“I talk to them like with a baby”

In conversation with T.C. Boyle

The hunters and the hunted (Issue II/2021)


The author T.C. Boyle. Photo: Jean-FrancoisxPAGA/Leemage/Imago

Mr. Boyle, before this interview you wrote that the subject of human-animal-relations is very dear to you. Why is that?

I'm fascinated by the fact that we dominate this world. We have always insisted in our society and in our religions that we are not animals, that we are above animals. But in fact, we are animals. We are subject to all of the diseases and, of course, death that other animals are subjected to. By now I know that microbes are the top of the food chain.  

The protagonist in your recent book, “Talk to me”, is a chimpanzee who is raised like a human child. How did you come up with this topic? 

How are we different from other species? How do come up with ideas? Why do we have language? All these questions interested me. I started to study the chimp experiments of the 1970s and 80s. Sam, my chimp protagonist, is actually based on real chimps like Washoe and Nim Chimpsky. They were cross-fostered in a human home, raised entirely without any members of their own species and taught some signs from the English sign language. And then, when they were four years old, they were thrown in a cage and stuck in a lab someplace for the rest of their lives, pinched with needles and given various diseases. I think it's unconscionable. It saddens me deeply. A chimp has the intelligence of a three and a half year old child. To take an animal with that kind of emotion and brainpower and put him or her in a cage is obscene. To put any animal in a cage is obscene. I wanted to write about it.

Some chapters are written from Sam’s point of view. How was it to write from a chimpanzee’s perspective?

Those chapters were the most fun. Of course, it is a trick of fiction. We all know while reading that there is an author standing above this somewhere. I was trying to give his point of view and how he's feeling in his limited language, but at the same time describing his perspective, because I'm the author. What I'm hearing is people are very enchanted by Sam's point of view and that makes me feel great.

You once said that you could write from any possible point of view, even from perspective of a microbe. Now, right in the middle of the pandemic, could you imagine writing from the point of view of a virus?

Well, I might amend that quote and say that I would hope I would be able to do that. But yes… the virus. To be honest, I think it doesn't need anything except replication and a host.

How are you holding up in these times of COVID-19?

I go out in nature a lot, especially during lockdown. Every day I'm out there. About a month ago, I was bitten by a tick. Hardly visible, the size of a grain of pepper. I found it within four or five hours and I removed it. But my entire forearm was already inflamed. And it wasn't just Lyme disease, it was something much worse. It was cellulitis in which the skin cells become infected. I was drugged with very heavy antibiotic three times a day for ten days. And thankfully, it worked. However, in the new novel I'm writing, my hero’s girlfriend is an acarologist. She studies ticks. I had already written a chapter by that point where they go out to the woods together and he comes back and discovers a tick!

Sounds very prophetic. You also wrote a couple of times about deadly viruses… 

I’ve written about viruses, for example in “After the Plague” in 2001 and “A Friend of the Earth” in 2000. I don't want to get mystical here because I'm not a mystical guy. When I'm writing my books, as I'm doing now, I have no idea what the story will be or what's going to happen tomorrow. It's a kind of magic, how the words come to you. Is there a universal unconsciousness? I don't know, but it seems to be somehow in our DNA to have the ability to do this.

Are you a vegetarian?

Primarily yes, but the problem is that Frau Boyle, my lovely wife, my sweet bride, is a carnivore and she eats great bloody slabs of meat all day long, every day. Whenever we go up to the mountains in spring and all the new lambs are out with new sheep, I say: “Look, you eat them!”, and she says: “Yes, and I'm proud of it!” So what can I do? 

Do you see yourself as an environmental activist through your writing?

I'm a socially conscious writer but I'm not pushing anything on anybody. You can decide for yourself. When I wrote “When the killing is done”, many biologists came out to my readings and said “That's just what we've been trying to tell people all these years, but they don't listen!” Well, yeah, of course, they're not going to listen to you lecturing them and scolding them and telling them what they should do. This is where fiction can have a big advantage. It can dramatise it so that the reader can make a decision about it without having any political point of view forced upon them. If somebody tells me to do anything, I will rebel. That's why art is great, because we open up to it.

The chimpanzee Sam in your new book learns to have very in-depth conversations via sign language. What fascinates you about communicating with animals?

It had to do with my last book, “Outside Looking In”, about the early days of LSD. We could expand our consciousness through using chemicals. And I think that led me back to the idea of animal consciousness. What are they thinking? If we are conscious, what is their level of consciousness? Is it right to expect them to respond to our language?

In your current book, some human protagonists behave with less empathy and more brutality than the chimp Sam. Did you want to show that at the end of the day, we are all just animals, but some of us learn to behave? 

I think it's a miracle that we as humans can be talking to each other and that we live in a society where we make rules, where we have culture. We can suppress some of the immediate violent reactions better than let's say a chimp. This is my interest in writing about Sam. Things are looking increasingly grim. Once our cooperation in society begins to break down, then we revert to survival of the fittest and our animal instincts. 

You also wrote once about Chernobyl and described it as paradise as humans aren’t allowed there anymore and animals roam freely

Yes, I was very fascinated by Chernobyl, also by the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas, where the same thing happened: If you take people out of the equation, nature will come back and animals will return. But extinction is forever. Once a species is eliminated then, even if we're not present, it can't come back. It takes millions of years for speciation to occur. People always say “save the earth”. But the earth is going to go on, as far as we know, for another five billion years before the sun burns us up. But “save our species” is what they should be talking about. 

What about keeping pets? Why do so many people have the need to possess animals?

Especially in our mechanised society today, where we've destroyed most of nature and we live in apartments, we have not simply nostalgia, but a need for nature. I personally need to be by myself in a wild place as much as possible. I need to connect with the earth and be a part of it. And I think the pets offer that to people. And, of course, we want to absorb them, dominate them. We want our domestic animals to love us. 

Where does the need come from to humanise pets, e.g. by dressing them up or treating them as family members? 

I suppose we want to project ourselves onto them just as we admire their characteristics. Look at the dogs for example. Dogs are one species along with wolves and coyotes. They can all cross breed. But look at the variety of dogs from the Shi Tzu, to the Great Dane. We really used them as objects, as toys. Here I am, telling you this, but I have a Puli dog, the most ridiculous animal. Those dreadlocks! But I love her very much, as well as my cat. They are close companions.

What would you ask your dog or your cat if you could communicate with them in sign language like the chimp Sam in your book?

I'm communicating with them fairly well as it stands. And it's verbal to a degree. But it's the way you talk to a baby, too. If I could ask them something: I'd like to see what happens on the level of the cat when he's out hunting and darkness is falling and the little creatures are starting to stir and the owls are in the trees. What is the sensory impression that that animal is getting? It’s so very different from ours. 

Interview by Gundula Haage

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