«The US needs a strict but fair mother»

T. C. Boyle is a firm Hillarian.

«Clinton is Mama America.»

The author on the porch of his house in Sequoia National Park.

The author on the porch of his house in Sequoia National Park.

«The Republicans, in contrast, don’t stand for anything.»

Photos: Cédric von Niederhäusern

Photos: Cédric von Niederhäusern

Sacha Batthyany talks to T. C. Boyle
Sequoia National Park

The way to T. C. Boyle’s house starts on a six-lane highway through Los Angeles, passes Santa Monica and Beverly Hills and wends up towards the Sierra Nevada, where the air is better and the fast-food billboards fewer. After three hours on the road, you find yourself in a dense forest on dusty roads and can’t see which way to go for all the trees. But the loss of orientation is a good sign. In his email with the directions a few days before our meeting, Boyle wrote: “When your GPS stops working and you can’t get a signal on your cell phone, you’re on the right track”. Boyle is a hermit who loves people.

Nothing about his house suggests that this is the home of one of the most famous contemporary American writers. From a room overlooking an idyllic lake in the woods, he writes books about the wounds of American society, the racial hatred, fitness crazes and obsession with sex in this young country that craves the rootedness of tradition. His oddball stories deal with the collision of civilization and nature, roving coyotes in soulless suburbs and cussed outsiders who drop out into the wilderness.

On the committed vegetarian’s table stand a bowl of tortilla chips and some hummus, water and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Aside from the tapping of a spotted woodpecker, silence reigns.

«I write until three in the afternoon.»

«Then I go out into the woods.»

Several times a year you retreat to this house in the woods, deep in Sequoia National Park, some 350 kilometers from Los Angeles. There’s no cell phone coverage and practically no internet. Don’t you ever get lonely?
In January this year, there was so much snow that a tree fell on the power lines and all of a sudden the electricity was out. The snow was weighing down on the house, it was creaking and cracking. I could hardly open the door because the beams were bending. But I had enough wine and candles. And after three days I shoveled a narrow path through the snow down to the bar of the little guesthouse, where I had a few drinks. In the remoteness, you learn to appreciate the little things in life.

The simple life in the woods, far away from civilization – it’s a distinctly American motif.
Do you think so? And what about the Russian dachas? The wooden cabins in Finland? Don’t the Swiss enjoy retreating to their houses in the mountains?

The writer Henry David Thoreau wrote the great American tale Walden in just such a cabin. A book about nature, people and civil disobedience.
I love Thoreau. He’s one of my heroes. I visited a replica of his cabin on Walden Pond in 2014. It was just a small room, a stove, a bed; it was all he needed. For a long time, the American forest was a kind of retreat for the dissatisfied, the dissidents, the misfits. It used to be possible to go into the wilderness and actually live by your own rules. Later, the hippies who wanted to get back to nature had to go to Alaska. But now you’re no longer alone even there. There is no more wilderness.

Perhaps there’s no wilderness, but you still have the drop-outs. Your latest book, The Harder They Come, is about a couple who eschew all the rules. The book begins with a quote from D. H. Lawrence: «The essential American soul is hard, solitary, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.»
America is a young country. The first Europeans who arrived on their ships were fleeing from outside control and penal sentences. They wanted to be free, yet at the same time they slaughtered a few hundred thousand Indians – the American Dream had a bloody beginning. You can still sense this obsession with independence today: no one can interfere with me, and the state least of all, or the guns will come out.

Is that pioneering spirit from back then the source of the hatred towards Washington and the establishment that we’ve heard so much about in this election? Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have mobilized millions of voters with the argument that they’re outsiders.
I’m absolutely certain of it. We Americans have little sense of community; everyone takes care of themselves as they see fit. Obama’s health insurance, for example, is seen as a public good in Europe, but in the US it’s regarded as the work of the communist devil. It’s grotesque. Every form of society brings some limitation of individual freedom along with it. There has to be a healthy number of rules or the result will be chaos.

And that’s coming from someone like you, who pays little heed to conventions?
Yes. Even a punk like me wants rules.

«Even in Alaska you’re no longer alone.»

«Republicans are reaping what they've sowed»: T. C. Boyle on Donald Trump. Video: Cédric von Niederhäusern, Lea Koch

In your books, you return again and again to your search for the American soul. Did you foresee the rise of Donald Trump?
No, I was just as surprised as everyone else.

All the political journalists in the capital had long regarded Trump as a clown. Later, many of them apologized for their miscalculation and conceded that they had lost touch with normal Americans outside the Beltway.
When I’m in Washington DC, I lose all touch with the real America too. The whole city is a rumor mill in which people talk about politics just like in the trashiest gossip rags. Who’s in front? Who said what? The journalists should get out of their offices and talk to real people instead of constantly checking their Twitter feeds.

Is there anything about Trump that you like?
I like that he says whatever he wants to say.

You support his attacks on political correctness.
Political correctness has led to people no longer calling a spade a spade or even avoiding it altogether. As an author and artist, I’m against any type of censorship. But in terms of substance, Trump is a right-wing demagogue – repugnant and aggressive. He plays with the fears of the white underclass, who justifiably feel that they have been ignored. Trade agreements like NAFTA only helped the big companies. The workers got nothing out of it. Trump is using that, but he’s going to lose. It will be a historic defeat. Although, to be honest I said the same thing in 2000 when George W. Bush ran against Al Gore. I was sure that Bush would lose. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

Is Trump a punk?

Then the two of you have something in common.
Many years ago we were at the same event and got along well. A speaker before us gave an unbelievably boring speech, which annoyed us and created a bond for that one evening. But you know what? I don’t want a punk as president.

«What I like about Trump is that he says what he wants.»

To whom do you feel more political affinity, Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton?
I was for Bernie, because he wanted to get the money out of politics. In America, a millionaire has more influence than an ordinary citizen because money determines what the politicians are talking about. So it’s no wonder that the Republicans won’t even say the words ‘climate change’: they’re paid to keep their mouths shut. Sanders wanted to change that. He wanted to take the power back from the lobbyists in Washington and make the country more democratic. Naturally, I support that. But I’m also fine with Hillary Clinton’s middle way. The US needs a strict but fair mother – and she is that. Clinton is Mama America. She might be the best prepared candidate we’ve ever had for the office. Clinton stands for women’s rights, multiculturalism and more environmental protection – the Republicans, in contrast, don’t stand for anything: they just want to make the rich a bit richer. So I’m a firm Hillarian – the last eight years I was an Obamist.

Where does this deep hatred of Clinton come from? You don’t have to agree with her, but why is she despised by so many Americans?
It’s due to the deep divisions in this country. The two parties have become new religions; an objective discussion of political issues is barely possible any more. My neighbors up here in the woods are all very friendly and helpful. They would risk their lives for me if I broke my leg and was stranded in the snow. But if we talk about politics, the mood changes drastically. People become enemies and accuse each other of lying.

Was it always that way?
There was always a divide, but it’s the 24-hour news channels that incite people against each other – and which profit from it. The election drives millions into their coffers.

Like Trump and Clinton, you’re one of the early baby-boomers. This year will probably be the last time a representative of your generation is elected president. Is that good news?
As a group, the baby-boomers are not nearly so homogeneous as they are often portrayed. Sure, we lived through important societal upheavals like the sexual revolution. But we came out as very different people depending on whether we grew up as millionaires in New York, like Trump, or as working-class kids like I did. One of the greatest achievements of my generation is environmental consciousness. Before, everyone just threw everything out the window.

You grew up in New York State next to a nuclear power plant. Weren’t people aware of the dangers back then?
No, in those days we didn’t know anything and lived in innocent times. As kids, at the power plant they showed us animated films about Johnny Atom, without whom our new washing machines and TVs wouldn’t work. In the summer, they sprayed the poison DDT right into our little faces to protect us from mosquitoes.

«The Republicans don’t stand for anything.»

«Environmental consciousness is great, but I’m pessimistic.»

«The super-rich will always do what they want.»

It’s well known that Donald Trump wants to build a wall. Radical environmentalists in the US seem to support his plan. From their point of view, more people means more environmental destruction. You have also warned against over-population. So is Trump right?
No. We can’t stop people who are fleeing from war, famine and poverty to a better world. That's what my book The Tortilla Curtain was about. And we will see new waves of refugees again and again in the years to come. The migrant flows are due not least to global warming. Trump’s wall, as well as the barbed wire fences in Hungary and Greece, will only lead to more chaos. As far as over-population is concerned, I really see only one solution: we all have to stop having sex for the next hundred years. Who’s with me?

Has the drought in your state, California, at least led to the last skeptics starting to take climate change seriously? Or in other words, is America finally going green?
In Montecito where I live, we were called on to use 30% less water. But my neighbors’ lawns are still as green as if we were in Ireland. Some have started drilling for water on their own land so they don’t have to give up their daily swim. The super-rich will always do what they want. On the other side, the poor can’t even afford environmental protection. In crises such as in Syria or Venezuela, where the stakes are life and death, global warming suddenly becomes a very distant concern. Despite the increased environmental consciousness, I’m pessimistic.

But the climate agreement in Paris shows that real progress can be made.
But global warming is not reversible. The oceans will never get cleaner, the forests are not going to expand. I, like all environmental activists, am condemned to a life of pessimism. But ok, there is one piece of good news: in 3.5 billion years at the latest, the sun will expand and turn the earth into a piece of charcoal. It’ll be a while yet, but from that point of view there’s nothing to worry about. Not even Donald Trump. Before we get that far, another species will have taken over. Many futurologists prophesy the rise of the rat. They’ll outlive us all. During the climate conference in Paris, a newspaper asked me to write a letter to the people of the future. So I wrote: «Dear rats of the future...»

That really is pessimistic. From the deck of your house, the forest looks pretty intact.
Due to the five-year drought in California, every second tree here will die. They’ve been attacked by a parasite that was able to spread because of the dryness. There’s a massacre going on. But most Americans don’t know what they’ll be losing when the forest is no longer there. The feeling of being alone in nature is hard to describe. Not even my kids understand what I’m doing out there for hours on end.

And what is that?
It’s like when you’re writing or reading; you step outside your body. My spirit starts to wander, but my senses sharpen. I’m often asked what wild animals I meet during my excursions on the woods, to which the answer is mainly ants. Sometimes I see a fox or a coyote. The mountain lions are rarer. Yesterday I saw 20 fat cows in the woods. The farmers bring them up here in the summer and then rustle them up when it gets colder. The cows that I saw yesterday were the escapees, the fugitives, the freedom-lovers. I spent hours with them. Such moments in the woods do me good, far away from people.

You don’t seem to be a misanthrope.
I’m not. But I need this time away to keep things in balance. I’m also more productive here. Writing is my addiction now; I used to have others. Up here nothing holds me back. I write until three in the afternoon and then I head out to the woods. Once when I had been alone for weeks, I suddenly heard a car while out walking; instead of waving at the car, I hid behind some trees.

Do you love your country?
Oh, yes. But that doesn’t stop me criticizing a lot of things. I grew up in a working-class family and once had a very intimate relationship with a damaging substance. Now I teach at a university and my new book is coming out this fall. How cool is that? Writing saved my life. I have the great good fortune of living in a democracy in which I can say anything and in which I don’t have to worry that someone’s going to push me off a cliff for my words.

«Writing saved my life.»

«The feeling of being alone in nature is hard to describe.»

«Not even my kids understand what I’m doing out there.»

The Pied Piper of Montecito

T. C. Boyle went from being a junkie to a best-selling author. Today his obsession is writing.

Thomas Coraghessan Boyle was born Thomas John Boyle in Peekskill, New York, on December 2, 1948. His new middle name was his own doing, a first act of rebellion. Boyle, a member of various bands in his youth, is the punk among the pantheon of famous American authors. His clothes could have come straight from the wardrobe of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.

When he’s not in the woods, Boyle lives with his wife and three kids in a house in the upmarket Californian community of Montecito – a place overrun by rats, as he explains on a walk after the interview. Because he can’t bring himself to kill them, he catches them with peanut butter and drives the rodents into the mountains once a week, where he sets them free and «where they're probably eaten by coyotes».

Asked about his life, Boyle demurs. «Writing my biography would be a boring and short enterprise,» says the best-selling author and lecturer at the University of Southern California, somewhat improbably. «I do what I love best: I write – and that makes me happy. There’s not much more to say about me.» But his life has not been quite so linear and carefree as all that.

Musical crocodiles and flying birds

Boyle grew up in difficult circumstances. His father was a school bus driver, his mother a secretary; both were alcoholics who died young. By his own admission a drug user and habitual truant in his youth, Boyle graduated high school by the skin of his teeth. From the moment he discovered his inclination and talent for writing, he did everything he could to make it the center of his life. «Writing became an obsession that I could never have pursued as a junkie,» says Boyle. He writes until three in the afternoon every day and then roams aimlessly around the woods with his dog, trying to get lost.

Boyle's first novel, Water Music, was published in 1981 and bore the satirical signature that would later become the author’s trademark style. Speaking of Boyle, legendary literary critic Fritz J. Raddatz quipped that with this author, you might well find a crocodile playing a harp. Over the years, he has published a dozen best-sellers, including World's End, The Road to Wellville, The Tortilla Curtain and The Inner Circle. Due for release in German in early 2017, his new book The Terranauts tells the story of four men and four women who live under a glass dome in Arizona as part of a scientific experiment to create a new world.

It’s almost dark by the time T.C. Boyle returns from his walk in the woods. He still has to chop wood, he says. The weather’s about to turn. Fall is in the air. «You can tell by the way the birds fly that it’s getting colder,» says Boyle before breaking into a laugh. «Just kidding, of course that’s nonsense. I heard the weather report on the radio.»

Sacha Batthyany

«There’s not much more to say about me.»

  • credits
  • idea & concept: Christof Münger
  • interview: Sacha Batthyany
  • photos & video: Cédric von Niederhäusern
  • photo editing: Koni Nordmann
  • video editing: Lea Koch, Mirjam Ramseier
  • production: Raphael Diethelm
  • project management: Dinja Plattner
  • translation: Supertext AG
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