The Environment of the Soul
Author T.C. Boyle on “The Harder They Come,” an exploration of gun violence in America
T.C. Boyle begins his novel “The Harder They Come,” with an epigraph from D.H. Lawrence: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
The novel that follows is a meditation on gun violence in America in which Boyle inhabits three minds damaged by violence: a 70-year-old who shoots a robber in Central America, his schizophrenic son Adam, and Adam’s girlfriend Sarah, a member of a rightwing anarchist movement.
A common thread throughout Boyle’s books is the tendency to ask “Why?” — in this case, what it is about the American soul that so often intertwines notions of personal liberty and anti-authoritarianism with the capacity for violence.
Boyle speaks of writing like it’s a drug — something he’s driven to with an insatiable urge, but in this case a tool for exploring the complexities of the individual and society. His investigations are based in eternal questions, but he doesn’t claim to have the answers. He views himself as an environmental writer, a chronicler of nature and man’s place in it.
A writer in residence at the University of Southern California, Boyle received the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes in March.
— Gabrielle Flam
How has living and teaching in has Los Angeles influenced your writing?
I think because I grew up in New York and came to L.A. with an Easterner’s eye and an Easterner’s prejudices, I’ll always be a little bit of a fish out of water. So California in general and L.A. in particular has been kind of fascinating for me to view in a way that maybe natives would not.
For the last 22 years I’ve lived in Santa Barbara, so I made my escape. But for the first 15 years on the West Coast, I lived in L.A. I wouldn’t have been able to write “The Tortilla Curtain” if I had not been living in L.A. at the time. California has formed a lot of the backdrops for my books and has given a lot of thematic elements to my books, too. So, how has it been? Pretty good!
What compelled you to write your new novel?
I regard myself as an artist. That’s what I am. I make art. That’s all I want to do. I just want to write fiction because it’s the way that I can try to think deeply about things. I can only do that in that moment of sort of unconscious liberation when I’m writing something.
So I often write about social issues, like illegal immigration from the south [in “The Tortilla Curtain”]. How we feel about it? I don’t know. I don’t have an agenda. I just want to find something out. In this case, I was wondering about this problem of gun violence — in particular, how the individual shooter is almost always a white guy who is mentally unbalanced and, of course, because of the NRA, liberally supplied with weapons. It’s very sad that this can happen, but in the past such people might simply kill themselves. Now they want to take as many of us with them as they can. And I wonder: What is this hatred for society? And so the whole book spins out as a kind of meditation on American gun violence, taking us back to John Colter, for instance, and the pioneers, but also to this kind of anti-authoritarianism that you see in the character of Sarah.
I mean, I certainly have an anti-authoritarian streak. No one tells me what to do. Don’t tread on me, you know. I’m an American; I have my rights. We’re taught from elementary school to be skeptical of authority and not to march in lockstep with everybody else and to think independently. Well, where does that spin off into Sarah withdrawing from society, or Adam actually attacking society? And where do we agree to have a society?
So all of that was in the mix, and it just kind of evolves day by day as I write. I don’t have an outline. I don’t have a statement to make. I did have the title and I did have the epigraph from D.H. Lawrence as kinds of signposts. In fact, the epigraph is a kind of proposition: Is it true? I’m writing the book to find out.
Why do you think you’re so interested in exploring people’s violent natures?
This is what I’m interested in at the moment, but I can see how it’s allied with my previous books. Essentially, though, I’m an environmental writer. I’m writing about nature and our place in it. What we’ve done to nature, or how we are animals who try to suppress the animal side of ourselves and pretend we’re not animals, that we’re purely intellectual and spiritual. I suppose, in retrospect, I choose my subjects because this is what fascinates me.
I keep revolving these essentially existential themes: Why are we here? What is the secret of the universe? Is Darwin correct? How does it all come together? Specifically in this book, we have people acting out against society and trying to find refuge in nature.
How do create characters and get into their (often dark) psyches?
I think it’s true that characters take on a life of their own. The writing has to be an organic whole. That means the plot, the language, the development of the characters can’t be imposed from outside. It just kind of evolves.
Well, I don’t know how I do it. There is no secret. It’s just a dream that I have every day. I enter into it and feel very blessed when I am, and when I’m not writing I feel absolutely miserable.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
I would be the guy singing in the bar band, which is what I did before. But I think I could have had a very productive and happy life if it weren’t for mathematics, because I would have been very happy being a field biologist. I’m absolutely fascinated by nature and biology, particularly — I don’t know why — by aquatic life.
Go to tcboyle.com and listen to me with The Ventilators singing “I Put a Spell on You,” because that’s where I would have gone if I didn’t start writing. I’d long be dead from drugs and alcohol, but it would have been fun while it lasted.