On the day of his appearance at the Chicago Public Library, author T. Coraghessan Boyle was feeling remarkably chipper—a little pumped, even. Not because of the weather—it was a nasty Tuesday, gusty and cold, dark as the center of the earth by 6 PM, when the event was to begin. And not because he’d be back to California anytime soon. No, this was an early stop in the long slog of a book tour that would take him across the country and over the ocean, facing one audience after another, their freshly purchased hard-cover copies of his new novel—The Women, a riff on the life of Frank Lloyd Wright—balanced on their knees, waiting for the main event: the post-talk signing.
But inside this mammoth building, with its outrageous palace guard of rooftop gargoyles, in the dim auditorium, there was a warm, anticipatory buzz and a pool of light encasing the podium where he, the consummate performer, would soon command every eye. He draped a long, striped scarf around his neck and waited while the ritual introduction, flattering in its understatement, ran its course. Then he walked across the stage into the light.
This was a reading, not a lecture, so none of his precious labor had been wasted on preparation. Just a few wry remarks, like a handshake with the crowd, letting them know that it was by accident that he lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house, that his wife had found it and forced the purchase, and it was only years later that he went to Wright’s home in Oak Park and to Taliesin (twice) and sat down to write the book. The characters were so amazing, he said. “No novelist could make this up.”
Then he read from the beginning of chapter two, about Wright’s second wife, Miriam. His voice was light and quiet, and he conducted his own performance, his hands rising and falling with his words. He knew he presented an improbable figure—geeky, impossibly thin (even with the camouflage of a jacket), the poodle face with its oval of mustache and goatee, the feathery pate. An aging punk in red sneakers, oozing cool—it worked.
He read about Miriam’s cab ride to Tijuana in quest of morphine—Miriam, the crazed, the addicted, so close to his heart she’d nearly run away with the book as he wrote it, her words sprouting from his fingers, spilling in involuntary whispers from his lips. When he was done, someone asked how hard it was for him to get into a woman’s head like that. “It’s not hard at all,” he said. “I take pride in being able to enter the mind of any character.”
He’d had this question before; it was like asking a fish how hard it is to swim. But he didn’t say that. Instead, he offered an example: “In ‘Big Game,'” he said, “I wrote from the point of view of the elephant.”
Welcome to my fictional biography of T. Coraghessan Boyle, whose appearance here last week got me thinking about how odd it is that in a world where copyright locks up manuscripts for 70 years after an author’s death and the Associated Press is suing Shepard Fairey for basing his iconic Obama poster on a photo taken by their freelancer, there’s so little protection for a person’s name or life story—and none if they happen to be famous and dead. Boyle’s a dazzling writer who could build a page-turner around an ant, but, just for the sake of argument, what gives him the right to think, feel, and speak for Frank Lloyd Wright and the women in his life?
It’s the oxymoronic cover, with the words a novel printed in small type on its jacket, surrounded by photos of Wright, Miriam, Mamah, and Olgivanna, that forces the question. This book is fiction, the words declare, but it’s impossible to misread the contrary and much stronger statement made by the photos: these are real people. Almost none of what we usually think of as novelistic elements—plot, settings, events, characters—were created by the author.
There’s a long history of this sort of thing, from Shakespeare’s plays through the 19th-century dime novels that made legends of the likes of Wild Bill Hickok to Truman Capote’s genre-busting In Cold Blood and last year’s Oliver Stone biopic W. The advantages to an author are huge: not only is there a ready-made plot and cast of characters, but those characters have name recognition. Unlike an original, fictional protagonist, Wright is an established brand, a marketing slam dunk. Copyright protects only the expression of an idea: actual events and people are in the public domain. So even though Wright has had numerous biographers and published his own life story, text would have to be lifted before there’d be a legal problem.
In a recent Boston Phoenix interview, Boyle (who’s also based novels on John Harvey Kellogg and Alfred Kinsey) said he likes “interpreting a story or a life and seeing what it means.” The Women, he claimed, “illuminates” Wright’s personality. He didn’t voice any qualms about substituting his words for things that were actually said, or his presumptions of vanity and desire for the motivations that drove real people and constituted their deepest selves. But one character in The Women does. In the introduction to part one, Tadashi Sato, a fictional student of architecture and the book’s narrator, wonders aloud about Wright, “Did I know him?” It’s a strategy I’m planning to appropriate for my novel about Boyle. When he steps to the mike at the library, there’ll be a fictional acolyte in the audience. She’ll be the one getting into his head, wondering if she’s got it right.
The Trust Opens Up About Wright’s Women
No one’s been more discreet about Frank Lloyd Wright than the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, which maintains his Oak Park home and studio and conducts guided tours of the premises. For years, the trust’s volunteer docents have kept mum about the series of scandals that put Wright on the pages of newspapers and the lips of gossips in his own time—starting when he left first wife Catherine and their six kids at the Oak Park home and ran off to Europe with the wife of a client. “It’s been an unwritten policy,” says tour coordinator Heather Van Delft. “We don’t talk much about his love life. If the question is asked, we’ll just say that he left his wife and family and moved to Wisconsin.”
But Boyle’s book, along with a 2007 novel, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, have stirred so much interest in the very matters the docents were avoiding that the trust has decided to address them. It’s inaugurating a special “tour experience” for book clubs called “The Wright Women: Fact and Fiction.” Groups of ten or more will be able to view the home and studio and then settle down in Wright’s drafting room for refreshments and a discussion of either novel, facilitated by a member of the trust’s education staff. It’s $40 per person, and reservations must be made in advance; call 708-848-1978 or go to wrightplus.org.v
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