T.C. Boyle talks about 'Tortilla Curtain' and censorship

** FILE ** This undated file photo originally released by Viking Penguin shows author T.C. Boyle. (AP Photo/Viking Penguin, Milo Boyle) ** NO SALES **



Author T.C. Boyle still remembers the first time "concerned parents" attempted to ban his writing: "When I first moved to Santa Barbara, I got a phone call from a teacher in Ojai — now, Ojai is an artist community, which you'd think would be very liberal. But they were banning my short story "Greasy Lake" from a textbook because of one curse word in it that a parent happened to find while flipping through the book.

"The teacher was distraught because of all the stories in the book — this is according to him — this was the one that most spoke to the students. It's about teenagers."

Boyle eventually got the the school superintendent on the phone and said, "Look, I'm willing to come to Ojai and meet with the parents and read the story out loud and teach it to them because they couldn't possibly — if they understand the story — see how it doesn't uphold their moral values."

The response: "They will hang you."

"I said, &‘OK, then I'm not coming.'"

But several weeks later, after the story was banned, Boyle held a reading at UC Santa Barbara "and the teacher brought two of his classes of students to come and hear me read in defiance of yahooism."

Now, a similar scenario plays out again. A few weeks ago, parents of Montgomery High School students tried unsuccessfully to ban Boyle's 1995 novel "Tortilla Curtain" from school curriculum, after objecting to its profanity, stereotypes of young Latino girls and graphic depiction of rape.

This weekend, Boyle rolls through the Bay Area on his latest book tour, making his only Bay Area appearance Saturday night at the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station.

"The (Montgomery) teacher e-mailed me about a month ago and I wrote a little letter to the school board, but I guess that was adjudicated in the proper way. What I said was, &‘Why shouldn't we let English teachers — the experts in this — decide what the curriculum is rather than the random yahoo parent?'"

After nine short-story collections, 12 novels, countless New Yorker short stories, numerous awards and fellowships and a Hollywood adaptation of "The Road to Wellville," it's safe to say he's weathered his fair share of controversy.

"I do take it as a badge of honor," he says. "It's preposterous. Look at what kids are exposed to daily in the pure crap on TV or at the movies or rock and roll — it's a free country. This is art. How many rape scenes do you suppose the average child has seen watching TV in his life?"

Boyle's latest collection of short stories, "Wild Child," doesn't contain any rape scenes or that much profanity. But it does plunder the daily headlines with topical explorations of DUI trials, mudslides and the kidnapping of a professional baseball pitcher's Venezuelan mother. In one story, a Mexican boy is born without the ability to feel pain. In another, a pet-sitter is hired to care for the first genetically cloned dog. Even the title story retells the tale of an abandoned boy found living in the wilds of France in 1797 (the subject of Fran?is Truffaut's film "L'Enfant Sauvage").

At 61, Boyle could be one of his own characters, sporting a scruffy Van Dyke beard and gold ear clasp — often topped off with a beret. He's taught fiction at USC since 1978. With a weakness for historical fiction — whether it be exposing the quirks and oddities of architect Frank Lloyd Wright in "The Women" or cereal inventor Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in "The Road to Wellville" — he's made a career out of a curious topical sensibility often tweaked through wry twists and a biting sense of irony. The perfect example: The animal rights activists in his 1994 story "Carnal Knowledge" who liberate thousands of turkeys from a farm just before Thanksgiving. Only to find, as they're driving home, all the free birds have been slaughtered on the highway.

Back in the early '80s, after graduating from the Iowa Writer's Workshop and looking to make the leap from short stories to novels, he holed up in Inverness and Bolinas in west Marin County to bang out his first novel, "Water Music." Then, in the early '90s, he lived in Guerneville for several summers while working on "The Road to Wellville."

"I had a little shack in the redwoods," he remembers. "It was cold in the mornings. I'd build a fire in the fireplace and type away in my rags. When work was over I'd go down, right by Ginger's Rancho there, on the beach of the Russian River, I'd kayak up and down the river."

Adapted into a Hollywood movie, "Road to Wellville" was his first major foray into historical fiction — a career niche that has served him well as he's continued to tinker with fact and fiction.

"The beauty of American law is you cannot slander anybody who is dead," he says with a laugh. "This is not true in all countries."

After portraying the late Stanley McCormick (heir to the Chicago McCormick family fortune) as a sex-crazed maniac in "Riven Rock," Boyle found himself on tour in the Windy City after one of the local independent papers published a muckraking article about his new book.

"The reporter actually called all the existing surviving relatives he could find and said, &‘You see what this novelist has done in memory of Stanley?' And none of them cared the slightest bit."

For him, it's what successful art should always do — push buttons.

"I'm not writing something bland that nobody cares about," he says. "I think when any of my books come out there's always a lot of noise surrounding my books. I've never really been met with indifference, where they say, &‘Who cares?' I think that's what good art is supposed to do. It's not supposed to make you feel good about your own prejudices and your own values, it's supposed to open you up in some way and get you outraged or make you happy or make you sad or whatever it's going to do."

Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014 or and follow on Twitter @becksay.