The new collection from short story maestro TC Boyle leaps across time and space. He tells Jaideep Sen about an author’s right to forget research and wing it
Most of the short stories in TC Boyle’s most recent collection, Wild Child, demonstrate the American writer’s predilection for darting between divergent cultures and eras. He moves almost effortlessly from the fibs of a truant employee in contemporary suburban America (‘The Lie’) to the appraisals of a ‘clone sitter’ hired to attend to a cloned pet (‘Admiral’), taking in an unusual case of a Mexican boy who can feel no pain (‘Sin Dolor’) along the way. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Boyle has written 12 novels and more than 100 short stories, but the excellent Wild Child suggests the short story may be his home turf. Considering you flit between cultures and eras, do you do research to become comfortable with a social setting? In ‘Sin Dolor’, for instance, you’re inside the lives of Mexican taco sellers. The job of a novelist, from my point of view anyway, is to bring anybody and anywhere into the service of a story. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I’ve never felt limited by what sort of story I can tell, from what point of view, or to what ethnicity, or what culture. I just let it fly. In the last book, Tooth and Claw, there’s a story called ‘Swept Away’ that takes place in the Shetland Islands, in the north of Scotland. Now, I’ve never been to the Shetland Islands, although I have been to Scotland and we froze to death there, and I felt the force of the wind…
So why Mexico for ‘Sin Dolor’? In ‘Sin Dolor’, I mention the actual child I’d heard of who had the same genetic mutation – he lived in Pakistan. But I don’t know the culture of Pakistan particularly well, so I decided to transpose the story. In ‘Sin Dolor’, I was interested in the value of pain, and I wrote it from that perspective.
You often talk about ‘animal natures,’ and you have a new unpublished story called ‘What Separates Us From the Animals’. Yes, that’s about dog fighting, and what I’m interested in is the casual brutality of the narrator, who doesn’t see anything wrong in it. I’m doing this story to suggest a sense of horror to the reader. Even in the stories in Wild Child, I was showing an interest in our analogues as animals, as opposed to a sort of spiritual order. And that deals with all of the rest of nature – from the animals and plants in the biosphere to nitrogen fixing, bacteria and the plankton of the ocean, and from cloning to depletion of oxygen on the earth.
But you’ve rarely seemed as determined to make political statements as in these stories. In ‘Question 62’, you speculate on gun cultures and racial issues, when the story is actually about endangered cats. From the very beginning, I have written about issues that for me were outrageous, but I doubt that I’m doing this consciously. I’m certainly not trying to involve politics in literature, because they don’t mix very well. What I’m trying to do is suggest the nature of irresponsible human behaviour. Wild Child is published by Bloomsbury.
Short and sweet
Love short stories? Here are our top collections from the past year
Tunnelling to the Centre of the Earth, Kevin Wilson Wilson’s debut collection is hilarious, elegiac and bizarre, telling 11 disturbing, dream-like tales that cover an erratic range of human emotion.
Under the Naked Sky, compiled by Denys Johnson-Davies Portrays a colourful mosaic of Arab lives, from the old Moroccan peasant woman who kills snakes to a repairer of lost virginities in a Tunisian village.
Summer Blonde, Adrian Tomine A quartet of graphic short stories following a group of damaged teens and twentysomethings as they search for meaning. A little slice of Californian Generation X.
The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami The Japanese author delivers a series of dislocated, eerie and beautifully crafted stories.