Gargoyle 17/18cover sculpture (Crow Woman) by Virginia Hubbardpublication date 12/21/1981
T. Coraghessan Boyle grew up in Peekskill, NY. He now lives in Tujunga,California, with his wife Karen, and is an Assistant Professor of creativewriting at the University of Southern California. His collection of shortstories 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. Boyleis 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 assuredthat everyone dies in the end. Or practically, everyone. Those who don’tdie manage to live on in the rankest, most untenable misery.
Interviewer: Your reputation is based on short prose pieces. Did you findit difficult to depart from that form and finish asustained fiction? Is there anything different in your methodology?
Boyle: Salinger said he was a sprint man rather than a writer. I feltthe same way about myself. Then I took a couple laps around the track tosee what would happen, and found myself getting up in the morning and writinga novel rather than short stories. I liked this. Instead of telling peopleat 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-deprecationand whisper “I’m a novelist” in so low a voice that they’d haveto ask again.
As far as methodology goes, you will notice that there are 104 chaptersin Water Music, each titled. One hundred and four little stories.
Interviewer: In the novel excerpts I’ve read you cover Arab and Scottishculture in a sort of mini-historical, anthropological, sociological soupwhich reminds me of Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and Woody Allen. Whythose cultures? Whyhistory?
Boyle: Why history? Because history is a province of the imagination:no one really knows anything at all about the collective past, not evenBarbara Tuchman. Ergo, I feel free to invent as I please. As far as mytreatment of Moorish and Scottish culture is concerned, I did extensiveresearch, 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” onthe 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 takethe most seriously are “The Extinction Tales” and “Drowning.” Ithink they accuse you of avoiding sentiment, of hiding yourself behindslapstick surfaces, and sensemore of you, the author, in these characterizations. Is that possible? Whatdo 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 paraphraseJames Brown, ain’t my bag. Personally, I take comic stories like “TheOvercoat II”and “Descent of Man” just as seriously as Itake non-comic pieces like the ones you’ve mentioned. How better to beserious than by being funny?
Interviewer: Crowds play an important role in your work. There’s usuallyone acting as a comic Greek chorus. Do you consider your audience as you’rewriting? 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. Tushbottomfrom the Marx Brothers’ movies say “whom”?) I’m writing for,the answer is simple: everybody. Even the glue sniffers who don’t knowhow to read. Even Anita Bryant and Charlie Manson and the ex-spokesmanfor General Electric.
Interviewer: You’ve parodied just about everything from beer can collectors,to explorers, scientists, horror flicks, Mao, the Vikings, Lassie, andIdi Amin. What role does comedy play for you?
Boyle: My relation to life is purely comic. In fact, I believe that allnon-specific human conversation is a function of wise-guyism: you listento the other guy’s wisecrack interpolations of what you’ve just said sothat you can make wisecracks from his wisecracks. And so on. I do not knowany formal jokes–can’t remember them for some reason and don’t particularlylike 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 onthe part of the major studios to seduce me into writing filmscripts. Iam a novelist and short-storyist. I haven’t spent all those long yearshoning my craft in Rod Serling’s Famous Writers’ School just to throw itaway on some half-assed screenplay that nine other guys rewrite anyway.During the film writers’ strike last year the L.A. Times characterizedthe 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 yourlanguage. Are you a musician? Does music aidyour writing process? I realize that Handel’s Water Music lends its title toyour novel. And recall a piece of yours called “Rock & Roll Heaven” inFiction International.
Boyle: Yes, yes, yes, I like that description of yours. And yes, music is vitallyimportant to me. I used to play drums, used to sing lead in a rock and rollband, now play alto saxophone. Two speakers frame my head as I work. Whileworking, I play tapes of music by J.S. Bach. While resting, I play rock androll. I do write frequently about music and musicians, and yes, Handel’s “WaterMusic” does have something to do with my title (I don’t say “everythingto do with my title” because the epigraph from Merwin has a lot to dowith 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 intoa six-month-old baby for thirty minutes (it’s a party drug–can you imaginewhat will happen if everyone takes it at once?); negotiating the Atlanticin an inner tube; finishing the novel I’ve just begun and putting togetherwhat will be my fourth book, a new collection of stories. And oh yes: I’minitiating a campaign to convince Jimmy Stewart to run for president onthe Democratic ticket in ’84.
–interviewed by Richard Peabody in 1981.