Into the Wild With T.C. Boyle

In T.C. Boyle’s new collection, creatures of the forest creep into our living rooms

We’ve been down some of these roads before, but with T.C. Boyle, we’ll gladly return. Wild Child (Viking, $26) is a collection of previously published stories. Anchored by the captivating title novella, they reinforce a central theme: We are all human animals. We sat down with the PEN/Faulkner Award winner at the decidedly tame Culver Hotel to talk about the wildness within.

“Wild Child” was conceived as part of Talk Talk (2006) before it was published independently by McSweeney’s. The tale is about the historical Victor of Aveyron, a feral child discovered in the forests of 18th-century France. How did you become familiar with Victor?
François Truffaut made a movie about this, L’Enfant Sauvage. I saw it when it came out, which was in the ’70s. I [haven’t watched it since] because I didn’t want Truffaut to influence me. So I did my own version of the story because it fascinated me, and it seemed as if it would tie in so beautifully with what Dana [the heroine of Talk Talk] is thinking about. Talk Talk is about a deaf woman who has her identity stolen, and she pursues the thief. So what is your identity? How do you know who you are? You’re acculturated and you have language. But the deaf have a different language altogether and a different culture from any of us. [Dana] is a teacher and a novelist, and her novel is about the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Another fascination of “Wild Child” for me is that the kid’s throat had been slit. It’s just like Grimm’s fairy tales, where you’ve got the evil stepmother who takes Hansel and Gretel to the woods and leaves them there, you know. It’s so grim.

The environment has always played an important role in your work, especially in your novel A Friend of the Earth (2000), which is about eco-terrorists in 2025. Has your thinking about the environment changed over the years?
Yes. It’s far grimmer than even I could have imagined. The youngest people who are alive today will have lived in a time when there were polar bears, and when they are old, there will be no more polar bears. And that’s where we are. So my thinking has changed. It’s far worse than I could have even imagined. There isn’t a breath of hope for our species. Zero. It’s over, you know? I’m sorry. My plan, of course, mostly, is to die. That’s how I’m going to deal with it.

Is there anything we can do?
You may have heard this joke before, but it was spontaneous when I first invented it: On the tour for A Friend of the Earth the question-and-answer period was brutal. We had to pass out hankies—they were crying. There was no hope. And so finally I devised a plan. No cheating, or it won’t work: Everybody alive today has to agree to abstain from sexual relations for 100 years. Problem is solved. But no cheating.

No cheating? People will find ways around that.
That’s the problem! That’s the problem. We are animals, you know, and I am proud of it. I am proud to be an animal.

Your next novel, When the Killing’s Done (2011), is about ecological restoration on the Channel Islands?
That’s right, although my editor tells me not to say that. He says “ecological restoration” is sort of death in the mind of the reader. I don’t think so. To me, it’s exciting. So here’s what it’s really about: It’s about two couples fighting over possession of this land. It’s about this land and these creatures and these plants, and how do we have the right to do that? There’s an issue here, and you must decide for yourself. Killing has to be done in order to make this restoration, and who wants to kill anything?

You have a couple of projects in movie development, including Drop City (2003) and Talk Talk. You’re never involved in the film adaptations of your novels and stories. Why?
It’s a different art form, and I’m not in control of it. I’m a control freak. I’m not cooperative with other people. I don’t go to meetings, and I don’t want to hear anybody’s opinions. I’m simply doing what I’m going to do. I couldn’t imagine a collaborative medium.

What do you do when you’re not writing?
Even my play is work. I’m doing yard work or digging holes or planting trees or something. Other people go to the golf course. I could never imagine doing anything like that. My play is also kind of productive. On the other hand, being in a dark bar is my favorite thing in the world, because then I am not working and I am not being productive. I’m just being drunk, and it’s wonderful.

There’s a lot of drinking in Wild Child.
Both my parents died of alcoholism in their fifties. What saved my life is literature. If you have work to do, and you want to do it and it’s your whole life, then you can’t allow yourself to fall down. I had fallen down a lot when I was a kid, but I didn’t have literature.

Photograph by Spencer Boyle