This interview was conducted by Hilary Plum, Book Review Editor for Kenyon Review.
Some summer evening we were walking back from the Kokosing River toward Kenyon College—we were teaching, or he was, and I was passing through—and Daniel Torday was describing a problem he was facing in the novel he’d been writing for years. There were two stories to tell, and the second had to be about how to tell the first. A true novelist’s problem: how do we tell both the story itself and the desperate story of its telling? Years passed, in which I worked with Daniel at the Kenyon Review, and eventually moved to Philadelphia, where we are neighbors. Then his novel arrived, and this is always the magic: you may know someone, but their work is something else, a complete mystery, a years-long possession whose traces are only belatedly, between these two covers, revealed.
The Last Flight of Poxl West is fully the novel Daniel wanted to write; this sounds like a truism, but it’s a triumph. The novel moves across Europe through the years of World War II, rendering the lives of its characters with vivid care and attention—Poxl Weisberg a refugee from Czechoslovakia who becomes a bomber pilot in London, a refugee among all those refugees trying to keep ahead of the war. We readers come to his story in Boston some forty years later, when Poxl has just published his memoirs: now his story unfolds through the eyes of his honorary nephew Eli. Through these intertwined narratives the novel enacts the urgent, rightly ambitious dilemma Daniel had that night movingly described; The Last Flight of Poxl West offers itself up as both gripping story and hard-won wisdom. It’s been my pleasure to speak with Daniel about his novel and its creation for the Kenyon Review.
Hilary Plum: The Last Flight of Poxl West takes on an aspect of World War II history that most of us know little if anything about: Jewish RAF pilots who participated in the bombing of Germany. Poxl West is one of these pilots and the novel includes his memoir, which has been published four decades after the events it describes. I wonder if you could talk about what drew you to this subject and what it was like to do the extensive research the novel must have required. Did anything unexpected happen as you grappled with this subject? What haunted or haunts you?
Daniel Torday: Well, without giving away more than we should, this is a novel that tries to ask some tough and wily questions about storytelling, so I should probably take the starting position that ultimately all of what’s in there is the product, purely, of my imagination. I’m not a historian, and this is a big fat fiction, this book. But I’ll also say I was lucky enough to host one of my heroes, James Salter, at a reading he gave a number of years back, after Last Night had just come out. And after a week of somewhat heated conversations with my students over what we’d all decided were very autobiographical stories in that book, Salter got up to read and the first thing he did was list a half dozen names of friends. Then he said, “Yes, they were all the inspiration for this narrator, and a couple other people, too.” Ironically, at the time I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that Salter himself had been a fighter pilot, and a Jewish one at that, with this whole other related history.
That said, the spark for The Last Flight of Poxl West did come after a week I spent with my grandmother’s first cousin, Honza, who did grow up north of Prague, and after fleeing to Rotterdam just before the war started, moved to London, where he trained to fly for the RAF. He was injured while training down in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and ended up working for British Airways. But in the next eight years of writing and research, I came to find an almost counter-history of a small number of Eastern European Jews who’d come to the UK before and during the war, and who participated in the war effort. There was an entire wing of the RAF comprised of Czechoslovakian refugees. A man who would go on to be Stanley Kubrick’s go-to set designer was an Eastern European Jew who flew for the RAF—he later designed the set for Dr. Strangelove, if you can wrap your mind around that (I can’t). I also just read a ton of self-published memoirs, talked to other surviving members of that generation, read RAF veteran magazines, imbibed this stuff.
And it’s funny you bring up haunting—because I’m also a huge W.G. Sebald fan, and after having taught The Emigrants for years, which I think of as being at bottom maybe the best ghost story ever written, I came to On the Natural History of Destruction, and got this whole other counterhistory of the Allied bombing of Germany, one that really no one talked about for decades and decades after the war. US and British bombers destroyed anywhere from half to 90% of more than 130 German cities, much of the bombing taking place after the war was all but decided. I just realized that while there were a number of stories I wanted to take on about Poxl West, and about his confidant, Eli Goldstein, who narrates the other half of the book, that this was all so much complicated material. I mean, the haunting for me is that other than Honza, a couple other cousins, and my grandparents, all of my father’s extended family was killed in the war. But then there’s being haunted by historical facts, and their emotional contrail, which is a whole other kind of ghost story.
HP: Yes, I’ve been thinking about the particular responsibility of attending to the stories of World War II at this moment, seventy years later, when so many of the remaining survivors and veterans of that war are leaving us. It’s hard to think that before too much longer the war of our grandparents will exist only as recorded and no longer in living memory. Your novel considers very acutely how we tell the stories of that war: whose experience, whose authority, whose truths must we answer to, and in what possible forms. I wonder, then, if you could talk a little more about the forms this haunting takes, about World War II in art and literature now, in 2015. (There’s the inimitable Sebald, yes, with his almost mystical blend of fiction and nonfiction, those floating photographs—how does he do it?) Are there ways World War II is being written about today—or ways it should be written about—that seem especially urgent to you?
DT: George Saunders has this great thing where he says that as writers, we know what we want to write about, but we don’t get to choose what we make live. I guess there are really two questions here—the first is personal. The majority of my father’s Eastern European family was killed during the war. So when I’ve sought the kind of big ur-stories in my background I might tell, those are the ones I’ve uncovered. It would be almost dishonest not to tell them. There’s always a second-, a third-generation war story to be told that becomes the story. One of my favorite recent-ish novels is David Grossman’s See Under: Love, and so much of that book is about how Israel felt in those days in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s when survivors raised their kids with the specter of the war behind them. That’s what so many of my favorite novels are about—look at Housekeeping, which isn’t about WWII (at one point Ruth observes of Fingerbone that “the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere”) but is about what we’re talking about here: how the trauma of previous generations comes to influence us, unconsciously, all the time. Ditto Absalom, Absalom!; The Book of Daniel; Goodbye, Columbus; Augie March… the list could go on long enough that another one will be published by the time I’m done listing. The truth is that I felt like I grew up with a next-generation version of that same specter every time I visited my Hungarian grandparents’ house, or even just growing up in my father’s home. So much of Eli’s story is about that emotional weight. And that’s not 70 years old. It’s here, right in my living room, now. This is probably absurd to say aloud, but I think about this awful root canal I had a decade ago—it was so serious the infection that necessitated it could have killed me—and how it still ached, those veins and capillaries in my face, a year later. Every once in a while I still get an atavistic ache. And I think: well, how could the multigenerational veins not still ache from a trauma like what people experienced across Europe in WWII?
The second question is, I guess, cultural. My first instinct is just that Shakespeare probably didn’t have to answer all that often the question, Really, a third Richard? Another Henry? Haven’t you taken on English royals enough? I could also mention that the most important novel about the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage, was published thirty years after the end of the war—and Crane was born after the war ended. But I’m no Stephen Crane and I’m sure as shit no Shakespeare! So probably I’d return to what I was saying about Sebald, who might be our Bard of this very subject: most of the conversation about the Allied bombing of Germany didn’t even start until the late 1990’s, and in part it restarted because Sebald himself restarted it. Our parsing of that side of this 70-year-old war is still young, and for me, it was a whole new view of what felt like settled facts. Some part of my coming-of-age years was definitely about trying to get out from under the thumb of a fixed sense of victimhood that could— rightly—accompany living in a family that had been victimized in the war. But unearthing these stories about Jewish heroes during the war? That shifted the emotional valences for me.
HP: You mentioned Eli, the novel’s teenage protagonist—for those who haven’t yet read the novel, I’ll say that in its structure we come to Poxl West’s memoir through Eli’s perspective; Poxl is a family friend. This means the novel achieves two distinct narrative styles, one for Eli’s story, and one for Poxl’s writings about the war. Could you talk about what went into these styles, their development for you? I sometimes think that each character in a novel may exist in a sort of sphere of sentences, sentences that share something (though it may be hard to say what) in their syntax and tone; then they may borrow from or bleed into one another’s voices. I don’t know if that’s how you would describe it, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on voice and the sentence.
DT: I think I generally have an idea for a voice—and then, in my subconscious, sentences coalesce. Sometimes the two processes have a relationship, and but more often, sadly, they don’t. For Poxl’s voice, I had this erudite-but-also-comically-intellectual Eastern European voice of an emigre after the war in mind. The first half of that came from the kind of sense memory of voices I heard in my grandparents’ house growing up, and the second half came from re-reading Nabokov’s Pnin and thinking, That’s what all those comically intellectual E. European emigres in my grandparents’ house sounded like! For a long time Poxl had a voice that was a little too antic. At some point the facts of the story, the pain he’d suffered and caused, came to tone it down. I didn’t plan to, but I wrote almost 20,000 new words after I got an edit from my wonderful first editor at St. Martin’s, Hilary Teeman (I’m lucky to now be working with the inimitable SMP editor-in-chief and poet George Witte), in which she asked for all the right things in all the right places, and much of that voice was just quieter, more ruminative. That layer came to give much more texture to Poxl as a character, I think—stories are about change in character, and sometimes when we think about voice in a novel, or grow too attached to aspects of language, syntax, I think we can get stuck disallowing change by sticking too stridently to an initial conception of voice. I read an interview with Denis Johnson recently where he says, “‘Voice—I don’t think of it as under my control.” Sounds about right—if Fkhead sounds the same in “Beverly Home” as he does in “Dundun,” Jesus’ Son is some whole other kind of book, and not half the perfection it is now.
But the generation of this book was strange, and I wouldn’t suggest anyone else try it. For years I worked on Poxl’s sections, and there was just an introduction and a postscript from the narrator of my first book to set the memoir up, and then interpret it. It didn’t do enough, felt flat, wasn’t dynamic. I stripped it out. How was I to get the scrim of the contemporary aspects of the book, and the reception of Poxl’s memoir, without it? I was stumped. I put it away. At some point six or seven years into work on it, I worked on a short story, about a kid named Eli and his uncle Saul, who had many similarities to Poxl, thinking it was just a way of getting this other storyline out of my system. I liked the story a lot. It was another year with that story in a drawer before it kind of hit me: what if I cut up the story, and interspersed it with Poxl’s memoir—much the way I’d done with the contemporary voice, only throughout? And it worked almost immediately. It took maybe six months of moving big chunks of text around, getting the right balance, doing a bunch of new writing as a kind of ligature to lash the bones together, and it just seemed to cohere. There was a new kind of synergy between the two voices, and it seemed to fly. I hope it does, anyway.
HP: I love that there was a yearlong delay between when you solved the problem and when you realized you had—that sounds about right, too. It’s in moments like this that one thinks, well, what wisdom could I gain or share from that? How much control is there, ever? Maybe such a moment could serve as a bridge to talk about the relationship between your work as a writer and as a teacher of writing. You’ve been teaching fiction at Bryn Mawr for a number of years now: how do your work at the desk and your work in the classroom speak to one another?
DT: Sometimes I feel like the metaphorical job description for a writer should read: “You know when your mom would walk around asking, ‘Where are my glasses?,’ when she was wearing them the whole time? Being a writer is like that, only with sentences, structure, characters.” Glasses on, but—where are my glasses? But the serious part of the metaphor is that I think it’s supposed to be that way. You can see just fine, but you’re blundering around going, Why can’t I see? Part of me feels like it’s because your subconscious gives you only what you can manage at the moment, while retaining the ability to move forward. If I’d had Eli’s voice, a whole second narrative, and I knew I had three separate summer-long trips to Eastern Europe for research and about two years of reading about the history of the RAF and of London during the Blitz, and the Allied bombing campaign, etc., I’m certain one of two things would’ve happened: I would’ve recognized that I was being way too ambitious and never even tried it, or I would’ve failed each task miserably after becoming totally overwhelmed by it all. So my mind tricked me into thinking I was looking around for my glasses when they were on all that time. Thanks, mind.
And I guess that is, in a way, why I love teaching. I’m not sure teaching is for everyone, and I’m not sure teaching creative writing is for everyone. I actually planned, after working as a magazine editor for years, to go back and get a PhD in English Lit. Took the GRE Literature test and everything. But I wanted the time to read and write, and the good people of the Syracuse MFA program gave it to me, in spades. I loved my time there. I learned so much. I want to give that back to my students now if I can. I recognize there can be problems with the workshop model, but I’m not one of its detractors. I try to concentrate with my students on things I feel confident can help: having as much time to read and write as possible. Playing matchmaker by naming the writers I think they should read. Providing firm deadlines. I’m lucky enough with the students from Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore to have young writers who are working at a certain level—and I think what they need is just to have their work described back to them, as clearly as possible. I’ve actually come to believe that early on, the process of reading fellow writers’ work closely might be the most useful part of workshop—if you can come to see your own work as clearly as you generally see another’s, that might be 80% of what you need. I can help them learn that muscle memory. I can read them closely, and then talk with them about their process. I love talking process—talking about how to cut off the Internet when working, how to switch between writer and editor of your own work draft to draft, how to re-name a Word file on a desktop, how long we write for in a given session and where. And I can do my best to see their work clearly enough to wait for the right moment to be able to say: Hey. Um, those glasses you’ve been searching everywhere for? They’re, uh… you’re wearing them.
HP: That is a good moment. Well, I wonder if I can then ask you a bit about process and form: your novella, The Sensualist, was published in 2012, by the independent press Nouvella Books, who are—as their name suggests—devoted to that longstanding but somehow under-recognized form, the book that’s too light on its feet to want to be a novel. Now, of course, your first novel is coming out (with St. Martins), and you also write nonfiction, with essays recently in Salmagundi, the Missouri Review, Paris Review Daily and elsewhere. You worked for some time at Esquire—which has been historically one of the big markets for short stories—and for several years now you’ve been a book-review editor with the Kenyon Review, helping cover a wide range of contemporary fiction and nonfiction, fostering conversation between books and readers. Could you talk about how your own work assumes (or manifests in?) different forms, as well as, perhaps, the different possibilities for these forms out there in the world?
DT: There’s this Isaac Babel story I love where young Babel’s grandmother grabs him by the shoulders and tells him he has to study everything, work harder, and she says, “You must know everything!” It’s kind of the Jewish outside-the-pale-of-settlement credo, maybe the eternal outsider’s credo. Or as a writer, probably just a bit more manic version of Henry James’ thing—you must be one of the people on whom nothing is lost. Which is to say when I’m idle, I suspect against my will I sit around thinking, “Man, I should be writing more sonnets, and how come I don’t really understand the rhyme scheme of a ghazal?” Seriously, I think the main answer is that the writers I love most are able to move fluidly between forms. I want to emulate them. Look at Denis Johnson, who has written poems, plays, serious journalism, stories, novellas, short novels, long novels, detective novels. That guy can do anything.
The less high-falutin’ answer is also that I think as writers, most of us end up doing as much what we’re allowed to do, as what we want to do. I hadn’t done any journalism as a kid—I wrote a florid obituary for Jerry Garcia for my high school newspaper and that was about it—but I lucked into a job at Esquire out of college. So I learned quick how to conduct an interview, how to report. I edited book reviews, features, columns, service journalism, special issues. I even got to pick a celebrity for the cover once. And while it might be the reformed hippie in me (see: that Garcia obit) I think on some level I mainly don’t want to be hemmed in by form, but just want to think about sentences, about writing the most beautiful apt line possible, and less about the genre it comes from. I’ve been working on an amorphous book-length nonfiction thing for a number of years, and while I hope one day to publish it as a cohesive book, I also pop pieces of it out all the time—when someone wants an essay from me, I work to give a piece of this big amorphous thing some shape, and call it an essay. I also write self-contained essays with no assignment in mind—like that Missouri Review piece you mentioned. But it’s nice to have this Word file full of loosely related, unpolished prose. Which is to say: sometimes I think you just write write write write write, and wait until later for someone to tell you what it is—“Hey, you know that bust of Alexander Hamilton you thought were sculpting? Turns out it was an ashtray.” As a novelist you get to say—“This is a goddamn ashtray, and that’s what the reader of fiction needs today! This ashtray.” And occasionally as an essayist, someone comes to you and says, “Hey, we need an ashtray.” And now I’ll stop saying the word “ashtray.” Would appear I miss smoking more than I knew.
HP: Well, here’s to all the future ashtrays you’ll write, and thank you for talking to me and to the Kenyon Review.
Daniel Torday‘s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, is just out with St. Martin’s Press. His novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. Torday’s stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train, n+1, the New York Times and Paris Review Daily. A former editor at Esquire, Torday serves as an editor at the Kenyon Review. He is Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College.
Hilary Plum is the author of the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (FC2, 2013). She is a book-review editor with the Kenyon Review and co-edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fence, the Seneca Review, Western Humanities Review, and Music & Literature.