"I just decided to let the story wheel out of control."

U. H. creative writing professor Robert Boswell discusses Tumbledown, his first new novel in a decade.

By Michael Hardy August 26, 2013


Robert Boswell and James McBride
Aug 26 at 7:30
Zilkha Hall, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
800 Bagby St.

Robert Boswell shares the Cullen Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Houston with his wife, Antonya Nelson. He has published seven novels, three short story collections, and two works of non-fiction. He will read from his new novel, Tumbledown, tonight as part of Inprint’s Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.    

Houstonia: This is your first novel in about a decade. Have you been working on Tumbledown ever since Century’s Son, or did you take a break from novel writing for a while?

Robert Boswell: No, I worked on it for about 10 years. I published some other books during that time—a collection of stories, a collection of essays, and a non-fiction book—but I’ve been working steadily on the novel all that time. 

H: How is writing a novel different from writing short stories or non-fiction? Do you them all the same way?

RB: Well, the big difference is that you can work on a novel for a couple of years before you realize that it’s simply not working. And at that point you’re deeply invested, and you have to, you know, try to find some way to make it work. Whereas in a story you work through the draft so quickly that you can experiment and try new things, and if it doesn’t work out you just go back to an earlier draft and go again. In non-fiction you have actual events you can rely on, so you have a sense of how much there is to go. With a novel, it’s all up to you. When I wrote my first novel, I had a recurring nightmare in which my head was literally expanding like I had a helium balloon up there. I think it was just the anxiety of trying to hold the whole story in my head.

H: Did you have the same experience with Tumbledown?

RB: Well, I’ve written several novels now, and I don’t have anxiety nightmares anymore. But it was a long, strange experience. It’s never taken me as long to write a novel before. The story kept changing, new characters kept coming in. At some point I just decided to let the story wheel out of control and see where it took me. That sounds like fun, I guess, but when you’re having to create everything and you’re not sure where it’s going to take you, it’s a little bit harrowing. And then at some point I realized that I could cut back on a lot of it. 

H: Why did you decide to make your protagonist a psychological counselor to the developmentally challenged?

RB: I used to be a counselor. I have a graduate degree in counseling, and I worked in the San Diego area for a couple of years. It was a very tumultuous time in my life. I knew I was going to write about it some time, but I waited twenty years to approach the material. Then I worked on it for another ten years. 

H: What was it like working as a psychologist?

RB: It was a very interesting job. I was a special kind of counselor, an evaluator. So I would see other counselors’ clients—they would send them to me. I would work with them, often for two or three weeks. I gave them all kinds of tests—aptitude tests, intelligence tests. And then at the end of the time period I would write a report that would be full of recommendations to help the counselors put together a rehabilitation plan.

H: Were you writing fiction while you were working as a counselor?

RB: I was writing fiction and poetry. I had no one to show it to, so I signed up for a community college class. I had a really wonderful teacher named Robert Jones, a poet, and he read my work and really encouraged me to take it seriously. Ultimately, he was the one person who thought I was doing the right thing when I quit my job to go back to college and study creative writing. 

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