Robert Boswell’s new novel Tumbledown will be published by Graywolf Press in early August. This longtime WWMFA faculty member has written three story collections and two books of non-fiction (The Half-Known World is always within arm’s reach on my writing desk); Tumbledown is his seventh novel. When we corresponded about this new book, I was surprised by what he had to say about Tolstoy and Chekov (and alum Ed Porter) as well as what he’s learned most about writing this year:
- Tell me a little about your new book, Tumbledown.
When I was in my middle twenties, I earned a graduate degree in counseling, specializing in evaluation. For two years, I lived in San Diego and worked in El Cajon as an evaluator—assessing people to see how they might want to spend their lives. I worked with an incredible array of clients during that time, and I also went through my own crisis about the way I was spending my life. Ultimately, I quit my job, sold my sports car, and left my apartment in Mission Beach for a graduate program in creative writing. The decision ranks high on the very short list of “Smart Things I Have Done.”
I was always aware that I would eventually write about that tumultuous period, and Tumbledown is the result—a mere thirty years after the fact. It is not, strictly speaking, an autobiographical novel; however, I steal from that time and address issues that have been fermenting since those years.
- What were your influences when writing Tumbledown?
I would guess that the two largest literary influences on the novel are Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych and Anton Chekhov’s short story “Gusev.” One of my University of Houston PhD students—Ed Porter, who holds an MFA from Warren Wilson—has suggested that “Gusev” was written in response to The Death of Ivan Ilych, and I’ve come to believe that he is right. Chekhov, a doctor as well as a writer, witnessed many deaths, and he mistrusted the amazing transformation of character that takes place in the final moments of Ivan Ilych’s life. In contrast, Gusev’s death happens in mid-paragraph, and the natural world is pointedly unimpressed with his passing. Despite this odd relationship between the stories—or perhaps because of it—I think that these two great works most influenced my writing of Tumbledown.
- In past interviews, you’ve said that you’re obsessive about revision. How did Tumbledown change over time? At what point in revision did you begin to see this book resembling its final form?
In my long ago job, I conducted extensive evaluations—spending two or three weeks with clients, each day filled with tests, tasks, and conversation—and I was able to measure all kinds of variables—interests, skills, physical and mental limitations, psychological readiness, and so on—and yet, writing my reports, I always felt a bit like a fraud. My recommendations profoundly affected people’s lives, and while I was probably pretty good at my job, I nonetheless felt that I was playing god; at least I felt that way some of the time. My authority in their lives overreached my capacity to evaluate and understand them. Also, now and again, I found myself recommending things that could not be justified by the test scores. In every case, I was siding with the dreams and ambitions of the clients, but it was unprofessional. I had become an unreliable narrator with the ability to play god.
A few drafts into the novel, I embraced the omniscient point of view, and at some later point during the long—ten-year—gestation of the novel, I realized that the selection of that godlike point of view was tied to my experience as an evaluator. Near the end of the revision process, I came to understand that the novel had to be told from the perspective of unreliable omniscience. I didn’t, at that time, know whether such a point of view existed and I was never able to locate adequate models, but I knew that the story required unreliable omniscience, and so I set about inventing it. From that point forward, the ultimate design of the novel began to reveal itself to me.
- What’s the most exciting thing you’ve learned about writing in the past year, and how did you learn it?
I have learned (or may have learned) that my desire to write is inextricable from my deep and enduring incomprehension of life. Every story I write starts out as an attempt to fill in some portion of the pit of my perplexity, but the story always winds up deepening the hole instead. I seem to write to affirm my befuddlement.
I guess that doesn’t sound especially exciting, but the implications of this discovery interest me—that it is foolish to think that a specific desire will be sated by some kind of achievement. Instead, achievement serves as corroboration, bolstering desire, guaranteeing that it will continue beyond its aim, like an arrow piercing a cloud and flying on. The cloud was never really the goal; it was merely the next body of obfuscation along the desired trajectory.
Does that make sense? If it doesn’t make sense, then maybe I haven’t learned anything this past year.