Interview with Robert Boswell

  • December 12, 2013

Everyone has heard of minimum and maximum security prisons, what about medium crazy facility? Robert Boswell's Tumbledown takes place in the odd world of "medium crazy."

Interview with Robert Boswell

Q&A with Robert Boswell

Tumbledown begins with Robert Boswell describing nameless “states of being, anonymous human conditions that thrive on the periphery and encircle us like bedroom communities.” Every one of us has to find a way to accommodate the world we live in, with its surprises, failures, inexplicable and improbable events. These characters navigate their own peculiar territory and the reader goes along for the ride.

How do you write so sensitively about women? How did you create and imagine these characters?

Last week I asked a New York cab driver where he was from, and he said, “A movie.” He went on to explain that he was from Casablanca. He was impressed that I knew Casablanca was a city in Morocco, as well as the Bogart film. “Most Americans don’t know if Morocco exists or is just pretend,” he said. He used to fly roundtrip from Casablanca to Paris for $60 when he was a student. “But Paris is place to visit only. Not live.” I interrupted his monologue to ask: Why’s that? “People there talk too much,” he replied. He told me that New York was the best place to live and he could prove it: when he traveled it was the only place he ever missed.

He took me from LaGuardia to my hotel in mid-town, and I suspect that he’ll appear one day in some story or novel I’m writing. The character may not be Moroccan and he may not drive a cab and he may not be male, but she or he will have a desire to entertain strangers, attitudes based on unlikely opinions and a friendly, talkative charm. I invent characters by means of some initial entry into the way she or he sees the world, and then I let each behave as her personality demands and the narrative permits.

Any personal experience with a home for the not-so normal?

I was a counselor in El Cajon, Calif., for a couple of years. I worked with all kinds of patients, as well as a lot of “normal” people who wanted to change their lives. Tumbledown isn’t genuinely autobiographical, but it owes something to those years — and some of the episodes come right out of my life.

Would the story have worked just as well if the characters all lived in the same apartment house and liked each other enough to get together regularly?

I don’t think so. The relationship between the counselors and patients is urgent and necessary and based on something more than proximity and proclivity. Also, throughout the novel, I play around with the nature of the patient-counselor relationship, often torqueing or reversing roles. Some type of book could have been written about that apartment house, but it wouldn’t have been much like Tumbledown.

“Traditional comforts were not worth the expense of having embraced the mundane.” This observation was made by one of the best counselors. In the story, the counselors have their own unique set of issues.

The counselor who made this observation is a woman nearing 60 who has never married and who stumbled into her current line of work, and she’s actually quite content with her life. Patricia Barnstone is fierce and serious, and also tolerant and good-hearted; her behavior is both unprofessional and humane. She is one of my favorite characters, and I’m glad that you’ve brought her up because most reviewers and interviewers skip over her, despite the number of pages spent in her point of view. I don’t understand why. And yes, like every other character in the novel — and every human I’ve ever met — she has her own issues. And I work to juxtapose the diagnosable issues of the patients with the “normal” issues of the counselors throughout the novel. Barnstone has a powerful sense of integrity, which is both her great strength and her major weakness, and it ensures that little in her life falls into the category of mundane.

One of your characters, who makes hilarious statements about sleeping with his wife, speaks so quietly that one can barely hear him but when drinking “he could no longer hold the insanely voluble person who hid in his professional manner.” Why do we hold ourselves so tightly? Do you think we’re all secretly afraid of the crazy within?

Most of us should be afraid of the crazy son of a bitch within. … Wait, did I just write that?

Seriously, though, what’s the difference between folks who tell it all and those that hold it in? Is one more secure in his/her person? Does the holder or the spewer like himself more or less? Which one would you say? Why?

Well, I’m happy you asked these questions because I happen to know the answer to all of the above: I don’t have any idea. I suspect that writers have no more insight into human nature than any other person. What we’re good at is finding out what makes individual characters tick. I can imagine a wonderfully secure person who is quiet, and another identically secure person who is a talker. Me, I’m both, according to the circumstance and my state of mind. My wife sometimes accuses me of writing while we’re out with friends. This tells me that I’m not holding up my end of the conversation but staring off at some half-distance and imagining a scene. More often, I tell stories and make wisecracks. I don’t feel comfortable arguing for specific correlations, but I enjoy investigating specific characters and how their personalities interact with circumstances to reveal character.

James Candler, your main character, describes a client “as having anger that floated just beneath the surface like a persistent snorkeler.” This phrase is so apt, such an immediate image that is so well done. Is this kind of anger something you’ve experienced?

Sure, though not so much in the past 20 or so years. As a young man, circumstances occasionally cast me into the role of “angry young man.” However, that’s not a role that ages well. One benefit of being a writer is that you can take advantage of all the terrible roles that you’ve inhabited over the years. The more questionable your behavior, the more material at your fingertips. As it turns out, I have access to a lot of material.

The funny sad thing is that the characters in Tumbledown aspire to get better though the reader does not feel that success is in store for them. Is hope vital? In the story, it’s almost a tool to move the story forward. Did you think of it this way? Please comment more on whether it had any effect on the structure of the story.

I did not think of hope as a structural device while I was writing the book, but the desire for self-improvement is endemic in the culture, and almost none of the characters are immune. (The lone exception is perhaps Violet Candler, whose grief is such that she cannot acknowledge it and continue being with other people.) Does it serve to shape the narrative? I can believe that it does, but it was never a conscious plan.

Is hope vital? Yes, I think so. Is it necessary? No. We can continue without hope.

Jesus, you have such an uncanny ability to move words around so beautifully, funnily, amazingly. “Crazy people are like marionettes with strings spitefully misaligned …”

Thank you. I take sentences seriously. I revise them endlessly.

For the crazy (or even the sane), which part of the character is working the puppet?

I think there’s a lot of turn-taking — sort of like baseball. Every part of the lineup takes a turn: your modest overseer often leads off, followed by the comic genius, the testy masculine aging guy hitting third, and that insane narcissist insists on the cleanup spot. Little wonder that most of us behave irrationally a certain percentage of the time. I would guess that the most commonly asked question in the USA is the following: Why are you acting weird? The most honest answer is probably, I can’t help it.

How do the strings get so misaligned?

We tend to carry the most precious parts of ourselves in flimsy, ill-suited containers, like a kid carrying his mom’s jewelry at the bottom of a plastic grocery bag. Just how flimsy is this bag? Well, desire plays over our faces like the shadows of passing chickadees, our flesh burns and changes color when some truth is spoken about us, and according to rumor, we keep our hearts on a string.

I heard a story once. A woman said that her boyfriend spoke to her while she slept. She’d pretend to sleep so she could hear him but never did. Maybe that was his way of getting out the things he wanted to say whether she heard them or not. Why is it so necessary to be heard? We have so much in us to share and yet we’re so afraid to share it?

It’s funny, but what appeals to me about this story is that the woman knows her boyfriend does this but she never catches him at it, meaning (perhaps) that something of what he says to her while she’s sleeping must stick, must endure. She recalls being spoken to without recalling what was said; does she nonetheless respond to such conversation by means of her actions? I have a story that’s about a man who talks in his sleep, and his lover begins writing down what he says. His sleep chatter is aphoristic in nature but seemingly meaningless; however, the lines offer a kind of commentary on the story, which is something like the unconscious offering manuscript comments to the conscious mind.

But I haven’t answered your questions. Why is it necessary to be heard? And why then are we afraid to speak? Communication of one kind or another may be the best thing we have to offer as humans. Language distances us from our instincts and then it becomes the bridge over that very gap. All serious novels are ultimately saying, There’s something about being a human that I can’t quite express, but here’s my best shot. Sometimes they’re close enough to naming the unnamable that they permit certain readers to get a peek. But it’s daunting to write such books because you’re admitting, This is as close as I can get. Every novel is an acknowledgement of failure.

One of your characters claims that clothing will soon be made of talk and next year we’ll be wearing a murmur. (I just put this in so I could read it again. Thank you.) Beyond sheer entertainment value, what do such lines do for the novel?

Most people have little theories about the world. My Uncle Rudd used to tell me that the way to improve the U.S. government was to line up all the congressmen and shoot half of them. The other half, he predicted, would behave. He wasn’t entirely serious, of course, but he wasn’t entirely joking, either. Many of my characters have private theories and predictions and evaluations, and in Tumbledown roughly half of them have some kind of psychological diagnosis, which may mean that their musings are wild. I use lines like the above to suggest character and (ideally) to do some other work as well — advance the story, conjure theme and so on.

Every young girl ought to be as wise as Candler’s sister Violet, when she’s ready to have a boyfriend. She wants one that is “brave enough to put his hands beneath her clothing [and] reasonable enough to accept directions.” Is this not the perfect formula for avoiding all the sexual anxiety that relationships so often acquire? We should all have such an apprenticeship, don’t you think? Can you give us any more advice?

Violet could probably be a gifted writer of advice columns for adolescent girls. I’m not sure that I would be any good at it, but I could try it through her point of view. Ultimately, of course, I don’t see that passage from the novel as advice to the world at large but evidence of Violet’s character. Even as a girl she has a no-nonsense approach to romance and the world. Eventually, she marries a man she has known for a long time as a colleague — a pal. She marries a friend, and at the time of the novel, he has died after a decade of marriage, and she is engaged in her own very specific brand of grieving.

As for an apprenticeship in the study of love, I think the great power of the romantic experience — the danger of it and the redemptive aspect of it — is how we fail to learn, not only from others but from our own experience. We take a ridiculous number of body blows, but then come the spring and a new canvas, and into the ring we climb.

One of your characters talks about having relinquished some part of herself, a part that she ultimately understands she must reclaim. Have you ever let some part of yourself go because it’s easier than protecting it? Can you tell us what it was and how you let go?

I earned a graduate degree in counseling and worked for two years attempting to help other people — honorable work and I tried to do a good job, but I had to deny the artist within me, and that made me miserable. The “artist within me” sounds pretentious, so I’ll try putting it another way. All my life I wanted to write fiction, and I shouldn’t have let that part of me go, even to do something as worthy as counseling.

The book describes sanity as another kind of prison and it sounds like a physical thing. Do you believe that a lot of people experience their sanity this way, tactilely?

If I wasn’t able to write fiction, I’d feel trapped, imprisoned, restless, inconsolable. I’ve known people who feel imprisoned if they do not have someone to care for.

Pook, James Candler’s inexplicable older brother, is a gem, and maybe the fact that he resists all attempts to be understood is what makes him such a gem. Is it because we can’t hope to diagnose and treat him?

I definitely think that’s part of the reason. We often look at the labels assigned to people as if they are explanations. Humans cannot be explained. A diagnosis is a useful thing, but it merely places the individual within of group of people who exhibit the same trait. In fiction, the writer works to create an individual who escapes classification. Even if the character has a diagnosis, the writer works to find the personal attributes that are independent of the label. Therefore, yes, I think Pook is a more compelling character because he resists defining labels.

Is there ever any competition between you and Antonya Nelson, the healthy, funny kind? Growing up, I was always the reader. Now I live with a man who has usurped my title. He reads at red lights. I’ve lost one of my long-held titles. How about you?

We compete at Scrabble, but it’s a very lax game. (We look at each other’s tiles and suggest words; we permit full access to the dictionary.) Our only real competition is in trying to make the other laugh. I have the advantage if we count laughing at as well as laughing with. We both love to laugh.

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