Live From Miami: T.C. Boyle on Writing About LSD and Outside Looking In
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan
In this episode, taped live at the Miami Book Fair, writer T.C. Boyle talks to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about writing his latest novel, Outside Looking In. The novel looks at the history of LSD, and tracks the marriage of a Harvard graduate student who works with psychologist and LSD researcher Timothy Leary. Boyle offers candid insights into his research process, his own experiences with drugs, his relationship with nature, and how he writes and revises.
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From the episode
Whitney Terrell: I have never done LSD because I’m so afraid that I will get trapped. Control is important to me—I don’t like not being able to talk. I don’t even like getting stoned, really, ’cause I can’t talk.
T.C. Boyle: Oh, loosen up, man. I’ve got something right here for you. [audience laughter]
WT: Cocaine is fine. Booze is fine. But for some reason, giving yourself up to a trip like that…
TCB: Exactly. I think that’s why the heavy drugs—the heroin and LSD that we did mindlessly; remember, kids?—gave way to cocaine, the cocaine 80s. We thought we could handle that. But before long, you’re doing a line for everything, to put the wash in the washing machine, wherever you go, you have to do a line. And people found that that has its addictive properties too. Again, what saved me—it sounds corny, but it’s the absolute truth—is I grew up enough to discover what I wanted. I was 25 when I went to Iowa City, to the Writers’ Workshop, and got my PhD. And by then, I’d done all this, I’d been there and done that and I just wanted this one thing in my life, that is, all my life, and that is to write, to delve in my imagination and write.
We’re living in an absolutely meaningless world as dressed up animals. What is it about? And so I write books in order to try to control that and find out. So for instance, my interest here in LSD, is it, as I said earlier, is it an entheogen? Does it allow you to see God? And if so, is God simply a miswiring of the brain? Clearly God’s an invention of us, but is there a reason for it? So again, I’m always exploring such things. I write a lot about the environment and animals and us as animals. It just fascinates me endlessly.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So, what is the most vivid sensory experience you’ve ever had? And is it actually under the influence of LSD? Or is it something else?
TCB: I did have some negative visions, as I pointed out earlier, but in the beginning, it’s all a lot of fun and you know, things waver and you see colors and you kind of dream in the way that you dream while awake sometimes. All that was good. By the way, you know, what were we taking? It wasn’t like Michael Pollan today, with a shrink there and they put you in a room. No. We were just kids buying street drugs. We don’t know what it is. And wow, so I had some negative experiences, but the world is pretty bright as it is. I’ve discovered that on its own.
VVG: It’s funny that you mention falling into a drug scene in Iowa City. I went to Iowa City—
WT: I’m trying to imagine you falling into a drug scene in Iowa City.
WT: I’m having a hard time.
VVG: I didn’t say that I did!
TCB: Upstairs at Gabe and Walker’s while the band was playing, right?
VVG: I can’t comment. But while I was in Iowa City, that was the time in which they started making you turn over your driver’s license to buy Sudafed, because there were a ton of meth labs.
WT: Yeah, I ran into some of that at the Foxhead.
VVG: Yeah, people were people were cooking things in spoons. But yeah, it’s interesting that you tried all of these things and then you went there and you wanted to seize control in some way and found that the actual world was very bright. And then all of the trips in here—it’s just so interesting to read all of the different trips. I teach at the University of Minnesota. And sometimes, a student comes in and they want to write a story about drugs—can’t imagine why—and writing these altered states, it’s a particular challenge, to take the reader with you.
TCB: Yes, yes. And it’s part of the fun of doing this. So nothing is planned. I’ve never written any outlines or anything else. It just happens day by day in this trance, the state you get into. So writing a drug scene is like writing a sex scene or a violent scene. The beauty of literature is, the reader supplies the images. You give the reader a guide and each person sees it in a different way. So I think less is more, in terms of this. You just heard a part of one of the trips in the book. There are maybe three other trips, but they’re all described in this way. It’s very descriptive. It allows you to get in, and then flash on whatever you can see for yourself.
WT: So the novel’s not just about LSD, it’s also the story of Joanie and Fitzhugh Loney’s marriage, and the way that marriage is changed by their relationship with Timothy Leary, and the experiences they have while taking LSD. Do you think that the experiences, the changes they go through are caused by LSD or were they headed in this direction anyway, and it just accelerated something that was going to happen for them?
TCB: A little of both, I think. This is so interesting to me because it predicts everything of the hippies a few years later. Communal living, for instance. Leary, after he was kicked out of Harvard, he went to Millbrook, New York, where one of his devotees who just happened to be a billionaire gave him a place—a big huge mansion to live in with all of his coterie—and parties, from people coming up from the city. Maynard Ferguson, the jazz guy lived there with them. It was just a big extended family—communal living, kids, dogs, a monkey, even—all this stuff that seems second nature to us, that is, having such parties, living communally, which I’m sure most of us have done. I’m not talking necessarily about the dormitory, but that kind of life. So it’s just great for me to go back and trace where my later experience had come from. These are the origins of this whole idea. Hippiedom.
WT: Starting with Leary, because this was pretty early, right? We’re talking early ’60s, right? And he would later become famous. More famous. Didn’t Nixon call him the most dangerous man in America or something like that?
TCB: Indeed, yes. So another thing is that as hippies, we knew everything. We were immortal. We knew every possible thing there was to know about the whole history of the world. And we had done all our drugs properly and so on. And Leary at this point was this bleary old brain-dead guy in a robe chanting on TV. He was completely irrelevant to us. He was laughable to us, but now—it’s wonderful. You just heard the description of him. Yeah, he was one of the hottest, most brilliant young psychologists in the country. And was he sidetracked by this? Yes, I think like Fitzhugh Loney, he had an addictive personality to begin with, coming from generations of Irish drunks. And he didn’t understand that although these drugs are not physically addictive, certainly, they’re mentally addictive. And to say he went off the deep end is to minimize what happened to him.
VVG: So, Leary said, “There’s nothing miraculous or mysterious about LSD. In any situation where we now use our symbolic mind, the microscope of LSD will help us see more, see faster, and see deeper.” Do you agree? And were there good sides to Leary? It’s interesting to hear your characterization of him because I think about—I don’t know if any of you saw Wild Wild Country on Netflix, or just, you know, thinking about Charles Manson, or just leaders of groups where people who have followers, so many of them invoke faith, and the angle by which you approach faith and by which Leary approaches faith is very different.
TCB: Yeah, I should say, by the way, I’m a good guru. I don’t want you to do anything except enjoy literature and be happy in life. But I am obsessed with this kind of guru figure. Yeah, I’ve written about this kind of figures several times, like in The Road to Wellville. Yeah. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Why do we eat cornflakes? Why do we need six enemas a day? Well, because of John Harvey Kellogg. Or in The Inner Circle, Alfred C. Kinsey, the man who invented sex. Why do we have sex? Well, it’s because of Alfred C. Kinsey. And Frank Lloyd Wright, in The Women, I write about Frank Lloyd Wright. All of these figures—and Leary is another—are gurus of some sort.
WT: Yeah, and charlatans—but not exactly charlatans.
TCB: Not exactly charlatans! I mean, they believe in what they’re doing totally. But for instance, Frank Lloyd Wright, the whole world, everybody in it was just there. They were just there to function in his scheme of things and work for him for free as apprentices, etc. Or be millionaires and pay for him to build his houses. The same is true of all of these people. My question though, is what do you give up if you become the follower of something, whether it’s a religion or a cult or whatever it is, when you give up your independence, and independent thinking? On the other hand, you have the comfort of being part of something and knowing something
WT: So another question driving the book—and we’ve touched on this a little bit, and we’ll get at it directly—is the nature of divinity as it relates to psychedelics. So much of American literature has tried to deal with the supremacy of religion in American life. Many of our iconic literary figures have some religious background or wrote in some way about religion—Baldwin, Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor. Leary and Fitzhugh talk about God a lot and Leary keeps saying to Fitzhugh, this is a way of seeing God. When you started this project, did you know that it would revolve around this question of God, or did that emerge as you were in the state of improvising the book?
TCB: Everything emerges as the book is improvised. However, from the beginning, I was interested in whether it’s true or not, whether you can shut down the editing mind and see something else. I do it myself now by going in nature, and of course, by being deeply involved in my art every day where my mind is in some other universe, but then afterwards, I spend a lot of time in the Sierra Nevada. I rent a place up there, and I do my work. And then I go out into the woods and I don’t go out into the woods for hours, by the way, I don’t go out in the woods thinking about the fact that the bark beetles have during our drought have destroyed everything and the world is over and we’ll all be dead soon. I don’t think that necessarily.
WT: That’s what we do on the podcast.
TCB: So I go out there with a sense of wonder like a child and see the world in its sparkling beauty, which we we ignore all the time because we’re so busy and we’re so involved with our machines and our phones and everything else. So this is a really important part of life to me. Even in winter, sometimes I’ll just take a nap out of the woods. To be an animal in nature is a kind of God experience. And I don’t need organized religion. And I don’t need drugs, aside from some rum once in a while. Here’s the best day I had around the year 2000 or something: I was writing whatever book I was writing then. I’d rented the place on the mountain. The kids were little, my wife had to take them back to school.
Now it’s two days after New Year’s, I’m up there by myself in this cabin, we had a three-day blizzard. And this is high altitude—7,200 feet. I mean a three-day blizzard. Now I know every tree up there—I’ve been going there for so many years. I know every squirrel by name and the birds and everything else. No problem. So the best day I had that year, it was the third day of the blizzard. Got a little housebound, so I took what was left of a bottle of rum, and a book and the dog and went out into a whiteout blizzard and found a little sheltered place at the base of a pine deep in the woods. Read the book, drank the rum, came home and built a fire. It doesn’t get much better than that.
WT: Yes, well, we applaud drinking rum. [audience applause] I feel like—I don’t know, Sugi, if this is true for you—but I do feel like when I’m writing, that those hours are not counted against my life or they don’t feel that they’re part of regular time. So that when I’m done with a book, and I wake up coming out of it, and people are older, I’m like, you’re older than you were the last time I was not writing a book, right? And for some reason, the life of a book is that when I’m really working on it is a time that is separate from the normal way that I perceive time. I don’t know if that happens to you.
TCB: It’s magical. And this is why our art is the best. Because it enables one-on-one participation of every reader creating all this in his or her own mind. And it is a way—as all art is—to get out of your body and we seem to need to get out of our minds. We need to do this because reality is oppressive in a way that we can’t really name or think about. That’s why we need to get high and need to get drunk and need to absorb art in beautiful ways and get outside of ourselves. There’s something about our consciousness that is oppressive. And don’t forget, you know, we think of evolution as progressing through us.
But in fact, evolution is absolutely random. And yes, our big brains and erect posture allowed us to dominate the animals and create stuff like this and in effect, destroy the world, which is what we’re doing. But also, maybe it’s a backwater. Maybe it allowed us to get dominance over the other animals, but now it feeds on itself. Do we need this much mind? Would it be better if we had less brain and could live in nature again, as when we were children? I don’t know. But we sure need to get away from our brains once in a while.
VVG: Whitney, you’re talking about writing as a kind of trip, I suppose. And I think I would think of reading the same way because—I have synesthesia, which is a strange thing that I didn’t realize was true until I was about 23 and was describing my experience of reading to someone who said, You have synesthesia. It was the thriller writer, Matt Quirk, actually, and I had never heard the term before and then went and looked it up and realized that that was true. So I see colors when I read–
WT: You never told me this!
VVG: Well, that’s what the podcast is for! We talk about things!
But I think, the way that when I read Fitz and Joanie, for example, going on that trip together—there’s also something about reading where you’re with other people, and you’re also not. She sees the puppet, he sees the ginfire, but they’re both reading the world in the same moment, in the same experience. And there’s also a way in which the book approaches LSD in this very sensory way, but also you talk about the clinical origins of the book and there’s the measurements, the scientists, the micrograms, the dosing, the distillation of iteration 25, etc. etc.
And today we have all sorts of ethics boards, human subject regulation, etc. and processes that researchers are supposed to go through before they conduct clinical trials, let alone on themselves. Which some of these characters do. And so a lot of the controversy surrounding Tim Leary had to do with the way he manipulated his students and colleagues, which is this important part of the book—the experience you’re describing, what everyone wants, this experience of the sublime, whether it’s going into nature, letting go of their control—the power of that is a way in which the characters manipulate each other. And I wonder if there’s anything that shocked you, in your research on the experiments that Tim Leary did?
TCB: Well, the fact that he required his students to take a drug, but let’s not forget sex. Leary said that LSD was a tremendous aphrodisiac. I experienced this once of the several trips I had. And so I ran with that, of course, as a way of getting the reader into the book and into the heads of these characters.
WT: So on page 95 of the book, you list some of the famous writers and intellectuals and musicians who are part of these experience experiments that Sugi’s talking about. Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, Robert Lowell, Charles Olson, Maynard Ferguson, who you already mentioned, Charlie Mingus. It’s quite a list, you know, so what was it? What do you think attracted so many smart and creative people into Leary’s orbit? Was it the drug? Was it the man? Was it the time period? Were they looking for something in particular?
TCB: You forgot to list Dwight Eisenhower and Dick Nixon in that list. [laughter] I think it’s the time period and the drug emerged at that time. Again, having written Drop City, about the full efflorescence of the hippie experience, I wanted to go back and see where it came from. And it was fun for me to look up the old jazz tunes and all of that.
WT: There’s a lot of really good music in the book. I like that.
TCB: I’ve never written anything without music playing in the background. I have to have music. It gives me a beat. I love to read aloud as I did to you, because I like to hear how it sounds out loud. It’s very important to me. In fact, when I’m working on a longer piece, I read to my wife every day after I’m done, and not so she can say, oh, man, you got to change that or gee, it’s really good. It’s just that when I’m doing it out loud in a performance mode, I can hear it. It’s music to me. And that’s very important. It also, in my case, enables me to jump ahead and make discoveries about what it is I’m doing and where it might be going. I don’t know why that happens. But when I’m reading it aloud to her, I make those discoveries that I might make while looking at the screen—but it’s something different when it’s musical and out loud.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai and condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan. Photo of T.C. Boyle by Jamieson Fry.