Helping Readers Discover Themselves
An Interview with Marshall Boswell
by Robert L. Hall
As it states on the book jacket of his first story collection, Trouble With Girls, Marshall Boswell has published short stories in magazines from Missouri Review to Playboy, and in New Stories from the South, 2001. He and his wife and their two young children live in Memphis, where he teachers American literature at Rhodes College. We met at Burke’s Bookstore in Memphis and I got to talk to him some time later. Since he is a local author, I found his remarks especially interesting and the setting of his work compelling, being a fellow Memphian. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell me about growing up in Germantown, Tennessee—just outside of Memphis.
Well, the Middlesburg stories in the collection…the first half of it, I guess, do draw on my experience of growing up here in Germantown, which in a lot of ways was a traditional suburban upbringing: winding streets, bicycles, paper routes, forts, Little League, and you know…street games and kick-the-can.
I would say it was a happy childhood, and yet I have never been able to determine if it was in any way specifically Southern. One of the book’s reviewers made the comment—it wasn’t necessarily a swipe at the book; it was just an interesting observation—that Parker (the main character) could have come from anywhere.
The line was something like, “Characters in southern fiction used to come out of the soil. This character could have come off the television set.” It was sort of a smug thing to say, I guess. It came from a guy out in California. But it struck me as something I’ve thought about myself, namely, how Southern am I? I mean, I would say that particular kind of upbringing is probably pretty homogeneous with the rest of the nation. In fact, I didn’t feel that I was Southern until I left the South, which wasn’t really until graduate school.
Anyway, while in Germantown I played football with the high school team, wrote for the school newspaper. After that, I went to Washington and Lee where I studied English for four years. Got my B.A. there, graduated in ’88 and spent two years in St. Louis at Washington University, where I got my M.A. Finished at Washington U. in ‘90, quit graduate school because I was unhappy. I didn’t like what I was doing, I wanted to write, so I moved to Miami, where I wrote a novel. It is still unpublished, but a chapter of it has been smuggled into the new collection. I had some interest, had an agent shop it around—had some nibbles, but no one took it.
I decided to go back to graduate school, and I did that at Emory. I finished my Ph.D. at Emory in ’96 and came to Rhodes in the following fall, and I’ve been at Rhodes ever since. It was while at Rhodes that I finished the Updike book, the story collection and a new novel called Alternate Atlanta.
When you say the ‘Updike book’: it’s a critique of Updike?
It’s a scholarly book. Actually, I’m a literature professor there. I also teach creative writing, but I never got an M.F.A. I do workshops, but I’m not their fiction writer per se. We just hired one. I mostly teach twentieth century American Lit. That’s what my Ph.D. was in.
To go back to this bit about being Southern, though: I would say that I’m Southern, but that when I left the South and Washington and Lee and entered Washington U. in St. Louis, that was my first realization that I was a Southerner. The realization manifested itself in a number of ways: talking to the guy behind the counter at the Seven-Eleven, where I bought Copenhagen…first of all, buying Copenhagen was a pretty hard thing to do in the Mid West. And just talking to the guy behind the counter—that wasn’t really something you did in St. Louis. Those encounters weren’t always successful. I talked around with a wounded sense that I had offended people.
Race was different, too; that is, it was differently dealt with in St. Louis. St. Louis struck me as infinitely more stratified than the South. Even a town like Memphis, you know? It wasn’t really addressed in St. Louis and I had a strange encounter with that as well.
Let’s talk about your book, Trouble With Girls.
Okay. The best way to describe the book is to say that it is a short story collection that works like a novel, rather than a novel in the form of a short story collection. I say that because I think each individual piece should be read as a self-contained thing. I think that if you try to push through the whole book as if it were a novel, it will slow you down because you keep coming to endings, resolutions. But what holds it all together is, first of all, the protagonist—a guy named Parker Hayes, who is a sort of bright, well-meaning Southerner of my generation, who wants to cling to his boyhood, that happy suburban boyhood. But he finds himself unable to do that, particularly once he is bitten by the lovebug as an adolescent, when a girl comes into the picture. The simplicity of his boyhood suddenly dissolves into complications that he spends a lot of time dealing with for the rest of his life.
His problem is that he thinks too much, not that he is necessarily a kind of Lothario.
He’s too self-conscious. He over-thinks his behavior with women. This is reflected, I think, in the way the book fluctuates back and forth between first-person narratives and third-person narratives.
Who’s the third person?
What I mean is that Parker sometimes tells his own story and sometimes Parker’s story is being told from the outside. I would say about half the stories are told as, “I did this,” and half are “Parker walked in.” This was mainly a result of how the book came about. Basically I just sent Shannon Ravenel a pile of stories, about fifteen or so that I liked, without really thinking about them as a coherent collection. Then she pulled out about seven or eight out of that fifteen and said I could probably turn this into kind of a little novel if I arranged them into chronological order according to the protagonist’s age and also gave him the same name and consistent background throughout.
And the revision process was where the book really became that kind of hodge-podge novel. But each of the stories as I wrote them over the course of ten years had it’s own set of…demands, and point of view was one of those demands. So, as I started revising it, I basically had to decide whether to uniformly do them in first person or third person, as you might in a novel. I chose not to. Again, there was a reason why I originally wanted one story in the first person and another one in the third person; a thematic reason. But, then the back-and-forth strategy began to work cumulatively. I liked the effect it produced, because one of the themes that ran throughout was that Parker was always divided: there was always sort of two Parkers at work. One of them is an “I” and the other one is a “He.” He’s always sort of looking at himself from the outside; so, um…I kept that in there.
And when you say “I”, you may be talking about the reader at that point?
Well, the interesting thing there is that the opening story is in the second person, where Parker is being cast as the “You.” And the opening story is a kind of overture. I mean, if you think of story collections as record albums, as sort of collections of individual little pieces, then the book is a concept album. It’s like Tommy or something, where you can take each one individually and you can also take them all together. So, the opening story is a kind of overture, an introduction to the book’s major themes, but it is told in the second person—you are in right field. You are Parker for that first one. It is called “Ready Position.” So it announces to the reader, “Are you ready for the book? Get you hands on your knees! Get Ready! Here comes the fly ball.” The fly ball is the book.
What would you say your literary goals are in writing and could you discuss some of the devices you use?
Not to sound glib, but one of the reasons you sit down and write is to get published.
I think that would be the first thing.
But I would say that my ambition for the book is for it to find a group of readers who find themselves in it. There are writers who want to show you something that you don’t know, to introduce you to a whole world that you haven’t encountered yet. My ambition is to show readers something about themselves that they didn’t know—to try to articulate their interiors in a way, because that corresponds with my most intense reading experiences. Particularly, the books I read in college gave me the impetus to write. I encountered, happily and luckily when I got to college, a handful of writers who did that for me. Updike is one. I think Updike’s early stories exert a pretty strong influence on that first half, in the Middleburg stories. They constitute my homáge to Updike’s stories set in Olinger, Pennsylvania.
Updike…Peter Taylor is another one. Yeah, Taylor and Updike and Roth, the Jewish writer from Newark, whose characters have this …maybe it’s a male or a literary sensibility that gets expressed there, but it resonated with me. So, the goal is to somehow give readers the sense that their world is being accurately expressed. I try to avoid the easy devices, which would be just to load up the stories with pop culture references. Those (pop references) are in there, but more importantly, it’s a way of taking what I would call a relatively happy, suburban world—of taking it seriously enough to lavish as much craft as you can on it: use of metaphor, use of artistic form. Anything you would use to talk about the big themes.
I noticed the wordplay that you used when you read from the book at Burke’s Bookstore in Memphis.
Yes, wordplay. Really concentrating on fresh, fresh imagery. To bring to bear fresh imagery even when you’re talking about something as mundane as a youth group retreat. It raises an episode like that to something worthy of literature and once it’s there, it becomes possibly lasting.
How would you describe your imagery?
I would describe it as, um…Updikean, Nabokovian. People like that…Proust. Those are real heroes of mine. Yet, I’m certainly no Russian or French aristocrat; so, I come at it from a different way. Again, it’s this idea of lavishing upon the quotidian as much graciousness and glow as you can.
That Nabokovian influence on my work is even stronger than Updike in a way. It comes out mostly in prose rhythm, I guess. That attempt to make every sentence as elegant and crafted as you can. But of course the imagery has to come out of the world you are describing. If you are describing something in a garage, the other half of the simile should probably come out of the world of garages and backyards, or at least what is possible in the mind of your character should govern it. So, in that sense, Larry Brown writes blue-collar imagery because, of course, his characters are blue-collar. So they aren’t thinking in terms of Waterford crystal. They are thinking in terms of carburetors or whatever.
Can you tell me what present projects you are working on?
Sure. The first thing is that I just finished a book on David Foster Wallace, who is another kind of contemporary influence, I guess. It’s buried, but it’s there. It’s called, Understanding David Foster Wallace. It’s another scholarly book; it’s a small book put out by the University of South Carolina Press and is part of a series of such books. I just got word last week that the manuscript is at the copy editors, so we are in the process of shaping it. It’s in the schedule for Fall, 2003, I think.
And then the other thing is a novel. There’s a story in the collection (Trouble With Girls) called “Between Things.” This story was the seed for the novel that I’m in the middle of right now getting agented. I will shop it around in the next month or so. It is called Alternative Atlanta. It is a father and son novel, cast in the present tense, and set in 1996 in Atlanta against the backdrop of the Olympics.
The hero is a thirty-year old rock critic who is coming to the end of his life as a hipster. The father who shows up at his doorstep is a widowed former-Methodist minister, now a kind of cheerfully nihilistic atheist who’s also possibly contemplating his own suicide; a very complex character. The novel traces their relationship during the two weeks of the Olympics.
If those early stories in the collection of Trouble With Girls were my way of killing off those Updike stories, of overcoming their influence on my writing, then this novel is a way to kill off the influence of the Rabbit books. I started it immediately after finishing the Rabbit study, and from the opening image and the opening sentences, you can see that it picks up right where Rabbit At Rest, the final Rabbit book, leaves off. One way to think about it, is that it kind of answers the Rabbit books in the sense that it is told from the point of view of the son rather than the father. It takes Updike’s kind of solipsistic Christianity and questions it from the perspective of someone from my generation, who is much more suspicious about the consolations of religious faith and much more attuned to Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism and mostly just pop and grunge rock-and-roll and stuff like that.
How about getting published? Can you give some advice to our readers who also write?
It’s what everyone says. Don’t let rejection letters knock you down. Send everything out all the time. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was, particularly if you write short stories, try to keep five circulating at all times. That way, if one comes back you can send it right back out. And there are always four more still out there. Hope springs eternal. You can use that book, the Literary Market Place, but if you are attached to a university the best thing you can do is to spend at least one day a month in the new periodical section and thumb through the magazines themselves. Make sure you have your editors right and so forth.
But the other thing I would say is, “Don’t stop revising.” A lot of the stories that are in this collection…you know, some of them date back as early as ten years. The ones that seemed to have a lot of spark, I kept going at them and kept sending them out. And the more I worked on them, the more I learned about how to get better. And I honestly feel that when you’re good enough, the publishers will find you as long as you are sending your stuff out there and getting it looked at. As the stories keep getting rejected, you might feel like you are being kept out of the Show. But, you also might find that if you keep working at it you’ll start getting noticed, as long as you are sending the stuff out.
Yeah. I mean, that first novel that got rejected; I walked around for years afterward with a sense of being unappreciated and misunderstood. But I can honestly see now that it wasn’t ready. It wasn’t ready, I wasn’t ready, my writing wasn’t there yet and it is only just now getting there. I am really conscious of it when I sit down and start revising. You’ll know when you are there.
What question would you like to be asked?
Um, that’s a good one. How about, What are my three favorite novels and why are they my favorites? That would be fun for someone to ask.
These aren’t the best novels that I have ever read—only my favorites. Letting Go by Philip Roth, an early Roth novel that just landed in my life at exactly the right time. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, for everything that is in it; for how disturbing and beautiful it is at the same time, but more than anything for the simple fact of the writing itself, the beauty of that prose. And Remembrance of Things Past, largely because if you actually finish that book, you have to put it on there (on the favorites list) because it takes you so long. But, also because, uh…There was a book that came out a few years ago called, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and I think that’s true of Proust. Remembrance of Things Past actually changes the way you approach your life, and it’s the closest thing I know to a secular/sacred text… It’s almost a religious vision without a God. Not many novels can offer that. So there’s my list right there.
© 2003, Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved