Book World Live

T.C. Boyle
Author, "Talk Talk"
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; 3:00 PM

"If stories about missing government laptops and hacked databases have got you shredding your bank statements and paying cash at restaurants, brace yourself for another jolt of paranoia. T. Coraghessan Boyle's new novel about identity theft is so perfectly aligned with the day's news that the FBI should search his house for stolen credit cards." ( Review : "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?")

Author T.C. Boyle fields comments and questions about "Talk Talk," his timely new novel about identity theft.

Comic novelist T.C. Boyle is an English professor at the University of Southern California.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

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T.C. Boyle: Hello and welcome, all you wonderful people (great apes, that is). It's is my honor to be here for a chat with you all.

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Chevy Chase, Md: Do you think the novel could have worked as well if Dana were male? Is there something about the interplay between deafness and femininity that makes this character feel right for the circumstances?

T.C. Boyle: Interesting question. I conceived Dana as female from the beginning. And yet I do not see any link between the female/the deaf/victimization. As you will see, she is a very aggressive, even hard-headed individual.

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Herndon, Va: Before you were a successful novelist, and could afford an office, how did you manage to write with three young children in the house?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Herndon: Very loud music. I worked in the bedroom, at a desk squeezed in at the foot of the bed. The door closed firmly and the music drowned out the ambient noise as well as the piercing cries and pre-prandial howls. Of course, my wife was there full-time to see to the infants' needs. Thank god.

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Herndon, Va: Mr. Boyle: My last name is the same as your new novel's protagonist - "Halter" Since it's an uncommon name, I was curious if you picked the name at random, or if you met a "Halter" at some time.

T.C. Boyle: Dear Mr./Ms. Halter: This is an example of a name just jumping into my head as I was moving forward with the book. I don't know anybody named Halter, but the name has symbolic reference in Talk Talk. I've heard of novelists selling space for character names (a reprehensible practice), but here you get honored for free. Have fun with it.

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Chinatown, Washington, D.C.: Hi. How do you pronounce "Coraghessan" ?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Chinatown: What a pure delight. I've just come back from a nice stroll from Nob Hill, through Chinatown to North Beach and back (yes, I'm in San Francisco). The pronunciation of my middle name is Cor-ag-assen, with emphasis on the second syllable. For elaboration on this and other myteries please go to my site, tcboyle.com or the fan sites, tcboyle.net and tcboyle.de.

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Washington, DC: Thanks for drawing a well-rounded deaf character who wasn't straight out of an after-school TV special! Where did you do your Deaf culture research? (From a 34-year-old partially deaf woman with a Ph.D.)

T.C. Boyle: Hello and thanks for the question. I did visit Gallaudet and meet with the students there and I do have a deaf friend who helped, but I take it as a challenge to try to appreciate and present the point of view of anyone. See my story, "Big Game," for the time I even entered the head of a (very angry) elephant.

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Washington, DC: I am excited to read your book, and not only because I am employed (by the good guys) making counterfeit and fraudulent ID and financial/life documents to aid in investigative work concerning fraud. What some don't realize is that very nearly any piece of paper without anti-fraud devices can be faked (very easily, most of the time) and that mundane documents (DMV forms, tax/reporting docs, etc) can do as much damage as the traditional fraud vehicles like driver's licenses and birth certificates.

What is the most pedestrian/unexpected use of fraud you've seen?

T.C. Boyle: I can't really say, other than that everybody should be guarding their mail--this remains the most direct route to ID theft. I will say, however, that I recently had a chat with an acquaintance (foreign-born) who does not have a green card, has an arrest record and hasn't been out of the country in thirty years for fear of the conseqences at the border. An emergency came up and he entered Canada and returned on an assumed name on a passport he paid $25 for.

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Annandale, Va: How do your characters, in an increasingly security-conscious world, manage a de facto paranoia that may endure indefinitely?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Annandale: I guess we must give up our identities to Big Brother (or our Big Daddy in the White House who promises to cure all ills) and the corporation he works for. Everything about us is known and tracked (primarily as a means of selling us product), and soon, very soon, we will have to go to a retinal scan for all transactions, both live and via computer. What do we give up by way of individuality and privacy along the way? Should we go back to a cash-based society? To barter?

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Alexandria, Va: How do you gather the information, the details that make your stories so real? For your latest book, did you go to the county jail, sit there for awhile and takes notes? Or did you have yourself incarcerated Morgan Spurlock-style?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Alexandria: Thank you for the kind words. I'm glad that you appreciate the research I put into getting the details right. Let me say this: I do not have a journalistic background and am uncomfortable with interviewing people or intruding where I am perhaps not wanted. The immediacy of the scenes is largely a result of a very vivid imagination.

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Maryland: Maybe this is silly, but is there a way to get an

autographed book? I love to give novels as gifts, and try to

get them autographed whenever possible.

Thanks!

T.C. Boyle: Dear Maryland: Woe betide you! I was in Washington, D.C. last week and made an appearance at Politics and Prose (a well-attended event and a great delight). Had you been there I would have gladly personalized your books. Still, you can go to a number of area bookstores, including the aforementioned, where I stopped in to sign stock for people like you who may not have been able to come to the reading. I look forward to seeing you next time around (and if you want to know where I will be, please go to tcboyle.com, where I publish my schedule of public appearances.

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College Park, Md: My family and I enjoyed your reading and your talk last week at Politics & Prose. You have a great sense of humor (and not so serious like your jacket photos!). Question, why the switch from T. Coraghessen to T.C.? Do you think it will make you more marketable? Just curious. p.s. we love your work!

T.C. Boyle: Dear College Park: Thank you a thousand times. I love to interact with the audience and do my standup shtick. Glad you liked it. Why so serious in the photos? Well, I guess a poor author is just trying to achieve a little intensity--but if you look at the photo gallery in tcboyle.com you might find a smile or two and the back of Tooth and Claw features a delighted and grinning author. As for the abridgement of my name, this is a direct result of a groveling and drawn-out plea on the part of the art director at Viking. Please, he said, I just can't fit Coraghessan on the page! I shrugged. And accomodated him. Why not make it easy on everyone (including the French, who give the pronunciation of my name as ti-ci).

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Burke, Va: I haven't read your latest book but I have to say that I've enjoyed many others and "If the River Was Whiskey" was the most incredibly diverse group of short stories I've ever read. As a fledgling writer myself, I'm interested in how you can write so well about so many different subjects.

T.C. Boyle: Dear Burke: Thanks for the kind words. If you want diversity, check out my most recent collections, last year's Tooth and Claw and 2001's After the Plague. Now, to the answer: for me a story is an exercise of the imagination and I have therefore never limited myself as to mode or subject. Whatever interests, amuses, perplexes can only be dealt with in fictional form--that, for better or worse, is the way my poor tired brain works.

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T.C. Boyle: You're T.C. Boyle? What a coincidence, that's what my credit cards and passport say, also.

T.C. Boyle: Dear Impersonater: Enjoy them. Unfortunately, I'm bankrupt. I guess they creditors will be coming after you any minute now . . . BTW, a few years back one of the messagistas at tcboyle.com messaged as me for a while, just for the fun of it, but the fans saw through him/her.

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Orlando, Fla: Regarding your short story: "Greasy Lake," how much of that is fiction and how much of it is true?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Orlando: We have all been to Greasy Lake, which is why, I think, the story has become a classic and is able to resonate with so many people. Certainly there are autobiographical elements in the story, but it is purely fiction. What I am getting at is the feeling of freedom that age brings--ah, nineteen!--and how we all try to butt up against the system, looking for something indefinable and perhaps too dangerous even for our riskiest dreams.

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Washington, D.C.: As a long time writer of boring government documents, I wish to get a graduate degree in writing that is more challenging and expansive to my imagination. Do you recommend graduate study, what does one need to enter USC, and what do you recommend to people with a burning desire to become writers and learn more about writing?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Washington: I recommend reading great fiction, for starters. And then, yes, once you are producing your own work, a good M.F.A. program can be invaluable, both for guidance and contacts. At USC we have both an undergrad writing program and a grad. What one needs, aside from tuition (which ain't cheap), is top-quality work. On that you will be judged.

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New York, N.Y.: Thank you for being at the New Yorker book fair last year. It was great to see you there as I admire your writing. May we know what you are working on that we may look forward to seeing in the future?

T.C. Boyle: Dear New York: Well, thanks. I will be back at the New Yorker Festival this year and hope to see you there. Right now, I've done a bunch of new stories and am about one-fifth of the way into another novel, this one a return to the twentieth century and one of the big egomaniacal figures of the age. Also, you might check out the current issue of McSweeney's, which contains the novella, Wild Child, which is written by Dana Halter, the heroine of Talk Talk.

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the corporate cafeteria: So tell us -- what did you have for lunch today?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Caf: Now this is a great and penetrating question. But, of course, I am in S.F., and lunchtime hasn't rolled around yet. For the past couple of weeks I have gotten by on rich hotel fare, meaning that I have gained perhaps two or three ounces, all of it appended at the very top of my emaciated frame in the frayed ends of my hair.

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Orlando, Fla: Did you grow up in Peekskill NY? Do you ever go back...on purpose?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Orlando: I did indeed grow up in Peekskill and go back whenever I am able. My closest lifelong friend lives there still in the very development where we grew up. I have deep love for the area (as evidenced in many stories and the novel World's End) and I should say that the cross-country chase in Talk Talk ends in my fictional version of my hometown, Peterskill.

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Fairfax, va: Thanks for participating in the chat. I admire your writing greatly. I'd be curious to know what part of the whole cycle of conception, writing, editing and publication do you hate the most? Love the most?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Fairfax: I am the rare author who loves to perform and loves to meet his audience (and loves such forums as this, as well as radio and TV interviews and all the rest). That said, however, I find the creation of stories to be the most satisfying thing I can imagine. I do not feel right unless I am engaged in trying to interpret the world through my fiction.

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Athens, Ga: Why did you choose the particular ending used in Talk Talk? Why was it so abrupt? Why did it satisfy your goals for the story?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Athens: I'd send you back to The Tortilla Curtain for comparison. I don't find the ending abrupt at all. I am not writing a thriller, though of course I adopt some its elements for my own purposes, but rather a literary exploration of communication, language and identity. If you look carefully at the final confrontation between Peck and Dana, you will see that the ending brings you back into the book to reassess its themes--their final exchange says worlds about who they are and what they have become as a result of their intertwining identities. You will find too that each story has its own natural and organic ending, which the plot seeks throughout. In some of my novels and stories you will have a full accounting; in others, I leave the accounting to the reader, which, in such cases, is a far more meaningful process.

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Berkeley, Calif: I'm hoping to get to Cody's Books tonight for your reading (my six month-old daughter might have other ideas).

Anyway, last summer I coordinated a writing workshop for kids 7-18. They're at it again at this very moment (and -they- will be reading at Cody's on the 28th). One of the big challenges was working with them on endings: Besides pianos (or, in your case, meteors) from the sky, how do we know our stories are done?

Thoughts to share with them?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Berkeley: Bring the baby along! See you there. It will be whole bucketloads of fun. As for endings, please see above. And, further, your students must realize that the ending can't be foreseen, but must grow organically out of the plot and themes, just as the opening comes as a calculated inspiration, so too must the ending.

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Orlando, Fla: How much travel keeps you "going." What part of the writing process do you have to breathe and live--are you a location writer so to speak.

T.C. Boyle: Dear Orlando: I travel too much on book tours and have little time for pleasure travel. But don't feel too badly for me: when I am truly interested in a place, I write about it. And so, I went to Alaska to sniff around prior to Drop City and for the Kinsey book I went to Bloomington, Indiana. Sometimes seeing a place helps in the creative process.

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Bethesda, Md: Hey there, TCB -- thanks for stopping by the Post. Have enjoyed your work for long time -- still chuckle when I recall that mattress on car scene from Budding Prospects. Can you talk briefly about your novel writing and short story writing -- on the balance between the two and the need to do both, if that's true? Thanks. Hope it's cooler in San Fran than here in DC.

T.C. Boyle: Dear Bethesda: Yep, we do need a jacket here at night. And thanks for the kind comment about the mattress scene (which, of course, actually happened). As for stories/novels: it happens that I have always done both, alternately between periods of story writing and the novels (which are merely longer and more complex stories which allow for a more leisurely unraveling). I am committed to the story form and hope always to be able to produce them in addition to the novels.

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Milwaukee, Wis: Many of your books involve characters who remain ambiguous until the end, when the twist is revealed. What sorts of twists and characters will we find in your latest book?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Milwaukee: Neat observation. In Talk Talk, you will find plenty of this, as the subject is identity and imposture. I hope that the final revelations will come as a surprise and a provocation too.

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Alexandria, Va: Budding Prospects and The Road to Welleville are two of my favorite books. Why do you think The Road to Welleville was an unsuccessful movie?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Alexandria: I loved what Alan Parker did with The Road to Wellville. To my mind, it is flat-out hilarious. If it was not as successful as it might have been in the U.S. I do believe it is because many of my countrymen and countrywomen are not used to the absurdist Fellini-esque humor and pacing.

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Boise, Idaho: Love your work. I planned to apply to SC's MPA program, but they require GREs. I've found four competitive programs and one fellowship that don't. Would you consider moving to a school that doesn't require the GREs for their graduate fiction program? (Arizona, for example, hint hint.) Thanks.

T.C. Boyle: Dear Boise: Sorry to hear that. I wasn't a very good student across the board (bad math; real bad math) but was able to succeed because of one talent I was lucky enough to discover. As for Arizona: great schools at both Tucson and Tempe. Much luck with them. But I have only taught at one place and am very loyal to it. USC uber alles!

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Athens, Ga: Who's in the cast of the movie version of Talk Talk coming out next year? Who's writing the script, and can you comment on any changes made from the novel?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Athens: There are many, many movies in the works currently. I don't really follow the deals very well. The info on my website is very outdated (we're going to try to do something about that), but the messagistas at tcboyle.com often post the latest news from Variety, etc. All I know is that Universal Pictures has bought the rights for director Gary Fleder. The script is now being written, I presume, but I don't know by whom. I look forward to hearing who will play Dana--God, Hillary Swank would be a dream in this role--because I do think the success of the thing will hinge on that bit of casting.

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Frederick, Md: Anyone who wants to get a fresh perspective on the immigration question should be reading The Tortilla Curtain. Not that it provides any solutions, but it makes the whole issue come alive.

T.C. Boyle: Dear Frederick: Thank you for the kind words. There is some irony in the fact that I was so mercilessly attacked in 1995 when the book came out while now it is considered a classic and more widely read each year. I hope it will broaden thinking on the issue and provide a moving and memorable experience for my readers.

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Santa Fe, NM: Just a quick thanks.

I've been reading your works for long time & enjoyed them all..East Is East, Worlds End, Water Music (a favorite) + short stories, etc.

We went to your reading here at the Lensic where the whole audience enjoyed it very much. Hoped you liked our city.

Question: Who are some authors you enjoy reading?

Thanks again.

T.C. Boyle: Dear Santa Fe: Thanks. I love your town and the Lensic reading was one of the most thrilling (for me) I've done in a long while. Nice. Real nice. As for authors, they are infinite. I do not read genre work, but what we would call literature (I guess that's become a genre in some people's minds). Right now I'm on a Nabokov kick (because of the new novel I'm working on, a question of humor and sensibility).

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College Park, Md: What would you say to folks (certainly not me) who think that there's only merit in reading non-fiction? How do we benefit from reading fiction (and great fiction like yours)?

T.C. Boyle: Dear College Park: I am a devourer of non-fiction, particularly books about nature and the environment and science. But I am equally dedicated as a reader to fiction--and to poetry. Obviously, great art can move and inform us as no essay, no matter how brilliant, can hope to do (in general, of course).

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Union Station, D.C.: Greasy Lake? Haven't read it, but will go out and buy it tonight! Inspired by The Boss?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Union Station: Absolutely. The story opens with a Springsteen quote: "It was down on the dark side of Route 88." Enjoy, my friend.

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Alexandria, Va: Do you consider yourself a literary writer or a commercial writer, or just a writer?

What's the difference?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Alexandria: A literary writer, mais oui. To my mind, a commercial writer gives us one thing only--story--while a literary writer gives us art.

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Kensington, Md: Who are your literary influences and what is your writting background and training? Are you high on MFA's or on the experiential route? Favorite American author? How about Bellow's comedic ability? How about Roth's? How Joycean are your constructs?

T.C. Boyle: Dear Kensington: Because we have time constraints, I will send you to my essay, "This Monkey, My Back," which you will find on tcboyle.com at the bottom of the About the Author page. Favorite American author? Too many to name. But how about Flannery O'Connor? As for humor, Bellow and Roth have given us humor in spades--and a very sophisticated humor too. As for Joyce, yes, yes and yes. To me, the language itself is the essence of great art, and its rhythms and nuances are the joy of working at fiction.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Boyle,

My favorite short-story of yours is Sorry Fugu. The language is so rich, so colorful--It's really stuck with me over the years. Out of your own short-stories, which is your favorite or which are you most proud of and why?

Thank you.

T.C. Boyle: Dear Washington: I am pleased to hear that. In fact, what pleases me most about meeting my readers is to see how various their tastes are. I am always intrigued to hear which story a given reader holds up as a favorite. For myself, I could never choose just one--or even twenty. But I will say that I tend to love the wilder, more bizarre folktale sorts of stories, like Swept Away, Ike and Nina, The Miracle at Ballinspittle. I don't think there are many--if any--American writers working in this mode right now.

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Formerly of Battle Creek, Mich.: I loved "The Road to Wellville." How much of the history in the novel was based in reality and how much was comic exaggeration? I lived in Battle Creek for 12 years, and from what I remember, Dr. Kellogg received only a cursory mention in the official histories of the city and of the Kellogg's company.

By the way, I wrote a college term paper titled "The Road to Webville," about the dot-com boom and bust. I cited your novel in the introduction, because I saw an analogy between the fictional Per-Fo company and failed real-life enterprises like Pets.com. Thank you for the inspiration.

T.C. Boyle: Dear Formerly: All of the most bizarre facts of Wellville are true. All of them. Yes. Hard to believe, but there it is. As for Part II, I like the thesis of your paper--the cereal food industry was a stand-in in my mind for current trends, including the dot.com bust. Nice question. And thanks.

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washingtonpost.com: Thanks to T.C. Boyle, who says, "please thank everybody for their enthusiasm and the great questions. Lordy, I could do this all day."

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