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The Next Impossible Task:
An Interview With Robert Boswell
Winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and the Iowa School of Letters Award for Fiction, Robert Boswell has published six novels—including Century’s Son, American Owned Love, Mystery Ride, The Geography of Desire, and Crooked Hearts—two story collections, Living to Be 100 and Dancing in the Movies, and a play, Tongues. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O’Henry Prize Stories, and Pushcart Prize Stories. He and his wife, the writer Antonya Nelson, live with their two children in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado.
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Interviewer: In the 1970’s you worked as a rehabilitation counselor, which ultimately contributed to your decision to become a writer. Were there other factors in that decision?
Boswell: The biggest factor was that I had a great job. I had a lot of freedom in my work, and I was paid well. I actually had more money than I could spend. I drove a sports car and lived on the beach in San Diego. And I had this exotic girlfriend. I was living out a specific kind of adolescent fantasy. It was the life I thought I wanted, but I was miserable. I was writing, but I didn’t have anyone to read my fiction. Sometimes my girlfriend tried. She would read my work and say, “It seems good. But why does it have to be so depressing?” I’d say, “Well, I don’t know.”
I started taking community college classes with Robert Jones, a very fine poet in San Diego. He read my work and encouraged me. Because of the job, because I was living on the beach, because I had a beautiful girlfriend, because I had a lot of friends (anytime you live on the beach you have a lot of friends), but still wasn’t happy, I was able to say, “Why am I fooling myself?”
Still, though, it ultimately took a short story to make me act. There’s a story by John Cheever called “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” which is a funny story but it made me cry when I read it because the main character comes to understand that his life is his own. He comes to understand that he does not have to be a thief because his life really is under his control. I read that story on the beach and had a few sleepless nights. Then I began taking apart my beach life to give myself a shot at becoming a writer.
Interviewer: You’ve also worked as a garbage collector, an experience that often figures in your stories. Are there other jobs you’ve held that influence your fiction?
Boswell: I was a caretaker for a graveyard at one time. I worked in the fields a lot—cantaloupes, wheat, watermelons. I picked citrus, which is one of the most miserable jobs on the planet. I worked at a convenience store to put myself through college. It was called U-Tote-M and was right across from an “escort service.” The escorts would come in and have their “dates” buy them fifty dollars of groceries at the U-Tote-M. It was a likable, if sleazy, neighborhood and I met all kinds of characters—a great job for a future writer. Then there was the counseling. My job involved working with a huge number of people. I kept track one time. I had ninety-nine different clients over the course of a month. I’ve drawn on experiences from all of those jobs in my writing.
For the past twenty years I’ve taught creative writing in one university or another, mostly at New Mexico State University. That work has permitted me to study the stories I love. And I’m around young writers all the time who have great enthusiasm and talent; they remind me daily why I wanted to write in the first place.
Interviewer: For fiction, Jayne Anne Phillips believes “the reader should think that whatever you write is autobiographical, because they should be convinced intensely of the reality of the piece.” I often get that sense when reading your stories.
Boswell: My attitude differs from that of Jayne Anne Phillips. The reader is meant to be seduced into the reality of the story, but I also think the reader is meant to be sophisticated enough to understand that the story is a work of fiction and is not merely produced by the writer’s life but also by the interaction between his life and his imagination.
There are certainly some things in some of my fiction that are straightforwardly autobiographical, but they’re fairly rare, honestly. My first novel, Crooked Hearts, started out as a narrative essay. I was teaching a freshman composition class, and whatever assignment I gave the students I would do myself. (I discovered that this is an exhausting way to teach.) Anyway, I tried to write an essay about a curious episode I had with my father. We were staying with my aunt while my father looked for work, and every day he had me go down the hill and across the highway to buy him cigarettes at a little diner. My brother and I would fetch the smokes, and my father would give us extra money to get Cokes for ourselves. But one night my father decided he was going to quit smoking. He told me not to buy him cigarettes the next day. He told me that even if he asked me the next day to buy him some, I wasn’t supposed to do it. So the next day came and he told me to get him cigarettes. I said, “You told me not to.” He said, “Now I’m telling you to do it.” And I was in a bind. Even though I had some fairly dramatic moments with my father over our long history, that cigarette moment stuck with me and wouldn’t let me go. I didn’t understand why it was so powerful, so I decided to write the essay. But describing what really happened didn’t reveal much.
Here’s what really happened: after trying to dodge the chore for a period of time, I finally bought him the damn cigarettes.
The essay didn’t go anywhere until I turned it into fiction. Once it became a short story, there was the question of the little brother’s presence—what’s he doing in the story? I had to give him something to do, and then there was the question of why the father would send his son for the cigarettes. Why didn’t he walk across the street and buy them himself? There had to be some sort of explanation.
I wound up writing a story that later became the first chapter in Crooked Hearts. By writing the novel, I came to understand that the cigarette moment was powerful to me because it embodied my relationship with my father: no matter what I did I was in the wrong. In other words, that event was powerful to me because it was a metaphor.
So Crooked Hearts started out as a semi-autobiographical piece, but I had to fictionalize it to get at what was meaningful. The novel includes other events from my life, but it’s very much a work of fiction. All of my novels since then are less specifically based in autobiography.
But I’ve strayed from the question. My hope is that readers do not read stories as if they were autobiographical accounts of the author’s life. I understand that Phillips is talking about making a story so convincing that the reader can’t help but believe it must have really happened. There’s nothing wrong with that ambition. However, as I see it, the ideal reader is unconcerned with that kind of question. The ideal reader is interested in the fiction on its own terms.
Interviewer: Haruki Murakami believes “the author has to have at least one character he loves unconditionally.” You don’t seem to have any trouble with that. In fact, you’ve said that while working on Mystery Ride, “I cared so much about the minor characters that for some of them I wrote a hundred pages or more.” Is there any character from your work that you love more than the rest?
Boswell: I don’t think there’s one that I love more than the others. Sometimes it seems that way because I’m working on that character at the moment. I do care about my characters, but I think it’s important for a writer not to protect them. There’s a tendency sometimes to think you need to treat your characters the way you treat people in real life. In real life, if you love someone, you try to steer them away from conflict and danger and difficulty, and in fiction you really need to permit them to make mistakes, even encourage them to make mistakes. You need them to do things that you would wish they hadn’t done if they were real people. I think it’s a more complex relationship than the phrase “unconditional love” might suggest. One can’t write for twenty years and not at times write the stories of the characters whose lives are destroyed. You have to be willing to make that happen.
I’m not really disagreeing with Murakami’s statement but I think it can be easily misunderstood. I’m not happy when works of fiction are only evaluated in terms of the extent to which the reader likes the characters. If that were the only measure, we’d have to throw out some of our best fiction.
Interviewer: I know that you were greatly influenced by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in part because you grew up near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. What other stories have inspired you?
Boswell: I read Alice Munro and Anton Chekhov perhaps a little obsessively. One of the advantages of teaching creative writing is that once you’ve found stories that speak to you powerfully you can teach them over and over, which forces you to read them over and over. There’s a pressure to keep finding something new in them, and the great stories continue to reveal new things.
It’s easier for me to talk about the stories I love, rather than those that inspired me. Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” is the first one that comes to mind. Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” Munro’s “Friend of My Youth.” Sherwood Anderson’s “A Death in the Woods.” I read The Great Gatsby somewhat obsessively, as well. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich are two more that had a great effect on me. I fell in love with Faulkner as an undergraduate, but I don’t know how much he influenced my writing. Because I grew up in the South I consciously resisted that Southern Gothic tradition, but I still read it a great deal. I especially love Absalom, Absalom! A magnificent book. I read Moby-Dick as an undergraduate, and it changed my life. I was a psychology major and I realized that Melville understood more about human psychology than Freud. So I became a double major, psychology and English, and wound up eventually with a degree in psychology and creative writing.
Interviewer: So Moby-Dick was what first inspired you to pursue creative writing?
Boswell: No, I was already taking a lot of English classes, and I had taken some creative writing workshops. In my first workshop, I was so desirous of the writing life, I so wanted to be a writer, that I was a wreck in the class. Everyone else in that workshop took it for what it actually was: a single class in college. But I took it as a measure of my worthiness. Here, in this class, the word was going to come down as to whether or not I could be a writer. That’s a very bad way to take any class. I was hyper-vigilant and anxious, and I got the worst grade in the class. I got a C in Introduction to Creative Writing. You have to work very hard to get a C in such a class, but I did and I deserved it. I absolutely earned it.
I didn’t take another creative writing class for a year or so. Then, when I finally did, the teacher read the first paragraph of my first story aloud to the class, throwing open his mouth and sticking out his tongue as he read to indicate that it was purple prose. I was so in love with Melville and Hawthorne that I was writing like a nineteenth-century writer—a bad nineteenth-century writer.
That humiliation turned out to be the kick in the behind I needed. I don’t teach that way. I don’t believe in being, well, cruel to the students. But he read me correctly. It was good teaching, in my case. The very next story I turned in was about a bunch of kids going down to Mexico, down to the Zona Rosa. I wrote partially about something that had happened to me and partially about something that had happened to someone else, and it was about three steps, four steps, ten steps better than the previous story. It permitted me to engage the world through my fiction in a more practical and much scarier way. I began writing about things that put me at risk rather than writing in a style from a hundred years ago.
So Moby-Dick certainly inspired me and still does—I just reread it this past year—but it also set me back initially.
Interviewer: Anne Lamott has said, “Life is not like formula fiction. The villain has a heart, and the hero has great flaws.” In your most recent novel, Century’s Son, you often blur the line between protagonist and antagonist, using different settings and relationships to draw out the best and the worst in each character. Is that ever a struggle for you to do?
Boswell: It’s always a struggle—unless something just happens on the page that I can’t anticipate. As I said earlier, I care about my characters but I also try to say the hardest thing about them. If the character is someone who has a very generous nature, I look to see if there’s a dark side to that generosity. This strategy has served me well.
But there have been times I’ve failed to pull it off. In American Owned Love, there’s a character who decides not to cooperate with a movement going on in the community. She announces her decision in a fairly bold, self-righteous way, and yet I believed it was an act with which most readers would identify. That scene is followed by a scene where she has failed to recognize that someone in pain has asked for her help. She has ignored this person. I meant to set up a parallel, how the public act that we agree with and the private act that we abhor both stem from the same trait. The reader’s identification with the character in the first scene makes the reader feel culpable in the second.
But the setup was too subtle, and most readers just didn’t see it. They got the first scene but they didn’t see how it was undercut in the next. I think there’s a kind of subtlety that writers sometimes go for that’s basically false or inadequate, and I think that was my failing in this book. It’s a flaw in that novel.
Interviewer: Why did you publish your sci-fi novel, Virtual Death, under a pseudonym?
Boswell: There’s a story about that. I had just finished Mystery Ride, which had taken six years and had been a hard novel to write. I gave myself permission to do other things. I wanted to write a play, so I wrote Tongues. And I had an idea for a sci-fi novel. I gave myself permission to write it, as long as I wrote it quickly. I wrote it very quickly. I showed it to my agent and editor, and they both said, “This is entirely publishable, but you’ve just had a breakthrough novel with Mystery Ride. This doesn’t seem like the right follow up.” It had a lot of dumb jokes in it that I’d had fun writing, but which weren’t necessarily, well, literature.
As I’ve said, I typically write many drafts, but I’d only written a few drafts of this book. I showed it to David Foster Wallace. As you’re probably aware, he often sets his stories ten minutes in the future or does something to disrupt the reality of the premise. He suggested that it was a better novel that I was giving it credit for being, and that I had written it with my left hand. By this time I had already sold it to a sci-fi line. I asked them to hold the publication, and I spent another year revising it. By the time I was finished, I wished I could have published it under my own name. They changed the title to Virtual Death. My title was The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be, but they said, “No funny titles.” They weren’t happy. I hope one day to release it under my title and my name.
Interviewer: It’s been said that you’ve led the “model career.”
Boswell: In some ways, yes. I met Antonya Nelson when we were in graduate school and we fell in love. We had a whirlwind romance. We met in August, went out in November, were engaged in January, and married in July. It was very fast, and twenty-two years later we’re still happily married and we have two kids of whom we’re more than moderately fond. There’s something “ideal” about that. I’ve been a successful writer and so has she. We read each other’s work, and that’s been important. But I am aware of many things that have happened that could have worked out better, that have been less than ideal.
I’ll give you an example. They made a movie of Crooked Hearts. First of all, it could have been a good movie, but it turned out to be a bad movie. (They tried to make a good movie, and that’s all you can really ask for.) Anyway, as it was coming out, the paperback went out of print. I called the publishing house and the editor said he had tried to keep it in print, but he was leaving and he had no power. I talked to one of the marketing people and she told me that the novel was still selling, but the sales had slowed down. The decision was an entirely economic one. The product in this case was a novel, but it might as well have been shoes or chocolate bars.
From the inside one sees peculiar things that make it impossible to think that the trajectory of one’s career has been ideal. Having said that, I’ll also say that I also know several talented writers who have not had much recognition and who have not been able to shape their day-to-day lives around writing, so I know I’m lucky to be able to do what I want to do.
Interviewer: You’ve said that the writer’s job is to “embrace the next impossible task.” What’s yours?
Boswell: They all seem impossible. I’ve been working on a novella that engages multiple time frames simultaneously. To some extent it tells the story of specific characters, but it is trying to get at something beyond the characters, something like a narrative philosophy (that is, philosophy that is not articulated by the means of a brilliant thinker expounding, but by means of characters interacting). I’m also interested in writing a literary story that wears the mask of a specific genre. I’m playing with that. I’m writing stories, I’m writing a couple of novels, I’m trying to put together a collection of my lectures, I’m writing another play. I always have a lot to work on.
Interviewer: How much of your writing is play? Does writing ever become work for you?
Boswell: Oh, it definitely becomes work. There’s still an element that is play—engaging the imaginary characters in a way that genuinely matters to me. And writing does transport me. I lose myself in the work. A great deal of my energy goes into simply trying to find time to sit down and write. It’s what I want to do. But that’s not the same as saying that it’s all play.
I work through revision. I work through draft after draft after draft. Everything I send out has been through at least thirty drafts and sometimes fifty or more, including the novels. When you’ve written something twenty times and you need to go back to it again, it’s work. You may become engaged with a particular moment and if that moment takes off in an unexpected direction, that will feel like play. The rest of it feels like work. It’s good work, but it’s still work. When I was in graduate school, I was not one of the celebrated students. I started out as a poet—a terrible poet. I don’t even know how I got in. During my second semester I switched over to fiction. Anyway, I happened to be at the University of Arizona with a great many talented people: Antonya Nelson, David Foster Wallace, Richard Russo, David Schweidel, Steven Schwartz, Karen Brennan, Peter Turchi, Emily Hammond, Ron Steffens, Christopher McIlroy, Tony Hoagland, Todd Lieber, David Rivard, Leslie Johnson, Perry Glasser, Rod Kessler, Eileen Drew, Michael Collier, Tito Rios, Kevin McIlvoy, and many others. So I would see great stories every week in workshop—every week, that is, except when my story was up. Their stories were much further along than mine, but I came to realize that if I put mine through six or eight drafts, they could be as good as the other stories in workshop. At some point I understood that if I put them through twenty or thirty drafts, they could be that much better.
It would be nice to be a thoroughbred, but I don’t have the bloodlines. I knew from the beginning, however, I could be an honest plow horse. I could keep going over the same field until I had it right. That’s what I decided to do. Writing is a combination of work and play, but most of it is work.
Interviewer: Why did you make the move from poetry to fiction in graduate school?
Boswell: I was a very bad poet. Did I mention that? I was in a class with Steve Orlen, a wonderful poet and teacher, and still a good friend of mine. He said to the workshop, “If you’ve got poems that aren’t working, come see me during my office hours.” I practically lived in his office. None of my poems were working. He kept reading them and talking to me about them. One day he said, “I don’t hear much music in the language. All of the poems are narrative. It seems like what really interests you is telling stories.” It took something that blunt for the light bulb to go on over my head.
I’d always been writing stories, but I had turned to poetry as a last-ditch attempt to avoid my true ambition. It’s terrifying to attempt what you really want to do; if you fail at that, you’re a failure.
I had to move by slow steps. It’s actually the way I revise now, as well. I believe in transitional drafts. One of the reasons I write so many drafts has to do with this process. I’ll sometimes say, “I don’t know how to fix this novel.” (I’m usually thinking, “I don’t know how to fix this damn thing I’ve written.”) But I do know, let’s say, that a particular character’s dialogue is flat. So I’ll do a draft where I focus only on that dialogue. Something else may come up while I’m working and I’ll pursue that, as well, but my immediate aim is typically modest. I call these “transitional drafts” because each is meant to take me to the next draft, which will take me to the next draft, and so on.
Interviewer: In your essay “Narrative Spandrels” you write that “the narrative of a great many stories is structured by scene.” You cut over 500 pages from your manuscript for Mystery Ride before publishing the novel. How did you develop the ability to identify the underlying structure in early drafts?
Boswell: I usually have some idea what the structure is, and then the novels confound me, which is part of the reason why I write so many pages that I will eventually cut.
In Mystery Ride I had an idea about the main characters, Stephen and Angela: even though they had divorced, they remained faithful to each other. In fact, the original title of the book was Fidelity. I needed something to bring them back together after ten years of divorce, and the obvious choice was that they had a child who needed attention, so I started creating that child as a device to bring together my main characters. The device became Dulcie, a wild teenager who became the most interesting character in the book. I remember showing the first couple chapters to an informal writing group, and all they wanted to talk about was Dulcie. I couldn’t believe it.
Anyway, my belief is that your initial ideas are just meant to get you going. Your job as a writer is to pursue those ideas as far as they’ll take you, but then to give them up and look for what has emerged in the work. There’s a linear way of thinking that helps us engage the world every day, but there’s also a narrative way of thinking. Most of our ideas come from that linear mind, and we have to let them take us as far as they will, but the things that emerge from the narrative are usually more powerful and more interesting.
Interviewer: Is it difficult to let a story take off in a different direction than you intended?
Boswell: The funny thing is that, the more I write, the harder it becomes. You’d think it’d be the other way around, but (alas) the truth is otherwise. After working at this endeavor for twenty-some years, I can write a draft of a story and probably publish it just the way it is. I couldn’t have done that when I started. Therefore, to let go of the original idea and mess up what I’ve written is a little harder than it used to be. I still do it. I just have more internal resistance to overcome.
I’ve set up certain guidelines for myself. When I finish a story I let it sit for a while before coming back to it. I don’t show it to anyone until I’ve written several drafts, and I’ve asked myself several questions. For example, one question I always ask is this: have I said the hardest thing about the characters? The questions permit me to reenter the narrative in a more complex fashion.
It should be that everything gets easier the more you write, but the next page is still blank and you still have to fill it.
Interviewer: What’s the most important piece of advice that you could share with young writers?
Boswell: Read, and read seriously. Engage the great works with seriousness and humility. To be a writer takes this funny combination of arrogance and humility. If you go to the library and look at all the great works, it takes a certain kind of arrogance to say, “I could add to this.” But the work at your desk requires recognition that the task will outstrip your talents, that the task is one that encourages failure, and that most of us can only hope to fail well, to fail our very best.
I think a writer needs to read in two ways. First, he needs to remember the person he was who simply loved literature, the reader he was before he became a writer. Second, he needs to read as a writer, to figure out how the great writers have managed to tell their magnificent stories. I have an exercise called “How to Own a Story.” The student has to choose a story that speaks to him in a powerful way. He has to read it fifteen times. The student makes photocopies of the story, and each time he goes through it he marks it up in a different way, looking for different things. The first time, he reads simply as a reader. The next time he looks for specific lines or transitions. I make him block off the story into beginning, middle, and end, looking at each of those sections and dividing it up again into beginning, middle, and end. In this manner, he starts to understand the story’s structure. By the end of the assignment, after the students have read it fifteen times and have several photocopies marked up, they have to teach it to the class.
This assignment is a formal way of teaching students how to read as writers and how to engage the work seriously. Such work increases one’s respect for the writer and for the work. It teaches humility and yet permits one to be hopeful, and gives one purchase inside a great story.
Interviewer: You once wrote that “writing fiction… is the practice of remaining in the dark.” Is there anything that writing has taught you?
Boswell: Humility, more than anything else. It has taught me a lot about myself and my obsessions and interests and limitations. It has permitted me to understand myself a little better. When I said earlier that I discovered by putting a story through many drafts I could make it as good as the work of others, this suggests that the key to my success is not talent but endurance, not writing “gifts” but admitting my own limitations. Because I had given up a good job to go to graduate school, I felt like I would be (without question) a fool if I didn’t do the work and try to write the best stories I could.
This kind of discovery has had application in other parts of my life. If I’m willing to try hard enough, to work hard enough, I can be the kind of parent I want to be—or at least an approximation of it—the sort of teacher that I want to be, the kind of husband I want to be, and so on. I used to be lazy and afraid. I haven’t been lazy for a long time, and what fear I have is now properly directed at the great and troubling things that really ought to make us sweat. Writing—the exhilarating, humiliating process of writing—has taught me a great deal.
This interview originally appeared in Hunger Mountain in 2007