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INTRODUCTION

Wild Child and Other Storiesis the celebrated novelist T.C. Boyle’s twenty-first book. Exploring contemporary life in all its humor, vulgarity and sorrow, the fourteen short stories in Wild Child are miniature explosions of deft plotting and vivid prose. The collection culminates with the title story, a masterful retelling of the saga of Victor, the famous “feral child” found in the countryside of eighteenth-century France, and a meditation on the nature of agency, identity and humanity. The story of Victor, who struggles to communicate at even the most rudimentary levels, could be read as a parable of authorship, of the difficulty and futility of making oneself understood.

The hallmark of Boyle’s fiction has always been his uncanny ability to inhabit the minds and voices of an astounding range of characters, from the eccentric cereal tycoon John Harvey Kellogg in 1993’s The Road to Wellville to the wives of architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 2009’s The Women. Wild Child, the collection, testifies to the evolution of Boyle’s writerly techniques and to the enduring power of his visual imagination. The stories leave us with a stream of images, irreducibly real and yet inexplicable: a housewife and a tiger face-to-face in a suburban backyard, a stretch of road wiped clean by a mudslide, snakes ribboning out of a hole in the ground, a flaming brazier in a dusty canyon. They are the kinds of images that stay in the mind, seemingly summoned from a dreamlike subconscious, but captured on the page with the fierce undeniablility of reality.

ABOUT T.C. BOYLE

T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle has written twelve novels, including Drop City, a 2003 National Book Award Finalist, and eight previous collections of short stories. His writing regularly appears in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, GQ and Playboy. He has won the PEN/Faulkner Award, PEN/Malamud Prize, PEN/West Literary Prize, the Commonwealth Gold Medal for Literature, and the O. Henry Award for short fiction. A distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California, Boyle lives near Santa Barbara with his wife and three children.

A CONVERSATION WITH T.C. BOYLE

Q. You recently wrote that “we know where they go, these stories . . . but we never know where they come from. Or if they’ll come.” How does your creative inspiration strike? How do these stories begin for you and how do they progress?

For me, a story is an act of the imagination, and there is nothing under the sun (or beyond it, for that matter) that cannot provide inspiration for a story. I write in any mode on any theme or subject in order to explore the mystery that surrounds us. Many of the stories in Wild Child deal with our place in nature—more and more, I find my themes there. In harmony and displacement both. Where do we come from? Where do we belong? Where are we headed?

Q. Many of the stories in Wild Child are set in Southern California, where you live, and are imbued with a tangible sense of place. Do you think that the particular social and physical geography of California has an effect on your fiction?

Absolutely. Before I turned twenty-one, I’d never been west of the Hudson River, a provincial kid from northern Westchester County, New York, who went to the same school with the same cadre of classmates from kindergarten through seventh grade, and then on to high school with them. My life enlarged when I moved to Los Angeles to teach at USC on earning my Ph.D. and M.F.A. degrees from Iowa. What is wonderful about the environment here—and in the Sequoia Forest, where I spend a few months each year—is its essential strangeness to an East Coaster. I will always feel a bit of a fish out of water here, and this makes for a different kind of awareness of this environment.

Q. Three Quarters of the Way to Hell” is set in a 1950s Manhattan recording session. Can you talk a little about the background or the inspiration for this story?

For many years I rented a cabin in the Sequoias, and always at Christmas. The man who rented it to me, bless him, would leave a fire laid and the satellite service playing Christmas music when I arrived. I couldn’t help being struck by how many of those songs were recorded by singers of the forties and fifties, and I began to imagine how they must have felt—these hipsters, these careerists, these boozers and teaheads—in having to sing such sappy tunes. And so, voilà: “Three Quarters of the Way to Hell: A Christmas Story.”

Q. What drew you to the story of Victor in “Wild Child”? Did you do a lot of historical research in writing the story?

Wonderful question. Close readers of my work will know that I didn’t write “Wild Child” but rather that it was written by Dana Halter, the deaf heroine of my 2006 novel, Talk Talk. I’d thought of appending it to that novel so that the reader could have a further experience of Dana, but abandoned the idea. The story—a novella, really—then became the foundation for this new collection, so many of the elements of which reflect nature and our place in it. As for the research: Victor’s story has been well documented, and I credit my sources in the acknowledgments.

Q. You once said that you “like to use historical figures as springboards to talk about something that’s happening in society.” Is Victor, too, a springboard for topical fiction? What in society does the story of Victor touch upon for you?

Quite obviously, Victor represents a kind of nostalgie de la boue for the modern reader, a throwback to the time when we lived close to the earth, when the forest primeval hemmed us in and the creatures and spirits of the forest were real and palpable and shot through with the amaze of legend.

Q. You sang in a rock’ n ’ roll band called the Ventilators. What role, if any, does music play in your fiction? Do you regard songwriting and fiction writing as parallel creative activities?

Even more: I went to SUNY Potsdam at the age of seventeen to study music, which didn’t pan out. Rock and roll spoke to me more directly, I suppose. At any rate, music has been vitally important to me all my life and I’ve never composed anything—not even at this moment—without music playing in the background. For me, the prose must sing, a fact I was reminded of just yesterday in the recording studio when I was performing the stories in this book for the audio version. At times, when it went especially well, I almost felt I was singing.

Q. Your novel The Road to Wellville was made into a movie in 1994. Do you feel that certain of your works are especially suitable (or unsuitable) for film adaptation? Do you think about the cinematic aspects of your stories while writing them?

Many of my works have been made into films over the years, though I have not participated in the making of any of them—it is my passion to make stories on the page. As for thinking of films while writing: no. But, of course, any good fiction must be cinematic so that the reader can direct the moving pictures in his or her mind while reading.

Q. What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished a novel with a contemporary setting called When the Killing’s Done, which Viking will publish next year. This novel is set on the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, and it deals with the battles over the land—and creatures—there, especially on Santa Cruz Island, which is four times the size of Manhattan and uninhabited. At present, I am writing stories—as of this writing, three new ones have been completed, the first two to appear in Harper’s and The Atlantic, the third so fresh off the page it hasn’t gone out yet. I hope to begin another novel in the spring and then, perhaps, if the winds blow favorably, think about putting together Volume II of T.C. Boyle stories, the collected stories. We shall see. The important thing is that work lies ahead—there are stories to be uncovered, stories rich and infinite and abounding.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Right before the climactic moment in “Balto,” the narrator says of her father that “she loved him in that moment more than she ever had” (page 21). Why does Angelle say this? Does it fit with what she does next? How is her love for her father reconciled with her decision to tell the truth about the accident?
  2. The driver in “La Conchita” becomes “a seer—a fortune teller—for fifteen hard minutes” (page 32) while he digs through the mudslide. How does his vision fit in with “Alice”? With “the girl in the muddy shorts”? Is he a reliable narrator?
  3. What is the relation between the alternating narratives in “Question 62”? Why does the author tell these two stories simultaneously? How are their meanings linked, if at all?
  4. What does the appearance of Dámaso mean to the doctor in “Sin Dolor”? How does the doctor attempt to counteract “the grinding sadness of the world” (page 66)? What is the result? What does Dámaso’s death say about the nature of the world? About the nature of pain?
  5. The narrator of “Bulletproof” says that he “didn’t want to delve beneath the surface. It was too cold down there, too dark and claustrophobic” (page 81). What is he avoiding? What is he frightened of? How does the narrator try to keep his life operating only on the surface? Does he succeed?
  6. The lovelorn divorcée in “Hands On” wants “to look real, not like some mannequin” (page 110), yet submits to plastic surgery. How is she different from or similar to Maggie the receptionist?
  7. What is Nisha’s plan at the end of “Admiral”? What is she trying to do? Why?
  8. Boyle inhabits the voices of a variety of characters in Wild Child, from the preteen girl in “Balto” to the Japanese scientist in “Ash Monday.” Which of the voices do you like best?
  9. Have you ever experienced or witnessed a fire like the one in “Ash Monday”?
  10. Do you find the Wild Child—l’enfant sauvage—to be sympathetic? How or how not? How is he depicted?
  11. How do you feel about the character of Lonnie in “The Lie”? How is he essentially different, for example, from the narrators of “Bulletproof” and “La Conchita”?