Tuesday, July 18, 2006

TC Boyle Talks About His New Novel "Talk Talk"

Hope everyone had a good weekend. And a good Monday, too. Why not?

Anyway, I've accumulated a bunch of stuff to blog about (mostly movie reviews, of course), but because I don't want this to be one of my needlessly bloated blog entries, I won't write about everything all in this one posting. I'm going tobreak it up over the week. I'll give you a little TC Boyle today, some Scanner Darkly tomorrow, maybe a smidge of Matador on Thursday. Who knows? I'm just going to stay loose and write whatevuh. I'm writing this post because I just tripped up a little in my novel-writin', and blogging right now is infinitely more attractive than going back to rewrite the last 6 pages that I just rewrote. Efrickinnuff already.

Anyway, so Thursday night Peggy and I went to the Margaret Mitchell House in downtown Atlanta and sweated to TC Boyle reading from his new book Talk Talk. (I say we sweated because the AC wasn't able to keep up with the global warming outside and the 100 or so fidgety writer-types inside). I don't know if you've seen Talk Talk in bookstores yet, but it's probably the least appealing cover you'll find on the New Fiction shelf. It's a close up of one corner of a person's open mouth and the title and the author's name are located inside of it. He told us he liked the cover for precisely that reason. "It's gross," he said. "I like it."

TC Boyle looks like Lance Henriksen's less craggy, less hungry brother. He came up to the lectern after a lengthy introduction that described what must be the perfect life for a writer. He's been teaching creative writing since he was 21. He has his doctorate in 18th-century English literature. He studied with John Irving, John Cheever and Raymond Carver at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He lives in the first house Frank Lloyd Wright designed in Santa Barbara (average temperature year-round: 72F). He works less than 40 days a year teaching at USC where he and Aimee Bender are paid to attract wide-eyed wannabe writers to USC's high-priced writing program every year. And he writes all the time, publishing a couple well-reviewed books every year. Thanks, TC. I guess it doesn't take as much to succeed in this business as I thought. I needed the reality check.

Anyway, he was a little stilted at first but warmed up quickly. He read the first chapter of Talk Talk, which was pretty good. He took questions from a bunch of folks and then we all went out to the porch of the actual Margaret Mitchell House so we could get our books signed. All I had was an old McSweeney's Quarterly thing (like a magazine, but this particular edition was hardbound) that contained not only a TC Boyle short story in it, but also a DVD on which he (among others) reads aloud from his short story. He was a little surprised to see it and said he hadn't ever watched the DVD but it had been a lot of fun to make. And that was it -- we were on our way back to the car and out of the heat. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy. He's the only writer I've seen who didn't sit behind a table to sign books. He stood in front of the table and received his visitors like he was glad they came. I got the impression he really preferred a little discussion over a polite exchange of pleasantries. As a result, the line moved very slowly.

Before he began his official reading Boyle asked how many writers were gathered in the audience. He guessed "about 97% of you are writers." There was a quiet murmur of uncomfortable laughter. TC did not smile. "I find that to be true in most cities." By the looks of the crowd -- pale, uncomfortable, largely unattractive -- I would say his estimate was probably close to the mark. But, if that's the case and the people who are primarily interested in literary authors and their literary books are other aspiring writers, than where are the readers of so-called '"serious" fiction who read with no alterior motive? Are we daft, dreamy, delusional few just writing for each other? That question, coupled with TC Boyle's impressive, almost impossible pedigree, took a little of the fun out of the whole thing for me. It all felt a little more unattainable. I managed to shake off the feeling later, however, and submitted gratefully once more to the warm embrace of my delusions.

Also, the MM House announced that Elizabeth Kostova, author of a novel entitled The Historian (an interesting reimagining of the Dracula story) is going to do a reading later this year, as is the brilliant but depressing Richard Ford, author of Independence Day and The Sportswriter. I'm looking forward to both. Anyway. I'm off to lovely Oxford to watch the dog's while my folks are away. More tomorrow.


Craig Moorhead said...

Are we daft, dreamy, delusional few just writing for each other?

I don't know if the turnout to a reading necessarily represents precisely TC's readership. I listen to and buy a ton of music but rarely go to shows. And while I like a lot of writers, there are few whom I'd really like to hear read from their books.

harwell said...

It's also worth noting that T.C. in this case actually stands for "Turd Cobbler" and that's a pretty big turn off to a lot of people (also explains why he dropped it in favor of initials). So I dare say that having an audience made up primarily of hopeful writers isn't necessarily an indication that the mainstream literary crowd are only writing for the pleasure of other writers in the same exact crowd. Poets, on the other hand, are totally only writing for other poets. But it's been my experience that most of them are cool with that. Anyway, going to readings is always a mixed bag. They don't attract much of a general crowd because these things are usually only advertised in-store and in like two newspapers. It's the writers and the hardcore readers who follow and look for those ads - doesn't mean there aren't more readers of Turd Cobbler's work out there, just that a bunch of them probably had no idea he was in town. Unless you're David Sedaris and charging admission, it's hard to draw outside of the bookworld.

Craig also makes an interesting point, though for the most part I don't know how you can guess whether or not a good author will be a good reader unless you're familiar with his personality through some other venue. I saw Sherman Alexie read and it was like watching a stand-up comic. Most fun I've ever had in a bookstore, easily. Don DeLillo on the other hand was a little dry and the most impressive thing about the reading was simply knowing that THIS was Don DeLillo.

What I find interesting about readings is that (with the exception of Alexie) you get a glimpse at the author's insecurities. Dave Eggars read a short story when I saw him because he said he had yet to find a part in You Shall Know Our Velocity that translated well in front of an audience. (Perhaps, this was because that book wasn't that good...) I've seen others skip parts and talk about making changings to the text at readings. Goes to show that even once published, the odds of being completely satisfied with something you've written are very slim. Over time I think you can always find something to fix.

Nathan said...

Do you have to do readings when you become a successful novelist. Because the thing is, I
a) have every intention in becmoming a successful novelist
b) would feel like a gay-wad doing a reading of my work.

It sounds like pulling teeth.

Nathan said...

nor does the thought of hearing a writer reading their own work sound like fun. I rarely want to even see their picture on the back flap of the books cover

JudgeHolden said...

Yeah, I like going to these things to see the writers, but if they never read from their work and only answered questions, or even if they only signed books, I'd be cool with that. Usually, no matter how good the book is or how emotive the writer/reader, the readings themselves are boring as shit. Russell Banks is a brilliant novelist, but when he read from his book I just wanted him to stop about three sentences in when I realized, once again, that I much prefer to actually read books than to have them read to me. The Sherman Alexie reading sounds awesome as hell -- but I think he's not a very good writer. I guess novelists who both write well and speak well are rare animals. James Ellroy was one of the more entertaining novelists I've seen do a reading, and his last few books have all been really bad.

And Hinesy, I think most writers look at doing readings on a book tour with about the same enthusiasm as they do a trip to the dentist. It seems to me though, that the publishers don't send out their authors on book tours unless they're already assured they're not going to lose any money doing so. Which means your book already has to be selling, or your advance reviews have to be really good. But most writers really seem to hate doing them -- TC Boyle being the exception.

harwell said...

I got to do a couple readings at Miami and though I was perpetually nervous about doing so, they were actually one of the most enjoyable things about the grad experience in hindsight. If you write a joke, it's nice hearing someone laugh. If you write something creepy, it's nice hearing people talk about it after the reading. True, most of the people who attended the readings were other classmates or undergrad students there for extra credit, but occasionally you'd get the odd compliment from a stranger and I don't know any writer who doesn't enjoy a good pat on the back. I had a classmate who read from a novel-in-progress and it was something we had been pretty damn critical of in workshop. And sure enough, this writer had an undergrad student ask him after the reading when his book was coming out because he wanted to buy it. So you never can predict the response, but it's the prospect of a response that is really exciting.

Sherman Alexie I think approached his readings as a salesman and he was damn brilliant at it. I can promise you he sold some books that day, and ultimately that is the whole point of most readings (at least the ones in bookstores).

It just depends on the writer. I really enjoyed hearing Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated) read. He's about our age and enormously wealthy along with being talented as balls, yet he was very personable and I ended up not wanting to kill him in a jealous rage after all. Probably depends upon the material too. I've seen people read historical fiction aloud and without exception I found it boring as hell; I think it's just a difficult thing to translate to a performance of sorts. But wouldn't you love to see a guy like King do a reading? Or that Fight Club dude who's name I can't spell? If the material is exciting, hearing it aloud should be even more so (in theory).

You should set up a reading in Taiwan, Hinesy. Seriously, I think you'd like it and you'd probably be good at it. You have a theater background, don't you? You should do it. I bet people would show.

Nathan said...

let me get my pile of pages published and i'll do a reading in Mozamique if I need to. And I'll be brilliant..

but I won't like it

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