Funding at Iowa, and T.C. Boyle miscellany

John McNally remembers his years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Despite faculty members’ disdain toward his work, he ended up serving as T.C. Boyle’s research assistant.

When I arrived at the Workshop in the fall of 1987 without funding, I was told by a second-year student (a student who is now a bestselling novelist) that I shouldn’t worry, that everyone got funding their second year — everyone, she added, except for those who clearly don’t deserve it. But in the spring, when financial aid was doled out, I was one of three fiction writers who didn’t get funding. One of three. Over and over, I asked myself, What the fuck happened? but the answer was already there, sitting in front of me, fat and dejected: You, Mr. McNally, are one of the undeserving! Had I not worked hard enough? Were my stories shit? Was it because I had gone to Southern Illinois University instead of Harvard or Johns Hopkins for my undergrad degree? Who knew? That summer, a visiting editor read my work, liked what he saw, and spoke to the powers that be, and so by the fall I had been awarded a skimpy research assistantship. Enter T. Coraghessan Boyle. Tom to his friends.

Tom liked me in part, I suspect, because he looked at my experiences at Iowa and saw a reflection of his own. Tom had gone to SUNY-Potsdam; Jack Leggett, the director of the workshop in Tom’s day, had gone to Yale. Tom was still a hippie, cranked up on attitude. Apparently, Jack and Tom did not see eye to eye. According to Tom, he himself had been left out of the funding pool, and so anger became his fuel, his motivator. And maybe this was the best thing that could have happened to him. As a student, he began publishing in places most writers only dream about — The Atlantic, Esquire… “Bury your enemies, John. Bury your enemies, and bury ’em deep.” We were standing in some student’s apartment the first time he told me this, crammed in the corner of a kitchen, drinking beer. Tom shook his head, smiling. You could see it in his eyes: the sweetness of vindication.

(McNally’s latest novel, America’s Report Card, is set in Iowa City. The protagonist works there as a standardized test grader.)

On Monday night Boyle read from his latest novel, Talk Talk, and fielded questions from readers. Koren Zailckas reports on the event for the Jane blog. Here’s Boyle on “whether his characters (pissed off, many of them) channel [his] own inner anger.”

People always ask me if my characters are angry because I’m angry. And the answer is yes. I’m extremely pissed off. I’m pissed off, for instance, at the people who hog the fast lane on the 101. Those women in their Mercedes who pull into the fast lane, and just sit there, yapping on their cell phones. I want to give up writing, give up teaching, and join the highway patrol. And when I do, I’m not going to arrest those women; I’m not going to give them tickets; I’m going to murder them in freaking cold blood.

He also called New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani a “bitter, acerbic individual who’s miserable with her bleak reviewer’s life.” (Thanks, Marcus.)


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