Gargoyle 17/18
cover sculpture (Crow Woman) by Virginia Hubbard
publication date 12/21/1981

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.