Interview with Robert Boswell

UntitledBy: Emily Woodworth and Steven Childress with Keya Mitra
Photographs by Cailyn Anderson

When opportunity knocks, the proper thing to do is seize the moment. Such an opportunity arose when acclaimed writer Robert Boswell came to Pacific University as part of the Visiting Writers Series. Boswell is the author of seven novels, three short story collections, two plays, two books of non-fiction, and the recipient multiple awards and fellowships, including the Iowa School of Letters Award for Fiction, the PEN West Award for Fiction, the John Gassner Prize for Playwriting, and the Evil Companions Award. He showed himself to be an enlightened teacher and speaker on craft, as well as an entertaining and engaging presence. In addition to delivering a craft talk and reading, Boswell also agreed to meet with Emily Woodworth and Steven Childress, two students in Pacific’s creative writing program, at the 22nd Street Station Café. The coffee-talk was both enjoyable and educational, and the interview contains advice and insight for writers of all levels.

Emily and Steven: You have published seven fiction novels, two plays, two nonfiction books, and three short story collections. How does your process differ for each type of work? Is your approach to a short story different than a novel?

Boswell: My process for playwriting is very different from that for fiction because I’m still figuring out how to revise drama. With fiction, I write many, many drafts, and sometimes I find my way into the narrative by playing with language. For example, I often try to write more resonant sentences with each pass, but if you do that with characters’ dialogue in a play, it begins to sound like sentences no human would speak. I’ve had to find a new revision method for drama, and I’m still developing it.

The big difference between novels and short stories is that the brevity of short stories permits me to be more experimental. I can play around with structure more. I like to take big risks as I draft stories, make huge changes, and see if they work. If the attempt fails, I just go back to the previous draft. It’s much harder to do that in a novel. I’m working on a novel right now that is more than 700 pages. It just had its first reader, and I have some work to do on the second half, but the good thing is: the structure holds. I don’t have to rework the design of the entire 700 pages. That would have been backbreaking. I would have done it, but it would have been an enormous chore.

Steven: It sounds like restructuring that many pages would be an intensive process.

Boswell: I do thirty, forty, fifty drafts of everything. If I finally get a full draft and have to do a structural revision, well, it’s a headache. I’m basically writing a new book.

Steven: That’s definitely a stark contrast.

Emily and Steven: The characters of The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards are quite colorful and feel very real, is there a process you go through with developing characters before you commit them to paper?

Boswell: Not before I commit them to paper, no. I discover the characters as I write them. I think of it as discovering the characters from the outside in. Each word they say or action they take teaches me something about who they are—and about who they aren’t. It’s a process of elimination. Knowing one thing eliminates a world of alternate possibilities. I write until I find my way in. Then I inhabit the character, and once I inhabit the character the words fly.

Some of the characters are based on people I know or real episodes that I’ve lived or witnessed. Initially, the characters may be modeled on the people who participated in the event with me. After a while I lose track of that. The characters become who I need them to be. Sometimes a friend will say, “That’s what you think of me?” At first, I have no idea what he’s talking about. I’ve rewritten the character so many times I no longer feel like it’s connected to any person. This is hard to explain to someone who’s not a writer. It’s no fun to be friends with a writer.

Steven: I understand.  I’ve been in similar situations, so I can see how people can draw those conclusions.

Boswell: It’s distressing to have a writer in the family. My brother and sister are happy whenever I have a new book coming out, but there’s trepidation as well.

Emily and Steven: Do you plan on writing more plays, and how is that process different than writing fiction or nonfiction. When you see one of your plays produced, is it different than you imagined it?

Emily: I was wondering this too because my brother is an actor. His company did a play by Harold Pinter and there was a lot of subtext. I was wondering what it is like to see a director’s interpretation and an actor’s—does it change from what you imagined?

Is it strange seeing the characters filled in by real people or seeing a director’s interpretation of your writing?

Boswell: In terms of the overall process—beyond the initial writing—the playwright’s interaction with the actors is crucial. It starts with actors reading their parts around a table, usually a cold reading in which they’re trying to get a sense their characters. It’s useful to me, of course, to hear the lines spoken by actors. We discuss the play afterward, much like a workshop.

When you get to rehearsals, you have to hope that you have really smart, talented actors. They will question the lines with much more intensity than what you get in a workshop. In a fiction workshop, you have people helping you because you’re going to help them. But the actor is thinking, “I’m going to perform this line forty or fifty times; if I don’t believe in it, it will trip me up every time.” Good actors will nail you on lines that aren’t working.

I was lucky with the production of “The Long Shrift.” I had wonderful actors. Scott Haze and I threw lines back and forth, and we changed certain parts of his character’s arc as a result of altering lines. Ahna O’Reilly would say, “I don’t believe my character would say this,” or (when she was feeling kind), “Is this what I would say?” Sometimes an actor would ask, “Why isn’t my character responding to this moment? Or responding more fiercely?” Ally Sheedy was wonderful at asking such questions. Sometimes I’d tweak a word or two, but more frequently I’d write a new line. I loved the whole process.

Steven: Ally Sheedy is great.  I grew up watching her.

Boswell: She’s a terrific actress.

Emily: It sounds like having non-writers read your dialogue out loud could be just as valuable for fiction writers as playwrights.

Boswell: With any form of writing, it’s useful to read your stories aloud because you hear things you wouldn’t notice otherwise. Allie Gallerani came up with a great line for one of the other characters to say about her character. I stuck it right in the play. Brian Lally—another fine actor—helped me tinker with the lines, and James Franco, who directed the play, was terrific, as well. We’re friends, so he would always be gentle. He’d say, “Boz, this line here—I don’t know. I’m struggling with this line.” He was really good at picking out the lines that didn’t work, suggesting alternate lines, and so on. Rattlestick Theater’s artistic director—David Van Asselt—went through draft after draft with me, often suggesting major revisions. I had a great experience.

Steven: I can see how having actors read the lines at a roundtable would be valuable for a play, in that the dialogue would shift.

Boswell: The whole play changed, became much stronger. Did it look onstage the way I pictured it in my mind? No, but do my books read the way I imagined they would? I’m always trying to achieve something I can never quite reach. That’s the nature of being a writer.

Steven: That’s quite insightful. I see the truth in that statement from my own experiences.

Emily and Steven: Of all your published works and plays, which was your favorite to work on, and which one was the most difficult to develop from beginning to end?

Boswell: I don’t have a favorite. My favorite is always what I’m working on right now. The most difficult was Tumbledown. It took me ten years to write. It went through a major change in the point of view eight years in. I had to deal with a lot of material that was hard to face, and the novel is big and complex. I don’t know even how many points of view there are.

Emily: I finished Chapter 2, and I was trying to count how many points of view have been employed already, and I couldn’t.

Boswell: The point of view is weird, and it gets weirder as the novel goes on. Tumbledown was a demanding book, a strange balancing act. I had to keep going back, adding to one side and subtracting from the other.

Or maybe my first novel was most difficult because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was pretty sure I was making a mess. I lost faith in it several times. I only finished it because I thought I’d learn something by finishing a novel. At the time, I was certain it was idiotic, but the novel was published and was well received. I’ve learned that if you’re working on a long-term writing project, you’re going to lose faith in it at times, and you just have to push through that doubt. That loss of faith is why so many people have three-quarters of a novel, or three-quarters of three or four novels. There is something in the human psyche that resists the completion of a huge project.

And, well, it’s hard to write a book.

Emily and Steven: Is there a typical number of drafts you go through for every piece? Is it different for each genre? Do you ever really stop editing, or are there things you would change about published pieces?

Boswell: Last year I was on a book tour for Tumbledown, and I read the opening chapter again and again and again. By the end of the tour, I’d edited about a thousand words out of the opening. I wish I’d done that before I published the book, but I think I needed an audience for the readings. When you’re reading to an audience you listen to their response and discover the bits that don’t work or aren’t necessary. You may see instances where descriptions go on too long, and so on.

Tumbledown is a consciously a “maximalist” novel. Minimalism was the style when I was first writing seriously, in graduate school and immediately thereafter. I never much cared for it. With this novel I set out to do the opposite. Because the point of view is unstable, I felt I could play with high authorial custody to create a new effect. Imagine reading a high-custody omniscient narrator, as might appear in a Tolstoy novel, let’s say, but then you start to question the stability of the point of view. It seems to me that this is a new effect. Anyway, it kept me involved, kept me interested. I have to do work that keeps me entertained. I have no desire to repeat myself.

Steven: That’s great. Stepping outside your boundaries definitely creates a sense of adventure.

Emily and Steven: We read The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards for class. Were there particular reasons you ordered the stories the way you did?

Boswell: Yeah, but not they’re not artistic reasons. There are a number of long stories so I decided to start with one, have one in the middle, and so on. I wanted to separate the fat stories. There are a number of very short stories in the collection, and I shuffled them among the longer ones. I thought of it almost musically.

I put “No River Wide” first because it starts with the sentence: Both things first. “The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards” is by far the longest story and the title piece, so having it last seemed right. Some reviewers called the book a story cycle. I don’t think of it that way.

There’s a movie coming out that includes seven of the stories, which James Franco produced. He made a smart decision about ordering the stories. The movie begins with the story featuring the youngest protagonist and the protagonist ages as the movie continues. That’s the strategy that James Joyce uses in Dubliners. It’s a smart choice. The audience doesn’t follow the same character throughout the movie, but the main character ages. This provides the film with a unity it wouldn’t otherwise possess.

Steven: I’m really excited for the movie to come out. It’s on my watch list. I very much enjoyed the collection.

Boswell: It’s the fourth and best movie that has been made from my work. I like it quite a lot.

Steven: What inspires you to write and get through writer’s block?

Boswell: I’ve never had writer’s block because of my process. I use a method I call transitional drafts. During the drafting process, I give myself permission to write a bad sentence in order to get to a good sentence, and to write a sketchy scene (if I need to) to get to the end of the draft. I give myself this permission because I know I’m going to write another draft and I can address such problems then.

In graduate school I’d get smart comments and suggestions during workshop, but when I got home I wouldn’t be able to do anything. I’d feel paralyzed. I was trying to fix all the problems at once. I realized that I needed to focus on one problem at a time—write a full draft to address each issue or suggestion.

This method gives me a lot of freedom but it’s a humbling ordeal. I’ve got to revise draft after draft after draft. But the method permits me to write stories that are stranger than I would otherwise write, stories that are smarter than I am. It also means I always have something to work on—always, always, always. I’ve never had writer’s block. I don’t think I ever will. But it comes at an expense. The method demands a lot of effort.

Writer’s Block is a real phenomenon, and it seems to be exclusively a writing phenomenon. There’s no engineer’s block or doctor’s block. We seem to be the only profession that has a term for not being able to do our work. I had a teacher who couldn’t write for ten years. So I’m very happy to have a means to get around writer’s block. I have to work like crazy, but I like to work.

Steven: You also bring wisdom to your work with your process.

Boswell: If you’ve read a writer’s work and you meet the writer, you should be disappointed. The best features of the writer are on the page. Writers are often boring.

Emily and Steven: Who would you say are your greatest influences from the world of fiction and playwrights?

Boswell: I’m not sure. Honestly. There are so many. I grew up on the Mississippi River, and when I read Huckleberry Finn it felt like my head was going to explode. I read all the time, and I’d already determined I was going to be a writer, but I was reading the Hardy Boys and the like. When I read Huckleberry Finn I couldn’t articulate what made it different, but I understood that it was a different kind of fiction. I was in sixth grade, I think, and it was a demanding read, but I was thrilled.

In high school my favorite book was David Copperfield. I love Dickens. Then I discovered Faulkner. I admired his work so much that I consciously made myself avoid becoming a southern writer. He casts too great a shadow. I am a fan of Tennessee Williams, particularly “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” I am obsessed with Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”  He’s my colleague in the University of Houston’s creative writing program, which I find almost unbelievable.

Chekhov is the writer I return to with the most frequency. I’ve read some of his stories more times than I can count. I’m trying right now to do my own translation of “The Lady with the Pet Dog”—not to improve upon previous translations but as a way to engage the story more fully. I’m also obsessed with Tolstoy. Anna Karenina is maybe the best novel I’ve ever read. If not that, it’s The Great Gatsby. I read and reread Alice Munro and teach her every semester. James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Sherwood Anderson’s “Death in the Woods” are two of my favorite stories. Eudora Welty’s “Moon Lake” is one of the great American stories, and she has a dozen others I love, such as “The Wide Net,” a fantastic story that one rarely sees in anthologies. Flannery O’Connor is inspiring. I’ve been influenced by a huge number of writers. A John Cheever story changed my life.

Emily: In class on Tuesday, I suggested that you capture our present time in the same way that Fitzgerald captures the twenties in The Great Gatsby.

Steven: I definitely agree.  You really capture people’s behavior during our time, like Fitzgerald.  Here’s a question I’m particularly interested in: when shopping a publisher for short stories, what advice can you give to writers that have not been published, or been published often?

Boswell: My advice is to avoid thinking about publication for as long as you can manage. Do not try to publish while you’re in a program. It’s a needless distraction. What you need to do while you’re a student is to be a student and learn everything you can. You’re trying to prepare for your writing life, not publish individual stories. Your job is to figure out which of the many great works that you’ve read speaks to your life and your work. Sometimes you read a story and you immediately think, I need to read this again. After you read it three or four times you may realize that you’ll be reading the story for the rest of your life.

I encourage my students to find the stories and novels that speak to them honestly and powerfully. I encourage them to study those stories. I don’t believe writers need to study theory, but we do need to think about how a story is structured, how it moves, what makes it alive. If it makes leaps, how does it make those leaps? Read a story over and over until it begins to give up its secrets. Put off publication as long as you can.

In addition to the great works—and never at their expense—one should also read contemporary fiction. If you feel you must send out stories, then read Best American Short Stories and see what you like. See where the story was initially published. Usually you’ll find that the stories were in small literary magazines. You may find that an editor of such a journal has the same taste as you. Read the magazine. Send your work to that editor.

Emily and Steven: How do you settle on a setting for a story? Are the places you write about usually based on places you’ve visited?

Boswell: When I start a short story or novel, there has to be something moving me or pushing me forward. It may be an overheard line of conversation or an unexpected recollection. It may be that I’ve witnessed an incident in the street. Most such stimuli come with a specific location, but while I’m drafting the story the details change to accommodate the needs of the narrative, and I relocate the story as I see fit.

Other times the whole story starts with setting. There’s a story of mine called “A Walk in Winter” [in The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards]. It grew out of a memory I had of hiking with a friend on a frozen stream that led to the Mississippi River. We intended to make it to the river, but we had no idea how far it was. Our walk turned into quite an adventure, and I was powerfully influenced by it.

Sometimes I try to write stories that capture the mystery that trek summoned. When I started “A Walk in Winter,” I simply wished to write about snow and the cold. I wanted to recapture the experience of walking on ice with my pal. No, that’s not it. It wasn’t about capturing the experience itself, but the mystery of that experience. I suspect that this is often what we do when we write fiction. Something has happened to us that we don’t understand. We write not to understand it, exactly, but to explore the mystery, expand the mystery, to see if we can get that powerful sense of mystery onto the page.

Steven: That totally makes sense—writing to understand. Bringing wisdom to the writing.

Boswell: I don’t think of it as bringing wisdom to the writing, but as bringing humility to the writing. It’s admitting I don’t know why this experience or idea won’t leave me alone. I may never know why, but I explore it on the page to transfer my sense of fascination to the reader.