Letting a Rock Roll Down a Hill: An Interview with Daniel Torday

Weston Cutter
April 6, 2012
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In just more than two days Daniel Torday’s The Sensualist will be released by Nouvella and first things first: the book’s a phenomenal read, sucking the reader in with what comes off as such a casual confidence that this reader, at least, was sort of shoved back in amazement for the first thirty plus pages: like the best of Elizabeth Hay or Dan Chaon, Torday’s book’s got such an organic momentum you find yourself needing to do other things but continually telling yourself, just one more page, just one more page. Set in the early 90s in Baltimore, the story traces a relationship between two guys, Dmitri and Samuel, and saying much more than that here isn’t that useful—there are women and sisters involved, grandfathers thick with loss and thin on communication, etc. The details are worth purchasing the book for and finding out on your own, but I’d urge you strongly to really, really get on and into The Sensualist: it’s fantastic fiction, and it’s among the best novellas I know of—seriously, this ranks up there with the heavies (“Legends of the Fall” and “River Runs Through It” being, for this reader, the absolute tops). Daniel was great enough to answer some questions over email over the last few days, with the following results:

WC: First, in the broadest sense, what or who are influences for you? The Sensualist is impossible to read without Dostoevsky in mind, but I’m curious if there were other things that hit its formation (I know you touched on this, mentioning “State of Grace” in another interview). Ultimately, the question I want to know–and the thing I think might be generative here–is how you see The Sensualist slotting into other contemporary fiction. Basically: I read Sensualist and liked it a whole lot, though I didn’t…it didn’t hit me in ways other contemporary fiction hits me. It seems like it’s trying to do some things that not a whole lot of other writers are trying to do—it makes not tiny and precise points, but instead works (I’d argue) symphonically, adding up to this big Meaning Thing by the end for the reader—there aren’t, I don’t think, the sort of tiny gratifications that accrue for the reader, not in the ways of other contemporary fiction. This is getting long and probably unwieldy at this point, so I’ll yield to you. (Obviously: this is where lots of my interest with this book lies, if only in the way that each book anyone writes is somehow a clue or corrective to what’s being written. Your book asks different questions of the reader, and provides different pleasures, than lots of contemporary stuff—at least contemporary stuff I track and register—and I’m curious about what that means or how you think of it, if you do, or how you disagree with it, if that’s the case.)

DT: Saul Bellow says somewhere that “a writer is a reader moved to emulation.” I love that. I think the short answer is that no one handed me any Philip Roth until very late, until I was 24 or so. I picked up Goodbye, Columbus- the novella in particular– and it changed everything for me. It’s not that I didn’t know that you could write about being Jewish, or that there were such thing as suburbs. But there was some insular way in which until my mid-20’s I was almost like Nella-Larsen-style passing, trying in some subtle way not to come off as a Jew. I read that Roth book and I thought, Wait, you can write about this? I’ve read where Hemingway claims that the big influence Ulysses had on him was just the sense that some whole area of candid writing about sex was suddenly in play, and in a weird way, the experience of writing about being a Jew opened up for me in that way after reading Roth. Now, I’m sure this isn’t a novel experience for a second-half-of-the-20th-century Jewish writer. But I will say there’s something different in reading Roth than, say, Singer or Malamud. You could read all of Augie March without really knowing Bellow was Jewish– the same almost feels true of Seize the Day, save for the fact it takes place on Yom Kippur.

A different way to say this: I read somewhere that Updike claimed he wrote Rabbit, Run in response to Kerouac’s On the Road. You would never make that association after reading Updike’s first book–I sure didn’t anyway– but once I heard it, there was a certain deep syntax to its accuracy: Updike read Kerouac and said, That’s not what it’s like to be in your mid-20’s in America right now, running down to Mexico and riffing on what the word “mañana” means and seeing big Pooh-bear Buddhas everywhere. It’s more like watching TV commercials, then trying to run away symbolically through the woods for 20pp. In some way, I think my sitting down to write this novella was in response to a certain kind of Jewish book like, say, Everything is Illuminated. I made a big old fraught pilgrimage to the family cemetery north of Budapest when I was in my 20’s, and I have to say: very little was illuminated. Mostly there were mosquitoes and vines growing over headstones. It was not my experience that some huge epiphany took place in tracing my family roots. I don’t say this to criticize the kind of story a writer like Foer writes in any facile way– it just wasn’t my experience. The liquidation of Hungarian Jews was its own anomalous thing. Hungary was an Axis power. For years the country’s Regent was able to keep his Jewish populace alive, in part by creating a system of labor camps Jewish men were forced to work in– until the end of the war, when the liquidation of Hungary’s Jews was the most rapid of the whole war. More than 400,000 Jews deported in just a couple months. So my grandfather was in a forced labor camp, but he was most likely doing things like loading bombs onto planes that might eventually land on, say, England. That’s a very different kind of war story. I’d just say that I’ve felt for a long time it would take a different kind of story to try to address it. It articulated itself through this story of Samuel and Dmitri and the way they dealt with these things decades later.

WC: You mentioned in the Ervin interview that this book took quite awhile, and I guess the flattest and simplest q is: why? More specifically and deeply: what about this book took such time for you? I’m asking here, not with any attempt at sneakery, about voice and style—was it plot stuff that made this book take time? Was it voice? I’m fascinated by Sam’s first-person voice, and how it developed, and also with the weirdly mundane-but-charged way in which the plot unfolds. However you’d like to address either aspect is totally, totally fine, obviously.

DT: I hosted Jhumpa Lahiri at Bryn Mawr College, where I teach, last year, and in talking to my students she described the way she works on stories, the desktop of her computer, as being like the burners on a stovetop–lots of documents, and you pick which one is hot on a given day. That’s the closest I’ve ever heard to how I work. Which is to say I started this novella seven years ago, but I did a lot of other things– I had a kid, got married, lost a lot of hair on top of my head, watched all of The Wire and Battlestar Galactica. In the time since I started The Sensualist I’ve also been working on a long novel, and a short story collection, and this weird nonfiction book about the same material, a piece of which was in the Harvard Review recently. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I tell my students that writers tend to fall into two camps, process-wise: painters or sculptors. The painters tend to layer image, meaning, brushstrokes. They need enough time to let the paint dry. Sculptors can’t get down to sculpting until there’s a lot of clay/granite to cut into (it’s at this point I joke that writers who are like potters just need to decide if they’re making a vase or an ashtray). I guess this is a way of saying that at least during the time I was working on this novella, I was a sculptor (I actually think I’ve been migrating toward the painter camp of late). I mean, there was a draft of this that was over 100K words. It wasn’t very good. I don’t know if the published version is good, but it’s a whole lot more complete than that big ol’ slab of concrete I started out with.

I also suspect it can take time to work within a framework that’s too small for a book before you find its shape. At the risk of going overboard with the metaphors above, I sometimes think what a long work needs is a certain amount of scaffolding that you know will have to go at some point, but which you need there so your little workers can climb up and make the facade beautiful (OK, metaphor officially spent). There was, for a very very long time, this awful ending where Sam taught Dmitri how to play football, and then there was a big, capital-S Symbolic flag football game at the end. Sam and Dmitri end up on different teams, and for way too many pages they vie for a single hail mary pass. At some point I realized there was way too much at stake for these characters not to follow the simple causal logic of the story: if Dmitri really did beat Goldstein, he’d get caught. He’d go on trial. I was afraid for a long time of finding out what would happen. So I took a week one summer when I was in grad school and went and listened in on these juvenile trials that the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services let me sit in on. From there the story got easier. What I mean with that scaffolding metaphor is that I could beat myself up for days about how stupid the original ending was. But I suspect my subconscious was saying, If you have to take all that on, too, you won’t be ready to handle it. By the time the rest of the story was in place, it was like letting a rock roll down a hill. I don’t know if it reads that way, but it felt that way at the time.

WC: Simply because I’m asking you these questions for the Kenyon Review, for which you operate as a Book Review editor: what has the experience of pushing your gray matter against other books done to your writing? I’m asking this as greedily and personally as I’m asking it objectively and for public consumption.

DT:  I sure have been talking about books a lot, haven’t I? Sorry. I believe that’s because I’m a NERD. But you know, my first job out of college was as an editor at Esquire Magazine, where I worked for almost five years. I edited book reviews there, too. That experience was part of why I left to get an MFA at Syracuse. I wanted to be writing fiction, and thought I could do it on the side. I’d come home from a long day of reading, say, a new Sedaris piece and then a big fashion thing on corduroy and then I’d write a review of the new Jim Shepard novel and then sit on the D train and see someone reading Sound and the Fury and someone else looking at the new Eugenides novel and I’d get home and sit down and… garrrrhhh! This isn’t quite what Bloom meant by “the anxiety of influence,” but it was all full of anxiety and influence. I didn’t even think of applying to MFAs in New York. What I needed was, say, 170 inches of snow for the winter, a fireplace, not one single band I’d heard of coming through town, and some pretty lakes in the summer. That’s what Syracuse had to offer: peace. I could read just what I wanted. I hosted Ha Jin last year, too– he and Jhumpa Lahiri were in the same workshop at BU, by the way, taught by Aharon Appelfeld, in which he only had students read from the Torah, if you can wrap your mind around any of those facts– and he talked about how when he’s working on a book, he only reads the writers that influence him. During the writing of a Chekhovian book of stories like The Bridegroom, he only reads Chekhov. Only. A novel influenced by Dostoyevsky, only Dostoyevsky. Oddly, it seems the only influences he could identify are Russians. A fact for which, you can imagine, I have a lot of affinity.

WC: I’ve found myself tending to write about geography and place (and, again, I know you addressed some of these things in the Ervin interview), so I’m curious: what’s Baltimore writing look like? Do you consider The Sensualist as fundamentally a Baltimore book? I write midwest, for the record, and I haven’t an effing clue on how to answer this stuff, so I’m asking as much to steal your eventual answer as I am to illuminate some larger issue. Or there’s the other part of the question, given how you answered in the Ervin interview: is The Sensualist less a Baltimore book and more a placeless book, something written by someone who called Baltimore home for a time but not permanently? Any thoughts on this are welcome.

DT: I’m coming up on having lived in Philadelphia for almost six years, which will make this the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. I lived in Baltimore for five years in my teens; in Ohio for four years for college; New York for more than four years in my twenties; in a number of different towns outside of Boston when I was a kid. In some real way, I really don’t feel like I have a home town. I just know that when I see someone in a Yankees hat, some simian part of my brain wants me to bear my teeth. Seriously: place matters. I could go on about how my Diaspora-Jewish family was robbed of that, but that would be a little grandiose, I fear. Instead I’ll say I remember when I first moved to Baltimore, at gym class kids would say they were heading for the “wooder fountain” and I literally wouldn’t know what they were talking about. I think these kinds of regionalisms or just accents can seem trivial, even cliché to talk about (those Bostonians, always dropping their Rs!), but they’re also in some real way about how we come to get on in the world. I didn’t know what these other kids were talking about literally for weeks, solely going by their words– I had to follow them to the hallway, thirsty as all get-out, to realize they were going to the water fountain. Or “bubblah” (read: bubbler) as my other, Bostonian, grandmother would’ve said. I wouldn’t have known what she was talking about, either.

There’s a great Flannery O’Connor essay called something like “The Regional Writer” that I teach every semester. It’s just a talk she gave to some writing students at a class she visited in which she browbeats them for having no idiomatic language in their stories. I wouldn’t say I gave it any thought while I was working, but I suspect my trying out Dmitri and Yelizaveta’s broken English was a way of working through the emotional experience of listening to my grandparents’ Hungarian accents my whole life. Hungarian is about as far from English as you can get– it’s part of its own language group, Finno-Ugric, with only Finnish as a brother. Even after living in NY for almost a half a century, my grandfather really never got the hang of English. When my grandmother was alive, he’d always stop mid-sentence and say, “Mother”– addressing her– “mother, how do you say” and then he’d spout off a paragraph in Hungarian. He outlived her by almost 15 years, and by the end he had just kind of fallen in on himself, like a house left to raccoons and the wind. It was too painful for me to really go after his speech– though of course the grandfather in this novella does speak some. My grandfather did one of those Shoah Foundation videos Spielberg bankrolled, telling his war story, and I watched that to pick up some ticks– instead of saying he did something, he’d always say he “did do” something (“Daniel, I did go with your grandmother to Budapest this summer”). But with Dmitri, I felt like I could listen to the memory of the voices I’d heard in my high school, of recent immigrants, and trust myself to know the striations of how they learned. I actually took a bunch of tapes out of the library at one point to learn how to speak with a Russian accent, these tapes for actors to train for Russian-accented roles. They were only a little helpful. But it sure did make my car rides with that tape in the stereo weird for a while.

WC: This question demands to be asked, given your background in Esquire and the fact of who is putting out this book, and how it’s being released—though please know you needn’t at all entertain the question if it’s not interesting, which, who knows, but it is: what are your thoughts on the state of publishing? Do you think the experience of The Sensualist on a device is equivalent with an experience of it as book/object? (For the record: I’m less and less clear of my own thoughts on this topic, so I’m asking you as much to clarify as anything).

DT: I remember a couple years back on a literary website I sometimes find myself staring at as a guilty pleasure, a writer posing the ponderous question: if Ulysses was written today, would it be published? And I don’t comment on websites, so instead I shouted real loud at my screen, “The actual Ulysses wasn’t published!” Not the way the question was being asked, the way the word “published” was being used it wasn’t. Some bookstore owner in Paris named Sylvia Beach published a very limited run of the book. A decade-and-a-half and one long, precedent-setting obscenity trial later, Random House put the book out. By then, everyone who wanted to had already read it. Which is to say, sometimes when we say, Oh, my, people are self-publishing! I want to say, you know who self-published? Hemingway self-published. Who knows what would’ve happened if he hadn’t gotten In Our Time into Edmund Wilson’s hands. Gertrude Stein self-published essentially everything she wrote. At bottom, I really believe that good work will find its way into the hands of readers and if it’s lucky, into the hands of a lot of readers.

When I was at Esquire, the magazine was going through a period where we were essentially phasing out running fiction every month in favor of, say, three times a year. Did this make me sad? Sure. This is the magazine that published “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and the first chapters of Portnoy’s Complain, Herzog and The Crying of Lot 49—not to mention all the early Carver and Barry Hannah. But I also understood that it was part of the magazine’s needing to survive (and also, it seems fiction’s on its way back to appearing more frequently). It’s a fact that in the early ‘90’s Esquire was on a death watch. And David Granger came in and saved the magazine from near-certain death. I mean, there was a cover of Esquire in the late ‘80’s of John Updike with his elbow on Saul Bellow’s shoulder, both of them in cardigans. Inside there was a photo shoot with, say, TC Boyle in an orange vest, or Ishmael Reed in a purple Armani sweater. I guess I’d say this: if it’s a choice between a million readers seeing Bellow in a cardigan or 50,000 readers actually reading a Bellow story in a small magazine, I actually don’t think there’s much perseverating. I’m going with the small magazine every day of the week. I don’t give a shit what TC Boyle looks like in jeans, and I’ll bet you dollars to iambs no one else does, either.

All that said, I do also understand that I wrote piece of reportage when I was at Esquire that went out in front of a million readers. Clearly far more people called me from airports to say they’d seen my work while buying Mentos and expensive bottled water. Now here we are, talking about a little hyper-literary book of an odd length that’s all full of references to Dostoyevsky and Fitzgerald. Do I hope it catches like wildfire and finds a readership? Of course. But I think that can’t be my concern. My job is just to hope the sentences all sound right, and that I’m telling the best story I can. The last thing I’ll say is just that I’ve had so much input at Nouvella Books. I got choices of covers, and my inimitably talented editor Deena Drewis seems to have understood from the first moment exactly what I was trying to do with this book in a way I could only have dreamed of. She gave it a much better title, one that focuses what it’s about from the outset. I think the physical object looks great. Nouvella has a real novel approach to trying to sell print books and ebooks. Would I have gotten this attention and input at a big house? I don’t know. I just know I feel very lucky to have gotten it at Nouvella.

WC: This might be over the line, but given how you wrote above about what this book comes out of, I’m curious: what do you want people to walk from the thing getting? Forgive the clunky language: I’m teaching intro to lit and have found the most useful phrase to regularly deploy is to ask the students to decide what they’re being given by the work in question. Maybe this q’s without merit or significance, I’m not sure, but I do wonder–about this book, about most books–what the author ultimately wishes the reader’d leave the read with, other than a pleasant aesthetic experience. Attack any aspect of this question you want, if it seems batshit.

DT: There’s a moment in the letters where Chekhov’s famous editor, Suvorin—who also published Dostoyevsky– complains that he’s not properly answered some big philosophical question. I love and live by Chekhov’s answer: “It doesn’t seem to me that it’s the job of the writers of fiction to decide questions like God, etc. The writer’s task is only to describe those who have said or thought something… The artist should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness.” Now I sure as shit am not Chekhov. But I take him to mean something like: As long as it seems like I’ve answered the questions I’ve raised in a given story, and as long as these characters feel like real characters who lived and breathed, I’ve done what I’ve set out to do. So I guess I’d ask back: does that feel true of this novella? I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask. I’m just the guy who wishes to God the answer is yes.

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