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"Interview with T.C. Boyle"

Mungo Park
by Mary Heebner


An Irish tough from a Jewish New York 'hood, T.Coraghessan Boyle earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of Iowa after attending the Iowa Writer's Workshop in the mid '70s. He completed Water Music in 1981 and won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction with World's End in 1987. His Road to Wellville, published in 1993, was recently made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins. Boyle lives near Santa Barbara with his wife and three children and is currently working on a historical novel examining turn-of-the-twentieth-century psychiatry, schizophrenia, and twisted love among the megawealthy who settled the upper crust of the place he now calls home.

Mungo Park: Your first novel is based on an obscure Scottish explorer named Mungo Park. How did you learn of him?

T. Coraghessan Boyle: I was doing my Ph.D. in nineteenth-century British literature and was reading John Ruskin, who mentions that Mungo Park was a terrific hero who went to discover the Niger River, but look what he did to his family: he left his wife and kids behind, took off on this adventure and died! So I thought I would examine that. In England, Park's book, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, upon which I based Water Music, is well-known. In America, Mungo was pretty much unheard of until I wrote the book.

MP: Have you been to Scotland?

TCB: Yes, as a ragtag hippie touring Europe on a Eurail pass. I even went to Selkirk, Mungo's home. I was still just pondering the book. Up until then I had only written short stories, and my teacher, John Irving, at the Iowa Writer's Workshop said, " Well, what about it?" So I did it; I wrote 104 little stories, and then I cobbled them into a novel.

MP: Did you travel to Mali, Africa?

TCB: In my imagination.

MP: You name-drop-De Quincey, Napoleon, Wordsworth-we get our bearings, then you zoom in to this ordinary guy named Mungo, on a horse in the middle of the desert.

TCB: I reinvented Mungo to suit my own purposes. I make him into a kind of holy fool, when in fact in real life he was quite amazing-physically and in terms of how indomitable he was. I invented characters like Ned Rise, who is his alter ego, this scamp who accompanies him on the last trip.

MP: Is that the adventure part for you?

TCB: Only I know the line where invention brushes against truth. I research for a few months, then a first line suggests itself, and I follow it. I work day by day and the whole thing accretes, then finally you have a novel. The fun of it is to see if you can make it all come together and discover why you're writing it or what you mean to say.

MP: Mungo is the quintessential optimist, then he turns a corner and becomes totally driven. Are writers as obsessed?

TCB: Great question, I hadn't really thought of it that way. Yes. And I've described writing as an obsessive-compulsive disorder anyway. To write a novel is what it must have been like to explore in the old days or to build a house.

MP: What's the magic?

TCB: The magic is that you start from nothing and discover something.

MP: Is that how you travel? Some people plan everything out, have a strict itinerary....

TCB: No, never! I don't even read books about it, I'm such a schmuck, I just go there. I was in the bar after diving off the barrier reef in Belize and someone says, "Hey, you gotta go to Tikal." "Well, how do you get there?" "Ya take a bus through the mountains." So I did and I saw the ruins of Tikal-an amazing experience.

MP: What happens when you are somewhere and want to communicate but your language skills are at the level of a two-year old?

TCB: Well even if you only have 50 phrases, you can still mix them up enough to make jokes. As long as you can make jokes, you're OK.

MP: What happens if you don't have even 50 phrases?

TCB: You learn them within half an hour or you die!

MP: Do you read the dictionary or at least the thesaurus?

TCB: Not the thesaurus so much as odd words-unusual words which have to do with diseases, exploration, animals of Africa. English has the fattest dictionary because it's borrowed from so many languages. I love to save bizarre words, insert them not so much to show how smart I am but to nudge the reader. If you know what the word is you get an extra joke out of it, and if you don't, you get it from context or just go on. If we have all these words in our arsenal why not use them?

MP: Are we getting dumber?

TCB: Yeah, I guess we are. I think our vocabularies are smaller than they once were. We tend to say things ritualistically.

MP: What kind of voodoo do you do in order to write?

TCB: I like the term voodoo because as people who know me well will realize, every morning I bleed a chicken into a pan, and I put my bare feet in that pan while typing. Once the blood cools it's over for the day.

MP: What about that human oasis, Fatima? Do you have a thing for fat girls?

TCB: Oh, I sure do! Look at me, I'm skin and bones, 20 pounds underweight all my life-I feel like Mungo out there starved on the desert. That's why I write about food all of the time.

MP: An adventurer isn't always a good raconteur...

TCB: Right. There's an advantage in being able to invent it. Typically, when I address a large group, there is at least one or more who has been in the Peace Corps in Africa, was very much a fan of Water Music, and says, "Hey, you got it just right!" Of course I hadn't gone to Africa. I was a student in Iowa City without money to get to Des Moines let alone Africa.

MP: That's a desert of sorts?

TCB: Yeah, that's true, but there's a different kind of vegetation there. I did a lot of research because its also in a period setting, and I needed to know how people talked and what was going on in England and Scotland as well as Africa.

MP: When you were a kid did you invent any languages?

TCB: No, but I invented some of the African languages in this book, and part of the fun was to mix contemporary vernacular with period terminology since the object of the book is to be self -reflexive. It's an adventure you're sucked into, but it also makes fun of adventure stories and it's written by a wise guy in the twentieth century.

MP: You dedicated the book to the Raconteurs' Club. What's that?

TCB: Oh, I invented that. There is no such club, but all of those people are my dear lifelong friends that I grew up with. All of this Irish hyperbole that comes out of me is partly Jewish hyperbole too. I grew up in a Jewish community in New York. We were all wise guys and all told stories. It was my first novel, and so I dedicated it to them. And what rubric will I have to describe that? The Raconteurs' Club-what better?

MP: Are any of them writers?

TCB: No, they're nonspecified degenerates.

MP: Have you traveled with them.

TCB: Yes, I have, far and wide.

MP: Where have you traveled?

TCB: Oh, besides the usual places-Europe, Japan, for book tours and the like-I've scuba dived off the barrier reef in Belize and been to several countries in South and Central America.

MP: What drives you as a writer?

TCB: In the beginning I just wanted to be famous, to distinguish myself, to blow everybody away. Then, as you begin to achieve some of that, you have more artistic aims. There's magic involved in creating new stories that come from nowhere. It's extraordinary to see what else is stuck there in the back of that twisted brain. Let's get it out while we still can. People say, "Gee, you're so productive, why is that?" Well it's because I began to realize that you generally don't write as much after death as you do before death. So you'd better get to it!

MP: Do you know about our current trip to Mali, following Mungo Park's path along the Niger, in which there are daily audiovisual dispatches sent via satellite to the Web?

TCB: And the editors fervently hope they die horribly halfway through the trip and that they die slowly so they can still log on. Like the most dramatic thing in the history of any exploration was the Mount Everest trip where this guy calls his wife to say he's checking out?

MP: What about that? Are we a culture of voyeurs? Where do you draw the line?

TCB: Art and real life. Do you really have to do it, or can you have an actor in a studio with some fake snow? I think the actor with the fake snow can be more dramatic, but there's something about real life....

MP: We've lost faith in our own imagination?

TCB: Exactly.

MP: What about the substitution of interactive computer travel for the real thing?

TCB: Well, with six billion people and growing, maybe everybody should get nature in their apartment with a screen this big and leave what's out there alone. I mean, how much nature can we experience anymore? There's going to be nothing left!

MP: Will Mungo's Mali have changed drastically?

TCB: I'd think so. It was desertlike then, but with overgrazing and all, I'd imagine it's really pretty bleak there now.

MP: Do you travel a lot?

TCB: Constantly, because of book-related travel. But as far as aimless travel, not since I was a hippie. After I finish this book I've promised myself I'll go away where I can't write and take a month to snorkel or hike or something.

MP: Wicked satirist, serious scholar, and nine-year-old boy. How do these personas inhabit you?

TCB: Oh, I like that. That's not schizophrenia, that's "tritzophrenia." I suppose you have to have a certain joie de vivre to keep on going, right? The friends who interest me most are connected to things, interested in doing new things all the time, whereas a lot of people I know don't want to leave the bar. I'm glad you divide me into those categories, and I think they all add up.

MP: What's it like to live in a house designed by someone who's quoted as saying, "Anyone over five feet four inches is wasting space?"

TCB: Ha! Frank Lloyd Wright in his era and his diminutive stature probably couldn't have imagined the evolution of feet this big. Seriously, though, my ambition in life is no longer just to be a great writer. It is to ensure that no one will live in the guest house.


Copyright © Mary Heebner 2000