A Conversation With Novelist T.C. Boyle

In 1938, The Santa Barbara News-Press ran a story entitled “The Happy Family That Rules a Kingdom,” describing Elise and Herbie Lester thusly: she was “the Queen of the realm, dressed in a gingham skirt and a white pullover she’d spun from the wool of the very sheep her husband kept watch over in the lorn and lonely meadows of the misty isle far from shore.” So went the romanticized gossip of the Swiss Family Lester, one of two families who occupied the shepherding island of San Miguel off the coast of Santa Barbara—Marantha and Capt. Will Waters in the 1880s, the Lesters in the ’30s and ’40s.

San Miguel—“a long narrative, entirely from the point of view of women, in the realist mode with no irony”—is in ways a departure from T.C. Boyle’s previous thirteen novels, noted for their dark humor and ambitious varieties of narrative voice (see Tadashi Sato, Frank Lloyd Wright’s meticulous Japanese apprentice who narrates The Women). But on display in San Miguel is Boyle’s consistent penchant for finding historical narratives and his skill in relaying them, as it were, “organically.”

The word “inventive,” now a given on the jacket copy of any Boyle novel, doesn’t do service to his thoroughness as a storyteller. Spongebob Squarepants is inventive. San Miguel is an unwaveringly honest account of a common American fantasy: to isolate oneself on an island as a pronouncement of self-reliance, to claim ownership of one’s wellbeing, to (literally, in the Lesters’ case) evade the effects of depression and war. In an election season pumped with the myth of the island—as personal metaphor, as tax haven—Boyle’s account of these two historical tragedies is aptly prescient.

T.C. Boyle: It’s not a sequel to When the Killing’s Done. But, when I was doing the research…I came across this diary and these two memoirs of people who had lived on San Miguel Island, which is the farthest North and West of the California Channel Islands. The most remote, the most windblown, the most damaged ecologically and so on. The stories were just quite fascinating to me, so I decided to see if I could dramatize them.

BlackBook: Whose diaries?

The first is Marantha Waters’ journal. It’s only like forty-five pages and very fragmentary. She only lived on the island for six months. But, what was interesting was, after she died, her husband and her adopted teenaged daughter went back out there and he was sort of—it’s almost like a fairy tale, he was the evil stepfather who kept Edith there. It’s really kind of fascinating for me because it’s so fragmentary and you get just echoes of who she was and what it was like. She was this sophisticated San Francisco woman living this comfortable, upper-middle-class life, and then this ne’er-do-well, potbellied husband talked her into spending her ten thousand dollars—which was a hell of a lot of money in 1888—to buy into this island so that he could be king of his own domain, and she went along with him.

And Elise Lester left this memoir of having gone to the same island to do the same thing in the period of 1930-1942 with another dynamic sort of guy. She was 38, she was the ugly duckling in the family, she was a spinster, she was a librarian in New York City. And Herbie Lester, a veteran of World War I and full of energy, came in and swept her off her feet and brought her out to the island and they lived there for twelve years until, you know, the Japanese, they came with their submarines and bombed the Ellwood oil fields off of Santa Barbara.

There’s a scene in the novel where a Japanese sailor lands on the island, and as Elise tries to be hospitable, Herbie tells him to leave, later claiming that he’d stolen from him. Is that Japanese sailor the same guy who manned the submarine?

It’s not known for a fact, but in real history, the guy who bombed the Ellwood Field was a Japanese sea captain who regularly came there to pick up oil and bring it back to Japan. And he had had a disagreement with the locals, who were extremely racist and insulted him. And he knew the waters very well, and he became a submarine captain, and he made a point of bombing that very oil field because he was pissed off! And so I’ve kind of worked a suggestion of that into the book, which is why we have the earlier visit from the Japanese. And in truth, from what I’ve learned from Elizabeth Lester and the final memoir written by her daughter Betsy, who was nine years old in ’42 when they left the island, indicates that, yeah, Herbie actually had had strychnine on his fingers and lit a cigarette and poisoned himself and the Japanese [man] did steal his gun, and so I’ve kind of conflated these figures because that is the privilege of writing fiction instead of history. It’s more exciting this way.

Another interesting thing about writing about historical figures—and in the case of San Miguel, Marantha Waters was utterly unknown—but the Lesters as you know were fairly well known. During the depression, here was this family, the Swiss Family Lester living out there on this island, everyone wanted to be them. And yeah, you know, I love the history, I want to give it to you, I don’t really want to change it—I don’t have to, I love the stories. But there’s a point in the book at which you and I forget entirely that these people really existed. Because now they are my creatures, you know? And I am making them dance to my tune, it’s as if I invented them and the history too, at some point.

In another scene, Herbie and Elise argue about the presence of mice in the house, where Herbie says, “The mice belong here, they evolved here, this is their home.” I’m now thinking of When The Killing’s Done and The Tortilla Curtain, and seeing a recurring question of, who does California belong to? The mice? Cats? Coyotes? Yuppies? Mexicans? The U.S. Navy? Is this a conscious theme?

I don’t plan it out beforehand, but you know, every artist has his own obsessions. This does dovetail into other books I’ve written. More and more in my stories and novels I’m writing about environmental themes, which spread out to a larger idea of, we pretend not to be animals but obviously we are, and here we are destroying our environment. We want a purpose for life—we have no purpose for life. And I’m just always trying to configure this in different ways. You know, the ultimate invasive species is us. But then we suppress the other species, and we try to mold nature to fit our notion of order. But it is inherently disorderly, etcetera. And then of course, this goes to the notion of who are, what is our identity, how do we know, what is our culture. You know, all of these larger questions about God, or no God, and the naked, howling universe. I keep writing about these things all the time in one degree or another. Again, the King of San Miguel Island, Herbie, you know—everybody in some way wants to have sovereignty over their own place. Critics like to point out that I write a lot about this American quest for Utopia, where you make your own rules. Drop City, for instance, Alfred Kinsey’s inner circle and so on. All of this, as it mixes together in this big pot, is what interests me thematically. So I guess I keep playing it through one valence or another through all these stories and books.

Thinking as well of Riven Rock and now San Miguel, there’s the notion of California as place to retreat to for wellness. And yet, these characters go only to wither and die, or they continue to get crazier while no doctor or air quality or anything can help them.

California has that allure and that dream, and I always see it from an outsider’s perspective. I grew up in New York, so I always see it in a slightly different way. And of course, [California] is the final frontier, the ocean is here, it’s the end of the continent, Manifest Destiny is over here. But yeah, there are all these claims—I’m also always writing about hucksters, too. In some sense, Captain Waters and Herbie are hucksters, they’re huckstering their wives, you know? The whole idea of this snake oil peddler, this kind of figure—we see them in politics—who says, “Come to me, I will absolve your sins. Give everything over to me, and you will be okay.” I’m very suspicious of this sort of character, you know? (chuckles) And there are plenty of ’em in California!

What changes have you noticed in California since you’ve been living there? (30+ years)

Population crush. That’s number one, that’s the thing we notice throughout the world. I just had a story of mine from my very first book reprinted. It’s called “The Extinction Tales.” I wrote it while I was a student at Iowa, and in it I’m talking about the various animal species that have gone extinct, and I also talk about the fact that there are three and a half billion people on earth. That wasn’t so long ago. Within my adult writing lifetime, that figure has been doubled. Aside from the crush of humanity…along with that comes all the land developers, the money grubbers and the paving over of the universe.

I also noticed that San Miguel is really sexual, especially the storyline of Edith (Marantha’s adopted teenaged daughter) and Jimmie (the teenaged farmhand) exploring each other’s bodies, etc.

Wow. Glad to hear that, I hadn’t realized. Now that you mention it, I guess it is true. [Edith’s sexual relationship with Jimmie] is a powerful part of the book. I had invented that, of course. Jimmie and Edith existed but no one knows much about them. She did escape, as in the novel, and did become a somewhat celebrated stage performer. But yeah, you’re right, she’s learning about sex with Jimmie, and she wants to escape, so she makes the mistake of trusting the older guy, who deserts her. But then she learns how to use her sexual power with Ord. And that’s how she finally manages to make her way to shore. I’m sure readers will have fun with all the various symbology they can make out there with the islands and the shore and all of that.

Do you have a general approach to writing about sex?

It’s like violence in books. If it’s completely overt then it kind of steals away the reader’s imagination. So the trick I think with both sex and violence is to guide the reader and allow the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps, or else you just have soft-core porn or something.

I have a story in this month’s Playboy called “The Way You Look Tonight.” It’s a story in which I have written a pornographic scene. A guy is viewing a video that his brother sends him, and it’s his wife having sex in a porn video. But it’s from before he met her, it’s when she was in college. But it has overt sex in it, and it was necessary for that story. So I guess it’s just the way any given story or novel evolves. You know how it is. As an artist, you feel it. You feel how a piece should shape, what it should look like. My stories are all organic, I don’t know what will happen, I don’t plan it out, I don’t plant things. It just kind of grows, day by day. Sometimes the sexuality needs to be there, and sometimes it needs to only be suggested. Now I take great joy in perversion, of course. It’s not my main thing, but it does bring us back to—Kinsey said the poets had 4,500 years to tell us about love, now I am going to tell you about sexual function in the human animal. So he is attempting to completely divorce sex, love and emotion in any way. And that’s such an interesting concept.

Edith refers to Jimmie’s penis as “the male organ.”

To call it “the organ” is, yeah, more scientific and not emotional and not frightening and not sexual so much. It distances the whole idea. Whereas the term for the female genitalia, like pussy for instance, is so nice, it’s just a nice thing, you know, a pussy. Whereas “the male organ” could be a scientific lecture. So I chose that because I thought it might have been what she would have learned in one of those stultifying books of the day.

There are two questions I always want to ask at readings and Q&As, just given that authors tend to be bright people whose ideas maybe aren’t requested as readily because they write fiction. But I want to know, (a) what were you like in high school, and (b) what kind of policy prescriptions would you offer?

I grew up with a bunch of wise guys in New York, and we all were always trying to outdo ourselves in terms of wits, so I think that’s part of what formed me.

As for public policy, you know, I don’t believe in the rich getting richer at the expense of everybody else. I don’t believe in the party of “No,” I believe in education and the environment and American productivity, women’s rights. I would do several things.

Number one, I would legalize all drugs, including heroin, and sell them at the CVS pharmacy, and tax it the way we tax booze. The country would be in the black in a year. We would restabilize Mexico, Afghanistan, Peru. There would be no market for those drugs—who wants to go buy from a street guy when you can just buy it at the drug store? That would put an end to all of our problems immediately.

Number two, I would mandate that every automobile in America runs on hydrogen in five years, or it doesn’t run at all. The technology already exists. But of course, you have to rule by fiat and mandate, you couldn’t go through the current system, because all the politicians are bought and sold and the oil interests would not allow this to happen.

Thirdly, I would half the defense budget. Half would be plenty for them. I would use the rest on education and the environment. I would double the pay of every teacher tomorrow, and they wouldn’t work such a grind of five days a week, they’d work maybe three days a week, and you’d have another core to work the other two. That way you attract a lot of good, engaged people into the most important profession in America.

I mean, I have a whole platform, but I have to apologize to everyone who will read this, because at least fifteen years ago I had the same sort of program and I promised I would seize power and put it into effect, but I got distracted writing these novels and everything.

Check out the trailer for San Miguel below:

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