Archives for posts with tag: T. Coraghessan Boyle

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CAPTION: “I’m looking for a book by T. What’s-His-Face Boyle.”

CREDIT: New Yorker cartoon by Mick Stevens, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Prints available at condenaststore.com.

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Novelist and short story writer T.C. Boyle (formerly known as T. Coraghessan Boyle) offered insights into his writing process in The Art of Fiction No. 161, featured in The Paris Review (Summer 2000), where he was interviewed by Elizabeth E. Adams. Excerpts from the interview are included below. (Read the entire interview at theparisreview.org)

INTERVIEWER: What is the difference in the composing of a short story and a novel? Is there a shifting of gears?

BOYLE: Yes, sure. But I do see everything I’m doing as a story, whether it’s five pages or five hundred. The essential difference is that with stories, or during a period of story writing, you’re never sure if you’re going to come up with the next one. Oh, you feel great on bringing a story to completion—what a rush!—but then, speaking of blocks, you go through a period of a week or so when you’ve become an utter failure, a bankrupt, a fraud. You’ll never work again. Of course, if you’re very, very lucky—and I have been lucky—the first stirrings of the next story come. With a novel, you’re locked-in, committed, and you sure do know what you’re going to be doing tomorrow morning.

INTERVIEWER: With a novel, do you see the thing as a whole when you start?

BOYLE: No, it’s an organic process. I have an idea and a first line—and that suggests the rest of it. I have little concept of what I’m going to say, or where it’s going. I have some idea of how long it’s going to be—but not what will happen or what the themes will be. That’s the intrigue of doing it—it’s a process of discovery. You get to discover what you’re going to say and what it’s going to mean.

INTERVIEWER: That’s interesting . . . the first line. Joe Heller [author of Catch-22] couldn’t write a word unless the first line popped into his mind, which unleashed a whole series of characters, scenes . . . Is that the way it works with you? What are some of the first lines?

BOYLE: Yes, I feel that too, but maybe not so thoroughly as Heller did. The first line isn’t unleashing much, but there’s certainly been a lot of thought and preparation for it, and certainly it suggests what’s to come—again, in the way of the first piece of a jigsaw puzzle. But you’re putting me on the spot with regard to first lines. World’s End starts like this: “On the day he lost his right foot, Walter Van Brunt had been haunted, however haphazardly, by ghosts of the past.” A Friend of the Earth begins: “I’m out feeding the hyena her kibble and chicken backs when the call comes through.” And, most famously, I suppose, the opening line of “Descent of Man”: “I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” The first lines are provocative, I suppose, because they are meant not simply to provoke the reader but to provoke the writer—in this instance, me—to forge on.

INTERVIEWER: When you say that you have no idea where it is going to go, does that literally mean that you have no idea what is going to happen to the people about whom you’re writing?

BOYLE: You discover all this as you go along—of course, you may make leaps ahead, and discover where it’s going. Hemingway said that he never stopped a day’s work until he knew what was going to happen in tomorrow’s installment. I feel the same way. When I’m done for the day—dragged out, dumbed down, exhausted, beat, and depleted—I look over what I’ve done and make a mental leap into the immediate future of the work if I can. Sometimes, though, it’s just a mystery until you get there. In The Road to Wellville, for instance, I had no idea there would be a murder occurring at the end of that book—not that I mean to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it—but when I got there it seemed very logical (or maybe I mean “right”) that that was what was going to happen. I remember feeling great about that. I was up in the mountains at the time, trying to extract the juice from my brain. I remember walking around the lake, humping through the woods, exhilarated. I think I put off going to the bar till 4:05 that day. It was wonderful.

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INTERVIEWER: So plot is more important than character. Would that be a safe thing to say?

BOYLE: The early stories were mainly idea stories that didn’t have much to do with character—I was much more interested in design then. I think I’ve learned to handle character through writing novels. My first novel, Water Music, was five hundred pages long and you just can’t go five hundred pages without inventing some characters. What I hope is that I’m now better able to integrate all the elements of a successful and original story without relying on one effect only.

Photo: T.C. Boyle photographed by Spencer Boyle.