Post by NCW Member Sara Hoffman
Here is an E-mail interview with T.C. Boyle conducted by Sara Hoffman. Boyle is the author of twenty books of fiction, including, most recently, A Friend of the Earth, Drop City, The Inner Circle, Tortilla Curtain, The Human Fly and Other Stories, and The Women.
You’ve written 20 books, including “Tortilla Curtain,” in which you use unusual words and occasionally, words that aren’t words. What’s your intention with your vocabulary? Is it purely for entertainment?
Boyle: English is by far the richest language in the world, containing at least twice as many words as the next closest language on the list (don't ask, I forget which is next), and so I figure, why not make use of this arsenal of verbiage? Sometimes I use a word because it is exactly the right word for the situation (to my lights, anyway), and sometimes, as you suggest, I'll use an obscure word for the little frisson it gives the reader.
You use “T shirt” in a lot of your books. A lot of people misspell “T shirt,” and “a lot” for that matter. As a connoisseur of the language, are you bothered by the frequent misspellings and grammatical errors on bus stop signs, restaurant menus and such? Has the English language lost its respect?
Boyle: I am made murderous by the misuse of the language, but since I can't really eliminate all those misusers out there, I grin and bear it. T-shirt could easily be tee shirt for that matter--each is valid-- and the language does evolve. Take lie and lay for instance. Even our finest authors (and their editors who let them slip) make errors with these verbs.
You name about 35 characters in “Tortilla Curtain.” Most of them are minor characters, but how do you write so that your readers keep these people straight? And where do you get these names? Are they friends, former friends, neighbors, home-owners association members, or total figments of your imagination?
Boyle: Names are sometimes symbolic, as with Candido Rincon, for instance, or Delaney Mossbacher, suggesting something about the characters who bear them. Or they are just names. One doesn't necessarily, depending on the comic valence of a given piece, want the names to stand out, as, for instance, in Dickens, who, in “Bleak House” has a character named Mr. Slime. In “The Tortilla Curtain,” most of the names are meant to slip by unnoticed, as our own names do, so that, for example, we have two Jacks living in Arroyo Blanco Estates, just as in real life we might have two Toms or Georges living on the same block.
Two characters you don’t name in “The Tortilla Curtain” are the bad guys, the illegal immigrants responsible for various heinous crimes. You describe them. One wears a backwards baseball cap, chews gum, and has eyes like “twin bruises.” The other has shoulder-length hair and a “silky pelt-like streak” of a beard. Wouldn’t it have been easier to write the book if you’d given them names? Why didn’t you?
Boyle: Not naming them doesn't allow them to enter into the reader's sympathetic purview. They remain unnamed and all the more menacing for that.
Do you have a special relationship with a specific dictionary?
Boyle: I use a colossal Webster's Unabridged I've had forever and the O.E.D. as well, but I find that with the advent of the Internet I am able to quickly cross-check not only definitions but facts as well. My encyclopedias are gathering dust. A shame, really, but the information tools at our fingertips are quite extraordinary. (Of course, “Tortilla” was written before such tools were available.)
Do you get e-mails from writing teachers about your tendency to break established rules of writing in your books? Do you allow your English students at the University of Southern California to break the rules? When is it OK to break the rules?
Boyle: No, I don't. And I don't break rules of grammar unless I'm doing deep point of view from the perspective of a character who would talk and think in such terms. As a writer of fiction, whether student or professional, it is good to remember that rules are meant to be broken if a certain effect is desired. In a formal essay, however, with its need for clarity and persuasion, the rules must be observed. That is, anything goes in fiction as long as it makes sense to the point of view, but when my students write analytical essays, those essays must be grammatically unimpeachable.
You are the father of three college-aged children. As someone who was a self-described “unreflective and dope-addled” hippie at their age, have you found yourself censoring your past; the books your children read; or the words they use?
Boyle: My youngest just graduated from USC. From the time they were conscious I have read aloud to them. As for what they read -- and more importantly, view on the Internet and the TV screen -- that is entirely their own business. None of my three children ever watched TV much, as I do not, but both my boys were -- still are -- addicted to video games. My daughter, Kerrie Kvashay-Boyle, is a published and award-winning writer herself.
What are a few of your favorite and least favorite words?
Boyle: We are said to use something like forty words in our normal discourse--I suppose kill, eat and screw would be at the top of the list--but there are really no words I dislike or words that I am over-fond of. One could, of course, find such words in my work and make a case for the fact that I must be enamored of them, else why so often use them. How about micturition, for example? Or circumvallate? Or steatopygia? (If you really want a wordsmith, look to the late Norman Mailer, who quite clearly must have been on steroids.)
People either love or hate the way you ended “The Tortilla Curtain.” Please explain why you chose the ending you did.
Boyle: What a surprising question. Everyone I've ever met has been utterly enchanted with the depth and profundity of that ending. If you look at some of my historical works—“The Women,” most recently--you will find endings that bring you up to date on all the characters and their fates. But in “Tortilla,” “A Friend of the Earth,” “Drop City,” you get endings that are suggestive, endings that (I hope) draw you back into the work to re-examine the characters and their actions in light of questions the ending may produce.
Bonus question: Do you get placement fees from Diet Coke, Pepsi or Ho-Ho’s for naming their products in your books? Why not just write “a sweet, murky and sometimes refreshing beverage?”
Boyle: Yes, of course. These companies have me on retainer. (But the obvious answer is that the author needs to adduce the real products of the world we inhabit in order to achieve verisimilitude; the trick is in knowing how much is enough so as to avoid overloading the text with such references.)