T.C. Boyle takes on the world

“The Terranauts” by T.C. Boyle
“The Terranauts” by T.C. Boyle

Novelist-short story writer T.C. Boyle is 67 now, having made himself up as he’s gone along.

“I don’t start any book or story with the idea that puts forth something,” he recently said of his art, though he may as well have been talking about the arc of his life. “I discover something, set it in motion and follow it.”

An early marker of the personal style he has displayed over the decades showed itself when he was only 17. Thomas John Boyle dropped the middle name “John” and added “Coraghessan” (pronounced “kuh-ragg-issun”) in a show of youthful style and a tip of the hat to his Irish ancestry.

Years later he would play in a rock band, dabble with heroin, teach high school and graduate with a master’s degree in fine arts from the writers’ workshop program at the University of Iowa, where his professors included John Irving and John Cheever.

These days, he and his wife of 42 years, Karen Kvashay (whom he fondly calls “Frau Boyle”), live near Santa Barbara, have three adult children and escape the turmoil of daily life by retreating to a second home in Sequoia National Park. Often, he goes there alone. Tellingly, he once told an interviewer, “The only way I can think straight is to make up stories.”

Inside I’m a burned-out husk of hopeless despair who would have made Samuel Beckett seem like a song-and-dance man

T.C. Boyle

If most best-selling novelists personify the sounds of Easy Listening music, Boyle is darkly comic rock ’n’ roll. His fans love his theatrical demeanor (the goatee and ducktailed hair are signatures) and anarchic fashion sense (a black tee worn under a leather jacket is a favorite outfit, as are vividly colored shirts and a black beret). “I enjoy being flamboyant,” he said. As a reminder that fame and glory are fleeting, he keeps a loaded revolver on his writing desk as a “memento mori” – a saying from ancient Rome meaning “remember that you have to die.”

“Everyone sees me as very genial, and I am …” he said. “On the other hand, inside I’m a burned-out husk of hopeless despair who would have made Samuel Beckett seem like a song-and-dance man. What sustains me are conversations, art and nature, and a lot of time outside by myself in the Sierra. That’s where I feel connected.

“I’m pretty hard core,” Boyle continued. “I just want to do one thing in life, and that is create art without interference.”

A lesser talent would not be able to pull off such an aura of eccentricity, but panache is what Boyle does. He founded the prestigious creative writing program at the University of Southern California 37 years ago and is internationally heralded as one of 21st-century literature’s most original and skilled artists.

Through 16 novels and a dozen collections of short stories (translated into 26 languages), he has won honors that include PEN/Faulkner and PEN/Malamud awards, a Henry David Thoreau Prize and France’s Prix Médicis Étranger. He was a National Book Award finalist for his 2003 novel “Drop City.” He’s a regular contributor to mainstream and literary magazines. The movie version of his 1993 novel “The Road to Wellville” starred Anthony Hopkins, Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick.

“Tom’s a one-off, that’s for sure,” said his editor, Daniel Halpern, president and publisher of Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins. “What he turns in is always very close to the finished book, so he doesn’t require a lot of editing. We give it a close read and if there is anything that stands out, we mention it. If he agrees, he changes it. If he doesn’t agree, he does not change it.”

One of Boyle’s longtime friends is Christian Kiefer, a creative writing teacher at American River College and author of two novels, “The Infinite Tides” and “The Animals.” Boyle was his mentor when Kiefer attended the USC advanced fiction workshop in 1991.

“There’s Tom’s public side, which is very entertaining, but he is an extremely intelligent, very thoughtful man,” Kiefer said. “What I’ve always remembered about his class is he didn’t lecture to us about setting or character or theme. … He modeled the writing life, which is to say, ‘Finish the work, put it in the mail, get it out in the world.’ 

Inside the biosphere

Boyle’s new novel is “The Terranauts,” the Sacramento Bee Book Club’s choice for October (Ecco, $27, 528 pages; on sale Oct. 25). The story follows the “interconnected lives” of four men and four women, volunteers who have been chosen to live for two years inside a 3-acre biosphere in the Arizona desert.

The novel is largely based on Biosphere 2, the controversial “artificial ecological system experiment” in the early 1990s. The book is being called “a hilarious and incisive deep-dive into human behavior in an epic story of science, society, sex and survival.”

“It’s nice to be discovered for my new book,” Boyle said jokingly on the phone. “The one great thing about being an artist is there’s never enough. … That’s the beauty of what I do – I’m always on to something else. One of the exciting things about having many books and getting lots of attention is going on tour. I estimate over the past 20 years I’ve been on tour about two months out of every year.”

When the Biosphere 2 experiment was active from 1991 to 1993 (and again for six months in 1994), “I was very intrigued and said, ‘It’s wonderful, I’m going to write about this,’ ” Boyle said. “But then I became disenchanted – as did most of the public – when they broke closure within 12 days because one of the biospherians cut off the tip of her finger and had to go to the hospital. Only for five hours, but nonetheless. (Later) the project went defunct because the billionaire who funded it and the genius who created it had a big falling out. It wasn’t really an experiment, but more like, ‘Let’s throw a bunch of things together and see what happens.’ That’s valuable, but not real science.”

“The Terranauts” reflects Boyle’s description of himself as “an environmentalist obsessed with us as animals and what it means to be here on this planet with no explanation. What happens in the book is about interpersonal relations of living closely together in a small group, something I’ve always been interested in. How would that work out?

“I had a lot of fun with it, but I didn’t realize how sexy it was going to be,” he said. “Four men and four women locked in for two years – what are they going to do?”

Ultimately, human emotions eclipse the project’s “noble experiment” premise and things begin to fall apart. What does that portend for the possible colonization of the moon or Mars, where pioneers would live in similar facilities?

“It says that with global warming, the massive dislocation of peoples, tribal warfare and battles over resources, we are doomed as individuals and as a species,” Boyle replied. “Evolution created what we have here, and it’s pretty hard to create another self-replicating ecosphere. Better to pay more attention to our own biosphere and focus on preserving the conditions that have allowed our species to thrive.”

Boyle went on: “The more I study our mechanistic universe, and the more rational I am, the more I realize I should be irrational, and that science and religion are equally voodoo and we are doomed like all the other animals to never know anything. The good news about the environment is that in 3 1/2 billion years the sun will swell to a red giant and everything here will be like a charcoal briquette.”

Next: Short stories

Boyle recently turned in his next book to his publisher, a short-story collection titled “The Relive Box.” One of its stories, “Are We Not Men?” will appear in the New Yorker to coincides with the book’s 2017 release.

“(In ‘Men’) I’m projecting slightly into the future (with gene technology), which is going to destroy humankind,” Boyle said. “I’ve created two new species. One is the crow-parrot, two troublesome birds edited together. It cries out “Big Mac! Big Mac!” at dinnertime. The second is the dog-cat. You get the best of both species – something that runs around and barks and can climb trees. I’m having too much fun with this, but it’s also frightening.”

Looking back on a life journey guided by his own signposts, and reflecting on his current status as a literary rock star, what is the coolest thing about being T.C. Boyle?

Answering took some context: “My publisher said I had to have a Twitter account,” he began. “I didn’t know anything about it and still don’t. So what I do is a shtick on (the notion of) ‘Here is your entré to the intimate life of a world-famous literary star.’ 

Boyle’s Twitter posts are indicative of his world view of the absurd. One recurring tweet is a photo of the egg (still in the shell) he will have for breakfast that particular morning, with the text “Egg.” In another shot, he places an egg atop a vase, with the caption, “The egg, in formal pose.” Other favorites are photos of his dog, a sprouting potato, the early-morning view of a street near his house and a decaying rat.

He goes on: “The first selfie I ever took was accidental. I was showing the Tweetsters the black muck I was cleaning out of my fish pond to put on the yard plants. I leaned over and photographed the muck for them and noticed my face was reflected in the muck, so what I had done was take a muck selfie for them. So that’s the coolest thing about being me – the muck selfie.”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Bee Book Club

T.C. Boyle will appear for the The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.

Tickets to the event are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $30 for general admission. Buy tickets online at Please bring your tickets to the event for entrance. Doors open at 4:15 p.m. Parking is free.

All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education (NIE) program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.

T.C. Boyle will give a presentation followed by a question-answer session and book-signing. Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “The Terranauts” for 30 percent off the list price (Ecco, $27, 528 pages; on sale Oct. 25).

“The Terranauts” also will be offered for a 30 percent discount through Oct. 29 at these bookstores: in the Sacramento area at the four Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader and UC Davis Bookstore; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.

Information: 916-321-1128,