Tonight I attended a Border Kitchen event held at Theatre aan het Spui in The Hague to hear TC Boyle speak about life, writing and his latest book “The Harder They Come.”
I’ve only read two novels by TC Boyle: “Riven Rock” and “Drop City.” I immensely enjoyed both novels and believe TC Boyle to be one of America’s great contemporary authors. Despite the years that have passed since I’ve read these books, their characters occasionally appear in my mind as vividly–and in some cases as disturbingly–as someone I’ve met in person.
When I arrived there weren’t many seats left, but I managed to join two ladies at a table. I headed to the counter to grab a cup of tea before the event started. I was selecting my tea bag when I noticed someone standing close to me at the counter, mixing milk into his tea. I looked up to see T.C. Boyle an elbow length away. He saw me in his peripheral vision and we looked at each other, struck up a conversation. I’m not sure who spoke first, but our initial exchange went something like this.
A strange and stupid shock ran through my body, as often happens when you meet a celebrity. I felt heat, discomfit, became aware that nothing intelligent was flowing from my lips as we chatted. He mentioned his jet lag. I was properly sympathetic. I asked him if he still lived in Santa Barbara and he said yes. I explained that I used to live there. He asked what I did here in The Hague. I provided a mundane reply about my work, mentioned my Dutch husband. I shared nothing about being a writer, or that it was strange to talk to him in person, since he has been inside my head, though many years ago, through the muse of his characters; will most likely be in my head once again after I purchase his latest book.
Perhaps that is why I felt weirdly off kilter, despite his casual friendliness. He has been inside of me. I realize that sounds overtly intimate. But it is not far off. Have you ever read a book where the characters stick with you? Seem multi-faceted enough to actually be the flawed humans that we all are? But with a book, the intimacy of knowing a character goes deeper; it is a voyeuristic experience where you are privy to their thoughts, candidly know their fears, and if written well, are sympathetic to them despite the fact that they are horrible people; or are inspired by them even though they do not exist. But they exist, I believe, in a collective way. Whether they are an amalgamation of impressions of different people wrapped into a well-researched historical character, or completely fabricated by the author, they are distinctly human and live a life of their own.
Do we ever experience this level of intimacy with our friends and lovers? Certainly. Because our friends and lovers are real people with whom we can interact and a fictional character created by an author following a muse is nothing compared to a real person. Why then, do characters stay with us over the years? Why do we have whole academic degrees about literature that spend hours analyzing the characters presented by authors as if they are real people that offer insight into the human condition? Because they do. Because humans have and always will relate to stories about the individual.
Just like real people, T.C. Boyles’ characters have riled me up, made me question humanity, feel emotions far more complex than singular brushstrokes of anger, love or compassion.
What intrigues me about T.C. Boyle is that he does not shy away from topics that make most of us squirm and close our eyes: racism, murder, schizophrenia, environmental issues, controversial eradication of wildlife to name a few.
I learned this evening that his latest book “The Harder They Come” is based upon a real person who murdered two people. Although he thoroughly researched this person; read through all the newspaper articles and reports of the homicide, he never interviewed anyone. In fact, he doesn’t interview people for his writing, and has taken the liberty of writing about real people without ever actually talking to them.
To summarize something he said this evening: Any person that has been heavily written about in the news is fair game for writer’s of fiction.
I’ve never thought of it quite like that. If you write a fictional account of someone, you are neither representing or misrepresenting them. You are creating a parallel universe in which they exist, and we, as author and readers, breathe life into this alternate universe by the act of participating in the story, letting it unfold inside of us.
Based on his wild look and the usually intense content of his books, I had wrongly assumed that T.C. Boyle would be an introvert with a secretive, introspective cast to his eyes as he addressed the audience. Oh. Far from it. He was funny, irreverent, yet polite. When he settled down a bit, his intelligence and insight into what it means to be human shone forth from behind the humor, and I understood why I must expand my T.C. Boyle reading collection. That won’t be hard, considering he has written 25 books, 150 short stories and countless articles.
I’m not sure what got into me, but as I stood in line to get his signature, I wanted a photo with him. I noticed the woman in front of me had a camera, and boldly, timidly, I asked if she wouldn’t mind taking a picture of me with the author. Her name was Eleonore and she was gracious enough to honor my request and send the photos this very evening!
What I walked away with this evening is a renewed sense of faith in the value of literature to society, and a desire to further my career as an author. I’ve published one book, so technically I already am an author, but what about becoming a full time author? Creating fertile soil for my creativity through a daily practice of writing, researching, exploring character, finding the muse?
I know: Keep the day job. But tonight’s reading with TC Boyle was like fresh kindling under the 19th century idea of finding my own personal patron. A patron of the arts who wants to sponsor me for three years to turn my fledgling career into a serious author of contemporary literature. It is as if being in the mere shadow of fame inspires you to search out the light; dare to dream.
Thanks Border Kitchen! Thanks TC Boyle.