The Tea Fire was raging across the hills of Montecito, and T.C. Boyle was worried. He was worried about the safety of his home, as anyone near the flames would be, and that concern was amplified by the fact that the nearly century-old house was designed by no less than Frank Lloyd Wright. And then there were the papers: the highly combustible manuscripts, research, notes and bound volumes that constitute Boyle's life's work. Everything that had gone into writing two dozen books and 150 stories was stashed in Boyle's basement. If the wind shifted, it would all be lost.
"It scared the bejesus out of me," Boyle said four years later.
Although the Tea Fire claimed more than 200 homes, it never reached Boyle's. And now Boyle's archive has found a safe house of its own: at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The Ransom Center, the premier collector of the complete papers of 20th and 21st century novelists, paid $425,000 to add Boyle's archive to its collection.
"I guess there's a lot of stuff," Boyle says of the materials in his archive. Boyle, who teaches at USC, has the jocular manner of someone completely at ease in front of an audience. "The house seems a little lighter now; it seems to be rising up now that the weight has been removed," he jokes.
The Ransom Center had its eye on Boyle since 2003, when director Thomas F. Staley told The Times he was interested in the archive of the author of "The Tortilla Curtain" and "East Is East." In Hollywood, Boyle is best known for "The Road to Wellville," which was adapted into the film starring Matthew Broderick, John Cusack and Anthony Hopkins.
Boyle has an uncommon three-sided gift: He makes bestseller lists, publishes esteemed literary fiction, and is a consistently prolific author. In the nine years since that first spark of Ransom Center interest, he assiduously continued to add to the papers under his house. He boxed up notebooks full of novel research: on Alfred Kinsey's intimates for 2004's "The Inner Circle" and Frank Lloyd Wright's wives and lovers for "The Women" (2009). He filled folders with stories sent to magazines like the New Yorker, with notes back and forth from his editors. And of course there were the manuscripts, the drafts and redrafts and final versions of his novels. It was all ready when the Ransom Center — in the form of Glenn Horowitz, a broker who deals in authors' archives — came knocking.
"They really want the piece of paper with the scribbling on it," Boyle explains. "Since I bridge the computer era and the typewriter era, about half my stuff is old typescripts, with scribbles all over it and everything."
"Every time we get an archive in, the vast majority is still paper," says Megan Barnard, the Ransom Center's assistant director for acquisitions and administration. "People are still printing out their revised drafts and taking pen or pencil to paper and making notes."
Yet computers have made much of that revision process less visible — as Boyle puts it, revising "happens in outer space and disappears" — but the Ransom Center is undeterred. It has a number of archives that come from authors who, like Boyle, have work composed before and after the ubiquitous computer: novelists Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, Denis Johnson and even David Foster Wallace. Research libraries like the Ransom Center, which include the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino and the Library of Congress — are working jointly to develop industry standards for storing and retrieving digital manuscripts and other documents that are "born digital."
The Ransom Center made its mark by taking the road less traveled; in 1957, when it was founded, that untraveled path led to contemporary 20th century writers. Other more established libraries and museums vied for Gutenberg Bibles, illuminated manuscripts that were hundreds of years old, and original works of the canonical writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1958, the Ransom Center's founder, Harry Huntt Ransom, purchased of the T. Edward Hanley library, rich in literary manuscripts of Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw and Dylan Thomas, setting the Ransom Center on its collecting path. American writers now feature prominently in its archives, with collections that are increasingly interrelated.
The largest single collection came from the voluble writer Norman Mailer. The winner of the National Book Award and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize made his mark in fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, even politics and film and apparently kept copies of just about everything. The Mailer archive fills about 1,000 boxes.
"The library itself is Borgesian, it's infinite," says Boyle. "They've got these perfectly matched boxes that the manuscripts are in, and they go on forever." Boyle's archives are also stashed away in the identical Ransom Center boxes — 43 of them.
His papers were in exceptional condition. "Not too many bloodstains, no insects, no rat turds, no rat corpses," Boyle boasts. Indeed, those are concerns when collecting author archives; at the Ransom Center, they are subject to strict decontamination routines that can include a double deep freeze. Even those extreme measures cannot purge all foreign objects: according to Ransom Center legend, Isaac Bashevis Singer's archive included a pair of pantyhose. Boyle's archive, Barnard confirms, was clean.
When he visited, Boyle was given his own private window into the library's holdings. He saw childhood stories and artwork by Evelyn Waugh and "Minstrel Island," an unfinished musical written by a college-age Thomas Pynchon with a friend, John Kirkpatrick Sale. The materials weren't under glass, but Boyle held off from touching them. "I didn't want to breathe on them too much," he says, instantly reverting from writer to fan.
"If you have a connection with the writer, and then you see the actual physical manifestation, it gives you a little bit of a thrill," Boyle says. "It's like Holy Writ. The reliquaries of the saints."
If creating a safe place for a literary legacy is part of the motivation for turning to the Ransom Center, this is the other key to the library's success at securing archives: writers' reverence for the work of others. Until some new magic is added to MRI machines, full archives, with their many revised drafts, are as close as we get to seeing the mind in action, the actual creation of a work of writing that readers hold dear.
In fact, about half of the materials the Ransom Center acquires are donated by authors or estates who have that same reverence for the work and for the place that will preserve it. Some writers, like Boyle and Mailer, receive tidy sums for their personal collections, but even Mailer, who received $2.5 million for his papers in 2005, turned around and gave the Ransom Center a gift of $250,000 — so his archive would be well taken care of.
Even if that means being exposed to the prying eyes of present and future curiosity seekers. "I'm sure there's plenty of embarrassing stuff," Boyle says. He isn't sure what, exactly; once filed away he left his papers untouched, but he can return to the Ransom Center any time should he want to spend time with them again.
Like many authors, he held back some personal and financial papers, although he says the archive includes "the stub of the first check of the first story I ever sold, to the North American Review, for which I received $25. I was a student at Iowa, and $25 bought a hell of a lot of beer in Iowa City in those days." Down the line — "if I should someday die — and that's not entirely certain, by the way," Boyle says — the complete kit and caboodle will land on shelves at the Ransom Center, in its identical matching boxes.