Do you ever drink while you write? “One of my favorite books is Tom Dardis’s book from the mid-’90s called The Thirsty Muse, in which he talks about six of our famous classical American writers of the 20th century, including a [few] who won Nobel Prizes like Hemingway, Faulkner, and also Fitzgerald. He points out how much drinking they did while writing and wondered if this improved their writing or detracted from it. I didn’t have to read the book to say it detracted from it. I would never consider ever writing anything—I never have—without being in the clearest frame of mind because this is my life’s work and I don’t want to mess with it. Drugs and drinks are for recreational purposes once work is over.”
Do you enjoy a drink after a day of writing? “Let’s put it this way: Now that I’m a mature man. And I became a mature man, I would say, about seven, eight years ago when I broke my left leg in a freak accident. Prior to that I wasn’t mature, so I only drank white wine from our local California vineyards. After [my accident] I drink a nice pinot noir. And I like to drink it outside with my wife, out in the garden, and watch the hummingbirds. Good day or bad day, it’s a nice thing to do in the late afternoon.”
So you drink mostly wine now? “Well, I lived in Ireland for three and a half months once, and before I went there I discussed with Mitchell Burgess, my good drinking buddy and companion for many, many years, how foolish a man would have to be to drink a little Johnny Powers whiskey in conjunction with his Guinness Stout. But of course that’s exactly what you do. And by god you build a frightening tolerance. I’m glad that I left Ireland or I’d be out in the streets there dressed in rags begging for change now.”
How long ago was that? “That was the late ’80s. More recently I spent some time in Costa Rica. My favorite booze is rum. I like the dirty old fragrant rums, like Havana Club, which, of course, we have yet to get in America, since it’s coming out of Havana. I don’t why it is, but that’s the kind of booze I like best. I very rarely drink whiskey. Sometimes a Cognac. But basically it’s wine and if I’m in a mood I’ll have a rum and Coke.”
Is there a type of alcohol you have sworn off? “Look up my story “The Miracle at Ballinspittle.” In it, a guy is shown everything he’s consumed in his life. You know, a herd of cows, sheep, and then all the booze he’s drunk. There are great, great barrels of beer and crates of whiskey. But there is just a tiny little pot of gin because he didn’t really care for gin. And I think I would go into that category. Now I think you’re asking for what booze in my youth were most vomited up by me and my friends. Well, ripple. Remember ripple? Good god. Here it was this sparkling, cheap, delicious wine. So we went out a couple of times and you get ripped on it and howl at the moon and then, of course, you vomit. I’ll put ripple in that category of cheap wines that you want to see only handed to you by Lucifer as you pass the gates of hell.”
Do you like to drink with other authors? “I know all my fellow authors for the most part, and I’m not close with any of them because, of course, we are rivals and that will never break down. So I could never imagine collaborating with anybody, or being buddies with anybody, or showing them my manuscripts, or drinking with them either. One exception is Tom Steinbeck, John’s son, who just died recently. He was a good friend here in Montecito. And he was one exception. I would often run into him at our local bar and we would talk. And often talk craft. I don’t know what it was. It was something about Tom’s wonderful, generous personality that he had. He was just great. He, by the way, drank a water glass of tequila with no ice. This was his drink of choice.”
You were a serious musician growing up. What is your favorite drinking song? “The best drinking song and the one that I howl along to all the time is “Carrickfergus,” in Van Morrison’s rendition. Do you know it? Where he sings, ‘I’m drunk today / And I’m rarely sober / The handsome rover from town to town.’ Oh, my god. Every time I have a few drinks in me my poor wife has to listen to me howling that song. It is brilliant. It’s also the saddest song in the world. Check it out.”
For your new book, The Terranauts, did you do a lot of research about growing food in an ecosphere and making beverages? “Yes. The Terranauts is a fictional telling of the actual biosphere experiment of 1991 to 1993. And the actual biospherans did make a still inside. They distilled various things, like banana wine, for instance, because bananas gave them the most calories and was the thing they had the most of.”
Would you ever live in an ecosphere? “Absolutely, 100 percent no. I need to be alone in nature. This is why I call myself an environmentalist. I live a very public life and when I’m not leading that public life, then I need absolute solitude. Furthermore, there are no bars in the ecosphere. The same people, every day, over and over. Can you imagine?”
T.C. Boyle’s latest novel, The Terranauts: A Novel, goes on sale Oct. 25.
Interview has been condensed and edited.