Book Talk: Life on a desolate island from T.C. Boyle

TOKYO, Sept 20 Thu Sep 20, 2012 8:17am EDT

TOKYO, Sept 20 (Reuters) - In the latest novel by author T.C. Boyle, two families generations apart come to a starkly beautiful but isolated island off the coast of southern California, hoping to wrest new lives from the desolation.

Though husbands and children also play roles in "San Miguel," the real focus is on three women: the ailing Marantha Waters, who hopes to restore her health, her aspiring actress daughter Edith, and finally Elise Lester, a librarian from New York City, who comes with her husband and stays for a decade.

The prolific and award-winning Boyle has published nine collections of short stories and 13 novels, with subjects ranging from global warming, sexologist Alfred Kinsey and life in a writer's colony after an intruder breaks in.

Boyle spoke about "San Miguel," and how he writes.

Q: Why focus on the women?

A: "You know, all these things are very flexible. Any of my stories and novels you may have read or your readers may have read, I hope that they seem like these seamless, perfectly constructed works. But in fact, I don't have any plan, I don't have an outline. I simply move organically day to day and make discoveries about what I'm doing, which is why I love to do fiction and only fiction. In this case, though, I was privy to discover a memoir of Elise Lester and then the very truncated diary that Mrs. Waters left behind - it's only about 50 pages. That was the stimulus. I was struck by the correspondences between the two true stories. Everything I'm giving you is pretty much true to fact."

Q: What about this book was different from your others, if anything - easier, harder or more fun?

A: "This was difficult for me because it's my first novel that is not a post-modern nudging and winking wise-guy super-ironic kind of thing, which is my general mode and personality. I just wanted to see if I could do it straight, a straight historical narrative. I just found the stories so compelling.

"I'm just now starting to think about and do the research for my next novel, which to balance off this novel from the feminine perspective I think is going to have to be a hairy-chested man's novel."

Q: You've written so many novels. Is there a common thread, or is the common thread that there is no common thread?

A: "There is a common thread but I've only seen it in retrospect, since I've been asked about it. It is certainly having to do with nature, the themes that come up in 'Friend of the Earth' or 'When the Killing's Done': is there a stewardship, do we have the right to it, how do we treat the other animals. How are we, an animal species, distinct from unintellectual species. How are these two parts of our nature intertwined and separate?"

Q: Why did this develop?

A: "You know, if it weren't for the dreaded mathematics, I might have become a biologist - or, more to the point, a marine biologist or ichthyologist. I am endlessly fascinated by nature and exploring nature, and creatures. I just got back two days ago from the Sierras, where I spend a lot of time, and I spent my last few days up there just doing some research and notes and whatnot, and going in through the woods by myself, and sitting by the lake and observing the dragonflies and the snakes and the ducks and so on. This is very essential to me. A lot of people don't understand our connection to nature, or deny it. But we're animals so we're meant to be in nature, our five senses work towards embracing it. So I embrace it as much as I can."

Q: You mentioned that you don't outline or plan, do you ever feel that has slowed you down?

A: "Everyone works differently and finds their own comfort zone. In doing research for a novel, like the one you've just read or 'When the Killing's Done,' it might take me three months. I might have to see something, go someplace, go to San Miguel island. I'll read everything I can and take notes. In the process of doing that I have ideas, and they are usually structural ideas but also dramatic ideas. I'll write these downs and I'll write the notes out - it takes me a little while. But then I don't really refer to that so much. There's some way of opening the unconscious to what that story may be, in that process. That has served me well.

"As far as slowing me down, I suppose so, but I don't think it's a race to get to the end. Living through this book in the writing itself may have taken me a year, a little more. It's living through day to day with these characters and these situations, and thinking about them, and getting into that unconscious state every day and seeing where it's going to go. And of course yes, I'll jot down where it's going and all these ideas every day, and I can see it come together. That is the satisfaction of writing fiction or making any kind of art. You don't have anything, and finally if it works, at the end, you do have something."

Q: What's the appeal of writing novels and short stories?

A: "With a novel, there's a deep engagement and perpetual worry: what's happening, how can you pull this off. It never leaves you, you're always thinking about it on some level, and you know what you're going to do tomorrow. By the same token, that can be a real yoke around your neck, it really confines you in the rest of your life. But it's good - you wake up and you're in the middle of something and it's very productive and very good. A story on the other hand - With the novel you are locked into it, you can't express what happens to you today or the occasional thing that happens in the world that you'd like to write about, you have to put that aside. With a story, you can do that, and anything can affect you and bounce in and out, the story's done in a month and you're on to another one, it's wonderful.

"The down time is in between the stories. You finish a story and you're completely exhilarated, but you need to write another one, and you don't know what it's going to be. So you go through a week or so of you're absolutely miserable, you're a failure, you'll never have an idea again, and that's tough." (Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by)