Book photograph by Rick Szczechowski
Don’t worry , T. Coraghessan Boyle is not dead, though he has published a collection of his short stories — a portentous sign, he would have you believe.
“Most writers come out with their collected stories about two weeks before they die,” the USC English professor points out. “It wasn’t my idea. My editor felt that with the warm response to my last three novels, there might be a new audience that didn’t know what I’ve accomplished with the short story.”
Strike while the iron is hot, the saying goes; and Boyle’s iron is sizzling. His last three novels — Riven Rock, The Tortilla Curtain and The Road to Wellville — all enjoyed wide success. But the goateed court jester of American fiction is still very much at home in the humble short-story genre, as his recently released collection, T.C. Boyle Stories, richly illustrates. In these 68 tales, Boyle bounces easily from psychological naturalism to giddy slapstick, dreamy surrealism to biting satire — sometimes within the space of a single story.
Critics have, as usual, been uninhibited in their praise of Boyle’s writing. The New York Times remarked on the book’s “overall inventiveness, flash and just plain entertainment value.” The Village Voice said Boyle “writes like a kid at a carnival, tossing off firecrackers of language that explode like Roman candles in our minds.”
Boyle inverts the old maxim about writing what you know: “I say, write what you don’t know.” The famous Boyle texture and detail doesn’t come from personal experience, but from painstaking research.
“For me, fiction is an exercise of the imagination,” he says. “It’s something you make up. The pleasure of making up stories comes when the reader believes you.”
Lately, Boyle’s imagination has been working up a sweat on his next novel, a yarn about the environmental movement that extends into the year 2025.
“The weather is real bad because of global warming,” Boyle says. The new book will be a departure from his recent work, he tantalizes. “I’d like my readers to know that this one is absolutely off the wall, absolutely crazy.”
Boyle has been teaching at USC almost as long as he’s been publishing stories. When he joined the English department’s faculty in 1978, he was the Creative Writing Program. Five story collections and seven novels later, he still considers teaching writing an exalted calling. “You’re really serving a higher purpose in educating people about good fiction and how interesting, vital and hip it is,” he says. “Maybe somebody will read a book today instead of watching the 18th rerun of ‘Happy Days.’”
As his career has blossomed, the twice-a-week trips to campus from his home in Montecito, Calif., have become more taxing. “Still, I don’t foresee retiring [from USC]” Boyle says. “I really want to continue teaching into the indefinite future. I love what I’m doing, and I’m proud of the program.”
And don’t be surprised if Boyle puts out another collection of short stories before his race is run. “I just turned 50, and I might have a few good years left in me,” he says. “Maybe there’ll be a second volume in 20 or 25 years.”