An Interview with Robert Boswell

30 Jun
Robert Boswell has published 12 books, 2 plays, and more than 70 stories and essays and won more awards than can fit beneath a headshot.

Robert Boswell has published 12 books and more than 70 stories and essays and won some of the most prestigious literary awards in America.

Robert Boswell has published seven novels, three story collections, and two books of nonfiction. He has had two plays produced. His work has earned him two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Iowa School of Letters Award for Fiction, a Lila Wallace/Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, the PEN West Award for Fiction, the John Gassner Prize for Playwriting, and the Evil Companions Award. His novels include The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, a finalist for the 2010 PEN USA Award in Fiction; Mystery Ride, named by the Chicago Tribune and Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best books of the year; The Geography of Desire, picked by The London Independent as one of the best books of the year; and Virtual Death, a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award and named by the Science Fiction Chronicle as one of the best novels of the year. A New York Times review said that his most recent novel, Tumbledown, contains a “deft twining of irony and insight on nearly every page.”

Boswell has published more than 70 stories and essays, which have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, Esquire, Colorado Review, Epoch, Ploughshares, and many other magazines and anthologies. He holds the Cullen Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston. He lives in Houston, Texas; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Telluride, Colorado. He also spends time in a ghost town high in the Rockies.

To read an exercise on dialogue based on Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” click here.

In this interview, Boswell discusses the early drafts of “The House on Bony Lake” and his approach to withholding and revealing key information in the story.

Michael Noll

The story moves back and forth between the main character’s present and his family’s past. Did the idea for the story begin in the present—and then you added the family history? Or did the family history come first?

Robert Boswell

The story began with the idea of the house, built by a distant ancestor and improved upon by each generation until Paul inherits it; Paul’s carelessness causes the house to burn to the ground. This idea told me enough about Paul that I could begin to imagine him, and it also demanded that I picture the house and conceive the manner of its construction and the types of improvements that followed. The two threads were linked from the start.

Why I found this idea interesting or where the idea came from, I can’t say.

But I can guess.

Some years ago my wife and I bought a big hunk of a ghost town, and we’ve been fixing up the old post office, turning it into a cabin—a writing retreat, supposedly. I would guess that my subjecting that old building to my fiercely lousy carpentry had something to do with the origin of the story. (I have not burned the post office to the ground, but there’s time yet.)

Sidebar—it was actually a combination post office and tavern. Why didn’t that idea catch on?

Michael Noll

What was your approach to that back and forth between the story’s present and past? Both parts move chronologically, but I’m curious about your strategy for how to juxtapose the different sections.

Robert Boswell

Early drafts of the story opened with the grandfather building the house, and the narrative moved forward chronologically, generation by generation, until Paul finally took possession of the place. This strategy did not work. Characters were introduced, their lives were summarized, and then they died. By the time the narrative reached Paul, the reader (assuming she was still awake) would have been exhausted.

I decided to start with Paul and weave the history of the house into his narrative. My first draft after making this decision was purely mechanical. I scissored up the history and shuffled it into Paul’s story. With each subsequent draft, I experimented, eventually cutting roughly a third of Paul’s story and maybe half of the family history. I looked for logical points at which to break from the history, I rearranged the segments of Paul’s narrative, and I kept tinkering until things clicked into place. (Chris Cox at Harper’s made a number of good suggestions, as well.)

All of these decisions were matters of craft, meaning that I worked to apply to the decision-making all that I’ve studied over the years, and then I compared the result with my own intuitive sense of story. (This is something like choosing a mate by making lists of positive and negative traits; no matter how much you employ logic to solve the problem it will never trump irrational emotional attraction.) Craft permits me to align story elements, but it’s ultimately my own instincts about narrative that decide. I work a story until a mysterious something sends a spark along the narrative circuits in my mind. That’s about as close as I can come to honestly answering this question.

And, yes, even now, after working at it for decades, I find writing fiction as mysterious as falling in love. Fortunately, I also find it every bit as compelling. Ultimately, my fidelity is not to the craft of writing but to the mystery of living that literature relentlessly explores. I am not a fan of well-made stories that merely advertise the inventiveness of their architecture. The stories I love reek of life.

I am drawn to stories with multiple timeframes, but writing them exhausts me. The key, I believe, is that every movement between frames, regardless of chronology, has to feel like an acceleration of the narrative.

Easier said than done.

Michael Noll

There’s a big reveal in the story, and you keep it to hidden for a long time—in fact, we don’t really even know that it’s there to be found. We only know that his house burned down and that this was a significant event. Did you always know that you would wait to reveal what happened?

Robert Boswell

How a writer manages the release of information is crucial to any story’s success. As you point out, the reader of “Bony Lake” has no idea that a reveal is coming. To my way of thinking, this is the key to withholding information.

If a narrator alludes to a dramatic event without giving the reader enough information to feel settled, it will likely come off as coy. Imagine that you notice someone at a party and you ask the host about him. The host says, “He’s my new colleague, and he has a dark secret in his past. Catch you later.” You’ll no doubt find yourself annoyed with the host. But imagine that the host says, “He’s my new colleague. When he was a kid, he lost his parents in a hurricane.” While you may wonder if there’s more to the story, this information is not a tease. You now possess one solid tidbit about the person.

Time passes. You encounter the man, and the information about him that you possess colors your understanding of him. One evening in a bar, he tells you about the hurricane, and you discover that he was responsible for his mother going out in the storm to fetch something for him. His father then went out to retrieve her. The real secret is that he’s responsible for the deaths of his parents. Revealed in stages, the secret is not a tease and the writer is able to insert the information wherever it best serves the narrative.

Moreover, when a reader feels that she understands a situation and then realizes that the terms are larger or stranger than she conceived, the discovery is stimulating. It forces the reader to rethink all she thought she knew.

That’s more or less the effect that I’m striving for in “The House on Bony Lake.”

Michael Noll

This is a story where things end but not a door-slamming way—with an emotional resolution rather than a plot conclusion. I think this is something that story writers struggle with. When a character’s struggle is primarily interior, how do you dramatize the resolution (at least in terms of the story) of that struggle? When did you know how the story would end?

Robert Boswell

Robert Boswell's story, "The House on Bony Lake," appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper's Magazine.

Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” appeared in the October 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

I knew early on how the story would end, but I did not know why or how the narrative would get there. I had to discover all that while revising. Paul’s final act in the story is meant to, as you say, provide an emotional resolution; however, the ending is also meant to complete the narrative shape by suggesting that the there is another way of interpreting the family’s history.

Having avoided talking about the reveal in the reply above, I don’t think I should give away the end of the story with this response. So I’ll try to talk about it by referring to other stories—great stories—that make analogous narrative moves.

In Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” the end of the story reframes Ivan Ilych’s deathbed question from “Why me?” to “How should I have lived?” And then the question is answered in an astonishing manner. Until the very end, the character and the reader are engaged with the wrong mystery.

In Peter Taylor’s “A Wife of Nashville,” Helen’s behavior at the end can only be understood when the reader lets go of the terms by which he’s interpreted events (the racial divide among Southerners in the middle of the 20th century) and adopts a new set of terms (the gender divide in that same population).

NoViolet Bulawayo deftly orchestrates a similar narrative maneuver in the first story (“Hitting Budapest”) of her novel-in-stories We Need New Names. The final moments of the story complicates the reader’s natural desire to side with hungry children. Such a desire tends to sentimentalize characters, and Bulawayo refuses to let this happen. By denying the reader a romanticized vision of the children, Bulawayo insists on the characters’ full share of humanity.

I do not mean to suggest that my story belongs in the same category as these great stories; rather, that the ending, if it works, comes from an understanding of an elusive narrative strategy that I did not so much mimic as discover—a startling discovery made during the writing of the story. And it’s only later, of course, that I realized my discovery is a merely variation on the work of some writer on whose shoulders I have been for some time attempting to stand.

June 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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