On the website fwriction.com, novelist Andrew Ervin writes about The Sensualist : “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.”
Torday’s fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in Esquire Magazine, Five Chapters, Fifty-Two Stories, Harvard Review, Glimmer Train, The Kenyon Review, and The New York Times. A former editor at Esquire, Torday serves as a Book Review Editor at The Kenyon Review. He is a member of the Editorial Board of Literary Imagination, and a consulting editor at Hunger Mountain.
We recently asked Torday a few questions about The Sensualist and working with students in the Creative Writing Program.
Q. In one interview you talk about the fact that it took you about seven years to write the 170 pages that make up The Sensualist. Now that it’s been published and you can reflect on that process, would you go about it in the same manner?
A. I think in some ways the great part about writing is that when it goes well, it’s almost wholly a subconscious-mind activity. The moment of breakthrough I hear most frequently from my students is that moment when they look back on an electric paragraph of prose, a moment that feels almost wholly unlike anything they’ve ever done for its energy and beauty and originality, and they say: ‘You know, I have no idea where I was when I wrote that. Or what I was thinking. It just came out that way.’ Over the dozens and dozens of very different drafts of this novella, I don’t know if there’s electricity or originality to be found, but I do know there have been many of those when-and-where-on-earth-did-I-write-that? moments. Not to mention moments when it was, say, a short story, or a 350-page novel. I heard Jonathan Franzen, upon being asked why it took almost a decade to write Freedom, say something like, well, it was all the years of trying to write something that wasn’t that novel that accounted for a large portion of those years of what we’re calling ‘work.’ Which is a long-winded way of saying: if I could find a way to be a bit more efficient, I’d be very happy, but I fear I also might not be much of a writer.
Q. What advice do you give to creative writing students in terms of process? Do you follow your own advice?
For a period before I settled into writing and teaching full time, I tried to make a go of it as a bluegrass mandolin player in New York City. When I started studying mandolin in earnest, I learned that the first question you’d always ask a player you wanted to learn something from was: What kind of strings do you use? That’s how you really drew out what kind of sound they were looking for. Often that was the only question you had to ask; it would prompt everything else you wanted to know about technique, approach. I take a cue from this in classes, or when we have writers come visit Bryn Mawr, and in a lot of ways my favorite part of workshop is the times when we talk about the real dirt of process: What time of day do you write? For how long? Where are you when you do so? What kind of computer/typewriter/pencil/Dictaphone do you use?
I suspect there’s a lot of demystifying to do early on in a writing workshop, particularly for students like the amazing ones I get from Bryn Mawr and Haverford and Swarthmore, who have this deep almost pious respect and love for the written word, and for the writers who’ve written the books they read. Much of the good that goes on in a writing workshop can be pretty simple: How can we create a lot of time and space to do the two things that will really help you in your development as a writer: reading and writing. Creating as much space as possible to do those two things. There’s a lot else that goes on, of course, but ultimately the more time the beginning writer has for just those things, reading and writing (and probably in that order), the better the results. So much gets revealed for us in just being able to say: What are the literal tools and parameters for this endeavor?
Q. The Sensualist is set in a suburb outside of Baltimore, a place you spent your teenage years, and obviously draws on some of your own experiences. When you work with students, do you find yourself having to prompt them to draw from their own experience or is it more often an issue of working with them to make their personal narratives resonate with a wider audience?
A. Every semester my fiction writing students read Henry James’ indespensible essay, “The Art of Fiction,” in which he tells the story of a novelist whose work he loves who, after seeing a group of seminary students for a flash of a second in a doorway in Paris, has enough material to make a novel of it. Which is to say I suspect the imprecation “write what you know” can sometimes be less useful than the slightly different one, “know what you write.” It strikes me it’s just as possible that what a young writer is able to communicate most effectively on the page ends up being what it feels like to be, say, a man who wakes up one more morning to discover he’s a large dung beetle, as that she can express effectively what it feels like to wake up one morning an 18-year-old college student. I wouldn’t presume to tell her which of those is more fully in her wheelhouse. I prefer just to try to be able to read her closely enough to know when she’s doing one of the two–or one of the infinite other ways we can tell a story–effectively.
To put this another way: We had the great good fortune of having newly minted Pulitzer Prize finalist Karen Russell teaching a fiction workshop here this past fall. Karen’s work is full of teenagers, but it’s also full of werewolves and giant crab shell canoes. But what people respond to in her work, I suspect, is that she can write the living viscera out of a sentence while also making us feel what her characters feel. There’s an interview with the realist novelist Richard Yates I teach whenever I can in which Yates says the autobiographical writer must avoid the two great traps of autobiographical writing: “self-aggrandizement and self-pity.” I take those as words to live by, while recognizing that the answer to the necessary follow-up question is an unspeakably tough one: what is there other than self-aggrandizement and self-pity? It’s probably so sufficiently hard a question to answer it would take a whole short story, or novella, or novel, to answer it. I suspect that question is as applicable to a novel about an alligator-wrestling teenager as it is to a short novel about a 16-year-old kid in Baltimore.
Q. Was there a particular teacher or professor who had a profound impact on your development as a writer? In what way?
A. I left a good job working as an editor at Esquire Magazine to take a shot at studying writing with the fiction writer George Saunders up in Syracuse in the MFA program there a number of years ago. I’d read an interview with George that appeared in Tin House, an interview in which he spoke about the idea of teaching writing with so much verve and wisdom that, quite literally, it changed my life. It was no small thing, either, that he himself had received an MFA from Syracuse where he’d studied with Tobias Wolff, who had taught there with Raymond Carver, and that there was this sense of a kind of community that I found myself wanting to join. And I’d really not been a joiner in my life before. I’m grateful every day for that time in Syracuse, and studying with not just George but these wonderful inimitable fiction writers who taught me there: Arthur Flowers, Amy Hempel, Mary Gaitskill, Mary Caponegro.
But I also had a kind of formative experience with a different kind of writer, the nonfiction writer Lewis Hyde, when I was an undergraduate at Kenyon College. I didn’t take creative writing classes with him–I was a literature and philosophy student there–but instead I took a Thoreau class that fundamentally changed the way I thought about books and writing, not to mention walking and John Brown and wild apples. Lewis’s influence has been indelible. For me, the beauty of a liberal arts degree, and of any thorough-going education, is that we come to learn not just about the subject at hand, but about the big questions we’re always asking ourselves: How should I live? How can I be a more ethical or moral person? If I’m to work hard, what’s a sustainable approach to that hard work? How should I comport myself? That’s something Lewis Hyde taught me, and George Saunders and all those teachers I’ve named above. I love to be able to sit down with students and say, ‘Let’s ask those questions together, however obliquely, and see what we come up with’.”
For more information on Bryn Mawr’s Creative Writing Program. Visit the program website.