Robert Boswell has had an enviable career. Though he’s not a bestselling author, Robert Boswell has had a long list of awards he’s received over his three decades long career including two NEA Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN West Award for Fiction, and the John Gassner Prize for Playwrighting. He’s a versatile writer with many novels, short story collections, nonfiction books to his name. He has had two plays produced. Over the course of books like Mystery Ride, Century’s Son, American Owned Love, and Living To Be 100, Boswell has shown himself to be a writer constantly changing his approach and writing different books.
This fall his seventh novel, Tumbledown, came out in paperback. His most ambitious novel, the book encompasses many voices–something that has marked all of his novels–but this book uses voice and form in a very different way. The book centers around a counselor living in San Diego, his colleagues, friends and family, and many clients with various mental and physical disabilities. To convey these many voices, Boswell uses what he calls “unreliable omniscience.” It’s a story about the United States in the 21st Century, about how we transform ourselves, the definition of success, the pressure to conform—all of which tend to make us less happy.
The book is also a very personal one, which is clear even before beginning the novel. The dedication reads: “This book is dedicated to all the clients who survived my tenure as a counselor and to the one who didn’t.” I spoke with Boswell recently about the book, which I found a powerful work both emotionally and intellectually and we tried to discuss the book and his approach at length without giving away the ending.
The Rumpus: I love Tumbledown. It feels like a very different kind of novel from your previous books.
Robert Boswell: I’d like to think each my novels is substantially different, one way or another, from the books that came before and the ones that come after. I have the conscious goal of not repeating myself. But, yes, Tumbledown is a significant departure.
Rumpus: One reason for that is that it feels like a bigger novel.
Boswell: And it’s strange. [Laughs] I was a counselor in the late seventies and early eighties, and Tumbledown has its origins in that part of my life. I always knew I would write about that time, but I waited twenty years to do it. I don’t know why I waited that long. It was difficult for me to approach the material. Then I worked on the novel for ten years. By the time I was through with that thirty-year process, I was in possession of a really big novel.
Rumpus: It had been about a decade since your previous novel, Century’s Son. You wrote and published other books in that time, but you were working on this book the whole time?
Boswell: I worked on it for almost exactly ten years. It wasn’t my only project. I started another novel, and I wrote probably 300 pages of it over that time. I wrote several drafts of a play, and, as you say, I published other books. I like to have multiple projects. I write many drafts, and one challenge of the process is to find a way to keep my perspective from one draft to the next. It’s hard to really see a novel after working through it fifteen or twenty times. Ideally, one would take a year between drafts and return with fresh eyes each time. But life is too short. Moving from one project to the next serves to cleanse my palate.
Rumpus: From the beginning, the book has a more prominent authorial voice than I’ve seen you use before, and by the end we have a somewhat different idea of the voice and how you use it. How did that evolve?
Boswell: I’ve experimented with the omniscient voice for a long time. About eight years into this novel I realized that I needed a new kind of omniscience. Here’s why: as a counselor, I gave tests to clients—much like the character in Tumbledown, James Candler. I worked with people for periods ranging from a couple days to as long as three weeks. These were very thorough examinations. I’d administer a battery of tests and assign simulated workstations, assess the results, and write a report that I’d send to the client’s counselor. Imagine that you’re a counselor with a client who spent his adult life in construction and now has injured his back. He needs a new profession. Is he college ready? Can he physically tolerate a desk job? It was my job to evaluate each client and write recommendations that addressed all those issues. The reports were incredibly valuable to the counselors, but a few of the counselors took the test results to be the voice of god. They treated the scores as if the tests were infallible.
My tragic example: one of my clients was a young African-American woman with hardly any education. She scored low on several of the tests, especially the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. There are many studies suggesting that IQ tests have a built-in racial bias, and that African-Americans scores tend to land below their actual IQ. By means of a formula, I was able to adjust the score to reflect the client’s actual IQ. Back then we still used the term “retarded,” and her raw score put her in the mildly retarded range. But I’d worked with her for three weeks, and I knew she was not retarded; after adjusting the score to account for the test’s bias, her score was in the normal range. So I reported the score but in my narrative I explained the bias and stated that she was uneducated but not impaired. After I sent in my report, the counselor called me—I’ll never forget what she said to me—she said, “You’re coddling. If the test says she’s mentally retarded, she’s mentally retarded. I won’t accept any recommendations that don’t acknowledge this.” You can imagine how I responded. I offered to send her studies about the test’s bias. I pointed to all the work I’d done with her in the three weeks that indicated she was not mentally retarded. Nothing would change this counselor’s mind.
The test, in her mind, was omniscient.
I asked if I could meet with the client again and she refused to let me. The predictable things happened. The client met with the counselor, who told her that she was mentally retarded. This infuriated the client, and she stormed out. She lost all of her funding. About a month later I was shopping in a grocery store and I happened upon that young woman in the frozen foods aisle. She pointed at me and screamed, “I am not retarded!” I tried to explain, but there was no way. And the truth was that I had failed her. No matter the reasons, I failed her.
From that point forward I changed the way I wrote my reports and how I made recommendations. I hid scores or failed to report them if I thought they might carry too much weight with counselors. Or I might include the scores sheets from one of the measurements, but I’d omit the score from my report. Understand, all of my evasions worked to the client’s advantage, but in trying to correct one problem I almost certainly created another. I became a spin-doctor, more of agent for the client than an evaluator. If the reports were initially a problem because the tests were treated as they were omniscient, now the reports became even more unreliable because I was fiddling with them to avoid repeating mistakes. And the reports were still treated as if the deity Science was speaking through my oracular pages. My reports were a form of unreliable omniscience.
After working on Tumbledown for eight years, I discovered that this aspect of the reports had to have sway over the telling to the story. I decided to rewrite the novel in that point of view—unreliable omniscience. Unfortunately, that POV did not exist. At least, I couldn’t find any useful models for it in the literary world. But it was not hard to find examples in the real world, such as the GPS in your car. Everyone who has used GPS has had an experience with unreliable omniscience. Another: the weatherman predicts storms, and public schools cancel classes. The report is treated as if its omniscient, but frequently the storms are mild or never materialize. Once you start looking for it, unreliable omniscience is everywhere. The nightly news is a prime example. Technology is the primary source of it these days, but it’s evident in the political world, as well. President George W. Bush claimed that God told him to wage war in the Middle East. And in every war, we hear that God is on our side. Sometimes politics and technology combine to create unreliable omniscience, such as news reporters suggesting that precision bombers could all but guarantee that no one but “enemy combatants” would be killed or injured in raids.
Rumpus: People have related the omniscient voice to monotheism and suggest that it requires loving all your characters. You tend to write about many characters and incorporate their voices to show what the other characters don’t or can’t understand. In Tumbledown, the narrator was another character with biases and limitations.
Boswell: I know that a lot of people make the argument that to write in the omniscient voice implicitly argues that you believe in some kind of god. I don’t buy that argument, but I nonetheless think it’s an interesting one. It’s led to me to explore what I can do with omniscience that hasn’t, to my knowledge, been done before. I find it a fascinating way to invest the texture of the work with questioning about the nature of existence. Unreliable omniscience seems especially suited to this moment in history.
Rumpus: Without giving anything away, I think it’s impossible to read the ending and not think about the author and the narrator’s relationship to the characters.
Boswell: I have to respond to this in a roundabout manner. Bear with me. To create unreliable omniscience, I first had to consider the nature of the traditional unreliable narrator in fiction, which (I think) is often misunderstood. The word “unreliable” has a lot of applications in the world, but it has a very specific meaning in fiction, one that is different from the definition in general usage—and this causes confusion. A first-person narrator who can’t remember something or omits pieces of the story is immediately labeled unreliable even though (as I see it) she may not be. There are unstable or forgetful narrators who are nevertheless completely reliable. To have an unreliable narrator, the story must present a surface story that the first-person narrator intends to be the only story; however, the reader is able to discern a shadow story lurking between the lines. To fully understand the story, the reader must take in both stories—the surface story and the shadow story. This shadow story may be one that the narrator wishes to suppress or is unable to discern.
That’s my take on the traditional first-person unreliable narrator.
If you complicate such unreliability by making the narrator omniscient, you can’t really expect to merely read the shadow story between the lines. The narrator is omniscient and therefore capable of complete suppression and total perception. The omniscient narrator knows the shadow story and is perfectly capable of presenting it, as well as the surface story. What then is left to read between the lines? One possibility is the relationship between the author and the narrator, or the author and a character, or the author and the story. The way the end of Tumbledown is divided stems from combining omniscience with the unreliable narrator. I still think there are things to be read between the lines that, as you’ve pointed out, have to do with the relationship between the characters and the author.
Rumpus: You said the idea of having this unreliable omniscient narrator came to you relatively late in the process. What was the shape of the book before?
Boswell: Roughly eight years in, I showed it to a number of my writer friends—my manuscript readers. They liked the novel, but the comment that bothered me was this: how much does this story matter? What’s really at stake? In this long-ago draft, tragedy was averted. After hearing that comment, I had to ask myself whether I was protecting my characters. And that question led to another: am I trying to correct in my fiction errors that I made in my life?
This questioning led me to interrogate everything about the novel. I understood that I needed to revamp the narrative, either by changing the plot or complicating the telling of the story. I began by writing the dedication. (This book is dedicated to all the clients who survived my tenure as a counselor and to the one who didn’t.) That acknowledgement changed my relationship to the work. When I was a counselor, I lost a client, and I don’t think that young man had to die. If I’d been somehow better at the job, he wouldn’t have died. I came to understand that the draft was avoiding some of the difficult truths. Ultimately I embraced the absurdly demanding task of inventing unreliable omniscience and telling the story as it ought to be told.
Rumpus: I’m sure that early on you spent a lot of time getting the characters’ voices right, the clients especially, which had to be a bigger concern than usual with characters.
Boswell: Absolutely. My goal was to tell the story of the counselors and the clients, and I did not want to elevate one group at the expense of the other. Rather, I wanted to inhabit all the characters and do right by all of them. I felt to poke fun at the counselors but not at the clients would be condescending and dishonest. Some writers don’t give themselves permission to do this with characters who are in some way damaged, and I think that leads to a kind of preciousness.
The other side of the coin is that such characters can be the source of cheap laughs. I had to carefully examine every line I gave them.
Many of the characters in this book are loosely based on people I knew, but when you’re writing fiction, that’s just the starting point. Ultimately they become the characters you need them to be, and they no longer resemble the original models. Of course, sometimes they refuse become the characters you think you need. [Laughs] You realize that what you want them to do, they would never do, and you have to protect the integrity of the characters and modify your on intentions. Which is like discovering you don’t have the right key for that shiny vehicle in front of you, and what you’re required to do is assemble a new vehicle to fit the key.
Characterization is an especially complex process if the characters have diagnoses. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing about schizophrenia instead of writing about the specific character. A diagnosis obscures as much as it reveals.
Rumpus: A lot of the humor comes from their interactions with each other, how they laugh at each or make each other laugh.
Boswell: I worked with physically disabled people, mentally disabled people and psychologically disabled people. And I had friends, colleagues who were “normal.” Some of my friends and colleagues tried to be funny, and some were accidentally funny. The same was true of the clients. Many of the clients were really good company. Many were wonderful people. Some of them were jerks. They had specific disabilities, but I was relatively confident that even if they didn’t have those problems, they’d still be jerks. [Laughs] You can’t condescend to your characters and be a writer. You have to look at them honestly. You brought up earlier the concept of loving all your characters. I don’t know that “love” is the right word. But I feel a powerful empathy for my characters, even the ones I don’t particularly like.
Rumpus: You used the phrase “inhabit the characters” earlier. Is that how you think of what you do?
Boswell: Very much so. I have to write my way inside them. Some writers may have a genius for this that I don’t possess, but I have to write a lot more pages than ultimately wind up in the book. I write my way into their way of seeing the world, and I work to determine the gaps between what they understand and the extent to which they’re able to express it. I’m not just talking about the clients in Tumbledown, but every character in all my fiction. At some point while doing this I’ll find a hook by which I’m able to pull myself into a character and see the world as she sees it.
I’ll give you an example. Maura Wood is a character who gets a lot of point of view space in the novel. She’s one of my favorite characters. I worked on her sections for a long time. I had a sense of her voice, but it wasn’t until she explained how she wound up in the institution after attempting suicide that I really knew who she was. Not that I could write an explanation of who she is, but I began to genuinely see the world as she sees it. I could feel the parts of her that were defensive as well as the parts that were generous, angry, witty, and so on. I was able to remake her scenes. If I knew Maura Wood in the real world, I think I’d like her, but she’d be difficult to be around a lot of the time. [Laughs] I loved inhabiting her voice and her vision. She was a great character to write. Billy Atlas is another. I had the same experience with him. At some point I understood how Billy Atlas was not like my friend on whom he’s modeled, and that little gap permitted me to find my way inside him.
Rumpus: I really loved Maura and you have this beautiful moment near the end in the hospital and she has this moment of realization where she understands what suicide means which she never had before. You do this in just a few sentences but it was this momentous moment for her.
Boswell: I have a personal attachment to that moment. When my daughter was a teenager, she hit adolescence with a bullet. We had just moved to Houston and she fell in with a bad group and there came a night she ran away from home. She was planning to spend four or five nights out with her friends on the streets. She was fifteen. As you can imagine, it was an absolutely terrifying experience. We managed to track her down after she’d been out about forty-eight hours. I wound up taking a five-year leave of absence from my job and we moved her back to New Mexico, and I worked at the university back there. Toni—my wife—was still teaching at Houston and she traveled back and forth. It was a very complicated time, but we felt we needed to do it to get her through that period.
At one point, there was a boy in New Mexico who was one of her pals and he’d had a bad experience with his family and he told my daughter and the others that he was going to kill himself. He took some pills and drove off in his car. He wouldn’t respond to their calls or texts, or he would respond only obliquely. My daughter asked me if I’d try to reach him. He spent a lot of time at our house, and he and I got along well. And he did respond to me. We spent all night tracking him down and we finally found him and brought him home. We stayed up with him until dawn to make sure he was okay. At some point during that night, while her friend was still out alone in his car, my daughter said to me, “I can’t believe I did this to you guys.” I can’t even talk about it now without being affected. It was a powerful moment for me. I tried to capture that power for Maura in the novel.
I should add that, otherwise, Maura is not even vaguely based on my daughter.
Rumpus: Not knowing anything about you, you have a great talent for writing teenage girls and have written many memorable characters in your career—Dulcie in Mystery Ride most memorably.
Boswell: I frequently write about young people and I write about women approximately as much as I write about men, girls as much as I write about boys, but I think it’s likely true that readers seem most attached to the teenage girls I’ve written. Dulcie came to life so vividly that she changed the novel. This may be true for Maura, too. She wound up being a more important character than I anticipated.
Rumpus: Your daughter is a visual artist. Did that play a role in writing about Pook and how you treated his work and those issues in the book?
Boswell: I’m sure it did. My daughter is a painter, and because of that I’ve become knowledgeable about the way painters work and how they think. Often painters can’t talk about their work or their process. It’s almost as if the work requires them to give up words. My daughter happens to be quite capable of describing her process, and I like listening to her, and I’m sure it influenced my depiction of Pook.
Rumpus: Did you spend a lot of time working out how to open the novel, how to prepare readers for how the book would change? There were certain details from the beginning that I didn’t notice, or understand, really, until the second time I read the book.
Boswell: I open the book with two characters, James and Lise. The narrative moves back and forth between the two, and the transitions fade away until they seem to overlap and each narrative is commenting on the other. I want to pull the reader into a narrative that has the appearance of a traditional novel and yet also prepares the reader for surprises. And I introduce the concept of unreliable omniscience by means of action. Lise has a bad dream and realizes she’s dreaming. A voice in the dream advises her to change her position in bed if she wants to end the nightmare. She follows the advice of the seemingly omniscient voice but the dream doesn’t end. The GPS in James’s car seems to have no off button and habitually advises him to turn around. And so on.
The opening few sentences also signal to the reader that the POV is strange. These sentences may be a mistake. (Some readers are put off by those opening sentences.) I play with the idea that there’s a physical place and a figurative place. I talk about the characters of Candler and Lise as if they’re in the figurative place but then I describe the literal place. Some people can’t get past it.
This book, more than any other I’ve written, divides readers. Many people really love the book, and I’ve received some wonderful letters, emails, and messages. These folks are passionate about the book. I was just at a writing conference run by Pam Houston, and she’s one of the people who wrote me about Tumbledown—one of the best responses to a novel that I’ve ever received. I could tell she was quite genuinely moved by the book. But there are also some readers who hate the ending and feel betrayed by it. They have no interest in what I might be up to.
Rumpus: I obviously don’t agree, but I can understand that in a sense. Someone could read book and see the ending as a cop-out.
Boswell: Some people feel that way. They think I took the easy way out. If they only knew how much work that ending was to write, they’d know it was anything but easy. [Laughs] Nevertheless, I think it’s a legitimate argument. The novel is not right for everyone.
Rumpus: You mentioned that you’ve finished another book. I don’t know if you want to say anything about it at this stage.
Boswell: I’ve finished a few drafts of the book. It’s another big novel. It covers about sixty-five years. There’s a central event that affect two boys, but the only way the reader can understand why it happens is to understand the history of several adults. The event also creates waves that disrupt the future for a surprising number of people.
I’m also trying to situate the things that the characters go through in relation to the things that the country is going through. I don’t know if I’m going to pull that off. [Laughs] The draft I recently gave a friend to read is 700 pages. I’m hopeful that it’ll eventually be shorter, but it’s another big project.
Rumpus: You’re trying something different again.
Boswell: I just had a play produced and I’m writing a new play. To stay alive as a writer you have to keep mixing it up.
Feature photo of author © Bill Faulkner.