Tackling Three-Letter Words — LSD, Sex, and God: An Interview with T. C. Boyle

T. C. Boyle dives down the rabbit hole of sex, drugs, and God in his interview with James Penner.

By James PennerJuly 16, 2019

Tackling Three-Letter Words — LSD, Sex, and God: An Interview with T. C. Boyle

IN MY RECENT REVIEW of T. C. Boyle’s Outside Looking In (2019), I pointed out that there have not been many LSD novels in American literature; apart from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and James Fadiman’s The Other Side of Haight (2001), the LSD experience rarely takes center stage in the American novel. When characters have an LSD trip in a novel, it is usually a subplot rather than the central event in the narrative. With Outside Looking In, Boyle has written an engaging work of fiction entirely devoted to literary characters who often find themselves navigating uncharted waters: intense states of altered consciousness. With verve and buoyancy, Boyle dramatizes the often unruly and chaotic experience of taking LSD, ultimately converting it into a literary vehicle for exploring existential questions about the nature of consciousness and the experience of enlightenment.

Set in the backdrop of the Harvard Drug Scandal of 1962 and 1963, Outside Looking In chronicles the experiences of Fitzhugh Loney, a psychology graduate student who gradually becomes a member of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s psychedelic inner circle. After Leary and Alpert’s dismissal from Harvard, the psychedelic enthusiasts migrate to Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and eventually Millbrook, New York, where they attempt to create utopian research centers that promote the exploration of expanded consciousness and experimental forms of communal living. Although the exploration of consciousness is a central occupation in Outside Looking In, Boyle’s novel also focuses on how the defrocked academics and Harvard graduate students must navigate the return to “reality” once the trip has expired.

The LSD experience is ripe for novelistic exploration because the medical community is currently reexamining the therapeutic benefits of LSD and psilocybin. In recent studies at Johns Hopkins University, UCLA, and NYU, researchers examined how psychedelics can be used to treat end-of-life anxiety, nicotine addiction, depression, alcohol dependency, and other ailments. Although Boyle is not in any way connected to the current Psychedelic Renaissance, he has a lot to say about the topic of psychedelic drugs because he experimented with a wide range of psychotropic drugs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In his own words, he was a “hippie’s hippie.” In the early 1970s, he was “so blissed out and outrageously accoutred that people would stop me on the street and ask me I could sell them some acid.” However, at that time LSD was not actually the novelist’s drug of choice. Boyle preferred various downers and heroin. His first published short story, “The OD & Hepatitis RR or Bust,” is a visceral description of a heroin experience and its aftermath. This story, which was published in the North American Review, helped Boyle get into the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Boyle was certainly fortunate to escape his youth without overdosing. One of Boyle’s nonfictional essays, “This Monkey, My Back” describes how the experience of writing slowly became his habit of choice: “[W]riting is a habit, an addiction, as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in your arms. Call it the impulse to make something out of nothing, call it an obsessive-compulsive disorder, call it logorrhea.” Boyle also believes that the “experience of creating art — in this case books — resembles a heroin experience. You have a tremendous rush to complete it. But like any habit you have to do it again.” At the moment, Boyle’s healthier form of addiction has produced nine collections of short stories and 17 novels.

When I first read Outside Looking In, I was quite keen to interview the author and quiz him about his own personal experiences with psychedelic drugs. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of visiting and interviewing T. C. Boyle in what might be described as a native habitat: his picturesque Frank Lloyd Wright home in Montecito. When I arrived at his shaded abode on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the septuagenarian novelist ushered me out to the back veranda and served me a generous serving of fresh hummus, wheat crackers, cherry tomatoes, and chilled Pellegrino water. As we eased into the literary terrain of Outside Looking In, it was clear that drugs had a powerful impact on Boyle’s formative years, and he was not shy about sharing his experiences.


JAMES PENNER: Could you talk about your experiences with psychedelic drugs? Were you interested in doing some “research” for this novel?  

T. C. BOYLE: My experience with LSD is memorial. I didn’t take it for research because I had taken it in my 20s. I will never do it again because I never had good experiences. My mind is so active anyway. I didn’t want anything to make it more active. I wanted to slow it down, which is why I went for downers, heroin, Quaaludes, Tuinal, Seconal, and all the rest of it — mixed with alcohol, of course. We had parties. We did every possible drug because we were young and butting our head against the wall and we didn’t know any better.

Your intake of drugs seems fairly indiscriminate in those days. What was your overall objective?

I was very interested in getting really high, as high as I could possibly get … party till you drop. I went through that phase. You wake up late. You are dizzy from whatever you did last night. You’re at somebody’s house. You make a few calls. And somebody has some hashish, so you go to their house and you smoke some hashish. Then you go to the beach and somebody has some LSD, or some speed, or black beauties or whatever. Then you go to a bar. It goes on and on. It goes on forever. It’s your being, your whole being … we didn’t have anyone to guide us like people have today. We were doing street drugs. We were just having a party, running wild, but I was going nowhere, and I was fortunate enough — unlike the other guys sitting at the bar with me — to be interested in literature and I began to write. Once I got a story published, and the University of Iowa accepted me. It shut the door on all that. Now I had a purpose. I just call it maturity. I grew up.

When many people think of the 1960s, they think of Haight-Ashbury in 1966 or Woodstock in 1969. When you were writing Outside Looking In, what attracted you to the early 1960s and the Harvard Drug Scandal of 1962–’63?

In 2003, I published [a novel titled] Drop City, which is about the hippie era. Specifically, it begins with an acid trip; it’s about the whole idea of the hippies and the back-to-the-earth movement. In fact, it goes from a commune in California to Alaska, our final frontier. I am asking a lot of questions in the book, primarily: What about the idea of going back to the earth, and living more simply, and getting off the capitalist wheel? Could it work? Could we do it? Can we be pioneers again? Of course not, because there are seven and half billion of us. I have written about hippiedom in its full efflorescence in that book. In Outside Looking In, I was interested in going back to see where it came from before my time. The hippies were my time, but what about before my time? How did we get from Mad Men — smoking cigarettes, drinking scotch, wearing a suit and tie, and listening to jazz — to Jimi Hendrix’s flaming coat with the eyeballs on it? How did we get there? LSD certainly had something to do with it.

Why just the early 1960s? Why did you stop in 1964?

I chose to limit it to just this one short period — 1962 to 1964 — because it’s a transitional period where the Beats, jazz, bennies, and marijuana, are passing the baton to something else psychedelic: the hippies, their colors, their hair, their beads, and their mystical leaps. It’s all in a line. But what would it have been like if Albert Hofmann, who starts the book off, had not synthesized LSD? How different would the 1960s have been? We would not have all these colors and these bright lights.

Outside Looking In features a charismatic professor, Timothy Leary, who has a powerful influence on his graduate students. In several of your novels, you often explore the relationship between dynamic leaders and their followers. Why do you keep returning to this theme? 

It seems to be one of my obsessions. What is the effect that a guru has on his or her followers? We are all looking for the Big Daddy, or the Big Mama, or the Guru. Whether in spiritual matters, or politics, or in art. A guru who says in essence: “Come to me and give me your all, and I will redeem you.” You know that I have written about this theme several times, with Frank Lloyd Wright and his apprentices in The Women, and in The Road to Wellville with John Harvey Kellogg, and with Alfred Kinsey in The Inner Circle. It fascinates me that there are followers and leaders. I grew up in New York in a kind of radical neighborhood. And as kids, we were taught to think for ourselves and to be independent and to be very suspicious of the party line, or what anybody lays on you. Maybe that is why I keep revisiting these questions. As with Kinsey in The Inner Circle, I was interested in writing about a dynamic leader who had an undue influence on his students.

As a scholar of Timothy Leary’s early writings on psychedelic drugs, I was struck by your non-sensationalist representation of the counterculture icon. Was it a deliberate choice to not demonize Leary?

I am just an artist. I explore things. I don’t have an agenda. I portrayed him as I imagined him to be. Again, I never met him. I never talked to him. I am not a journalist. He becomes my figure in my fiction. When Leary began at Harvard, he was the hottest young psychologist in the country. He was dynamic, charismatic, handsome. He believed in what he had discovered. He believed in this drug, psilocybin, and the experience that it gives you. After his first mushroom trip in Cuernavaca in 1960s, Leary mentions to [fictional] Fitzhugh Loney, “I learned more […] in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than I had in the preceding fifteen years of studying, human research and psychology.” Leary was not a charlatan because he believed in psychology, psychedelic therapy, and what he was doing. It was a revolution. Throw the old shit away. [1] Getting fired and the contentious faculty meeting that I dramatized — all of that really happened.

So where did Leary go wrong?

Leary was also naïve. Even though psychedelic drugs are not physically addictive, there is a mental addiction. There is a drug culture that you fall into. A drug culture and druggy trap that you fall into. I have been there and done that and I got out of it. So I can recognize it. So that also fascinated me about him. Leary had an addictive personality. He came from a long line of alcoholics, as do I. If it weren’t for psychedelics, he probably would have been just a drunk.

Outside Looking In focuses on a marriage that is slowly unraveling when Fitzhugh and Joanie begin experimenting with LSD and extramarital affairs. Given all of the sex in your novel, do you think that LSD functions as a hedonistic trigger?

Do you mean a sexual trigger? It happened to me once or twice. Other times I am just wired. But Leary wrote about it, so I just ran with it because for a novelist, it’s an interesting line of inquiry to pursue, isn’t it? Certain drugs have a focus on tactile stimulation. Leary knew this all along. To this day, people say, Men have Viagra, but what is the parallel drug for women? Well, it’s marijuana. Marijuana increases your sense of touch, so I think LSD can — depending on the dose and your mood — do that too. The idea is to break down your defenses.

Although there is a lot of sex in Outside Looking In, your novel is ultimately about larger existential questions: the question of God’s existence and the nature of the religious experience. Could you talk about how your characters experience God while tripping on LSD? To what extent, is God merely a drug-induced experience?

I found it fascinating that these drugs are called entheogens. They allow you to see God. I am quite fascinated by the idea that a drug — a chemical process in the brain — can shut off our editing process of our brains. To do LSD experimentally for a period of time — Is that God? Is God simply some glitch of the brain? Or something that has to do with brain chemistry? Is God simply finding a drug — or a fungus — that happens to operate on us? Psychedelics are fungi. Why is that? Cats have catnip, but it does nothing for us, but psychedelics do. God as we get him in the big texts — the Qur’an and the Bible — this is obviously a fiction, another sci-fi novel. People desperately need to explain the inexplicable because consciousness is such a burden since we are the only animals that know that we are going to die. We have existential angst; we are frightened all the time. We know we are going to die. We are removed from nature, when in fact we are supposed to be a part of nature. All of these factors were important in why I chose to write this book.

What is the allure of altered consciousness? Why do humans want to alter their consciousness?

You have to do something. We have this burden of consciousness. There are no explanations for any of the human condition. We are animals, yet we deny it, and more and more in today’s society, we lock ourselves away from nature. It’s kind of schizophrenic. We need some release. And we have always needed a release and the release is drugs — of any kind. Otherwise you are locked inside yourself all of the time. And apparently it’s hard. It’s really hard.

Are you in favor of the decriminalization of drugs?

Since I learned how to talk, I have been lobbying for the legalization of all drugs in a free country like America. The government is not our mommy and daddy. We tried prohibition of alcohol with disastrous consequences, the rise of the mafia, et cetera. We tried the War on Drugs with even more disastrous consequences. Look at Mexico. It’s completely destabilized. Look at Central America and Afghanistan. It’s a no-brainer to have every drug sold at Longs Drugs or CVS Pharmacy, whatever it is. Yes, some people will go off the deep end, but they are going to do that anyway. Furthermore, instead of the gangs getting the money, the taxpayers can get it, and we can build the best facilities in the world to treat the people that really need it. Now instead we have no facilities to treat that small proportion who are addicted. Now we just have gangs destabilizing countries in order to sell illicit drugs to us. Who is going to go buy drugs on the street corner, when you can buy them at the drugstore? When you buy drugs in pharmacies, do you know that the doses are good and do you know that it is legitimate and that you are not going to get ripped off?

Since you no longer take psychedelics, have you found other ways to experience “ecstasy” or “transcendence”?

I have long said that God is my art, where I get out of my body, and God is nature, where I also get out of my body. I don’t go on trips into the woods with people. I go alone for hours every day when I am on top of my mountain. And there is no one there, except me, and my dog. Sometimes I will take a nap in the middle of nowhere. Even in winter. Sometimes I will read a book, sometimes I will look at the sky. Sometimes I will take a swim. Sometimes I just wander. And it’s a way of shutting down the conscious mind. When I am doing that, I am like a boy again. I am eight years old again. I am in this amazing forest. And I am just seeing and smelling and hearing and experiencing what is, without worrying about the scientific name of the tree, or the bark beetles that are killing it, or being depressed about that. Just to be out there. So this is the closest that I can come to what God is. It is nature, of which we are a part. Can we enhance that experience with nature? Do psychedelics enhance it? I think so. I am just trying to understand what it means to be a human animal. When I figure it out, I will let you know.


James Penner is the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (2014) and the author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (2011).


[1] Boyle is referring to Leary's rejection of Freudian psychoanalysis and B. F. Skinner's Behaviorism. Both were popular in Psychology departments when Leary taught at Harvard from 1959 to 1963.

LARB Contributor

James Penner is the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (2014) and the author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (2011).


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