8 June 2009 | Vol. 9, No. 2
Five Questions with T.C. Boyle About The Women
T.C. Boyle is the author the author of twenty books of fiction, including the novels World's End, a PEN/Faulkner winner, The Road to Wellville, The Tortilla Curtain, and Drop City, a finalist for the National Book Award. His short stories appear regularly in Best American and O. Henry prize anthologies, and this year he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent novel, The Women, examines the life of the American architectural genius Frank Lloyd Wright, focusing on the experience of the wives and mistresses who shaped his tumultuous career.
We spoke via email in mid-April.
Bryan Hurt: The historian and literary critic Hayden White has said that all historical narrative (biographies, journals, chronicles, etc.) are forms of fiction, no more or less so than their literary counterparts. For you (a) what are the reasons for, and advantages of, exploring the past through the form of the novel? And (b) why use the past (i.e. "actual people") at all?
T.C. Boyle: I agree most emphatically with Mr. White. Which is part of the fun I'm having with The Women and other historical narratives I've pursued. In the present case, we have actual people doing actual things as reported in newspaper and biographical accounts, but their actions are filtered through the recollections of the book's editor, Tadashi Sato, who responds in footnotes to the rather odd text he's received in translation and amplification from his grandson-in-law, the unpublished Irish-American novelist, Seamus O'Flaherty. Where, one wonders, does the truth reside? Not simply the truth of fiction, but the truth of history.
Bryan Hurt: I'd say The Women is a historical novel only in the sense that it takes Frank Lloyd Wright as it's subject. The way the narration is layered—and the amount of attention you ask that reader pay to the way the story is being told—is quixotic. Why draw attention to the story's construction? What, if anything, do you want your readers to take away from this interplay between so-called "fact" and fiction?
T.C. Boyle: I guess I've answered this above. As for your adjective "quixotic," I take offense to it. The structure of this novel is no more quixotic than the structure of any novel by anyone. What is truly quixotic is that we writers—yourself included—continue to write elaborate, beautiful, and heartbreaking books in the face of massive public indifference.
Bryan Hurt: More broadly, the novel is fun and funny. What role does play and playfulness take in your work?
T.C. Boyle: Again, see answer the first. Each story and each novel is entirely its own being and I seek out a structure to best reveal it. If The Women is doing what I hope it is, it will engage the reader on many levels and in many ways, not the least of which is through humor—but there is also an element of pathos (see Miriam) and, of course, gripping and horrific tragedy (see Mamah).
Bryan Hurt: Frank Lloyd Wright believed that better houses could create better people. To what extent do you believe in the same transcendent quality of your own art, or art in general? Does literature have the ability to "improve" people? Can you name some books that you think made you a better writer? A better person?
T.C. Boyle: Art exists for its own sake. Any improving qualities it may have come from the listener, reader, viewer. I suppose we could say that art improves us because for the period of time we are engaged with it we are not out and about doing what we're really good at—that is, doing as much harm to each other as we possibly can.
Bryan Hurt: This novel, like many of your previous, explore outsiders, outcasts, and people trying to build a society within a society. What fascinates you about these enclaves and the egos who found them?
T.C. Boyle: For one thing, I am suitably horrified by those who give themselves over to another, whether that be in interpersonal relationships or in devotion to a leader. In my triad of books about the twentieth century's great egomaniacs—The Road to Wellville, The Inner Circle, and now The Women—I've explored the cost to the acolyte of dwelling in such devotion. I've also dealt with this in short stories and other novels, like Drop City and A Friend of the Earth. As for the utopian vision, this is what America was built upon, and I like to imagine and re-imagine it as often as I can, as a way of disentangling myself from the stickiness of our current overpopulated, anarchic, destructive, insane, and collapsing society.
About the author:
Bryan Hurt is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. He is the co-founder of the reading series, The Loudest Voice, and his work has appeared previously in Hot Metal Bridge and Salt Hill.
For further reading:
See the complete list of work by Bryan Hurt at 42opus. Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 9, No. 2, where "Five Questions with T.C. Boyle About The Women" ran on June 8, 2009. List other work with these same labels: nonfiction, interview.