I read The Sensualist in a night. This in and of itself is not a great achievement, because The Sensualist is a novella. What’s amazing is that the next day, I started it again. To say The Sensualist is a coming-of-age story would be accurate but limiting, as it wouldn’t encompass the weariness and heartbreak of the young people its author, Daniel Torday, so wonderfully portrays.
Torday’s first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, tells stories within stories, all building the larger picture of the danger of promise and the fallibility of heroes. Strewn about the novel are careful, subtle details that speak volumes about the lives of Eli Goldstein, a teenager in Massachusetts, and Poxl West, Eli’s uncle, and the author of the World War II memoir Skylock. I wanted to devour Poxl West in the same way I had The Sensualist, but those small moments—and the ripple effects they created—forced me to pace myself.
I had the great pleasure of talking to Torday about bringing The Last Flight of Poxl West to life. I also found myself unable to test someone who describes himself as “constitutionally unoffendable,” because he’s just so damn nice.
The Rumpus: To start at an obvious starting point: What was the first spark for The Last Flight of Poxl West?
Daniel Torday: This is definitely a chicken/egg one for me, since there were kind of two threads that got woven together. The first was that I’d been hung up on the idea of trying to write a book that dramatized the fabrication of facts in a memoir. Around the time I got started, the James Frey controversy had blown up, and I found it endlessly fascinating, and as an idea far more complicated than it was being treated in the media. But I sometimes think the hardest thing about writing a novel is maintaining interest for the years it takes to finish, not getting so sick of it you just give up. So what kind of memoir could I trump up, and toy with, that wouldn’t wear over the years of making it?
As a matter of coincidence—or maybe luck I made for myself—right around that same time I made a summer-long trip to Eastern Europe, tracking down some family lore that I thought might make for a good novel. I met with my grandmother’s first cousin in London on my way back from Prague, and he told me about his time training for the RAF. Somehow the two nodes seemed to meet immediately and give off heat. In a weird way, I kind of think the spark for all of this was more naturally essayistic than it is novelistic—I’m thinking here of Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” where the spark is that coincidence-not-exactly-a-coincidence of his father dying the same day as the Detroit riots. That kind of mashing two related-ish facts together has probably spawned a thousand essays (and try as we all might, not one of them will ever touch Baldwin, the master). I’m not sure it was intentional, but looking back, something of the same pushed me into this novel.
Rumpus: That all makes perfect sense. I would always tell my students that they know when they have an idea for a novel when it gets so big they can’t help but write some of it down.
Torday: That sounds right to me. I remember reading somewhere that Stephen King says he gets a first sentence in his head, and then he sees if he can remember it every night before bed. If he still has it in mind after a month of that, he’ll get started. It’s funny—when I was in my 20s I had this idea that you were supposed to be inspired before writing. I’d sometimes literally pull the car over on the highway to write down a sentence if it felt exciting. Embarrassing. But these days I tend to think that manic moment of inspiration is the worst possible time to write. Now, when I get a sentence in mind, I push it away. If it finds its way back a week, a month later, that’s when I’ll be willing to open a Word file and type it—and then, with luck, at break-neck speed, trying to see what kind of momentum it generates. I’m not sure if that was quite how it went with Poxl in every scene, but it’s definitely how the Eli voice emerged—all at once, in a rush, but then I pushed it away until I was ready to write.
Rumpus: Where was that on the timeline with The Sensualist?
Torday: It’s weird—I had a 70pp draft of Poxl before I ever started the novella. I’m super-duper neurotic, and I’ve always got like 13 projects going on my desktop at the same time. It’s like my computer is this big old literary hedge fund set up against writer’s block, or protecting me from letting my own neuroses grind my prose into dust. But the spark for The Sensualist was a lot more organic—my wife was getting a post-bacc at Bennington and I was getting an MFA at Syracuse, and on weekends I’d drive across senescent upstate NY, through Albany and Troy and Poughkeepsie, and all weekend I’d sit in the tiny Bennington library writing while she made plastic models of molecules to study organic chemistry. Her thing seemed way more interesting than mine, and still is. And one morning I got down the first 10pp or so of the novella, all at once. Then it stalled. And I went back and forth between the two for years—like, four or five years—waiting to see which was done first. Not sure this is a smart way to work—one novel full of homework to do, one novella that was basically just plumbing memory and making shit up—but it worked for me at the time. Maybe now I need to start two new books, but I’ve only got one going.
Rumpus: What was contained in those ten pages that spoke to you enough to return to them? The sheer rush of writing them?
Torday: That was some of it—but some of it was just landing on a character who felt real enough to me to want to follow him. These first two books have had that in common: a character who really drove the narrative. The spark for that novella was an idea that felt fruitful enough to get typing: Samuel Gerson looks up one day in the locker room to see that one of the Russian immigrant kids in his class is wearing his own hand-me-down sweatshirt that his mother donated to their synagogue’s clothing drive. I liked the poetry of that action. But it wasn’t until the kid wearing it turned into this character of Dmitri Zilber, who was himself based on Dmitri from The Brothers Karamozov, that it felt like the book itself had momentum. The sweatshirt thing got me going. But finding a human full of life and vigor and anger and energy made it into an idea for a book. And for what it’s worth I felt something like that as soon as I picked up The Kept—that sense that this huge ugly tragedy got the book moving, but it was your deep engagement with Elspeth as a character that really gave it teeth. Hope that feels accurate.
Rumpus: How conscious were you of doing something different in the writing of Poxl?
Torday: I guess in the moment where the nucleus divided, and I saw that Poxl and Eli would each have their own full-blown narratives, I grew aware I’d have a whole new set of challenges. But it’s funny—I don’t know about you and your awesome novel-writing instincts, but for me I’m always working with a draft that’s got some weird scaffolding that just doesn’t work at all, knowing at some point it’ll have to go but not having the temerity to jettison it. So in this case, the original draft had a single thread of another young narrator—Sam Gerson from the novella, if you can believe it—coming to visit Poxl at his home in London, and asking after his stories. And Poxl would start talking, and then Sam would break in. It was meant to be comic and antic, but it mainly just came off as annoying and unconvincing. So it was a long, long process of deciding to ditch Sam, then letting Poxl narrate for hundreds of pages (including a long diversion to Rhodesia that I had to cut entirely), and then figuring out how on earth to streamline and justify his narration. Not a smart or efficient process. But I think in the end I might just have pulled it off.
Rumpus: I hope you don’t take offense at this, but I’m looking for a thread in some of these things, and the idea that you a) had a hard time settling on a single project, b) had a thread that you knew wasn’t working, and c) parsed the whole thing in the idea that it’s more essayistic in nature maybe felt more comfortable with your journalism background, I wonder what role fear played in your work at that time. How has your confidence level changed? Has it changed with the reception of these two books?
Torday: I am constitutionally unoffendable, and this is a remarkably perceptive question. If you’re not careful you’ll end up with a job as my therapist instead of my interviewer (pays better). It’s funny—I think there was an almost exact mix of fear and freedom in working on those first two books in the dark. I had an office job through much of my twenties, where some part of the job was just being there. I mean, there was plenty of work to do, but as a junior editor, some of your job is just to be present. Then I left to get an MFA, and later to teach, and there was this sense of: oh, YES!, I have no boss anymore. And right after that huge welling-up of freedom, there was this attendant fear that came to fill the void, a sense of, Oh, god, now every responsibility is only to the quality of the work. There’s fear in that, sure, but also a huge sense of freedom, in lockstep.
I’ll also say that I hope to keep both the fear and the freedom as I get further into the next project I’ve been working on for the past year. I’m guessing that’s what people mean when they say to “stay hungry” (though probably they mean that a little literally, too). I noted right after the Times reviews of Poxl came out, a lot of people were asking me about what risk I was taking in having written my own New York Times Book Review review of Poxl’s memoir. And the honest answer was, I felt no compunction in that one at all, because I honestly never fully believed the book would see the light of day. So it was just play, play, play. In draft I’d actually attributed the review to one of the major NYTBR critics of the era, Anatole Broyard, and changed it when my editor thought that might be taking it too far. I would’ve left it, to be honest, if she hadn’t said so (I do everything she tells me, because she’s a genius). As I say—I had some fear the book wouldn’t be published, and I’d have spent a decade working on a book that never found a readership. But there was an immense freedom in that, too.
Rumpus: How are you going to hang onto that fear for your next book? I think about this all the time, which is probably why I asked you, and probably why I’d be a shitty therapist, because it would all be self-reflexive. “So tell me about your father and how it reflects upon my father?” That kind of thing. How do you maintain that sense of freedom through fear?
Torday: That’s the gambit, isn’t it? For the next thing I’m working on, part of it is to try some craft moves that I’m not sure I can pull off. I feel like that’s the freedom/fear thing for each project: to try to do more than you can do. So in this case, all three voices in my first two books are told in the first person, and I’m trying my hand now at a third-person book. The third-person narrators are close thirds, close to two or three different main characters. I’ve always been deathly afraid of the third-person—somehow it always just felt like tennis-without-a-net to me. I guess that’s what I mean by the fear and the freedom. All kinds of new freedom to let a third-person narrator roam free—”romp free as the mind of god” was Fitzgerald’s phrase in Gatsby—and the fear of what it’s like to live without boundaries for the life of the draft ahead. But some of it is also content in this next thing—I can say very broadly that it’s an attempt to dramatize a generational battle between Baby Boomers and Millennials. I’m pretty sure it’s possible I might piss off, say, a whole generation. Or two. Knowing there’s a sense of provocation there, chancing the ire of a certain reader, helps to ignite that sense of fear and freedom.
Rumpus: Speaking of, did The Sensualist receiving the National Jewish Book Award for Outstanding Debut Fiction (2012) make you more aware of your identity as a Jewish writer? Obviously it was an incredible honor, but I wonder what effect it’s had on you.
Torday: This is a complicated one for me—I’m not a terribly devout Jew. For me Judaism has always been a bit more cultural than religious. So I’m not sure the idea of “Jewish writer” was one I’d really wanted or not wanted—it just hadn’t really occurred to me to think in those terms until that award arrived. But what it did for me that has increased my sense of that freedom we were talking about above is in making me feel comfortable with a set of writers I’ve been reading forever, and who clearly influence the way I think of sentences, who had a shared Ashkenazi lineage, from Roth to Bellow to Babel to Bezmozgis to Michaels and on down the line. That’s not to ignore a similar influence from Hempel to Hannah to Wolff to Saunders, who read a lot of those guys, too. But there’s a weird comfort in it—again, more in the sound of the sentences than in some common experience of worship, I think.
Bellow actually feels familiar to me in the way he talked about being a “Jewish writer”—it just never sat entirely comfortably in him, and yet Herzog might be his masterpiece (it coincidentally or not gets name-checked in Poxl), and it’s surely his most immediately Jewish book. I’m crazy for this passage from that novel: “The children of the race, by a never-failing miracle, opened their eyes on one strange world after another, age after age, and uttered the same prayer in each, eagerly loving what they found.” And I guess I’d say that while there’s an emotional starkness for me in hearing him clearly mean “Jewish” when he says “the race,” I’ve always felt the squirrelliness of that phrase was subconsciously there to allow the reader to interpolate “Islamic” or “Hindu” or “Muslim” or “doggedly rational humanist,” if that makes sense. I can’t deny that I have an affinity for and fascination with people who believe things, and whose beliefs come from a belief system. Growing up Jewish gave me that, but it’s given me a capacious sense of how broad the effect could be.