Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Novelist, short story writer, and professor T.C. Boyle gave a lecture and a reading of two short stories yesterday in LPAC Cinema. Professor Gregory Frost, who teaches the Fiction Workshop at Swarthmore, brought the award-winning modernist author to Swarthmore through the Copper Foundation. Boyle heightened the experience by standing in front of a blue screen with a yellow banner saying, “please clean filter.” The experience embodied the nature of two stories that were both dark, reflective and humorous. Dedicated fans and students waited in a long line to have Boyle sign their books.
Although Boyle looked the part of a writer with a sports coat, reddish hair, and a piercing on his cartilage, he only stumbled into the profession in a class as an undergraduate at SUNY Potsdam. On the process of writing a short story, Boyle said he “never had any idea of what a story will be. Just something that happens.” In a similarly happenstance fashion, he was accepted to the Iowa’s Writers Workshop, where he received an MFA and a PhD in 19th century British literature.
Boyle chose to read two stories about daughters, in honor of his own daughter, who was also a writer. The first story was a bittersweet twist on one of Boyle’s experience. The second story was a sorrow-trip. “It’s going to make you feel really bad,” he said. “One woman sobbed through the whole story.” Indeed, Boyle led the audience through a sorrowful journey where parents received a call saying that their daughter had been injured in a car accident, and through their exhaustive responses up until the moment of true revelation. But Boyle saves us at the last minute. The story was peppered by an extended metaphor of meteors and asteroids obliterating humans on Earth. Although the metaphor was woven neatly into the story to complement the parents’ emotions, it also represents a true fear of Boyle’s that our time is short-lived.
“I worry about everything in the world,” he said. “Did you hear in the newspaper? We have only a billion year until the oceans boil away! I thought we had 7.5 billion.” Boyle’s interest in environmental issues manifests itself into his writing, such as in the stories about the meteorites in the work he read.
The most poignant aspect of Boyle’s craft is the additional layer of narration in his novels, said Frost. “The added voice of a puppeteer narrator reminds me of an extra character telling you extra things,” he said. Frost uses Boyle’s short stories in his fiction course as exemplary forms of satirical literature. “I want students to know how it works. Boyle’s stories don’t just make fun of them…[he is] also sympathetic to characters.”
Boyle has kept a balance of short stories and novels, which he says has been important to his sanity as a writer. Between short stories, however, life is just miserable until the writer finds the next story. In a novel, the writer is locked in but in a consistent pattern. Ultimately, “it’s all just a story,” said Boyle.