Author: Thomas Coraghessan Boyle, born in 1948, in Peekskill,
New York. Boyle, when he was in college, added the “Coraghessan”— pronounced Kuh-RAGG-ih-son — himself, exchanging it for the “John on his birth certificate. Why Coraghessan? Boyle, whose friends call him “Tom” and “T,” says that somewhere,among his family’s Irish forebears, there was a Coraghessan.
Mr. Boyle graduated in 1970 from Potsdam College of the State University of New York, where he met the woman who became his wife. For four years after graduation he taught English at his high school alma mater. In 1972, he began studies at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, earning his Ph.D. in 19th-century British literature from the University of Iowa in 1977. He moved, that year, to Los Angeles, where he began teaching at the University of Southern California. Author of six novels and three collections of stories, Mr. Boyle now is a tenured professor at UCLA, teaching creative writing. His novel The Road to Wellville was recently made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins.
Married, father of three children, Mr. Boyle two years ago moved from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, where he lives in a six-bedroom, 4700-square-foot house designed in 1909 by Frank Lloyd Wright, a house believed to be Wright’s first private-home project in California and the only example of Wright’s Prairie-style of architecture west of the Rockies.
When we talked one morning by telephone, Mr. Boyle was at home in Santa Barbara. He declared himself “very, very glad I moved. I got so crazed with the population pressures of L.A., it was driving me nuts. And I had never been comfortable with the climate. I was living in Woodland Hills where it was 116 degrees in the summer. Here, I’m close to the ocean and it’s a much smaller town and it’s misty and my house is surrounded by trees that were planted back in 1909, so it’s all totally overgrown.”
The Tortilla Curtain; Viking, 1995; 368 pages; $22.95
Setting: Los Angeles
The Tortilla Curtain tells the story of two couples who’ve taken up residence in Los Angeles’s Topanga Canyon. One couple, upper-middle-class Anglos, Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, live in a gated community of luxurious homes. The other couple, Candido and America Rincon, are Mexican illegals who’ve made camp in a canyon near the Mossbachers’ home.
Boyle’s photo—by Avedon—and a new short story “Achates McNeil” had recently appeared in the June 26th New Yorker summer fiction issue. As we talked, I gazed at the photo. White hairs fleck Boyle’s dark Mephistophelean goatee and wild curly hair. His eyes stare straight ahead. He looks haggard, gloomy.
The voice that answers my questions is so cheerful that I can’t imagine such gloom as that recorded by Avedon’s photo. I asked Mr. Boyle if he liked the photo.
“I do. It’s bizarre but very strong. It was quick and painless. Only 20 minutes. Some of these people, it’s hours. Avedon sort of devours you with his eyes and goes for what’s weirdest, and he just loved the fact that I wear all these tribal bangles and crap. He was amazed by my hair. He kept pulling little pieces of my hair out and you see them sticking out in the picture. He had just the week before photographed the Cirque de Soleil. He was trying in a polite way to point out that my hair was exactly like that of the clowns’ in Cirque de Soleil.”
I said how much I liked Tortilla Curtain and added that his portrayal of the Mexican couple’s hardships—hunger, rape, beatings—had left me feeling uneasy. I said that even after I’d finished Tortilla Curtain, I found myself often thinking about the Rincons.
What, I asked, inspired Tortilla Curtain?
“Living in L.A. for 15 years and in recent years reading every day in the Los Angeles Times articles about immigration, both legal and illegal, and letters to the editors about it.
“I quoted The Grapes of Wrath in the beginning of the book because I wanted to look at the ethos of John Steinbeck and the traditional liberal ethos of providing for everybody and the problems of the working class, from which I emerged, and I wanted to see how that would play in California today.
“I think it goes back to earlier novels too, to East is East and World’s End, both of which deal with racial prejudice and cultural collision. I guess I wasn’t quite done with working that out.”
I asked Mr. Boyle how he begins a novel.
“I read and think, and jot down notes and have possible ideas, most of which will be abandoned. The characters begin to grow as I write it. I don’t know what’s going to happen or what I mean to say. We are all human beings trying to survive in a universe that doesn’t really give us many answers. I’m not running for office and I’m not a sociologist. I’m just a novelist, trying to sort things out and dramatize them. I write a book to figure out how I feel about a certain issue. And if the book makes you feel uneasy, I think that’s good.”
Boyle will be reading and signing his books at the Coronado Public Library on Friday, September 8, 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. On Saturday, September 9, he will be at Esmeralda Books in Del Mar Plaza at 6:00 p.m.