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Steve Toltz: Writers and Bad People

Julia Pierpont sits down with novelist Steve Toltz to discuss his new book, writing about writers, and why you should attend your high school reunion.

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Image courtesy of Penguin Books.

I met the impossibly gracious, impossibly talented Steve Toltz at a mercifully air-conditioned bar in Brooklyn. It was a few days after he wrapped up a book tour of Australia and the UK, where he was promoting his second novel, Quicksand. The follow-up to A Fraction of the Whole, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Quicksand was released this week in the US. It’s a brilliantly funny and sad novel about two men; Liam, a struggling writer, and Aldo, an impossibly large character whose knack for falling on hard times makes him Liam’s reluctant muse. Enviably, he wrote much of this book while living alternatively in Sydney, Paris, the French countryside, New York and Los Angeles, usually in cafes, libraries, and bars not unlike the one where we talked. In the interview, Toltz refers to his affinity for “voice-based” authors, citing his appreciation for them as bound not to “the particular construction of one novel, but their flavor.” Toltz strikes me as very much a voice-based author himself; it is a pleasure just to live with his words.

—Julia Pierpont for Guernica

Guernica: There’s a great tradition of writers as protagonists in novels. Structurally, Quicksand reminded me of a lot of Roth, his Zuckerman books, some of them, like American Pastoral. You almost forget that it’s Zuckerman’s story because you slip so much into the character that he wants to talk about. Did you feel that you needed Liam for access to Aldo?

Steve Toltz: For me, a lot of writing is problem solving. I set myself up with story strands that I wanted to write about, and over the course of years I’ve tried everything. First person, third person, second person. In certain ways it’s senseless to talk about how the book came into being, and part of that is because it changed so much. I’ve ended up talking about a book that doesn’t exist. At one point the main character Aldo was going to be a high court judge. He was. At another point, the whole book was narrated by Morrell, the teacher. Often I’m working backwards, sideways, up and down.

Guernica: It’s funny that, as a writer, you’re almost afraid to tell readers how much stuff changed. It would remind them of the artifice, like, “What, you’re just making this stuff up?”

Steve Toltz: I’ve been watching a lot of Breaking Bad recently. It’s so well constructed, but they never knew what they were doing, they wrote themselves into corners. They had no knowledge of what was going to happen. When I heard that, there was a part of me that felt less respect for it, but I think that’s crazy. We have this atomic idea of process where we want to believe that the creator of the book or the show had this whole brainy idea at the outset. As though there is something less about it if it comes out of the process of discovery.

Guernica: And of course it will usually be better for that reason.

Steve Toltz: However it gets done is how it gets done. I think it’s instructive to lay out the failures.

Guernica: There’s something I love about your writer character, Liam. The moment that Aldo hits rock bottom, Liam—his closest friend—has this revelation that Aldo would make a terrific subject. His pity for Aldo vanishes, he’s thrilled. Does that make Liam a bad person, or just a writer?

Steve Toltz: It’s the same sin.

Guernica: Do you outline when you start working?

Steve Toltz: I try to outline. I’m a lazy outliner. I will put the points down of each chapter or series of chapters, but it always changes. For me it’s a place of evolution. I don’t really know who the characters are. I don’t really know what the story is. I outline and that really just gets me moving. It’s like I’m drawing up fake maps, but they turn out to be correct. So I’m like, “Now I can go because now I know the way. I’ve got the map.” It always takes me in a completely different direction, but the map is necessary for me to have the courage to move forward.

Guernica: And then you get there and the land is totally different.

Steve Toltz: “Where the hell am I?”

Guernica: There’s water here!

Steve Toltz: Yeah, exactly.

Guernica: One thing I read in an interview—

Steve Toltz: I write fiction, there’s no guarantee that what I say is truthful.

Guernica: No, no… This is about Aldo’s time in the hospital, for which you drew a lot from your own experiences, and how you chose to write that section in the form of a poem, because you weren’t interested in writing memoir. I thought it was interesting that this idea of writing in verse would create distance, would keep it from feeling too strictly autobiographical.

Steve Toltz: Once a year I try writing a poem, usually because I’ve read some poetry that amazed me and I want to do that. [The hospital stay] is the only aspect of the book that is truthful. I was in the hospital and I was paralyzed and I went through all of these things. I’ve had all of these crazy experiences and jobs in my life, but I never really write about them because I’ve already told them as stories to friends. For me, the process of writing is the process of invention. But the hospital story felt told already. There was nothing to discover in the telling of it. The discovery had to be in the form. It wasn’t really the unfamiliarity of the form, it was more about a way incorporate invention and how to realize it imaginatively.

Guernica: That brings me to another question that gets asked a lot of novelists, about what’s autobiographical and what’s not.

Steve Toltz: Oh yeah, absolutely. I believe everything is. If it’s not strictly about you, it’s your peers, your obsessions, things that make you angry, or things that you’ve been watching or obsessing about. Preoccupying you for reasons you don’t necessarily know, but it’s about you. It says a lot about you. It’s like when someone tells you their dream and you sit there going, “Do you realize how much you’re revealing about yourself right now?” It’s kind of embarrassing.

Guernica: Have readers surprised you with their impressions of the characters? Have they made any unknowingly personal assumptions you didn’t expect?

Steve Toltz: There is that kind of thing that does come up sometimes, where people will say, “How does it feel to have written such an unlikable character?” I have that sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David/George Costanza thing where people are like, “How did you feel writing such an unlikable character?” And I’m like, “It’s me! I based him on myself!” There are certain moments where they do feel like unwittingly personal attacks.

Guernica: It’s so funny, because when you’re writing you have a lot of affection for your characters. You live with them.

Steve Toltz: Absolutely. There’s this quote by a writer, Emil Cioran, he’s a Romanian writer. He says that you should only put things in books that you would never dare to say to people in real life. So there is that feeling of acute embarrassment, or that you’ve been too revealing. I think it’s some kind of survival mechanism where I never think of the reader, ever. Because then I would start censoring myself.

Guernica: You were talking about reading poetry and how it leads you to writing poems. What sort of things were you reading while you were writing this book? Anything that really influenced you?

For me the pleasure principle is very high in terms of the motivation for writing. I just wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it.

Steve Toltz: There was lot. I think I discovered Bolaño during that. That was a big influence. Him and Javier Marías. He’s got a book called A Heart So White which I think I read about a dozen times. It’s such a great book. He may be my favorite, living or otherwise. Lots of favorite dead ones, not so many favorite living ones. David Foster Wallace as well, someone I came on to kind of late. And then there were just singular books that I read. Suttree, I really fell in love with that book. Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles is one that I read.

Guernica: I was reading something about—I guess they refer to themselves as completists. Are you a completist for anybody?

Steve Toltz: Generally as a rule I am not. Unless I am super in love with a particular author, because I just want to read masterpieces. I just want to read one amazing book after another. As a completist you are generally reading …

Guernica: You slog through the bad ones.

Steve Toltz: You slog through the bad ones, and I think, if you are aware, you can really bounce from one masterpiece to another, maybe the rest of your life. Generally I try to do that. Then there are authors like David Foster Wallace or Raymond Chandler—with voice-based authors I might end up a completist, because what I love about them isn’t just the particular construction of one novel or another but their flavor. There is an Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard, as well. One book is not necessarily greater than another book, but they just have this incredible, unique voice, so it doesn’t really matter which one you read.

Guernica: Reading Quicksand, I thought about the similarities between the teacher, Morrell, and the character of Jasper’s father in A Fraction of a Whole. They’re both these dangerous mentors, both deliver a lot of aphorisms. It got me wondering if, in both cases, Jasper and Liam would have ended up in better places without the influence of these men, and wondering about the power a mentor wields generally.

Steve Toltz: I’ve never had a mentor personally of any kind. It feels like, generally, in the writing world or the art world, it’s more of a thing in America, because you have writing programs, which we don’t have. You have these amazing writers who are teachers. I never did a writing program so I never met a writer until I was published. I guess I can’t really explain my compulsion for writing these kind of mentor characters.

Guernica: They’re God-like.

Steve Toltz: Yeah. It’s also incredibly fun. For me the pleasure principle is very high in terms of the motivation for writing. I just wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. One of the things that I enjoy writing are those aphorisms.

Guernica: Some of Morrell’s aphorisms are so good that I got confused, like I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to buy them or not. One is, “Never become good enough at a job that it can become your career, your life.” You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you’ve had a lot of different kinds of jobs in the past. Do you stand with Morrell, then?

There are writers who are storytellers and then there are those just working out their obsessions.

Steve Toltz: I felt that very strongly at twenty-two. If you wanted to pursue some kind of artistic pursuit and you had another career, then you would definitely fall back on it because it would take so long. I never believed I could do two things at once. The jobs I had were minimum wage jobs that you wouldn’t want to pursue for too long, or that couldn’t really take over your life.

Guernica: It sounds like one might risk developing a sense of complacency.

Steve Toltz: At the same time I never thought that it would take me so long to do something. I thought everything was temporary and sometimes the best thing you have working in your favor is a bad sense of time. In order to sit down and write a book that takes six years you have to have a screwed up sense of time because that’s too daunting. No one is going to pick up a pen and a piece of paper and say, “Okay, six years, here we go.” I always thought this was a two year project. No matter where in the process I was, I thought, “I’ve got six months left to go.”

Guernica: Another aphoristic thing that Morrell talks about is the idea of an artist discovering his or her natural subject. You’ve previously mentioned that fear of death is what motivated your first book and that fear of life is what motivated this one. Do you believe in the natural subject? Is fear your natural subject?

Steve Toltz: I think I do believe it. I didn’t believe in it when I wrote it. It just felt appropriate to the story. However, on reflection, I think it’s one way to word it. The other way may just be as the expression of someone’s preoccupations. The repeated expression of one’s preoccupations. There are a lot of artists that return to the same subject. Whether it’s the natural subject, or the focus or the subconscious focus of their entire lives, it often is repeated.

I feel that there are two kinds of writers. I feel that there are writers who are storytellers and then there are those just working out their obsessions. I think I’m a combination. I think, at least for these books, I’m going with fear. I’ve always been interested in fear. Fear is something I’ve dealt with in life, and I think it’s the main motivating factor of everything, almost. From sex to politics. My third book will also be about a different fear.

Guernica: I was trying to decide which was more rational, fear of death or fear of life. It seems that if one is afraid of both, then they should negate each other.

Steve Toltz: Fear of death is understandable, being that we are all going to die, but fear of life and suffering is more of an irrational fear because it’s something that can be avoided. The torturous part is that suffering can be avoided if you have good luck. That’s somewhat out of our hands, but is it? I don’t know. “Is bad luck self-harm by another name?”
[I show him same quote, from Quicksand, written on an index card of questions.]

You got that on your notes?

Guernica: That was like a final Jeopardy kind of moment. Another line that I wrote down that I wanted to talk about was this lament: “Why did we get such short ropes?” I was so interested in this idea that some people get the fuzzy end of the lollipop, and I wondered if you feel like you’re writing about people with particularly short ropes, or if you feel like that is just a human, universal feeling.

Steve Toltz: Have you been to your high school reunion yet?

Guernica: No. It was this year. I just forgot.

As an artist you can use your own discomfort and neuroses and difficulties and at least transform them into something else.

Steve Toltz: They’re really interesting. I found them interesting in that they are unique parameters of where life progresses too. Especially if you don’t see everybody regularly. For the ten-year you have some divorces. For the twenty-year you have some cancer and the death of some children. It’s terrible.

There are two things, I guess. On the one hand I’m writing about somebody about whom I say in the book, “The only thing worse than being a statistic is being a statistical anomaly.” So I’m writing about a particularly unlucky person. So that’s a special type of hell, to be particularly unlucky. But at the same time, everything that happens in the book that’s bad has happened to somebody that I know or somebody that I’ve read about or happened to ten people that I’ve observed in my social circle. People suffer through great things all the time, and I feel that everybody has short ropes, and it’s really about your ability to bounce back or not bounce back. The universe doesn’t really care if you bounce back. It doesn’t feel that weird to write about paralysis or being in hospital or losing a child or, you know, splitting up with your wife, because that’s just life.

Guernica: The thing that I think about Aldo, I feel like he has a lot of bad luck but he’s a bit enviable in some way. He’s lived a lot.

Steve Toltz: That’s the thing. It’s the idea of baggage. When you hear about people in their 40s boast about not having baggage. I think having no baggage is your baggage. That means that you haven’t thrown yourself into the mess of life.

Guernica: There’s another line in your book, “When did I become childless?” This idea that, at a certain age, though we’ve never had children, we become officially childless. Either you get your hands messy or you don’t. It feels like you have to choose whether you want to be an Aldo or you want to be a Liam. Do you want to be a writer and observe, or do you want to live? Aldo becomes the art. Is that even a choice?

Steve Toltz: As an artist you can, you can use your own discomfort and neuroses and difficulties and at least transform them into something else. Without that you’re just neurotic and uncomfortable. In that way Liam has an advantage. At least he can use it for something. The Aldo character certainly has things that I admire about him. It’s not resilience, it’s just that engagement in life.

Guernica: Do you set writing goals for yourself every day or are you just—what comes out, comes out? Do some things come out faster than others?

Steve Toltz: There’s just this desperation to get as much done as possible. It’s never a comfortable, relaxed thing. Especially because I know so much of the story that I want to tell and I feel so far away from the end. Actually feels a hundred years away, and every hour I’m not working is another hour away from finishing.

Guernica: So long as you’re working, knowing what you want to write.

Steve Toltz: Yes, of course. Now I’m in this period again where I’m writing from scratch. It’s different because I’m not working on a definite story.

Guernica: So you’re writing your next book here, in New York.

Steve Toltz: Yes. That’s the plan.

Guernica: Are you living around here? I can stop. Is there anything that I haven’t brought up or is there anything that you want to get in?

Steve Toltz: Just better answers than what I already gave.

Guernica: I’ll change them.

Steve Toltz: Okay, good.

Guernica: I don’t need to ask you where you live on tape.

Steve Toltz is the author of Quicksand. His first novel, A Fraction of the Whole, was released in 2008 to widespread critical acclaim, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award. Prior to his literary career, he lived in Montreal, Vancouver, New York, Barcelona, and Paris, variously working as a cameraman, telemarketer, security guard, private investigator, English teacher, and screenwriter. Born in Sydney, he currently lives in New York.

Julia Pierpont’s debut novel, Among the Ten Thousand Things, was published this July by Random House. She works at The New Yorker and lives in Brooklyn, and can be found on Twitter at @juliapierpont.

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