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.