Making a killing
Author T.C. Boyle takes on Channel Islands animal depopulation in his latest book
By Jenny Lower 03/29/2012
T. Coraghessan Boyle likes getting people riled up — or at least, the people in his books. The author of 22 works of fiction, T.C. Boyle (as he’s known these days) delights in exuberant prose, biting humor and outrageous plot twists. He has portrayed the struggles of Mexican immigrants in The Tortilla Curtain and the lives of some of the 20th century’s most influential culture-makers in The Road to Wellville, The Inner Circle and The Women.
Boyle’s most recent work, When the Killing’s Done, turns to the Channel Islands. A decade ago, National Park Service biologists trying to restore the ecosystems on Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands sought to eliminate rats and feral pigs, leading to clashes with local animal rights advocates. Now those real-life adversaries have been transformed into Alma Boyd Takesue, a straight-laced, sake-sipping scientist, and Dave LaJoy, a dreadlocked radical with anger issues. Needless to say, neither welcomes compromise, and deaths — both animal and human — abound. Boyle will appear at Bank of Books in Ventura on Saturday, March 31.
VCReporter: I heard your papers were just acquired by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. How did that come about? I understand the files were molding in your basement.
TCB: Well, I kind of got scared when we had the Tea fire a couple years ago because, boy, this is my life’s work. I’ve always composed on a keyboard, but until computers came into use I was typing on a typewriter. So I have manuscripts with lots of scratch-outs and emendations, the kind of stuff they really love. My favorite thing — they have a gigantic freezer the size of a Winnebago. And if they see any sign of insects or mold, they put it in there for a few days. You can imagine, these papers are coming from all over the place. They have to be very careful not to contaminate the rest of the stuff. And by the way, I can pride myself because they told me mine were exceptionally clean. With manuscripts, you usually have coffee stains, spaghetti stains and blood on them.
You’ve lived in Montecito since 1993, but this is the first book about the Channel Islands.
I had never been out to them. It was great to get around to this. Of course, I was inspired to do the story by what was reported in your paper and in the Santa Barbara-News Press and the battle over it out there. The biologists were real generous to me. I got to go out and actually trap the little dwarf foxes and wander the back end of Santa Cruz island, stay out overnight there when there’s no one around and no sound of humanity. It’s pretty great. And furthermore, it was so much fun that I discovered an historical story set on the island of San Miguel. That is the next book coming on Sept. 25. It’s called San Miguel and it deals with the families that lived there.
Can we get a hint of the feel of this new book?
It’s very different from anything I’ve done before. It’s in the voice of three women. And it’s all straightforward historical narrative without any post-modern winking or wise guyism. It felt natural for this, and I wanted to see if I could do that. I’m always trying to do something I haven’t done before.
The two main characters in Killing, Dave and Alma, are extremely inflexible, which makes them unlikable at times. Did you feel yourself siding with one or the other?
Well, of course, I can’t answer that question because it would kill it for anybody reading the book. But I will say this; I am purely delighted that people see that both characters are very complex. Although Dave is an extremely obnoxious human being, he still has an incontrovertible point. And Alma feels the same way he does. But because she is a trained biologist, she’s a little bit more practical with regard to what must be done. Exigencies require drastic action, so she’s willing to take it. The question of the book, right from the opening quote from Genesis [1:28], is who has the right and what gives us the right to be the kings and queens of all the animals. Is it simply Darwinian selection, and if so, are there any ethics involved?
Do you feel like compromise is possible? When we’re talking about preservation, can we take a moderate approach, or do we really need to stand by our principles?
I hope so. I hope we can. I’m not so sure though, because, of course, we’re almost entirely motivated by selfish values, almost everybody. Especially when the shit hits the fan, like say the gasoline price goes up, well, we’re going to drill in the Arctic preserve. All environmental laws, regulations, any thought of anything goes out the window the minute the Dow Jones dips 10 points. That’s always going to be very, very difficult.
In a scene lifted from the papers, Dave drops off vitamin K pellets on Anacapa Island to save the rats from poison. Have you ever done anything that outrageous for your convictions?
Hmm. Yeah, I’ve done things, but of course, I wouldn’t disclose them to you. Probably the craziest I ever got — I spent a lot of time in the Sierra Nevada and the Sequoia National Forest, now the Sequoia National Monument. But when I first started going up there, in the early ’80s, there was still a lot of logging going on. I was hiking deep in the woods one day and I came to this clear-cut and I was kind of outraged. So I borrowed the sign that says, “Clear cut here” and I stuck it on my wall at home. [Laughs] Pretty outrageous, huh?
You teach once a week at USC. Do you find that it’s a good break for you?
Yes, and it’s a great thing to do. I think if I had to just be here writing every day, the whole year, every year, I would be in the mental hospital now. I’ve been pretty single-minded. I’ve never had a boss. I’ve never done anything that I didn’t want to do. Early on, when I first got to L.A., everyone wanted to take me out to lunch from all the studios and they wanted me to write this and that. But I never did and I never wanted to, even when I didn’t have any money. Because I felt it would distract me from my real work, which is to be a writer. I’ve always taught, since I was 21. And it’s just a huge part of my life. I love getting out of the house and getting to talk with really engaged people about literature. It’s fun. It’s great for me.
T.C. Boyle book signing will be held at Bank of Books, Saturday, March 31, from 2 to 3 p.m. 748 E. Main St., Ventura. For information, call 643-3154.