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tv   Overheard With Evan Smith  PBS  February 11, 2017 4:30pm-5:01pm PST

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- [narrator] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation and hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy and by klru's producer's circle, ensuring local programming that reflects the character and interests of the greater austin, texas community. - i'm evan smith, he's an award winning novelist, short-story writer, and academic who's 26 works of fiction over an amazing four decades include, world's end, tortilla curtain, tooth and claw, wild child, the harder they come, and the road to wellville. his latest, the terranauts, has just been published. he's t. c. boyle, this is overheard. let's be honest, is this about the ability to learn or is this about the experience of not having been taught properly? how have you avoided what has befallen other nations in africa? you could say that he made his own bed, but you caused him to sleep in it. you saw a problem and, over time, took it on.
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let's start with the sizzle before we get to the steak. are you gonna run for president? i think i just got an -f. (applauding) t. c. boyle, welcome. - my pleasure. - congratulations on the book. - thank you so much. i publish books all the time, every year, and i go out on the road and every once in a while somebody says, congratulations, and i'm wondering, for what? it's like going to war when you publish a book. - no, it's like giving birth, here it is. it was long awaited. no, no, the thing about this book that i thought was especially great was it took me back, truly took me back to the mid and early 90s, you know. this is a novel based on real events. it's based on the experience of biosphere, biosphere 2 in arizona in the early 90s. you have really drawn a picture that is similar to, but, in so many ways, different from the real thing. - well, thank you. when the biosphere 2 experiment first happened in 91 through 93 northeast of tucson, i was fascinated by this.
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like most of the public, i clipped out all the articles. i thought, this is right up my alley because as you know, evan, i often write about ecological concerns. for those who don't know, a friendly texas billionaire-- - ed bass. - ed bass put up the money to create a new world. 3.15 acres, 3800 species of plants and insects, four men, four women, to be sealed inside for two years. this was the first closure of a projected 50 so this would go on for 100 years. the whole point is, nasa is still after this, by the way, is could we create another biosphere, other than the one we live in here, in the event that this one should collapse, which it sure looks like it's happening right now-- - honestly, it's about 50/50 isn't it? - exactly, or a mars colony, or whatever. - and the idea was that they would be observed as a laboratory experiment or a laboratory environment all along.
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- yeah, they were famous. they were aping the astronauts of nasa. now, nasa was congenial with them but this was a private enterprise, a tremendous chutzpah. i mean, build a new world? also, what the fun of it for me is they had hundreds of scientists helping to build this thing. i would think they would put in maybe just one biome. they did take a section from a florida everglades, for instance, for their marsh. instead, they had five biomes. - you had savanna, you had desert, you had marsh-- - and ocean. - ocean. - which with tropical fish, and so on. it was kind of a mix and match world that they created and they had galagos in there. these are the bush babies from africa, these prosimians, very cute, this big, they, climbing through the trees in the rainforest that they built. why'd they put them in there? for fun, for fun.
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a fascinating thing is, if it had go on 100 years, by the way, it didn't, the friendly billionaire got into a fight with the friendly creator and bailed out six months into the second-- - second time, it always happens. we have big aspirations and then it ends up not happening. - anyway, if it had happened for 100 years, okay, successively every two years they put in a new crew, but, imagine what that world would be like. there are so many unforeseen consequences when you try to be god. for instance, it took them a year and a half to build it and enclose it, and in that time, some invasive species came in, some volunteers. they put in three species of cockroach because they're essential detritivores to this world. but, the cockroach that some unfortunate people watching this see under the bathroom sink, that one got in, too, and, of course, took right over. - right, i mean, the law of unforeseen consequences is in effect here, and sort of the arrogance of assuming, you used to describe it as playing god, they were literally in this case.
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that's often used not literally. this is literally creating a world, right? playing god. - exactly. i also thought, what if we had 10 friendly billionaires and we built 10 of these-- - 10 different ones at the same time? - yeah, and they could be a mile apart, and they could even try put the same suite of creatures in each one. after 100 years it be a totally different world. they were criticized because it's not real science. science, you have a theory and you test it. this was more theatrical. it was more like, hey, kids, [both] let's put on a show. (laughing) - and to the point of being theatrical, it really was as much entertainment as it was science in that you also had these eight personalities who were placed in this experience. honestly, this was the first reality show. as i'm reading this book, i'm reminded that this is really a reality show that was a precursor to everything that's come. - it remains, by the way, a tourist attraction. you can go there, i've been there. they'll take you through it, it's just not closed. absolutely, again, these people were on the front page
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of all the newspapers, and magazines, and everything else. everything they did, behind the glass wall were tourists who paid to come and see them-- - and gawk. - and gawk, while they were slopping pigs and-- - the book you've written, instead of biosphere 2, it's ecosphere 2, it's e2. you have eight people, as was the case back then, they're all white, in fact, the women are all blonde, right? and to think, again, let's just go back for a moment to when this really occurred. could you imagine getting away with this kind of a public experiment where the participants are all white? today, i mean, this would be a protest, you'd have this whole cry, right i mean, this is a very different world. - this is part of why i'm setting this in the past. to examine that and see what those ironies are all about. - also, pre-technology. - yeah, they didn't-- - no social media, no cellphones, none of that stuff. - the beauty of this is i can take the original history, all the details i've just given you, or part of this. the biosphere has wrote books.
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there's a whole history of this full of newspaper articles and so on. - but, you had a wealth of material to draw on. - of course, but then i can project a second closure, and in mine, it's even more of a big brother sort of atmosphere, just for the fun of it, so they're not allowed to communicate with the outside world except at the visitor's window. it's like prison, you have a little phone and there's the window. they would give a handshake by putting their hands to the glass. and, of course, there's a little simulated sex going on, too, right at that window. in fact, i didn't realize how sexy this was going to be. four men, four women, locked inside-- - yeah, how could you have imagined? - what are they gonna do? (laughing) - what could you have been thinking about? what i love, as well, about the story is that it's told in a series of alternating, or rotating, narratives. two of the participants of the eight, and one of the people who hoped to be a participant but was not chosen
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and then ends up working, essentially, on the outside with the hope of getting into a future one of these. they're the three narrators. one of the three, the man, ramsay roothoorp, is actually kind of a horn-dog. that would be the technical phrase, is that right? - yeah, that's the typical phrase. - pbs friendly phrase, yeah, this is a guy who is a bit of a sex-obsessive. - yes, so, you mention having that, or three narrators. i've never done this before. i'm always trying to do something new at every book. - right, mix up the structure. - mix up the structure. so, they talk to you, ultimately first person, right at you, so it becomes very intimate. and, of course, as in any group of people trying to get ahead, they have their conflicts. the points of view might cover the same territory, but in a different way. - yeah, it's got a little rashomon quality to it, right, how you tell the story is how you see the story. - exactly, exactly, so one of the ones who was excluded, of the three narrators, we have dawn chapman, she is a very pretty blond. again, this is theater, so they want a good-looking woman
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who can look good in a swimsuit. then there's ramsay roothoorp, who you mentioned is the communications officer. and the third narrator is a woman who's been excluded. she was part of the sixteen, but wasn't chosen. she's korean, her name is linda ryu, and she is now promised that she'll get in the next time if she remains as support staff. all of these people, it's a kind of cult. they want desperately to be in, and so they will do whatever mission control tells them to do. linda is a little bitter. (laughing) - i love the characters then, and i also love the concept that you've overlaid, you eluded to ed bass's involvement in the previous. there is god, the creator, gc, and then there is god the financier, gf, who are themselves relevant players in this world that you've created. honestly, as you think about this, or as i think about this book, it's got elements of, as i said, reality shows, but it also feels a little bit like 1984, it feels
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a little bit like the wizard of oz. there's actually elements of stories that are very familiar to us that you've brought together in this and i think that it ends up being a very interesting story as you tell it, and i think people who have read your books in the past know that you're obsessed with sub-cultures and you're obsessed also with dominant institutions and individuals, whether it's a kellogg, or frank lloyd wright, or kinsey, you know, people you've written about in the past. you do well writing about that universe. - i don't trust, as an american who has done and said whatever he wants his entire life and has been able, in this great country, to have a life as an artist, i don't trust the domineering leader who says, whether it's in fundamentalist religion or in politics, who says, give yourself over to me and i will guide you. - i alone can fix it. that phrase is running through my head. - yeah, i wonder why. - that's actually been a consistent through-line in a number of your books.
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- again, evan, you don't know what your themes are when you start to write. you can only see this in retrospect. so, yeah, i mean, i'm fascinated by cults and groups. a lot of you will remember my novel from 2003, drop city, which goes back to the back-to-the-earth movement of the late 60s, hippies. the whole proposition was this wheel of capitalism is destroying the world, can we get off it, and go back to nature, and live simply. well, of course, we can't, there's seven billion of us. - but, in some ways, these two books, drop city and this book, are actually married thematically. i was amazed in going back to look over your career that really the only one of your works of fiction, this is the 16th novel, there have also been 10 books of short-stories, the only thing that really has been translated into an entertainment vehicle that we would recognize or remember was the road to wellville. - right, anthony hopkins, bridget fonda, matthew broderick, alan parker, the great alan parker directed this film. - i love the movie, i love everything about it.
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i don't participate in films because, well, the artistic reason is i have to make my life's work, this is it, it's a distraction. there's another reason, too. i couldn't imagine doing anything creative with somebody else's opinion involved. - well, it's your book, but when it becomes a movie, it really becomes theirs, right, i mean, you have to be able to distance yourself from that creative process. - i met alan when he bought it and we had a dinner, and it was very nice. i realized, i'm a fan of his, i love his work, he had made the commitments just before this. he's exactly like me, he's pedal to the metal, this is his project, and i loved what he did. the terranauts, this is the first time this has happened, has been bought for tv by warner bros. and jim parsons, the actor, jim parsons-- - they think they wanna make it into a series? - they will make it into a series. - see, i wondered about that because as i read this, actually, my thought was, it seemed like a play because the setting is effectively stationary,
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not literally stationary, but it's effectively stationary, it's sort of one setting. i thought it lent itself almost to be made into a stage play. - and don't forget, i'm also taking the reality of this in which they did, the terranauts, where the biosphere ends, did produce plays inside as a way of bonding, and also to perform for people. further, since there are 50 2-year closures, if this show were to come and be successful, our great-grandchildren could be watching it still. you know, anything could happen because you have eight new people going in each time. - well, again, i come back to, i'm embarrassed to say, the low-culture reference that came to mind reading this book was mtv's the real world. in some ways where it's like a different cast of characters every season and a different location, i thought that's basically biosphere 2 on mtv. - i have to confess that while i'm sitting here on tv with you, the amazing host of an amazing show, i've never seen any reality tv-- - is that right? god, good for you, oh my gosh. (audience laughing)
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on behalf of america, thank you. you're not part of the problem. - as i say, i have inner resources, i know how to read. i don't need reality tv, in fact, couldn't imagine watching one second of it-- - what's remarkable is how you've gotten everything perfectly, instinctively, without actually having seen it. i mentioned 16 novels and 10 works of short-fiction. i wonder which you prefer. your novels are not, themselves, the extension of the short-stories that you write. you don't start out to write something in miniature and then make it into a full novel, so you really are picking, essentially, one or the other. do you have a preference? - each has its joys. the novel, you know what you're gonna do tomorrow when you wake up, however, you're locked into it, so whatever you should tell me, or my friends tell me, or excites me that's happening technologically, i can't write about. with a story, it's the opposite. anything that occurs to you, you can just jam up a story. however, once the story's over, let's say it takes a month
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from the initial idea, two weeks of the writing, a week to polish, then you send it off, then you're completely bereft. you don't know what you're gonna do tomorrow and you have a period where you have no ideas and you twirl that gun on your desk a lot, you know, to kinda stimulate yourself. it's very difficult, but i think one of the reasons i've been so productive is i've been able to go from one form to the other, back and forth. - well, in fact, you've already gone, as i understand it, to your next creative output will be a book of stories. - yeah, the book of stories for next year, i delivered it earlier and i'm working on the research for the next novel. - i wanna go back to your origins as a writer. the first thing you published was in fact a short-story, was it not? - yes, and my first book was a collection of stories. - talk about that time. you grew up in peekskill, new york. you went to college in the suny system, an undergraduate, and then you had a period of time when, as they say, you were younger and wilder, right, you had kind of a wild period. as a musician-- - well, shucks, who doesn't? - right, everybody had one, i'm not
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passing judgement, it's an observation. but, you eventually went on to the iowa writers' workshop, got graduate degrees there, and the short-story that you first wrote and published was actually instrumental to pointing you on that path, was it not? - it was. so, i was very lucky early on to get a story published. and then that gave me the confidence to apply to the only graduate program i had ever heard of, the iowa writers' workshop, where all my heroes had gone, or taught. by the grace of god, they accepted me, and i also did my phd there. - john cheever was a professor of yours. - john cheever, john irving, and vance bourjaily, who had been john irving's teacher in the workshop. - it's like the very best possible people you could learn from, right? - yes, evan, but as you know, when you're an artist, whether it's in music, or in the literary arts, or painting, you already know how to do it. what you need is a guide or coach to say, alright, kid, you're on the right track, which is essentially what
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all three did for me, very generously. but really, no one can teach you how to do it. no one really offered suggestions, they just read it and encouraged me. - you've gotten better over time in your own mind, right? the t. c. boyle of those days in iowa, who thought he knew a lot and thought he could do a lot, learned over time what more he could do and what was right and wrong with his work. - i think you grow. you grow as an artist if you're lucky. and i have no restrictions, i write in any mode that occurs to me. i think that allows me to be very productive. when i first began writing, in my first collection of stories, i was much more interested in humor, design, and language than in character. i didn't really have much by way of character in the stories. my wife would always say, well, you know, your women characters are really flat, and i would counter by saying, yeah, well, so are my men. (laughing) - yeah, there's an equal opportunity.
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then i wwa by saying, yeah, well, creating great characters.novelt that taught me something. cheever taught me mething, too, in this, when i met him, he was sort of on the run, he was drinking a lot, and he seemed impossibly old to me. he was 62 at the time. i had read his stories some years before but they were more in a coentional mode and i was an experimenter and he was just this old guy, you know, who cared. then, he published his collective stories which i read, probably every decade, i read through that-- - you've cited this as actually one of your favorite-- - it's a touchstone for me. and he taught me to expand in another direction, towards realism. i'd never been interested. also, at that time, ray carver was living in town and i became friendly with him, and, of course, i was under the spell of his magnificent fiction, which is primarily in a realistic mode, so i adopted that, too. i can go from a kind of folk-tales, or to surreal stories
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like the one that you've just mentioned that's in the new yorker this week. and the previous new yorker story, three months ago, the fugitive, is straightforward realism, and it's about something that's happening in santa barbara, where i live. a guy has multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis. he's a transient, he didn't take his meds, so his body is a furnace for creating new strains of tb that will kill us all. he was being pursued as a criminal. he hadn't committed any crimes. what are the ethics of that? did it mean, do we have the right to lock somebody up who has not committed a crime because they're a threat to public health? i wrote the story to kind of investigate that, but it's in the same book as are we not men, and another story that hasn't been published yet, warrior jesus, about a cartoonist who creates a superhero. it's great that i can move from one to the other. - where do these ideas for the short-stories
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or an idea like the, i mean, i think there's an obvious basis for this book, and i know that you've said previously that at the time that biosphere 1 was going on, and even biosphere 2 was going on, you were thinking to yourself, boy, i should write about this, right. the idea for this actually goes back to the origin. - right, but, like most of the public, i became disenchanted with this because the hook was absolute material closure. they had sealed that thing so that there was less transference of air from there to the outside world than even in the space shuttle. so this is exciting, they can't get out. in fact, it is true that with the real biosphere that somebody put your extra-large pepperoni pizza outside the airlock to see if they would open it. - right, tempt them. - so, 12 days in, and again, i have the real history, i can tell the story. one of the biospherians cut the tip of her finger off-- - she was working like a rice hulling machine.
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- so, one of the eight, of course, has to be an md, for obvious reasons, and he sewed it back together and did his best, but it wasn't looking too good. it was kinda looking like blood sausage, you know. so, she held her hand up to the window and they got the best hand-man in pima county to come and look at it, he said, you gotta come out of there or you're gonna lose that. she came out into our world, 12-days into this, for five hours only. they even estimated how many lungs-full of our air she breathed rather than the inside the biosphere. she went back in and she was carrying two bags with her, two shopping bags, that nobody knows what was in them. but, still, if it was mars, they'd be dead. the public began to lose interest because they broke closure. in my telling, of course, now i'm positing a second of 49 more closures, and this crew is determined, even if somebody should die inside, no matter what, they're not gonna break that, because that
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killed the deal the first time around. it's wonderful for me to have this real history and then project. - in that respect, the real history is the impetus and it's also the, it's the basis, but i'm saying, in the case of other things you've written, or the short-stories, are you collecting ideas as you go? do you have a list of things that you wanna get to eventually-- - right now-- - i wanna understand the creative process. - right now, already, just talking with you, evan, i have 20 new ideas, i gotta scribble them down when i go offstage. - i'm mortified. i can't imagine what those are. lame talk-show host asks questions. (laughing) that's a story. no, seriously, obviously, every author approaches these things differently, and i'm just interested in the creative process where you fit yourself into that. - it's a miracle, which is why i will do nothing but make fiction until i die. it's a kind of miracle. a musician can tell you this, a painter can tell you this. once you open up the unconscious, and it's hard to do, you don't get there every day, you're in some other world and it makes itself, it just happens. my ideas come from many sources.
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i write an awful lot about ecology and science, and the new technology, this, are we not men is about crispr cas 9 technology in which we are now able, quite quickly and easily, to make trans-genic creatures. is this a good idea? well, i write a story to find out. sometimes i would write a story that is autobiographical in content, very rarely, but once in a while, why not. so, that, all you have to do is find an incident and try to see what it means. - you read a lot of other people's stuff. you mentioned that you read cheever, but, of course, cheever is another generation, or another era of stuff, you read a lot of contemporary fiction? - i do read some contemporary fiction and only when i'm writing short-stories. the problem with reading a novel when you're writing a novel is the voice will creep into your head. you don't want this. the hardest thing with a book like this is the middle, and sustaining the energy, and finding out where it's going.
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the voice has to remain consistent and i, distracted by the voice. - in some ways, you can't break the lock, right? it's comparable to this, you have to stay completely contained and sealed. - it's like this, i have never written anything without music playing 'cause it's rhythmic. rhythm and reading it aloud is so important to me. but, the music i'm playing can't have vocals in it unless they're in a language i don't understand, like german opera or italian opera. - you're a big jazz fan, right? - a big jazz fan, jazz is fine. - coltrane, miles-- - coltrane, j. s. bach, all of this sort, i'm listening to, but i can't listen to anything with lyrics in english because it's a distraction. the same thing obtains for reading another novel when you're writing a novel. - yeah, it'd be like listening to somebody else's lyrics. - exactly. - we have about a minute left. so you have another novel in the can or coming? - i do, i'm just starting to do research on it. i don't wanna tell too much about it, but it's
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going to be set in the early 60s. it has to do with a certain chemical that got widespread use in that period of the 60s, and i don't wanna give anything away, so i'll just tell you the initials, lsd. (audience laughing) - well, we only have 30 seconds, i could guess, but, excellent. it's a treat to get to see you. like i said, i think this book is terrific and if, in fact, it becomes a television series, i'll be the first to program my dvr to see it. - we can only hope, my dear fellow. - and good luck with the short-story collection, and that is called? - it's called the relive box after the story that was in the new yorker two years ago. - [evan] relive box, and it'll be out soon? - about a game, gaming, it's about gaming and what does it mean. - very good, well, i wish you continued success with this and everything else you do. t. c. boyle, thank you very much - thanks, evan. - great seeing you. (audience applauding) we'd love to have you join us in the studio. visit our website at to find invitations to interviews, q&as with our audience and guests, and an archive of past episodes.
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- i'm not coming out of a journalistic background so, i like tom wolfe, for instance, who's books i love. i don't want to reproduce how many spots are on the dalmatian at the firehouse and how they talk. i want to have my imagination run free, so i'm using these real facts to then create an entirely different set of characters that have nothing to do with them. - [narrator] funding for overheard with evan smith is provided in part by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation and hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy and by klru's producer's circle, ensuring local programming that reflects the character and interests of the greater austin, texas community. (dynamic music)
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