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. In Tumbledown, 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, in Tumbledown, 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.