In Tumbledown, Robert Boswell presents an intriguing and troubled cast of counselors and clients at a rehabilitation center in Southern California.
How well do you know your characters before you start writing?
Sometimes I know them quite well, and often I hardly know them at all. I write a ridiculous number of drafts. The characters change and grow through the drafting, and my understanding of them deepens. Creating characters in a novel is like shooting at clay pigeons and missing, and then missing more productively as the narrative continues.
How is resisting caricature different when the characters, as in your book, have mental illnesses and/or deep psychological issues?
You have to avoid caricature, at the one end of the spectrum, and sentimentality, at the other; which is not to say that such characters shouldn’t be funny part of the time, or that their actions shouldn’t evoke genuine feeling. To complicate matters, I needed to permit certain characters to view them sentimentally—a boy idealizing his big brother, for example, or a young man romanticizing the woman he loves—and others to view them by some colder means—a man who sees a mentally impaired woman’s sexual beauty and cannot see anything else. Characters are often revealed by the ways they misapprehend others.
The main character, James, had an older, autistic brother, Pook, who only ever drew himself. As a kid, James and his friend Billy used these drawings to invent Same Man—a comic book superhero who has a disease that makes everyone look the same, just like him. How did Same Man come to be?
Late in her life, my maternal grandmother had an illness that left her with limited control of her body, and her speech was incomprehensible to most—but at night, in her sleep, she would sing quite beautifully, her tone and enunciation perfect. Certain human mysteries have long obsessed me, and I suspect that the character of Pook evolved from that obsession. My daughter is also a painter, and I have become interested in the visual process, and how the work is defined and shaped by sensibility. Pook is damaged in some way, and his limitations are significant, but his talent is real. James is “normal” but he has no particular talent. Together, they make a kind of sense, but they ultimately also need the oddball Billy to create Same Man. I had a lot of fun writing the comic, and it was not until much later in the construction of Tumbledown that I understood how the boys’ project was important.
Can you talk a bit about how the book developed?
I was a counselor in the late 70s and early 80s. I did some good work, and I did some damage. I waited 20 years to approach the material, and then I worked on the novel for a decade. It is not genuinely autobiographical, but I have stolen lots of things from my life. The novel is an attempt to get at the reckoning, as well, and the philosophical underpinnings of meaning, as it applies to human life.