Ecology mixes with art in T.C. Boyle’s fascinating new environmental novel, ‘When the Killing’s Done’
Everything is set in motion by the quote from Genesis in the beginning,” says author T.C. Boyle, speaking about his newly released novel, “When the Killing’s Done.” By citing the heavenly dictate for people to multiply, subdue the land and have dominion over “every living thing that moveth upon the earth,” Boyle raises a string of questions in the mind of the reader:
What gives us the right to raise animals in feedlots, slaughter them and eat them? To set pigs free on islands, destroy natural ecosystems, then exterminate the animals we translocated there in the first place? Is the life of one animal worth more—or less—than that of an entire species? Is it okay to kill one species to save another?
Not that Boyle will answer these questions for you—that’s your job as the reader. Rather, through an intricate story based on real-life ecological events that have taken place over the past century and a half, and culminated in a modern-day ecological drama, he’ll pit characters with opposing viewpoints against each other and let you decide who’s right, who’s wrong—and who, if anyone, triumphs in the end.
Boyle will be the featured author at Capitola Book Café at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, March 7, when he will read from “When the Killing’s Done,” answer questions and sign books.
In this fast-paced eco-adventure, the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara become the setting for an environmental stand-off between Alma Boyd Takesue, a National Park Service biologist and Dave La Joy, a dreadlocked animal rights activist. Both characters are equally vehement in their quest to save the animals. Alma is on a mission to restore natural island ecosystems by eradicating the invasive rats and feral pigs that threaten endangered native species. La Joy believes that killing any living thing is murder—and will stop at nothing to sabotage the plans of Alma and Park Service employees.
“I think I often write about issues and environmental stories [because] I’m just trying to meditate on them for my own self,” says Boyle, whose body of work has often tackled paradoxical characters and complex themes such as the American dream, delusion and counter culture. “I don’t think art and politics—or art and advocacy—are a good mix because, especially in America, if you tell people what to do, they tend to do the opposite. Artists are supposed to seduce and entertain you. Once you enter the book, you can decide on your own.”
And if book reviews are any indication of how readers will decide on these prickly issues, so far the jury is split. Boyle says that’s a good thing.
“It’s very interesting to see how the book is interpreted by serious readers in terms of where their sympathies lie,” he notes. “Some in Dave, some in Alma and a lot are in between. That’s wonderful—it’s provoking them to decide for themselves.”
The book begins in the way that much of Boyle’s writing begins: with a sense of curiosity. Living in the Santa Barbara area for 18 years and driving up and down the coast, the mysterious islands jutting from the Pacific had always captured his imagination. Then, when the true-life story of black rat and feral hog extermination hit the press in the early 2000s—as well as the lawsuit filed by animal rights activists in 2005 to prevent hog killings— the controversy that ensued seemed a story in the making. Boyle recalls the headline he clipped out of the local paper and taped to his fridge: “Eagles arrive as pigs are killed.”
“Part of the reason (I wrote this book) was to give me an excuse to go out there,” he says. It was the same thing with his book “Drop City,” which he wrote partially because he was interested in traveling to Alaska. And he began researching the life of pioneer sex researcher Alfred Kinsey because he was curious about his life—so he traveled to Indiana to garner material, which he shaped into the book “The Inner Circle.”
Boyle visited Santa Cruz Island several times to gather inspiration for “When the Killing’s Done,” even participating in field work with researchers studying the island fox. “It’s like being in the marine corps,” says Boyle, recounting his early morning adventures with field biologists. “You’re up at five checking traps—and the next one seems to be on the other side of the mountain. There’s absolute silence, only the sounds of nature. No sign of humans anywhere.”
The sensory images gained from these rustic forays stuck with him and made a visceral impression in the book. He describes the twisted arroyos winding through canyons, fleeting views of bobcats and endemic skunks with one word: “amazing.” From his description of the island—as well as the words in this story—it’s obvious that Boyle is engaged in a love affair with the natural world.
“This is a huge, lifelong concern of mine,” he says, referring to humanity’s play in the destruction of the natural environment. “I love animals and the earth, in particular fish. I would have become an ichthyologist, but you have to do math to study science.” He laughs as he says that last line, but the sentiment rings clear: this is a man who enjoys science and nature as much as he likes to write fictional stories about it.
Though “When the Killing’s Done” is dense with an astounding amount of historical, biogeographical and ecological information, the facts never get in the way of the narrative and, in fact, only add to its depth. This story is first and foremost a good story.
“Unlike the biologists, I don’t plan anything, outline or make diagrams,” says Boyle. He does research to get a solid information base, reads historical accounts to get the details and then gets out of the way and lets the story unfold. “It’s a kind of dream and I follow it. I want to find out what will happen as much as you do. Day by day, I make connections and see wherever it goes. It’s all very fluid—I’m in the moment. If I wake up and I’m very lucky, I’ve advanced.”
Whatever his trick, it seems to work. Not only is this Boyle’s 12th novel, but he’s also published 10 collections of short fiction, including “Wild Child,” which was released last month simultaneously with this latest novel. He’s already well underway with his 13th novel, a historical narrative that also takes place on the Channel Islands.
“I liken it to an addiction—a drug high,” he says, describing the feeling he gets from delving into the process of writing. “The great joy of writing novels and short stories is seeing it come together. When you do feel that it’s worked, it’s a tremendous joy. Once you get that high and it fades, you want to get it again. It’s just so magical.”
T.C. Boyle will read from “When the Killing’s Done,” answer questions and sign books, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, March 7 at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information, call 462-4415.