gazettelogo.gif - 2815 BytesThe Sunday Gazette
Arts & Entertainment
02/23/03, G-06

By JACK RIGHTMYER, Staff Writer
T.C. BOYLE SAYS BOOKS SAVED HIS LIFE; TO READ AT UALBANY

He has a reputation as a literary showman, and his public readings are legendary for their performance value, but to hear T.C. Boyle talk about his love of literature is to realize how books and writing saved his life.

Boyle is the best-selling author of nine novels and six short story collections. His wildly imaginative plots are filled with quirky characters, elaborate descriptions and cynical humor. His 1987 novel "World's End" won the PEN/Faulkner Award, and his most recent book "Drop City" (444 pages, $25.95, Viking), will be available at bookstores this week.

Public reading

On Friday, Boyle will conduct a public reading at 4 p.m. at the Reading Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany's uptown campus. The talk, which is free, is part of the New York State Writers Institute series.

"I was a bright but disaffected kid," said Boyle in a recent phone interview from his home in Santa Barbara. "I was not a good boy or a good student in either high school or college. However, I did have a few great mentors at SUNY Potsdam who encouraged me as a writer."

Boyle grew up in Peekskill. His parents both died of alcohol abuse, and he was a lazy college student, majoring in music and playing the saxophone.

"Basically, I was going nowhere," he said, "but the head of the history department and the head of the music department at Potsdam kept encouraging me to write. I didn't really think about the power of literature until I read the short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find," by Flannery O'Connor. That's the story that really woke me up to what literature could do."

What he enjoyed about that story was the synthesis of both horror and humor, and those are themes commonly found in all of his stories.

"I must have read that story over one hundred times now," he said. "It still scares me and makes me laugh at the same time."

"Drop City" takes place in the year 1970. It begins in a California hippie commune and follows it as the members move to the wild interior landscape of Alaska, where they meet other young Alaskans already homesteading in the wilderness.

"I think the genesis of this new book came from my last book, `Friends of the Earth,' that directly addressed environmental concerns," said Boyle. "What I liked about `Drop City' was the conflict of how the back to the earth movement would compete with the evils of capitalism."

Familiar era

Boyle didn't write the book to be nostalgic, but he did find it refreshing to re-create a time period that he knew so well.

"Those of us that lived through the '60s are probably a bit nostalgic for that time when so many of us thought we could change the world," he said.

"Today. everything seems so negative, overpopulation, the destruction of the environment and the warmongers in Washington. Peace and love doesn't sound so bad today, does it?"

What he found in his research was that until 1970 it was possible for people to homestead in Alaska, find a quiet remote area and set up a place to live.

"But the people who did that found many problems," he said. "They had problems with trappers and they found that grizzly bears needed a large range to find food. In this book, I wanted to write a story and explore that conflict."

Many of his books have entailed a great deal of research. "I find I get very enthused in time periods and topics," he said, "but I can't say I love research. I agree with E.L. Doctorow who said that he does enough research to spark a story."

Boyle says some writers get so immersed in getting the research right, they forget their story. "I think Martin Scorsese did that in his film `Gangs of New York,' " said Boyle. "The research is perfect. The sets look great, but the story is weak. If you're a writer, you can't forget the story."

"World's End" involved quite a bit of research. The book is set in three different time periods and takes place in the Hudson River Valley near Peekskill.

"It took me three years to write that book," he said. "I did a lot of research about the Dutch who settled in that area. It was almost like writing a fictional autobiography of my life. I visited historical sites that I didn't pay attention to as a kid."

Local hero

Boyle is looking forward to speaking at The New York State Writers Institute because author William Kennedy is one of his heroes.

"I'm envious that he has these roots in Albany, where he really knows the place so thoroughly that he can write these excellent books one after another in different time periods, and with such depth," said Boyle.

"I can't do that. `World's End' was the closest I could get to being a regional writer. I like to move from one landscape to another. I guess that's why I like living out in California now, where I can write about so many different things. I'm also an outsider here and I see things differently than a California native."

He has been teaching creative writing at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles since the late 1970s.

"It's a 100-mile drive for me each way to get to the college," said Boyle, "but I love teaching. I go in two days a week in the fall and one day in the spring. I get a rush out of helping young people with their writing. It makes me feel great to help them and give back some of what I know."

One bit of advice he tells his students is to not hold anything back when you're writing. "I tell them to just let it flow," he said. "Let your story come out and see where it takes you. If you create a good character, that character will drive the plot."

Sound of language

He admits to being in love with the sound of language. "It probably comes from my days of being a musician," he said. "I love the rhythm of language. When I first started to write I used to create all this wild stuff in my writing, all this metaphor, but I've learned to tone it down a bit."

Unlike many other literary writers, Boyle seems to turn out his writing on a regular basis. "When I'm writing, I feel like I have a kind of power," he said. "It's a wonderful gift and I want to use it. I believe totally in the power of literature because I know how it turned me around.

"I also enjoy the process of writing and creating characters who seem to come alive. That's the magic of writing. I don't always know where the story is going to go. I also write a lot of stories because I believe that, generally, most writers do their best work prior to their death and not after it."

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