Full Boyle

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

Is it difficult to start at a particular point in history, explore the arc of your invention, and then at some point have to bring the story back to reality?

Yes, but it depends on the novel. With Water Music, I just let it ride. The essential facts are true -- of Mungo Park's two expeditions and how he died, etc. But everything else is just fantasy. Another one we haven't mentioned is World's End, which is entirely invented, just from circumstances of a given area. Wellville is centered around Dr. Kellogg and his bizarre personality, but the foods and the treatments are all true, but everything else is invented. In Riven Rock, Eddie O'Kane is an invented character, but Katherine and Stanley and their parents and relatives all existed. I'm trying to turn the screw a little differently each time around to see what'll happen.

Riven Rock takes place in the area where you live. How did you happen on the story?

I moved up from LA in the middle of writing The Tortilla Curtain, and I found a newspaper article about Riven Rock around the same time I read a book by David Myrick about Stanley and Katherine. There were many -- all the estates had great, crazy stories associated with them. All those rich industrialists who settled there were perverted lunatics in one way or another. Riven Rock is only a mile from my house, or less. What fascinated me about Stanley was that for 20 years he wasn't allowed to see any women or be in their company. What would that be like? And worse -- what would it be like to be married to him? That's what got me going on the story.

Was it difficult doing a novel on a hot-button topic like illegal immigration, as you did in The Tortilla Curtain?

No, because it was the same thing as with East Is East. They just grow out of the feeling of the culture, particularly the culture in LA at that moment. I'm just expressing what I feel. I read the LA Times every day, and during the '80s, everybody was obsessed with the Japanese taking our culture over, so I thought, let's explore that. And the same in the '90s: Since the Immigration Reform Act was revised in '86, we've had this huge influx, particularly from Latin America, and people were pretty crazy because of it. And I guess I'm part of that. I mean, I live there, and I wanted to sort out my own feelings about it. I don't consider it a political novel in that I don't have a platform. I'm not beginning with a party line and I want you to join my party. I'm just exploring the issue to see how I feel. That's why I write stories to begin with. That's why I don't write essays or histories or biographies. There's no fun in that for me. The fun is in discovering something that you didn't know before. All my stories are like that. I never know what it will be or what I'm going to say or where it will go.

The great thing about writing historical pieces is that you can use them to discuss what's going on now. In Riven Rock I get to talk about sexuality and marriage and morals, what's right, what's wrong, who decides. Morals, fidelity -- all those issues that are current. And, obviously, with Kellogg, I could talk about all the newest fancy health treatments -- you know, plug in the enema machine (laughs) -- that stuff has been going on for a while.

Your writing is often very flamboyant. Who instilled in you a love of language?

Language is absolutely integral to the work -- that's the building blocks of the work, and I'm very conscious of it, and I've always loved it and the rhythm of it. Some writers are very flatfooted. You can't read their prose aloud. They don't have a sense of rhythm, they don't write beautiful language -- that's the key. That's one reason I don't like genre writers. There are many reasons, but one of them is it's always so flatfooted and poorly written.

I can't really say where it comes from, though I suppose some of it is genetic. The Irish -- you know, we hate the ethnic stereotypes, because they're all true (laughs). But the Irish are known for it. Plus, I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. Most of my lifelong friends are Jewish or half-Jewish, and there's a kind of Jewish gift of gab and sense of humor -- a mordant, black sense of humor -- which our whole group of wise guys all shared. That relies on language, on wit. I guess it's a combination of all those things.

What was it like to see your novel The Road to Wellville turned into a movie? Is that the first work of yours that has been filmed?

There've been two short stories made into very excellent short films: "Greasy Lake" and "The Big Garage." A former student of mine did "The Big Garage." It's brilliant. And "Greasy Lake" had Eric Stoltz and James Spader in it and it was done by Damian Harris in the late '80s. It's a great little half-hour film, really well done.

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