TC Boyle isn’t afraid of writing about the darker side of humanity. The award-winning author of 29 books (with another on the way) has written about the fires and flooding that forced him to evacuate, and nearly destroyed, his home in Santa Barbara, California; he’s written about climate change, experimental testing on animals; and, recently, a short story about COVID-19 that appeared in Esquire.
But that’s not to say he doesn’t have a sense of humor. He’s written from the point of view of a chimpanzee in his 2021 novel “Talk to Me,” about get-rich-quick schemes of marijuana farmers (“Budding Prospects”) and even satirized the beloved TV dog “Lassie” in his acclaimed short story “Heart of a Champion.”
“A sense of humor is what gets you through,” says Boyle, during a recent phone call. “Everything is bleach and black. What else are you going to do but try to laugh about it?”
Boyle will give a reading and Q&A, which is free and open to the public, at Elizabethtown College 7 pm Friday.
“TC Boyle coming to our campus is really a flagship event for our semester’s worth of activities,” says Jesse Waters, director of the Bowers Writers House at Elizabethtown College. “Not only is he one of the world’s sharpest and most intuitive fiction writers, but he’s simply an incredible person. The fact that our students will have an opportunity to engage with him is really something special and unique.”
Boyle, who taught creative writing at the University of Southern California for nearly 40 years before stepping away five years ago, will also lead a workshop with Elizabethtown College creative writing students before the event.
“Teaching saved my life, basically, because it gave me a reason to get out of the house two days a week,” says Boyle, 73. “I would love to be doing it still, but I got tired of the road wars in LA I don’t like to use the term retired; I prefer the term ‘pre-dead.’”
Boyle took some time this past week to talk from his home in Santa Barbara about his love of life and literature.
You recently published a story about the COVID-19 pandemic in Esquire, and you also wrote about a pandemic in your novel “A Friend of the Earth.” How does it feel to be living through one?
It’s completely dislocating and crazier than anything I could ever have imagined. You’re referring to the fact that back in 2000, I wrote “A Friend of the Earth,” which projects to 2026. It’s mainly about global warming, the death of other species and there’s a pandemic in it as well. Of course anybody could see it coming and yet, I thought it would be in the distant future. And especially this weather dislocation that we’re having – global warming. I always thought it would be 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, but it’s here now and we’re living with it. My new novel, which I just finished in January, is called “Blue Skies” and it deals with the same situation. I’m projecting maybe 10 years into the future and it also focuses on climate change and species loss.
What’s the future look like? Should I keep my savings or spend it all right now?
I don’t want to be a pessimist about it, but I am. Yeah, spend it now. Go to Vegas and triple your retirement money and have some fun. I’m often a satirist although I think I tug a little deeper at your heart than most satirists, I hope. But I don’t see a lot of good news for humanity in the future.
How do you write about the future?
I read and take notes. Just in the way anybody that’s going to write an essay or a term paper. That enables me to imagine a scenario and then play it out and see where it goes. I don’t really know what the book will say until it begins to say it to me. “Blue Skies” began with my reading about the disappearance of flying insects around the world. The numbers of flying insects worldwide have declined something like 80% in the last 20 years. This just horrified me because, what about the food chain? What are we doing? They say save the planet – well sure, the planet is going to be here for several billion more years but save the conditions that allowed our species to arise. I like our species. I’d like to see it continue.
What do you think is the role of art during times of uncertainty?
Art is entertainment. Whether it’s the highest art or the lowest art, it’s still an entertainment which takes us out of ourselves. And the highest art makes us reflect on the kind of issues you and I are talking about here. It’s not the newspaper, it’s not the real world; it’s a way of seeing things aesthetically, but also politically and morally and every other way as well. I like to entertain the audience. If you want to know my deepest thoughts then read the books, but if you want to be entertained, then come on out and see me.
Do you enjoy the performance aspect of giving readings?
I really missed going out to universities and book fairs and performing on stage (during the COVID-19 lockdowns). It’s something I really love to do, and I’m glad that’s coming back again. I’m really looking forward to shaking it up and turning the students on. That’s my biggest joy. I just want to remind them why we love stories – because we sat on our mother’s knee de ella and she read them to us. It’s a joy. Let’s just hear a story performed for you – like you would a concert or a movie or a play. That’s what I like to convey to the undergrads and all the old folks as well. The fun of literature.