Reading Group Guide
Humanity and nature live in a precarious balance, and those who advocate for the rights of animals and the sanctity of the natural world maintain that nature needs help. Alma Boyd Takesue, a National Park Service biologist, believes that the animals need rescuing from each other; Dave LaJoy, an environmental activist, believes that the animals need rescuing from Alma. Faced with the exploding population of rats and feral pigs in the Channel Islands of California and the resulting destruction of natural habitats, Alma is preparing a mass extermination of these animals, in the hope that the elimination of some species will save others. Dave, however, doesn't believe that humans have the right to choose which animals will live and which will die, and this—combined with his personal history with Alma—means he's willing to go to any length to prevent her from achieving her goal. Their explosive relationship and its far-reaching effects form the crux of When the Killing's Done, the timely and thought-provoking new novel from the critically acclaimed writer T.C. Boyle.
Boyle manages to be both expansive and incisive, and he doesn't shy away from addressing volatile subjects. Refusing to depict Alma or Dave as a one-dimensional ideologue, he instead provides nuanced descriptions of the strengths and weaknesses of their opposing perspectives, leaving us to wrestle with the moral ambiguities of their arguments. Alma and Dave are complicated, finely drawn characters, and their battle is built on both science and passion, stemming from a mutual love of nature expressed in starkly contrasting ways. While Dave's commitment to animals is brought on by an emotional epiphany and a struggle to manage his rage, Alma's is built on the foundations of her family's history. As Boyle subtly demonstrates, a single event can shape a family's entire legacy, echoing through generations, and the story of Alma's grandmother's survival of a shipwreck—and the vital role that the Channel Islands played in that story—is intimately connected to Alma's work. Similarly, Anise Reed, Dave's lover, works to save the animals in order to purge the memory of a traumatic event that she and her mother witnessed years ago. In their own ways, each of these characters is working for an outwardly noble purpose rooted in deeply personal motives, and the results of their actions bring together the brutality of nature, the arrogance of humanity and the indelible bonds of family.
Boyle has created a fast-paced, intelligent and provocative read, filled with the drama of politics and environmental sabotage, and his careful rendering of the biology and history of the Channel Islands is superb. Using a multigenerational narrative, Boyle questions humanity's responsibility to the animal world and its place within the ecosystem. Highlighting the dangers of good intentions, When the Killing's Done presents nature not as a paradise but as an uncertain playing field on which animals struggle for survival in an ecosystem forever altered by the one species that seeks to control them all: our own.
ABOUT T. C. BOYLE
T.C. Boyle has a bachelor's degree in English and history, an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century British literature. He has written thirteen novels and nine short-story collections, including After the Plague and The Tortilla Curtain; he has published work in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper's and The Atlantic, among many other periodicals. The recipient of the PEN/Faulkner Award in the novel and the PEN/Malamud Award for the short story, Boyle was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2009. He currently lives with his family in Santa Barbara—just across the channel from Santa Cruz Island—and teaches at the University of Southern California.
A CONVERSATION WITH T. C. BOYLE
Q. One of your earlier novels, A Friend of the Earth, also tackled environmental issues. How long have you been interested in environmentalism and animal welfare? Like Dave LaJoy, did you experience a particular moment that awakened your interest?
I suppose I've been interested in biology and the environment all my life. I grew up in suburban New York in a time when there was still abundant forest, and I roamed that forest with my eyes wide in wonder. (That forest, my own very specific one, has now been carved up into one-acre estates for some very nice but to my mind absolutely unnecessary homes.) Even now, after many years of living on the West Coast, I still find myself seeking out nature for solace and regeneration, whether it be the ocean down the street or the wild mountains of the Sierra Nevada. As for a particular defining moment, I can't point to one, though with regard to animal welfare I will never forget what Isaac Bashevis Singer had to say on the subject: "Every day is Auschwitz for the animals."
Q. While your writing often addresses volatile issues, you never present clear ideological statements or endorsements of either side of an argument. Privately, however, you must have opinions on the issues you're writing about; has the process of justly representing both perspectives ever influenced or changed your own opinions?
As I have said elsewhere, I do not believe that politics or advocacy and art make for an congenial mix. Fiction is meant to invite the reader to inhabit a space and contemplate a world and its issues as he or she will. It is not the place of the author to lead them by the nose (or any other body part, for that matter). That said, readers of my novels, from The Tortilla Curtain toA Friend of the Earth to When the Killing's Done, or stories like "Hopes Rise" or "After the Plague," should, I think, have an idea of what I believe in and what I stand for, though none of that should be relevant to his or her enjoyment of or engagement with a given novel or story.
Q. Is FPA, the animal-rights activist group in the novel, inspired by any real-life counterparts such as the Animal Liberation Front? Do you think the aggressive and sometime violent tactics used by similar organizations ultimately help or hinder the cause of environmentalism and the humane treatment of animals?
Yes, I am quite consciously thinking of radical environmental groups here, just as I was back in 2000 with my novel about ecoterrorism and global warming, A Friend of the Earth. I can't say whether these groups are advancing or hindering the cause—on the one hand, organizations like Earth First! do bring attention to problems such as clear-cutting and do achieve results, though those results are often as much due to the efforts of mainstream environmental groups as their own; on the other hand, the attention is often negative, as their subversion of the rule of law may be construed by many as a sort of vigilantism. I ask myself, What would Edward Abbey say?
Q. Within your exploration of the themes of population control and playing God, pregnancies and strong mother-daughter relationships figure prominently. How did the theme of motherhood and ecology come together for you?
As this is an interpretive question—or leads to interpretation—I will try to step around it. I very much like your pointing to some of the thematic links in the book, the unfolding of which I do hope will give readers pleasure. Of course, we do live on Mother Earth and we are animals who have been able to discover, through our keen intellects, the sole purpose of life as all other living things understand it: to reproduce.
Q. It seems that there is an inherent conflict in Dave's opposition to slaughtering the rats and pigs, in that not destroying them will eventually destroy the native species; further, he relocates animals of his choosing to the islands. He believes that Alma is playing God, but don't his actions in effect do the same thing?
I will leave this for the reader to decide. The epigraph of the book, from Genesis, should give a clue. I wonder what our true relation to other creatures actually is—even the ones that parasitize us. Pity the poor mosquito (tick, leech, botfly) that only wants the very same things we do: to discover warmth, nutrition—yes, even love—and to raise a brood to inhabit the next and coming generation.
Q. That nature suffers at the hands of humanity is a central point of the novel, but there are many instances of nature's overwhelming people; an example would be the significant role that the ocean plays in the plot. Why did you create this juxtaposition?
Who can step out the door without being overwhelmed by his own tenuousness in the scheme (or, rather, lack of scheme) of things? We are subject to random forces, and all our art, our beauty, our science and wisdom will come to nothing in the end.
Q. Is there significance in the fact that Beverly and the rats arrive on Anacapa in the same fashion? Do you see humans as an invasive species, like the rats and feral pigs?
Again, this is a (wonderfully) leading question that I am not at liberty to answer. Pick up the globe, spin it on your index finger and answer for yourself. But isn't this the central conundrum of environmentalism? As Ty Tierwater, protagonist of A Friend of the Earth, says: "To be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people."
Q. Considering that you preface the novel with a quote from the Bible concerning man's God-given dominion over the natural world, and that Dave's boat is named Paladin after Charlemagne's Christian warriors, what connections do you see between the novel and religion?
Religion is voodoo, just as is science, its modern replacement. We live—and die—in a mystery, a mystery that both religion and science seek to address. But all we have, really, is our culture, our family, our art. Everything else comes in shades of black and blacker.
Q. Alicia asks Alma, "What if we just left everything alone like the world was before us—like God made it. Wouldn't that be easier?" (p. 103). Is it reasonable—or even possible—to return the earth to its previously undamaged state? Does setting environmental ambitions so high doom all attempts to frustration and failure?
No. In fact, the restoration on Santa Cruz Island is one of the truly remarkable success stories of modern environmental activism. The indigenous fox, unique to this ecosystem, was a heartbeat from extinction when biologists discovered the final cause in a whole chain of man-made catastrophe—and the fox is now thriving once again. And all this, from imminent danger of extinction to recovery, came in the tiniest fraction of a wink of time. What can I say but hallelujah! The loss of any organism (smallpox?) is a loss forever, and we are all impoverished as a result.
Q. There was a real-life attempt to eradicate feral pigs from the Channel Islands. Was it this endeavor that appealed to you as the basis for a novel?
Please see the response immediately above. Yes, it was this serpentine and, to a large degree, absurd concatenation of events that inspired me to explore the situation and write When the Killing's Done. I could not have done so without the cooperation, guidance and friendship of the naturalists and biologists involved, to whom I am deeply indebted.
Q. What is your writing process? How long does it take to complete a novel, from initial idea to completed work? Do you work on multiple projects simultaneously?
My writing process is my life. Since I first discovered the miracle of fiction and of writing fiction, I have devoted myself to it with all my heart and soul. The world and our lives in it are mysterious and the only way I can begin to address that mystery is to create worlds of my own, to dream a dream and present it to you so that you can dream it too. As for the other two questions: 1) As long as it takes. 2) No. But then each project is different, each story or novel spinning out in its own orbit. My job is to follow it to completion and then follow the next.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONSThe book opens with the dramatic story of Alma's grandmother's boat accident. What is Anise's family history? Does your family have any great stories that have been passed down through the generations?What does the title of the novel refer to?Alma muses that "if she had enough money—say, five hundred billion or so—she'd buy up all the property in town, raze the buildings, tear out the roads and reintroduce the grizzly bear" (p. 41). Do you think Dave might say something similar? If you had nearly limitless funds, what good work would you do?On pp. 64 – 65, we see Dave's response to Alma's presentation and his vandalizing of her car. Do you believe his personal relationship with Alma influenced his actions? In what ways are Alma's opinion of and interactions with him colored by their former relationship?There are numerous example of Dave's inability to deal with his anger, usually targeted at other people. On p. 69, Dave questions whether his behavior exhibits "a fundamental inconsistency: pro-animal, antihuman." Does it?Alma considers her footprint in the global ecology and feels "guilt over being alive, needing things, consuming things, turning the tap or lighting the flame under the gas burner" (p. 191). Do you feel the same way? Is it possible to exist without imposing on some other creature or resource?Do Alma and Dave conform to your expectations of dedicated environmentalists? Are you similarly committed to any strong beliefs or principles? Have you ever been in a situation where you were pressured to compromise them?As Dave sabotages the rat poison, he feels a "giddiness rising in him, the surge of power and triumph that rides up out of nowhere to replace the bafflement and rage and depression Dr. Reiser and his pharmaceuticals can't begin to touch. This is who he is. This" (p. 82). Does Dave do his animal rights work for himself or for his cause, or are the two completely intertwined? Does it matter?Have you ever found yourself in battle with nature, either as victim or as aggressor? What was the result?In what ways are Dave and Alma similar? How does each character's perspective shift by the end of the novel?Which character did you feel was more sympathetic than the others? Who was least appealing? Which character best approximated your own feelings toward animals and the environment?