The author, amateur naturalist, and long-time Santa Barbara resident talks about his writing and his relationship to the natural world.
The weathered redwood gate to the only Frank Lloyd Wright home in Santa Barbara County was left unlocked for us. We entered, peering about for a grand Montecito house. Best-selling author T.C. Boyle and his wife, Karen, live here after all.
A winding path was shaded by towering eucalyptus, oak, sycamore, and pine trees. Trees given free range enough to partially obscure Wright’s 1909 redwood-clad wonder of simplicity, function, and elegance. (The Women is Boyle’s magnum opus on Wright’s checkered marital life.) About the only thing calling attention to the house is the upper perimeter of crisscross-latticed windows in a pattern of cubes. Fair to say we had landed in a nature preserve, though one with a Vons supermarket and a Chinese restaurant a proverbial stone’s throw away.
Our host appeared, a lean man with a trim goatee, dressed in black jeans and a black tee, a baseball cap pulled down low. It wasn’t clear if he emerged from the house or from his forest, but he greeted us with great brio. “Call me Tom,” he announced at first handshake, “or T.C. or Thomas or call me anything you want!”
We settled into a sitting area in the back. “We’re going to start with tea,” Tom declared, setting forth the agenda. “Later we move on to wine.” Karen, Tom’s partner since they met at State University of New York in the late 1960s, came out of the kitchen carrying a tray with an exquisite tea service of blue and white porcelain.
Karen was also the discoverer of the Wright house – purchased in forlorn condition in 1993 – as well as the mother of their two grown sons and daughter, Kerrie. Later, we would end up next door at Kerrie’s, accessible via a shared fence and gate, for the wine portion of the day-turned-evening.
The conversation was dominated by butterflies – the co-residents of the Boyle properties. For their benefit, Tom has planted milkweed on both sides of the fence. Lots of milkweed. A scraggly shrub of a plant that’s the preferred nesting ground for butterflies.
Butterflies, monarchs in particular, Tom explained, lay their eggs amid the milkweed, their pupae woven into the milkweed until they metamorphose into curtains of fluttering butterflies. “That’s why they call it Butterfly Lane,” he said, waving toward the road behind us.
But like everything else in the natural world of late, the butterflies are threatened. The monarchs ruled the roost for decades, he said, but had dramatically decreased in recent years.
Tom said he hopes everyone would plant some milkweed to recover the monarchs’ golden age. His ardent advocacy and ongoing triage for the species seems almost a contradiction. He is, after all, deeply pessimistic about our own species preservation. “Everything is broken in this day and age,” he says wearily.
This hasn’t dimmed Tom’s own output. His twenty novels and scores of short stories are the products of an exacting daily discipline. “I’m in bed at 11:30,” he says. “Not 11:29, not 11:31. Up at 6:30.” He pads around the kitchen a spell, then to work. When the books are finished, he tours everywhere they’ll have him – including a recent seven-stop tour in Germany for his latest, Blue Skies, a well-reviewed page turner the New York Times described as, “less a novel about what might be done about the climate crisis and more an accomplished family drama with a climate-crisis setting.”
Tom moonlights as a naturalist and an explorer. He’s been to the Channel Islands untold times, journeys to a redoubt in the high Sierras, and regularly swims and scuba dives in the Pacific.
After tea, Tom guided us about the property, pointing out trees and plants, citing their Latinate names. We were followed by the family cat, Haggis. Tom said he had trained Haggis not to harm the birds or rabbits, but came to an agreement that rats, mice, and gophers were fair game.
Tom kindly signed our copy of Blue Skies, a hilarious and unsettling tale set in motion when a woman purchases a baby Burmese python as a pet because she thinks the markings along its length would nicely accessorize one of her outfits. What could go wrong?
The late, great actor Alan Arkin once said he thought all his characters were, in fact, him. Asked if he felt the same of the characters in his work, Tom laughed, then said, “They are all part of a collective unconscious. All those characters are in all of us.”
Q&A With T.C. Boyle on Writing, Nature, and Living in Santa Barbara
Robert Lesser with A.L. Bardach: Nature plays a dramatic role in much of your writing, and it’s clear you do a lot of scientific research for your books. Do you have any particular scientists you consult?
TCB: I read books about nature and biology in the way people read thrillers. The natural world – the habitat of our fellow creatures – is deeply fascinating to me. That said, I am fortunate in having friends in the scientific world. Lotus Vermeer [a scientist at nearby UCSB], for instance, was instrumental in my developing an understanding of the problems of invasive species on Santa Cruz Island for When the Killing’s Done. And the entomologists I thank in the pages of Blue Skies were enormously helpful and generous with their time when I was researching that book.
RB and ALB: In the Smithsonian piece you wrote after your book When the Killing’s Done, you talk about spending time on the Channel Islands to prepare. Did the plot evolve once you got to understand the efforts by biologists to restore native species to Santa Cruz Island?
TCB: The germ of the story – the actual cascading events that impoverished and imperiled the ecosystem there, from the introduction of rats after a shipwreck in the nineteenth century to the harboring of pigs and sheep in the years that followed – gave me what I needed vis-à-vis the storyline. But visiting the islands in the company of Lotus and the other field biologists was invaluable for the sheer absorption of the scene. I take notes on my reading and refer to them as the occasion demands, but since I am following the lead of the narrative, I often don’t know where that will be.
RB and ALB: There’s an excerpt from a PEN/Faulkner conversation you did a couple years ago about writing and climate:
“What I do is try to live in nature as much as possible. It frees me … This property here, I dug a pond for the animals. This house is called Butterfly Woods. When I moved in here twenty-eight years ago, the Western monarchs came here to nest and roost all winter. There were thousands. Now, there are hardly any. Yes, of course, I’ve planted milkweed for them and I’ve given them a water source, but the problems are so much deeper than what any one person can do. It’s depressing, but I can’t stop doing what I’m doing. It’s a little bit.”
RB and ALB: Have you seen any improvement since you’ve dedicated yourself to planting milkweed?
TCB: The monarch drop-off began some years ago. When I first moved here, thirty years back, they were abundant here in their winter roost at the southern end of the property. Their decline has been dramatic, but as I noted with a wee bit of uplift at the end of Blue Skies, their population has grown over the past two years.
RB and ALB: Should we all be planting milkweed in our backyards?
TCB: My advice to everyone reading this? Plant milkweed … I don’t think [the increased number of monarchs] has anything to do with my efforts, but rather a collective statewide effort. Some municipalities and highway departments are leaving margins natural rather than planting grass. This is a boon for native species and it has the added benefit of saving water.
RB and ALB: Your recent book, Blue Skies, has been referred to as an eco-thriller. Amazon said, “Blue Skies deftly explores the often volatile relationships between humans and their habitats, in which ‘the only truism seems to be that things always get worse.’” So, any hope for our species, our planet?
TCB: I guess all my books are eco-thrillers in one way or another. Certainly I got a thrill out of writing them. As for hope for our species, I am not the one to ask. The good news [laughs] is that plastics will outlast us – our legacy to the environment … My story, “I Walk Between the Raindrops,” from last year’s collection of the same name, [has] a somewhat darker view.
RB and ALB: What’s your favorite thing to do in Montecito/Santa Barbara when you’re not working?
TCB: Walk the beach, swim, kayak, read in the sand – then hit the bars.
RB and ALB: Out of all the places you could probably choose to live, why did you choose here?
TCB: Why Santa Barbara? Who wouldn’t choose here? This is as good as it gets, where the mountains come down to the sea.