Over the last couple of months, Blue Mesa Review was fortunate enough to pick the brain of the inimitable Robert Boswell, of whom former classmate David Foster Wallace once remarked:
Q: How many Robert Boswells does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Two. One to change it, and the other to accept the award.
Because Boswell currently teaches at the University of Houston (and because Houston is a long drive from Albuquerque), we corresponded via e-mail, where Boswell kindly indulged our curiosities about aesthetics, trends in contemporary fiction, and much, much more. BMR would like to thank him for the time and care he put into composing these answers, and we hope you will enjoy the warmth, wit, and wisdom to be found therein. Be sure to check out his latest novel, Tumbledown, which came out in August of 2013.
Blue Mesa Review: You’ve spent most of your adult life living and working in the Southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas. Do you consider yourself a Southwestern writer?
Robert Boswell: Critics, scholars, and editors have invented dozens of literary neighborhoods, but I’ve never been tempted to take up residence in any of them. However, I have toured them promiscuously, typically late at night, busting open a few doors, breaking some windows, looking for places to squat.
Which is to say, my fiction has appeared in a few anthologies featuring writers from the West, and I’ve also appeared in a couple for Southern writers, but neither camp thinks of me as a proper resident. Beyond these rare geographical accusations, I’ve also been anointed a realist, a postmodernist, an experimentalist, and a cyberpunk. To all of these allegations, I plead guilty as charged. I decline, however, to serve any long-term sentence trapped within the boundaries of their allegations. I write in whatever manner I need to pursue the narratives that keep me up at night.
I don’t know any serious writer who thinks of herself as a regional writer or as any kind of hyphenated writer. To write seriously is to attempt to make all that you create new, free, and alive. For a region to claim your work, that’s flattering. To write with that claim in mind, that’s flattening, deadening. That’s death.
BMR: Do you think your experience of the region is different given the time you spent as a child in Missouri and Kentucky?
RB: The regions are vastly different—childhood and adulthood, I mean. Childhood is like a planet from another solar system where magic is possible, and time operates differently so that a single summer can almost last forever. I was a dreamy, damaged boy, and I remember that strange province in a dreamy, distorted manner. I grew up in an old farmhouse on a tobacco farm. The house was two stories but unfinished, the stairs lopped off at the bottom and a ladder attached. Most of the upstairs rooms were without floors. There was a big yard filled with big trees, in which we would find a variety of birds and the occasional big snake. There were ponds crying out to be fished—one pond was on the property line, and a crinkled wire fence bisected the water—a decrepit barn hiding gruesome secrets, an impossibly deep brick well, vast fields of head-high tobacco, a dark forest, and a winding creek that often required a boy’s damming, and which connected us by its serpentine gravitational kinesis to the Mississippi River.
My mom would open the door, and my brother and I would vanish into the landscape. We kept dogs, hosted feral cats, often encountered barn owls the size of trash barrels, and briefly housed an utterly disgusting goat. Once, after spending the day playing in the woods, my mother called me in but made me wait at the base of the stairs that led up to the back porch. She hustled inside and ran a bath. I didn’t think I was especially filthy, but when she came back out she told me that I was going to strip right there in the yard and drop my clothes on the ground. I obeyed, and she told me to run as fast as I could to the bathroom. I obeyed again. “The water is hot, but you can handle it,” she said. “Get in and go all the way under. See how long you can hold your breath.” The water was very hot, but I got in and held my nose, and I watched as my skin broke apart and floated away from me. It took me a few moments to understand that thousands of ticks were lifting off me and surfacing. My mother skimmed the surface of the water with a ladle and burned the ticks at the kitchen stove. This was the world of my youth.
BMR: What do you think of the idea being bandied about that Americans are tired of hearing from middle-class white men? Is the growing trend toward exoticism in fiction the death knell for traditional narratives and narrators?
RB: I guess I don’t accept the underlying premises of this question. I don’t think middle-class white men all write alike (to the casual observer, David Foster Wallace and Cormac McCarthy would not even appear to be of the same species), and I don’t think anybody serious is dismissing good fiction because of the author’s sociological résumé. There have always been powerful voices from the margins, but there hasn’t always been recognition for those voices. The literary canvas has broadened, and those margins are now—more and more—moving to the center. American fiction is more inclusive in the 21st century than in centuries past, and that has to be a good thing. It’s not a death knell for anything but narrow thinking. It’s a very genuine indication of life.
BMR: Given the choice, would you rather be a critical or a commercial success?
RB: Given the choice, I’d rather be young and handsome.
I won’t lie. It would please me if my work were recognized in some swell way, or if it sold well enough to pay for my kids’ college bills, but I’m doing fine. My work is generally, if not specifically, recognized, and I make a pretty good living as a writer. Moreover, I write fiction every day. I inhabit worlds of my own making, populated by people of my own invention, and I conspire with those worlds and those people to find meaning through narrative. You’re not going to catch me complaining about that life.
BMR: What commonalities do you see in books that achieve commercial success? Put another way, what makes a book a best seller?
RB: That’s easy: a lot of people buy it.
Beyond that, best seller has no meaning. It’s often spoken as if it means more, but it doesn’t. Best seller, midlist, print-on-demand, small-press book, and so on are terms that have specific meaning to people in marketing and advertising and the like, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with literary art.
Take a look at the visual art market in Santa Fe and you’ll find some really good work, but the best sellers will be hackneyed coyote-howlers. The most popular movies typically involve literal explosions and formulaic romances of the most predictable kind. Junk rules if the dollar is the only measure.
Art is not democratic. Occasionally a good book sells well, but much more often it is ignored by the book-buying public in favor of some baloney about wealthy people spending their dough, or good-hearted people doing good things and being rewarded for their goodness, or wicked-hearted women and men being wicked, all of which featuring sentences composed with the polish of amateur cosmetic surgeons. None of this is news. It’s always been this way, and maybe it’s that way by definition. Works of art define themselves against the featured flock.
BMR: How compatible are the demands and expectations of the critical community with those of readers of literary fiction? What goes into that balancing act?
RB: They’re utterly compatible for this writer because they mean nothing to me while I’m engaged in the act of writing. I’m thinking about the lives of my characters and the sounds of specific words. I am especially interested in sentences and how they encapsulate, deny, and complicate meaning; how they delight, defy, and devastate the readers who host them. I can’t think about critics or actual readers and be imaginative.
There are advantages to being a somewhat obscure writer. My brother loved folk art, and when he died, I inherited some of the peculiar pieces he had acquired—one artist, for example, worked exclusively with corrugated tin that he could find or filch. In many ways I’m no different from some person laboring secretly in her shed, following the odd paths that her peculiar artistic desires demand, sometimes imagining that the shed will be discovered after her death and heralded, and sometimes aware that the shed will more likely be knocked over and crushed by a bulldozer. My job is not to think about that kind of stuff. My job to keep looking for more corrugated sheets.
BMR: Let me ask you about one specific novel: why do you think The Story of Edgar Sawtelle took off? What allowed it to appeal to audiences who couldn’t possibly care less about Shakespeare?
RB: Well, it’s extraordinarily well written. I’d like to think that’s the reason. Also, I think Shakespeare is actually incredibly popular still. But I don’t actually know why. David Wroblewski is a careful, precise, lyrical writer, and that book speaks powerfully to a lot of people. I consider it a remarkable novel, and I have no trouble understanding why people bought it. But I don’t understand why the same people didn’t also buy the dozen other worthy literary titles of that year. However, this is ultimately more the concern of psychologists or sociologists than of writers.
BMR: What trends do you see in literary fiction?
RB: There’s a lot of shallow stuff that’s being celebrated and some very deep stuff that’s being passed over, and there’s also some deep stuff that’s being celebrated and much shallow stuff that is merely popular. I’ve also noticed a great deal of bright paint on old carts, as well as some brand-new carts that look fantastic but are parked on the wrong side of a familiar nag. Certain of the best fictional boots this year reach the calf, and several fictional calves moo in dialects understood only by spacewomen or elderly foxes longing to consume aforementioned calves. Overall, I would say that the typical literary novel has longer, less kempt hair; although, an elaborate ’do marks some of the most celebrated books of the year.
BMR: What do you think of those trends?
RB: I’m in favor of the boots and opposed to the foxes.
BMR: There is a lot of talk about genre these days, and it seems that in every interview when an author is asked about the category into which he’s been placed, he chafes at the label and talks instead of “transcending genre.” How does a work of fiction transcend genre?
RB: By first embracing the genre. Oh, sure, some works simply borrow from a genre, and that strategy occasionally (rarely) works. But there are quite a number of great novels that embrace a genre thoroughly and yet have a reach that is beyond the limits of the genre. The Death of Ivan Ilych is a novella that fits this description. Tolstoy meant for it to be a Christian parable, but the greatness of his vision exceeds the limits of the genre, and the story is astonishing.
Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Walter Mosley are mystery writers whose work adheres to the genre with such vitality and grace that some of their novels achieve greatness, and that greatness has to be recognized as a literary achievement.
I think it’s much more difficult to enhance a literary novel with genre elements (though a few have done so effectively) since the work is likely to fail coming and going—not a good genre book and not a good literary novel.
For example, the new subgenre of the literary mystery is, for this reader, almost always a category of failure. This subgenre is made up of mysteries written by literary writers, or literary novels that are sort of mysteries. I read a novel by a good literary writer not long ago that embraces the mystery conventions in its plotting but infuses the characters with the psychological complexity one expects in a literary novel. The problem is that many of the mystery conventions are ultimately unrealistic, and so the complexity of the characters actually works against the conventions of the genre. Psychological realism sets up expectations that the machinations of the mystery plot upend.
BMR: What are some of your favorite books you’ve read in the last year? What did you like about them?
RB: What I’m reading at the moment: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo. So far it’s wonderful. She captures the lives of the children brilliantly, and the entire world of the novel is infused not only with the political violence of the time and place (contemporary Zimbabwe), but also the decentered quirkiness of childhood comprehension and a child’s vision.
Recent books that I’ve read and that I recommend from the past year or so: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Headwaters by Ellen Bryant Voigt, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, All Things Tending Toward the Eternal by Kathleen Lee (in manuscript), All That Is by James Salter, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, Little Raw Souls by Steven Schwartz, Make It, Take It by Rus Bradburd, Pym by Mat Johnson, A Moveable Famine by John Skoyles (in manuscript), Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley, Funny Once by Antonya Nelson (in manuscript), True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, The Changing Station by Ed Porter (in manuscript), Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch, Father Brother Keeper by Nathan Poole (in manuscript), Someone by Alice McDermott, Actors Anonymous by James Franco, Tenth of December by George Saunders, Damage Control by Amber Dermont, and The Fun Stuff by James Wood.
Classics that I had somehow failed to read until the past year: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, Yesterday’s Weather by Anne Enright, The Paperboy by Pete Dexter, 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, Herzog by Saul Bellow, and A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul.
Books that were great to reread: Mythology by Edith Hamilton, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, The Iliad by Homer, How Fiction Works by James Wood, Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. (Note: these lists have some underlying connections. After reading 2666, I decided that I had to reread The Iliad because it seems to me that Bolaño models his novel after Homer’s epic. Likewise, the new Saunders collection sent me back to Notes from Underground.)
Also, I saw maybe 20 or 25 plays over the past year, and I read another two dozen. I have a rule about seeing every play that might be in the vicinity by certain playwrights, and I saw two by Tennessee Williams (an excellent Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie and a terrible Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), three by Sarah Ruhl, three by Tracy Letts (additionally, I twice saw him play George in that astonishing Steppenwolf production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), two by Anton Chekov (including an astonishing production of Uncle Vanya by the Classical Theatre Company of Houston), two by Yasmina Reza, and three by August Wilson (great productions: Jitney in Houston by the Ensemble Theatre, Two Trains Running in St. Paul by Penumbra Theatre, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Guthrie in Minneapolis). I saw a lot of other plays that are worth seeing, including Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, and Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist.
I recommend all of the above.
Books on my desk to read or reread: Fools by Joan Silber, Wager by Mark Medoff, Love and Shame and Love by Peter Orner, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, Big Time by Rus Bradburd (in manuscript), and Chicago Half-Life by Barry Pearce (in manuscript).
BMR: Who are your favorite writers of all time?
RB: Number one is Antonya Nelson because she had the questionable taste to marry me and the inspired blindness to remain married to me for the past 30 years, and, of course, for her dark, brilliant stories. Alice Munro is a close second despite never even having dated me. Chekhov, Welty, Tolstoy, Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Sherwood Anderson, Melville, and Katherine Mansfield.
BMR: What do you think is your strength as a writer?
RB: Endurance. The willingness to tear apart an okay story to try to do something better. The willingness to continue tearing it apart until something surprising happens.
BMR: What is your weakness?
RB: Endurance. If I had a little less of it, I might write better stuff to start with.
BMR: What is your ultimate goal as a writer?
RB: Ultimate is a scary word, but I’d say it’s something like the following: to continue working seriously and with integrity, to keep trying to open some door that in the past was locked, even though I know that if I get past that door what I’ll find is another cranky door. I guess what I’m saying is that I want to keep pushing at my limitations. I want to continue being an honest explorer.
BMR: What made you want to be a writer in the first place?
RB: I cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. My family was one that told stories, and I loved listening to the adults talk. I started reading young, and I intuited early on that some stories were more important than others, that they had the power to suggest something about life that was crucial to comprehend. All of which is to say: I’ve been in love all my life with narrative.
BMR: David Morrell claims that every writer’s work can be boiled down to a single emotion; he claims his is “fear.” What emotion would you say lies at the heart of your body of work?
RB: Desire, particularly the desire to find a way to live a life in this country that has some kind of integrity and embodies decency.
BMR: Is that a recurring theme for you?
RB: Yes. It seems to me one of the crucial themes for our times. We understand that we are at once lucky to be in a rich First World nation, and that we are also complicit in the behavior of that nation. Given this conundrum, how do we go about making lives for ourselves? How do we engage the world and remain true to our own beliefs? How do we avoid becoming monsters of privilege?
BMR: Where is your fiction headed next?
RB: The novel I’m working on now is strange in new ways—new for me, anyway. It is historical and digressive and it uses formal structures to embody different states of being. It’s trying to capture some elusive something about life in this country in the second half of the 20th century.
I’ve also written a play that will open off-Broadway in July 2014. It’s about men and women, and also about the meaning of words and language, and how our behavior changes according to our manner of describing it. And it’s also (I hope) lively, dramatic, funny, and way cathartic.
The play is called The Long Shrift, and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater will produce it.
BMR: John Steinbeck once wrote, “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.” What do you think of that idea?
RB: I take teaching seriously, and I try to approach it in the same way that I approach my fiction—with creativity and the desire to have some fun. I like to laugh in class and to learn things from my students. For years I would put on every syllabus that students were required to be lively and display evidence of a sense of humor, and I included the following warning: Dullards will be abused.
I grew up in a family that liked to argue politics and other such stuff, and there was never any movement toward agreement, but rather increasingly entrenched positions that might or might not reflect how the person actually felt about the issue. It took me a while to figure out that the ideal conversation is one in which each participant contributes some portion of wisdom, and the ultimate destination is one at which no individual could have arrived separately; it takes the whole of the group to arrive, meaning that every one of them is moved. That’s how workshop ought to function, and I find that it can do exactly that virtually every week. It requires being well prepared while also assuming that you have a lot yet to figure out. The workshop brainstorm can be a thrilling experience.
BMR: You already have homes in Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. If you were ever to acquire another residence, where would you want it to be?
RB: I’d love to have an apartment in New York. I would like to go to the theater every single night. Also, there are good eats, great art, and a complex but ultimately sweet vibe. Europe is also appealing. But right now I live in five locations over the course of a calendar year, and adding another is not high on my list.
BMR: Your wife wrote a few years ago in the New York Times about the ghost town the two of you bought in Colorado. What made you want to do that in the first place? Has it proven to be everything you’d hoped? How is the restoration coming along?
RB: I am to the field of carpentry what Ozzy Osbourne is to classical music, but we’re making progress nonetheless.
We bought the place as an anniversary present to each other. We used to buy art each year, but our daughter is now an artist, and the combination of our collection and her work means that our walls are covered. We decided to see if there was some place in the mountains—either in Colorado or northern New Mexico—that we could afford, and we fell in love with this tiny ghost town not too far from Salida. It turned out that my brother and his wife were camping in the area on the very weekend that we found the property for sale. They also love the area, and my sister and her husband live only a few hours from the ghost town. We all bought Airstream trailers and parked them near the old post office. We work by day rehabbing the building, eat and drink in the evening, and sleep at night in our tiny beds in our aluminum trailers. It turns out to be a great deal of fun. The writers Emily Hammond and Steven Schwartz have purchased land there as well. So the ghost town has become a gathering place for family and friends. A lot of writers have made the trek to see the place and mishandle power tools. Tony Hoagland and Kathleen Lee come every summer.
I turn sixty this year, and anyone my age has already invested in a ghost town. It is redundant, perhaps, to invest in a literal ghost town, but it has become one of the tangible pleasures of our lives.
Robert Boswell has published seven novels, three story collections, and two books of nonfiction. His new novel, Tumbledown, was published in August by Graywolf Press. His work has earned him NEA fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Iowa Prize, the PEN West Award, and the John Gassner Prize for Playwriting. The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards was a finalist for the PEN USA Award in Fiction. Virtual Death was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, and Pushcart Prize Stories. He teaches at the University of Houston, where he shares the Cullen Endowed Chair in Creative Writing with his wife, Antonya Nelson. They both also teach in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.