Full Boyle

T. Coraghessan Boyle discusses his fat -- and fascinating -- collection of short fiction, The Collected Stories

T. Coraghessan Boyle strolls through the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and extends his hand. "Call me Tom," he says.

It's an unpretentious opening for a writer known for studied flamboyance, both in his writing and his personal style. Boyle's pyrotechnic novels such as The Road to Wellville, The Tortilla Curtain and Riven Rock have graced bestseller lists and wowed critics, and Boyle himself frequently appears at readings and promotional appearances dressed like a peacock, with flashy clothes, several earrings and a lock of his ginger hair draped rakishly over his forehead. Today his toggery is unusually subdued -- a gray silk shirt over a long-sleeve black T-shirt and dark slacks. If it weren't for the flames shooting off the toes of his Doc Martens, Boyle would look pretty much like anyone else meeting here for business or pleasure.

The reason for the interview is Boyle's latest book, T.C. Boyle Stories: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle, which gathers together the short fiction previously published in four story collections -- Descent of Man, Greasy Lake, If the River Was Whiskey and Without a Hero -- over the past quarter-century. The book also features seven new stories never before published in book form. It's a weighty tome, almost thick enough to stand on and change a lightbulb, and if it has any shortcomings, it's the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach it takes to amassing Boyle's short fiction for the public's reconsideration. Not all of the 70 stories here are necessarily for the ages. Many of them are, though, and to his credit Boyle decided to mix things up a bit: Rather than simply slap them together in chronological order, he reconfigures them under three loose and somewhat humorous categorizations -- "Love," "Death" and "Everything in Between."

Boyle has been a hot literary commodity since attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the early '70s, where he studied under the tutelage of Vance Bourjaily, John Irving and John Cheever. He received his doctorate in 19th-century literature from the University of Iowa in 1977. Since then he's published seven novels, including World's End, which won the 1988 Pen/Faulkner Award for Best American Fiction. Descent of Man earned him the 1980 St. Lawrence Award for Short Fiction. Wellville, his novel about eccentric cornflake inventor and health nut John Harvey Kellogg, was made into a film directed by Alan Parker that was widely panned, though Boyle himself enjoyed it.

A tenured professor who teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California, Boyle commutes to his job from Montecito, near Santa Barbara, where he lives with his wife and three children in a 1909 Frank Lloyd Wright house. "I'm very much a Californian now, having lived there for so many years," Boyle says between bites of crab cakes and corn chowder. Then, as if to prove it, he adds disappointedly, "Oh, look. They're setting up a sushi bar. We could have had that instead."

Boyle spoke at length with the RFT about his work, both historical and contemporary, the experience of seeing some of it transferred to the big screen, and the value of tooting your own horn.

RFT: So, you're T.C. Boyle now, not T. Coraghessan Boyle? That's what it says on the cover of The Collected Stories.

Boyle: I haven't changed my name at all. I still go by T. Coraghessan Boyle, which is still on the title page. But we have a new art director at Viking, and he asked me -- he pleaded with me -- to abbreviate my name so he could fit it on the cover. He said, "I can make it bigger," so I said OK. The Brits have been doing it for years, so why not?

Coraghessan is a distinctive name -- is that a family name?
Yeah, it's from my mother's side of the family. I adopted it when I was 17 or so, because I wanted to be special. I didn't want to be like everybody else, just Tom Boyle.

You just turned 50. Has that affected your thinking about your life or your work?

Well, I'm glad to have made it. Coming on the heels of The Collected Stories, I feel like I'm a thousand years old. You look back on that stuff and it seems so fresh and contemporary, and the stories still work because they don't depend on references to the times, but the witty contemporary references you need an almanac and an encyclopedia to get.

I do have some perceptions about your 50s, though. And they're not good. Your 50s are exactly like your teenage years in that your body and mind are going through enormous changes, but only for the worse. Unlike your teenage years, where they're getting better.

More than most writers, you've realized the importance of doing publicity and readings, and radio and television. Some writers shun all that -- they expect to be able to write their books and have the world come to them.

Some feel that way. And they think that all the extracurricular stuff -- going before the public and entertaining them -- is sort of demeaning to writing. I don't agree. I think literature is not something that should be in the university and only professors can mediate between the audience and the writer -- that's a bunch of crap. It's entertainment. Fiction, if it's not entertaining at root, then you can do nothing else with it, because no one will read it. I think probably there are more good writers around now than ever. But because we have such a cluttered culture and there's just so much going on from so many different venues, there are fewer readers for those serious writers. It's crazy. I feel like the hunger artist in the Kafka story -- here we are creating these great feats of art, and no one's paying attention, no one cares.

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