T.C. Boyle covers a lot of ground in his work, from credit card fraud to border tension between the United States and Mexico; Alfred Kinsey's sex research to John Harvey Kellogg's obsession with "health food." What Boyle's spanning work has in common is his masterful character tension, in detailing how the subjects interact with one another. In his latest novel, The Terranauts, Boyle gets to focus on those interpersonal exchanges more than ever, as it's based on the real-life Biosphere II program from the early '90s wherein eight people are sealed off from the rest of the world for two years, causing strife both within the artificial environment and outside of it. We talked with Boyle about the making of the book and the work that’s had the greatest influence on him.
What would you say has been one book that's changed your life?
It was a short story, actually: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” This story came to me as a revelation, a piece that begins in the familiar world of the sitcom and then turns positively apocalyptic, questioning our very notions of good and evil.
Where did you first encounter it?
After flunking my audition at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, I declared a major in history (as you can see reflected in so many of my novels). In my sophomore year I took a class in the American short story, and there was O’Connor, lighting me up with her grace and power and wicked humor, so I declared a double major in history and English. Until I encountered “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” I didn’t realize how you could combine comedy and tragedy to such devastating effect in the same story.
In an author's note at the beginning of The Terranauts, you allude to various accounts of Biosphere II. Had you been thinking about writing something set in such a location since the days when Biosphere II was in operation?
When the Biosphere II project first emerged in the early 1990s I avidly collected all the press accounts of it, thinking I’d write a novel set in an artificial environment. "Could we create a self-sustaining manmade world?" I wondered. "Was our own world doomed?" Unfortunately, I lost interest when the Mission 1 crew broke closure after only twelve days. Subsequently, I wrote a number of stories and novels with strong environmental/biological themes, such as 2000’s A Friend of the Earth, about global warming, or 2003’s Drop City, which examines the back-to-the-earth movement of the 1960s with respect to our society’s degradation of the environment. Now, finally, I’ve come back to the Biosphere II experiment in The Terranauts.
What was the process of writing about a believably functional biosphere like?
Well, of course, there is the unique environment of what I call Ecosphere II to emphasize that this is fiction: four men and four women, sealed in for two years while the whole world watches and tourists peer through the glass walls at them. What would that be like? I just let the three narrators — one man selected for the inside crew and two women, one inside and one excluded — begin to talk to me and then I followed them through the working out of all their hopes and prejudices and the infighting that came along with them.
The Terranauts engage in performances of several plays, including works by Eugene Ionesco and Thornton Wilder. When in the process of writing the novel did these plays enter the picture?
Everything emerges in the order in which you see it. My work is organic, in that it generates itself day by day, scene by scene, character by character. The historical Biosphere II, which is what my Ecosphere II is based on, as we’ve pointed out above, was as much theater as it was science, and its founder, as with the founder I call G.C. (God the Creator) in my version, insisted on the crew performing plays as a way of bonding. I followed that lead, which helped deepen the themes of the novel, and I hope enliven the day-to-day proceedings of my (willingly) imprisoned Terranauts. What I didn’t realize until I got deep into the book is how incredibly sexy all this is: four men, four women, locked inside. Whatever are they going to do?