T.C. Boyle is standing at the gated entrance to his Montecito home—an imposing Frank Lloyd Wright structure clad in long horizontal slats of redwood siding—which frames the author in his black Dodgers cap and black leather jacket as he gestures me up the steps. It’s the 25th of March, a few weeks before the publication of his 17th novel, Outside Looking In, a fictional history of the discovery of LSD, the rise of Timothy Leary, and the communal living Millbrook Experiment.
Since the 1979 debut of Boyle’s first story collection, Descent of Man, and subsequently his first novel, Water Music, in 1982, the prolific author has churned out an impressive bibliography of bestselling books, as well as more than 100 short stories. His frenetic and focused energy is apparent in both his celebrated sentences and his sheer literary output—and presently his buzzy vibe very much resonates with his yard, which is manically popping with spring: insects flit about, white and yellow and red flowers burst forth, and trees are leafed out in a deep and psychedelic green.
“Do you want to see the view from the front of the house?” Boyle asks, ushering me like a tour guide through the threshold and fully into his world. Then we’re off: leaving what I’d assumed to be the front of his house—having just parked my truck on the curb outside—and walking at pace down a brick corridor around the side of his property, past a vast sprawling vine-like plant that he refers to as a “tea tree,” and into a fully wooded patch of land where, following his instructions, we turn around and look back up in the direction we’ve just arrived from…
“So, you know, when I wrote the book The Women, it was in order to find out about Frank. He wasn’t on site in 1909 because that’s the year he ran away to Germany with his mistress”—here Boyle interrupts his own story, pivoting to give a kind of color commentary about what exactly it is we’re looking at, which is the current backside of his house—“Ok, so this is actually the front of the house. And you can see it has all these amazing angles.”
Before us, the house and its history—front, back, Frank, his angles and all—have now muddled together in a weird and confusing confluence of past and present, which readers and fans of Boyle’s writing will likely find familiar.
“So no one will see the house the way it was designed to be seen,” he swings an arm around at the grove we’re standing in. “Except family and journalists! Ha-ha!” It’s a shrill and high pitched laugh, like a cartoon goblin—more of a cackle. Ha-ha! He laughs often.“In the beginning I thought that the reason I was writing was to get attention, and be famous, and destroy my enemies. And that’s true—it is true.”
“I moved here twenty-five years ago, attracted by the natural beauty and semi-rural ambience, the short walk to the beach and the Lower Village, and the enveloping views of the Santa Ynez Mountains, which rise abruptly from the coastal plain to hold the community in a stony embrace. We have no sidewalks here, if you except the business districts of the Upper and Lower Villages—if we want sidewalks, we can take the five-minute drive into Santa Barbara or, more ambitiously, fight traffic all the way down the coast to Los Angeles. But we don’t want sidewalks. We want nature, we want dirt, trees, flowers, the chaparral that did its best to green the slopes and declivities of the mountains until last month, when the biggest wildfire in California history reduced it all to ash.”
Next, he leads me around the (current) front yard and through a gate to a neighboring property, which, he explains, his family now owns as well. And he’s got a story about this place too: “I think it was maybe ten years ago, the old guy who lived next door, Arnold Brandt, he was my hero. He was the crankiest old man in the history of the world. Every time we breathed he would call up and complain. But I got used to him and I liked him. Then he died. And his wife died. And the house was for sale. He built it himself in 1967 or something—I don’t know. And, uh, two builders were going to go here and build a two-story apartment building. And I happened to have a friend from northern California—he’s a kind of desperado who buys and sells shit all the time. He said “You have to buy that.” I said “Why?” He said “Well, then you can control it.””
Though brief and seemingly tangential, this story about Boyle’s acquisition of his neighbor’s property strikes me as a kind of key to unlocking something significant about Boyle’s writing—maybe even Boyle himself. Because isn’t every narrative—a story or a self—an arm wrestle between control and desire?
This second yard, too, is crowded and overgrown with plants, fragrant with their smells. “All this,” he sweeps an arm around, “we put it in. All native stuff. And it attracts the native animals. I mean primarily native—this isn’t,” he runs his hand up and down a stem. “Suddenly there were lots of lizards here, and bunnies, and shrews, because if you build it they will come. Ha-ha!! So that’s the place. It gives me real pleasure.”
Minutes later—after Boyle has led me back through his yard, and inside his home—we sit down on a covered patio adjacent to his living room, in front of a set table with bread and cheese and cherry tomatoes.
“We are ice-less lately,” he explains, pouring water into my glass. “The refrigerator ice-maker broke. That’s the beauty of machines: everything is always broken.”
TC Boyle: As you can tell from my cap, I’m a fanatical baseball fan—Dodgers fan. And my daughter’s been renting this tiny little apartment in Echo Park, LA, within hearing distance from Dodgers stadium. I want to go down for a game and just spend the night there—and then walk to the stadium. So I don’t have to deal with all the parking and the bullshit. I’m hoping to do that sometime this year. Then I can meet the coyotes on the way back…
Peter Nowogrodzki: How do you feel about the Dodgers this year?
TC: Huh, doing pretty well lately. Very excited.
PN: They made some trades—
TC: Think it was for the better. Think it was for the better.
PN: Have to say I’m disappointed they traded Puig.
TC: Yeah, I loved him. But I understand why. They have Alex Verdugo, who has torn up the minors. He’s 22. And he’s a more five-tool player than Puig. You know how that works… Puig will probably win the triple crown this year for Cincinnati. Hahahaha!! Nah, I don’t know. I loved him. I loved him because he was our goofball. He must be really irritating if you’re rooting for the other team, you know . . .
I’m just looking at the hummingbird up there . . .
So this sure is fun—sitting up here, rattling on about the Dah-dgers. Beginning of the season. Of course my entire life is book tours. I was on tour 20 years ago and it was around this time of year. I was sitting in the Minneapolis airport, in the bar, and they have figure skating on. And I said to the bartender “Hey, let’s see some baseball.” And he said “Nah, it’s too early.” Meaning: he didn’t give a shit about baseball—he’d only watch it during the world series, six months from then.
PN: It’s a long season.
TC: Thank god.
PN: So you grew up in Peekskill, NY—
TC: Ok, so my career—my entire life story can be told briefly: I come from a working class family, I’m the first ever to go to college. My father was a janitor and school bus driver. And my mother got him a job at the school, where I was in high school. She was a secretary there for the superintendent of the schools. Went to SUNY Potsdam to be a music major, but I flunked my audition. It was a liberal arts college, so I stayed there, became a double major in History and English. Fluttered into Creative Writing my junior year. Barely made it through—hippy times. I was the hippy’s hippy: druggie, lunatic…
I might have stayed there forever and been consumed in that whole drug thing—but, when I was 24, I got a story published. And on the strength of it I applied to the Iowa Writers Workshop. They accepted me, I went there, got my MFA and PhD. I was a straight arrow at that point—then USC gave me a job, I came out here. That’s it. My life story. And it was all very fortunate. And fortunate that we decided to leave LA and found this house. Nobody wanted this house, because you have to maintain it. A number of people looked at it apparently, including a movie star. But they wanted to tear the wing out, and put a new kitchen in and whatnot. They didn’t want to just have a house to preserve. So we were lucky to find it, and that’s what we wanted. And here we are. So far so good.
PN: You were born in 1948, so you’re squarely a baby boomer. And your most recent novel, Outside Looking In—like much of your writing—feels imbued with this boomer psychology—
TC: Pre-baby boomer actually. Which is one of my interests. I’m a baby boomer. But I’d written Drop City about the hippies, and the hippy ethic of going back to the earth and getting off the capitalist wheel and all that—and it begins with an acid trip. All of this new interest in LSD got me thinking about it. I wanted to step back just before the hippies and my era, and find out how we got there. So when we were hippies, we knew everything and we’d taken every drug and we were the coolest people who ever lived, etc. And we saw Timothy Leary on TV and he was this ridiculous old muttering clown of a man in a ridiculous dress and headband and whatnot—he was laughable. But as I’ve discovered it wasn’t always like that—he was a charismatic, handsome, dynamic, whip-smart, young psychologist, you know? And I wanted to find out what it would be like to be under his influence.
And also, to remember LSD—I did not take LSD as research for this—I am relying on my memories. I was quite interested in the idea of God, in these drugs known as entheogens, as you know, they allow you to see God. And so what does that mean? As far as I know I never did. Obviously the Bible and the Koran and all that—they’re just basically sci-fi novels that people have been indoctrinated to believe in or want to believe in. But as far as the concept of God itself, is it just some chemical aberration in the brain, or is there a numinous world that we don’t see?
I’m a materialist—I only know what I have from my five senses. I would love to believe in other beings—and obviously the chances are that there are other beings in this huge universe—but I can’t. So I was very curious about the idea of it. As the main character in Outside Looking In, Fitzhugh Loney is dragged into this too—is this religious God experience just a chemical process in the brain, or a miswiring in the brain, or a rewiring in the brain? I just wanted to explore that.
PN: What’s the learning process for you? What kind of research do you undertake? Did you meet Tim Leary?
TC: No, I never met him. And I would have no interest in meeting him. Well, you have to realize, Peter—I am not a journalist and never have been. I don’t want to see the real person, or replicate them in a factual way. I want something to stimulate my imagination so I can fly with it. I do all the research, and I’ve said many times and it’s true: It’s like writing a term paper when you’re a kid. You have a subject, you don’t know exactly what it’ll be. In taking the notes and thinking about it for months and months—as a journalist you’d figure out how you’re going to organize your book, where to start, what your thesis will be. Doesn’t work that way with me. I am just absorbing material, and in the process I find characters, and then the characters begin to talk to me and I follow them. It’s just day by day, it’s a day by day process. That’s why I love doing it because it’s always a discovery. If I already knew what it would be, it would be less interesting to do it.
I’m a fanatic about biology. In fact, I probably would have been happy as a field biologist… if it weren’t for math. Math is what scares me. My totem animal is the fish. I don’t know why but anything about fish and their environment. And I’ll extend that to amphibians as well. Anything that lives in the water fascinates me, I don’t know why. So earlier I showed you the tea tree, right? I know many of these trees here. What you’re looking at now is mainly invasives, you know this is Pittosporum undulatum, the Victorian box tree. Planted in the Victorian era, it’s from Asia. That’s black acacia there. Only about a third of the trees here are native. And then of course all the euc’s (eucalyptus)—uh, yeah, I know that. But I don’t really want to know that when I’m up on the mountain. Yes, I can distinguish some of the many pines from one another. But I don’t really want to know that. I just go out in the woods each day after work, deep in the woods, I never see anybody. I go by myself. And I just feel a kind of wonder in being alive as an animal on the planet. And I will bring a book.
I go to my favorite spots I have in the woods. No trails or nothing—I just go there. And maybe I put my head back on a rock and take a nap for ten minutes even in the winter sometimes and I feel good. Hah, you know it’s just so different from the normal process of our lives. Like you getting up in your apartment or your house and driving here in the traffic and pushing to do this and that. It’s just a complete release. And nobody kind of knows about it—it’s like a secret. Hahaha. Because we’re animals.
PN: A good chunk of Outside Looking In takes place in the mid-60s, on Leary’s cult compound in Millbrook, NY, which is relatively near to where you grew up in Peekskill—
TC: No, no, no. Peekskill is in Westchester County, it’s 30 miles north of the city, Millbrook is considerably up from us. But I never went to Millbrook when I was a kid. I just knew the area where I grew up, and it wasn’t Peekskill proper, it was two miles outside of it, in the suburbs where my best friend’s father built the development after the war. And that’s where I grew up. And we had in the those days a lot of woods and fields to play in. I was outdoors all the time as a kid. Maybe that’s part of my love of it, you know? I could just wander out through the woods there. I will go back soon.
PN: Do you have connections there?
TC: No family but it may as well be. My best friend I’ve known since I was three and a half—he still lives there. And I have many other friends there. What I like best is to go back and hike the old trails in Fahnestock Park. I was there in December. You know I’m a tweeting fanatic—I take pictures and tweet them. I went out and had the entire place to myself. Nobody within miles. And the lake had just frozen, it was nice clear ice, I was able to lay my phone down on the ice and get a picture through the ice, show all this stuff, show the beaver lodge. It’s so much fun. I love it. Yeah, yeah, yeah . . .
PN: Back to the book: Timothy Leary comes across as a master manipulator—he’s very efficient as a cult leader. He’s like the CEO of a company. He’s the boss, and he needs his employees—his workforce—to advance and accomplish his goals.
TC: I love this interpretation. It’s another one of my obsessions. And I love that connection. Yes, he is like that. I’ve written several books in which I write about the effect on a member of the cult—you give yourself up. Take the Road To Wellville for instance, or The Inner Circle, or the Frank Lloyd Wright book, The Women. You give yourself up to somebody who promises you redemption. “Follow me and I will absolve all your sins, and I will take care of you.” OK, great. A lot of the world works that way. A lot of people need that. But I didn’t grow up that way. I grew up with a bunch of wise guys. And we felt that whatever we were told we would have to examine, we would have to think about. And so I stand opposed to such regimentation, such cults, and I often wind up writing about such figures in American history. Like Kellogg, or Kinsey, or Wright, and now Leary. As motivating factors for a coterie of people who form around them.
PN: Do you see yourself or something of yourself in that cult leader figure as well? I mean, being a writer is in many ways similar—you’re giving people stories so that they can feel OK.
TC: As I have said on many occasions—yes, I am a guru for my fans. And I have very passionate, even fanatical fans. But I’m a good guru. I don’t want you to do anything. I’m not selling anything—if you read my books, great. You know, you want to talk to me, wonderful. It advances literature, it allows me to live my life as an artist. So I think there can be negative and maybe there can be positive ones too. I’m a fan of many artists, and musicians, and writers—what are they giving me? They’re not giving me a program, they’re giving me joy and aesthetic vision and beauty… but yeah—I’m very much aware that I could be considered in this myself.
PN: Did you relate to Tim at all while you were writing this?
TC: Of course I can relate to him. And I can be just like him. But I am an artist, so I’ve gone in a different way. The only artist I’ve written about is Frank Lloyd Wright. He was a great artist and I am the recipient every minute of every day of this joy of what he gave us. And yet on the other hand he was a scam artist. See for me to do my art all I need is like—in the old days I just needed a typewriter and some paper and a room. He needed to scam very very wealthy people, particularly the wives, in the order to get the fortune that it cost to realize his art. So I wondered about that. And then of course he used his apprentices as well. I suppose you’re saying the same thing and—I haven’t really seen any writing about this book yet—but I’m sure people make those connections with others of my books.
PN: Especially by the end your novel, Leary really comes across as basically a grifter.
TC: Yes, but to speak well of him—as I understand him and as I present him as a character—he also believed in what he was doing. He believed in it totally. It transformed him. It’s true that he said, “I did this one mescaline trip in Mexico and I learned more about psychology in six hours that I had in fifteen years.” He really believed. He was messianic—he really believed in this. So give him credit. However, you know, I’ve been a druggie, I’ve been there, I’ve done it. I’ve seen and experienced it first hand. And it seems to have overtaken him to the exclusion of all else. And he just became a druggie who kind of lost his mind and fucked up his life and the world and everything else. Although—everything is meaningless—what difference does it make? We’re talking about him.
PN: I’m curious about your own experience with acid.
TC: We did every possible drug. We were young, we didn’t know any better, it was my late teens, early twenties. We were so cool, we knew everything . . . I gotta get a picture for the Tweetsters. You know… I’m on…
So, that’s all we did, do drugs. And I’ve realized there’s more to life. Thank god I went to Iowa and that shut the door on New York and got me out of that scene. Um, acid—I was never a big advocate of. I didn’t much like it. I probably did it ten or twelve times. The fanatics did it constantly—and to this day. I think I have an active mind, and I don’t want—or need—to push that. My imagining is going on constantly. That’s why I’m a fiction writer. I like the drugs—I still do—that bring me down. This is how I got into dope. And pills and all that. I like to come down. I don’t want to go up, and I don’t want to lose control of my mind. I want it to be more focused, maybe slowed down.
I did have some vivid visions and I did have some good times. But I had a hard time coming down. We’d start at a party, we’d feel it coming on, we’d be sitting by the fire having a great time, laughing, listening to music, smoking some weed maybe. Uh, finally, hours later everyone would be crashed. And I’d be there… going fucking nuts. And it wouldn’t stop. So I never really had good experiences. Which is why I didn’t do it again. I did it as a very young man trying to push the limits of the world in every possible way.
And then—it sounds corny but it’s absolutely true of my life—I discovered that there was something more than sitting in the bar every night until close with a bunch of dead heads stoned on whatever. Been there, done that. I began to read and write seriously. And I realized that the drugs are just interfering with that. So—to anticipate the next question—I’ve never written anything without being completely sober and with a straight mind. Because it’s my life. And I wouldn’t mess with that. And I wouldn’t mess with the brain chemistry that has allowed me to produce that. Now it may be that just doing acid was a kind of illumination I’m not a aware of. I always attributed my kind of awakening in my twenties to just becoming mature and hormonal growth and such. I don’t know.
PN: How do you move from 0 to 1 on a project? With this particular book, how did you decide this was the book to write at this particular time?
TC: I shouldn’t be explaining because it’s for the people who write about my books to explain. But I will. I see most of what I’m writing—for a long time now—has to do with the environment, with us as just another kind of animal living on this planet. And this of course brings up all the final questions: of eschatology and god and the meaning of life and all that and so on and so on. Here we are, we’re just animals. And yet: we can talk about it. And we create all these beautiful things. What is it about? And what is our effect on the environment? As an environmental writer I’ve been writing about this all my life. So I see this book as a continuation of all that.
So, for instance, I wrote When The Killing’s Done, about the invasive species out on that island out there just off the coast. I wrote The Terranauts about trying to live under glass—to see if we can create a world. And I’m writing this to see if I can write about our consciousness—what is our consciousness? Is it just a chemical thing? Obviously our corporeal bodies are just this mass of cells and bacteria and viruses and all that, operating in this chaotic way that allows us to stand up and walk around and talk. Same with this cat here. But thought is apart from that. Thought it apart from just the animal itself. So I wanted to explore that a little bit. And the recent discoveries and LSD coming back to use in the clinic where it began just got me going on it. And as I say earlier, I’d written Drop City about the full flush of the hippies and Jimi Hendrix with his jacket on and all that—we all know about that—but where’d it come from? How did it get out into the public? That kind of intrigued me.
PN: What does a workday look like in terms of your writing process?
TC: Every day is the same. Because routine is essential to my sanity and my ability to work. Unlike when I was a kid. Going crazy all over the world. I had to stop and begin to write in the morning—and because I write in the morning I’m done in the afternoon, by 2:30 or so. Then I can do whatever I like: I can talk to you, I can go to the beach, I’m on the mountain, I’m in the woods every day. At night, you know, drink some red wine, walk down to the village here, walk to the ocean, I go kayaking a lot, out on the ocean. Have a fire in here—this house is very cold in the winter. I love to sit by a fire. All the stuff that falls out of these trees, it’s infinite. I’ve never bought any wood, it’s all here. Read a book, listen to music, watch an old movie on TV. And then cycle it again, every day, seven days a week. If somebody wanted to assassinate me they’d know exactly where I’m going to be at a given hour. You know, at 6 am I’m going to be walking the dog up that street over there. And at 9 am I’m going to be in that window over there. Typing. Ha-ha!
PN: Let’s talk about the epigraphs—there’s a Beatles line from “Lucy in the Sky” and then also a Wordsworth line, which has a kind of transcendental gesture to it. How did those two end up as the epigraphs for this?
TC: Well, I shouldn’t explain these things. Because I think you get it anyways. I love to have epigraphs. A lot of authors don’t use them, but I love them. They can be a kind of template thematically. Of course the reason you can’t explain them is that it kills it for everyone else. I like to have a sense of structure of a book. I don’t know how it will be but maybe it will be in three parts—one will be here, one might be in Millbrook… then I fill in and it starts. It just gives me something to hold on to as a kind of controlling metaphor of what’s to come. Even though I don’t know what’s to come—it hasn’t come yet. The epigraphs always start the book, they come before I’ve written the actual text.
PN: First brick of your foundation.
TC: Yeah, and it is like building a house. Although with a house—the architect here, Frank Lloyd Wright, I wrote about him, he had plans! He drew his plans. He was an artist, and he would make a sketch first of the house, fully built. Like in the portfolio I have that sketch somewhere from down there as I showed you when we walked in, he made that beautiful sketch of what’s going to be. This is before he’s drawn the plans. That’s pretty cool. Don’t know if we have the original. You can buy them online. Looks exactly like this, from down there looking up.
He was an artist, of course, he could draw it first. I’m not working from a plan except I suppose a mental plan that in an improvisatory way moves forward day by day. And again I will go back every day and re-read the last couple of pages of whatever it is and try to get into that spell where I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m just letting the story go through me and work itself out. Which is again as we said much earlier in this conversation, why I’ve never been a journalist. I’ve never had an assignment—gone to a place, learned about it, and written about it. I do write nonfiction now and again but mainly personal essays. The New Yorker said “Hey, you’re living there, there’s a fire—what’s happening? Write us an essay.”
PN: You’re like, “Funny you asked—I’m on the roof with a hose right now wetting down the property.”
TC: Yeah! Haha. So I said OK. But fiction to me, I’ve never had the habit of writing anything but fiction. Short stories and novels. They are magical. I don’t know where they come from. And I don’t know what they’re going to be. I’ve written two essays about this—“This Monkey, My Back,” which you can find online and on my website also. And the preface to the second volume of collected stories. I’m talking about why I’m doing what I’m doing and looking back on my life. And in the first of those essays, I mention what a tremendous thrill it is—this monkey, my back. I liken it to a drug high, this act of creation. You don’t know what it’ll be, you think about nothing else until it comes together. And when it does, and it’s good, or you think it’s good, it’s a tremendous exhilaration like a rush of shooting dope. It’s just like that. You have this exhilaration. But as with dope, you gotta do it again, and again, and again.
PN: So you feel like a writing addict?
TC: Absolutely. Again, nothing matters whatsoever. Because we all die. Everything dies. The earth itself will be a giant charcoal briquette after the sun burns it up.
PN: What about the next fifty years?
TC: Fifty? It’s gonna be tough on us. The other creatures, they’ll survive. But it doesn’t really matter. So in life if you’re lucky—and I am lucky—you find something that compels you and that interests you. And maybe it advances culture and art. I’m coming out of a tradition of all the writing that I loved. And I loved doing it and I loved the idea of it, I love being part of it. But nothing really matters. You know? What else are you going to do? So this gives me something to do.
PN: Are there certain writers—
TC: I have to read a lot to keep fresh what I’m doing. A lot of ecology, I mentioned. Franz Duval, Carl Safina, Konrad Lorenz. I can’t read novels too much while I’m writing a novel because it creeps in. But I’ve been reading some good novels lately. My Year Of Rest and Relaxation—Ottessa Moshfegh. It’s brilliant. The book blows me away. It’s brilliant. It’s hilarious, it’s well observed, it’s funny. I really like it.
TC: In the beginning I thought that the reason I was writing was to get attention, and be famous, and destroy my enemies. And that’s true—it is true.
PN: Who are the enemies?
TC: Everyone else.
PN: Just pure domination mentality?
TC: Yeah, yeah, yeah—of course. And all the old writers would come to Iowa and they would read to us and talk to us and they would say essentially, “the work is all that matters.” And I thought: what bullshit. But it is true. Because it gives you something to organize your life around. And it’s kind of a miracle. We’re talking about consciousness, and expanding consciousness. It is a way of expanding your own consciousness. It’s a way of working deeply in your own consciousness, in the way that playing music is. It’s a gift, it’s a miracle. It keeps you from going completely insane. Again, what else are you going to do?
PN: Have you ever thought about doing anything else?
TC: I wanted to do music of course. But I’m a fanatic. And you can’t do music unless it’s your entire life, unless you rehearse perpetually, unless you have a great gift. You know I did a little bit of singing with The Ventilators, for a while, and it was great, I loved it. But I was already on my third or fourth book—I was completely committed to that, they all knew it, it was fun. It was just covers, but I loved it. Gets your soul right out of your body. It’s astonishing to be there with a band and making music. Also different for me because I never do anything with anybody—especially in any kind of collaborative or artistic way, I wouldn’t consider it. But the band, there it is. And it’s a great feeling for that reason.
PN: What do you mean never do anything with anyone?
TC: I couldn’t imagine cowriting anything. I’m not the sort of writer who needs an editor. I just do it, give it to them. I can’t imagine that. I’m too fanatical or crazy, whatever, I can’t do that. By the same token I don’t play any sports, haven’t since I was young. I don’t want to lose. I don’t want to have to practice. I want go by myself to the woods, I want to write my books, I want to go to the bar with my friends, I want to go off on tour and see my fans. Read lots of books. Write lots of books. There’s not much time to be a man of many parts. I’m completely committed to what I’m doing, that’s all I want to do. And… so far so good.
PN: And that’s been the way you’ve always felt?
TC: Yeah. Since I discovered it.
PN: Did your parents have that in their life?
TC: No. They were working class. It’s called public education. It’s why I stand opposed to the right wing that have taken over our country. Betsy Devos, the education secretary, has devoted her whole life to preventing people from having public education. Scott Pruitt has devoted his whole life to lobbyists who are destroying the environment in the name of the corporation. I am what America should be. I am a productive citizen, who has done good, been good to my students, promoted my art in a good way. And I’m completely a product of public education. If it didn’t exist—and we didn’t have these schools—then I wouldn’t be here. This is what America is supposed to be about. And I hope it will be about that soon, again.
PN: I guess I’m curious to hear you talk more about hope?
TC: When I wrote A Friend of the Earth, in 2000—about global warming—audiences, when I would talk to them after reading . . . they really want hope, they want to know that things will be better. But no environmentalist breathes even a breath of hope the way things are going. It staggered me to learn just the other day that every ten to twelve years we add another billion people to the planet. So something’s gotta give. In terms of resources and global warming and the death of insects and the death of everything else. My plan is I’m going to die.
But you’ll still be around, and my children will be around. And they’re in some deep shit. And we have the right wing taking over in many countries—Europe and here and throughout the world—these gangs take over and the gangs no matter what their ideology supposedly is, really they’re just a gang and they want to take your money and your car and your food, because they don’t produce anything and they don’t have anything. Now we’re fighting those wars for the final resources. It’s already happening. It’s what the Syrian crisis was about. And as I’ve often pointed out—when Bangladesh floods permanently, where are those hundreds of millions of people going to stand. Let alone what are they going to eat. So it seems pretty grim to me.
PN: That’s the answer to a question about hope?
TC: Yeah. Again, being old is something I’m a neophyte at. Maybe all old people feel this way. Maybe my parents felt this way—I don’t know. But we have science and we have the destruction of the environment. And the more you know it, the more depressing it is. Yes, when I was a kid in New York, there was no concept of recycling. Everything was infinite, everything just got thrown away. Ok great, so… now we do. And I’m a fanatical recycler. This property is great—there’s no lawn, I tore the lawn out so we don’t have to waste water. Everything is recycled, every scrap of food goes into the mulch… all that’s great. But it’s kind of a small thing to do in the face of the massive devastation of the Trumps and these other jerks who just want to piss on the world and eat all day long. I mean it’s—what else can I do? You know?
PN: I don’t know.
TC: Enjoy. I can enjoy, right? And I do enjoy. I enjoy being alive.
Again, to be an environmentalist is to face the reality that nobody else wants to face. And this is why environmentalists bum everyone out. So after I wrote When the Killing’s Done, I was on a book tour. Many biologists and environmentalists would be in the audience. And—when talking to the crowd after the reading—they said to me in essence, “You’re doing a great thing—because you’re dramatizing it. And the message is powerful, people are getting it through drama. We can lecture them, but they don’t want to hear that.” At a certain point a lecture turns you off. You don’t want to be told. But if it can get inside you by art, it can make a big difference. Not that I’m writing it to make a big difference—I’m writing it because this is what I need to write. If it makes a difference: Hallelujah! Great, I’m so happy. But fiction can’t have a political purpose, can’t be pushed towards something. You’ll lose the audience, the audience will be pushed back and say wait a minute. Don’t sell me. So that’s another reason why I love fiction.
And I say this in defense of writing fiction because it’s all I want to do—like many writers I’m very much environmentally and politically concerned. And you see this throughout my work—but it’s not something I’m trying to force on anyone. I never begin a book or a story by thinking, “OK, this is how I feel and I’m going to illustrate that. I’m going to persuade people to do something.” That’s not the way it works.
The hardest story I did for me was called “Bulletproof.” I wrote it during the Bush era, when Bush and his ersatz scientists who were all owned by the corporations, not only did they destroy global warming—falsify the data and everything else—but because of the creationists in the right wing, the lunatic fringe, biology textbooks in some states had a sticker on the front. The sticker said “Please note that the theory of evolution is just that. Only a theory.” Meaning that creationism is somehow equally valid. Now of course a theory has to be proven. Creationism is a religion, you can’t prove it. So I hated this. I wrote a story about it to find out. I created a character on the other side, a young girl. And I had heard something similar on the radio—the host asked her “Well, how do you know that Jesus exists.” And she said, “Because Jesus lives in my heart.” OK. So, I ran with that. I’m very proud that I could write the story without imposing my point of view. Because religion and science are equally voodoo at some point—they don’t give us the answer of what we need to know. So check that story out too, you’ll have fun with it—“Bulletproof.” As in, “no theory is bulletproof.” So, are we done?
PN: I feel done. Do you feel done?
TC: I feel done. We’ve had a great, far-ranging discussion.
PN: Very delicious tomatoes I have to say.
TC: I wish I had grown them myself. Believe it or not this property is too cool to grow anything. Too shaded, and we’re by the ocean, and it’s cool. Over next door, the wall by the garage gets a little more sun. And every year—I’ll do it soon—I get a couple barrels and I put tomatoes in. And the cherries grow best, but the beef steaks don’t grow. It’s not hot enough here. And the ones that you buy at the store taste better! Ha-ha! So, you know, I plant them anyways though.
PN: Does your wife read your books?
TC: Well, yes. But she generally doesn’t read them straight through. Unless I need her to read the proofs of something. She hears them piece by piece. I read to her when I’m writing. Almost everyday. Not so that she can criticize, but so that I can hear how it sounds. It’s very important for me to hear how it sounds. I can read it a thousand times off the screen, but it’s not the same as reading it out loud. You catch so many more things. And another funny thing—I don’t know if it’s peculiar to me or everybody—in reading it aloud and dramatizing it for her, I begin to see connections and where it’s going. It’s a way to jump start it. I read to her everyday. She’s very receptive, very kind about it. She might be knitting at the time.
PN: Does she give you feedback?
TC: No. I don’t want feedback. I just want encouragement and joy. So I will say to her, “This is great, huh?” And she’ll say “Yeah!” Or, sometimes when we’re walking down to the village to go out to dinner and we’re talking about different subjects, I’ll say, “You know, tonight at dinner, let’s just talk about one subject: How wonderful I am.” And she says “OK.” But of course we’re not going to do that. It’s just a joke. Try it on your girlfriend. Tell her it’s from me.
PN: I will. Actually you are my girlfriend’s mother’s favorite writer. She is very excited about this…
TC: Well you tell your girlfriend’s mom that I love her and she has great literary taste. I like it when journalists come to the house. Because it makes it more intimate. And you get a million impressions of everything: you see the dog, the cat, the house, the birds, the hummingbirds.
PN: You’re in situ here.