Books

T.C. Boyle, best-selling author of ‘The Terranauts,’ on writing, cults and life on Mars

Author T.C. Boyle will speak May 7 at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo as part of “An Afternoon With T.C. Boyle.”
Author T.C. Boyle will speak May 7 at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo as part of “An Afternoon With T.C. Boyle.”

For T.C. Boyle, writing is an act of discovery.

“I don’t have any outline for any book,” or any plan for how the plot and characters will develop, explained the prolific, award-winning author, whose best-selling novels and short story collections include “The Road to Wellville,” “The Tortilla Curtain” and “The Harder They Come.” “It’s entirely organic.”

Boyle, 68, will discuss his career, read from his work and participate in a pre-show meet-and-greet May 7 at the Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo. “An Afternoon with T.C. Boyle” is being presented by Cal Poly Arts and the Foundation for San Luis Obispo County Public Libraries as part of the Book & Author Series.

Such appearances are commonplace for Boyle, who takes a born entertainer’s pride in his ability to deliver an electrifying performance.

“I take pride in giving a show,” said Boyle, a Montecito resident who honed his performance skills during his decadeslong tenure as an English professor at USC. “I love to be the actor and cast a spell over people. It’s just thrilling.”

Boyle’s accolades include the PEN/Faulkner Prize for best novel of the year, the Rea Award for the Short Story and the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. In 2016, his novel “The Harder They Come” — about a Vietnam War veteran, his psychologically unstable son and his son’s anarchist lover — received the inaugural Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award.

On May 7, Boyle will read an excerpt from his upcoming short story collection “The Relive Box and Other Stories,” which will be published by HarperCollins in October.

The title story involves a voice-activated console that gives users the ability to tap into their most treasured memories.

“You name a date at any time in your life, and it will take you to that date to relive it in 3-D, like Scrooge coming back to his boyhood school” in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Boyle explained.

Other stories deal with a college dropout, a stolen car, the creator of the 5-pound burrito and a young Latino man with a highly contagious, drug-resistant strain of tuberculosis who goes on the run. All of those tales, Boyle said, have their origins in reality.

“Any story anybody tells me, that I read, sticks in my brain as a story I need to dramatize,” Boyle said. “I look beneath those facts and try to see what the drama is.” That, he added, is the beauty of fiction.

For Boyle — who holds master’s and doctorate degrees from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Iowa, respectively — fiction offers a chance to journey into the unknown.

“Some teachers will say, ‘Write what you know,’ but I say, ‘Write what you don’t know and find something out,’ ” he said. “(In) all the stories that I write, I’m wondering about something, or exploring something.”

In his latest novel, “The Terranauts,” Boyle revisits some of the themes that have fascinated him since the early days of his career — the environment, closed communities, charismatic cult leaders — through the lens of a high-stakes science experiment designed to test whether humans could survive on another planet.

With his typical blend of absurdist humor and acid wit, Boyle relates the story, set in 1994 in the Arizona desert, through three narrators: Dawn Chapman, a pretty, young ecologist; Linda Ryu, Chapman’s embittered best friend; and Ramsay Roothrop, a manipulative ladies’ man.

The brainchild of eco-visionary Jeremy Reed, nicknamed “God the Creator,” or “G.C.” for short, the artificial environment known as the Ecosphere, or, E2, features five biomes — desert, marsh, ocean, rainforest and savannah — packed into 3.15 acres. Locked inside the enclosure are 3,800 plant and animal species, plus four men and four women selected for their intelligence, endurance and ability to look good in designer jumpsuits.

The eight Terranauts must live with limited contact with the outside world — nothing allowed in, nothing out — under the constant scrutiny of the public, the media and Mission Control. If they’re forced to break the seal, the experiment will be a failure.

Boyle modeled E2 after Biosphere 2, the Earth systems science research facility in Oracle, Arizona, that was the site of two problem-plagued attempts at closed-system experiments in the early 1990s. (It’s been owned by the University of Arizona since 2011.)

“It was a ready-made story,” said the novelist. “I’m relying very much on the real history. It was quite an advantage to me.”

Boyle acknowledged that “The Terranauts,” published by HarperCollins imprint Ecco in October, shares some similarities with his 2003 novel “Drop City,” about a hippie commune that relocates from California to the Alaska wilderness. (Drop City, inspired by Sonoma County’s Morningstar Commune, takes its name from a counterculture artist colony in southern Colorado.)

“The hippies wanted to drop out and live a more sustainable life off (of) this rat wheel of consumerism that has us caught up in it,” Boyle said. “This is a ‘Drop City’ under glass.”

Like “Drop City,” “The Terranauts” has an egomaniacal leader at its center. (Gurus pop up frequently in Boyle’s other books; think corn flakes inventor John Harvey Kellogg in “The Road to Wellville, architect Frank Lloyd Wright in “The Women” or sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in “The Inner Circle.”)

“As a punk growing up in New York, I’m really suspicious of authority and people telling you what to do,” Boyle said.

Nor would the writer jump at the chance to be trapped in a biosphere for months, or years, on end.

“It’s a nightmare (scenario) to me. I need to be out of doors as much as possible,” Boyle said. “I need to be out in nature. I need to feel the pulse of it.” (“If it weren’t for mathematics, I would have been perfectly happy as a field biologist,” the self-described nature lover said.)

The release of “The Terranauts” comes as researchers around the world explore the possibility of human settlements off-planet. In January, the University of Hawaii launched its fifth NASA-funded experiment — known as the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation — simulating a future mission to Mars.

“People always say, ‘You’re so prescient. You’re always ahead of the loop,’ ” Boyle said, but he feels he’s tapping into interests and anxieties that we all share. “My concerns are global concerns.”

‘An Afternoon with T.C. Boyle’

3 p.m. May 7, 1:30 p.m. VIP reception

Cohan Center, Performing Arts Center, Cal Poly

$16 to $45, $40 reception

805-756-4849 or www.calpolyarts.org

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