Influences - TC Boyle

There are those authors whose works initially set us on our path to become writers ourselves. These are often the authors we read when we are kids or teens, the authors whose works first haunt us and spur us to take on this writing life.

Then there is the second category of author influences, the established writers we encounter after we’ve already begun our writing careers. They are the unexpected influence, the ones we didn’t see coming, whose literary work crashes headlong into your intended artistic path and forever alters our course, making us aware that life is not a path through the forest but a voyage upon an uncharted sea.

TC Boyle is that author for me.

I was in my mid-twenties, already committed to becoming—to being!—a writer, and I was reading through the Best American Short Stories of 1997, a habit I had picked up during my writer workshops. The BASS collections are often staid and stuffy, more a reflection of the American literati perpetuating its tastes than of truly publishing the best short fiction of that year.

Two guest editors in the 1990s gleefully twisted the typical BASS modus operandi: Louise Erdritch and E. Annie Proulx (now just Annie Proulx). These collections are stellar and inspiring—qualities that BASS often fails to summon—and as a fan of Proulx’s, I found her take on that year’s best fiction startling.

TC Boyle (then writing as T. Coraghessan Boyle) originally published his story ‘Killing Babies’ in the New Yorker, and its topic is what you would guess from the title. What was foreign/shocking/enlivening was the outcome – the antagonistic Pro-Life protestor getting his in such a blatant and violent way. The shock I felt—I think I said aloud, ‘You can’t do that’—galled me and pissed me off, and yet, I was instantly won over. The story was both overtly political and shamelessly vengeful, but above all, it was a page-turner. Boyle can turn a literary phrase while engaging and entertaining the reader, sneaking in the art while distracted you with the story. 

Thanks to a coworker, who was already enamored of Boyle’s work, I started reading everything he'd written. His novel World’s End is still probably my favorite (always dance with the one that brung ya, right?) But I love his short story collections, and the novels Riven Rock and A Friend of the Earth are incredible examples of enticing narrative stamina.

His unabashedly Baby Boomer-focused fiction taught me how to structure a novel, how to delve into the minds of my characters, how to spice tragedy with humor. How to embrace my own flawed, contradictory humanity, even. My fiction would have continued to imitate that staid and stuffy BASS tone and timbre if not for Boyle’s intervention.

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the unfortunate influences that the Iowa Workshop and Raymond Carver have had on the pedagogy surrounding the teaching of fiction. I’ve been unfair. As Carol Sklenicka’s fantastic biography of Carver reveals, Carver was an instructor at the Iowa Workshop when both Boyle and another, very different writer Mark Helprin, were in attendance. Perhaps the Iowa Workshop has always been more diverse than I’ve given it credit for.

Boyle’s career and output have done to the MFA v. NYC debate what Alexander the Great's sword did to the Gordian Knot. 

Influences - In Search Of

"This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer's purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine."

Ironic how the disclaimer that led off one of the GREATEST TV SERIES OF ALL TIME would also apply to writing fiction. 

For those of you who don't know there was, in the late 70s and early 80s, only one show that dared to address questions that your typical eight year old would consider vital: Does Bigfoot exist? What exactly is in Loch Ness? Was there really a Wolf Man?

Yes, only one show scared and enthralled, captivated and horrified, like In Search Of

Hosted with the just-right gravitas of Leonard Nimoy, whom I was aware of thanks to Star Trek reruns (plus the animated Star Trek series), In Search Of struck the essential balance between hokey and frightening that any kid (and I suppose adult) would find intoxicating. I mean, what other shows at the time seriously examined the possible existence of, say, UFOs with a combination of found footage, interviews with 'experts' and re-enactments?

That's right. None.  

I've made mention on this site and in my blog about how much my aesthetic was shaped (i.e., twisted) by the syndicated episodes of The Twilight Zone. I had almost forgotten about TTZ's shadow twin In Search Of. Interestingly, Rod Serling hosted the first In Search Of documentaries and would have continued to do so for the series proper had he not passed away. No further pop culture blessing need be applied, thank you very much. 

I suppose one could quibble about the, well, factual accuracy of the show. One could throw around words like 'scientific method' 'evidence' 'proof' if one wanted to be an absolute kill-joy. That's missing the point. Setting aside the dangers that some folks will believe anything they see on TV (which is admittedly a pretty massive set-aside) In Search Of's greatness resided in its ability to instill wonder and awe in the world around us.

Who doesn't want to believe that, just down that way, there is a Bermuda Triangle that will slurp you into a trans-dimensional vortex? I mean, come on. 

And I have to admit that even as an adult I'm still intrigued by a story like the one about Coral Castle. It's just so...odd and magical. 

Thank you You Tube. And thank YOU In Search Of.

Influences - OK, Carver

Raymond Carver's influence on the modern short story form is undeniable, and his ghost still haunts the current creative writing classroom, although from what I can glean from the all-mighty interwebs, his influence in literary circles is perhaps on the wane.

For those unfamiliar with Carver's work, he is a short story writer whose dominant years were the late 70s through the late 80s. Carver only wrote short stories, and he typically used the Pacific Northwest as his backdrop. He is most often associated with the term 'minimalism' which is both a problematic term and a faulty literary movement. But let's say that most of his fiction, under the influence of his editor Gordon Lish, attempted to show as much about its subjects through what was not on the page as the words that were printed there.

Minimalism is the literary equivalent of a painter using negative space to create an image, if that makes sense. 

My own intersection with Carver's works began when I studied under Richard Cortez Day while attending Humboldt State University. Carver too studied under Day before Carver migrated with his family to Chico State where he apprenticed under John Gardner. As a beginning writer, I was presented with Carver's stories as exemplary artifacts of the short literary form. That Carver was a 'native son' increased his significance.

The problem is that bad Carver is really bad, and for all the writing contests that try to mimic for laughs what we'll call 'Bad Hemingway' there could be just as many contests for 'Bad Carver.' His style almost demands mockery.

The shameful reality is that Carver himself was as hemmed in by his own growing literary legacy as the rest of us. In her excellent biography of Carver titled Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, Carol Sklenicka unpacks the complicated Carver/Lish relationship and portrays Lish as the proponent (perhaps even culprit) of a minimalist style that sometimes pared so much of Carver's text away, meaning was lost. My personal favorite passage from the book is this quote from writer Charles Baxter, who kept a copy of the Lish-dominated What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on his desk as "an example of what I did not want to do....I loved the book. But I hated it too."

Baxter was brave enough to articulate what readers and writers alike feel when taking in the early Carver stories: there's something off about them. A quality that to me almost smacks of cheating. As if Carver didn't quite do all the work. It's not that excess verbiage was cut away, it's that the essential soul of a given piece was brutally hacked off. We know how much Carver struggled to get his work done, what with his family commitments and his alchoholism, and we know that he at least fantasized about writing novels and other longer works, but some of the early stories feel undone, incomplete, dashed off, and there's this Emperor's New Clothes aspect where as the reader you feel like you are agreeing that a given story is great because that's what your professors and fellow students are telling you to feel.

Reservations aside, Carver is a great writer, and his literary reputation is deserved. There is no denying that he had his share of masterpieces: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Cathedral, Where I'm Calling From,  Errand. These are works that can stand with the best stories ever written, and they are the stories I reflect on as influencing my own development as a writer. When an artist can pair kitchen-sink realism with the transcendent, as Carver does with wonderful grace in Cathedral, well, that's all I need as both reader and writer.

I just wish, and I know that I'm not alone in this, that he we had gotten so much more from Carver before his death in 1988.  The works he did leave us are not enough.


Influences - Gloria Naylor's 'Mama Day'

I have always favored fiction that possesses inherent strangeness and transcendence and mystery. I know part of that aesthetic is due to having grown up on comic books, old episodes of The Twilight Zone, my aforementioned love of Stephen King novels, and my own (overactive) imagination. Even the modernist writers I favor--say a William Faulkner--veer toward something Other (for lack of a better term) that isn't quite realism.

I first read Gloria Naylor's Mama Day as an undergrad taking one of those 'ethnic literature' courses that attempted to upend the dead-white-male literary cannon. There was more good than bad in the attempt for obvious reasons, but when selecting literature for such a course, it's easy to imagine the professor saying, "OK, we have our Asian, we have our Native American, now whom should we pick to represent African-Americans?"  

At the time (the wild and wonderful early 90s, he said with unadulterated nostalgia) if you wanted an African-American female novelist, the choices were two - Alice Walker and/or Toni Morrison. How or why my professor threw in Gloria Naylor, I will never know, but he did. And his was a brilliant choice.

It was one of those courses that we had too much to read in too little time, and I had originally skipped Mama Day because I figured I would focus on the books I was going to write my term papers about. I even sat through the Mama Day lecture, missing the point of it and not much caring. No, it was when we had started the next book that I picked up Naylor's novel and thumbed through it. Then, like that, I was hooked and everything else got shoved aside while I read Mama Day and nothing else. I think I may have even taken on Naylor's novel for my term paper, I was that crazy about it.

The folkloric backdrop, the magic realism (we weren't allowed to call novels fantasy in my least not then), the in-your-face use of 2nd person narration alternating with a present tense 3rd person limited, and the characters--oh, the characters--make the novel not merely good but great. At that stage in my development as a writer (such that it was or is), I didn't realize how much I needed to see someone so masterfully weave the literary, the fantastic, and the human into such a powerful work of art. 

I knew then what I wanted my own novels to be like. 

I place Mama Day in the list of my top five favorite novels of all time. (Yeah, don't ask...I'll come up with the rest of my list someday.) The novel really is that good. Or wondrous strange as the family of one of my favorite painters liked to say about a piece of art that both fascinated and beguiled them.

You may be wondering why the qualification - why not just say that Gloria Naylor is an influence. I don't know her works as deeply as I do some writers, and although I enjoyed Bailey's Cafe, which was the follow up to Mama Day, I didn't find it as life-changing. (And really, can anything be as life-changing as the art we were exposed to in our early-twenties?) 

Gloria Naylor deserves more celebration and study than she was getting twenty years ago (Jesus, has it really been that long?), and from what I can tell by reading the all powerful Interwebs, she is almost criminally ignored in literary circles these days. Here's hoping that her fortunes change. The woman has the gift, and the world could use another masterwork like Mama Day.


Influences - Stephen King

I can't begin a list of writers who have influenced me without starting with Stephen King. 

When I was a creative writing student in college (way back in the early 1990s), it wasn't hip (or 'hep' as my former percussion instructor used to say) to throw Stephen King out as an influence. Creative writing classes of that era were still dominated by the structures established in the 1970s, the writing programs designed by the likes of John Gardner, who pushed publication in small, literary magazines and tried to get everyone who could do so to attend THE Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. (To be fair to Univ of Iowa, a couple of my favorite writers--Mark Helprin and TC Boyle--did time there.) 

If you weren't trying to be the next Raymond Carver, you were shit. This is a shame, because I don't think even Raymond Carver wanted to be Raymond Carver after awhile. 

Anyway, even in the 1990s the MFA to teaching to (maybe) publishing route was unable to support the many, many writers (like myself) who couldn't get into or couldn't fit into MFA programs. Those of us who grew up on comic books, Piers Anthony and Stephen King novels, old reruns of The Twilight Zone, and whatever other miasma of pop culture/literary influences that penetrated our brains were sort of forced to suck it. (Michael Chabon being the one clear example of a writer with similar influences to mine and who transcended painful obscurity by staying true to his influences. Hats off to you, Mr. Chabon.) 

But yeah, you didn't mention that you loved Stephen King back in my day. You just didn't. 

If I had to point to two things (because I can't narrow it down to one) that set King apart, and two things that demand respect, it's his authorial voice and his evocation of all things Americana. Even in his worst novels (let's say Tommyknockers), his voice is so alluring, so compelling, so much like our own inner dialogue, that you can't help but follow him wherever he takes you. And does anyone summon 'kitchen sink' realism better than Mr. King? He gets America. He gets us. He gives you a world just like the one we live in, and then he either scares the shit out of us, or he transports us, or he performs some wonderful combination of both.  

I find the epics--The Stand, IT--the most compelling. But the argument could be made that the greater novels are the more focused pot-boilers like Firestarter or The Dead Zone. I dig his horror works, but I find his paranormal-influenced tales just as winning, if not more so. I have barely read The Dark Tower series, and I can't wait to finally dig in.

Beyond the deep debt I have to him and his fiction, I found his On Writing to be the perfect impetus--the right book read at the right time--to get me to complete my own fiction works and get them out into the world. His process of always moving on to the next project is what I needed to emulate in order to get over my own obsessive revision cycle. (It wasn't David Milch obsessive, but it was close.) Funny that I had to end where I began in order to get my own writing career going again. Life just never ceases to mystify.

By the by, I have read that other authors--notably Karen Russell--have recently begun to publicly thank the man for his influence on their own writing. I'm happy to see the man get his due. Thanks Stephen King for showing us the way.