T.C. Boyle Interview: Nature and the Novelist
Miller-McCune Q&A: In "When the Killing's Done," novelist T.C. Boyle once again examines humankind’s conflicted attitudes toward the natural world.
Mankind's relationship with the natural world has dominated the news of late, with terrifying images of tsunami damage and well-founded fears of nuclear contamination. But even during periods when we don’t seem quite so puny or powerless, the topic captivates T.C. Boyle.
The much-honored and best-selling novelist often writes about people who take a hubristic attitude toward nature, assuming they can either tame it or bend it to meet their own needs. The natural world tends to elbow its way past their arrogance, or idealism, or combination of the two, vividly revealing the scope of their self-deception.
While Boyle mines their quests for humor, he also gives these characters a certain nobility: Even if their actions are ineffectual or counterproductive, they are driven by a desire to do good. Such is very much the case with the dual protagonists of his new novel When the Killing's Done.
Like many of Boyle's critically acclaimed works, this one is based on a real-life controversy: The effort by the National Park Service in the mid-2000s to return the Channel Islands, off the coast of Central California, to their natural state. This meant exterminating the invasive rats and feral pigs that were introduced by man a century or more ago and attempting to save the native dwarf fox.
Alma Boyd Takesue and Dave LaJoy — both fictional characters — are the antagonists; the book shifts back and forth between their points of view. She's the National Park Service biologist in charge of the eradication effort; he's an animal rights activist who is determined to stop what he perceives as mass murder. As we learn, both have family connections to the islands that go back generations.
Boyle discussed the book and his own relationship with nature in an interview at his Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home outside Santa Barbara, Calif.
Miller-McCune: When the Killing's Done opens with an epigraph from the Book of Genesis: “And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
It seems to me you have hit on a very basic disagreement we’ve struggled with since at least since the time of Darwin: That is, a scientific view of life versus a sacred view of life. If you believe life is a sacred gift given to us by a deity or some other supernatural force, than it has to be protected at all costs. But if it’s the natural product of evolution, that’s something else entirely.
T.C. Boyle: The question posed by that epigraph from the Bible is really: Who gives us dominion over the other animals? Is it some sacred or divine thing? Or is it really just a free-for-all — chaos and anarchy, and we just happen to be the smartest animals?
I love to think of the grizzly bear in this respect. The grizzly bear is much faster than the fastest human being. It runs as fast as a horse and has superb eyesight and the best smell of any animal — better than a bloodhound. It is the king of everything. How could it ever conceive that some tiny little ape, that it could eat six of for lunch, would emerge from Africa and dominate it so much that we’ve destroyed the entire environment?
M-M: Anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that’s simply the situation we find ourselves in: We are forced to destroy life in order to sustain our own existence. But we hesitate to acknowledge that, because we don’t like its implications.
TCB: We can intellectualize it and say, “I won’t kill anything.” But we are apes. We are hunter-gatherers, and we are killers. We do kill and eat other animals. But to what degree do you take that? As Dave points out, pigs are as smart as a 3-year-old child. We have them in factories full of stink and ammonia where they can’t turn around or see daylight their entire lives. It’s like some weird Auschwitz or science fiction movie.
There are many ironies here. Alma and Dave believe in many of the same things. They’re both vegetarians. They believe in preserving wildlife and the environment. But they disagree on this essential question. Dave believes all life is sacred.
Alma agrees, but she believes in making exceptions for practical considerations, such as killing pigs and rats to save indigenous species that are unique to this island, and are on the verge of extinction. You must sacrifice (some life for this greater good). That’s what this debate is about. This brings it down to its essential elements, in a very primitive place.
M-M: Do you feel an internal tug between the scientific and spiritual points of view?
TCB: Of course. That’s why I’m writing about it. That’s all I write about. When you’re writing about the environment, and our place in it as animals, you’re asking questions that go beyond either religion or science, both of which are a kind of voodoo. Neither really gives you the answers that you want in any definitive way.
Many people in our society — and I’m one of them — have given up religion for science, because science is demonstrable. I can drop that grape on the ground and know damn well it will adhere to the law of gravity. But we don’t know what we’re doing here, and it’s utterly depressing.
If there’s no God, and science can’t tell you what it’s all about, what do you do? I write books. And I find myself in nature — in our backcountry here, or more often in the Sierras. I rent a house, work there and go out in the woods, by myself.
M-M: Is that a scientific or spiritual journey?
TCB: I think it’s more of a spiritual journey. What I’m doing is putting the science out of my head, and trying not to notice the trees being killed by the drought, or remembering the scientific names of things. I’m just observing, the way you do when you’re a child. Like Wordsworth would try to recapture, in some of his later poems, going back to your childhood in nature, when you were just a creature in a place of wonder.
M-M: And you can recapture that?
TCB: I try! You’re shutting down the conscious mind to a degree when you’re exploring. I might go to the same waterfall several days in a row, but each day, it’s different. The light is different, the creatures you see are different, what you observe is different, your feelings are different. It’s very important to me to be in a wild place alone occasionally. I feel bad for the people in the world … who don’t know any nature whatsoever. It’s alien to be separated from nature, because we’re animals. My favorite [place to commune with nature] is up in the sequoias. I’ve been up there every season of the year. I look forward to going back real soon. Sometimes my wife or kids will go with me into the woods, but mainly it’s just me.
M-M: Sounds good unless you fall into a crevice, like the guy in 127 Hours.
TCB: The kind of crevice he’s in is very reminiscent of some of the places on Santa Cruz Island. We’ll walk through water-run canyons, which are 30 or 40 feet deep and narrow — you can barely get your shoulders through. They’re dug out in winter when the rains come. It’s extraordinary.
M-M: You took many trips to the islands as you were researching this book. Were you intent on getting the science right?
TCB: Yes. Facts are important to me. If you read this book, you’ll learn a lot about the Channel Islands. I thought if I was going to write anything convincing about it, I felt I ought to put my feet on the ground out there. My hope was I could meet some biologists and talk to them about what was going on. That hope was rewarded many times over.
M-M: I read you were inspired to write the book by a headline in the Santa Barbara News-Press, “Eagles Arrive as Pigs are Killed.”
TCB: It’s on my refrigerator door at this moment. I got turned on to [the Channel Islands controversy] by the stories in the News-Press, the Ventura paper and the L.A. Times. Also, I [have socialized with] a lot of guys who grew up here. When I was a kid in New York, driving around on dark streets, they were out on the islands on their boats with their girlfriends, smoking pot and having a good old time. They told me lots of stories, which got me excited to go out there.
M-M: Did any of them make it into the book?
TCB: All the characters are purely invented. I didn’t want anybody recognizable, whom I knew, to be in this book. It’s a point-of-view book — Alma’s and Dave’s points of view.
M-M: So you started with the conflict, and then created characters who embodied aspects of that conflict?
TCB: [Laying it out that way is] too theoretical. You look at a book like this, or one of my short stories, and it looks like there’s seamless construction. Everything fits, as if there was some great plan behind it. There is, but the plan isn’t evident to me until it happens. It’s the same sort of thing as writing a term paper. You absorb a lot of material, and while doing that, you have some ideas of what it might be or how it might be structured. And then you go. There’s such a magic to fiction. I never know what it’s going to be.
I was very happy where this one ended, in an elegiac way, from the animals’ point of view. We hadn’t seen them alone, without people. I don’t want to sound too mystical about it, but you follow a thread, and somehow, unconsciously, you’re working on structure. That’s why it was so much fun to write about Frank Lloyd Wright (in the 2009 novel The Women). He starts the way I do. He thinks about something. He then sees something, which he converts into a drawing. I convert it into words. [At that point he creates] a plan, which he may change as he goes along. If I have such a plan, like a blueprint, it’s not apparent. It’s a deep, unconscious thing that reveals itself as it goes along.
M-M: Which is very different from writing something with the idea that “here’s a message I need to convey.”
TCB: What I’m enjoying about the reception of the book is how some reviewers do take sides. Some side with Dave, some side with Alma. They’ll make a case for how the author is pushing for one side or the other. I’m not going to choose a side between these two positions. Each character has a good point.
M-M: That said, you do make it clear that tampering with the natural environment is a dangerous game.
TCB: I think it’s pretty apparent to everyone … that we are suffering from catastrophic storms because of global warming. It’s just going to get worse. You’ll have more refugees and more gangs and more fights for resources. We’re a very clever species, but we’re animals, and we’re subject to all of the laws that all other animals are subject to, and our day of reckoning is coming. I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but what else can I do?
I don’t want to be too depressing here. I take great joy in writing, in creating art, in being alive, in my friends and family and everything else. But when you look a little deeper, we’re on a shaky foundation.
M-M: Is writing these books…
TCB: Cathartic? Yes. It’s also a way to explore these issues and to try to neutralize the numbing depression and nihilism you would get if you didn’t have an outlet.
M-M: Do you hope to have that effect on readers?
TCB: I don’t hope for anything in readers except they know how to read.
M-M: So, you’re not trying to get people to change their lifestyles or otherwise take action.
TCB: That’s not my job, as I see it. I’m not an activist in any way. With certain exceptions, I don’t think politics and art mix very well.
My aim is to explore something for myself and create a work of art to open that up to other people. I’m trying to make good art, which is entertaining and compelling and written in a way that is beautiful.