Futureverse Podcast
Ep. 8. T.C. Boyle: The Nature of Our Future

Ep. 8. T.C. Boyle: The Nature of Our Future

Molly and Ramanan speak with acclaimed author TC Boyle, author of more than 150 short stories and 31 books including Blue Skies and A Friend of the Earth.

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In the latest episode of Futureverse, Molly Wood and Ramanan Raghavendran interview acclaimed author,  TC Boyle. Often called the “Godfather of Climate Fiction," Boyle has penned 31 books and more than 150 short stories with an impressive career that has spanned over four decades.

The conversation dives into the climatic and biological challenges facing our planet and how they provide both a warning and an invitation to consider the permanence of life amidst human-induced environmental changes.

Boyle shares the inspirations behind his environmentally driven novels, demonstrating the profound influence of nature in his life and writings. He shares excerpts from his latest novel "Blue Skies," and the broader implications of his narratives for our planet's future. 

Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Subscribe for more episodes of Futureverse.

Show Notes

[01:33] Boyle's obsession with our relationship to the earth as an animal species

[04:13] The current state of climate change and the need for hope

[06:56] The evocative descriptions of weather and climate change in Blue Skies

[10:40] The significance of bugs and their impact on the food chain

[17:25] Using satire and humor in addressing climate change

[22:24] The role of love in motivating people to act on climate change

[26:53] The burden of consciousness

[28:07] Boyle’s upcoming novel

TC (00:00): You know, it seems when I look back on my books, I've been sort of obsessed with our relationship to the earth as an animal species living amongst the other animal species.

Molly (00:12): Welcome back to Future verse, a podcast centered around climate fiction and how it helps us imagine our way forward through climate uncertainty. I'm Molly Wood. I am joined as always by Ramanan Raghavendran. We are investors in climate tech companies who also love to read,  especially fiction by authors who tackle the difficult and maybe even impossible question of imagining what the future of the planet holds.

Ramanan (00:35): In this episode, we're talking to TC Boyle about his latest novel Blue Skies. He is known as “The Godfather” of climate fiction. We need music here. Anyway, he's known as “The Godfather” of climate fiction and for good reason. Since the mid-1970s, he has published an eye-watering 31 books and more than 150 short stories.

Molly (00:56): Today we are talking primarily about Blue Skies, which has been described as an eco-thriller with teeth, way too many teeth in my opinion, that captures the inexpressible sadness at the heart of everything, which I think we can agree is on the nose for the climate conversation. It is at once a family drama, a prophetic glimpse into the future of a planet ravaged by climate change, and a parable about the deteriorating relationship between humans and their habitats.

Ramanan (01:21): Tom is a master storyteller and his books dance along a fine line between the terrifying and the beautiful, the horrific and the humorous. It is a pleasure to welcome you to Futureverse.

TC (01:33): Okay, thanks. A joy to be here. You know, it seems when I look back on my books, I've been sort of obsessed with our relationship to the earth as an animal species living amongst the other animal species. And when you first start to write, you don't know what your themes are. These themes have developed over my life as the planet has deteriorated and our population has exploded. I'm not advocating anything. I do that in essays and when I give a speech. I'm just exploring what it's like.

Molly (02:08): When did you become a writer? Let's go all the way back to the beginning, not just of writing about climate but writing at all. We had heard some whispers of your rock and roll youth in New York. I wonder where the various art paths intersected.

TC (02:21): I think music and literature are closely aligned. When I'm writing, I think like I'm singing on the page. I'm a great advocate for liberal arts education. I went to SUNY Potsdam, the music school. I grew up in New York in order to be a musician. However, I flunked my audition because even though I could play the living hell out of my instrument, I didn't have a feeling for the rhythm in classical music. I've developed it now, it's a different time though.

And so here I was an undergraduate and I declared a history major and then an English major, and then finally in my junior year, I blundered into a creative writing classroom. So I was exposed to many possibilities of what I could do and once I found it, I've gone for it ever since.

Ramanan (03:12): Got it. I feel like there is an R-rated version of what you just shared with us in our next podcast with you. But here we'll segue to you're known as “The Godfather” of climate fiction. Could you tell us a bit about where the interest in writing about climate sort of began to emerge in this full form?

TC (03:33): Well I like to call this book a companion piece to the 2000 novel, A Friend of the Earth. I was reading deeply about the environment and species loss and pandemics, and just wondering what that might mean for us. So in 2000, I wrote A Friend of the Earth, which projects to 2026. And in it you will find in my typical way of horrifying but also ironically nudging you, tremendous climate disturbances; the drought and the floods as well as the pandemic.

(04:13) So yes, I saw this coming, not that there's anything I can do about it. And that was a way of introducing this subject. Now that it's here, there's no more debate about it. Then there was great debate about it, of course on the part of the oil companies and their shills like George Bush for instance, trying to deny it and set us back. Now everybody agrees, here it is. It's outside the window.

I was doing a gig in La Jolla yesterday and two days before the rains had come. I was 13 miles north of San Diego where they had the worst rain they've ever had. It just is in our lives every day now. And so I wrote Blue Skies in order to examine more closely how we are dealing with normalizing ourself to what is so very abnormal.

Molly (05:01): Talk a little bit more about projection. Because of course, like you said in A Friend of the Earth, the book projects a pandemic, drought, all of these things that as you say, we've had the ability to see coming. And I wonder how you think about that as you project into this kind of very near future of Blue Skies. How far out do you think that is? Because it feels like it could be tomorrow in some cases.

TC (05:25): Well, I don't want to depress everybody listening to this too much. When I was on the tour for A Friend of the Earth in the year 2000, we'd have discussions with the audiences. What people want is some good news and some hope. Well, I didn't really have much hope to offer them except this. I said, "Well, no worries. In approximately three to three and a half billion years, the sun will swell up and incinerate the earth till it's like a charcoal briquette floating through space. That's the good news."

Ramanan (05:58): I'm filled with hope.

TC (06:03): Yes, but for us now, yes, I try to do what I can to have a lower carbon footprint. But again, it's like trying to hold back the tide. Now we are seeing the effects of our obliviousness over all these years. And again, I'm not writing...I can advocate right here right now with you three like-minded people, that's fine. But I see myself as an artist and I create art for my own purposes.

I worry about everything. I worry about every rat, tick, and flea on this earth, and I worry about our species. I worry about the glory of life and what we are doing to it; invasive species, the whole works. And so I don't really know how to express it except through creating a scenario and thinking deeply on a kind of intuitive level of making art.

Molly (06:56): Well, it's interesting too because there's a fantastic, the descriptions of the weather itself, the changing climate around these characters, are so beautiful and awful, right? You talk about Cat moving to Florida from California and saying that the air is so heavy, it's like” walking neck deep through a river”. It feels like, as we experience this extreme weather and then replay it to ourselves as art, it's very evocative.

TC (07:27): And it's also, in the case of this scenario I've come up with, it's also quite ironic. Because while we were going through the eternal drought, which we are still going through, in Florida my friends there were being flooded out because of sea rise and the supercharged hurricanes and all the rest of it that our weather disturbances have created. And so it seemed natural to me in a grimly comedic way to contrast the two.

Ramanan (07:57): And it was very contrasting. Now I want to come to something also in the natural world, which is the book is teaming with all sorts of wild creatures. There's ticks, there's butterflies, crickets, maggots, bees, alligators, and their actions totally change the lives of the humans who interact with them. Can you talk a little bit more about humans and animals and how they interrelate? Not just in this book, but also in your thinking.

TC (08:22): I think my earliest love before music and before literature was nature, and it is still nature. For me to have a good time is not necessarily putting on a tuxedo and going to some party. My good time is to be by myself, deep in a wild place where I see no one and have no interaction with anybody. All except the dog, of course, I bring the dog with me. To me, this is a good time.

I need to connect with nature without all the rest of the electronic gadgetry and the madhouse rush of images that come at us all the time from everywhere. That to me is very important. 

And I think biology of all the subjects in school turned me on the most. I think I could have been perfectly happy as a field biologist. And by the way, field biologists have helped me a great deal in a book like When the Killing's Done, which is about the removal of the invasive species on Santa Cruz Island, which you can't see it quite, but it's right out that window 28 miles across the channel.

I'm just utterly fascinated by us, as I said earlier, as creatures. We tend to forget that or we obviated, we impose religion, politics, whatever it is. But really we are subject to all of the beauties and dangers and devastation of all other life. Somehow to know that something else is out there, I'm looking out the window right now into this greenery, is exciting to me. I notice the small things.

Molly (10:09): I'm glad you said that about your interest in field biology because I love that this book touches on what I think is a very under-discussed element actually of climate change, which is bugs. A lot more bugs, a lot fewer bugs, the bugs as food. And I hope you can tell us more about that and also what it says about the fragility of keystone species that humans don't necessarily... We're a little bit obsessed with charismatic megafauna and it turns out that it all starts a lot smaller.

TC (10:40): Yes, absolutely. That was one of the things that motivated me in this book. There was the German study of the amateur entomological club that had been counting bugs in Germany for 20 years, and there was a drastic decline of flying insects. And this struck me because, well, let's talk about the food chain. If this infinite resource, this pestiferous resource, insects, were to vanish, everything would come toppling down. What is the story there? And I wanted to find out. 

Of course, I love to build my books and stories on irony. So oddly, the mother of the two other protagonists, like many of us, wants to reduce her carbon footprint. And she felt that she should begin to cultivate insects and to eat insects, which is a great thing as opposed to, let's say, eating cattle. We have to cut down the Amazon to keep expanding the fields for them to eat and not to mention their farts and all the disaster. Anyway, you'll get some good recipes in there for insects. Insects seem the way to go if we need to have a protein source. 

And yet again, another irony thrown at us is that insects are disappearing. On the tour for this book, because of the Florida setting, I drove with my publicist from St. Petersburg to Miami through the Everglades, albeit in spring. There was one bug splashed on the windshield, we held a funeral for it by the way. One bug on the windshield. Again, this is anecdotal, I know. But still, it is shocking. Shocking. There are no insects flying around out there.

Molly (12:39): I'm going to, I know Ramanan has a question coming up, but I have actually just been asking my friends in the last few months what happened to all our orb weaver spiders just as an example. I’m in Northern California, and usually they do all the Halloween decorating for us and this fall there were none.

TC (12:55): We've got them here, Molly. There's good news.

Molly (12:57): Okay.

TC (12:58): And things are so cyclical and so beyond our comprehension. For instance, while I was writing the book, I'm writing about the monarch butterflies. We have gardens for them here and growing milkweed and so on. We've been raising them and following them for many, many, many years. And the numbers were declining drastically.

However, as I was writing toward the end of the book, it was an improvement. And I think the improvement was as simple as the fact that the fires have burned out and we began to get two wet winters in a row, maybe.

But that's why there is a slightly optimistic note. We can't just say RIP to all these species in nature because we are only counting in short human terms of a single human life of what do we know. So maybe nature is up to its tricks and will give us some new balances in some way.

Ramanan (13:59): Well, in the meanwhile, humans are upsetting balances in all kinds of weird ways, and that brings us to snakes. In the book, in your writing in general, snakes are beautiful, deadly, cold, valuable, violent. And at the center of this book is a Burmese python. What led you to put it at the center of the book? And Molly and I both felt more people should know about the invasion.

TC (14:24): Oh, I had been to the Everglades some years ago and I have followed this closely. I am fascinated by our interference with the environment, not only in terms of our culture and our factories and our pollution and our automobiles but in terms of putting animals where they don't belong. Like introducing rats to islands. Island biogeography, as EO Wilson told us, it's just shocking. One of the very first stories I ever wrote in my first book is called “The Extinction Tales”, and I tell little capsules of animals have gone extinct. And one is the Stephen Island wren, and here is the story. It's a true story, but I couldn't resist telling it. 

This is taking place, let's say early 20th century. The island lighthouse keeper died, and so this other guy was given the job. And he was going to go and live there alone for a long time. And just before he left, his neighbor said, "You're going to be really lonely. Why don't you take this cat?" Need I say more? So he was an amateur ornithologist, and after a week or two, the cat brought him a little wren that it had killed. And he recognized it as being a variant or maybe a new species altogether, which in fact it was. By the time he had sent it to the British Museum and it came back, the news of its discovery, the species was now extinct, extinguished by the one cat. 

So that's what we're doing. That's what we're doing out here. As for the snakes, I had read a story similar to this in which a pet snake had strangled an infant. And it seemed to me to speak in a way to how oblivious we are to what we're doing. And I don't have to tell you, but in the Everglades now, the Burmese python has extinguished all mammalian life, from rats to deer, beavers, muskrats. And of course, working on the avian life as well.

Molly (16:34): Yeah, it's unbelievable. I also have been referring to this as Chekhov's snake. As soon as the snake is introduced.

TC (16:40): Yeah. I know.

Molly (16:43): The dread starts building.

TC (16:45): Yeah, yeah.

Ramanan (16:46): Before, Molly, we get to your question, because for listeners who are following along, TC made reference to one of the seminal books that I would encourage everyone to read, which is The Theory of Biogeography by MacArthur and Wilson, which is an amazing book. All right, Molly, you go.

Molly (17:03): Yes. Okay. Well, so I want to ask you about tone in some ways because we have been reading a lot of climate fiction, we read a lot in general. And a lot of this fiction can take a very, very earnest tone because we are confronting the kind of enormity of this challenge, there are family relationships.

What's striking, of course, about your writing is that it's this tragic-comic style. It's like you've got this Carl Hassan, Hunter S. Thompson, everything that's nuts about Florida, well-meaning white liberal women having everything go wrong and being totally stunned by that outcome.

(17:25) How important is it, do you think, to be accessible in this way? To have this satire and humor as we confront these pretty terrible events?

TC (17:47): I really can't say, I'm just going to do what I'm going to do. And this is a mode in which I'm very comfortable, but I also write straightforward tragedy as well. When I wrote When The Killing's Done and got to know the people on the islands and so on, I went around the country with a book. And often afterward, in speaking with the people who had come out for the event, there were a lot of biologists and ecologists. And they said to me essentially, "We have been lecturing about this for years, but nobody pays any attention. What you're doing is great because you involve them emotionally." 

Really in art, you can't push an agenda, or in literature, the reader will withdraw. And it's there for you to enter. It's a seduction of you. It's not a lecture. So yes, you read my books, you know exactly what I stand for, but I am not going to push that. Is it good to get a pet Burmese python and have it in your living room because you're a vain woman who wants to show off with it around your neck? Is this good? Well, I leave that to the reader to decide, and the mode in this book, not in all of them but in this book, is a tragic-comic and a very ironic in the terms in which I just phrased that question.

Molly (19:09): That's a great segue to Cooper, the character who is effectively the biologist, or in this case the entomologist, who you are describing. He is the guy who is the most switched on to this problem and who is saying... You say about him, the death of the planet, that was his theme. In this list of characters-

TC (19:31): Seems to be all our theme now.

Molly (19:32): Yeah, exactly. It's all of our theme, I'm afraid. Is he the character you personally identify with the most?

TC (19:39): No, I identify with the snake.

Molly (19:42): You're just doing what you do. I get it.

Ramanan (19:46): Great.

TC (19:47): All the characters, and any novelist will tell you this, are some part of him or herself. God, I've had a lot of experiences, as you three have had too, of many different sorts of people all over the place. And I'm just creating characters from what I know and all the people I've ever known.

And yes, they might have symbolic value in this, and you can see how this little family drama plays out in symbolic terms. But still, his function as it evolved, is to be the environmentalist who is adamant and concerned and preaching to us. Do we want to be preached to?

Ramanan (20:31): Molly and I are supposedly investors in climate technology, so we got to ask a technology question, and there's lots of technology and future predictions in the book. But the insect farms that sit by the kitchen sink providing endless living protein was one of the most striking. Have you eaten insects?

TC (20:49): Oh, I have. Yes. And you go online, and you can find the insect farms and you use your kitchen scraps. And it's productive and it's a good thing. I am not so excited about eating bugs. I don't eat much meat to begin with. Cricket flour, for instance, unless you have an allergy, why not? You get protein and it's practically free. It doesn't hurt anybody or anything.

Ramanan (21:22): Right. And I do want to tell the audience and both of you that my dog eats insect treats, which are made out of it cricket flour. So there you are.

TC (21:36): Right. My dog eats rotten garbage off the street; Any form.

Molly (21:41): That's helping. It's helpful.

TC (21:42): And also waits until whatever has been run over by a car has aged for a couple of weeks before eating it. First, swimming in it, and then eating it.

Molly (21:52): Yeah.

Ramanan (21:53): Excellent.

Molly (21:54): I also have a roller. Yes, and can tell you that the cricket flour, it's not totally unnoticeable, but it's close to unnoticeable. I was very excited about all your insect recipes. The tacos. It's amazing. Okay, so I want to ask about another theme in the novel actually that the other author, the author we have interviewed most recently brought up, and it's there's this very strong theme of love. Love for partners and pets and siblings and parents, and of course children. 

Molly (22:24): There's a study by the Potential Energy Coalition that says that love is, in fact, the single most powerful motivating reason that people act on climate change. And we've talked a little bit on previous episodes about the narrative of care for your fellow human being, powerful, being a motivator for people to change, actually empathy or a moral question. How do you think about that in the context of climate change and love as a motivator for making real change?

TC (23:01): Again, I'm not lecturing, and the lecturers are not really getting through to people as much as they might like. It seems a no-brainer to remind people that if they have reproduced, which is the sole purpose of life by the way, to create more life, then they might want to make some changes in their lifestyle in order to have the best chance for their offspring to survive, and their offspring's offspring and on into the future. 

So love. Yes, I have been the giver of and recipient of love very happily in my life. I have children and now I also have young grandchildren. Does this motivate me to be kinder to the environment? I'm not sure entirely because I would be doing it anyway.

But yeah, it does give the general public something to think about. I mean, do you want to invest in the oil company and get the last few drops of petroleum out and pollute the air? Or do you want to do something to help reduce that problem? In terms of love, in terms of your children, in terms of your family, and further, all of our human race.

Molly (24:20): I know you said you're not an evangelist, but I wonder how you feel on the... We talk about the despair-hope spectrum, and I wonder where you sit at this moment?

TC (24:34): So what is the spectrum? One to a hundred and one is despair and a hundred is joy?

Molly (24:42): Yeah.

TC (24:43): Okay. I am probably about -10. I have nothing, but-

Molly (24:48): We're all just making heartbroken faces, by the way. For those of you who cannot see us, we're all going like, "Dammit!"

TC  (24:52): I have nothing but despair for-

Ramanan (24:54): I'm ready to hang out with the python.

TC (24:59): I wonder if... Well, I'm old now, and I wonder if how our parents felt this way as they faced their own death. Okay, that's something. But what about the death of the species? Of our species as well? This looms over us in a way that I don't think it has loomed over previous generations because we hadn't got here yet and they didn't know about it.

So I do have great, great, great despair about what's coming for our species. Again, I told you the good news earlier about the death of the planet. But in the interval, other species will arise, of course, and there will be life until life is extinguished here. And again, this brings me to probably the very first motivating factor of everything I do is “why”? Why are we here? Who are we? How did this happen? Is it purely accidental? Why doesn't the accident happen elsewhere? How do you address it? What is meaning?

We're taught from earliest age in school to have meaning and to accomplish something and to become educated and be your own person, but really what does difference does it make?

Ramanan (26:09): Right. Well...

TC (26:12): I'm sorry. Don't want to bum everybody out.

Ramanan (26:15): I mean, I'm ready to lie down at this point. But these are the great existential questions of philosophy that've been plaguing humans for thousands of years. And it's good to hear them said once in a while.

TC (26:29): Exactly. And I think we all, put aside the fact that of death and mortality, and live in the moment, carpe diem. Not to say that we have to be drunk and rolling in the streets, although there's nothing wrong with that.

Ramanan (26:43): Why not? Why not?

TC (26:45): Yeah.

Molly (26:46): A lot of people are in this book, a lot of people.

TC (26:49): Yes, yes. But to do that exclusively, yes, we see the homeless, they're out there. I know people of this category. It's a great burden.

TC (26:53): Consciousness is a tremendous burden. I often think that in evolutionary terms, yes, our brains and our ability to use tools got us here in this amazing forum that we're having. But on the other hand, all we really needed was to survive against the other predators.

You might know my book, Talk to Me about the teaching, our attempt to teach language to apes. The chimps were doing just fine with their own gestural language and their grunting until this other species came along and destroyed their forests and put them in cages and forced them to learn our language. It's horrific. Absolutely horrific.

Ramanan (27:44): We could go on forever here because the last four things you've said give rise to 200 other questions.

TC (27:50): I know. I know, know. What we need to do is we need to get together in person with a bottle of bourbon.

Ramanan (27:56): Yes!

TC (27:58): Then we figure it all out.

Molly (27:59): Absolutely.

Ramanan (28:03): One thing for is sure, we're going to make that happen, TC. You can rely on it.

TC (28:06): Good.

Ramanan (28:07): So we're going to wrap up with our last question here. Okay, so this novel's done. What are you working on next? Can you give us a little preview?

TC (28:14): I thought it would have a strong environmental theme. I'm halfway through a new novel and there is an environmental element to it, but it seems to be focusing around a home. What is a home? Who has it, who doesn't? What is your attachment to it? What's its importance in your life? And so on. But I'm halfway through and I'm struggling with this and I don't really know. If all goes to plan, maybe I'll have it done by the end of the year and switch again to short stories.

Ramanan (28:48): And are you assembling a collection of short stories-

TC (28:52): Yes.

Ramanan (28:53): ...or are these going to come out one by one?

TC (28:54): Yes, Ramanan, as always. So some of the new stories you've seen in The New Yorker in the past year, these are stories that I wrote after Blue Skies. And I work, it always says have worked in this way. I will write two novels and a book of stories, two novels and a book of stories. Because in between the two novels are periods of parturition after you've gotten rid of the novel and I need time to address what's happening now. 

If you're locked into a long book, you can't address what's happening right now. And so you'll notice if you look over the last few books of stories, a lot of them have to do with the kind of issues we're discussing right now.

There's incredible changes in technology and everything that is just completely disassembling our lives and not putting them back together again. So anyway, in short, yes, I will finish this novel and then complete the book of stories.

Ramanan (29:48): And-

Molly (29:49): Amazing.

Ramanan (29:49): ...is the consumption of industrial qualities of bourbon, does it play a role in between books and short stories?

TC (29:57): Actually, I was only kidding. I don't really care for bourbon that much. My drink is rum.

Molly (30:04): I wondered.

Ramanan (30:05): We are going to do the in-person like you wouldn't believe. So I drink very little alcohol now, but the one thing I do drink is an Indian rum called Old.

TC   (30:16): Old, now you're talking my language.

Ramanan (30:17): And I will produce it for our in-person gathering.

TC (30:22): Excellent.

Molly (30:23): TC, thank you so much. We really, really appreciate this. I cannot encourage you listeners more to please set aside the rising dread that occurs with every word of this incredible book, Blue Skies. Please read it. And thank you TC for the time and your reflections and the existential examination of ourselves and the-

TC (30:44): Thank you Molly, you're brilliant. As Ramanan said, we could talk about this all day and all night.

Ramanan (30:49): And we will. And we will.

Molly (30:52): And we will.

Ramanan (30:53): Let me wrap up for our audience here. We hope you enjoyed our conversation with TC Boyle. You can find his latest short stories in The New Yorker and Esquire, and you should definitely read Blue Skies if you haven't already.

Molly (31:10): As always, thank you for listening. We'll be back soon with more stories about the fraught relationship between humans, their habitats, and the occasional snake. Until then, stay safe. 

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If you have any thoughts on this episode or suggestions for future episodes, please email us at futureverse@substack.com. You can also visit futureverse.earth for the full transcript of this podcast and other information. Thank you for listening.


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