In his latest novel, When the Killing’s Done, T.C. Boyle revisits the ideological battle over California’s Channel Islands, a Galapagos-like atoll off the SoCal coast that, in the ’90s, sparked a battle royal between animal rights activists and National Park Service scientists. The issue: the removal of non-native species, which meant the killing of feral pigs. His complicated novel pits National Park Service biologist Alma Boyd Takesue against the cranky For the Protection of Animals (FPA) founder Dave LaJoy in a fight over whose vision of preservation should rule the Channel Islands.
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Neither of the main characters is without flaws, but you make Dave LaJoy particularly unlikable. Yet he’s the one who lives by “thou shalt not kill.”
I don’t think it’s the point of an artist to advocate one side or other. I think it’s up to readers to come to a conclusion. But it’s great that so far they see Dave LaJoy and Alma Boyd Takesue as flawed individuals, as most of us are. Except me, of course.
Part of the idea for your last novel, The Women (2009), came from living in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house. What sparked When the Killing’s Done?
I live in Montecito now but I teach at USC (University of Southern California in Los Angeles). Driving on the Pacific Coast Highway, for long stretches you’re looking at the Channel Islands right off the shore. I also began reading in the local paper about what’s going on out there and about people who were fighting over these islands. It started to present interesting questions. Who has control over the land? How far do you take it back? All the way to saber-toothed tigers? And who has the right to do that?
I assume you’ve spent a lot of time on the islands.
Yeah. They’re amazing. The Channel Islands are our least visited national park because you have to barf over the side of boat for an hour and a half to get there. That crossing can be really rough. But you can see what was done to an island like Santa Cruz. If you take the boat from the National Park Service property to the next dock over at the Nature Conservancy Park, you can see a major change in the vegetation.
All of your books are like that: You can see the time and research you put into the text. It’s almost like you’re a reporter at heart.
Well, the point of journalism is to present facts, and sometimes dramatize facts, and sometimes the reporter is even in the story. But in fiction it’s a kind of seduction. You have to convince the reader that this is true. If there’s something wrong then you’ll lose that reader. So I do love the research.
This isn’t your first novel to deal with environment issues (The Tortilla Curtain, 1995).
I have a great passion for it and I am an environmentalist. I am quite fascinated by nature. I spend a lot of time in the Sierras by myself in the woods. I love it there. I do regret the extinction of species that is continually happening. Our children will look at lions and tigers like we look at dinosaurs. But I don’t try to put all that in my books. If you read all my writing you can see what I stand for. But like I said, the reader should find out these things for his or her self. I’m just exploring.
You’re working on another novel, San Miguel, which is named for another of the Channel Islands.
Yeah, it’s the farthest island out on the chain. While I was doing research for When the Killing’s Done, I came across some great stories about San Miguel Island. I’m doing a straightforward historical piece about two families who lived there. I’m just fascinated with a closed environment. Where When the Killing’s Done deals with that in an ecological sense, now I’m looking at it in a dramatic way. I guess that’s odd because I’m the guy who subverted historical novels and now I’m trying to write a historical piece sans irony. I can’t wait to be done so I can read 20 satirical novels and write one myself.
The fact that you often switch between writing satirical novels and “serious” novels has gotten you as much criticism as praise over the years.
I would have killed myself long ago if the praise didn’t far outweigh the criticism. But you can’t believe everyone. You throw things out and see what happens. I don’t think that literature is only meant as a homework assignment. You can be entertained by a book about shit, death and misery as long as it’s beautifully done and grabs your interest.
When The Killing’s Done
Viking / Feb. 22, 2011 / 9780670022328 / $26.95