The Wright Stuff

T. C. Boyle dances with architecture


UP ON THE ROOF: T. C. Boyle photographed by one of his sons atop their Frank Lloyd Wright home near Santa Barbara.

He’s done it again. T.C. Boyle, known for his vivid and compelling mixture of fiction and history, has awakened yet another dysfunctional genius from the dead: famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. His newest novel, The Women, follows the scandalous and passionate turns in Wright’s life, chronicling four very different affairs with the verbal versatility that readers have come to expect from the USC professor. Fresh off rave reviews of his 2006 book Talk Talk, this anticipated addition to Boyle’s résumé delves directly into the dirty details of Wright’s personal life. This is Boyle’s 20th book, his subjects ranging from North Coast marijuana cultivation (Budding Prospects) to cereal inventor John Harvey Kellog (The Road to Wellville) to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (The Inner Circle). We spoke to Boyle from his Montecito home as he prepared a breaded chicken breast for dinner, talking about the man who created his own architectural aesthetic, making love affairs into wood. Boyle appears at the Sonoma Community Center on Feb. 22.

Bohemian: Why Frank Lloyd Wright? What was it about him that you found compelling?

T. C. Boyle: I’ve written about the great egomaniacs of the 20th century before, and Frank Lloyd Wright just falls right in with these guys. I had been thinking about writing about him for some time, especially since 16 years ago we moved into the George C. Stewart house, his first California house, built in 1909. I had been totally intrigued by his crazy life—which is so unlike mine—and it was just finally time to write it.

How’s the house holding up in time for the centennial?

House is in great shape. Now that I’ve said that, it’ll probably burn down. It almost burned down in the fire [last fall]. That was horrifying.

Fires seem to follow Wright, don’t they? [Wright’s famous dwelling in Wisconsin, Taliesin, suffered multiple fires and destruction throughout his life.]

Yeah, that’s right. Jesus. This house is made of redwood, and it’s a prairie-style house, which he loved to do. When we moved in, the house was listing to the east because it doesn’t have any foundations. It was built on piers, which he liked to do. It’s amazing. You look at the redwood today and it looks like what it looked like when it was built. Wright’s aesthetic is to use natural materials and let nature be part of the construction, and so it weathers and has different colorations and stuff, but I think that would have been his intention. But basically, it just exists, which is pretty good.

Which of the women’s perspectives in the novel did you find most difficult to write?

That would probably be Kitty [Wright’s first wife], because she was a victim. The thing that would be hard for us to fathom today, when we have had female liberation, is how after all that had been done to her, she still stood up for her husband even after he had left her and run off to Europe with Mamah [Wright’s second wife]. But the light of the book for me is Miriam [Wright’s third wife], because of her extreme behavior, her absolutely irrational, crazy behavior. She was a blast to write.

Many immediately recognize Wright’s name but don’t realize the hardship and scandal he endured. Do you think this might change people’s perspective of him?

He is such a cult figure, and so many people have such an individual take on him and possess him as their own. Of course, I’m writing fiction, and it’s accurate as far as I can tell. I’m not an expert, and I hope that people will appreciate it as a work of art and as a novel that illuminates his architecture and also his personality. And you know, it’s not simply about him. Everything works around him of course, but I think he’s sort of secondary to the others.

What would Wright think of the book?

Oh, he wouldn’t read it. He would have one of his assistants read it and decide whether it would be worthwhile, which of course it wouldn’t be. If he had to read it, he would hate it and be overly critical, I’m sure.

What is it about writing historical fiction that you enjoy?

Well, I like interpreting a story or a life and seeing what it means. I went to college to be a musician, and that didn’t really pan out. I had to declare a major, so I declared in history. I’m just fascinated by history. I’m just staggered when I think about what it could be like before all of this that we’ve grown up with, all of this chaos and machines and noise and everything, when it was wild and dangerous. It’s just great to imagine what it could have been like. It’s very exciting for me.

And if you couldn’t write?

Suicide. Because I’m just not good at anything else. When I was in elementary school, I always felt so inferior. My friends were polymath geniuses who were great in everything, so I felt like a complete schmuck, because I felt you had to be like that in order to succeed in life. I’m not really good at tennis or anything like that, that could pass time—writing is what I can do well.

If you had the choice of having a drink with Frank Lloyd Wright or Alfred Kinsey, who would it be?

Well, Kinsey would only want to take my sex survey, so I’d rather go with Wright and talk about art. I know he would be really pompous and he would lecture on and on, but it would be about something I really want to know about. Not that I don’t want to know about the sex! But I think Dr. Kinsey would be so stiff about it, and he most likely wouldn’t want a drink in the first place.

T. C. Boyle appears on Sunday, Feb. 22, at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma. 3pm. $15. 707.939.1779.

Soul Structure

‘The Women’ delivers more lives than just one

Book by book, yarn by yarn, T. C. Boyle has gradually assembled a fabulous and tawdry imaginative history of the United States. Like great gleaming zeppelins in an age of commuter jets, his novels have lifted off from unlikely true-life departure points and looked down upon the landscape of our history with a cheery, expansive view of sex, ambition and the great American desire to make a buck.

With his 12th novel, Boyle has finally settled down with a true Yankee icon, Frank Lloyd Wright, a man everyone, it seems, can agree was a genius and a great American hero. But how many of us know the details of his amorous life? Nancy Horan’s fabulous 2007 novel Loving Frank opened a large chink in Wright’s biographical armor, and The Women (Viking; $27.95) ought to blow it wide open. Like The Inner Circle, Boyle’s novel about Kinsey, this sexy, hilarious page-turner recreates the rolling storm front created by a charming man determined to live outside of conventions.

Tacking backward through the years, with minor interruptions from a Japanese student who came to Wright’s Wisconsin estate to learn from him, The Women tells the tale of the architect’s life through the prism of three women he loved: Olgivanna Milanoff, a Serbian beauty he met as his marriage to the Memphis-born Maude Miriam Noel entered its final downward judder. And prior to them both, there was Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the real-life heroine of Horan’s novel, who was horrifically murdered at Wright’s home.

Unlike so many novels about historical figures, there is no ballast of a thesis weighing this book down. Boyle knows a novel lives and dies by its characters, and The Women gives tremendous life to the ladies of its title. The intelligence of his narrative voice is alive on every page as Wright charms, lands, abandons and then destroys each one in turn. In one heartbreaking moment, it becomes clear that the ruse through which the married Wright introduces Olgivanna to his Wisconsin estate staff—she is the maid—has been used before, with his previous wife, whom he also met and bedded while married.

At first, the novel’s reverse chronological structure seems baffling, its title a potential slap at the minor role of minor characters in a great man’s life. Yet the deeper one reads into The Women, the more sense both make to the reader. As we dream backward into Wright’s life, it is these beautiful, troubled, hilarious, tough-willed women who rise into view, not the great architect. By the end of Boyle’s tale, it is the genius who has been eclipsed, lost in history’s vortex, not his women. It’s about time.

—John Freeman

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