Robert Boswell

Tumbledown - in paperback

The Long Shrift

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater will produce Boswell's play "The Long Shrift."  

RATTLESTICK PLAYWRIGHTS THEATER is a multi-award-winning organization and recipient of the 2007 Ross Wetzsteon Memorial Obie Award,  for developing and producing innovative new plays. Rattlestick’s core operations are composed of its mainstage Off- Broadway productions.

The Long Shrift

Boswell's new play The Long Shrift will open off Broadway in July. Ally Sheedy, Ahna O'Reilly, Scott Haze, Allie Gallarani, and Brian Lally will star in it and James Franco will direct. Rattlestick Playwrights Theater will produce.

Oprah Book of the Week

Oprah Book of the Week: Tumbledown

When most of us think of today's great American novel, we think of Franzen's Freedom or Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad—sprawling stories that comment on contemporary society as we live it. Tumbledown, Robert Boswell's latest, is just such a book—and one you'll stay up until 3 a.m. reading. Over the course of a few weeks, James Candler, a 30-something therapist is about to lose everything including his job at the treatment center, his fiancée and his underwater house in the suburbs. Whether he actually loses it all becomes less important as the lives of his teenage patients intertwine with his. He punches out a trucker preying on the mentally disabled Karly, but can't quite get schizophrenic Mick on his meds or keep track of Maura, the brilliant, bitter depressive who sneaks out of her room at night. This look at life inside a for-profit mental health facility will make you laugh out loud, then sucker-punch you straight to sorrow, when—as Candler's best friend puts it—you begin to think "how circumstances could outweigh character." In lesser hands, the book would freefall into the bleak. But Boswell is a writer who can see the humanity, and yes, even beauty in just about anything, including a lone man sitting at a late-night diner, holding "a frosted doughnut to his nose as if it were a flower."                                     — Leigh Newman


Interview in The Watch

TELLURIDE - Robert Boswell’s just-released novel,Tumbledown, returns to territory explored in his first novel,Crooked Hearts, published in 1986. Tumbledown chronicles a few months in the life of Mr. James Candler, as he is known to patients at the Onyx Rehab center, near San Diego, Calif., where he works as a mental-health counselor. Candler touches deeply everyone around him, yet he is unable to keep his own life from spinning out of control.

Boswell is the author of 12 books; his stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, Esquire, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, Colorado Review, and dozens of other magazines. He shares the Cullen Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston with his wife, Antonya Nelson; they live in Telluride about six months of every year. 

Q: Your storytelling in Tumbledown reminds me of your first novel, Crooked Hearts, with its interlocking relationships in loving, flawed, idiosyncratic, sometimes thrown-together “families.” Is it fair to say these are your most personal books?

A: Tumbledown and Crooked Hearts are the most overtly autobiographical of my novels, but any time I write a book it’s a deeply personal enterprise, an utterly private wrangle between compulsion and craft that ultimately and paradoxically becomes a public document. 

The truth is that all my novels steal from my life and from the lives of those unfortunate enough to be acquainted with me. Writers gobble up the lives around them; we’re Godzillas with laptops. 

But the characters we regurgitate onto the page are rarely modeled straightforwardly after our friends and enemies; rather, they become whatever it is the narrative requires. We exaggerate, combine, pare, warp. People I know may see themselves in certain characters, but it’s rare that I do. I don’t try to capture the people that I know, but I often borrow from them – a gesture here, a line of dialogue there. If you combine one person’s annoying unconscious habits with another’s generosity and glib tongue, you may come up with just the sort of complex, vivid character the novel requires.

In Crooked Hearts, I’m writing about childhood and adolescence, and I fictionalize my parents and siblings. InTumbledown, I fictionalize my life in California when I was in my middle twenties and thinking about making a family of my own. Neither book is genuinely autobiographical, but each steals liberally from my life. 

Q: It’s striking how kindly the staff at Onyx Rehab, the mental-health facility where Candler works as a counselor, treats the patients – it’s a far cry from, say, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

A: Cuckoo’s Nest is an astonishing book, but it is not particularly interested in realism. The mental institution is a stand-in for Kesey’s vision of some sociocultural machine, and he more or less defines mental illness as the willingness of men (all of the patients are men) to adhere to cultural norms rather than to traditional masculine past-times. This simplification leads to some flawed narrative logic (all of the patients are in the bin because of domineering women), but it generates a powerful locomotive of a plot. Despite its flaws (and partly because of them), Cuckoo’s Nest is a great novel. 

Tumbledown attempts to capture something authentic about mental illness and other disabling states of being, and that effort demands a greater adherence to realism; hence, the depiction of the staff that you mention. At the same time, the novel is destabilized by the point of view – an omniscient voice with an attitude and an agenda, a speeding, freewheeling, slightly wonky omniscience. It is my hope that this combo plate of realism and oddball narration creates something that is both funny and new.

Q: You seem fascinated by the inherent and profound differences between men and women. For example, inTumbledown, you write, “A boy didn’t need much proof to think his family was like no other, better, smarter, braver, more beautiful, more kind.” You later write about women with cigarettes “engraving the air with the secret text of the female.” Will the sexes ever understand each other?

A: Let’s hope not. What would we have to talk about? 

In Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story” – a short story I deeply admire – the narrator thinks the following about his daughter and her friends: “…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.” 

While I tend to avoid generalizations about men and women (I don’t like to be punched), there’s something in this passage that’s true to my experience, and I find myself navigating the characters’ lives according to my own, deeply personal, sense of women and men, men and women.

As for understanding, it seems to me that some people are driven by the desire to be understood, but there are perhaps just as many folks who quite seriously and studiously desire to remain secretive and self-contained. 

Communication is what happens when one side of the equation succeeds or the other fails. Genuine communication is rare and scary and thrilling.

Q: Some of the Onyx Rehab patients are very creative – the mildly retarded Karly, for example, contemplating the air conditioner thermostat, reflects, “Down was up. That was so funny.” Mick, a schizophrenic, takes literal thinking to a humorous and recognizable extreme. Candler’s brother, Pook, a psychologically challenged artist who has died before the novel begins, creates paintings that move viewers deeply (yet destroy him). Are you suggesting there’s a link between art and mental illness?

A: I’m not suggesting there’s a link, but perhaps the world is. One way to define creativity is as an off-kilter vision, and that could also be a definition for mental illness (for a certain segment of those with mental illness, anyway). But it’s not just the altered vision that makes an artist, it’s also the ability to convey that vision to others.

I can’t pretend to know much about the other arts, but I often feel in an altered state while writing, one that is largely free of the constraints of time and sometimes deeply disconnected from the world around me. While writing, I often respond aloud to a character’s dialogue, and if my wife is in the room, she’ll retort with a sympathetic, “Are you losing your marbles over there?”

Q: Why doesn’t Candler, the therapist, get therapy? 

A: To become a counselor, one has to go through therapy – it’s part of the training – and many counselors consider it a point of honor to continue seeing a therapist throughout their lives; however, many others behave like most of the rest of us and attend to their lives without the benefit of therapeutic consult. They are like medical doctors who know they shouldn’t self-diagnose and yet don’t want another M.D. telling them what they already know.

All of which is another way of saying that Candler, like many of us, has voluntarily put on blinders, thinking that it’s the latest fashion. 

Or, well, here’s another stab at explanatory metaphor: I can remember back in the day when some particularly lively purveyors of local color would ride their horses into the Silver Dollar Saloon (“The Buck,” as it’s known to Telluride regulars) to get a beer and a whiskey, drinking without dismounting. And I remember, too, the woman who would park her mountain lion in the same tavern’s front window while she drank. Those animals behaved sensibly enough in the bar, but it’s not likely that they had much intuition about the locale’s rationale for being or how they might best take advantage of it, and so they had to rely on the suggestions of others. Candler (like most of the rest of us at certain points in our lives) finds himself both bridled and lost, much like that horse or that great collared feline, and situated in an environment whose rules escape his understanding. So he does his best to imitate the locals. 

Q: Tumbledown reads like a meditation on the fine line separating healthy from unhealthy mental states – and, in two separate incidents, on the causes and effects of suicide. Can you comment on that fine line? 

A: There are (at the very least) two sources of fascination with suicide for those of us who have not (or have not yet) chosen it as an option – there is the general or abstract interest in such a decision, as well as the specific and painful loss of an individual and the mystery that accompanies it. 

On the one hand, people who leave the dinner party before the final course frustrate and fascinate the hungry. 

On the other hand, the disappearance-by-choice of a friend or family member disrupts, damages, denigrates and sometimes destroys the lives of the people closest to him. Counselors understand that if they habitually work with suicidal patients, they will inevitably lose one, sooner or later. This knowledge, however, provides little solace when it happens, and there is no way to deny that this was your foremost obligation – to keep your people alive. 

If literature is a narrative exploration of what it means to be human, then it is no surprise that suicide is often a key topic. Tumbledown isn’t about suicide, but it is one of the many states of being (and nonbeing) that the novel explores.

Q: Tumbledown has an omniscient narrator, who even – briefly – enters the mind of a wild bear. Can you talk about the changing function of omniscient narration in Western literature? 

A: That’s a big question, and I’m going to tear off just a piece of it. 

I think the culture’s relationship with omniscience in fiction has changed as the society has gone from a monolithic system of beliefs to multiple systems of belief (and disbelief). Authors with omniscient narrators were never credited with the powers of God, but the general agreement about the existence of an all-knowing deity perhaps made writers’ efforts acceptable, as if they were imitating the big guy. Contemporary readers may balk at the same efforts, feeling they’re being asked to contribute to trust fund in which they’d rather not invest.

I don’t entirely buy that argument, as I think novels inevitably ask readers to believe in multiple realities, and if you can believe and disbelieve in vampires or zombies, why not omniscience, as well? But I do understand that our relationship to omniscience has changed, and so it makes sense that omniscience itself (as it exists in fiction, anyway) should also change.

When I was an actual counselor, back in the 1980s, I was an evaluator. I worked with other counselors’ clients for two or three weeks, giving them tests (aptitude, intelligence, interest, etc.) and having them perform tasks at work-simulation stations. I’d then write up reports full of recommendations. These reports were valuable, but I found that a few counselors treated them as if they were omniscient documents. I knew that the tests were not infallible, and that my interpretations of the scores were far from all-seeing.

When I began writing about that time in my life, I quickly understood that those reports were important, and I slowly came to understand that the novel’s point of view should be unreliable omniscience. This solved a lot of problems, but created a new one: WTF is unreliable omniscience? I could find no models for it, and so I just made it up. It’s a roller coaster brand of omniscience, and I’ve been relieved to discover that people get a kick out of it.

Q: Why do you write?

A: The proliferation of credit cards in this country led to the creation of DIY service stations, which means that I can’t make a living pumping gas. 

Oh, well, I’m obsessed with writing and with literature, and with the idea that the purposeful and artful imagining of lives can serve to create something meaningful – a narrative that embodies and conveys meaning. Isn’t that what we all want? To invest ourselves in a meaningful pursuit for the duration of our lives?

Also, you get a lot of free books. 

New York Times Newly Released Books reviews Tumbledown

TUMBLEDOWN in NYT Daily “Newly Released Books”
By Robert Boswell
429 pages. Graywolf Press. $26.

Strict lovers of plot may not fall for the ruminative sprawl in this latest novel by the underappreciated Robert Boswell, but most everyone else will find a deft twining of irony and insight on nearly every page. Set in and around a rehab and therapy center in Southern California, the novel follows James Candler, poised to become the head of this cuckoo’s nest, and his charges, including Mick and Karly, a sweet-natured schizophrenic and the young woman he loves. Mr. Boswell’s creations are aware of their limitations, in ways both existential — “How could she measure her progress when she didn’t know what it felt like to be anyone but herself?” — and humorous: “She was tall and substantial. Puny guys made her feel all Easter Island.” “Tumbledown” wryly mines the heartache in emotional disturbances, some present from birth and the rest brought on by the business of living.


Houston Chronicle Interview


By Robert Boswell
Greywolf Press, 448 pp., $26

Back in the day — before he came to Houston, before he called himself a writer — Robert Boswell was a counselor.

“It was a tumultuous time in my life,” says Boswell, 59, on the phone from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, where he and his wife, writer Antonya Nelson, are on the faculty this summer. “I was a counselor for two years in my 20s in an odd kind of place near San Diego.”

He evaluated clients, giving tests and writing reports for other counselors who’d be working with the clients long term.

It was a job where the worst-case scenario never really left the room.

“When you’re dealing with people who are seeing you because they attempted suicide or something of that nature, you know you will eventually have a client who can’t pull through,” he says. “And when it happens, it’s devastating.”

Boswell, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, always knew he’d write about that piece of his life.

“Tumbledown,” his 12th book, was released this month by Greywolf Press. A moving and often darkly hilarious meditation on sanity, it follows “an interesting bunch of misfits” — the counselors and clients at a California treatment facility called Onyx Springs.

James Candler, a 33-year-old therapist at the center, is on track for a promotion, but he’s not a therapist who leads by example. He cheats on his fiancée, drives a dumb, expensive car he can’t afford and so on. Over the course of a few weeks, his life veers off course.

The lives of Candler’s clients have already veered off course — some temporarily, some irrevocably. Mick is a bright schizophrenic who falls for Karly, a hottie with an IQ of 65. Vex lives in an attic and pours his toxic, violent tendencies into fixing things. Alonso, a manic masturbator, repeats the same phrase: “Not no but hell no.” There are others.

The characters in the novel come with their own creation stories — formative, no-turning-back incidents that shook and altered their lives in “this tumbledown world.”

Q: Your novel looks at some painful scenarios: a big brother’s sudden and permanent and inexplicable disappearance; a son’s baffling descent onto madness; a husband who one day cannot lift his coffee cup; a mishap in a neighbor’s pool that leaves a child’s ability to function in the world forever diminished; and more. There are strains of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” here, but wouldn’t you say “Tumbledown” borrows also from an earlier era, one with an appetite for big books and a large cast?

A: This is a book that had to be about a lot of characters. I wanted to write about when I was a counselor and include the clients’ points of view. It’s also true I love those big novels. George Eliot. Tolstoy. “Anna Karenina” is maybe my favorite novel. But it seems like in the here and now there is a contemporary resistance to that kind of story. I wanted to find some way to embrace the big novel while acknowledging that these days we have trouble buying into omniscient narrators.

Q: Did the point of view grow organically from the content?

A: When I was a counselor, I’d evaluate clients. I’d give them all these tests, and then I’d write up reports. Sometimes the tests and reports were viewed as if they were omniscient, as if after a few weeks I knew everything there was to know. The tests were good, but not foolproof. So I came to think of my reports as forms of unreliable omniscience. “Tumbledown” took me 10 years to write. Eight years in, I decided to make unreliable omniscience the point of view of the book.

Q: Candler puts Billy Atlas, his oldest and best friend, in charge of his signature “sheltered workshop,” an assembly line where Mick, Karly and other clients work against the clock, packaging pantyhose in boxes that look like tarantulas. Billy has a jangly Curious George quality — he’s an endearingly predictable and unpredictable screw-up. Where did he come from?

A: He’s based on a friend I grew up with. He was one of the hardest characters to let go at the end because I liked being with him. I ultimately came to think that his humanity shows through in maybe the most surprising ways. A novel is such an ordeal and especially this novel, with so many points of view. When you happen upon a character who entertains you and keeps the narrative lively, it feels like such a gift.

Q: What’s at stake in the book? What’s the big assumption teetering under your story?

A: There are people who believe that there is such a thing as normality. For some of them it’s a state of being they take for granted. For others, it’s an aspirational state, a thing they wish to achieve. When I was a counselor, one of the things I would think about a lot is, if you’re dealing with someone who has a mental or psychological problem, there is this explicit or implicit desire to become more normal. So you’re always questioning, what does that mean?

Q: “Tumbledown” has a lot of language play. Candler collects phrases from his clients. (“I know your name, I just don’t know the word for it.”) Mick free associates when he’s off his meds. (“It’s just this wrinkling in the words going from here to ’ternity in their cable cars…”) Even the simple Karly has her moments. (“Once pond a time … ”) Is this always a part of your work?

A: When I was a kid, my maternal grandmother came down with a disease something like ALS. By the time I knew her, she could no longer walk. She could speak but didn’t make sense to anyone except her daughters. It seemed magical to me. It seemed like the women in the family had a secret language, and I believe that’s why I became so fascinated with odd language. It shows up in many of my novels and stories. I have a great time writing sentences one can understand even though they don’t make sense. It’s one of my obsessions.

Q: You take a formal risk near the ending of “Tumbledown.” Still happy you did it?

A: Ultimately, I really had to stick my neck out. I had to try and see if it would work. I wasn’t really happy until I came up with that ending.

Q: You share the Cullen Chair in Creative Writing at UH with your wife. How does that work?

A: It sounds like we’re sitting on the same crowded cushion, but it’s great for all kinds of reasons. One is that we have wonderful colleagues. We all get along and respect each other’s work, which is very rare. We also have a great director, J. Kastely, and amazing students. The “chair” Toni and I share just means we each teach two classes over the course of the year.

Q: You write novels, nonfiction and short stories, including, most recently, “The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards” and “The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction.” Have you always wanted to be a writer?

A: Yes. I was raised in a hardworking family. My parents grew up during the Great Depression. They encouraged me to write but also believed I should find some way to make a living. So I got a grad degree in counseling and got a good job in San Diego. … But when you’re evaluating people and trying to decide how they should spend their lives you can’t help but think about your own life. I counseled myself right out of that job.

Tumbledown gets the green light

Greenlight Bookstore’s pick: “Tumbledown” by Robert Boswell

Funny, sad, and slightly off-kilter, Robert Boswell’s “Tumbledown” is brilliant. A story about a man’s life coming undone, the book brings together many different characters, all fumbling about to make sense of the chaos. Perfect for fans of “Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Squid and the Whale.” 

— Emily Russo, Greenlight Bookstore [686 Fulton St. between S. Elliott Place and S. Portland Avenue in Fort Greene, (718) 246–0200,].