April 2nd, 2012

Boundaries Drawn by Light and Time: An Interview with Daniel Torday

Interviewed by Andrew Ervin

Daniel Torday’s startling and carefully crafted debut, a novella titled The Sensualist (Nouvella Books), is the first-person account of Samuel Gerson, a teenager living with his parents in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in the Baltimore suburb of Pikesville during the early-1990s. The coming-of-age story focuses on Samuel’s relationship with a recent Russian émigré Dmitri and, to a smaller extent, with Dmitri’s sister Yelizaveta. Dmitri models himself as a Dostoyevskian anti-hero and the spirit of the Russian master lingers in the margins of every page. 

The setting of The Sensualist is vital to Torday’s success in creating such vivid and lifelike characters. Living within a Jewish enclave provides Samuel with one sense of identity, but even within that community there exist factions—the newly arrived Russians are outsiders. On top of that, the goings-on are (with only a few exceptions) confined to the neither-here-nor-there suburbs of Baltimore. Those of us who grew up in the suburbs will understand the ennui captured here so beautifully. Furthermore, Baltimore is a city that while below the Mason Dixon Line isn’t exactly Southern, as we typically think of it, but it’s not exactly Northern either. The confusion is palpable. Being a teenager is difficult enough for any of us, but Torday’s sense of placelessness here makes Samuel’s plights all the more intense.

One passage in particular has lodged itself in my brain and I’d like to quote it here at length; it’s, I think, the most profound and lovely image I’ve read in a new work of fiction this year. The confusion about a map—about geographical space—speaks to many of the story’s thematic concerns:

Back in the living room we scanned what was left. We’d already packed most of it. The table at the middle of the living room was covered by a strange map, land masses described by odd geometric borders that might have been Soviet states or Hungarian counties, and it took me a moment to realize that this was only the sun-bleached pattern left around the darker spots where all the tchotchkes once sat: boundaries drawn by light and time. They’d sat so long in the same places they’d left behind an indelible print.

Though Torday and I live about five miles apart, we’ve had trouble catching up in person recently and so conducted this interview via email over a few days in late March. 

As of this writing it’s two weeks until the publication of your first book, which I absolutely loved for reasons I hope to articulate in this interview. What’s going through your mind?

The desire to take benzodiazepines regularly? Will that cover it? Seriously: I think the first thing to say is that you’ve buried the answer in your question. For so many years—I’m vaguely embarrassed to say these 170pp. took seven or so years to write—you work work work on sentences, on scenes, on researching the stuff you don’t know, and then you pick your head up every six months or so and print your document out and think, Is it possible that someone could ever absolutely love this book? So your simply saying “love” and “first” and “book” in a sentence that doesn’t read, “First things first: no one could ever love this book,” is working a little like Valium on me right now, only with words. And with my retaining the ability to operate heavy machinery.

There are any number of great literary references and allusions here—Melville, Fitzgerald, Poe, Eliot—but let’s start with the obvious one. We have a fifteen-year-old kid in Dmitri who is modeling his behavior after a Dostoyevsky character, even after it lands him in trouble. His sister appears to be named after Stinking Lizaveta from The Brothers Karamazov. What does Dostoyevsky mean to this world you’ve created?

A number of years back I was in Eastern Europe doing research for a long historical novel I’d hoped to write. On a 40-hour train ride from Budapest over to meet a friend in Sofia, Bulgaria, I sequestered myself with The Brothers Karamazov. I’d always loved Dostoyevsky. I loved the outsized characters, the sense of such a strong moral backbone. And at some point as I was watching Dmitri Karamazov bursting into his father’s house, breaking things and wreaking havoc, I thought: what would it be like if this guy was living in Baltimore in the ‘90’s? How long would our culture put up with this chaos? And for a long time I think I thought I’d try to write that book: literally a Dostoyevskian sensualist, a character from the novels, is living in the U.S., and can’t possibly survive it. But then I got to thinking that through, trying it out in notebooks, and my conception of the book grew into something different. When I was a kid in Baltimore there were tons of Eastern European Jewish immigrants at this public high school where I went. And I’d hear these stories: one day some kid just started stabbing another kid in the neck with a mechanical pencil, and the teachers couldn’t discover his motives because he didn’t really speak English yet, so they just let him loose. No second chances, no further questions. Another kid punched a smaller kid so hard his glasses broke and the wire popped his eyeball right out of his head.

Looking back on it now I’m sure those tales of violence were to some extent apocryphal. But they stuck. They gave you this sense that somehow you’d better steer clear. But then there I was, sitting on that train to Bulgaria, having just left my cousins’ house in the Buda hillsmy father is from Budapest, and some family made it through the war there by converting from Judaism and becoming functionaries in the Party, which is its whole own storyand I thought: why would this Dostoyevskian sensualist need to move in place and time (and reality)? I was a feral little second-generation Hungarian kid myself, constantly bucking whenever I was told to do anything I didn’t want to do. So why couldn’t this Dmitri character just be a Muscovite who’d come to that school, and who was pushing against the same constraints I’d pushed againstthat we all push against as teenagers? I mean, I take Dostoyevsky’s idea of a sensualist not just to be a hedonist, someone purely bent on pleasureif he’d meant that, he would’ve said so. But the beginning of Book Two of Brothers K isn’t called “The Hedonists.” It’s called “The Sensualists.” It’s something a little more nuanced, more tortured, than just a Dmitri Karamazov hell-bent on pleasure.

To put it another way: I really, really like Dostoyevsky. He has his limitationshis books are mostly just comprised of people sitting in drawing rooms speechifying. Nabokov famously said “there is no weather in Dostoyevsky,” and felt he should’ve been a playwright, since there’s virtually no physical description to be found in his novels. And I really like to describe things, so I can’t take everything from him. Plus he was a dogmatic Christian, and I’m a neurotic cultural Jew. In many ways the biggest aesthetic influences I can identify are actually mid-century Jewish writersBellow and Roth and Leonard Michaels and, maybe to a larger extent, Harold Brodkey, whose short story “The State of Grace” might have been the biggest influence on the sound of this novella. But still… those characters in Dostoyevsky. Those characters.

Can you tell me how the setting informs these characters and your depictions of them?

The easy answer: I lived just outside of Baltimore, in Pikesville, for the four years I was at high school. I learned to drive there, and before GoogleEarth, driving was the way we came to understand the layout of our world, empirically. So I know the area, and felt I could write about it with some degree of confidence.

But that’s not a very interesting answer. You know, after Nathan Englander’s first novel came out, set in Argentina, I heard him say in an interview that any qualms readers had with his depiction of Buenos Aires weren’t an issue for him, because he wasn’t writing about that city. He had made his own version of the city. And I think that works for me here, too. I mean, I have four years of adolescence-and-other-substances-obscured memories of Baltimore. Is my Reisterstown Road the same one the Baltimore Ravens drive down to get to their practice facility? I believe Heraclitus would’ve pointed out that the Ravens were still in Cleveland when I moved away from that fair city.

Now, that said, I did do a bunch of research for this book. The only Baltimore I’d been near for years by the time I started writing was the one David Simon put on the screen in the greatest television show ever made, The Wire, if the parameters for television shows is how much they are like novels. I’m a little embarrassed to say I actually started watching The Wire thinking I was doing “research” in preparation to write this bookor the ending of it, anyway, once Dmitri starts sliding down toward being arrested. I tried not to let Dmitri end up in juvie for a long time. I wrote draft after awful draft of an ending where Samuel and Dmitri just got in a fight in Dmitri’s back yard; there was a 25pp. scene at one point of the two of them vying for a hail mary pass in a flag football game. That’s a lot of pages to keep a football hanging in the air. I mean, I honestly at some point thought that would be a good ending. It became clear at some point that was way too small for the reality of Dmitri’s situation. But somehow I was lucky enough never to have been sent to Hickey, the notorious Baltimore juvenile facility (which has since been shut down). At some point I realized I had to stop being lazy. So I called up someone at the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services in Baltimore and for a week I went to watch hearings, and talked to people there, and generally got to know that space Dmitri would’ve ended up in, physically. And then those scenes just went. Dmitri would never have been able to deal with the grilling from the judge in that court the way I heard it in person. There’s a litany of questions he’s asked at the end of the book, ending in, “have you ever seen a psychiatrist?”—those questions were just verbatim what I’d heard that day, like if I had been reporting a piece of journalism. And it was like my fictional Baltimore had been handed a gift by the real world.

I’ll admit that one decision you made has me scratching my head. The action of what is arguably the book’s payoff scene isn’t shown on the page, but instead described in a long phone conversation. That isn’t supposed to work and it violates all the great show-don’t-tell clichés we teach young writers. Yet I couldn’t imagine it happening any other way. What can you say about the challenges you faced in writing that scene?

That’s the central question of the shape of the book. Every first person narrative has to deal first with the question of access. And I knew from the start that having the moment of big bad violence take place offstage, narrated by Dmitri over the phone, could threaten to break what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream.” The neurotic in me wants to confess: you got me! Or say: yes, I wish I could’ve/should’ve sent Samuel along with those guys and had him bash Goldstein’s face in, too!

But then I’ll also say there are benefits to having the scene you’re referring to, in which Dmitri tells Sam he and his friends have committed the act of violence at the book’s center, told in Dmitri’s voice. Benefits we couldn’t have in any other way. Dostoyevsky was one touchstone for this book, and I’ll just point out as I did above that almost all the narrative energy in his novels comes from the quality of characters speaking in their own kinetic voices. But Fitzgerald was the other touchstone for this book. His family was in some ways from Baltimore. He lived close to Pikesville at La Paix for a long time while Zelda was at Shepard Pratt. More specifically, The Great Gatsby is always a model for me. Every spring I teach it and ask my novel-writing students: what would this book look like with Gatsby as narrator? It would be a very very different book. There would be lots of scenes of fighting in WWI. There would be narration that in its depiction of Gatsby’s obsession would sound a whole lot like the voice of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. Incidentally, Fitzgerald told his daughter in a letter that the “masculine model” for The Great Gatsby was The Brothers Karamazov, and was always brow-beating her to read the novel.

Anyway, that moment of letting Dmitri narrate his actions in the beating just felt like what we needed then. We needed to know what happened, but we also needed to hear him talk. We needed to hear him accept or consider a culpability that would be too immediate in Sam’s mouth, one Sam wasn’t ready to accept, in a way not wholly dissimilar from the way that it would be too much to hear about Gatsby’s longing for Daisy in Gatsby’s voice. I think The Great Gatsby is the most perfect American novel ever written (though this might be the moment to note it might technically be a novella). But at the climactic moment of that book, Fitzgerald does all kinds of yogic back-bends to gain access to Gatsby’s murder. He invents a character called Michaelis, who we’ve never heard of before, who is friends with Wilson, who gets Wilson’s story, and Tom Buchanan’s been sleeping with Wilson’s wife, who ate the cat that swallowed the rat that… zzzzzzzzzzz. It’s the one part of the book that can feel like too much. It works not because it’s good in and of itself, but because Fitzgerald understands that at that point we don’t care much how Gatsby diedwe are desperate to know who he is, his history. And right after all that Michaelis mishegas, Nick goes and finds out and we’re happy.

At bottom, I think the imprecation “show don’t tell” can be misconstrued in a lot of ways that can hurt the aspiring writer, hem him in. I think that adage when taken in a useful way probably means something like, “As a writer, you always want more than one thing to be happening in any given scene, any given sentence.” Telling can often articulate itself as exposition, and if you have pure exposition, it can feel stagnant. But I came to realize that having Dmitri tell the story of the central act of violence, rather than having Samuel extrapolate and imagine and paraphraseand believe me, I tried writing that way many many many times, and every draft is truly badwhat we really needed was Dmitri. His English improves in increments throughout the book, and I knew we would see him years later and his English would be near native—he’d be using the articles he mainly drops early in the book, etc. And there was a sense in early drafts that we just needed to hear Dmitri more. This was an opportunity to kill thirteen blackbirds with one rather big, monologue-y stone, so I took it. I just hope it works.

You just destroyed that answer, by the way. Finally, you’ve mentioned that you have new fiction in the works. What else do you have brewing?

For about a decade I’ve been working on this big fat novel about a Jewish Czech teenager who is forced to leave his home just before the outbreak of WWII, and who ends up flying bombers for the RAF and killing thousands of German civilians from a Lancaster bomber. It’s very loosely based on the life of my grandmother’s first cousin, who was injured while training for the RAF and ended up working for British Airways, but who could easily have ended up doing just that. My cousin is still alive and in his 90’she actually just became the oldest British citizen ever to receive a PhD. Go, Honza! The trip from Budapest to Sofia I described earlier was part of an early research trip for that book. As you might imagine, this has been a real bear of a book to research, but I’m getting close. How close? Dunno. But close.

While I let the paint dry on a new draft of that, I’ve been finishing a short novel based on a short story that was in The Kenyon Review a number of years back, called “The Duct Tape Brother.” I started working on it when I kind of freaked out last summer thinking I might be nearing completion of the big RAF-WWII novel, and started typing furiously out of abject fear, and it went surprisingly smoothly, and now I think it’s basically done. It’s about a kid who makes a brother out of duct tape, only the brother starts unraveling, and so for a couple hundred pages he’s in and out of the hospital with whatever chronic illness would look like for a kid made out of duct tape. So, basically, it’s just the exact same thing as The Sensualist, only really really really really different.

Andrew Ervin is the author of Extraordinary Renditions.

Daniel Torday’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Esquire Magazine, Glimmer Train, Harper Perennial’s Fifty-Two Stories, Harvard Review and The Kenyon Review. His novella The Sensualist will be published by Nouvella Books in the spring of 2012. He currently serves as Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College.

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    A wonderfully thoughtful interview with our very own Daniel Torday. THE SENSUALIST LAUNCHES a week from today at...
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