Small talk: TC Boyle

It was TC Boyle’s short story about his experiences with heroin, published in the North American Review in 1972, that led to a place at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Five years later, he left with a doctorate in 19th-century British literature from the University of Iowa. He has since published 13 novels and nine collections of short stories, including World’s End (1987), The Tortilla Curtain (1995) and The Women (2009). Born in 1948 in Peekskill, New York State, Boyle now lives in California where he is professor of English at the University of Southern California. He is married with three children.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

The morning newspaper – prior to a bout of weeping.

What books are currently on your bedside table?

The new JD Salinger biography. I love literary biographies. And Colm Toíbín’s new short story collection, The Empty Family.

What book changed your life?

The book that got me going as a writer was Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants. It fractures stories and tries to find out what storytelling is.

Where do you write best?

In the Sierra Nevada mountains. I rent a place in the wilderness there, where I like to begin and finish my books. I like to feel the pulse of something bigger than myself. But most of the time I write in my office at home.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?

For The Inner Circle there were 418 pages of pure sex. So I took my wife to Bloomington [home of Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction] and we had sex.

When do you feel most free?

At cocktail hour. The day is done, it’s time to cook dinner and there’s no more duty.

What do you snack on while you write?

Nothing, just air. I will always have stuffed myself beforehand though. I have the metabolism of a weasel.

Which literary character most resembles you?

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, a Rudyard Kipling story about a mongoose who saves a family in India from evil cobras.

When were you happiest?

At the age of six months. I was very close to my mum, I was warm, I didn’t pay taxes and I could crap into my pants.

How do you relax?

I like walking alone in the woods.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?

I’ve been an orphan for 30 years. But my first editor at Viking told me: “Now remember, be humble.” I wish I’d been humbler.

What books do you wish you’d written?

Many. Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro or JM Coetzee’s Disgrace or Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning I think I have written them.

How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?

Being a creative writer I could write a helluva good begging sign for sitting out on the corner ...

T.C. Boyle’s latest novel is ‘When the Killing’s Done’ (Bloomsbury)

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