How Genius Works May 2011

T. C. Boyle

Special Report: How Genius Works NOVELIST

Project: Write the novel The Tortilla Curtain

A PEN-Faulkner- and PEN-Malamud-winning novelist and short story writer, Boyle has written 22 books of fiction-perhaps none more celebrated than 1995's Tortilla Curtain, which he drafted just before computers entered his writing routine.

I’ve always composed directly on a keyboard, never by hand, and I made the switch from the portable Olivetti my mother gave me for college to the computer in the 1990s. Since then, my finished manuscripts show very little emendation, but the page here, which I dug at random out of the archives, is representative of the process that has been replaced by the great and ongoing miracle of technology. The sort of corrections you see here are now made moment to moment in the process of composition—and, of course, evidence of those corrections now vanishes with a keystroke, lost in the synaptical fire of the brain/computer matrix.

The section here is from perhaps my best-known novel, The Tortilla Curtain, published in 1995. Kyra, who makes her living in real estate, is going through a bit of a crise de conscience after the death of one of her Dandie Dinmont terriers (it was snatched and devoured by a coyote). I decided to expand the section to give more of a sense of her involvement with the mansion she is currently selling, so that we can see her begin to reevaluate her career goals with respect to thoughts of mortality and the inequalities of income distribution throughout the county, nation, and world.

In the old days, the days of this artifact, I would have retyped this page during the following day’s work, incorporating the changes you see here and feeling my way. When the novel was completed, I would make additional notes and then type a clean final draft. In the case of The Tortilla Curtain, which weighs in at 355 finished pages, this process would have occupied the better part of a month (producing, along the way, countless eraser shreds and dribbles of Wite-Out). Now I’m able to accomplish the same thing in three or four days.

Still, there was a pleasant rhythm to those hard-typing times, during which I would neatly stack up 10 to 12 finished pages daily, the whole business accumulating in a very satisfying way before I headed off to stroll through the woods or quaff a drink or two at the local bar. It was restful. Contemplative. Deeply satisfying. And let me tell you—and this is no small consideration—back then, I had the strongest fingers in the world.

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