Man in a Red Suit: Another Chat with TC Boyle

I had to stop by TC Boyle’s office today to pick up a recommendation he wrote for me (actually, he offered to write it before I could ask him) for the Princeton in Ishikawa program I’m applying to this coming summer to study Japanese. It was as good of a pretext as any to chat with him. So, we kicked it for a little while + just talked. He was wearing an Irish beret that made him look like a beat poet.

—Ça va? I asked.
—Ça va. He said.

Here are some of the highlights of our chat:

1. Perhaps the biggest deal for me: I told TCB that I had finally got one of my stories accepted in a literary journal he’s been published in.

—Oh, the Mississippi Review? He asked.
—No, I said, pausing for effect, Fiction.

—Oh, wow. Then you’ve arrived. That’s a great journal.

When TC Boyle tells you you’ve arrived as a fiction writer, you have to take that moment + stuff it down your throat + swallow it whole. It may never come again.

2. One of my favorite lines from Tom this month was the following. He said: We need to get published from time to time to be reminded of our greatness. It helps us through the tough times. Then I said: Well, I think you get reminded a little more than I do. Try all the fucking time, man.

3. For reasons that totally come from my own insecurity (which comes from a fear of obscurity), I sort of love the way that TC Boyle talks about my publishing future like it’s inevitable. It’s really encouraging, I guess. He says things like: Jackson, when you publish a collection of short stories, you’ll start to read reviews where one critic likes these stories but not those stories. And then another critic will hate the same stories the other critic loved and loved the stories that the first critic hated. And you won’t know what to think. Anyway, if he’s right—and statistics suggest TC Boyle knows what he’s talking about when he talks about writing—I will gladly take on that sort of ambivalent critical perception of my own writing. That ambivalence will be a privilege.

4. I told TCB something that is old news in this blog but something I’ve never told him myself. I explained how I’m just sick of the team-playing fiction writers who want to write things that are thematically safe, technically competent and basically inoffensive and apolitical, but that don’t matter in a deeper cultural sense. I’m sick of these writers, many of them with tenure (something I want very badly, as ironic/hypocritical as that is) that become domesticated by academia and department meetings. They’re just a little too comfortable in their day job, they stop suffering, their aspirations + critiques become very bourgeois + very local, many of these people, competent writers with competent novels who have learned to be likeable, all-around good guys + masters of workshop reality.

—Where do you find these guys? Tom asked.
—At AWP, I said.
—I don’t go, he said.
—I guess what I’m saying, I said, is that I want writers to take on big issues and I want them to take huge risks. I want the writing to matter. I want it to last. I don’t want the writers to worry about whether people like them or not. I want writers to write things that have significance, that make a statement about our culture, that provoke discussion.

TCB nodded a little bit. For a second, I think he was feeling me.

5. Tom confessed to me that he was a bit weary (or at least exhausted) of his insane schedule of writing, touring + teaching. I told him that some of us came to USC just to work with him. He said he knows + he likes that his teaching gig forces him out of his Frank Lloyd Wright house. Plus, he enjoys talking with smart people about writing, something he’s passionate about.

6. TCB admitted that he almost never reads reviews of his work, especially negative criticism. He said some critics really can’t stand that he’s having the time of his life writing.

Besides, he said: —Why read the bad stuff when there’s so much positive stuff out there? When you’re TC Boyle, you can say that + get away with it. But for many of us, we don’t get reviews + the bad shit might be the only stuff we can get.

7. After a pause in our conversation, I said:

—Nice NPR interview, referring to his recent interview with Tom Ashbrook.
—Which one? He asked.
That’s when you know you’ve made it, when you have too many NPR interviews to keep track of.
—And you didn't even see me in my red suit, he said.

As it turns out, TC Boyle has been wearing a red suit to his readings on his book tour for The Women. It's not a Frank Lloyd Wright cape, but it'll do I guess.