Tumbledown: An Interview With Robert Boswell


Robert Boswell is a patient man. The facts surrounding this interview support this claim.

Our conversation began in Telluride, where he and his wife, the writer Antonya Nelson, have a home. This was a year ago and I should mention that our weekend together began with me flying into the wrong airport some 90 miles north of where he was waiting to pick me up. He stoically stayed up until a shuttle service dropped me off at his home around 1:00am. We spent the next few hours catching up and talking about Alice Munro.

Over the course of the ensuing weekend we must have watched 100 hours of baseball. That might be an exaggeration but it was the playoffs and I don’t think we missed an at-bat. It makes sense that Boswell would love our nation’s pastime; a four-hour, one-run pitching duel is the perfect requiescence for a man who often writes over fifty drafts of a novel. The same sort of patience that goes into his writing can be seen when you are heading home from the bar after the game and you encounter an enormous bear foraging in a nearby trashcan. “We should probably walk a bit faster,” he said.” “But not too fast. Now getting back to Wise Blood.”

And so a year has passed and the baseball playoffs are about to start again (without Boswell’s beloved Astros) and the bears of Telluride are hoping for another autumn book recommendation. The season has brought with it a bit of a relief, for after ten years we have finally gotten another Robert Boswell novel to immerse ourselves in.

Set in a psychiatric rehab facility,Tumbledown centers around a troubled counselor and the patients whose lives he has been entrusted to help guide. Critics have described the novel as being in the mold of an old-fashioned kind of narrative, filled with the sort of character development, scene building, and sweeping story arch that can be hard to find in the post-modern literary landscape. What makes Tumbledown such an engaging read though is the fact that Boswell slowly chips away at this mold, subtly introducing radical narrative elements that change the manner in which you view the book’s characters and their stories.

I was lucky enough to revisit my conversation with the author in the weeks leading up to his Portland Powell’s reading (tonight, 7:30pm). No surprise that he answered my questions thoughtfully and with a great amount of patience.

Lance Cleland: It has been almost thirty years since you left a career as a counselor to pursue writing. While you have said that Tumbledown is not strictly an autobiographical work, one can’t help but get the sense that you are finally addressing some lingering questions from that period. I wonder how easy it was for you to access that time in your life?

Robert Boswell: There are divides in the course of a life when one manner of being passes into another. Those crossings resonate and they are usually easy to recall—though they may be painful to relive. When I left counseling to become a full-time writer, my life radically changed. And so even though those years in San Diego were long past, I was able to recall them clearly, and my memory kept supplying details that I hadn’t considered in ages. I suppose you could say that this also accounts for why I wrote about that time. Fiction tends to focus on phases when the direction of one’s life shifts.

LC:  Do you think your fiction now leans more on the personal than when you first started?

RB:  Well, my first novel (Crooked Hearts) is pretty autobiographical, not in all the events, but the constellation of that family is the same as the constellation of my family. Several of the scenes came right out of my life. So I’ve moved a long ways from that, but I’m very much writing out of my own life even when I’m writing about characters who are utterly different from me. Often what I’m trying to do is to get at something that is essentially human in the character, and I think that transcends culture, gender, autobiography, and so on.

LC: I love the scene in The Half-Known World where you recall discovering that you could learn more about the human psyche by reading Melville than studying Freud. Do you feel that your experiences both as a writer and life-long reader have given you more insight than a career in counseling might have?

RB: Maybe. I know that it is useful for me, as a writer, to have been a counselor, especially the kind of job I had because I saw so many clients, and there were so many different types of clients. Some were more-or-less typical people who were simply unhappy with their jobs and trying to figure out what they were going to do next. Some were people who had been diagnosed with serious mental illness. Others had physical or mental impairments. Essentially, I was studying people in order to help them make decisions, and that kind of study is invaluable to one who wishes to become a writer. But a counseling session is a qualitatively different from reading a great work of fiction wherein someone like Chekhov or Tolstoy or [Alice] Munro or [Eudora] Welty has artistically orchestrated a narrative to convey meaning. There is no substitute for reading a great work, and there’s no substitute for engaging the world.

LC: I wonder if there isn’t some inherent danger for the writer who studies English as an undergrad and then goes straight into a MFA program without having experienced anything outside of the classroom?

RB: On the one hand, there’s Flannery O’Conner, who lived a fairly limited life. She has that great quote—something like…anyone who has survived her childhood has enough material to last the rest of her life. On the other hand, there’s Wallace Stegner. I heard Stegner speak when I was an undergraduate. He addressed a small gathering of creative writing students, and I asked him what advice would give to a young writer. He said, “Acquire a body of knowledge.” I’ve always thought that was a fascinating response.

I don’t think there’s any universal advice that one can give when it comes to experience. There are times I’ve had students who don’t seem to have anything to write about, and I might’ve wished they were involved with something that would provide them with material, but I’m not sure that’s a legitimate way of thinking. I suspect if somebody like Flannery O’Connor were in those same shoes, she would be turning that seemingly dull material into great stories. The key may not be in the life experience you’ve had but in the ability to recognize useful material in the world around you, or as Chekhov puts it, the ability to distinguish good testimony from bad.

LC: You have described Tumbledown as being told through the perspective of unreliable omniscience. I am not sure I have ever heard that term used before. Not only am I curious to hear how you would define it, but also how you decided to implement it in the novel.

RB: You’ve never heard of the term because I made it up. Why, you may be wondering, did I make it up?

I was a special kind of counselor—an evaluator—meaning that I would see other counselors’ clients for two or three weeks at a time. I’d give them a series of tests (aptitude, intelligence, interest, dexterity, etc.) and let them toil in simulated work stations. At the end of an evaluation, I’d write a report, recommending certain kinds of training, education, or employment, while putting the nix on other such endeavors. This report was enormously useful to a counselor trying to put together a rehabilitation program; however, I discovered that some counselors put too much faith in the test scores, as if they were infallible or omniscient. As you might guess, this led to trouble, and I altered the way I wrote the reports in anticipation of future trouble. Ultimately, I came to think of the reports as a form of unreliable omniscience, and at some point in the long writing process (I worked on the novel for ten years) I decided that the novel ought to be told in that point of view. Once I made that decision, I began noticing other examples of unreliable omniscience: the GPS system in my car, the nightly news, missiles with supposed pinpoint accuracy.

The traditional unreliable narrator is a first-person speaker who may be trying to hide something, may have a tenuous hold on reality, may not fully understand her own story, or may have a rigid world view that limits her vision. What they all have in common: the story the narrator presents is not the full story, and the reader has to read between the lines to find the shadow story; the narrative is not complete until the reader understands both the surface story and the shadow story that lies beneath it.

Adding omniscience to unreliability changes it. I won’t go into all of the differences I think I’ve discovered, but here’s one example. The traditional unreliable narrator is often unable to see the whole story (a child narrator may understand only a portion of her narrative), but that’s not an option for an omniscient narrator, which means that the shadow story has to be explicit rather than implied. Maybe you can see how I had a lot of fun thinking about all of this, and why it took me ten years to write the novel.

LC: And that joyfulness transfers over to the reader. Given that mental illness is a central theme in Tumbledown, I was surprised at how funny the book is. There is always the danger of crossing into parody when writing about disorders but you avoided caricature, allowing your characters to observe the world in a believable, if often amusing way.

Photo credit: William Faulkner

RB: Parody is a danger of writing about people with mental troubles, but so is a kind of preciousness. When I was a counselor, many of my patients were intentionally funny and many were unintentionally funny. The same was true of my friends, family, neighbors, enemies, lovers, and the strangers I’d run into out in the world. To laugh at the so-called “normal” people but not at the people with some kind of diagnosis would be (as I see it) a form of condescension.

Almost all of the novels I love are either overtly funny or have strong elements of humor—The Great Gatsby, Member of the Wedding, Anna Karenina, Sula, A Visit from the Goon Squad,  Butterfield 8, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, HousekeepingMiss Lonelyhearts, and all of Dickens, all (or practically all) of the stories of Flannery O’Connor, Lorrie Moore, Steven Schwartz, Antonya Nelson, George Saunders, Joan Silber, Charles Baxter, Richard Bausch—even Hemingway gets in some laughs. Honestly, I think there are only a few good novels that have no humor in them. I’ve just read a couple of very funny book manuscripts that will be coming out in the next year—Antonya Nelson’s new collection of stories Funny Once, and a novel by the poet John Skoyles called A Moveable Famine. I love books that make me laugh.

LC: Besides your humor, one of the things I enjoy most about your writing is the attention you pay to your secondary characters. I am often as invested in the minor characters (Billy Atlas) as I am with your protagonist. This is particularly true in Tumbledown. There were at least 12 parallel threads running along side Candler’s that I would have happily followed for an entire novel. How hard was it not to let their stories overtake the novel?

RB: Like I said, I write many drafts. In the early drafts I include everything, and one version of the novel was almost 700 pages long. After I’m confident that I understand just what the overall story is going to be, I begin paring it down. In Tumbledown, I wound up combining two characters into one, cutting several characters, and axing one plotline. Also, I trimmed the histories of characters. In the case of Lolly Powell, I cut an elaborate backstory that included bits about her childhood, her parents, and her weird stepfather. I probably needed to write all of those pages to fully understand the story and the characters, but I try to include only what is absolutely necessary to convey the story. And then the balancing act takes place—moving scenes around, combining and trimming them. I often feel like a juggler who has many balls in the air, a pile of dishes balanced on his chin, hula-hoops whirling about his torso, and one extended leg spinning fiery rings. It’s exhausting but wildly involving.

LC: When you read this novel in the future, what do you think you will associate with the period of writing it?

RB: How will I think about the decade that I spent working on the novel?It was a difficult time in my life because many people close to me died—my little brother, my mother, my father-in-law, and a beloved teacher—and my family executed a complicated move from New Mexico to Houston. The novel is an attempt to redeem one part of my life while encompassing another, and I suspect when I look back I’ll see connections between the fictional characters and the actual events in my life.

Here’s an admission: I never read my novels after I’ve published them. I read from them for readings or to provide excerpts, but I have no interest in reading them all over again. Oh, if there’s a good reason—a screenwriter has questions about compressing a novel that she’s adapting—I’ll go back to one, but my aim is always to keep moving forward. Right now, I’m working on a play that will be produced next year, a new novel (I have a 500 page draft), essays for another book on craft, and another collection of stories.

LC: Some poor writer reading this just attached an expletive to your name. That is an enviable amount of creativity you are cranking out. Is there ever the fear that by working on multiple projects you are somehow diluting one in favor of the other?

RB: No. I tend to hold onto work until it’s genuinely finished. I used to worry about not having the fortitude to persevere, but I know now that I’ll finish projects. I don’t worry about writer’s block.

LC: Is that faith based on methodology?

RB: Sure. I have sympathy for those suffering from writer’s block, but if I’m asked how to get beyond it, I have an answer. I believe in transitional drafts. If you view what you’re writing as just a draft that is taking you to yet another draft—as opposed to, say, the draft that you are going to send out to The New Yorker, chances are you’re not going to freeze up. That’s what happens to writers, they think about The New Yorker and they freeze up.

LC: I’ve heard you say the same thing about students in their workshop classes. They receive so much feedback that they end up becoming paralyzed during the revision process.

RB: When people get comments in their workshop, they tend to go home and sit down and say I’ve got ten great comments and if I use them to revise the story, it will be ready to send to Tin House. And they sit down and they’re paralyzed. You can’t do ten things at once. What I suggest is to take that list of things they need to do and reorder it, not starting with the most important but with the most approachable. Write full drafts in which you do one relatively simple task—fix the chronology, alter a single character’s dialogue, or whatever. By the time you get to the difficult matters, you’ll likely already have a running start at addressing them.

LC: And you think this same method is applicable to the novel?

RB: Absolutely. I don’t know how many drafts I wrote of Tumbledown. At least 30. Some of them were written fairly quickly because they were addressing one problem. For example, I had this character named Horace Deering who was a yardman at the rehab center. In the early drafts he had a very specific role to play near the end of the novel, but as I made changes to the ending, I realized I didn’t really need him anymore. I then did an entire draft wherein my only task was to mechanically cut him out. Then I went back through all those scenes from which he’d been pulled and revised them again to make sure there was still tension and that the scene still worked—and was still necessary. Sometimes I discovered that whole scenes could be axed.

LC:  So are you going back through each scene and asking yourself what it is working towards?

RB: At a late point in the writing process, I do something like that. For as many drafts as I can I try not to think about all that stuff. Can I write a better sentence? Is this character as alive as he or she can be? Am I being true to this character? Things like that make up my focus. Focusing on sentences or on specific issues of character will often allow the narrative engine that resides in my brain to engage and suddenly the story is off and running in a new direction. The linear brain—the bossy, critical side that permits you to operate the coffeemaker, figure out the remote on the DVR, drive across town, and do other undeniably useful things—doesn’t like to give up its authority, but it tends to build merely logical or mechanical narratives. The narrative brain slips in whenever the linear brain is distracted or bored, and it’s the narrative brain that understands the value of surprise and strangeness and humor. Of course, it also tends to fall in love with its ideas, and that’s when linear brain takes the wheel again. It loves to run down the excesses.

One of the tricky parts about being a writer is this switching back and forth. I think the reason some people end up with writer’s block is that they can’t turn off the linear brain’s constant evaluations. That sentence, really? That’s the sentence you want to open with? Would Faulkner like that sentence? What would Katherine Mansfield think of that sentence? You’ve got to turn off that critical voice, give yourself permission to write bad sentences if you need to. You can fix them later.

The trick is to be able to go back and forth between the linear and the narrative without permitting one side to interfere with the other.

LC: As long as you’re willing to be the plow horse…

RB: That’s the metaphor I use because when I was in graduate school at the University of Arizona, there were all these very talented folks in workshop—Richard Russo, Antonya Nelson, David Foster Wallace, David Schweidel, Peter Turchi, Steven Schwartz, Emily Hammond, Lesley Johnson, Christopher McIlroy, Tony Hoagland, Eileen Drew, Rod Kessler, Karen Brennan, Nancy Mairs, Cynthia Hogue, Perry Glasser, Gale Walden, Alberto Rios, David Rivard (all writers with books, and I’m forgetting some). Anyway, there were a lot of thoroughbreds and I quickly realized I wasn’t one, that I needed to be willing to work harder, write more drafts, if my work was going to be on par with theirs. If you can’t be the thoroughbred, are you willing to be the plow horse? Well, I thought, Why not? I’ve never been afraid of work. I like work.

Photo by Ed Brown

LC: Was graduate school hard for you because of the demand of having to turn out work quickly?

RB: Not really. I had quit a good job (as a counselor) and a nice life living on the beach, so I knew if I didn’t work hard I was a fool. (I may yet be a fool but I’m a hard working fool.) I went to school determined that I would have a story ready the first day of every workshop, a new story, and that I would have drafts of other stories to work on over the course of the semester.

LC: What does Antonya (Nelson) think of your drafting process. I can’t imagine it is a method she is jealous of.

RB: She gets weary of it sometimes because I’m always writing, and I won’t let anything go until I’ve written an absurd number of drafts. I wish I could write four or five drafts and be done, but…. She will write two or three drafts and have a finished story. It seems (to me, anyway) effortless, and the story will have beautiful sentences and…what can I say? She has a remarkable gift. What I really like about her work—the thing that I try to emulate—is her fierceness. She is fierce with language and with her characters. You won’t find any sentimentality in her stories. Fierce and fearless. And she’s a great reader for me because if I slip or try to get away with something, she’ll call me on it. We’ve been married twenty-nine years, and our relationship contains a great deal of intellectual and creative wrestling—not competition but a formidable kind of engagement that I treasure.

LC: What’s the last thing you read that made you think differently about fiction or poetry?

RB: Ellen Bryant Voigt’s new book of poetry Headwaters is making me rethink grammatical units. (It’s an astonishingly good book for all kinds of reasons.) And James Salter’s novel All That Is has made me think about the novel’s power to change the fabric of one’s life for the duration of its pages.

LC: The last sentence you underlined in a work you were reading?

RB: One of my students is writing an essay on Andre Dubus, and the sentence is from “A Father’s Story.” The character is a complex, religious, traditional man who is trying to come to terms with his daughter’s recent admission into the adult world: “. . . it was womanhood they were entering, the deep forest of it, and no matter how many women and men too are saying these days that there is little difference between us, the truth is that men find their way into that forest only on clearly marked trails, while women move about in it like birds.”

Robert Boswell has published seven novels, three story collections, and two books of nonfiction. He has had one play produced. He shares the Cullen Endowed Chair in Creative Writing (University of Houston) with his wife, Antonya Nelson.

Lance Cleland is the director of the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop.