An Interview with T. C. Boyle


Questions for Discussion




Poor Stanley McCormick. The depraved son of one of the greatest inventors of the nineteenth century, Stanley is doomed to spend most of his life confined to an enormous estate in Southern California while his wife, Katherine, spares no expense searching for the doctor who can cure him. For two decades Stanley leads a limited existence at Riven Rock, accompanied by a group of well-paid nurses, gardeners, cooks, and psychologists. And as the world outside struggles with war and disease, survives physical and economic disaster, and witnesses dramatic social change, Stanley continues to make diminutive steps toward achieving a normal life while his millions continue to pile up. Unfortunately, even Stanley's considerable wealth won't buy him his sanity or freedom from the luxurious prison that he helped build.

But Stanley's palatial prison is just one of many ironies contained in this whimsical work of historical fiction—and which characterize it as a truly Boyle-esque tale. There is Katherine's steadfast fidelity to a marriage that was never consummated; Eddie, the philandering playboy, who tosses his conquests aside as soon as he tires of them, but who hungers for the one woman he can't have; and Stanley's violent, sexual aggression towards women, whom he loves with "an incendiary passion that is indistinguishable from hate." Boyle also manages to inject notes of high hilarity into what is basically a very sad story. The various doctors with their respective theories and styles could have stepped out of a Marx Brothers musical, as could the scene in which Katherine accompanies Julius the ape to an elegant hotel. And Stanley's treatment of the poor German teacher he drags home to please Katherine is as comical as it is heartbreaking. Another technique typically employed by Boyle is hyperbole. The author often populates his novels with larger-than-life figures: the richest man in America, the most clueless of doctors, the most overbearing of mothers, and, in the case of Katherine, a woman possessing the kind of intellectual brilliance and strength of character that, almost by necessity, accompanies a blind insensitivity to the needs of someone as fragile as Stanley. Irony, comedy, and hyperbole render this and Boyle's other novels unforgettable, transforming an historic footnote into a luminous, illuminating work of fiction that says as much about contemporary America as it does about the historical figures it depicts.

It is the role of the literary historian to paint a vivid picture from the outlines that fact provides. But the writer who chooses to use true life as a springboard toward a largely imagined story faces, perhaps, a greater challenge. He or she must impose on the facts moods and themes that feel organic to the history they represent. T. C. Boyle has a wonderful talent for turning history into fiction. In Riven Rock, as with his earlier novel, The Road to Wellville, Boyle starts with a germ of fact and a few larger-than-life personalities and spins a marvelous tale—the details of which can strain credulity. (According to Boyle, some of the most outrageous incidents in this novel are actually true.) But he has chosen to keep his readers in the dark about where history ends and fiction begins. So be it. In his capable hands, deft as a magician's, we are willing to suspend disbelief.



Q. This is your fourth historical novel, after Water Music, World's End and The Road to Wellville. How have you developed as a writer in this genre? Over the years, what have you learned about writing historical fiction?

A. To my mind, I'm not writing historical novels—in the conventional sense, that is. I don't think the traditional historical novel works, because the historical impulse—the research—overwhelms the aesthetic vision. I'd say instead that I'm writing contemporary novels with historical settings. I'm more interested in how the past is reflected in the present than I am with replicating history. Then too, of course, there is my satirical bent—I'm having good fun with our universal human foibles, those that persist from time immemorial. And so, we have The Road to Wellville, about our desire for eternal youth and health, not to mention the nostrums that go with it, or Riven Rock, about marriage and sexuality.

A. What have I learned? To let the story take precedence. In the case of Riven Rock, I am retelling a true story, one so bizarre—and so much like a novel—that my task is primarily to dramatize and illuminate it. That said, I nonetheless have to decide what to emphasize and what to play down, so as to allow the themes to develop.

Q. What are the differences in the way you approach writing contemporary fiction as opposed to historical fiction?

A. There really is no difference in the way I approach a novel with a historical setting from the way I might engage one with a contemporary setting—The Tortilla Curtain or East Is East, for example. I come up with an idea—or a subject, very broad in its scope—and read and explore until it begins to narrow. Of course, with a novel set in current times, the metaphors are a bit easier because of the frame of reference—in a historical piece, the author is constrained by the laws of anachronism. Usually. Though Stanley Elkin, in George Mills and elsewhere, was a wonderful exception. That is the beauty of writing fiction: there are no rules.

Q. How did you happen upon the story of Stanley and Katherine McCormick? What compelled you to write a novel about them?

A. This one is easy. I moved from the gloomy dystopia of L.A. and The Tortilla Curtain to the gloomy utopia of Santa Barbara and Riven Rock. I discovered that those emerald hills of the Santa Ynez range conceal a whole psychopathologia of sad and refreshingly bizarre tales. The story of Katherine and Stanley came to me courtesy of our local newspaper and a book about the great estates of Montecito. What intrigues me most about their story is what is revealed in the first line of the prologue: what would it be like for a man to be removed from the sight and company of women for twenty years? And more, and worse: what would it be like for the wife of such a man?

Q. How did the character of Eddie O'Kane emerge? Did you always mean for him to play such a pivotal role in the novel?

A. Eddie O'Kane. Again, here is where the art of the novel takes precedence over the factuality of the story as historical sources report it. My problem: how does one center a novel around a schizophrenic "sexual maniac" who assaults women on sight? And how does one make such a character ultimately sympathetic, more a victim of his mental illness—and upbringing—than a villain? The obvious answer is to explore his mind, as I attempt to do, but also to view him from the outside. Katherine—and Eddie O'Kane, an invented character—give me the ability to do this. The fact is that Stanley had several male nurses, and four in particular with whom he was quite close—the four who came with him from Massachusetts. The fiction is Eddie. He became, for me, Stanley's alter ego, his döppelganger: a man considered perfectly normal despite his casual brutality toward and mistrust of the women he loves. His descendants are out there right now, their elbows propped up on the polished mahogany of every club and singles bar in America. Fortunately (for me, for Eddie, and for the story), he grew up and became humanized by a mature relationship with the indomitable and irresistible Giovanella Dimucci (and who could resist a woman with a name like that?).

Q. You have said that, in writing Riven Rock, you wanted to explore issues of fidelity and loyalty. With that objective, how did you develop Stanley's and Katherine's relationship?

A. Katherine, in my mind, is the protagonist of this story. Her marriage was tragic—as dysfunctional as any marriage ever, aside maybe from the point of view of some of Bluebeard's wives—but she was too strong to be broken by it. Too strong, perhaps, to give in to love in the first place. And yet she believed in her marriage vows, in duty and obligation and love—as odd as it may seem to us today, with our casual alliances and disposable marriages. She did love Stanley, because there was some essential core of innocence and sweetness to him that his disease obscured, and while his confinement gave her the excuse to travel in society (almost as if she were a widow) and to pursue her interests in the cause of feminism, she nonetheless protected him and sought a cure for him to the end of his life.

Q. What did your research teach you about Stanley's mental illness—and schizophrenia in general? How do you think this treatment would have been different if he were alive today?

A. My research in psychiatry confirmed what I'd believed at the outset: that schizophrenia is an inherited disease. But my re-reading of Freud was instructive: fashion (and the idiocy of the politically correct) aside, Stanley's sexual problem, layered atop his schizophrenia, is classically Freudian. But it was more than reading that gave me my insight into Stanley—I have had two close friends who are schizophrenic, and I drew on my recollections of them to try to grasp the way in which Stanley perceived the world.

A. As for the second part of the question, it's obvious that we understand schizophrenia a great deal better than did the psychiatrists represented in this book. I don't expect Stanley would have been "cured" today, but certainly pharmaceutical treatment would have meliorated some of his suffering.

Q. If Riven Rock were written as pure fiction, how do you think you would have changed the story? Do you ever feel impeded by the facts when you are writing historical fiction?

A. An interesting question. And an impossible one to answer. As I've said above, I was attracted to the story because it is true, because it is a novel in truth—we respond to stories because they reflect something valid about us and our experience. That said, I do not feel at all constrained to "stick to the facts" when writing a story based on an actual incident. I am not a reporter, nor a historian or a biographer. I am a novelist, trying to make sense of my own life and feelings and thoughts, growing, with each story and novel, toward some sort of apprehension of human life on this planet.

Q. Comedy figures largely in all your fiction. Why is that? What do you think makes a writer "funny?"

A. Comedy is my mode of dealing with tragedy and despair. What do we call it—gallows humor? Black humor? Sardonic, bleak, stripped-to-the-bone humor? I do feel that the tragic and poignant can be made even more powerful, more affecting, if the writer takes the reader by surprise, that is, puts him or her into a comic universe and then introduces the grimmest sort of reality. Flannery O'Connor taught me this, in stories like "Good Country People" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find," and especially in a novel like Wise Blood.

A. What makes a writer funny is hard to define in the abstract—we know it when we see it, and roar, shake and slobber in response. And we know when an unfunny writer—an unfunny person—attempts to be funny and falls flat. I don't know. I guess comedy is inbred, part of a writer's gifts, an individual way of seeing the world and revealing it in such a way that others see it too. But listen to me. I'll try again: comedy is organic to the work, just as the characters, plot, and metaphors are—you can't force it or it falls flat. Yes?



  1. How does Boyle introduce historical facts into the novel to move it along? Which of the period's prevalent issues does he bring to light? What, if anything, did you learn about America in the early part of this century? Do you think fiction is a good way to teach history?
  2. Discuss your feelings toward Stanley McCormick. Does his particular type of insanity—with its manifestations of lewd behavior and violence toward women—make him less sympathetic? Do you feel sorry for Stanley? Do you think he is unhappy?
  3. Compare the characters of Stanley and Eddie. Is Stanley's treatment of women different and/or worse than Eddie's? When Eddie is in the throes of alcoholism, is he any more sane than Stanley? Do you think Eddie is good for Stanley? Vice versa?
  4. How real is Katherine's love for Stanley? Why is she so insistent on preserving their marriage? Why do you think she fell in love with Stanley in the first place? How do you reconcile her feminist views with her steadfast loyalty to a man with so many problems?
  5. Issues of fidelity and loyalty figure prominently in the book. How are each of the major characters—Katherine, Stanley, and Eddie—alternately faithful and unfaithful, loyal and disloyal to others in their lives? Who is the most faithful? Who is the most loyal?
  6. What do you think of the different doctors hired to treat Stanley? Aside from the comic relief they provide, what schools of thought does each represent?
  7. Discuss Boyle's use of flashbacks in the novel. Do these passages detract from the story or promote its progress? How would the novel have been different if it were presented chronologically?
  8. Like many of Boyle's novels, Riven Rock is filled with examples of opposite extremes—Puritanism and overt sexuality, refined and extremely base behavior, honesty and dishonesty, poverty and wealth—and with incidents that can strain credulity. What do you think of Boyle's use of hyperbole?
  9. How does knowing that Boyle's book is based on history alter the way you read the novel? Did you wonder which incidents were based on fact and which on fiction? Would you prefer to know or are you satisfied not knowing?
  10. Riven Rock is the actual name of the McCormick estate in California, yet Boyle manages to wrap the narrative around the image its name conjures up. How does he incorporate into the novel the metaphor of a rock split in two? What—or who—are the novel's "riven rocks"?