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Reading Is My Prayer: An Interview with Robert Boswell photo

Writers in M.F.A. programs assume, and are often told, that teaching means time away from writing—that after responding to their students’ work, professors rarely have energy left for their own creative pursuits.

The career of Robert Boswell, who teaches in two creative writing programs and at a number of summer workshops and conferences, is a nice counterpoint to that notion. He has published more books than many full-time writers, including seven novels—Century’s Son, Mystery Ride, and Crooked Hearts among them—three story collections, a play, a pseudonymous cyberpunk novel, and two books of nonfiction.  

Richard Ford calls Boswell “an extremely appealing writer: uncommonly intuitive, a sparkling observer, graceful yet surprising sentence-to-sentence; and always in pursuit of important complexity in human behavior.” (It’s worth noting that Boswell, nearly a decade younger than Ford, has published just as many novels and story collections.)

Boswell’s collection of essays, The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction, has become essential reading for many of today’s emerging authors. “Is it good for me to spend time with young women and men who have put aside big chunks of their lives to see if they can become writers?” Boswell says. “Who come to class full of enthusiasm for literature? Who daily remind me why I wanted to be a writer in the first place? I think so.”

Graywolf released Tumbledown, Boswell’s latest novel, last month. His collection of stories, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, was a finalist for the 2010 PEN USA Literary Award in fiction. He has received National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Iowa School of Letters Award for Fiction, the PEN West Award for Fiction, the John Gassner Prize for Playwriting, and the Evil Companions Award. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, the Pushcart Prize anthology, Esquire, Colorado Review, and many other magazines. He is married to the writer, Antonya Nelson, and they have two children, Jade and Noah. Boswell teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, where he and his wife share the Cullen Endowed Chair in Creative Writing, and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program. He and his family live in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado.


Tumbledown is about a group of characters in a treatment facility. You briefly worked as a counselor before pursuing an MFA in creative writing. Why did you leave that life?

I was a specialized counselor who performed lengthy evaluations of other counselors’ clients. I had an arsenal of interest assessments, intelligence and skill tests, and simulated workstations. At the end of a two- or three-week evaluation, I’d write a very bossy report, recommending certain kinds of education, assistance, and training, while putting the nix on other such possibilities. Most of my clients had physical or mental disabilities, but some were merely successful and unhappy people whose jobs were making them miserable. Typically, they had chosen practical fields over their true aspirations. I counseled them to pursue their desires, and eventually I counseled my-own-dumb-self right out of that job. For as long as I could remember, I’d wanted to be a writer, but I’d been raised in a hard working family (my parents grew up poor on Kentucky farms during the Great Depression) and the wish to be a writer simply hadn’t seemed realistic to any of us. Reading John Cheever on the beach one weekend, I decided to give up being realistic and to study writing seriously. I decided I’d rather fail at writing than succeed at anything else. And so I turned my back on counseling.

What about that world appeals to you as a novelist?

My life was rather tumultuous during the time that I was an evaluator, and tumult, as we all know, makes for good material. Nevertheless, I waited twenty years to write about that period of my life, and then I spent another ten years writing the novel. I was drawn to the two groups—the clients and the counselors—and the powerful connection between them. And I wanted to write about the tests that I administered and interpreted, how they were brilliantly designed and wonderfully useful, but also fallible and subject to misinterpretation. Some of the counselors to whom I sent my reports treated them as if they were omniscient, owing to the ingenuity of those tests, as well as their hard-earned validity and reliability. But I came to believe that the omniscience was flawed.

A painful example: an African-American client scored in the mentally-impaired range on one of the tests, but it was clear to me in my weeks of working with her that she was not impaired. The scores of African-Americans on certain tests skew low due to a cultural bias built-in to the exams—a fact that is well documented. I reported her scores but suggested what her real scores should be, adjusting for the test’s bias. When the counselor received the report, she phoned me. “You’re coddling,” she said, and she would not listen to my logic or the corroboration of research—the test score was the first and final word. The counselor told the young woman that she was mentally retarded, which infuriated her and she quit seeing the counselor and lost all her funding. Months later, I encountered the client by chance in the grocery, and she screamed at me, “I’m not retarded!” I tried, but there was no way for me to explain. I had to let her scream at me in frozen foods. I had failed her, and I had it coming. This experience changed forever the way I wrote my reports. I’m not sure, but it might be fair to say that I wrote the novel to do right by the clients that I failed all those years ago.

This has been your longest gap between novels—11 years. Tumbledown is also your longest book. Are these two elements related? Or did you set aside another novel along the way?

I have a running start on another novel, and I published three other books during those years—a collection of stories, a collection of essays, and a nonfiction book. I also have a play that will allegedly debut off Broadway in the next year. All of which is to say: I’ve been busy.

But Tumbledown is a big book that kept changing while I was working on it, and yes, it took a long time to write. The idea that my reports were an example of unreliable omniscience became increasingly important to me as I drafted the novel. I started thinking about other kinds of unreliable omniscience, ranging from the trivial (the GPS in my car) to the tragic (the nightly news). One of the reasons that it took me so long to write the novel is that I needed to invent the point of view of unreliable omniscience and figure out how to use it in the novel. I don’t doubt that someone else invented it long ago, but I couldn’t find useful models, and I had to just make it up.

Tumbledown relies on humor of “the most generous kind, uncynical and unsentimental,” as David Wroblewski says of the book. How conscious are you of humor’s role while you’re in the early stages of writing a book?

Once in a graduate fiction seminar, I read the opening chapter to a famous novel, changing only the names of people and places. The class was laughing raucously and couldn’t believe it when I told them that the chapter was from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Tolstoy can be wickedly funny, and Chekhov is even funnier. A lot of great novels simply wouldn’t work without the humor—Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Big Sleep, Lolita, A Handful of Dust, The Catcher in the Rye, Day of the Locust, and dozens more. There aren’t many serious novels that aren’t also funny. The best humor is subversive, and literary fiction at its best is a subversive medium.

Moreover, laughter is one of the three purely human acts. (The other two are going through an intersection on yellow and borrowing money from the in-laws.)

Most of the essays in The Half-Known World started as lectures for the Warren Wilson MFA program, where you’ve taught since 1986. How do you choose the topics of these lectures, and what is your process for writing them? Many begin like personal essays (“I grew up on a tobacco farm…”), and a few play with form.

I’ve been writing lectures for several years, and somewhere along the line I decided that I wanted each lecture to organically embody its topic. By which I mean the following: if I were writing about how to create characters, I would (on the sly) create a character over the course of the lecture and make the character’s fullness felt by lecture’s end. This led me to use stories from my life in the fabric of the lectures. And so I try to write lectures that are also literary works.

I have almost enough material for a new collection of essays.

You published several books with Knopf and one of the all-time great editors, Ashbel Green, who died in 2012. What was your relationship like?

Ash was my editor for twenty years. He was a remarkable man, and he taught me more than I know how to report. After he purchased my first novel—Crooked Hearts—he wanted to fly me to New York, but Toni was pregnant with our first child, and the book and baby were due at approximately the same time. So Ash flew out to see me. He took us out to dinner and sat on our uncomfortable, leftover-from-grad-school futon until the small hours to talk books and literature and life. It was an introduction to a world whose existence I had perhaps intuited but had not really believed existed—a world where people cared deeply about literature and a life that embraces it.

He had a rule about contracts and money—he and I would never discuss them. “That’s why you have an agent,” he told me, “so that you and I may have a relationship that’s pure.” I had my own rules, and I wouldn’t talk to him about a book until I thought it was finished. He would read it within a matter of days and call me to talk about it. Within a few days of the call, I’d received his typed comments and his edits. I almost always took his suggestions (the few times that I didn’t I regret to this day); although, one of the things he emphasized was this: the work belongs to the writer, not to the editor, publisher, or reviewers.

I’ve had the rather remarkable luck to find another extraordinary editor: Katie Dublinski at Graywolf. She has edited three of my books now, and I honestly believe that she will one day have the same kind of reputation as Ash. She is that smart and that careful and that bold.

Let’s talk about Virtual Death, the science fiction novel you published under a pseudonym. Why didn’t you use your own name? You seem happy for readers to know it’s yours.

I had worked for a long time on the novel Mystery Ride, and when I finished it I gave myself permission to do other kinds of things. I’d had an idea for a science fiction novel, and I wrote it—but I wrote it quickly. I sent it to Ash and I also sent it to a friend from graduate school, David Foster Wallace. He and I had exchanged manuscripts for years, and I particularly wanted his comments on this one, which at the time was called The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be.

Ash was willing to publish the book, but he didn’t want it to be the novel that followed Mystery Ride, which had made a brief foray onto the best sellers’ list. Meanwhile, my agent thought I should publish it under a pseudonym in the HarperCollins’ sci-fi series. By the time I heard from David, I’d already sold the book under the name Shale Aaron.

David’s comments were rather stinging. He liked the book a lot, but he believed that I’d rushed it, that I hadn’t taken it as seriously as I should have, that I’d written it with my left hand. It was not like David to be harsh, and I listened to what he had to say. I asked my editor for another six months to revise the novel, and I took almost a year. By that time, I wanted to publish it under my name but doing so would have created a legal problem with Knopf. The book was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick award, and it sold more copies than all of my other books put together. I’d like to one day release a new edition of it, with the original title (or a better one) and my original name, and maybe some kind of introduction, perhaps one that includes David’s scolding comments.

Your essay “Private Eye Point of View,” makes me wonder: Do you have plans to write a mystery novel? Virtual Death plays with hardboiled narration, and the essay shows how the formal demands of genre can free a writer.

I have two hundred pages of a hardboiled mystery that might just be pretty good. However, in the course of writing those pages I realized that my plan for the novel would run close to a thousand pages, and for some reason I got discouraged.

I may write it one day, but I may just let it go.

Your play, Tongues, was produced several years ago. For your birthday, your wife took you to three Broadway productions. Why are you drawn to the theater?

Toni took me to see a play based on a Henry James novel, a revival of Glengarry Glen Ross, and the brilliant Steppenwolf production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I’m obsessed with Virginia Woolf. When I was a kid, my brother Terry and I (this was in rural Kentucky) watched a number of movies on some afternoon TV playhouse, a venue of which my parents would not have approved, and the Burton/Taylor Virginia Woolf was one of them, along with Death of a Salesman, To Kill a Mockingbird, Twelve Angry Men, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Night of the Iguana, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and a handful of others. You have to understand that we were ten or twelve years old, and our official favorite movie was 101 Dalmatians. We knew we were getting away with something. He and I grew up with a great love of theater, and I think it had to do with those illicit afternoons, hoping our mother wouldn’t pass through the living room while Sue Lyon was emerging from the sea or Elizabeth Taylor was eviscerating Richard Burton (or Paul Newman), and ask us what in the world we were watching.

What is almost impossible to believe is that Edward Albee is now my colleague at the University of Houston.

My brother’s family and mine used to spend a few summer weeks in London every year, and my brother and I would see just how many plays we could attend. Our daughters were both, at that time, involved in theater (my daughter started her own theater company when she was sixteen), and I remember that the girls managed to see seventeen plays in thirteen days. Terry and I saw maybe a dozen. My brother died a few years ago, and I now go to plays in Houston with the poet Tony Hoagland and another fiction writer, Lillie Robertson. We’ll see maybe a dozen plays over the course of a semester. I have come to understand that part of what I love about it is the likelihood of failure. A play walks a tightrope and the odds of success are against the production, and so it is thrilling when one succeeds, and there are times when the success may transcend anything that could reasonably have been anticipated. I saw a production of Uncle Vanya by Houston’s Classical Theater Company that was astonishing, and an equally fine production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Guthrie in Minneapolis.

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater is interested in my new play, and we’re talking about a production. I don’t go to church. Reading is my prayer, and the theater is my cathedral. And I am devout.

The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards showcases your range as a story writer. A few of the stories are experimental (“A Sketch of Highway on the Nap of a Mountain” comes to mind), and several others are almost novelistic, such as the title story and “A Walk in Winter.” I wonder how you approach a story in progress. Do you make decisions early in the process? Do you set out to write a longer novelistic story, or a shorter experimental piece?

I always set out to write a story of twelve pages. This is my dream length, and if you look at the table of contents, you’ll see that I’ve failed with every story. None is on target. They have their own ideas about how long they ought to be, and they have their ways of making me listen.

The stories that are generated by language or that rely heavily on some stylistic curveball tend to be short. They poke their heads into the book and then reach for their coats. “A Sketch of Highway on the Nap of a Mountain” is a voice story, while “Guests” is an attempt to use lyricism and imagery and even rhyme to capture a state of being. Some people have generously said that my language in such stories is very poetic; these utterances typically come from big-hearted citizens who don’t read poetry.

The longer stories got long despite my best efforts. They’re like dogs that won’t stay on a leash. They run away and by the time they eventually show up on your porch again, they have something putrid coating their fur. Well, you can’t leave them like that. So you take them out again, this time with a washtub and vinegar and tomato juice, and just when you think you’ve got them under control, they smell a distant backyard barbecue and are out of your hands and down the street snacking off a grill. Such stories continually find ways to humiliate you. “Yes, I have a brand new one,” you say to the editor who calls to ask for a story, “but it’s fifty-four pages long…Hello?”

“No River Wide” was originally a twelve pager, set at a party in Florida, and I was pretty sure that it was good enough to be published, but I wasn’t quite happy with it. I thought I might be able to squeeze a little more oomph out of it if I gave more of the main character’s background. Thirteen years and, quite literally, a hundred drafts later, I finished it, and I believe I got that oomph, but the story is thirty-five pages. The party is still in the story, but “No River Wide” bears little resemblance to that early draft. I believe it’s the best story that I’ve ever written—not the one that’s best liked or will be most loved, but the one that is the most beyond my abilities.

How has the process of shaping short stories into a collection changed for you over the years?

My process for shaping a story collection hasn’t changed at all: I write as many good stories as I can, and then I stack them together. It’s my process for writing individual stories that determines this, my insane process that requires writing thirty to fifty drafts of every story. I don’t write to polish, but to permit the narrative to move away from my initial intentions, to become complex and strange—or at least not boring. I call each of these changing versions a transitional draft, and I don’t quit until the story stands on its own hooves and turns around to glower—meaning that it’s fully alive and no longer mine. Such a process makes the idea of shaping a collection as I’m writing the stories all but impossible. It’s like asking a blind man how he prefers his darkness.

Aside from length, what do you perceive to be the essential differences between the short story and novel forms?

Stories have a devastating left hook, while novels are all rabbit punches, kidney shots, some nifty footwork, and relentless jabs to the head and the heart that accumulate over fifteen rounds. Both can knock you out, but the way they go about it is different.

What books do younger writers need to read?

In high school, my son read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for his Senior English class. He loved it, but the reading assignments were incremental, and to satisfy his teacher, he wouldn’t let himself get more than one assignment ahead of the class. So he’d read each section over and over. By the time the class had inched through Africa with Marlowe, my son had read the book five times.

I was in college by the time I read Heart of Darkness, but I was in its thrall in much the same way. This kind of an experience with a book feels very a lot like falling in love, and it is this experience that made me want to be a writer.

I like to think that I didn’t fall in love easily, but I sure as hell fell often. I was insanely obsessed with Moby Dick when I was twenty. Every event in my life seemed related to the novel. Roadkill on a desert shoulder would make me see the carcass of a whale, and, to make things worse, I’d have to tell everybody about it. I had the same experience five years later with Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In another few years, I’d find Anna Karenina, White Noise, Housekeeping, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Remains of the Day. I’d list more, but you might think me a trollop.

My suggestion to younger writers is not necessarily to read the novels that I recommend, but to find the stories and novels that transport them and turn them upside down and change the way they see the world. My advice is to keep falling in love.

image: Aaron Burch