Tag Archives: The House on Bony Lake

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.

How to Set Up Dialogue with Declarative Statements

28 Jun
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.

The best writers have a way of making their prose seem light and effortless. It’s the effect we’re all seeking because in our minds, the story races along, but on the page, it too often plods along, one thing after another. The place where that slow, predictable, stuck feeling tends to reveal itself the clearest in our drafts is in dialogue. Conversely, in a great piece of writing, the dialogue snaps.

A great example of light and fast dialogue and prose can be found in Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake.” It was published in Harper’s Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

A passage early in the story begins like this: “Lew’s All Nite was a dark tavern attractive to serious drinkers.” The paragraph ends with “The All Nite was not a place for optimists.”

Now, look at the dialogue that follows:

“Hey, genius,” a regular called, a woman in her late thirties named Kay Timmons, a gin drinker, who liked to talk, who needed his attention, who would tip him a twenty on a thirty-dollar tab. “If you’re so smart, why’s my glass empty?”

Paul responded immediately, “Nobody thinks I’m smart but you.”

“I’m putting all my eggs in that basket,” Kay told him. “Be kind to my eggs.”

The dialogue (why’s my glass empty, nobody thinks I’m smart but you, all my eggs in that basket) illustrates the claims made in the declarative statements at the beginning of the passage (serious drinkers, not a place for optimists).

The same thing happens throughout the passage. Here is another example of declarative statements:

Melinda wore the shortest skirts of any waitress. The men in All Nite studied her hungrily. From the first hour of her first shift Paul had the feeling they would wind up in bed together.

Of course, they have sex, and afterward “He remembered thinking that she’d cast a longing look at her crossword.” He notices a rectangle-shaped tattoo, and here is the dialogue that follows:

“It’s Colorado,” she said, “my home state.”

“You’re from Ohio.”

“It’s a book, then.”

“It’s not a book.”

“It might be a book. I read.”

“Looks more like a television.”

“All right, then,” she’d said. “Are we done?”

Again, the dialogue illustrates what we can infer from what we’ve already been told: she’s something less than smitten with him.

Finally, in the same passage, we learn the history of the building where Lew’s All Night is located. At one point, it housed “a storefront church — the Holy Committee of Righteous Christ — whose floppy-haired minister plastered flyers of his face all over town, declaring himself god’s delivery system. He played electric flute and drum machine during hymns. Paul met him once, in a bar on the north end of the lake.”

At this point, it’s interesting to consider what dialogue might follow. How will it confirm what we already know? There are a few possibilities. This is the path it takes:

“You recognize me, don’t you?” the preacher asked as he slid a creased five into the tight filament of a stripper’s thong. “You’ve seen my posters,” he insisted.

It’s as if the story is saying to the reader, you just met the preacher and you’re suspicious of him–and, turns out, your suspicions are correct.

What Boswell has done is write a passage that contains dialogue from four different characters who aren’t talking together. It leaps from one thing to another so smoothly that it’s possible to read the passage without noticing how much time and space it covers. This may sound complicated, but it’s similar to how many of us talk. We make declarative statements all the time, followed by a piece of evidence to substantiate our claim. This is especially true of the preachers in our lives. I’m willing to bet that a lot of people have heard someone talk about So-and-so from the Such-and-such church and then add, “And do you know where I saw him? In a ____, with a ___.” The blanks are not positive, and we knew that before they even arrived in the conversation.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use declarative statements to set up dialogue, using Robert Boswell’s story, “The House on Bony Lake,” as a model:

  1. Set your scene in a particular place with particular individuals. Stories and novels can, of course, make general statements (Tolstoy made a lot of hay with his statement about happy and unhappy families in Anna Karenina), but it’s easier to work with specific details. Where is this passage from your story/novel taking place or referring to?
  2. Choose a particular voice. This might mean that the statement will come from a character (who may or may not be the narrator) or the narrator or some other voice you’ve concocted. It doesn’t matter who you pick, but you must pick. The voice needs attitude. When Boswell’s story states, “It was not a place for optimists,” that’s not a neutral statement. It has attitude. There are, probably, characters who would disagree with that assessment of the bar. What is your voice’s attitude on the subject you laid out in the first step?
  3. Make a statement. Let the voice you’ve chosen hold forth. Imagine that the voice is being interviewed by Terry Gross, host of the NPR show “Fresh Air.” She’s asking your voice about the places and people in its life. What does it have to say now that it’s suddenly an expert?
  4. Illustrate the statement with dialogue. You can use the scaffolding of real-life conversations to comment on the people and places within the statement: “And you know what he/she said then?” or “You’ll never guess what So-and-so did the other day” or “Case in point: ____.” You’ll likely end up cutting this scaffolding and moving directly from the statement to the dialogue.

We question dialogue when we don’t know where it’s going, when we have no sense that it knows where it’s going. So, give it a sense of direction: it’s moving toward the statement you’ve already given us. The goal is to make dialogue snap by divorcing it from plot and attaching it, instead, to statements about people and place. If you can do this once, you can do it again and again, often with different subjects within the same passage.

Good luck.

%d bloggers like this: