Drinking with Novelist T.C. Boyle

The famed author of 24 books of fiction on his wild past, never looking back and the accident that led to his love of Central Coast pinot noir.

I met T.C. Boyle in the lobby of what is probably the only bar-less hotel in all of Santa Monica, a place he’d been stashed for a night to do an interview with KCRW. He showed up in his usual attire—worn T-shirt, tight jeans, black leather jacket, red Converse sneakers—but with a rather fresh gash on his forehead only slightly hidden by the poof of his faux-hawk. He explained that he’d collided with a street sign the day before while walking his dog and nearly got run over by a car. “I’m accident prone,” he told me, then sat down on the couch, knocking a gigantic lamp from the end table and into his lap.

We laughed, and he immediately launched into a story about how it was actually an accident that led him to his love for pinot noir.

The thing about Boyle is that he’s a bit obsessive, and he seems to treat everything—even drinking—like a research assignment for something he’s writing. When he lived in Ireland, he only drank Guinness. When he spent time in Costa Rica, it was all about rum. Now he lives in Santa Barbara, so he only drinks wine from the Central Coast. For many years it was exclusively chardonnay, but then that accident—a broken leg—made him realize that he’d become “mature,” so he decided it was time to switch to red. He discovered pinot noir and never looked back. Looking back is not his style.

Boyle has published 24 books of fiction. He’s explored immigration, growing marijuana, the man who invented the cornflake, food criticism, drug addiction, the environment, Frank Lloyd Wright (an interest he cultivated after buying Wright’s house in Santa Barbara) and pretty much everything in between. He’s known for his sense of humor, for his satire, for his ability to infuse language with that unique Boyle-esque energy. His most recent work, T.C. Boyle Stories II, collects all of the stories he’s written since 1998. While many writers have a tendency to revise when pieces are re-released, Boyle would never even consider it: “They exist in their time. I’m not gonna tinker with them. I’m an artist. My job is to move forward and discover what’s next, so I don’t obsess over it. I wrote a preface, I organized the stories and present them as a kind of legacy.”

“I come from a long line of alcoholics. Both my parents died young as a result, and I of course am alcoholic as well, but…I keep it all under rigid control because I live for my work, and I don’t want to fuck up my work by being like them.” As a young man, he fronted a rock band and experimented with heroin, but eventually left both worlds for a life in literature. “I’m well past my wild youth—my wild youth was pretty wild by most standards—but what saved me, as Dickensian as it sounds, is writing.”

Another part of this legacy is his belief that books should be fun and entertaining, not “formal and academic.” This attitude extends to wine, too. “I think people are shut out from wine because they have no experience of it and they’re intimidated. They go to an upscale restaurant and here is the snooty waiter and the wine list and what is it and how do I know?” But Boyle doesn’t believe that drinking wine is “some monumental thing” or something you should have to be “instructed about.” He segues into a story about visiting Manhattan when he was an MFA student at the University of Iowa. While staying at a friend’s loft in the Bowery, he noticed the stacks of empty Gallo white port wine bottles that crowded the sidewalks from the bums who hung around there. “That was the wine that gave you the most pop for your dollar.” He grins, a little wickedly. “So those guys knew their wine too, and they certainly weren’t intimidated.”

Boyle grew up in Peekskill, New York. “We were a working-class family, we’d never heard of wine.” As a child, he stole the occasional sip from the quarts of beer his father kept in the refrigerator. “It tasted kinda bad, and I really wasn’t all that interested until I was a teenager, when you start drinking beer, then raiding your parents’ liquor cabinet, drinking till you pass out,” he says. “And some recover from that and some don’t.” Boyle is one who did recover, but he attributes that victory to his craft.

“I come from a long line of alcoholics. Both my parents died young as a result, and I of course am alcoholic as well, but…I keep it all under rigid control because I live for my work, and I don’t want to fuck up my work by being like them.” As a young man, he fronted a rock band and experimented with heroin, but eventually left both worlds for a life in literature. “I’m well past my wild youth—my wild youth was pretty wild by most standards—but what saved me, as Dickensian as it sounds, is writing.”

He still looks like the punk rocker he once was, but his days are on the tame side now: he wakes early and writes through the morning, then spends some time outdoors walking on the beach near his home or gardening. During cocktail hour, he pours a glass of pinot noir—Byron, Cambria, and Foley are a few standby producers—while reading in front of the fireplace or cooking for his family, maybe a shrimp ratatouille or an Irish stew. “I’m not a foodie, and I’m not a wine-y, but I do appreciate them.”

Unlike their maker, his characters drink a variety of things: vodka and soda, apple martinis, Four Roses whiskey, and yes, pinot noir. In his short story, “Sorry Fugu” (1986)—which Boyle, ever the professor, gave me as a post-interview, take-home assignment—a strange relationship blossoms between a young, female food writer and the chef she critiques. Parallels aside, the story would delight any lover of food or fiction, but what struck me most was a particular description of the chef as a boy, the moment he realized “the great insatiable fist of his appetite.” The same could certainly be said of Boyle. Once he sets his sights on something, he devours it—a trait that is as apparent in his prose as it is in his palate.

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