Dropping in

Quintessential Californian T. Coraghessan Boyle, at UAlbany
on Friday, was born and bred in the Hudson Valley


By DOUG BLACKBURN, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, February 23, 2003

The writer regarded by many as the literary conscience of California, a
modern-day Steinbeck, has deep roots in New York state.

T. Coraghessan Boyle, the grandiloquent novelist and short story writer,
grew up in Peekskill in northern Westchester County and spent his
undergraduate years at the State University College at Potsdam. He
claims he never ventured west of the Hudson River until age 21. His first
trip "out West" was to go to Buffalo to meet his future in-laws.

Make no mistake, though. The 53-year-old Boyle nowadays is a
card-carrying citizen of the Left Coast. He and his family have been
living in a 1909 Frank Lloyd Wright home in the southern California
community of Montecito for almost a quarter century.

Yet Boyle believes his non-native status is responsible for his unique
perspective. "I think my coming here has been good for me. I'm an
outsider and I can see different cultures in a way I might not have if I had
stayed in New York," Boyle explains during a telephone interview last
week from his studio, where he is furiously at work on his 10th novel,
"Inner Circle," set in the 1940s and '50s.

"California was a new world for me here and it still is. I'm still growing
into it. I think coming here energized me."

Creative juices

Readers familiar with Boyle's prolific prose might argue that he has never
lacked creative juices. While he has not produced a bestseller and just
one of his novels has been made into a movie ("The Road to Wellville,"
directed by Alan Parker), Boyle has been a fixture in the modern
American literary pantheon since his first short stories were published in
Atlantic Monthly, Esquire and other magazines in the mid-1970s.

He is a difficult writer to pigeonhole. Much like the work of Saratoga
Springs' Russell Banks, no two of Boyle's nine books are similar. As he
puts it, "I don't do sequels." Using black humor and energetic prose, he
explores issues contemporary and recent, from class struggle to the
environment to illegal immigration. His best-known early work was
1987's "World's End," a multigenerational historical epic set in the
Hudson Valley. It won the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Novelist Frank Conroy calls Boyle "one of the funniest writers in
America. I don't know any other writer like him."

Boyle has enjoyed enough commercial success that he continues to
teach creative writing at the University of Southern California only
because he wants to. The author has a doctorate in 19th-century British
literature, and he credits professors he studied under for his inspiration.
Boyle hopes one or two of his students will regard him in a similar light.

New novel

Boyle will be making just his second visit to the New York State
Writer's Institute this Friday (He was last here in fall 1988.). He
promises to entertain and read selections from his new novel, "Drop
City."

"Drop City" is vintage Boyle, a 444-page story set in 1970 about a
down-at-the-heel Sonoma County hippie commune called Drop City
Ranch. When the state of California shuts down the commune, its
raggedy residents relocate to interior Alaska, which they view as the last
frontier.

There, the idealistic Californians encounter young Alaskans who are
already homesteading. A clash of cultures and personalities ensues as
Boyle explores the 1960s and how that pivotal period shaped what
society is today. (Boyle taught high school English in Peekskill after
college to avoid being drafted into the Army and waging war against the
North Vietnamese.)

While Boyle casts a counterculture image, fueled by his goatee and rock
star attire, it may be difficult to find a more disciplined writer.

Boyle devotes every morning to writing, seven days a week, except
when he is on a grueling book tour, which he begins Monday in
Manhattan to promote "Drop City" and will continue through the end of
March. That's the only time he is sidetracked from his mission. When
granting telephone interviews last week, Boyle insisted on scheduling
them after 3 p.m. Pacific time, in order to allow him to continue full-bore
with "Inner Circle."

"My standard joke is I generally realize you don't write as much after
death as you do when you're alive, so I guess I better get to it while I
can," Boyle says. "As I've grown up and become mature and know
what I want to do in life, I'm eager to see what's next.

"There's great satisfaction to begin with nothing and see what comes of
it. It's a kind of addiction I keep pursuing," he adds. "I'm not much
interested in journalism or writing reviews or essays. Making an artwork
and having it come together is kind of magical for me, and that's what
I'm after."

Boyle hasn't been to the University at Albany for 15 years, but he has
been through the Capital Region as recently as a few years ago. He
brought his wife, Karen ("My Buffalo gal. She let me kiss her ear once,
and I've been her slave ever since."), and their three children to visit
friends in Troy. They ended up touring the Adirondacks and other parts
of the upstate region.

"It was a terrific trip to a terrific state. The only bummer was we didn't
get Lyme disease," Boyle deadpans. "At least that we know of."

MR. WELLVILLE

T.C. BOYLE

When: 4 p.m. Friday

Where: Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, University at Albany
uptown campus

Admission: Free, open to the public

Details: (518) 442-5620 or http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst

T. C. Boyle