Wisecracking with T. Coraghessan Boyle


T. Coraghessan Boyle grew up in Peekskill, NY. He now lives in Tujunga, California, with his wife Karen, and is an Assistant Professor of creative writing at the University of Southern California. His collection of short stories Descent of Man (Atlantic-Little Brown, 1979), won the 1980 St. Lawrence Award for Fiction, and was reprinted in paperback by McGraw-Hill. His novel, Water Music, was recently published by Atlantic-Little, Brown. Boyle's work has appeared in Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Antaeus, Paris Review, Triquarterly, Translatlantic Review, Penthouse, Quest 77, South Dakota Review, Epoch, and Fiction International to name a few. Boyle is currently a contributing fiction editor for the Iowa Review.

Interviewer: Tell us about the new book.

Boyle: The new book is very long and complicated, but you can rest assured that everyone dies in the end. Or practically, everyone. Those who don't die manage to live on in the rankest, most untenable misery.

Interviewer: Your reputation is based on short prose pieces. Did you find it difficult to depart from that form and finish a sustained fiction? Is there anything different in your methodology?

Boyle: Salinger said he was a sprint man rather than a writer. I felt the same way about myself. Then I took a couple laps around the track to see what would happen, and found myself getting up in the morning and writing a novel rather than short stories. I liked this. Instead of telling people at cocktail parties that I was a short-storyist, which is a real mouthful, I could swirl the cubes in my glass, duck my head in humility and self-deprecation and whisper "I'm a novelist" in so low a voice that they'd have to ask again.

As far as methodology goes, you will notice that there are 104 chapters in Water Music, each titled. One hundred and four little stories.

Interviewer: In the novel excerpts I've read you cover Arab and Scottish culture in a sort of mini-historical, anthropological, sociological soup which reminds me of Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and Woody Allen. Why those cultures? Why

Boyle: Why history? Because history is a province of the imagination: no one really knows anything at all about the collective past, not even Barbara Tuchman. Ergo, I feel free to invent as I please. As far as my treatment of Moorish and Scottish culture is concerned, I did extensive research, selected the most heinous details and invented the rest.

Interviewer: Critics have argued that your work is compelling, kinky, and imaginative on the one hand, and unfocused, ephemeral, "Glitterature" on the other. How would you describe what you're doing?

Boyle: The first run of critics you mention are, of course, quite correct. The others are mere fools.

Interviewer: The two stories in your first book that critics seem to take the most seriously are "The Extinction Tales" and "Drowning." I think they accuse you of avoiding sentiment, of hiding yourself behind slapstick surfaces, and sense
more of you, the author, in these characterizations. Is that possible? What do you think?

Boyle: I think they-or you-are quite right. I do wish to avoid sentimentality, and I do wish to avoid writing autobiographical fiction. That, to paraphrase James Brown, ain't my bag. Personally, I take comic stories like "The Overcoat II"and "Descent of Man" just as seriously as I take non-comic pieces like the ones you've mentioned. How better to be serious than by being funny?

Interviewer: Crowds play an important role in your work. There's usually one acting as a comic Greek chorus. Do you consider your audience as you're writing? Who are you writing for?

Boyle: Yes, crowds play an important part in my work. I don't know why. Lina Wertmuller might know, though. As far as who (wouldn't Mrs. Tushbottom from the Marx Brothers' movies say "whom"?) I'm writing for, the answer is simple: everybody. Even the glue sniffers who don't know how to read. Even Anita Bryant and Charlie Manson and the ex-spokesman for General Electric.

Interviewer: You've parodied just about everything from beer can collectors, to explorers, scientists, horror flicks, Mao, the Vikings, Lassie, and Idi Amin. What role does comedy play for you?

Boyle: My relation to life is purely comic. In fact, I believe that all non-specific human conversation is a function of wise-guyism: you listen to the other guy's wisecrack interpolations of what you've just said so that you can make wisecracks from his wisecracks. And so on. I do not know any formal jokes--can't remember them for some reason and don't particularly like them--but I relate to all other people through spontaneous wisecrackery (I guess Oscar Wilde would call this wit).

Interviewer: Some of your fast-paced comic scenes seem perfect for film. Have you considered writing for the screen?

Boyle: I anticipate collecting money from movie studios. (Sniff.) But (and you must remember, I live in L.A.) I have resisted all attempts on the part of the major studios to seduce me into writing filmscripts. I am a novelist and short-storyist. I haven't spent all those long years honing my craft in Rod Serling's Famous Writers' School just to throw it away on some half-assed screenplay that nine other guys rewrite anyway. During the film writers' strike last year the L.A. Times characterized the striking writers as artists. Please. Let's call a hack a hack.

Interviewer: What writers do you find exciting?

Boyle: I read everybody good.

Interviewer: There is a fluidity, a musical improvisational flow to your language. Are you a musician? Does music aid
your writing process? I realize that Handel's Water Music lends its title to your novel. And recall a piece of yours called "Rock & Roll Heaven" in Fiction International.

Boyle: Yes, yes, yes, I like that description of yours. And yes, music is vitally important to me. I used to play drums, used to sing lead in a rock and roll band, now play alto saxophone. Two speakers frame my head as I work. While working, I play tapes of music by J.S. Bach. While resting, I play rock and roll. I do write frequently about music and musicians, and yes, Handel's "Water Music" does have something to do with my title (I don't say "everything to do with my title" because the epigraph from Merwin has a lot to do with it too).

Interviewer: What are your current plans?

Boyle: My current plans include perfecting the formula for an odorless, colorless powder which when ingested will-literally-turn the ingestor into a six-month-old baby for thirty minutes (it's a party drug--can you imagine what will happen if everyone takes it at once?); negotiating the Atlantic in an inner tube; finishing the novel I've just begun and putting together what will be my fourth book, a new collection of stories. And oh yes: I'm initiating a campaign to convince Jimmy Stewart to run for president on the Democratic ticket in '84.

--interviewed by Richard Peabody in 1981.


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