High Times Greats: T.C. Boyle

A 1999 interview with the renowned American novelist and short story writer.
High Times Greats: T.C. Boyle
T.C. Boyle by Pablo Campos/ Courtesy of Penguin Putnam, Inc.

One of the most creative fiction writers working today, T.C. Boyle has penned The Road to Wellness, Riven Rock and the marijuana classic Budding Prospects. In honor of Boyle’s birthday December 2, 1948, we’re republishing Gregory Daurer’s interview with Boyle from the June, 1999 issue of High Times.

His books call him T.C. Boyle or T. Coraghessan Boyle, but he introduces himself simply as Tom. Wearing a black leather jacket, a black t-shirt with an off-kilter illustrated head on it, black boots with flames painted on them and a skull ring, Boyle, 50, is quite a character—as well as one of the most creative fiction writers working today. His novels include The Tortilla Curtain (about the lives of a homeless immigrant Mexican couple and an American yuppie couple), World’s End (about the ’60s counterculture Boyle grew up amidst), and, his most recent work, Riven Rock (about a socialite’s psychiatric confinement for a misogynistic mental illness), Boyle’s stories display a cinematic eye. Consequently, his 1993 novel The Road to Wellville was made into a film by Alan Parker, starring Anthony Hopkins and Dana Carvey. And, during the course of this interview, High Times learned that Boyle’s uproarious 1984 book Budding Prospects (about a trio of cursed California marijuana cultivators) will soon be made into a motion picture. High Times met with Boyle during his January publicity tour for the release of T.C. Boyle Stories (Viking).

High Times: What are you writing currently?

T.C. Boyle: I’m working on a novel about the environmental movement. And it’s extremely wild. Completely out-of-control and berserk. It’s called A Friend of the Earth. It takes place in the period from 1950 to 2025. Half of it is set in 2025 when, because of global warming, the weather is real bad. And a lot of the major mammalian species are extinct, as is everything that swims in the sea, except maybe zebra mussels.

The whales are all gone?

They’re all gone. What are they going to eat, you know, once the krill are all dead because the krill have nothing to eat because of solar radiation getting through the holes in the ozone layer and killing off the plankton? It’s a pretty depressing subject. But, of course, I’m making a comedy out of it.

In a lot of your stories there’s a wary—maybe even hostile—eye turned towards activists. I’m wondering if you think that people who care passionately about an issue too often fall into extremism?

Excellent question. The characters in this novel are eco-terrorists who perform acts of “ecotage.” Which, of course, is the next extension: from preserving to destroying. As the main character says, “To be a friend of the Earth, you have to be an enemy of the people.” Because who is the problem here on this planet but us? So I’ve said—I’m already preparing the jokes for the novel which isn’t even written yet—if you’re a true environmentalist, you will go out to the mulch pile in your backyard and cover yourself in debris and shoot yourself in the back of the head.

And the point to this is: Don’t invest in a sushi bar. Everything they serve in there will be extinct in ten years. And that is true. Except maybe catfish.

Where have you read that? I know you study a lot of material before writing about different historical periods in your novels.

Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina, which came out this past year, about the depletion of the seas. And it is just terrifying.

What was it like growing up in Peekskill, New York?

Well, Peekskill was an industrial town on the Hudson River that, during its heyday around the 1890s, was a very beautiful town. When I was a kid, it was all run down. Now it’s deserted like a ghost town, just a bunch of welfare people, nothing going on. Technology’s changed; one of its big industries was making wire hoops for women’s skirts. Well, they went out of fashion and the factory went out of business. Towns were built on the river for commerce with New York; sloops would come up and they’d unload the cargo. Then we had the railroads and the railroads went along the river, too. But then we built the parkways and that was the end of that. When I was a kid, the town was dying off and the suburbs were shopping centers.

There’s a much smaller town about ten miles up the river called Cold Spring, and now it’s a big tourist attraction. A friend of mine lives there and he complains that there are nine shops where he can buy an antique milk bucket, but no store where he can buy milk. It could never happen in Peekskill, because it’s too big and too run down and too funky. So I’m a West Coast guy now.

Do you like living in Santa Barbara?

I love Santa Barbara. I’m four blocks from the ocean. It’s always cool, there are no bugs. It’s a great town. A lot’s happening there. Last fall, I was walking at 11:30 at night along the mountain within two miles of my house and saw my first mountain lion in a state of nature, which I think is pretty cool.

For Riven Rock did you decide first that you’d like to do a story set in Santa Barbara?

It just fell in my lap. I read the story about Stanley and Katherine McCormick’s twisted relationship in the newspaper. It really piqued my interest, especially what I say in the first line: “For twenty years, Stanley McCormick never laid eyes on a woman.” How interesting: he’s married, he never consummates the marriage, he’s a sexual maniac and he’s locked up for twenty years. It’s as close to telling a true story as any of my novels—except maybe for Budding Prospects, but that’s not a historical story, it’s a contemporary story. This is just a true story that I’m illustrating to see what it means to us today—you know, about marriage, sexuality, fidelity, psychiatry.

Let’s talk about your pot novel, Budding Prospects.

It’s going to the movies this year, finally. It’s been under option since it came out in ’84. I think there have been five separate deals and scripts written—which, by the way, is why I have nothing to do with Hollywood. And finally it’s coming together. Columbia Pictures stepped in, they hired a director, Peter Cattaneo, who did The Full Monty, and they hired the writers, who are very hilarious, from Grosse Pointe Blank. So I have high hopes that it will be a very funny and well-done movie.

I saw several similarities between the recent movie Homegrown and Budding Prospects.

We looked at that script to see if they were ripping us off and I don’t think they were; it’s an entirely different thing. Budding Prospects is going to be a lot different than Homegrown. It could be a really good movie if it’s done properly. All you need is a shack, a bar and a field of marijuana.

And a lot of dirt.

And a lot of dirt. And you’ve got five plum roles for young actors. And some pretty decent female roles too.

You dedicated Budding Prospects to your “horticultural friends.” I was wondering how familiar you were at the time with marijuana-growing in Northern California?

Very, very familiar. Three of the principals in that book are my lifelong best friends. The last time I was in Berkeley—with Riven Rock, which would have been last year at this time—a question from the audience came. And the question was really kind of fumbled around by a guy who’s having a little trouble talking. I looked and it was one of the guys from the book! The one I know least well. Then I looked around the crowd and I realized that for the first time since this happened in the early ’80s, all five of the principals were in the room that night! And we all went out together—because there’s some bitter feelings, as you can imagine. Vogelsang was there. Boyd Dowst was not there; he’s kind of disappeared. But the other guys were all there.

Budding Prospects is a true story. Entirely true, in fact, down to the raging paranoia, the intrusive neighbors and, most ridiculous of all, they did grow an amazing crop, but it was tiny and they lost money on it. And they did invite everybody over to trim it and burn all the crap in the fireplace. So that after all this paranoia, they had a big truck pull up to the house, unloaded the shit at night and had a pall of smoke—I mean over the block—coming from their fireplace. They got everybody over to the house and for $5 an hour and as much as you could smoke, they did the trimming. And threw the shit in the fireplace and burned it up. It was so hilarious, absurd. And the fact that it was such a monumental failure was great, because then I could tell the story.

How was the weed?

They produced very superior, wonderful weed. By this point, though—and this would have been probably the summer of ’80 or ’81—people already were growing indoors, and another very close friend had a very sophisticated indoor thing going on. And he almost did as well as they did with all these acres and everything else, because they hadn’t counted on nature!

Yes, the bear came and chewed through the pipes. Yes, the rats chewed the bases of the plants because it was dry. It’s all true. It’s just a hilarious story. My dear friends don’t think it’s that hilarious, because they had to suffer through it. But they will all put their tuxedos on and go to the premiere. And I’ll bet they cause a hell of a disturbance too!

Those characters really came to life. I liked the shadowy Vietnam vet, Vogelsang, who puts up the capital and property to start the crop.

The others I kind of fudge a little bit. Vogelsang is exactly the way he is in life. I couldn’t help it. And you know what? He likes the portrait of himself, because he’d like to think of himself as a bad guy and a tough guy and everything else. He was pleased.

So what are your thoughts on the War on Drugs?

My thoughts are this: When I seize power in this country—which I intend to do within the next five years—the very first thing I’ll do will be to legalize all drugs as a practical measure. Half the prison cells in California are filled with nonviolent drug offenders. We have destabilized whole governments in Colombia and Peru, for instance. We have crack gangs in the ghetto. You can put them all out of business and the money into our own pockets simply by legalizing drugs. Now, you and I, if we want to, can go and buy a gallon of vodka and go to my room and drink it till we vomit. And maybe we will; but maybe we won’t. If I could get pharmaceutical coke down here in the drugstore, I might go down and do a couple of toots. But I probably wouldn’t do it every night, because I’ve got a life to lead. But, boy, if you could tax drugs—legal drugs—the way they tax booze, you could buy another world, a whole other world to put people on. It’s ridiculous. As a practical measure, it’s a no-brainer.

What are your thoughts on California’s Proposition 215? Did you vote for it?

Yes, of course. I think it’s a good start in the right direction. But, as I say, I think all drugs should be legalized and sold at the drugstore. And, yes, some people would abuse it, but imagine the treatment centers you could put up. And, you know, forget the cocaine trade, forget all of this; you could grow it commercially here and have a fine product, put all the gangs out of business, cut down on the violence, open up the prisons. We’re spending more on prisons in California than we are on the university system. Something’s really wrong here. It’s completely nuts! All because of some politicians’ misguided feelings or the Religious Right feeling that it’s immoral. Well, we had Prohibition of booze too and what did it give rise to? The Mafia, Al Capone and all of that, which still plagues us. You know what the government makes off a pack of cigarettes or a gallon of gasoline or a bottle of booze? We could do the same with pot, hash, coke—anything you want.

You grew up during the ’60s counterculture era. Do you have any misgivings or do you look back fondly on that time?

Boy, I really didn’t have any choice about it. I didn’t even think about it. I wasn’t that philosophical. I was just totally absorbed in the scene. I was swept up in the thing and didn’t really think much about it and went whole-hog, as you’re well aware. But the people I was hanging around really didn’t have anything to do in life—and I did. I wanted to do something, I was beginning to write then. Maybe William Burroughs could do it, but I can’t; I’m into keeping all my habits in check in order to produce work. And what I want to do most of all is to produce work. I’m no angel. I do what I like, but nothing like what it was in those days when I really didn’t have anything else to do.

Do you sometimes think of the act of writing as kind of a whimsical exorcism of the craziness in society around you?

That’s exactly right. I’m confused like everybody else, and what’s nice about the way I work is that anything that occurs to me can be a story: anything that anybody tells me or that interests me. I’m not confined by my own autobiography, I’m not confined by realism, I’m not confined by minimalism. I can do anything. I like that. That’s why the stories are so various. It’s just the way I work. I’m just groping towards trying to understand things and trying to filter them through this fiction.

I do all sorts of things, but essentially I’m a satirist. But I don’t want to be simply a satirist—like Evelyn Waugh, for instance, one of my heroes, who is one of the funniest writers and one of the wickedest satirists who ever lived—because there’s a limitation to that in that it just makes fun of something. That’s fine, I have no problems with that. But I want to do something a little bit more: to make fun of something, but also to finally turn it on you and make you feel something, make you moved or depressed or overjoyed.

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