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MAY 2004

Black Humor, Leaning Toward the Absurd
An interview with author T. Coraghessan Boyle

by Jared Friedland

T.C. Boyle is downright worried.  The fifty-six year old author with steel earrings, a diabolical-looking goatee and pompadour-style hair the color of which most closely resembles the fiery orange-red of tabasco, is eyeing a handful of children the way a paranoid Central American dictator might eye a band of insurgents.

In a Los Angeles Barnes & Noble to promote his latest novel, Drop City, Boyle cracks a wise-guy smile before questioning whether the dozen or so well-behaved kids a few feet away from us are merely lulling him into a false sense of security.  “They're quiet for now,” Boyle deadpans, sneaking a mock suspicious glance at the kids as they turn the pages of the latest Harry Potter.  “The moment I'm scheduled to speak, though...” he trails off and laughs, leaving unsaid the tantrums and parent-mortifying hissy fits America's youngest readers may or may not be plotting.  

Born Thomas John Boyle in Peekskill, New York, T.C. was a promising if lackadaisical student throughout high school, a phase of life he likens to “penal servitude.”  At seventeen, saxophone and sheet music in hand, he entered the State University of New York at Potsdam, intending to major in music, but he flunked one of his first auditions and wound up switching majors to history.   

It was a decision marked by serendipity, but ultimately  frustration.  Dr. Vincent Knapp, a history professor who had “made his way up, hand over hand, from the depths of the working class,” recognized talent in Boyle's writing and tried to encourage him, but the author wasn't ready to develop his ability and spurned his mentor's advice.  “I hurt him,” Boyle wrote in an essay looking back on his youth. “He was the second of my fathers, and I hurt him in the way of Allan Sillitoe's long-distance runner and his father/mentor.  I didn't attend classes.  I hung out with the losers.”

Boyle actual father, a school-bus driver with an eighth-grade education, was a depressive alcoholic.  “I tried to understand him,” Boyle said in an interview with The New York Times, “but he was usually extremely morose and insensibly drunk, like his father before him.”  Many of his Boyle's fictions feature a search for a missing father; one of the author's most affecting short stories, “If The River Was Whiskey”, is constructed around Tiller, a young man trying to befriend and understand his alcoholic father as they fish for pike.    

Two years after Dr. Vincent Knapp's history course, Boyle took his first class in creative writing, under Harvard-educated Hindu novelist Krishna Vaid.  Professor Vaid structured the class like a classic fiction workshop, assigning students to write original pieces, then having them read their work in front of the class.  When it was Boyle's time to present, he decided, having recently been exposed to absurdist French playwright Eugene Ionesco, to write an one-act play entitled “The Foot.” 

A dark comedy about a couple grieving the loss of their only son to the jaws of an alligator (all that remains of their boy is his left foot, which they keep enshrined on the coffee table like a holiday centerpiece), “The Foot” caused Professor Vaid and Boyle's classmates to erupt with laughter and applause, an experience he describes as “one of the sweet surprises of my life.” 

It would be predictable to say that the author's out-of-the-park homerun on his first attempt at creative writing emboldened him; that he began writing feverishly and never looked back, but Boyle in his early twenties was still like his character Ronnie in Drop City -- disaffected and feckless, his only interests drugs, music and women.   

Then something happened.  A friend's fatal overdose “scared the holy sweet literature” out of him, galvanizing Boyle to write his way out of the mire.  It took two years, but Boyle's efforts finally paid off, when a story published in The North American Review, “The O.D. and Hepatitis Railroad or Bust”, earned him acceptance into the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop.  (“If they'd considered my dismal academic record,” Boyle confesses, “I'd never have gotten in.”)

At Iowa, Boyle began the most intensive reading period of his life, finding himself drawn to works written “with a certain black humor, leaning toward the absurd.”  He cites John Barth, Kingsley  Amis, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O'Conner, Gunter Grass and Robert Coover as early influences, adding, “Coover had been doing everything I wanted to accomplish, but didn't yet have the craft to begin.”  Flannery O'Conner's widely-anthologized short story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and Evelyn Waugh's 1934 novel, “A Handful Of Dust,” were also educational; each showed Boyle the profound effect a writer can achieve by inverting the tone of a piece from comedy to horror.  It's a technique the young author quickly assimilated, and one that has come to characterize much of his fiction, from short stories like “King Bee” to his 1998 novel, “Riven Rock.”

“When I discovered writing, I didn't have a foundation, a classical background,” Boyle says, taking a long slurp off a can of Diet Coke.  “Until Iowa, I'd mostly read contemporary fiction.”  Boyle credits his graduate school academic mentor, Frederick P. W. McDowell, with introducing him to, and nourishing his love of, nineteenth-century British literature.  

In addition to McDowell, Boyle had the privilege of studying with literary greats Vance Bourjaily, John Cheever and John Irving.  In his autobiographical essay on writing, This Monkey, My Back, Boyle praises Bourjaily and Irving as having been “exceptionally generous and supportive”; Cheever, who wore a formal suit and bow tie to class each day, he likens to “a wind blowing out of some remote place.”

At the helm of his own creative writing classes at the University of Southern California, Boyle strives to introduce his students to as broad a range of authors as possible.  “It may sound obvious, but it's vital to teach creative writing in conjunction with writing... students cannot learn to write effectively without simultaneously being exposed to literature.”  To that end, Boyle recently edited a short-fiction anthology entitled Double Takes, so named because it's comprised of two stories apiece by thirty different authors.  It's Boyle's hope Double Takes transcends his classroom to enrich the curriculum of high school and college English teachers nationally. 

Asked whether his style of teaching has changed in the two-and-a-half decades since he arrived at USC, Boyle reflects for a moment before replying, “I'd have to say the only way I've probably improved is in drawing my students out.”  Glancing at a nearby mother reading to her children, Boyle says he tries to maintain a classroom environment “not unlike an informal party,” so that even the most reticent students feel comfortable discussing each other's work. 

Boyle makes it plain one of his foremost priorities is “arousing his students' emotions” -- getting them passionate about literature, whether that passion is generated by enthusiasm, resentment, “or even rage.”  To an author famous for irony, irreverence and nothing-sacred satire, the most effective means of stirring his students up -- of “pollinating” young people with a love of literature -- is getting them to realize writing can be as “subversive an act” as a protest or an angry rock n' roll song.#



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