The Harder They Come
On April 1, 2015, Ecco will publish T.C. Boyle’s 25th book of fiction, The Harder They Come, a novel set in Northern California that follows three characters in rotation: Sten Stensen, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran and retired school principal; Sten’s troubled son, Adam; and Adam’s older, damaged lover, Sara. The novel opens with T.C. Boyle’s trademark humor but dives right into action, quickly turning dark as Sten kills a gun-wielding assailant with his bare hands on a Costa Rican vacation with his wife. Upon Sten’s return to the States, we quickly learn of his difficult relationship with his paranoid son, who also has a tendency toward violence, possibly more dangerous and unpredictable than his father’s. The story progresses at an exciting pace, as we watch Adam spiral out of control and the effect this has on both Sten and Sara.
The Harder They Come is a gripping read and a powerful commentary on American themes of self-reliance and anti-authoritarianism. It’s also eerily prescient. I found it entirely too easy to forget while reading it that T.C. Boyle finished this manuscript before nearly identical incidents of gun violence took place in the United States just this past year. It’s no wonder that T.C. Boyle’s masterful writing has earned the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, and the Henry David Thoreau Prize, among other honors. Shortly after the publication of The Harder They Come, T.C. Boyle will be presented with the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 35th annual L.A. Times Book Prizes.
I had the pleasure of conducting an interview via email this month with T.C. Boyle, who replied from his home in Santa Barbara. We discussed his writing process, the excellent tcboyle.com website and blog, his computer genius son Milo and other family members, and his thoughts on his latest novel.
Catherine LaSota (Rail): Thanks so much for taking the time to answer some questions for the Brooklyn Rail as you get ready for the upcoming US tour for your latest novel, They Harder They Come. I see from your tour schedule that you just spent some time in Germany and Austria. Any good stories to share from those travels?
T.C. Boyle: I’ve just posted the latest blog entry touching on some of the highlights of the tour and Milo put up some pictures too. Best thing (aside from the very appreciative audiences)? Travel by train and only train. No strip searches at the airport, no TSA, no beating with rubber hoses in the back room, no trying to breathe with your knees shoved down your throat in a seat designed for gerbils while you inhale the multiplied diseases of a couple hundred strangers all locked together in a hurtling steel-skinned death trap.
Rail: Many readers of the Brooklyn Rail are writers at various stages in their careers. You are a writer at, what many would agree is, the height of yours—a writer considered both a crafty stylist and a rollicking storyteller. How much attention do you give to plot and story when you’re in the act of early composition? I’ve read that you discover the structure of your work in large part as you go along, yet you have an idea going into the work whether it will be a novel or a short story (you are unusually accomplished in both forms). How then do you go about polishing the prose? Can you talk about this creative process, and—for the beginning writers in our readership—can you talk about how you learned your craft?
Boyle: I love process questions. I began my career haunting dark bars late at night and pinning people to the walls to talk about process (of course, at that point, I wasn’t actually writing anything). I do think I’ve made up for it since, though. As for plot, it’s the foundation of everything that builds atop it, and it evolves as the story does. Sometimes, of course, I’ve written stories—and novels—deriving from a received story, as with “The Love of My Life,” about the high school couple who delivered their baby and then discarded it in a dumpster. Or some of the historical pieces, in which I’m writing about figures whose lives are a matter of record, like Robert Johnson of “Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail.” There are no rules, however, and you can violate the facts of their lives if you want. I don’t usually want to, though. I want to dramatize those facts, see inside them. The final bit of the question here—about learning one’s craft—is easy. I learned to write by reading great writers and then skating out on the very thin ice of my own beginnings.
Rail: Can you talk a bit about the research that went into writing The Harder They Come? What were the germs of this novel for you?
Boyle: The novel began with two news reports, the first regarding a 70-year-old former Marine, who killed an assailant with his bare hands while on a cruise in Central America; the second was the report of Aaron Bassler, a mentally unbalanced young man in Ft. Bragg, California, who shot two people and then took to the woods, where he remained at large over the course of a five-week manhunt. Both reports—and myriad others—led me to write The Harder They Come, a meditation on the American propensity for violence, especially gun violence.
Rail: The Harder They Come has been described as a “high-adrenaline tale of American individualism gone psychopathic” and a story that “explores the anger, paranoia, and violence lurking in the shadowlands of the American psyche.” Do you agree with these assessments? What do you see as the driving forces and primary concerns of this novel?
Boyle: I’ll cop to that. D.H. Lawrence supplies the epigraph for the book: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” Is that proposition true? I wrote the book in order to find out, and as it developed, a third principal character entered the mix: Sara Hovarty Jennings, a member of the anti-government Sovereign Citizens’ Movement, which further deepens things here. There is certainly an anti-authoritarian streak in the American character—I can speak to this personally—and that can often give rise to paranoia. Go to a park, any park, whether it be maintained by the city, the state, or the federal government, and the first thing you see is the list of prohibitions. No spitting, no dogs, no jumping from the bridge, no love, no breathing, no fun.
Rail: This is certainly true. Any tales of your own paranoia you care to share?
Boyle: Nah. That would be giving too much away. I will say that the sight of a cop, anywhere, anytime, gives me a residual flinch though.
Rail: How do you see The Harder They Come within the context of your 14 previous novels and 10 story collections, and within the context of recent events in the United States? While your humor is definitely present (and effectively used), the themes you are dealing with here are especially dark and particularly timely, even echoing the recent manhunt for Eric Frein, who remained at large in the forests of Pennsylvania for nearly two months after allegedly shooting two state troopers.
Boyle: It’s not really for me to say how this book fits into my oeuvre—that’s for readers and critics to determine—but since you ask, I’ll offer an opinion. I am interested in (obsessed by?) our species’ place in nature, whether that involves examining our impact on the environment, as in A Friend of the Earth or When the Killing’s Done, or the notion of going back to a presumably simpler past in order to live in harmony with nature (San Miguel, Drop City). I finished the novel in August of 2013, and, sadly, since then there have been innumerable incidents like the one I’ve written about, including last year’s shootings at University of California, Santa Barbara in my hometown (the shooter was white, young, disaffected, mentally unstable, and in possession of lethal weapons, of course), as well as the case of Eric Frein in Pennsylvania, which is eerily similar to the case of the central character of my novel.
Rail: The title of your novel, The Harder They Come, references a 1972 Jamaican movie of the same name, as well as the popular reggae song by the film’s star, Jimmy Cliff. In the film, Cliff plays the role of Ivanhoe Martin, a real life Jamaican criminal. There are several parallels to your novel; like Ivanhoe, your Adam Stensen has trouble getting his life on track after the death of his grandmother, with whom he lived. Both Ivanhoe and Adam also have their troubles with law enforcement, and Adam even directly references Jimmy Cliff at one point. Finally, the lyrics to the title song parallel the anti-establishment sentiments that run throughout your novel: “Well, the oppressors are trying to keep me down, trying to drive me underground … as sure as the sun will shine I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine. And then the harder they come, the harder they fall, one and all.” Can you tell me about your connection to this movie and song, and how they may have inspired your writing? Or where you see your novel diverting from the concerns of the film and/or song?
Boyle: Yes, of course, the novel references Jimmy Cliff’s film as a point of departure. What I’m interested in here is the expression—“The harder they come, the harder they fall”—as a kind of hard-ass motto, as well as the general drift of anti-authoritarian actions and values the film celebrates.
Rail: Music comes up every so often over the course of the novel. In addition to Jimmy Cliff, Adam thinks about Bob Marley, and refers to Sara’s dreadlocked dog Kutya as “Rasta dog.” Sten Stensen has memories of listening to “Magic Carpet Ride” during a solo car ride early in his relationship with his wife. What role does music play for you in the creation of a novel, and this novel in particular? Do you listen to music when you are writing? Do you find inspiration in other media: books, movies, music, etc.? Anything you’ve read or seen recently that you’d recommend?
Boyle: The music referenced in The Harder They Come is, as you suggest, tied in to the book’s themes and so, I hope, deepens the reader’s experience. Literature
is music and I have never written anything, including these responses, without music playing in the background. I love to read my work aloud—to perform it—as a way of recapturing that music. My love is for sad music, the Blues, the suicidal cello concerto, Kristin Asbjørnsen’s “Slow Day.” I want to feel. I want to go outside of myself. (That said, I don’t mind a little joyous screaming, like Taj Mahal’s version of “John the Revelator” or my own version of “I Put A Spell on You,” which you can find at tcboyle.com, if you’re interested).
Rail: That version of “I Put A Spell On You” is pretty awesome, and I recommend everyone go take a listen right now. Any chance of including some singing in your tour for The Harder They Come? By the way, you’ve inspired me to put on the Bach Cello Suites while typing this.
Boyle: Thanks, nice. I’m listening to my old friend Party Shuffle right now. John Hiatt is up. But no singing on tour. I’m pretty hard core. Writing is my all and everything. In order to do music, the greatest and most soul-liberating of arts, you have to make music your everything. And rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.
Rail: Are you able to listen to music with words in it when you’re writing? How does your choice of music affect the words you put on the page?
Boyle: I don’t listen to vocal music in a language I understand while I’m writing, as I find that too distracting. I’m talking about deep writing, not simply responding to questions. I can kick back with anything while chatting with you. Writing stories and novels, though, I need to have the music as accompaniment, not distraction.
Rail: Your author website is one of the best I’ve seen. I love that you include your own write up of every one of your books and have ways of interacting with your readers via contests and forums (not to mention the great multimedia clips). Can you talk a little bit about how your website has evolved, and also a bit about your experience working with other artists who have made the book trailers and cartoons that are posted on your website?
Boyle: Again, many thanks. The site was built by son, Milo, the computer genius, when he was sixteen. It’s one of the oldest author sites, which makes me one of the first bloggers (though what I was doing precedes the birth of that toothsome term). Essentially, I just preside, but the management of the site is in Milo’s hands.
Rail: I’ve noticed that your own sons took some of the more recent photos of you on your website. How involved is your family in your writing career? A lot of young (and not so young) writers struggle with balancing their writing with the rest of their lives. Any words of wisdom?
Boyle: Sure, learn to walk a tightrope while juggling cannonballs. But the family. Yeah, they do what they can. My daughter, Kerrie Kvashay-Boyle, and Jamieson Fry, her ex-boyfriend (she just married him), have made the last five book trailers for me, even though they are in great demand and make trailers for a whole multitude of other (less connected) authors.
Rail: You’ve written fictionalized accounts of historical figures in many of your previous books (the wives and mistresses of Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women; John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of cornflakes, in The Road to Wellville; colleagues of Alfred Kinsey in The Inner Circle). In The Harder They Come, Adam Stensen is obsessed with mountain man John Colter, who was a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition and is said to be the first man of European descent to see what we now call Yellowstone National Park. Adam also mentions Hugh Glass, an American fur trapper of the same era, whom he admires and models himself after (though Colter is by far Adam’s preferred role model of the two). I had heard of neither historical figure before reading your novel, and I’ve since become fascinated with their stories—thank you for the introduction to them! What first brought you to the figures of Colter and Glass, and what captured your imagination regarding these two men? Are you particularly interested in bringing the stories of historical figures who interest you to a wider audience? Or in using these particular historical figures towards some other purpose?
Boyle: In this case, Colter and Glass—whose stories of struggle and survival, of hardness, are pretty fascinating—served to provide a historical dimension to the notion I’m batting around here. Again, if Lawrence’s assertion is right, then is this will to violence, this inveteracy, passed down generation to generation, as with Sten and his son, Adam? As for my other novels you mention, I have to say that I love to dwell in history, to reimagine it as a way of getting some perspective on who we are now. I present you with Frank Lloyd Wright, Alfred C. Kinsey, and John Harvey Kellogg, for instance, as a way of exploring American character and the movements that affect us far more than any battle any general has ever fought.
Rail: You have mentioned in previous interviews that all of your stories begin with the first line, and then you take it from there. The Harder They Come is told from three rotating perspectives (told in close 3rd person point-of-view): Sten Stensen (70-year-old former Marine and high school principal retiree), Sara Hovarty Jennings (40-year-old lover of Sten’s troubled son, and member of the Sovereign Citizens’ Movement), and Adam Stensen (25-year-old mentally disturbed, survivalist son of Sten). Did this novel always begin with Sten for you? Do you consider this novel to be Sten’s story, or equally shared among Sten, Sara, and Adam, or none of the above? Did the beginning of each new section with a different perspective create the opportunity to start fresh again, with a new “first line,” or did you have a sense of where the first Sara and Adam sections would lead when you started them?
Boyle: Good question. The novel began with Sten and his story, which then suggested the rest. I always follow that first line and always write organically, in sequence. This allows me to make the discoveries I need to as I progress. I don’t really concern myself with questions of which character takes precedence—again, that lies outside my purview. I see this as a kind of ensemble piece, I suppose, like the novel that precedes it, San Miguel, told from the perspective of three women.
Rail: How much do you get to know your characters as you write them, discovering who they are as you go? How much of their personalities do you have in mind before you start?
Boyle: When I was a young writer and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the established (old) writers would come to town and tell us that their characters always surprised them by taking on lives of their own. Privately, I said, “What bullshit.” But now, as with much of what I characterized as “bullshit” in those days, I see that it’s true. The reason I write fiction, and only fiction, is because it is a process of discovery and the only means I have of thinking deeply about society and the larger context, too: who are we, where are we, why are we?
Rail: You do a wonderful job of portraying Adam’s mental instabilities, which he self-medicates with drugs and alcohol. I’m thinking in particular of scenes where Adam believes he can see the microscopic mites in Sara’s eyebrows, or the inner workings of a car down to the pistons from his position in the passenger seat. Did your preparation for this book include any research into mental illness? What interests you most about the character of Adam?
Boyle: Two of my closest friends developed schizophrenia, one in his teens, the other in his twenties. They were both brilliant, both fascinating, both capable of seeing what nobody else could see. The challenge of writing Adam was to inhabit him and present the world from his point of view. Some of your readers may recall that I’ve written about a schizophrenic before (Stanley McCormick of Riven Rock). In that case, I had the complete psychiatric record to inform me, so that Stanley’s hallucinations are the very ones he reported to his psychiatrists. In the case of Adam Stensen and his way of seeing things, I just let it fly.
Rail: Adam’s love interest Sara, who has strong anti-authority beliefs but resists law enforcement in smaller gestures than Adam does, contemplates historical figures such as Jerry Kane and Timothy McVeigh, from whom she takes some ideological inspiration. Can you talk about your interest in these figures and how they inform the characters in your novel?
Boyle: Obviously, this is the dark side of our motto, Don’t Tread On Me. Who doesn’t want to tell the agents of the IRS to go screw themselves or to leave that patrolman in the dust? Who wants to stop at stop signs, wait in line, accept what he’s given? But to have a society instead of the sort of anarchy McVeigh’s vision leads to, we have to have a social contract. And subscribe to it. Mostly.
Rail: What was the most challenging part of writing The Harder They Come? What was the most fun? Do you have any advice for writers who are writing fiction that references historical figures, or a particular theory in your own approach?
Boyle: No theories. Every artist goes his or her own way. The historical scenes here are interesting to me because they are given to us from Adam’s point of view and so despite the fact that they are largely straightforward we nonetheless (hilariously?) get Adam’s take on them, as when he says, for instance, “Colter never had the shits.” That’s fun. That’s a way of getting inside history with a little bit of subjective tension, as with the narrator of The Women, who colors our view of Frank Lloyd Wright through his own prejudices.
Rail: You have said that your previous work often inspires your future projects. You’ve also said in previous interviews that your ideas come out of “complete formlessness,” and that you “write in order to sort out (your) own feelings about things.” What have you learned about yourself over the course of writing The Harder They Come, and do you have any ideas for future novels based on your work on this one?
Boyle: All this is true. What have I learned? That art is my life and the only way for me to get through the bleak and meaningless days in an existence without purpose or explanation but with a very definite end. The new book, now half-finished, takes me back to my green concerns. It’s called The Terranauts, and it’s set in 1993 – 1995, and centers around the Biosphere experiment in Arizona, in which four men and four women were sealed inside an artificial, self-sustaining environment for two years, the first of 50 such projected closures. The whole thing fell apart and there was never a sustained second closure. Until now. So watch out! Four men, four women! Nothing in, nothing out.