An Interview with Robert Boswell
May 05, 2011
Merrill Shane Jones: How did “Destroy This” come about? Can you talk a bit about the process?
Robert Boswell: I don’t actually remember how I got started on this story. I began working on it in earnest maybe three years ago, but I suspect that pieces of the opening scene are older than that. The first sentence in the earliest of the drafts still floating about on my computer reads as follows: “In one of city’s oldest neighborhoods, a family was moving out.” Who knows where this sentence comes from, but it introduces the occasion for the story and it establishes the omniscient point of view. I am an obsessive reviser. I have thirty-two drafts of the story on my computer, and I likely have another handful of drafts on my former, now deceased, computer. I hang onto the drafts so that I may go back to a previous version of the story if the current one leads me out to sea. I very rarely actually backtrack, but the presence of those drafts, floating like life rafts on my computer screen, gives me the courage to seek deep water. As James Baldwin’s narrator learns in “Sonny’s Blues,” an artist is someone who understands that deep water and drowning are not the same thing. Each writer has to find a means by which he has the courage to dive in over his head.
MSJ: What are you reading now?
RB: I just finished What Maisie Knew by Henry James and I am a few hundred pages into 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. The most compelling novels I’ve read over the past few months are Middlemarch by George Eliot, which I had somehow never read before, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which I had not read since college, and Pym by my University of Houston colleague Mat Johnson, which is a brilliant, hysterical novel.
MSJ: I’m very interested in your choice of an omniscient point of view in “Destroy This.” I rarely see omniscience used in contemporary short fiction, but here it works so well. It’s such a broad perspective in such a small space, and I’m curious about how you were able to make it work. How did you find a narrative voice that could move so fluidly among these characters, dipping into their minds and subtly taking on the way each individual speaks and thinks without noticeably changing the overall voice of the narrative?
RB: Any success I’ve had with the omniscient point of view comes from studying Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro, Leo Tolstoy, John O’Hara, Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, and William Trevor—all of whom effortlessly employ omniscience in their stories and novels. I’ve written an essay called “On Omniscience” that’s included in The Half-Known World, my book on writing craft. The essay offers a twelve-stage argument about the topic—a line of reasoning too lengthy to go into here—but my point is simply that I’ve made a conscious study of omniscience, and that’s likely why I feel comfortable using it.
Your words about the effect—a broad perspective in such a small space—describe the expansive rush of feeling that omniscience may generate in a short story. It is a ship-in-a-bottle sensation, and literary art often aims for that effect. Think, for example, about the way scenes function in a novel. A scene slows down the movement of time—the clock for the reader and for the character is roughly the same—but the reader’s experience of the page accelerates, since dialogue creates blank space and hastens movement through the pages. This paradoxical acceleration by means of deceleration produces that ship-in-a-bottle sensation: a creative act seems too large for its transparent container.
MSJ: Creative writing teachers often discourage the use of an omniscient point of view for beginning writing students. What are your thoughts on this?
RB: I think it’s sensible. Writing in the omniscient point of view before you’ve grappled with the more limited points of view is like attempting brain surgery before you know how to take a patient’s temperature. The end result will almost certainly be something bloody and dead. While it is true that one may learn to write by means of creating such corpses, it is not true that one may teach writing by means of examining such corpses. It’s sensible then to encourage the students to start by writing first-person or third-person-limited stories.
MSJ: Although Tad is a very important character—his actions being the impetus for the other characters’ stories in “Destroy This”—the only time we hear from him is toward the end of the story in the single-paragraph letter to his wife, Noon. What made you decide to limit Tad’s voice and keep him physically absent from the story? I immediately think of a puppet master, a powerful person behind the scenes who, though nobody ever sees, pulls all the strings. Is this how you thought of Tad? Did Tad’s letter come early on or late in the writing process?
RB: In the process of writing a story that will encompass many points of view, one is always delighted to discover that a certain necessary character need not be given a voice. It is akin to discovering that one member of your group has his own vehicle and so there’ll be only five of you crowding into the taxi. You’re heartened by his absence, even though all the five of you talk about for the whole ride is why the selfish lout didn’t offer to chauffeur each of you home. If the lout is present, he’s merely another guy in the cab; his absence provides the others a focus. Some characters are more usefully present if they are absent.
MSJ: The children in the story are so well drawn. Where does your inspiration for writing children come from?
RB: It’s hard to believe, but I used to be a child myself. I recall that specific horror and its attendant mysteries and pleasures and confusing adventures with great clarity and more than a little compassion. I also had a hand in the raising of two children, both of whom are now in their twenties.
People are useful to writers, not just (as they may think) because we want to steal from their lives for our petty stories (although that fact is undeniable), but also because their experiences remind us of things we have gone through and epochs in our lives when we saw the world in a manner that now seems foreign. Children are especially useful. They remind us, with their errors in the apprehension of the world, how we once erred; if we’re lucky they may reveal some of the ways that we err still. Also, they’re funny as hell.
MSJ: At one point Isaac remembers something that the sisters Dot and Baby told him: “In a dream, the girls told him they were really one person in two bodies, sort of like the Internet, how it was one thing in a million different computers.” I definitely felt they were like one person, a composite character, from the beginning. It reminded me of Shakespeare and how he often has two characters playing the role of one, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet. How did Dot and Baby come about? Was it originally one character that you split into two?
RB: Dot and Baby were conceived as siblings who are very much alike and yet have come to define themselves against each other. My younger brother and I were close in age and we looked very much alike and we had a great deal in common; we were often misidentified as twins. One predictable consequence of all this similarity: each of us exerted a lot of effort to be different from the other. I became an athlete while my brother disdained organized sports. He embraced the social sciences while I was drawn to literature and writing. As adults we were able to get beyond this polarizing tendency, but as children and adolescents it had a real power in our lives.
I would guess that the fictional siblings in “Destroy This” owe something to my relationship with my brother. He died a few years ago, and I have felt as lonely and lost without him as you might imagine Dot without Baby.
An Excerpt from “Destroy This”
The girls’ mother paused in their backyard to talk to them about the outlandish luminosity of memory, how it colored everything on this day, making even the grass take on the softened, golden hues of wheat fields.
“That’s ’cause Dad quit watering it,” Dot said. She was twelve years old and the normal one.
“Mom’s trying to say it looks different when you’re leaving it behind,” Baby explained. She was eleven and the other one.
Noon Alessio, their mother, did not hear her daughters’ comments. She continued through the gate and into the driveway, where the hired man Boris was lashing yet another suitcase to the pyramid of belongings on top of the family van. He was a convict, another of her husband’s projects, a burly man whose body seemed made of fleshy chunks piled together inexpertly. He looked appealingly unfinished, which was probably what had given her husband hope for his rehabilitation.
Her husband, Theodore “Tadpole” Alessio, was a lawyer, a former state senator, recently counsel to the mayor’s office, and now what he called “an energy broker”—whatever that meant—as well as a partner in the firm of Alessio, Meyer, Itschtikov, and Alessio. There were often convicts hanging around the house, but there were also congressmen, community leaders, businessmen, and now and again the governor, dropping by for drinks or dinner. The day Noon returned from the hospital with Baby, not quite twelve years earlier, the vice president of the United States had been in the kitchen with the refrigerator door open, making himself a ham sandwich. Noon had been so startled that she’d dropped Baby, and she halfway believed it was the tumble that had made her daughter such an oddball. According to her husband, that meant the government was to blame.
Their city had grown up along an old highway that wound through the desert like an indecisive river, while the thoroughly tamed river dribbled directly through the valley like a swath of interstate. High mountains to the east and a ridge of hills to the west defined the valley, a patchwork of cotton fields and pecan groves surrounding the few tall buildings and the ever-spreading flow of houses. In a more civilized part of the country, the city would have been inconsequential. Here, it was the state capitol.
There was no seat for Dot or Baby in the Caravan. When Boris slung the sliding door shut, the suitcases tied to the top trembled and the girls jumped back.
“You’re too big to ride on your sister’s lap,” their mother said. Her own lap, they understood, was out of the question.
Noon could not have held either of the girls with their sticky hands and moist mouths as far as the end of the driveway. The girls had entered a stage she loathed, that preadolescent bog that swamped their hearts and forced ugly excretions from their bodies. She did not want them at the new house until she made a few decisions, including, most obviously, bedroom allocation. The pair had always shared a bedroom, but they would likely have their own rooms now.
The girls’ sister, Sal, older and faster on her feet, was belted into the only free seat in the back, the others covered with boxes. Even so, she had to double-buckle with their grandfather, Froggy Alessio, who was sleeping upright, his mouth open, the sound of his ancient lungs like a violin bow playing a saw. Boris took his position behind the wheel. The cardboard box that filled the back window had cow markings and the word GATEWAY in bold letters.
“One reason we’re leaving this neighborhood is because it’s full of thie-eves.” Noon Alessio had always thought her voice plaintive, and she had learned to exaggerate the quality, letting it crack like a hillbilly singer’s. With her back against the van’s passenger door, she pivoted her head to survey the driveway as if felons might be lurking even now. Actually, in all the years they had lived in the old part of town, they never had a break-in. The only criminals had been the ones who visited her husband. Noon had grown up in a neighborhood like this on the other side of the freeway. She came from old money—so old that it was all gone by the time she was born. “If we left our thi-ings here,” she continued, “we could be robbed bli-ind.”
Dot and Baby were slow to understand that this was an explanation for their abandonment. The Gateway box was filled with their mother’s shoes. She had exactly one hundred pairs, and if she bought a new pair, she had to throw away one of the old sets. One hundred was her limit.
“Mrs. Daylow will watch you,” Noon continued as Boris started the van. She climbed into the Caravan but continued talking through the open window. “Go tell Mrs. Daylow now. Tell her we’ll be back for you in three or four days.” A suspiciously gleeful laugh slipped free of her lips, like the bad words she sometimes spoke. After cursing, she would cover her mouth in shame and swallow, as if taking back the oath, and she did the same now for the twittering laughter. “Merely humor, my darlings. We mustn’t take everything so ser-riously. Boris will come for you in just a few hours.”
“Not Boris,” Baby said, then turned her head away from the van in fear.
“He’s laughing,” Dot whispered, taking her sister’s hand. “It’s okay.”
Boris was not laughing but glaring and showing his teeth, a terrible attempt at a smile. He was like all of the men their father dragged to the house, horrible, red-faced brutes with meaty hands and breath like car exhaust.
Dot knew better than to worry Baby with the man’s real response. Baby didn’t get men, and she would fret, analyze, worry. Baby was a victim of her brain, which was lively and quick but focused on the wrong things. Dot was not nearly so tormented.
The girls returned their mother’s wave and unbuttoned their nice coats as the Caravan pulled away. They wore identical fake leopard coats. They were born just eleven months apart, and during the month of November they were the same age: twelve this year. They looked forward to November and measured the other months by their proximity to November. It was October now, one of their faves.
Mrs. De la O, who had heard the whole exchange, limped through the back door. She was a short, dark-skinned woman, with flat hair and big teeth. One of her shoes had a fat sole, like a sandwich loaf of sourdough. She spoke little English, and the girls hated her.
“Yeenside,” she said, holding the screen door. Her squat, lopsided body tipped forward menacingly. She had not been hired to babysit but to clean. Yet she was neither surprised nor upset by the additional duties. Such was the way of the world.
“Up to room,” she said. “Pock bosses.”
“Daylow should hook up with Boris,” Dot said, after they were upstairs.
“Creature feature,” Baby agreed.
Their beds were gone, as was the desk they shared, their dresser, all the clothes from their closet. Where the furniture had been, the walls were lighter in color, as if the things had not merely been removed but erased. Now the girls were supposed to cull their toys down to a single cardboard box.
“If we have to have our own rooms,” Baby said, “why can’t we just keep everything?”
Dot didn’t answer but made her body hulk and tilt. “You no good children,” she said. “You bad girls. Too many toys.”
Baby laughed at the impersonation, but it wasn’t Daylow making them throw their toys away. Dot was clever but not particularly bright, Baby had decided. Not as dumb as Sal or their mother, but not as smart as their father or Baby herself. Baby was super intelligent. The things she didn’t understand or couldn’t do had nothing to do with intelligence, such as drawing or not bumping into doorways or reading a map.
It was their father who had insisted they pare their belongings. “Put away your childish things,” he had said in the soft singsong the girls loved. “No need to tote it all to the ranch.” No one but their father had seen the ranch, their new home overlooking the river. Not even their mother had seen it.
The door to their room swung open, and Ezak entered, Daylow’s boy, who was thirteen and liked to flaunt his slight chronological advantage. “You children ain’t got the one box you got to do done yet?” He shook his head, as if he had been hectoring them for hours to complete this task.
“We aren’t even supposed to be here,” Baby said. “We’re supposed to be in the van on the way to our new house.”
“Whatta my gonna do with you girls?” He threw out his arms theatrically. Isaac De la O wanted to be an actor, and this was all a performance. His English was normally perfect in its constructions. He was playing the role casting had offered.
“I could outwrestle you, I bet,” Dot said.
Baby had a different idea. “Let’s sneak away,” she said, “the three of us.”
“We’d get in trouble,” Isaac said softly, forgetting to act.
“Scaredy cat,” Dot said. “We can go out the window.”
“It’s our last chance to go out the window and down the tree,” Baby said. “The new house is all one level. Ranch style means all one level.”
Ezak said nothing but turned to look at the door.
“Afraid of your mother?” Baby said.
He nodded, and they laughed. He showed them a smile, thinking how much fun these girls were, but knowing he could not explain the impossibility of his leaving with them, or the vast difference between his life and theirs. There weren’t the right kind of words to show that difference.
“I can’t go,” he said. “I don’t want to, anyway. It’s stupid.”
“See ya,” Baby said and unlatched the window. “Don’t tattle.” She felt already how this gesture would be a wild success.
Dot wrapped her arms around him and pressed her nose to his hair. “We’ll probably never see you again.” At the window, she added, “Put our sd dolls in the box, will you?”
The girls climbed onto the roof, and Isaac stepped to the window to watch. One and then the other gripped a fat branch and pulled herself up into the shade tree. They had to shimmy along headfirst to a congregation of limbs, and Isaac thought the white glimpses of their panties were like signals sent by a flagman, a secret message mailed to him alone, fleeting, thrilling, and impossible to decipher.
To read the rest of this story, purchase the Spring 2011 issue of Colorado Review here.
Robert Boswell’s collection The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards was a finalist for the 2010 PEN USA Literary Award in fiction. He shares the Cullen Chair in creative writing at the University of Houston with his wife, Antonya Nelson.