Robert Boswell: "Unreliable Omniscience."

Robert Boswell: "Unreliable Omniscience."

Tumbledown book coverAs a counselor, Robert Boswell knew not to play know-it-all. As a writer, he’s no different: Tumbledown‘s most effective metaphors surprise him, and novels are construction sites he works on as he goes.

Zola: How do you know so much about psychological evaluations, schizophrenia, I.Q.s, and all the other clinical details that went into creating this story of patients in therapy and their counselors? What sort of research did you do?

Robert Boswell: I used to be a counselor—a long time ago—and I have a graduate degree in the same area of counseling as my main character. The novel isn’t genuinely autobiographical, but I steal a great deal from my life and from that long-ago time. I also have two generous in-laws who are psychologists, and they read the novel in manuscript form. A lot has changed in the therapeutic world since I was a part of it, but most of the changes I had to make were simple to implement. I had to do a little refresher work, but most of the research was completed thirty years ago.

Zola: There are several refrains where you step in as the writer, as if you’re telling the reader why you wrote this. What was behind this decision? Are there any other books that influenced this technique?

RB: I was a special kind of counselor, an evaluator, and I would take other counselors’ clients for two or three weeks and give them a battery of tests to measure their interests, abilities, and aptitudes, and I’d put them at workstations designed to simulate real-life jobs. At the end of their time, I would write an extensive evaluation and suggest the kinds of programs and practices that should benefit them, and I’d also list the kinds of things at which they were unlikely to succeed. At times, I felt that my reports—and especially the test scores within the reports—were given too much credit. They were treated as if they were omniscient documents that could genuinely take the measure of a person and say just what she should and shouldn’t do with her life. The omniscience was not reliable. While working on this novel and reliving those years, I decided that the book should use the point of view of unreliable omniscience. The only problem was that there is no such point of view in any novel that I know. I had to make it up. The moments that you refer to are examples of unreliable omniscience. For better or worse, that’s what I’m up to.

Zola: You set this novel near San Diego, where the weather never changes. Any significance in this?

RB: I picked San Diego because that’s where I lived when I was a counselor. But once you make a decision in a novel, it takes on a life of its own. It would be nice to think that the weather has taken on some kind of metaphorical role, but I cannot claim that it came from any conscious intention. The most effective metaphor in a narrative emerges from the pages and surprises the author. Those that are consciously planted rarely have the flexibility or power to be truly valuable.

Zola: Perhaps the most vibrant character in your novel is Maura, the would-be suicide just out of her teens. She thinks and speaks in such a unique way. How did you so accurately capture someone of a younger generation? Is she based on a real person?

RB: She’s probably based on several people, starting with the teenager I was way back when—smart and yet very dumb, mouthy and sarcastic and clever, and yet in deep water without the ability to swim. I still recall quite vividly what it was like to be that age, the unending desire to sink my teeth into the fabric of life, and the frustration that I could not do it. But Maura is braver than I was, and in many ways, I find her the most admirable character in the book, and I was far from admirable when I was that age. Also, I’ve always been drawn to edgy talkers—people who take emotional and verbal risks and who like to provoke. They liven up a party and a novel, and they’re fun to write. I wind up living with novel characters a long time—a decade in the case of this novel—and I like to have characters that keep me entertained.

Zola: You’ve written novels, short stories, nonfiction, and even plays. Which do you enjoy most and/or find most challenging? Do you have different work routines and habits for each?

RB: I write almost every day, and I revise a great deal—thirty to fifty drafts of everything. If you have to write that many drafts, you can’t call anything easy. I take the purest pleasure from writing stories, but I am most powerfully drawn to writing novels. Stories permit me to invest and divest repetitively. Novels require that I move into a dwelling of my own making, one that I’m constructing even while I’m living there. Anyone who has ever lived in a construction site has some idea what it’s like to write a novel.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.