A Mark Twain for the Baby Boom generation, T.C. Boyle is a portraitist of human folly and fantasy. A prolific writer of both short stories and novels, Boyle recently published The Women, a fictional work about Frank Lloyd Wright, as told by four of his infamous amours. While on a national tour to promote the book, Boyle chatted with our sister publication Boldtype. After the jump, he tells Chelsea Bauch about his fascination with famous egomaniacs, being a mama’s boy, and the extent to which creative writing can be taught.
Boldtype: You live in one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses; have you been a longtime fan of his work?
T.C. Boyle: The house is sort of a lost house. It’s in all the books; it’s the first California house that he built, but it was run down and we’ve been restoring it for 16 years. All during that time, I was thinking that I should explore more about the architecture and learn more about him. And when I began to, I realized that he fits right in with [Alfred] Kinsey and [John Harvey] Kellogg, and other of the great egomaniacs of the 20th century, whom I’ve written about, and who have altered our history in much more subtle ways than, say, presidents.
BT: Are there any other “great egomaniacs” that you’d like to examine?
TCB: There’s always a danger in doing such a thing. There was another novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, which I haven’t read, because I don’t want to be in a position of comparing and contrasting. When I did the Kinsey book, unbeknownst to me, Bill Condon was also making his movie Kinsey. We became friends after we discovered each other, and we did a little talk at the Hammer Museum in LA, about two artists doing the same material. But still, if you’re doing someone like any of these figures, somebody else might be doing it too. Particularly Frank Lloyd Wright, because he is such a cult figure. I didn’t realize until I began to explore him that there are something like 1,000 books about him and his works that have been written already.
BT: Meryle Secrest talked about how Wright was at the mercy of his emotions, describing him as “barely a human being.” Did you find that that volatility came through in your secondhand perspectives?
TCB: One of the things that interested me here was: what is true, what is not, and how do we know? Any account of history, of course, is biased. There will be facts that are fudged, and so too the interpretation of the character of these people, which is why it seems ripe for a novelist, and why I chose the approach that I did. I’m not so interested in giving the full portrait of him in any biographical way as I am in wondering what his relationship is with his followers. This is why I was so obsessed with Kinsey and Kellogg before him. I’m very suspicious of authority figures, of icons, of worshipping other people. I’m an independent operator. I love Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, but that isn’t to say that I’m going to worship him blindly.
As far as his passions are concerned, some people have asked me if he was a womanizer. I don’t think so. As with any powerful, magnetic man, women were attracted to him. These women were each his equals, and in some respects his superiors — especially in terms of their taste and sophistication. Wright remained a farm boy from Wisconsin who had only had two semesters of college, despite his protestations to the contrary. It seems that he was sort of moving up the food chain with these women, going for women like Mamah [Cheney], who was college educated and very free-thinking, to Miriam [Noel], who was this sophisticate from Paris, and finally to Olgivanna [Milanoff], with her fetching accent and her youth.
BT: How did Wright’s relationship with his mother, Anna, affect his relationship with these other women?
TCB: He was a mama’s boy. His father left the family when Frank was 17, so he rejected him and his middle name “Lincoln,” instead adopting “Lloyd” from his mother’s side. His father had three other children when he married, and Anna was so fierce that she became like the wicked stepmother, making those children go live with other relatives. She was extremely protective of her one son. This makes for great fiction, because of the collision of Anna and Frank’s various mistresses.
I’m sort of like that myself. My father was much weaker and not as educated as my mother. She was very dominant, and although she never pushed me so much as Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother did, she encouraged me and told me I could do anything. I come from a working class family, and I’m the first ever to go to college, because my mother envisioned that. So I have some understanding of where he’s coming from.
BT: You’ve published almost as many short story collections as novels — do the two mediums balance and inform each other for you?
TCB: In my life, yes. I don’t know about others. Mostly, the writers that we know from the 20th century either specialize in one or the other, and are stronger in one or the other. I love both forms, and I see it in this way: everything that I do is simply a story; everything in the world that I see and want to know about, or want to interpret, is a story in some way. I always have an idea of how complex that story will be. I sit down in specific periods to write a novel or story. I alternate between a longer, historical novel, a book of stories, and a shorter novel. That keeps me interested. I’m equally committed to the story and the novel.
BT: What stories and writers did you enjoy while growing up?
TCB: A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor, is one of my all-time favorites. It’s the one story that woke me up to what literature could be. I went to SUNY Potsdam to study music, but couldn’t hack that, so I became a History major, drifted into English, became a double major in History and English, and, finally, junior year, blundered into a creative-writing class. This is why I continue to teach, and why I love the idea of liberal arts. I wasn’t a very good student in high school or college; I barely got through. I didn’t do what I was supposed to do, didn’t attend the classes I was supposed to attend, and didn’t learn what I was supposed to learn.
I went from being a TV watcher in a working-class household to being an intellectual by surprise, because I was reading what was current then. That is what informed my taste, which is why, when I was at Iowa [Writer’s Workshop], I got my PhD to learn about the literature of our language in England and in America. The other stuff that influenced me is what was happening then: Robert Coover, Günter Grass, Gabriel García Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel Angel Asturias, and all of the absurdist playwrights. What was current and happening just woke me up. I loved the wicked sensibility, the bleakness of some of the writing, and I loved the expansiveness where anything could be fiction. You don’t have to be constrained by autobiography or someone else’s expectations of what fiction is, or what you ought to do. There are no rules!
BT: What is it about being in the classroom as a teacher that continues to stimulate you?
TCB: It wakes me up. I had great mentors all along who acted as coaches. I love literature, I love what I’m doing, and I want to be that mentor for other people. I write books, but I’ve also been teaching since I was 21. It’s an integral part of my life. I haven’t had to teach for a long time now, but I always will, as long as I can do it. On the selfish level, it gets me out of the house one day a week. If I had to write seven days a week and never leave and never have interaction with other people who love literature and can discuss it on the deepest level, which is what happens in my classrooms, I would have gone mad years ago.
BT: Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer poses the question of whether creative writing can even be taught. Having founded the undergraduate program at USC, what is your response?
TCB: I think it can, but I think you must have a great talent and a great desire. Your teacher is sort of your coach, and can make suggestions, but those suggestions don’t have to be followed. You are the artist, and you are going to do whatever you’re going to do. It’s like a conservatory program: you know how to play your instrument at the highest level, and now you’re going to have time to play it and perfect it and see what happens. You have as role models and guides these writers whom you admire. Of course, it’s an art — some people have a talent and some don’t. We all did fingerpainting in kindergarten, but some went on to do a higher form. You can talk about techniques in class; I think it’s great to do interpretations of things and discuss them on that level, but there are no rules whatsoever.
You perfect your own technique in your own way. Maybe your violin teacher teaches you a better way to hold it or use your bow, but no one really can teach you that in creative writing. By the time you get there, that has become integral to who you are, because you’ve read a lot of literature, and it’s all been synthesized and it all comes out. Any given story you write, or anybody writes, can be discussed with somebody, but nothing matters except what you’re going to finally do. In a workshop, everybody will interpret the work and talk about it, but the only value for you is seeing how an engaged audience interprets what you’ve done. You can make adjustments on the basis of that, or you can not. That’s as far as it goes — it’s not going to teach you anything specifically; there is nothing specific to teach. You’re an artist, so you make your art, and you make your art because you studied other artists.