Talking about Mountain Lions at TC Boyle's House

LB + I were in Santa Barbara last weekend.  I mentioned this to Tom earlier in the week + he told me to stop on by his house.  I believe the exact words he used were "pop by for a bit."  LB was fidgeting during the whole car ride, at the Vietnamese restaurant where we ate lunch with the unfriendly waitress, driving up the hill to Tom's place.  We parked on the street, kicked open a stuck gate door + saw this:

Then we walked down the pathway where Tom eventually greeted us at a side entrance. He gave us the grand tour of his amazing Frank Lloyd Wright house (which was the partial inspiration of The Women, a fact he pointed to us as we were talking around, taking in the pouring sunlight inside his house). I knelt on the floor and looked through Tom's glass bookshelves, filled in neat, long rows of his books translated into 12 different languages. Man, I thought, this dude is the straight dope. He's the real thing.

After introducing us to his 17-year old cat, who seemed shocked that I'd interrupt her during her catnap to pet her, we met Tom's wife (Karen) + then walked into the backyard and to an adjacent yard where Tom's daughter lives (I guess). Then we drank red wine with Tom, Karen, one of Tom's gregarious millionaire neighbors whose teeth were eerily perfect + his Siberian wife, Tom + Karen's daughter's boyfriend, Spence, + this dude who looked vaguely familiar, who was housesitting for Tom's daughter + I believe was also in the process of making Anne-Marie's book trailer for Two Dollar Radio Press. But I dunno, maybe I totally fucked up that whole who's who. LB + I politely passed on the stinky French cheese (because we're both vegan), but did nibble on potato chips. And man, some of the things we talked about were absolutely strange. A few highlights:

1. Speaking in French with The Man with Perfect Teeth (ah, combien tu me manques, la langue française!)

2. Getting in a long, heated, but largely one-sided argument with Tom's wife about what a total fascist Steve Jobs was + how much better Bill Gates was. The truth is, I love me some Apple products, but I abhor Apple labor practices in China in much the same way I abhor the manufacturing of virtually all tech stuff in Asia. I also love/admire the hundreds of millions of dollars that Bill Gates has donated to charities, as well as his immunization project since his retirement from Microsoft. But, as I pointed out, Bill Gates was as much of a fascist when he was Microsoft's CEO as Steve Jobs was with Apple (both of them stealing shit from the little guy), so it's a wash. This is where I thought we were gonna come to a compromise, but then Karen started ranting about the way Steve Jobs disowned his own daughter. This is when Tom came to my rescue + said that the topic we were talking passionately about was one of his wife's little obsessions.
--It's not an obsession, she snapped.
I laughed, sipped my wine, and realized I kinda liked Karen's spunk. She's got chutzpah, man

3. Getting in a prolonged conversation with Tom + the neighbor with the perfect teeth about--of all things--brown bears, moose and mountain lions. Tom said he's seen several mountain lions during his strolls around his neighborhood + had almost run into several bears too. I was thinking: Man, I have absolutely nothing to contribute to this conversation

4. Talking with Spence about living in Argentina for a year + learning the art of voseo + rioplaténse Spanish

5. Hearing Tom call my wife LB (which is my nickname for her that I claim is her actual name whenever I introduce her to people. Actually, it stands for "little bug," but Tom said he liked LB, in part, because it's like "TC")

6. Getting in a nice, long conversation with Tom about The Ninjas of My Greater Self, which he's probably going to read this summer since he's my thesis director. I told him that after not hearing from Sandra Dijkstra for a year, I'd sent her office a new query letter for NINJAS + got a gracious response soon after explaining that they never got my first query letter (which I totally believe) but that they'd love to read NINJAS. Tom seemed pleased about this. You have to remember: He ran into Sandra Dijkstra a year ago, who'd asked him if he had any writers to recommend + he told her about me + she'd shown interest in reading my work, so Tom had written a personal letter on my behalf right in front of me in his office. Then, I'd sent the agency a query letter for BLANK + nothing. Now, we know why. Obviously, this new development is much promising for me. FYI, I'm revising NINJAS for like the 100th time + I'm planning on sending Sandra Dijkstra my novel sometime in the next week. I also learned through talking to Tom with my stained, red lips + tannin in my teeth, that Sandra Dijkstra represents another one of Tom's former students, Chris Abani, author of Graceland, among other novels, so maybe, just maybe there's even a little precedent on my side. Either way, it's still an opportunity I didn't have before I was one of his students, so I'm extremely honored to have this chance.

7. Right before LB + I left, I told Tom about my vision: I want to become a spokesperson for a cultural revolution that embraces technological innovation (like my fucking dope new ipad I use to read the Huffington Post + Le Monde) but also consciously embraces old skool media, like record players + most importantly for me, hardcover books! He liked it. T

8. I confessed to Tom that I'm a writer because it's the only thing I'm actually great at. Sure, I can play piano + write electronic music pretty well. I'm proficient with foreign languages. I love understanding people + relationships, I'm intuitive + a passionate lover. I'm also a pretty good cook + my sense of style is respectable. But, writing is the thing I'm really fucking good at, the one thing where I feel I can make an important + unique contribution to this world. I may not be able to figure out a viable two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, but I can write the fuck out of a novel.

9. Tom told me I'm like him because my writing has a lot of energy + I love giving readings, I love the performative, interactive element of being an author as much as I love the writing itself, which is important. That's when I realized that I'm just a little bit like Tom (or an early version of him), which is probably one of the reasons I applied to SC in the first place, to work with such a literary legend.

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.