privatopia” and “The Coastal Empire” sections of the book, you make a pretty alarming, and accurate observation that, in redeveloping Hilton Head Island into gated communities and resorts, the developers are doing a pretty good job, at least from an economic standpoint, or recreating the Plantation culture (the slave-based culture) of the Old South. What do you think this kind of nostalgia represents?
Bettina: In the gated community I describe in the book, the term “plantation” was used without the slightest bit of self-consciousness. It is particularly offensive to the African Americans living there. I chose Hilton Head because it has been entirely developed into these gated guarded communities, though I don’t think that the issue I was talking about there is so much confined to the South, but is relevant all over the United States, where gated communities are being erected. In this case, the poor happen to be Black, but they are of other ethnicities in other areas.
Scott: I know that in the suburbs of Chicago, particularly the ones with gated communities, the police force per capita is something like three or four times as much as it is here in the city. So basically you have these communities where there’s no bones about it, if you look like you’re not from the community, they’ll use that alone as a grounds to stop you.
Bettina: It’s hard to separate out issues of race and class in the United States. Slavery had such an unbelievable impact that is not given its full credit. There is an historian in England who is doing a comparative study of slave cultures to find how long it takes for a former slave population to become part of the mainstream, to overcome the lack of inherited wealth, the psycho-social wounds and so forth. The answer is about ten generations. Here we are at about the seventh generation of emancipation of slaves. So we’re not there yet.
Scott: Definitely not. A friend of mine, an African American, was just downsized from her position at a Real Estate management concern. After that conversation, and being given virtually no justification for their decision, she went down on the street to hail a taxicab. She had four drivers, with their available lights on, turn off those lights and drive by, as soon as they saw she was African American.
Scott: Ignorance prevails all over the land.
Bettina: An interesting thing about Hilton Head is that a lot of its problems could have been anticipated or alleviated by looking at their history. The whole development of the island discourages this, and encourages the people who live on the island to pick out a little bit of history, as if history is a box out of which you can pull little pieces, and enjoy them on their own, with no connecting narrative.
Scott: You bring out that whole element of nostalgia in the Simi Valley section of your book as well, where they adopt this Western ethos.
Bettina: Simi Valley is the place where the Rodney King verdict came down. It’s a place that is physically set off from Los Angeles by a ring of mountains. There was a real frontier mentality there. On the first night I was visiting there, there was a city council meeting. They were up in arms over a variance, the local police chief was going to put a few restrictions on their right to carry handguns. Of course, they could already carry a gun at the hip, ankle, and shoulder. Anyway, the NRA stacked the meeting to fight any restrictions whatsoever.
I found this a lot of places: people referring to “them,” i.e. the savages in Los Angeles, versus “us.” It is basically a mentality of conflict, that presupposes not the similarities between people, but the differences. This ideology of domestic conflict is something that I think came out of the struggles in the West with Native Americans, and with Mexicans to a lesser degree. It was, philosophically, a reactionary way to approach life, that other people are different from you, as opposed to a more positive way of looking at things, where you would start with the similarities between groups of people.
Scott: It seems similar to what goes on in Stamford, where the people who live in a place before the frontiersman, or the developer, come in to make it habitable for American business, are perceived only as obstacles to development.
Bettina: When the dreams died in the West, where land was plentiful, people just moved somewhere else and started again. Hence you now see this movement in the West to states that had previously been less populated: Idaho, Montana, Nevada, places like that. But in the East, where land is scarcer, and more highly developed, the impulse is to tear it down, and start again.
Scott: When I was living in Normal, Illinois, occasionally we’d drive out to smaller towns in central Illinois, and we’d see these deserted old town squares from the twenties and thirties. You’d get a sense that there was once a community there, the memory of which is now reflected only in the architecture.
Bettina: The twenties and thirties were a real heyday of American town planning, where you’d have a small town with a discernable center of the town with civic buildings, a school, and you could easily walk to the outlying perimeter of the town, usually only a quarter of a mile away. Those are some of the ideas that the New Urbanism is trying to bring back into the planning of communities.
Scott: Dallas sounded really frightening from your description in the book. Is it this kind of vast, spread-out city?
Bettina: Downtown Dallas is pretty pretty depopulated. First of all, they’ve made all these underground and aboveground walkways, so there’s no street-life. Coming from the East, I was so stupid, I booked a room at the downtown Holiday Inn, figuring I’d be centrally located. Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth. There is no real center to Dallas.
I did find Dallas kind of frightening. The talk there was all about money, constantly “develop, develop, develop.” They’re constantly talking about teardowns, and the houses that are sold are of far better quality than the rental houses. When African Americans or Hispanics move into a certain neighborhood, the other people move out and then the people who live in the neighborhood have a hard time getting the property values back up. So there are a lot of old Southern ideas hanging around in there that aren’t that great.
I felt like Texas was another country. They’d never heard of recycling; it was just consumer waste wherever you’d look: waste of land, waste of infrastructure, waste of architecture, building these buildings that noone would occupy.
Scott: And not much of a civic culture, outside of the Cowboys? You write about the JFK assassination museum, which left me with this image of downtown Dallas as a place where the only thing going on is the tourists lining up to see where JFK got shot.
Bettina: Well, that was an important moment in American history. I was glad I got to see where it happened. It was a good museum, it was a moment of enlightenment.
Scott: Celebration was an interesting chapter of the book. At first I expected another Disney-bashing, which is always fun and valid, but I was surprised at your take on it. Were you surprised?
Bettina: I thought it was very pleasant, very pretty. So yes. Architecturally, and design-wise, I really had no quarrels with Celebration. My quarrel was that Disney was trying to make it look like a real town, but in fact it was just a community interest development with a homeowner’s association. They even went so far as to build a town hall, when there is no democratic structure in place. And of course Disney is all about image, about conveying an image. They work very hard to do that.
Scott: Disney seems to have some good ideas at work in Celebration, but ideas that you’d like to see in a different context. Could you elaborate on what you saw as “the good things” going on there?
Bettina: Celebration is roughly based on the ideas of the New Urbanism, in that it’s a walkable town, the school is within walking distance, so the children can walk to school. It’s a public school, although it’s different from other public schools; it’s mostly Celebration people, only 20% of its population can come from outside. It has a downtown that can also be walked to, that has little shops and nice little restaurants. So for little daily needs, you don’t have to go to a commercial strip, though those are not that far away, you don’t have to have them right in your face. There’s a lovely little lake there. The whole town was designed by many very talented architects; Ceaser Pele did an art-deco style movie theater, Philip Johnson did the town hall, Michael Graves did a building there, and then Robert Stern, who is now the Dean of Architecture at Yale, directed the project, along with Jacquelin Robert. So they assembled quite a talented crew. It’s a mixture of traditional homes, Colonial homes, Victorian homes, Low Country houses, and townhouses, and there are some rental units there too, in the downtown. They took a lot of ideas from Charleston, Savannah, and other historical Southern cities. There are little walkways, and courtyards, things like that. Very pleasant, very pleasant little town. And of course the weather is beautiful.
Scott: Do you think any of the positive aspects of Celebration, that the community was at least planned for civic life, do you think that kind of approach is being or could be applied in major American cities?
Bettina: There are New Urbanist developments in cities all over the place. Some of them are in new towns, with some shops in the downtown, but this can also been done in subdivisions. You build a little village, with a subdivision around it. But the houses are more closely spaced and so forth. But New Urbanist ideas can also be used in redevelopment and infill sites. By infill, I mean you have a building that is rundown, and either you build a new building there, or your renovate it, so instead of leaving that a blank space, a city could encourage building in that spot, increase the density, making it less sprawling, and then you can do sidewalk amenities and so forth. You can do this without calling in the New Urbanist planners. Charleston, for instance, has a mayor is pro-preservationist. He’ll do some arm twisting to see that historic buildings are not unnecessarily torn down. For instance, one building was owned by a bank, and the mayor could arrange to have some deposits shifted to that bank, or out of that bank, to encourage the bank not to tear the building down. So some arm-twisting did go on, but one good thing about Charleston is its historic nature. They developed the waterfront there in a way that allowed all the people of Charleston, rich and poor, to use it and enjoy it. The mayor is very committed to that kind of thing, and the city has a direction. There is a conscious effort, he believes that things can be made to work. A lot of it is being committed to a vision, and believing that you can make a difference. So rather than what is now the old style of thinking–“oh, let’s put a shopping center there.” Like in New Haven, they’re building a huge mall. New Haven is one of the oldest cities in the state, it still has a common green. It has lovely buildings on the green, and churches and so forth. But the owners of the city want to put a mall in there. It’s absurd.
I interviewed T.C. Boyle on November 23, 1998. The interview was originally published on the Authors site at the Mining Company. It was subsequently republished on tcboyle.net.
T.C. Boyle is one of America’s most prolific contemporary authors, with seven novels and five short story collections to his credit, written over the course of his twenty-five year career. Boyle’s oeuvre runs all over the map, from historical novels, including Riven Rock and The Road to Wellville, to the zany story of a marijuana farm in Budding Prospects, to politically relevant satire like The Tortilla Curtain. I talked with Boyle one afternoon at the Whitehall Hotel in Chicago. He was in Chicago to read at Harold Washington Library from his new collection, T.C. Boyle Stories. The volume is a thick tome of sixty-eight stories, including the complete contents of Boyle’s first four short story collections, and seven stories which have never before been published in book form. Boyle said that he was enjoying his visit to Chicago, and noted that the church right down the street from his hotel was the same one that Stanley McCormick, the subject of Boyle’s novel Riven Rock, attended with his mother a hundred years ago. Boyle was reading David Quammen’s The Flight of the Iguana, and he mentioned that Quammen’s long non-fiction work, The Song of the Dodo, had been an inspiration for him to work on the novel heís currently writing, A Friend of the Earth. Chicago was Boyle’s last stop on a three-week book tour. While you’d expect most writers to be exhausted after such a long haul, Boyle, the consummate raconteur, proved to be a buoyant, energetic conversationalist
Scott: This collection spans twenty-five years of your career as a writer. As you put the collection together and as you go on this tour, have you yourself noticed ways in which you have changed or grown as a writer over that period?
T.C. Boyle: Well, it spans twenty-five years of my career, which is the entire career, from the beginning till now. The earliest story in there was composed before I went to Iowa, it was one of the stories that got me in there, and got me published. Now I also have probably thirty or forty stories I published in that period that I have never collected, and never will. And again, this collection wasn’t my idea, it was my editor’s idea, to kind of show the audience that’s come to me over the last three novels that there’s also a lot of work in the short story. I liked the idea after a while, they talked me into it, but I do like it, because I see it as Volume I, you know? I have a lot of work, this is Volume I. Volume II, give me twenty more years, we’ll have Volume II.
I can see that I’ve changed in this way: I had never written any novels when I wrote the first stories. In fact, I probably published forty stories before I began a novel, Water Music. In the early stories, I’m very much interested in the design of the story itself, and the idea, and characters are truly secondary to the concept of these stories. They’re very wild, and funny, and bizarre stories, in which the characters function with the same valence as some of the other things, or maybe even less, maybe they are sort of in the background. Language and other things take over. Since I’ve written novels in the interim, the very latest stories in there, like “Mexico” for instance, are more character-oriented. Everything else is there, but the characters are–richer maybe, because I’ve learned how to develop them through writing novels.
Scott: The collection is divided into three sections: “Love,” “Death,” and “Everything in Between.” Why did you choose to organize the book along those lines, as opposed to say a chronological order?
T.C. Boyle: Well, I think you probably already know the answer to this: for fun, purely for fun. I didn’t change any of these stories, really. I don’t think that’s my purpose. My purpose is to present this work that I’ve done for whoever’s interested. And you can see the development, I’ve put the dates of composition in there. But that’s where it ends. I didn’t want to an academic thing, I didn’t want to put it into chronological order for many reasons. One of which is that the reader, you know, might not make it to the later stories if only the beginning stories are there. So I think it makes it into an entirely new book, and it interests me, I can have fun with it. They’re sort of random categories, but it was a lot of fun to arrange the stories to balance one another, and make a new book. If I just stuck them together as the English–when the English did a collected stories with my first three volumes a few years ago, they just took the three volumes and stuck on a new cover, that’s it. This makes it into a real book, something that’s different.
What the French are doing really intrigues me. They are going to do three or four separate volumes, one per year, and they’ll use Love, Death, Le Disastre, and Le Bizarre. So you get four books and it’s great, and they all have a uniform cover.
Scott: That’s great–Le Bizarre. Just out of curiosity, you said that some of the stories that were written before you went to Iowa. Which one got you in there?
T.C. Boyle: “Drowning” is the earliest story in there. You know if I were doing a selected stories or a “best of” I probably would eliminate many of the stories from the first collection and a couple from the second collection. But I didn’t want to do a selected stories–I could have done fifty stories, that would have been an enormous book, and would have no stories that I think are weaker, but again, that’s not the purpose of a collected stories–the purpose of a collected stories is to show your development. To show it all. All the stuff that I want to keep that has been published in book form before, and a couple of older ones that hadn’t been published, and then some new work to bring it up to the present time. Although I’m holding off some of the new work too, for the next collection–I didn’t want to publish a 1,000 page book.
Scott: You studied at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop in the early seventies and stayed on to complete your Ph.D. How important of a period was that for you as a writer? And also, was Robert Coover was there at the time?
T.C. Boyle: No, he wasn’t actually.
Scott: Oh, never mind that then-
T.C.BOYLE: But I’ll address it nonetheless. The time when I was at Iowa was a time when I became serious about writing–as my life. Before that, as you probably know, I was pretty much of a degenerate, writing sporadically, and listening to a lot of bad habits and so on in New York. I’d never been west of New Jersey at that point, and I kind of grew up, because now I knew what I wanted to do, and I pursued it vigorously. I’m very proud of the fact that I made a perfect 4.0 in all of my graduate work, that I was a good student. Prior to that–I’d been in school since I was four years old, and I didn’t want to do it, you know? It was like punishment to go to undergraduate school. So in that way, yeah, it started a whole new phase of my life. Iowa bailed me out, really.
Scott: It’s a good place to write.
T.C. Boyle: Yes it is. You’re in a place where everybody is a writer, including the waiter and the bartender and the pizza delivery guy, everybody’s a writer. And writing is the chief art, and writers are revered. I got to see all my heroes coming through town and give a reading in the five and a half years I lived there. Whether they’re nice people or not, or whether they’re idiots, who cares? There they are, they’re living and breathing, you know?
Coover is my mentor, in many ways. When I first started to write stories, I was writing these very fragmented pieces that wouldn’t quite stick together, and then I found Pricksongs and Descants and realized that he’d done what I’d been groping for, perfectly and brilliantly, and I really loved the book. A few years later–one of the reasons I went to Iowa was that Coover had been there, and all the other writers of that time that I admire–I won a fellowship there and the job I had was to work on the Iowa Review as Assistant Fiction Editor. Coover was the Fiction Editor, but he was living in London. So I would screen the stuff, and send him ten manuscripts, and he would pick three or four or whatever, so we corresponded for a couple years. When I finished my Ph.D. I did the whole Eurail thing as a ragtag hippie with my wife, trotting around Europe. When we to London, Coover gave a party for us. He was just great. He introduced me to my agent, as well. And I’ve heard him read many times. He is a brilliant, brilliant reader, one of the best that there is. I never read with him until last Monday night, a week ago, at the 92nd St. Y. So that was really a special occasion. That was fun, tremendous fun.
Scott: As I’m making my way through your collection, I’m amazed at how often animals appear as metaphors, plot devices, and even characters. You have to be the most versatile author of animal stories in the history of American Lit.
T.C. Boyle: My favorite is the point of view of the elephant in “Big Game,” where I’m actually in the elephant’s head for a while. That was fun.
Scott: Is there something about storytelling that makes you gravitate towards animals?
T.C. Boyle: No. It’s just that everybody has his own territory, and own interests. My stories come from anything that interests me, or that I discover. And I’ve always been very fascinated by biology and ichthyology. And always very fascinated with the idea of us as just another animal species, and not separate from the animals. So my first book was called Descent of Man, for instance. I think that’s why the animals appear so often, throughout the work.
Scott: Do you have any favorite stories in the collection?
T.C. Boyle: Yeah, I do. But there are lots of them. The stories that I think are the ones that are my contribution to our literature are the ones that the critics don’t usually single out. They single out the more conventional stories, and say how mature I’ve become because I wrote “If the River Was Whiskey.” Well, fine, I’m glad. But I think the stories that distinguish me from other writers are the wild ones, the really nutball stories, like “Bloodfall,” or “The Miracle at Ballinspittle,” or “Ike and Nina,” or “Sorry Fugu,” stories that other people wouldn’t conceive of or write in that way. Because the idea is to be individual, right? These are individual stories. Nobody else is going to write them, maybe nobody else would want to.
I like those stories because I think they’re unique, more than the more realistic stories. I don’t rule out writing any kind of story. I’ll try anything: literary parodies, or a story like “Sitting on Top of the World,” where you get kind of tense, just to see how it will go. What I love best is just the crazy, crazy stuff: “56-0,” the football story or “Respect,” the story about the Italian doctor and the mafia guys. I mean, I’ll try anything. Why not? Why limit yourself?
Scott: “Heart of a Champion” is one of my favorite stories. I’ve taught that a few times. It’s a good story for an Intro. to Lit class, because it helps get people over the bridge from watching TV to seeing what can be done with literature.
T.C. Boyle: Right, and also discussing the ramifications of it, and what TV feeds you, and the sentimentality, and other notions that we’re fed and how it forms our society and our view of society, and how the author subverts all of that. You start at ground zero again.
Scott: Your 1993 novel The Road to Wellville was made into a film, directed by Alan Parker. How much of a role did you play in its production? Did you enjoy the process, and would you look forward to seeing more of your work translated to film?
T.C. Boyle: Well, point A, the answer is simple. Zero. Point B, I love the movie that Alan made, and I like Alan very much. I consider him a good friend, and I consider him a very fine artist. I love the film he made of Road to Wellville. But he knows that I would have nothing to do with writing it. He wrote the script himself. I don’t want to work for anybody else, I don’t want to write scripts, I don’t want to write histories, biographies, book reviews, I just want to write fiction. That’s what gives satisfaction, it’s my life’s work. And what was the third part of the question?
Scott: Would you look forward to–
T.C. Boyle: Yes, yes I do. I look forward to more films coming out. I think next will be Budding Prospects. Columbia Pictures has stepped in. It’s been under option forever, since it came out, and they just signed a director, Peter Cattaneo of The Full Monty, and writers, the writers of Grosse Pointe Blank. So that sounds like a good combination to me, because what both of those movies lacked was a strong plot-line, and I think here they have a strong story to tell, and the writers of Grosse Pointe Blank are hilarious, that’s some hilarious stuff, and then Cattaneo did a great job with his characters and his cinematography. So I’m hoping that it will be a great combination.
Scott: Sounds great.
T.C. Boyle: But more to the point, there’s my TV show that may materialize, I think, for next fall. Probably for HBO. It would be a given number of episodes of my stories dramatized. It would be–I think thirteen, they were talking about, but you know, don’t quote me on that. When you turn it on, and it’s on the screen, then you know.
I think it will be great, if they will spring for it. Tony Bill is producing, he’s an old friend of mine, I’ve known him since I moved to LA, the writers are people I met in the Writer’s Workshop, Mitch Burgess and Robin Green, who used to write Northern Exposure, and my job is to be the host. Which doesn’t involve a lot of time, and I don’t have to write anything except brief intros to each one, and appear on the screen for a minute.
Scott: Wearing a smoking jacket?
T.C. Boyle: Yeah, yeah, of course–we’re going to take off the Rod Serling thing. I want to do it because it would get the word out on the stories, to a huge audience, whereas, no matter how many books you publish, you still fight against the tide. I mean I might read to five hundred people tonight, but one minute on the screen and you got thirty million, you know? So I’d really like to do it, especially because it doesn’t involve any participation on my part, except two days, at most.
Scott: Of course while you’re in town, you could always stop by Harpo Studios, pitch it to Oprah, and shoot right to the top of the best seller list.
T.C. Boyle: Oh yeah, that’s my other plan. If the TV show doesn’t pan out, I intend to marry Oprah. Because of my deep physical attraction to her. After about two weeks, we’ll be in bed, and I’ll turn to her and say, “Hey Ope, how ‘bout the TV show?”
I’ve never watched her show and I wouldn’t, it’s not my kind of thing, but I do love what she’s done for books, and I would love it if she picked one of mine. It would be great, it’s an instant large audience. Barring that eventuality, though, I would love to do my own show. I think it could be very popular, and it could be good for everybody. I’m really hot on the idea, but again, with the film industry, until you turn on the tube and there it is, nothing is a go.
Scott: You write long novels and short stories, and write the short stories in between the novels. Do you ever work out ideas in your short stories that then make their way into your novels? Is there a kind of rhythm?
T.C. Boyle: No. It never happens. When I’m locked away with a novel, as I am now, anything that occurs to me as a short story, I just jot it down: a brief, one-sentence description of the idea. When the novel is done, and my head clears a little bit, I turn to a period of writing short stories, which could last anywhere from 8 months to a year. I wait until the ideas kind of peter out, and then it’s time to write another novel. I really love to be in that rhythm. And even further than that, I have a rhythm of a long, more complex novel, a book of stories, and then usually a shorter, contemporary novel, which is the pattern I’m working on right now.
Scott: That’s a great pattern to get in.
T.C. Boyle: I don’t want to mess with it, either.
Scott: You’re a lot like Flannery O’Connor in that many of your stories are “without a hero”–without any one character who necessarily elicits readers’ sympathies. This is very hard to pull off successfully, and you get away with it very well. Generally, how much do you identify with your characters? Do you feel that you need to?
T.C. Boyle: I guess I stand back from them. I love the comparison with Flannery O’Connor, who is one of my all-time heroes. I stand back from them as the god of my characters’ universe. I don’t usually identify much with them. They’re all an amalgam of people I might know, or that I’ve invented. The closest characters to me are somebody like the kid in “If the River Was Whiskey,” or the narrator of “Greasy Lake,” the narrator of “Back in the Eocene,” but those are all fictions too. They didn’t happen. Some autobiographical elements are put into this framework, and I do identify with those characters, maybe moreso than when I’m standing back and narrating in the third person, for instance, like in “Big Game,” where it’s a kind of Evelyn Waugh type of satire of a kind of person, and a kind of mentality in our society.
I feel equally happy about both sorts of stories. I don’t have to identify with the characters. Some idiot criticized Tortilla Curtain, as I recall, some very jealous, kind of second-string writer said that I’m “disdainful of my characters” or something like that. Well, the guy should read a little satire, he should read a little Evelyn Waugh, a little Kingsley Amis. That’s what satire does, it makes fun of certain behaviors in order to change them. A lot of people don’t quite get sophisticated humor anymore. It seems that we’re in this kind of grimly realistic phase, where if it’s not straightforward naturalism, people don’t think it’s any good, or don’t get it, and I’m trying to work with all different types of humor. You know, the kind of slapstick of “The Champ,” which has a kind of serious undertone to it, to a much more horrifying kind of humor, a Flannery O’Connor kind of thing, where you’re caught off guard, as in “King Bee,” where you’re horrified by it, and the same in Tortilla Curtain, and other books that I’ve done, Riven Rock even.
Scott: Your Ph.D. from Iowa was in Nineteenth Century British literature, and your first novel Water Music was a satire of Victorian fiction. The Road to Wellville and Riven Rock are both set around the turn of the century. What is it about this period that makes you gravitate towards it?
T.C. Boyle: Well, the period has always fascinated me. I thought in the original conception of World’s End that there would be a period around the turn of the century too, but there wasn’t. With the two books you mentioned, Riven Rock and Wellville, they both have to do with things that are happening in our society now, and I think that the beginnings of them are what interests me. I don’t just write a conventional historical narrative, because they never work. The historical impulse overwhelms the aesthetic impulse, and you wind up with a rather dull read that seeks to replicate the way people lived in the past, or the way they spoke, or what they ate, and all that kind of information, which isn’t necessarily germane to a novel.
I’m interested in writing novels that reflect on how we are now, how we got to be what we are now, which is one of the things that attracted me to the Riven Rock story. This kind of skirmish between men and women, the alliance between men and women, human sexuality, what’s normal, what’s not, who decides, what is marriage all about. I look at Katherine McCormick, and a woman in her condition today would just probably get a good divorce lawyer, take half the estate, and move on to Aruba.
So things that point to who we are today fascinate me, and I think that’s why I’ve twice tackled the beginning of the century. I don’t think I will again, because now we have the new beginning of a new century. And actually, part of my new novel is set in 2025.
Scott: Oh really? Do you have a title yet?
T.C. Boyle: It’s called A Friend of the Earth. It’s about the environmental movement, from 1950 to 2025. It begins when the narrator is one, and he’s now seventy-five, when he’s telling the story. It’s a comedy, but it’s grim. It has to do with ecotage, and global warming, and the extinction of species, all that kind of stuff.
Scott: Riven Rock was based on the true story of industrialist Cyrus McCormick’s son Stanley McCormick. How important is research to you as a writer, in this and in previous works?
T.C. Boyle: I agree with E.L. Doctorow, who said in response to this question that the research, for a novelist, is really a spur to the imagination. So that when you’re doing the research, you begin to formulate what the story might be. You begin the story. If your research is incomplete, or the story takes you in an unforeseen direction, you can always go back and find supporting material. I think many writers get bogged down in their research, because they enjoy the research for its own sake. I don’t, necessarily. I need the research to spur my imagination, so I know what the story’s going to be, and I don’t feel good unless I’m actually doing a story, and making a story, and involved in it. So research is important, but it’s not all-consuming. I’m not trying to reproduce information; I’m trying to figure out what the information means. I can’t figure that out unless I write a fiction.
Scott: As a subject for a novel, sexual deviant Stanley McCormick seemed to me to be a particularly challenging character, a kind of emotional minefield. Yet, in terms of character-writing, it seems like you invested more in developing a human understanding of his psyche than you had with previous protagonists. Do you this novel marks a kind of shift in approach for you in terms of writing character?
T.C. Boyle: Boy, I don’t know how to answer that. I feel that I’ve been working hard to improve my concept of character from the beginning. Character in satires often isn’t as relevant as it is in a more conventional narrative, because what’s more important is the overview. But it’s in my books, in East is East, for instance, I feel that I created a very solid character in Ruth Dershowitz. I think in this book Eddie O’Kane is a good character portrait, so is Katherine Dexter McCormick. I think the characters in Tortilla Curtain hopefully rise above satiric portraits, and become affecting, and more fully fleshed, characters. So I’ve been aware of this, and trying to work with it. In fact character for me, in some of the new stories, like “Mexico,” for instance, is something that’s a kind of a new toy for me to play with.
Stanley–I don’t think anybody else would have written a story about Stanley McCormick. But I’ve got my own territory, it’s my own thing. I don’t want to be like all the other novelists. Even though the critics can’t quite–I shouldn’t complain about them, they’ve supported me from the beginning, the reviews of Riven Rock were overwhelmingly favorable–but there were still some that aggravated me, and that are kind of niggling. I want to be different, I want to stand apart from the other writers, and pursue my own territory, and go where I have to go, on my own, as an individual. That doesn’t necessarily conform to what more conventional critics think literature should be. Well, I piss on them from a great height, and I’ve said many times: I know what I’m doing, and I don’t know where they’re coming from. I guess they’re getting $500 to review a book, you know?
Yeah–who’s going to build a book around a sexual maniac who assaults women and has to be locked up? Unless it’s some stupid thriller or horror crap, you know? I don’t know, it intrigues me. What does it mean? Why would a man have to be locked away for twenty years without seeing a woman? What does it mean? Why should it interest me? Why should it interest readers? And yes, I did want to explore his mind, and his psychology, as a way of getting at the relations between men and women.
I invented Eddie O’Kane as a character to stand as Stanley’s alter ego. Many men are deeply misogynistic, as you know, being a man, and talking with other men, and sitting around the sports bar and all of that. I think they’re misogynistic because they’re afraid of women. To be in love with somebody, and to declare your love for them, really puts your heart and soul on the line in the most naked way, because women might reject you, and often they do, and then you become bitter about it. Eddie O’Kane is a womanizer, he’s misogynistic. He’s even very casual about it. He’s, in his own way, very little different from Stanley. But there are degrees. And I wanted to explore those degrees.
Scott: What kinds of music do you listen to?
T.C. Boyle: When I’m working I always listen to music. Almost exclusively classical music, string quartets, trios, sometimes vocal music. And also, sometimes, John Coletrane. Jazz. When I’m not working, I listen to Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Riven Rock, it was strange, it was set around the turn of the century, you’d think I’d listen to classical music, but I got into a Coletrane phase again, and made tapes of all my favorite cuts from his albums, so a lot of Riven Rock was written to 60s jazz rather than turn of the century classical music. I just need the rhythm.
Scott: When you start out writing a novel or short story, do you pretty much know where you’re going to end up? Do you work with outlines, or do you just sort of jump in with both feet?
T.C. Boyle: I have no idea where any story or novel is going to go. I have to follow the opening lines, and I find out where they go. It’s a puzzle, and that’s why it’s so magical and interesting for me to write fiction, and why I’m not interested in writing anything else. With novels, I generally do research, and as we said, helps to suggest what the story might be. And I might jot some notes down then. Usually those notes aren’t really relevant though, as to what evolves. But just the process of thinking about it in that strict way is helpful. I also like to have a title for a novel before I begin. It’s been that way with everything but Budding Prospects. And some kind of sense of how big it will be, and what division of sections there might be in the book. Because that also helps as an organizing principle. Beyond that, I have no idea. There are no outlines. It’s too abstract to make an outline. I will, at some point, leap ahead and think, “Oh yeah, well this will happen, and that will happen, and this is why, and it will end here,” and I jot down a few lines to that regard, but basically I’m just following the story through to see where it will take me.
Scott: Do you have any kind of set routine for writing? Do you set any schedule for yourself?
T.C. Boyle: I work seven days a week. I get up, and I read the newspaper, then go to work, and I usually work four hours a day, on average, something like that, and then I’m done, I don’t even think about it until the next day.
Scott: That probably helps keep you sane.
T.C. Boyle: Yeah. I think you need to give the unconscious time to resolve some of the questions of the work, some of the problems. Hemingway said that when he would stop writing each day, he could only stop if he knew where he was going the next day. I think he was pretty much saying the same thing I am. I get to a certain point where it goes dead. I don’t know if I know where I’m going to be the next day, but I know that nothing more is going to come out of banging my head against the typewriter today, so I may as well move on.
Scott: When you were growing up, were there any particular books or authors whose work was particularly important to you?
T.C. Boyle: Well, it depends on how you define growing up. When I was a kid, I didn’t read much. I read comic books, and animal stories, and things like that. When I went into college, I began to read, and especially to read contemporary authors. In that period of the early 70s, I was reading: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Borges, Julio Cortazar, Gunter Gras, Pynchon, John Barth, Coover, Barthelme, the absurdist playwrights, Flannery O’Connor, people who were on the scene current at that time. Usually it was stuff that was a little extra-real, stuff that had a little bit more of a sweep, or a larger overview of life than, let’s say, the minimalists that we had in the 80s, that kind of thing.
Scott: I hope that period is over.
T.C. Boyle: Well, I think there’s great work that was done then, and I love many of the writers–
Scott: Yeah, well, I mean, Carver was great–
T.C. Boyle: Carver’s the best, and Mary Robison did great work too, in that style, Richard Ford as well, but it wasn’t exactly my style. Although I’ve written some stories that–they’re not minimalistic, exactly, but they are of that ilk, because, you know, this is a grab bag. I want to try everything.
Scott: Food and restaurants seem to be a recurring obsession in your fiction. Restaurants make for an interesting milieu in your stories, in that they are often the site of both an essential activity, eating, for the human-as-animal, and yet also a place where the superficiality and peccadilloes of “high culture” are put on display. Do you see restaurants as places where visceral humanity puts on its cultured airs?
T.C. Boyle: Well that is a great question, and brilliantly phrased, and it answers itself, pretty much. I very much like the idea. I’ve thought about food a lot, because I’m always asked about it. I think it stands as a kind of symbol of conspicuous consumption. My restaurant critic piece [”Sorry Fugu”] began with the idea that it’s so absurd. I mean, people are starving all over the world, and we’re concerned about how they’re cooking the sea bass tonight. But eventually, as you know, it became a story not so much about restaurants and restaurant critics, but my little love letter to the critics of the world in general, as opposed to the artists.
And yeah, it does bring our animal natures into conflict with what is polite. And to be civilized, to be able to go to a restaurant, without killing everybody, eating their food, and then eventually eating them too, is a miracle in a way.
Scott: So were you the guy in “Sorry Fugu” with the burnt steak and potatoes?
T.C. Boyle: Well, I’m a pretty fancy guy these days. I get wined and dined a lot all over the world. I like good food and good restaurants. But I’m not obsessive about it. I’m not obsessive at all. I’ll eat anything. I never met a food I didn’t like. During the Wellville tour, all the journalists thought it would be hilarious to take me out to the chili stand, and eat hot dogs and stuff. Sure, no problem.
Scott: So what are some of your favorite dishes?
T.C. Boyle: My favorite cuisine is Japanese. I love sushi. It held me in good stead when I did my book tour in Japan, in ‘89. A lot of Westerners, I guess, are kind of squeamish about Japanese food, or unfamiliar with it. Invariably, when I went out to dinner, my hosts would say, “So Sensei, is there is any food that you do not eat?” and I would say, “No, bring it on. I’ll eat it all.” The way they do it in Japan is: You don’t order sushi, you just come in, everybody sits down, the chef is going to bring you twenty pieces of sushi, and he cuts it up, and everybody eats the same thing. A lot of times they just set it on the wooden bar and you eat it with your fingers. You’re having fun, you’re drinking saké, and then the chef brings out another round of stuff down, until you say stop. It’s a lot of fun. And good stuff.
Of course, one of the jokes I’ve already developed for the Friend of the Earth tour in the year 2000 is this: Don’t invest in a sushi bar, because everything they serve there is going to be extinct in ten years. That be the truth. It’s all going to be extinct, everything. Everything in the sea is gone. I just finished a book yesterday called Cod, by Mark Kurlansky, that Penguin just reprinted. It’s a wonderful, wonderful book about the history of cod, cod fishing, how it’s effected us, how it helped us to break away from England and all of that. And the sad fact is that the cod stocks are depleted and there is no cod fishing anymore.
Scott: You’re known as the P.T. Barnum of American fiction–
T.C. Boyle: Am I really? I think I should get a T-shirt that says that, “The P.T. Barnum of American Fiction”–I think I will. My god.
Scott: Your readings are legendary, and you’re far less reclusive than J.D. Salinger. To what degree do you see fiction-writing as a kind of performance?
T.C. Boyle: I came up with a formulation years ago of levels of fame. The first level of fame is: Nobody knows who you are, and nobody cares. The second level of fame is what I have achieved: People read my books, they come out to see me, and sometimes they will come up and say “T.C. Boyle?” I’ll say yeah. They’ll say “We love your work,” and then they’ll go away. The third level is the same scenario only they’ll say, “T.C. Boyle?” I’ll say yes, they’ll say, “You son of a bitch,” and punch me in the face. And then the final level is J.D. Salinger.
So, I’d like to stay at level two.
Well, fiction, all art, is a performance. It’s a performance, and it’s a seduction too. You have to get the reader’s attention, I guess that’s where the performance comes in. You have to seduce the reader into entering your world, and believing that it’s true, and staying there.
As far as being on stage is concerned, unlike most writers, I am extroverted. I like to be onstage. Most writers are introverts–that’s why they became writers in the first place. They didn’t want to have to deal with anybody. I don’t mind, and I get a real charge from giving a live performance. To connect with the audience in the way that comedians do, or musicians do. It’s one-on-one. You deliver a line, they laugh. I mean, that’s a great feeling. It reaffirms the power of the work, and the power of the written word. And also the rhythm of it. You don’t hear the rhythm of it if you leave it in your own head.
I think it’s great for the audiences too, because so many authors don’t present their material well, or they’re kind of dull. And then everyone’s eyes droop and they begin to think they’re back in English class in the ninth grade with Mrs. Cox, you know? Literature’s not supposed to be like that. If it’s going to be like that, stay home and read it yourself.
I like to turn ‘em on, I like to just do a performance. It has nothing to do with the book itself. I’m not going to read them the most difficult passages, they can read that, it’s on the shelf.
That’s what I do. I’m not shy about it. I mean, I’ll go on TV in an orange jacket and tell jokes. I go on all the radio shows and call-ins. I don’t mind being an entertainer. If it attracts more people to literature in general, and specifically to my books, great. Why not?
I really stand opposed to this whole notion, this whole academic notion, that literature is the province of the academy. I don’t agree with that. Literature is the province of anybody who can read. Just as popular music is, too, it is an entertainment. Which is not to say that you would ever compromise what you’re doing, or to write down to the audience, or write thrillers or vampire novels or any crap like that, but given the context of writing good, serious literature, you have to grab the audience in some way, and I feel that any way you can do it, without compromising yourself, is fine. And I don’t consider the publicity part of a book to have anything to do with the book itself, and the writing of the book–that’s done, that’s finished. Now it’s time to go out and let everybody know it exists.
Scott: I think literature needs a few good salesmen.
T.C. Boyle: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. I resent the fact that there’s anybody considered more of a celebrity than writers. We are the greatest. We should be it. I mean, who are these soap opera stars and mere movie actors and actresses, and mere Rock ‘n’ Rollers? Anybody can do that crap. Come on, let’s give credit where it’s due, and revere our writers a little bit more.
Scott: Exactly. We need a Pantheon up there on the Washington Mall.
T.C. Boyle: Yeah. It’s a losing battle, I’m afraid. But I’m fighting it, nonetheless. I have no choice. This is it.
Scott: Much of your fiction is loaded with references to pop culture. What advantages or disadvantages do you see to utilizing the stuff of pop culture in writing literature?
T.C. Boyle: Well, there are a couple of writers who I admire, who have written good stuff, who have come out with selected stories. And they were very much of their time, well one in particular, who worked very much with references to pop culture, but specific references to a time and place in pop culture. I think that that can be limiting to a degree. If the story depends upon knowledge of it, you’re dead. But obviously, every story becomes a piece of history the moment it’s finished. That, more than anything, was brought back to me doing this book of collected stories. And to come back on the given references to a certain war, or a group of people, or a product, or a scientific advance, those were obviously hip, current references, by a hip, current, contemporary writer, but you’d need an encyclopedia and almanac to figure them out. Footnotes.
Yeah, every story does become part of history once it’s done. But you are writing to reflect your feelings, and your thoughts, about society in your time. And, obviously, current references, and products, and so on, have to play a part in it. Unless you’re going to write all your stories set in Ancient Greece. And even then–
Scott: Then you better learn about the pop culture of Ancient Greece.
T.C. Boyle: That’s right, you’d have to represent the pop culture of Ancient Greece, and even then, you would still be writing it as a person in your time. Borges had fun with this in his story, “Pierre Menard, the Author of Quixote,” which is so hilarious. You know, he had read Don Quixote, like all of us did, when he was a kid. He hadn’t looked at it since. But he decided to rewrite it, exactly verbatim, by becoming Cervantes, by studying the period of the 16th Century in Spain, by becoming completely infused with it, and knowing everything. And then Borges–who is a critic in the story–says, “Here is the original,” and he gives you a paragraph, and then he says, “Here is Pierre Menard’s inspired version,” and it’s exactly the same, but he says, “And can you see? The way he infuses it with modern angst!” So hilarious.
Scott: You’re a tenured Professor of English at the University of Southern California, where you teach fiction writing. What kind of advice do you regularly find yourself giving to young writers?
T.C. Boyle: They have to read their contemporaries. They have to know them, thoroughly, and be totally infused with the idea of what is happening now. I often–aside from my advanced class, I also have a community class–I’ve often asked them to list their ten favorite works of contemporary fiction, and few of them can do that. But all of them could list ten CDs or ten movies. They have to understand that, if they’re going to perform at all, they need to know what’s out there.
The second thing is that they shouldn’t really listen to anybody’s advice as being definitive. If it sounds reasonable, then perhaps you might adopt it. You have to have a kind of chip on your shoulder, and feel that you ultimately know what your work is going to be. Otherwise, you might become a clone of somebody else, or you might write in the same style as your teacher, or someone you admire. I think you have to develop your own style, in your own way, and to know what is unique about your approach, and to work fanatically at writing. Because the more you do, the more you practice, the better you’re going to get.
Scott: In the past year, you’ve written a novel that marked a substantial stylistic departure from your earlier work, and now published a volume that is a complete retrospective of your career as a short story writer. By publishing this substantial volume now, are you doing something similar to what happens in the closing story of the volume, “Filthy With Things,” a kind of mental housecleaning? Do you see this as a kind of clearing of the decks?
T.C. Boyle: Wow, that’s an interesting observation. Since we’ve spoken to this earlier–I guess so. I haven’t really thought of it in that way. It’s–there so much material, there’s so much material. What am I going to do? Wait until I’m eighty, and do a volume that’s 2,000 pages long? I think it’s a good time to do this. Again, I resisted the idea of it at first, because I’m too young to do a collected volume of anything, but I think it’s good. Your observation–I hadn’t really thought of it in that way, Scott, but it is a clearing of the decks, it does sort of finish off twenty-five years. In fact, the picture on the back speaks to that. That big head shot with the severe lighting. My best friend took that picture, and he took the very same picture, in the same pose, on the whole back cover of my first book, Descent of Man. So it does kind of bookend it.
And what if I didn’t collect it? I would just come out with my next regular collection next year anyway, that’s fine. No loss. But I think maybe this will introduce a new audience to the work, people who came aboard in the last five years and who might not have been there fifteen or twenty years ago when I first began publishing books. So yeah, I guess it is putting those stories behind me, and now we start Volume II. It’s good. It closes a chapter. It doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily going to write different stories altogether, I just want to continue to grow and find out where I go from here.
Scott: Another of the recurring obsessions in your stories is human mortality. If you were to be hit by a truck tomorrow, how would you like the world to remember T.C. Boyle, American author?
T.C. Boyle: The same way I want my biographer to remember it. I want my biographer not to write a biography, because my life is so boring, so full of joy, and pure happiness. He lived, he wrote, he died. You know? That’s it.
I would like to have another hundred years to write stories. But those aren’t the parameters we’ve been given in human life.
Although . . . just because everybody else who has lived has died doesn’t mean that I have to die. So I’m still holding out some hope.
This is a transcript of a chat that origninally took place on my Mining Company site in November 1998.
Octavia E. Butler joined us here on the Contemporary Literature site on Thursday night, November 19, to discuss her latest novel, Parable of the Talents, and her career. She sat down for the chat with Miningco Books and Writing editor Melissa Johnson. Miningco Fantasy/Sci-Fi Guide C. Corey Fisk joined us as well, along with several interested readers. Below is the slightly edited transcript of our chat.
Scott: Hi Octavia, welcome to the site.
Melissa: Hi Scott, it’s Melissa and I’m here with Octavia.
Scott: Great. How has your day been?
Octavia: Busy, very busy.
Scott: I tried to make your reading on Tuesday, but got hopelessly lost on the South Side.
Octavia: Ah, boy, we got pretty lost today in Queens.
Scott: So are you at the end of your tour or in the middle of it now?
Octavia: Actually I think I’m a little closer to the beginning than the end.
William: Hi Corey.
Scott: We’re just about to get started here. Hi Corey, glad to see you could make it.
Melissa: Hi Corey, it’s Melissa.
Corey: Glad I could as well, Scott. Hi, Melissa.
Corey: And please give my compliments to the woman sitting next to you, if I understand the setup–she’s one of my favorite authors.
Melissa: Ok, I will!
Scott: The chat is sort of a new thing here, so we might not have the biggest group this time around, but we’ll try and ask some good questions, and post the transcript on the site.
Corey: Well, I can machine-gun questions, but I’m afraid I’m working on very little sleep and a very large To Be Read pile (with a couple of your newer books and a reissue of The Kindred climbing steadily to the top.)
Scott: I think we’re just getting settled in here. Melissa is with Octavia Butler in New York.
Melissa: Anytime you feel you want to start Scott is fine on this end–
Corey: Ms. Butler, may I ask a couple of the standard questions without driving you out of your skull? For instance, I’d love to know who some of your favorite authors are.
Octavia: Corey, I don’t have favorite authors anymore, I have favorite books, like Dune, by Frank Herbert and Perfume by Patrick Suskind and non-fiction: anything by Stephen J. Gould or Oliver Sacks or Timothy Ferris. My current favorite is Walter Alvarez, T-Rex and the Crater of Doom. I like the way it shows scientists working together or at cross purposes or together–I like the discovery.
Scott: Much of your work seems to be concerned with people working together, and what happens when they try, and fail, to build a new community.
Octavia: My characters tend to be very community-oriented–in all my books–if they aren’t part of a community, they tend to assemble communities around themselves, and if they fail they do it again, they don’t seem to give up. And community is also very important to me.
Scott: It seems like the world in Parable of the Talents has a lot to do with the world we live in right now. How much do you base the historical events in your fictional world on real events in the present day?
Octavia: The world in Parable of the Talents is a descendent of the world we live in now–the problems that we don’t pay attention to now are the ones that will grow into full-fledged disasters.
Jim: I believe that!
Octavia: Do you mean how much do I base future events on current events?
Scott: That was one of the things I thought most amazing about the book. It almost seems to be more an unmasking of what’s going on right now than a projection.
Octavia: It’s an extrapolation because things do still work now, even if they don’t work very well, they do still work.
Scott: I guess I was thinking of the rhetoric of the Christian Right, the expansion of our prison population, things like that.
Octavia: Those things exist, but they don’t rule. In the future that I write about, they have a great deal more power.
Scott: What role do you think a novelist should play? Do you see your books as a kind of warning of what could go wrong?
Octavia: Yes, but the two Parable books are cautionary tales, not prophecy. Corey, if you want to ask the questions from earlier that would be fine too.
Corey: I was wondering how you felt about the usual categorizations your work gets. . . Feminist, “literary SF,” africian-americian oriented, etc. . . . and how much of that is actual factors in how you work and write?
Octavia: I assume you mean, do I mind having my work called science fiction?
Corey: No, actually, although I’d be glad to hear the answer to it. (By the way, Thanks! I just finished up Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb. I’ll be sure to take a look at T-Rex, since I enjoy the Alvarezes.)
Octavia: I don’t call it anything but storytelling. Just for myself, the labels tend to be more marketing devices, verbal shorthand or scholarly tools, and they don’t have much to do with me.
Scott: I’m wondering how you got started as a writer–how did you?
Octavia: I began writing when I was ten years old. I had been telling myself stories since I was four. I began trying to sell when I was thirteen, and finally began to have some success when I was 27. The standard writer overnight success story. 🙂
Scott: Wow. So did you actually sell anything when you were 13?
Octavia: Dear, oh, dear. Nothing, that was when I began my collection of rejection slips.
Scott: So did you keep them?
Octavia: No. I’m no masochist.
Corey: I try to think of ’em as free wallpaper.
Melissa: I’m asking Octavia a question now–about the success she had at 27.
Octavia: And that’s when she sold Patternmaster.
Scott: That must have been a great day. When you’re writing, do you have an “ideal audience” in mind?
Octavia: When I’m writing, I’m the audience. If I bore myself, then I assume I’m going to bore other people. If I keep myself interested, chances are I’ll keep others interested.
Scott: Could I ask a little about the way you work–do you have a kind of set routine?
Octavia: Mornings are for writing. Actually I get up early, before dawn and do my morning walk, then I write until late morning. Later in the day I might have another writing period, but my morning writing period is essential. About four hours, maybe a little more. It’s a kind of habit. If I’m not there, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. A good habit is as hard to break as a bad one.
Scott: How do you work your way from one project to another? Do most of them spring from each other? For instance, in this series, do you have a good idea of what will come in the next book?
Octavia: No they don’t. And it is difficult for me to get from one project to another. I spend a lot of time at the beginning of a project writing about a project instead of writing the story. It’s my way of getting myself out of the old thing and into the new one.
Corey: (Again, folks, feel free to jump in with a question!) (‘scuse, Scott, just doing the cheerleader thing.)
Octavia: In the Parables series I had an idea that I liked, but I’m not sure that I will follow through with it because it’s been done recently. Someone got to it before me.
Scott: Who’s that?
Octavia: Well I don’t want to talk about it because I still might use the idea.
Scott: I can understand that. What kind of advice do you give to young writers?
Octavia: Forget about four things: first, forget inspiration, it’s great if you have it, but if you don’t, write anyway, even if it’s only in your journal.
Forget imagination. If you’re worried about having imagination, obviously you have imagination just to be able to worry about it.
Forget style. You will develop it on your own. Best not to try to use it to dress up thin plots or poorly devised characters.
Forget talent. If you have it, that’s great. If you don’t, don’t worry. If you think talent is essential, take a look at the best seller list and you’ll change your mind.
Octavia: Jodi, did you have a question?
Jodi: What did you feel when you got word that you had received a MacArthur grant?
Octavia: I thought it was a cruel joke. Either that or that it was one of those horrible telemarketing stunts.
Jodi: 🙂 Did it hold a special significance to be honored in that way?
Octavia: It did, it did. It was something I never expected and something I appreciate very much. Freelancers don’t often get regular checks and the MacArthur provides regular checks for five years, allowing me to write my books without worrying about money.
Jodi: Has that allowed you to be more productive? Not having to worry so much about where the rent is coming from?
Octavia: I don’t know that I’ve been more productive, but I’ve been able to be more careful.
Z: Careful how?
Octavia: I’ve been able to take the time that a project required without worrying about money.
Z: Which of your books is your favorite?
Octavia: The one I hope to be working on when I get home–it’s the baby.
Z: What will it be entitled?
Octavia: Untitled so far.
Z: Which of your already-published books is your favorite? (that I might find and read?)
Octavia: I don’t choose favorites among my older children.
Scott: I’m interested in what you said about style. The ideas in your novels are sometimes complex, but your stories are told in very direct, unadorned way. Do you consciously try to write in as simple a style as possible, so that the ideas will better get across?
Octavia: Yes, because the whole idea of storywriting is to communicate.
Scott: So Octavia, do you have any personal goals as a novelist? In your future?
Octavia: I hope to make the next novel the best I’ve written.
Scott: That’s a goal to wake to every morning.
Melissa: Okay, I think we’re going to wrap things up on this end. If anyone has some last questions, now’s the time.
Corey: Just want to say I love your advice to forget, and thank you for stopping in.
Kim: Sorry to have popped in late! Glad you were able to do this, Octavia. 🙂
William: Yeah, thanks
Jodi: Thank you so much for chatting with us, Ms.
Scott: Thanks very much for coming, Octavia.
Nancy: Yes thank you.
Octavia: Thank you.