T. C. Boyle

 T.C. Boyle (born Thomas John Boyle, also known as Tom Coraghessan Boyle) is a U.S. novelist and short story writer. Since the late seventies he has published twelve novels and over 100 short stories. Boyle grew up in Peekskill, NY and attended SUNY at Potsdam for his undergraduate studies before going on to complete his M.F.A. at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1974 and a Ph.D. from University of Iowa in 19th Century British Literature in 1977. Boyle considers his time in Iowa a milestone in his life as a writer, as he has said in countless interviews: Iowa is where he came into his own. He is now a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California and lives in Santa Barbara with his wife and three children.

Early Life

T.C. Boyle did not share in the idealized background that is often expected of a writer. In his frequently referenced autobiographical essay of 1999, "This Monkey, My Back”, he says he wasn’t born with the gift of writing; he didn't “wear bottle lenses and braces and hide out in dark corners,”; the book was not his only friend and he never burrowed through the library his father never had. “No, I was kid like any other kid” he says. Boyle admits that before his pursuing his M.F.A, he was somewhat of a “degenerate, writing sporadically, and listening to a lot of bad habits…” but he knew he was a writer. Although he did not find success as a saxophone player, he went on to study history at the undergraduate level at the State University of New York at Potsdam. He asks himself why exactly he chose to study history, “I didn’t know at the time,” he answers, “I couldn't have defined it, but it had to do with writing. I didn't yet realize it, but I could write, and in history—unlike, say, biology or math—what you did was write essays.” He began to read voraciously, he recalls “a blast of recognition” when first introduced to Flannery O’Connor’s work and as he forged relationships with professors and read more, he to gained a sense of himself as a writer. He went on to take his first creative writing class as a junior with Krishna Vaid, and although this was a poetry class, Boyle became enamored with experimental writing and the work of writers like Samuel Beckett. His first creative piece for Vaid was a comic one-act play called "The Foot", the positive reception that followed was the first of Boyle’s writerly triumphs. He went on to teach high school English, and to evade the draft for the Vietnam War. In his essay he discusses what it was like to be writer among veterans when he walked into his first graduate level workshop taught by his soon to be mentor, Vance Bourjaily:

“…it was all-male. I guess there were maybe fifteen or sixteen students gathered there, most older than I, and all but three (myself included) were writing about their experiences in Vietnam. My story went up the first week. It wasn't about Vietnam. It was about being a hippie in a certain hippie milieu…”

Boyle may have had a different perspective, but his early encounters with writers helped him realize that authors were “wise guys,” just like him.

Boyle In and On Iowa City

Boyle’s writing career, The University of Iowa and Iowa City are inextricably linked. In “This Monkey, My Back” he recalls his first impression of the school, the city and the influential people he suddenly found himself surrounded by:

“[…]I didn't know Iowa from Ohio—or Idaho, for that matter. But it wasn't all that complicated, really: my girlfriend and my dog climbed into the car, we marked out the route on the map, and headed out on I-80. It was late summer in Iowa, hills and square-faced buildings and leaves as green as a feat of the imagination. There was a party for new students on a muggy September day in one of those big old houses downtown somewhere, and I remember Fred Exley swaggering in with two shining and beautiful students in tow […]and a quart bottle of vodka, from which he was swigging as if it were a big cold translucent beer. It would be many years later, when Pages From a Cold Island came out, before I understood where he'd been and what his frame of mind might have been like that day, but at any rate I was impressed: here was a writer.”

He goes on to address (albeit reluctantly) something mystical about the writerly atmosphere:

“Something had happened to me, something inexplicable even to this day: I felt a power in me. I don't mean to get mystical here, because science has killed mysticism for me, to my everlasting regret, but suddenly, though I'd done nothing to earn it, I felt strong, superior, invincible. […]I felt a power. I wrote.”

And Iowa brought him good things. He went on to enroll in the Ph.D. program to study nineteenth century British Literature alongside his M.F.A in the Writers' Workshop. Boyle admits that most of his writing during that time consisted of academic analysis of obscure poetry, but his encounters with more seasoned writers like John Cheever and John Irving (a fellow student of his mentor in the Workshop, Vance Bourjaily) proved to be priceless. In his essay, Boyle discusses what made himself both different and strikingly similar to his respected mentors. Here he describes in his own words, how he reconciled the perceived differences over emergent “experimental” writing with Cheever:

“I kept making noises about “experimental writing” and hailing people like Coover, Pynchon, Barthelme, and John Barth, but Cheever would have none of it. He couldn't make any sense out of The Sot Weed Factor and didn't see that it was worth the effort of trying. Further, he insisted that his writing was experimental, too, but I didn't really get what he meant till he published his collected stories five years later and I reread things like “The Death of Justina,” as dark and haunting a dream of a story and anything I've read by anyone. All good fiction is experimental, he was telling me, and don't get caught up in fads.”

Boyle makes it clear that Iowa was an imperative part of his writerly identity. Over 20 years later in an interview with Scott Rettburg, he remembers it just as fondly as he recounts it in his personal essay.

An excerpt from “Scott Rettberg Interviews T.C. Boyle November 23, 1998”:

SR: You studied at the University of Iowa’s Writers' Workshop in the early seventies and stayed on to complete your Ph.D. How important of a period was that for you as a writer? […]

T.C. BOYLE: […] The time when I was at Iowa was a time when I became serious about writing—as my life. Before that, as you probably know, I was pretty much of a degenerate, writing sporadically, and listening to a lot of bad habits and so on in New York. I’d never been west of New Jersey at that point, and I kind of grew up, because now I knew what I wanted to do, and I pursued it vigorously. I’m very proud of the fact that I made a perfect 4.0 in all of my graduate work, that I was a good student. Prior to that—I’d been in school since I was four years old, and I didn’t want to do it, you know? It was like punishment to go to undergraduate school. So in that way, yeah, it started a whole new phase of my life. Iowa bailed me out, really.

SR: It’s a good place to write.

T.C. BOYLE: Yes it is. You’re in a place where everybody is a writer, including the waiter and the bartender and the pizza delivery guy, everybody’s a writer. And writing is the chief art, and writers are revered. I got to see all my heroes coming through town and give a reading in the five and a half years I lived there. Whether they’re nice people or not, or whether they’re idiots, who cares? There they are, they’re living and breathing, you know?

Read all of Scott Rettberg’s interview here.

Iowa City lives on in one of Boyle’s earlier pieces of short fiction “The Women’s Restaurant” first published in Penthouse Magazine in 1977 (and later part of his collection The Descent of Man as “A Women’s Restaurant”) is based on Grace and Rubie’s, a restaurant on North Linn Street in Iowa City. It tells the story of a man determined to eat there, despite its strictly female reputation.

In his essay, Boyle also mentions The Mill (a local restaurant and bar) when remembering, or perhaps romanticizing, the Iowa Writer's Workshop in its Raymond Carver and John Cheever days:

“Ray Carver had been living in town a few years earlier, in the Cheever days (they drank together at the Mill, and I'll never know why the local historical society hasn't affixed little brass markers to the stools they perched themselves on during those long hard hours of draining glasses and lighting cigarettes)…”

Perhaps this best captures Boyle’s sentiments on the city and the Workshop, and reveals exactly how influential it has been in the cultivation of the “writer”.

Collections and Novels

Descent of Man is the first of Boyle’s eight short story collections, published in 1979, it represents that last “big step” Boyle was to take as a writer. The collection consists of several stories from his time in the Iowa Writers' Workshop and after appearing in small magazines and then larger, more respected ones like The Atlantic Monthly or The Paris Review they went on to make up the collection that launched a very productive career (a career that has yielded twenty-two books of fiction.) When Boyle recalls his M.F.A days, he says he only wanted to be a short-story writer, when he shared this with John Irving he insisted Boyle may change his mind someday, and Irving was right. His success with short fiction was soon followed by his first novel Water Music (1982) then a second novel Budding Prospects (1984) these novels begin a list of twelve novels published, including World’s End (1987) which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for best novel of the year and made it onto the New York Times Book Review’s list as one of the top 16 novels of the year.

Few writers have published with such velocity as Boyle. His more recent works include, 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) and When the Killing's Done in 2011. But, Boyle fondly calls writing his addiction, and he has stumbled into a very productive cycle.

“First you have nothing, and then, astonishingly, after ripping out your brain and your heart and betraying your friends and ex-lovers and dreaming like a zombie over the page till you can't see or hear or smell or taste, you have something. Something new. Something of value. Something to hold up and admire. And then? Well, you've got a jones, haven't you? And you start all over again, with nothing.”


Gleason, Paul William. Understanding T.C. Boyle. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 2009. Print.

Boyle, T.C. "This Monkey, My Back." Tcboyle.com. From The Eleventh Draft, Ed. Frank Conroy. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. Web. 06 Jan. 2011. http://www.tcboyle.com/author/essay.html.

"Earl M. Rogers on Fiction Set in Iowa City." The University of Iowa Libraries. Books at Iowa 55 (November 1991) Copyright: The University of Iowa. Web. 20 Dec. 2010. http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/spec-coll/bai/rogers.htm

Text: Jessica Jenkins

United States
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