T.C. Boyle’s new novel, “Outside Looking In,” looks in on Dr. Timothy Leary and his adherents in the early 1960s as they investigate the effects of LSD — using themselves as test subjects.
The book revisits a number of themes Boyle — who graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and then pursued a Ph.D. at Iowa in the late 1970s — has investigated in his prolific career.
We spoke by phone about the new book, his ongoing literary interests and his time in Iowa City. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What can you tell me about the origin of “Outside Looking In?” What drew you to Leary and his followers?
A: Well, I did write “Drop City” back in 2003. This is about the efflorescence of the hippie movement in its highest times. I experienced that directly, and I wanted to go back and look at it in terms of the back-to-the-earth movement and environmental impact and all of that. The book begins with people on an acid trip, which was part of the times.
Lately, there’s been a lot of interest in psychedelics coming back into fashion but also to be used medically again. A couple of years ago, I began to think about such a book (like “Outside Looking In”), and I met a fan along the way when I was doing a tour in, oh, 2015 probably. And he encouraged me to do this and sent me a bunch of the texts. He sent me “Flashbacks” and “Storming Heaven” and Greenblatt’s theory, and I just started to dig in. And I thought it would be wonderful because I wanted to find out before my time how it began and how this drug got loose in society.
Q: “Outside Looking In” seems of a piece with several of your earlier books — “The Road to Wellville” (1993), “The Inner Circle” (2004), “The Women” (2009), “The Terranauts” (2016) — that feature insular communities or communes, sometimes self-selected and sometimes imposed on people, and cults of personality. What’s behind your interest in such groups?
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A: I think if you go back through my 28 books, including the short stories, you’ll see what my themes and obsessions are. Essentially, I’m an environmental writer wondering about our place as animals on this earth, and why is the earth, and why are we and so on and so on. And so psychedelics play into that because they’re known as entheogens, that is they allow you to see god and feel god. And what is god? Is it simply shutting down our brain and letting nature flow in so that we’re pure animals again without the existential angst? Is it just as simple as a chemical change in our neurons? So that was part of it.
As far as the cults and the communities living together, this has become a kind of obsession of mine, I guess, when I look back on it. I wonder what the cost is to someone to be a follower of someone else. Look who our president is. People become regimented and invest their hopes in a leader, whether it’s religious or political — in this case (“Outside Looking In”), I guess you could call this almost religious. … And I’m also demonstrating how these charismatic leaders and their cults have a huge influence on our society … These movements have had huge repercussions on our society and still do.
I don’t know if I’ve gotten to the end of this yet. The next book is not about a cult. But I certainly had fun trying to imagine Leary at that time and from this point of view. In my era, we thought of Leary as a preposterous man on TV muttering about nothing. … But then in researching this book … I saw that he was quite brilliant and charismatic.
Q: You didn’t follow the usual path for Workshop grads. You graduated from the Workshop and then hung around for a Ph.D. in 19th century British literature. What led you to pursue the Ph.D.?
A: I realized on the day I got to Iowa (as a Workshop student) that if I wanted to be a writer, it might be helpful to know something. … I fell under the spell of Miriam Gilbert and Fred McDowell and others there in the English Department and, from the beginning, I knew I would take those courses. And by the time I graduated from the Workshop, I was well-known in the English Department and had done much of the coursework toward a Ph.D.
Q: And what about your time in the Workshop? How did it affect your writing and your career?
A: Well, basically, it saved my life (because it served as an escape from the New York drug scene). All my heroes had gone there or taught there. I’d never heard of any other writing program. … And I got very lucky and got accepted. I had three mentors at the Workshop: Vance Bourjaily, John Cheever and Vance’s former student John Irving. All were very generous and kind to me.
Q: Earlier, you said the next book isn’t about a cult. What are you willing to say about it?
A: (“Outside Looking In”) is a book about human consciousness. And it’s so simple to tweak it with a simple use of a fungus. What does that mean? What is our consciousness? We are the only animals burdened by our consciousness as far as we can tell, and the other animals are like we were when we were children. Before we know that there’s no purpose to life, that death rules all, that every activity is preposterous. And it hurts our souls. But the animals, like children as Wordsworth celebrated them, they don’t know that yet and they have a purer experience of life and nature. And so I’m writing about animal consciousness and just wondering what that might be like.
Q: That’s ambitious.
A: Well, of course, it’s ambitious. I don’t want to repeat myself. I want to deal with something different each time out — try a new method and a new approach.