Humans Are Animals — Yet Crucially We Are Something More
If you want to know what separates animals from humans, look no further than this meditation on life from American novelist T.C. Boyle. The author says nature obsesses him and renews him.
T. Coraghessan Boyle is the author of 26 books of fiction, including, most recently, After the Plague (2001), Drop City (2003), The Inner Circle (2004), Tooth and Claw (2005), The Human Fly (2005), Talk Talk (2006), The Women (2009), Wild Child (2010), When the Killing's Done (2011), San Miguel (2012), T.C. Boyle Stories II (2013), The Harder They Come (2015) and The Terranauts (2016).
He received a Ph.D. degree in 19th-Century British Literature from the University of Iowa in 1977, his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1974, and his B.A. in English and History from SUNY Potsdam in 1968. He has been a member of the English Department at the University of Southern California since 1978, where he is Distinguished Professor of English. His work has been translated into more than two dozen foreign languages, including German, French, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Finnish, Farsi, Croatian, Turkish, Albanian, Vietnamese, Serbian and Slovene. His stories have appeared in most of the major American magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The Paris Review, GQ, Antaeus, Granta and McSweeney's, and he has been the recipient of a number of literary awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Prise for best novel of the year (World's End, 1988); the PEN/Malamud Prize in the short story (T.C. Boyle Stories, 1999); and the Prix Médicis Étranger for best foreign novel in France (The Tortilla Curtain, 1997). He currently lives near Santa Barbara with his wife and three children.
T.C. Boyle: There is no hope whatsoever. Our species will be extinguished probably in a couple of generations, maybe even before that depending upon the microbes of the world. And of course the potential for nuclear war, not to mention, as in my short story Chichaloob, when that comment comes back again. So we're all doomed; everything sucks; I have no good news for anybody. Other authors want to make their audience feel good, I want everybody to feel really bad. Just joking. I'm writing about environments. It obsesses me. Our place as a species on this planet we are animals and yet we're something else too. How did those two elements of us intersect and what does it mean for this environment?
People say save the earth. Well, the earth as far as we know will be here for another three and a half billion years until, of course, the sun becomes a yellow giant and burns us to a sender like a charcoal briquette. But really what the environmentalists are saying is let's save the planet under the conditions that allowed our species to arise. Well, of course, we're not doing this. In 2000 I wrote A Friend of the Earth about global warming. Well here we are. I wish I had better news. What sustains me mentally? Although after this interview people may question whether I have been sustained mentally, is nature and my art. When I'm doing my art I am revolving these questions in my mind I don't begin with a political point I just let it flow and see what it is. And secondly, being in nature. I'm in nature a lot. Within a week ago I was in the high Sierras every day by myself sitting by a creek deep in the woods just meditating good on things like the joy of being an animal in nature, of smelling the breeze, of listening to the water, of seeing the various critters that are coming by. There is a lot of wildlife in the Sierra Nevada. I go out every day and I see things like ants and biting flies.
One of the problems with a novel trying to take the facts of real life and meditate on them and make it fiction is that because of the Internet we have instant access to everything all the time and all information so a lot of the bizarre news stories that I would meditate on and write about, particularly for short stories in the beginning of my career were known only to me. They were my stories. Now everybody knows these stories immediately and they're all writing their things about it. So it's difficult in the information age to find your own little story, but so far I think I've been able to do it.
For instance, The New Yorker will shortly publish a new story of mine from this collection I was telling you about and is called, Aren't We Not Men? And it's about CRISPR technology, which obsesses me. This is a gene editing technology which makes it much easier to edit genes in other species. In fact, if you subscribe to Nature and Science as I do for the past year there's a huge ad right in the beginning of a boxing glove on a fist and it says knock out any gene. They're selling kits to amateurs to anybody to play with various bacteria and gene edit these bacteria. Is this a good idea? I don't think so. And of course, in my telling we're just projecting slightly into the future, when we can make new species. Not to mention the parent who wants to get his kid into the best school. Give me a break. I mean it will be like buying a new car when you have a kid. You go you see how the genes line up and you pick whoever you want. You want eight foot tall? You want orange eyes? You want somebody who can run the hundred-yard dash in nine seconds? That's what it's coming to. So we're not going to be humans anymore, which I guess is no great loss.
I don't think that politics and art mix. If you have a political point to get across, well give a speech. Write an essay. But art is supposed to be a seduction and you invite in this case a reader in as your equal to make the same discoveries that you make. So I don't know what any story or novel will be, it just happens and evolves. And as it does, of course, I'm seeing what it means thematically, I'm seeing how the characters develop and so on. I mean there is an element of control in mind, but 90 percent of what I'm doing in the unconscious state is just happening. The joy of it is in the doing, of course, because it gives you something to do every day in life rather than just look at the wall and contemplate suicide. So that's very rewarding. The most rewarding moments is when you see it come together and you finish any project, whether it's a short story or a novel, it is an exhilaration, a rush, a tremendous rush of exhilaration, which lasts for maybe half a day and then you face the fact that you're completely bankrupted by the end. Worthless. You'll never write again and then you have to worry about writing the next one.
For me it's kind of an iron discipline and a routine daily, the same thing over and over. I have recently begun to use Twitter as a kind of performance space and the performance is this: here you have entrée to the glamorous life of an international literary celebrity, moi. But really it's a shtick. And the shtick is I'm a schmuck like anybody else. So the first selfie I ever took, for instance, I was showing the tweetsters me cleaning the muck out of the pond and I had two beautiful buckets of black muck and I leaned over to photograph them and I realized wait a minute, my face is showing in the muck so I took a muck selfie. So, I'm having fun I'm joking. I take a picture make a clip, of course, but this is my daily life. And I think underneath it all is a serious intent and that is to answer the question you just asked, my routine. I need it so desperately so I show them, I love a shtick also, I show them the same thing every day, the same street scene in the morning, the same blank screen. And then I talk about what I'm working on. And then the screen goes blank for a while because I'm working. So I do kind of emphasize that, particularly with a long project, you have to stay at it and it doesn't always go well but you have to fight through all of those bad moments.
Writers block is the kind of thing that does make you use that gun, or at the very least you wind up wrapped in chains in a suburb basement of a mental hospital. You can't go there. Yes, of course, I have periods in which it's not working, but I try to work through it. I just did delivered a new book of short stories to my publisher for next year and I was drumming myself off to start doing this in January after I delivered The Terranauts last fall and I just couldn't come up with anything. It just wasn't working and it took me a while until finally the first story began to come and it was so hard and I read it over and over. But then a little s period blossomed and I wound up writing the seven that I needed to complete the collection, until very recently when I'm now starting to do research for a new novel. So yes, you do have periods where you're not inspired, but if you're an artist all you want to do is make art. So that's a tremendous motivating factor. I mean I do occasionally make love to my wife and once in a while have a nice meal, clean up the house, take the dog for a walk, but basically I'm living in order to make art.
What do we learn about ourselves when we look at nature? We recognize deep similarities in our behavior and that of (other) animals. Intellectually, this is obvious to anyone who has sat through a high school biology class and learned about Darwin's evolution, but only recently so.
Centuries of thinkers believed that man and animal were distinct entities in their essence. But there is an elusive bridge between the two. That bridge juts out from our animalistic behaviors and takes human nature into completely new territory that is as exciting as it is difficult to express. This is, alas, the task of the writer; sometimes expressing the slippery truths of existence comes easy, and other times it's enough to provoke dark thoughts, as Boyle readily discloses.
Yet it is our uniquely human traits which make life livable for us. The very faculties that distinguish us from animals give us the ability — perhaps the obligation — to extract something uniquely meaningful from life. For Boyle, that is plainly making art. What is it for you?
T.C. Boyle's latest book is The Terranauts.
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