In T.C. Boyle’s novel The Terranauts, his twenty-sixth book, four men and four women are sealed inside a self-contained ecosystem, called E2, for two years. Each of these men and women, called the Terranauts, are in charge of maintaining specific parts of their living environment, which includes a rainforest, savanna, desert, ocean, and marsh, all within only three (sometimes claustrophobic) acres. Their mantra is “nothing in, nothing out”—as the world goes by outside their glass-enclosed home, they have only each other for company as they work to maintain the survival of themselves and the species of plants and animals that populate E2. The challenging results of this experiment are told from the perspective of two Terranauts, Dawn Chapman and Ramsay Roothoorp, and one outsider, Linda Ryu, who was passed over as a Terranaut for this mission but holds out hope to be selected for a future mission. Lording over all of these characters is the mastermind behind E2, Jeremiah Reed, referred to, in this cultish world, as G.C. (“God the Creator”).
With exciting drama and a good dose of comedy, The Terranauts touches on themes that Boyle has explored throughout his career, including relationships inside a tight-knit group and humankind’s place within nature.
I had the pleasure of a phone conversation with the author the day after he returned to Santa Barbara after spending two weeks in the mountains, where he goes year-round to get a taste of winter and to write. As he explained, the mountains are a great place “to start and end books, because it’s incredibly boring, so you write and read a lot more.” We chatted about the inspiration for The Terranauts, the writing process, and interpersonal relations within the pressure cooker of an enclosed biosphere.
Catherine LaSota (Rail): You recently handed in a new story collection to your editor and have started research for your next novel, and you are about to launch a tour for The Terranauts. We talked last year when you were touring for The Harder They Come, and you were writing The Terranauts at that time. How are you so prolific?
T.C. Boyle: I’m not happy unless I’m doing something. I have high energy; I get bored. I’ve been fortunate enough to have this ability to make stories, and it’s all I want to do. I’ve never been distracted by TV, or writing essays, or being a man of letters—none of that interests me. All that interests me is being an artist, and so I’ve just delivered my 27th book, and I’m very happy because that’s my life’s work.
Rail: Can you tell our readers a bit about the Biosphere 2 project that inspired The Terranauts?
Boyle: Yeah, sure. In the late ’80s and into the early ’90s, a group of people in the Arizona desert decided to see if they could create an ecosphere, or biosphere, that would be entirely self-contained. Could we have an off-earth colony, could we survive if our environment collapsed? Hundreds of species of plants and animals were enclosed in a three-and-a-half acre dome with kitchen facilities and so on for the four men and four women who were to be enclosed there, completely enclosed, sealed off, for two years. All their food had to be produced inside, and they had to regulate CO2/O2 levels. So it was a kind of microcosm of the earth we’re on.
Three of them wrote books about the experience. I used some of that material, of course, to give the details of it. They were going to have fifty consecutive two-year closures; that was the plan. But six months into the second closure, the billionaire who put up the money and the creative genius who put it together had a big fight, and that was the end of that. Now it still exists, and it’s well worth seeing. It’s architecturally stunning, and there are tours available, but there was never another closure after that. However, since there were going to be fifty more two-year closures to see how this ecosystem would evolve, I have posited a second closure. As you can see from the book, it has a lot to do with interpersonal relations. Small groups always fascinate me.
Rail: It seems like such rich material for fiction. The psychology of eight people trapped together.
Boyle: And also there’s this kind of team spirit, this gung ho, like NASA, like the Marine Corps, like any group, or cult, if you will, where everybody is desperate to be part of it and to make the cut.
Rail: Many of the Terranauts, and potential Terranauts, seem very concerned with fame. Is this just a constant phenomenon, humans’ desire for fame? I mean, now we have these reality shows giving people temporary fame, and people wanting to be famous for any reason at all.
Boyle: Yes, I suppose so. The astronauts preceded my Terranauts, or the Biospherians, as they were called in real life. The Terranauts, too, in the beginning, were quite famous, on the covers of all the magazines. When this first happened in the early ’90s, I thought, wow, I want to write about this! But then they broke closure within the first week and a half because of an accident inside, and I kind of lost interest, as did a lot of the public. You see, the claim of the Biospherians, and it’s a legitimate one, is that this is an experiment and things can go wrong, and we’re just trying to figure out how things are going to go, and it doesn’t have to be absolute closure. We would like that, but it’s not absolute. But for the public, for me, the draw was absolute closure, life or death. I mean, they could all asphyxiate—that’s the exciting part for the public! And so, in positing a second closure, I’m using the material of the first, and the circumstances of the first, whereas my eight, especially Ramsay, would die rather than break that seal.
Rail: So you got to play out, in a sense, the way that you wish it had gone.
Boyle: Yeah, and the way I think they wish it had gone as well, definitely.
Rail: When I interviewed you last year for the Rail, you mentioned that much of the plot of your novels is discovered as you go. How much of the plot of The Terranauts was mapped out in advance?
Boyle: Nothing is ever mapped out. Plot is one element of fiction, and it’s part of structure. The structure is a kind of magical thing that’s just there. I think, for many of us fiction writers, we see something, it’s formless yet, and we have to give it form. Anything I’ve written, including short stories, that may seem absolutely hermetic and tight to you, well, yeah, I’m glad. That’s the function of making art, but I never know what anything is going to be. Now [with The Terranauts) I had the example of the two-year closure. I knew it would be broken into parts: the “Pre-Closure,” “the First Year,” “the Second Year,” and then “Re-Entry.” Of course, that was sort of an obvious structure on which to hang all of this, but how it would play out, and what it would mean, I had no idea. That is why I’m only interested in writing fiction and being an artist, because it’s a kind of miraculous journey of discovery to find out what it’s going to be.
Rail: You mention the structure of “Pre-Closure,” “Year One,” “Year Two,” “Re-Entry,” and it makes me think of advice I’ve heard a lot when trying to get a new piece of writing going: that is, to put a constraint on yourself, which is not the same as mapping out a plot.
Boyle: Yeah, tell Dostoyevsky about it. [Laughter.] No, everybody works in different ways. Some great novels are loose, loose at the ends, and I think it’s because of a kind of experiential journey on the part of the artist, and on the part of the reader, of course. Everybody has different strengths as artists. One thing that I seem to have is a kind of grasp of structure. It’s just innate; I don’t know how it happens. It’s not planned out; it just goes.
Rail: You did something in The Terranauts that you’ve done before, including in your recent novel The Harder They Come, and that is you’ve told the story from the perspective of three different characters. What is it about this approach that you find especially appealing?
Boyle: Well, it’s wonderful to tell a story from different points of view, of course, because then each point of view comments on the other. I’ve never done anything quite like this before, because these are three first-person narrators. That is a little unusual. In The Harder They Come we get three points of view, but I’m the narrator, and we are deep inside a third-person point of view. Here I tried the experiment of having first-person narrators, and I think it works in this way: each one is in some sense contradicting the other, and in some sense giving his or her own version of what events are, and I think that allows the reader to stand back and decide for him or herself how this should be interpreted, or whom to believe, or disbelieve.
Rail: Why these three, I wonder?
Boyle: I don’t know. It’s just part of the process, the process that I’m just beginning now, with the next novel. Who are the characters, what are their points of view, what are the themes, what does it mean—all of that has to sort itself out. In retrospect, I can say, I wanted one character to be excluded, Linda, so that she could give us a sense of what it’s like to be excluded and relegated to the second team, the support staff. It also enables me to show you what’s happening outside this microcosmic and hermetic little world, which of course is on constant display. There’s always someone watching them and controlling them: Mission Control, God the Creator. All of this, I think, would induce some level of paranoia that I suppose Kafka would appreciate, you know?
Rail: These Terranauts are trapped inside a dome for two years and can’t just, say, go to the grocery store for resources. It’s a reminder, to me, of how disconnected most humans are to nature, and how fragile our lives are, at least for those of us who don’t know how to grow food or hunt.
Boyle: Absolutely. I’ve often said that, yeah, we’re protecting the environment as best we can, some of us at least, but the day there’s a sign on the window at (the grocery store) that says, “Sorry, no more food,” well, then the next day we eat all the rats, and the day after that all the dogs and cats, and the day after that we eat each other. I mean, that’s about it. We are made completely helpless by this kind of society.
Rail: If you were inside a biosphere, what would you miss?
Boyle: I would miss the same sort of things I miss when I’m up on the mountain. Going to a play, going to a concert, going out to dinner, seeing other people, having society, etc. Up there I don’t have any of that, and so I have a nice mix, because after two weeks, or whatever it is, I come down, and there it is, and once I get a little oppressed by society, like Thoreau, then I get to go out and be in the woods. When I’m up there these last two weeks, every day after work, I’m out in the woods alone. I’ll take a book or whatever. And I never, never, see anyone else. I need that.