The Wright Stuff

Owning a house by Frank Lloyd Wright has become a labour of love — as well as a source of inspiration — for the novelist TC Boyle

by Katherine Stewart, The Sunday Times (UK), March 22, 2009

Some artists are like hunters. They set off in the morning, loaded with talent and ambition, and don’t come home until they’ve bagged their kill. Others are farmers. They plant a few seeds of the imagination, water them regularly and wait patiently to harvest the fruit when the time comes.

For at least 16 years, T Coraghessan Boyle, one of America’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, nurtured the idea of writing a novel about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It began in 1993, when he and his family moved from Los Angeles into the Prairie-style house that Wright designed in 1909 and built in 1910 as a “summer cottage” for George C Stewart and his wife, Emily, in nearby Montecito.

If Boyle, 60, is something of a farmer, his subject was rather more a hunter. In his new novel, The Women – his 12th – he tells the story of Wright’s gloriously messy, high-adrenaline, scandal-dogged life.

Sporting red Converse high-tops like exclamation points at the end of his blue jeans, a skull pinkie ring, and ginger hair puffed up like a rooster’s crown, Boyle gestures around the living room, pointing out the subtle markers of Wright’s genius. Organic architecture, hemicycle, boxes, Usonian, casement windows, Taliesin, open-plan, hip roof, board and batten – Wright’s work was so atypical, it required a glossary of new terms, which the architect happily supplied and which Boyle, a writer’s writer, clearly relishes.

The house, where Boyle lives with his college sweetheart, Karen Kvashay, with whom he has a daughter and two sons, was the first that Wright built in California and is a prime example of his iconic Prairie-style houses, so named because the design was considered to complement the flat wheatlands around Chicago, where Wright spent much of his life. They are extended low buildings with shallow, sloping roofs, clean skylines, suppressed chimneys, and multiple overhangs and terraces.

With a redwood exterior and an interior plan of cruciform symmetry, Boyle’s home has a timeless, modest, earthy poetry. Windows, embellished with motifs suggesting trees, wrap around the house. As one enters through a door tucked away at the front walkway, the lower ceiling over the east and west wings gives way to a soaring living room, with south-facing picture windows that offer bucolic views.

Perhaps in the hope of encouraging a more “authentic” way of living – or to find refuge from the turmoil of his life – Wright aspired to create a shelter in harmony with nature. The building materials, redwood and copper, seem to emerge naturally from the surroundings. In fact, the boundaries between indoors and outdoors are so porous that, according to Boyle, you can sleep under the eaves on the two second-floor porches. “When it’s raining,” he says, “I love to sit here and just read and think.”

Above all, Wright, who died in 1959, aged 91, rejected the stultifying bourgeois architectural conventions of the day. “Most houses of the era, you’d enter and there would be a grand staircase,” Boyle says. “In this one, the staircase is hidden.”

Wright certainly wasn’t one to abide by convention: the architect, Boyle says, was impulsive, flamboyant and a spendthrift, who “needed complete embroilment to create, to feel alive”. When Wright fell in love with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the wife of a client, he didn’t just turn his own life upside down to pursue her, he did a pretty good job of messing up the lives of his wife, Kitty Tobin, their six children and the family that Cheney left behind.

The architect, Boyle says, falls into a category he likes to call “20th-century narcissists” along with Alfred Kinsey, the pioneering sex researcher, and the cereal king John Harvey Kellogg, both subjects of his earlier novels. “I’m interested in people like that because they are exactly like novelists, who are all egomaniacs,” he says. “I write about them as cautionary tales for myself.”

When it came to furnishings, Kvashay took the lead, complementing the feel of the home with Arts and Crafts-era antiques, as well as cherry-wood items designed and built by a family friend. An self-confessed obsessive when it comes to historical details, she sought to maintain the house in a way that was authentic to its day. For instance, she uses linseed thinned with turpentine on the interior woodwork, as prescribed by Wright. Thanks to Kvashay’s efforts, walking through the front door feels a bit like stepping intoa different century. “She has an aesthetic gift,” Boyle says. “If it weren’t for her, I’d be living like a barbarian.”

Instead Boyle tends to the lush vegetation that surrounds the house: “Pruning clears my mind,” he says. “You feel the pulse of nature, a kind of wonder . . . it’s very freeing. When I’m doing it, some of the problems of narrative get solved. Sometimes whacking the bushes really helps.”

Here is where the collaboration between architect and writer comes full circle. After all, Wright’s predatory disposition gave rise to his need to pursue the creation of tranquil architecture; now this verdant, peaceful setting allows Boyle to cultivate mad narratives filled with transgressive characters.

In contrast with his affection for the messy lives of others, Boyle himself seems to have an innate fastidiousness. His second-storey study, in which he writes every day between 9am and 1pm, is a picture of structure and order. When a guest carelessly spills tea on a Stickley settle, Boyle rushes to mop up the mess. “That’s another thing I haven’t told you: my wife just lies around, I do everything around here,” he says with an impish grin.

The Book
The Good News Club, by Katherine Stewart

The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children

About the Author
author Katherine Stewart Katherine Stewart has written for The New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Guardian. She lives in New York City. More →


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