Author Talk: September 21, 2012
T. C. Boyle’s latest novel, SAN MIGUEL, revolves around the stories of two women --- one in the 1880s and the other in the 1930s --- who inhabited the beautiful and isolated San Miguel Island off the coast of California. In this interview, Boyle talks about the history of the island, the art of writing historical fiction, and his upcoming collection of short stories.
Question: SAN MIGUEL is based on the experiences of two families that once inhabited the island. What is it about their stories, and not those of the island’s other homesteaders, that inspired you to write about them? Did you ever meet Elizabeth Lester or her daughters?
T.C. Boyle: These two stories, as revealed in diaries and memoirs, spoke most passionately to me, as opposed to the stories of earlier and interim homesteaders. I was drawn to the odd correspondences between Marantha’s and Elise’s stories, to how similar they were and how tragic ultimately. Sadly, Elise had died (in 1981) before I had an opportunity to meet her. Her memoir, THE LEGENDARY KING OF SAN MIGUEL, published in Santa Barbara in 1974, provided me with the details of her story; it’s a beautiful book. Betsy’s memoir is equally graceful and informative, though, of course, she was a very young girl when her father died and the family left San Miguel Island. I have had the privilege of meeting her during the annual Feast of the Holy Cross celebrations on Santa Cruz Island, the island that provides the setting of my previous novel WHEN THE KILLING’S DONE.
Q: Was there a real Edith Waters who escaped from the island to become an actress? Was there a real Jimmie who lived long enough to help both the Waterses and the Lesters?
TCB: Edith’s story is true to fact and is every bit as compelling as Marantha’s, but I chose to tell its conclusion in brief because it takes us off the island. As for Jimmie, he appears as a real–life personage in Marantha Waters’ diary, published by the Santa Cruz Island Foundation in A STEP BACK IN TIME:Unpublished Channel Island Diaries (1990). I have created a character and background for him and allowed him to stay on the island so as to provide a bridge between the stories of the Waters and Lester families. In fact, I believe his tenure ended with that of Captain Waters.
Q: As a novelist, how do you decide where to supplement the facts with fiction?
TCB: When I am dealing with historical material, as I have in so many of my novels, such as THE WOMEN, THE INNER CIRCLE and RIVEN ROCK, I try to stay as close to actual events as I can, simply because I find them so fascinating. My job is to dramatize these events, to try to understand and represent them from the points of view of the characters. History gives us the facts and figures; a novel gives us the human equation.
Q: Why did you choose to write about San Miguel through the eyes of the women who lived there? Is the novel ultimately a feminist critique of Emerson’s concept of self–reliance?
TCB: Initially, I thought that the novel would rotate between the points of view of the women and men both, which would allow me to present what Captain Waters and Herbie Lester were thinking. But as I got into the project and as I began with those harrowing chapters of Marantha’s arrival on the island, I realized that the book would have more power and unity if it was told entirely from the point of view of the female characters. As for Emerson, he and Thoreau are never far from my thoughts. I see SAN MIGUEL as a continuation of my themes of searching for a place in nature and exploring the American utopian ideal.
Q: Even today, the island is part of a national park with no year–round residents and is remote and difficult to access. Have you visited the island yourself? How long do you think you could handle the isolation?
TCB: Yes, I have visited the island and had the privilege of tramping its hills and dunes in the company of Marla Daily, the historian, and the park ranger who is the only resident of the island. As for isolation: I seek it in the Sierra Nevada, where I spent a good deal of my time, often alone, but close to the company of others. I wouldn’t want to be king of my own island at this juncture in my life --- the buzz of society is too attractive --- but I certainly have the energy and desire to have tried to make a go of it in Marantha’s day.
Q: You’re originally from Peekskill, New York, but you’ve been a longtime resident of Southern California. How does being an East Coast transplant affect your perceptions of your characters’ lives on San Miguel?
TCB: As I have said in previous interviews, this transplantation of my own skinny body and fevered mind from one coast to the other has been endlessly stimulating to me. I will always see the West Coast --- its environment, its attitudes and people (cf. THE TORTILLACURTAIN) --- in the way of a fish out of water. It’s the Wild West out here, folks, and you’d better believe it. As for the trials of the Waters and Lester families, I see them as similar to those of the hippie characters of DROPCITY (2003), who tried to live off the land in Alaska, our final frontier.
Q: At one point, Elise drinks Postum, a coffee substitute created by C. W. Post, and thinks that it has “a taste nobody could like, except maybe C. W. Post himself when he was alive” (p. 276). Your novel THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE was about John Harvey Kellogg and his rival, C. W. Post. After twenty–two novels and collections of short stories, do you see your fictional world coming full circle?
TCB: Again, one of the joys of being a fictioneer is to see how your themes and characters and beliefs grow and develop and echo from one book or story to the next. And yes, I love to plant references to previous works in my books --- for example, the mention of the container ship, the Tokachi–maru, in both EAST IS EAST and WHEN THE KILLING’S DONE.
Q: There seem to be two T.C. Boyles: the brawny prose stylist who tackles the post-apocalyptic present and the more traditional novelist who revisits the past with a combination of irony and sensitivity. Do you consciously decide to channel one or the other?
TCB: To my mind, a story will find its own mode of telling, and so if you examine all my work from the beginning, you will find just about every sort of storytelling there. I like to push and stretch myself and attempt to do things I haven’t done before; in this case, to create an extended narrative entirely from the point of view of the female characters, sans the postmodern touches you might find in some of my other historical settings.
Q: How, if at all, has the way you write changed over the years?
TCB: I still seek the joy of immersion in a story, the very same joy the reader experiences on the other end (and I am an avid reader). Each day I try to enter another world and stay there until my mind gets fuzzy and I have to quit work till the next day. In the interim, whether I’m sitting miles out in the Sierras with a book, doing yard work, cooking dinner or pouring a glass of wine, the artistic questions and choices of the story or novel stay with me until I can sit down again at the computer the following morning and move forward.
Q: What are you working on now? Are there any other stories from history that you’d like to revisit?
TCB: I have just finished the fourteen stories for a new volume of short fiction called A DEATHINKITCHAWANK after the title story, which appeared in The New Yorker in 2010. This book will be folded into the second volume of my collected stories, T.C. BOYLESTORIES II, which will be published by Viking next fall, after which, the following fall (2014), Penguin will publish a boxed set of both volumes in paperback. At the moment, I am catching my breath and beginning research for the next novel, which will likely have a contemporary setting.