This week marks the launch of Daniel Torday’s first book, The Sensualist. Torday, whose short stories and non-fiction have appeared in places like Esquire, Fifty-Two Stories, and The Kenyon Review, says he has plenty of unpublished work lying around his around his Mount Airy home, but it was The Sensualist — a novella he began 10 years ago on a train from Budapest to Bulgaria — that gained the attention of independent publishing house Nouvella. And for good reason.
The book is a fast 39,000 words and rewinds us to 1994 where we encounter protagonist Sam Gerson, a Jewish kid attending high school in the Baltimore suburbs. Torday pulls us through the dreaded tumult of locker-room push-and-shoves, the “nascent, untrammeled” reality of adolescent romance (his words), the painful confrontations with family history, and finally to Gerson’s budding friendship with the eponymous Russian immigrant, Dmitri Abramovitch: the real heart of the book. And all this told through the Beltway stretches that mark Sam’s Baltimore (and Torday’s too – he spent four years of his own adolescence there).
Without giving too much away (the novella falls under 200 pages, and boy do they fly), the bite-sized book is reminiscent of all the best of the Jewish-American and suburban fiction that preceded him. The downright literary prose and geographical smallness recall Philip Roth and Nathan Englander. The drama is Dostoevsky. The imagery and relationships, the real strengths of the book are — well, Torday’s own.
And that’s the beauty of the novella. Torday carves out his place in the literary scene with The Sensualist by evading genre with prose and form; it’s a coming-of-age story, but it’s really not YA; it’s got a transplanted Dostoevsky character ganging up and kicking ass in 90’s Baltimore, but it’s realist; the fiction is historical, but it’s not historical fiction; it’s a very big story, but the word count’s very small. The result is a fresh, impactful, and hugely satisfying first book.
And lucky us, APIARY got to meet with Torday to talk about it.
APIARY: You have a lot in common with your protagonist, Sam Gerson. Do you generally write what you know?
DT: You need to know the emotions of the story. I didn’t grow up in Baltimore. I only lived there for four years, in high school. I learned to drive when I was there. I drove a lot. One thing some writers don’t think about enough is proprioception, the sixth sense, which is just, what is your spacial relationship to the physical world? I was on a train traveling from Budapest to Bulgaria while trying to research another book I thought I was going to write that was much more directly about World War II. And on this 40 hour train ride, I read The Brothers Karamazov. And as I was reading I had this moment of thinking: “What if one of these crazy Dostoevsky characters was literally transplanted into Baltimore, 1994? Well then it probably wouldn’t go very well.” Dmitri Karamazov was constantly breaking into houses, and, you know – murdering his father. So what if I were to write that? What if Dmitri Karamazov came to my high school? Do I know what it’s like when a fictional character comes to life in a high school? I don’t. But I knew that space enough to know how he’d respond. There’s that funny Flannery O’Connor thing that happened, where she brought her stories to her neighbor, and her neighbor said: “Well them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do.” Part of me just knew how people in Pikesville would react to Dmitri Karamazov breaking into their homes.
I remember I was 23 and I graduated and was working. And I read Goodbye, Columbus and was like, “Wait, you can write about being an urban Jew?” I was pretending I was someone else. I thought, “I’m Jewish. That’s OK, and you can write about that.” When I was 21 I was reading Chaucer and thinking, “Oh I guess I better go to church more.” I think it takes a certain kind of person that doesn’t want to conform in some ways.
APIARY: But your Dmitri is toned down – he’s breaking into homes, but he isn’t killing his father.
DT: In drafting at some point, I realized, I’m a little too confined to actually have Dmitri Karamazov there. So what if he’s just a Russian immigrant kid who I did go to school with? I thought a lot about the ways that you could make that character, Dmitri. I’ve been teaching these Kenyon Review workshops for kids. And kids always want to write about fantasy. It’s always the huge monster that wants to eat everything and also can fly and also has lots of arms. And so we created something we called the monster scale. So we’d make a line on the board, and on one end there’s a werewolf. And then we make the hyperrealist version of that character on the opposite end of the line: a kid who was really hairy and stayed out a lot. So what’s in the middle of that? What’s one tic to the fantastical side? And I think any time you conceive of a character, your brain has to take that test. So there’s a draft of this book where Dmitiri Karamazov showed up in Baltimore. And there’s a draft where there’s some Jewish kid whose father wanted to be a gangster and named his kid after Dmitiri Karamazov.
APIARY: Talk about the research you did to create your Baltimore.
DT: At some point, probably two years into working on it, I thought, I have no choice but to call up somebody at the Department of Juvenile Services in Baltimore and say, ‘can I come down to Baltimore for a week and would you be willing to let me go to Hickey and go look at these trials?’ My parents left Baltimore two months after I graduated high school and never went back. So it was the first time I stepped foot in Baltimore since 1999. I ended up spending all my time just sitting at these juvenile hearings. But any detail about Baltimore I put on the page wasn’t research. It was just me trying to remember. And in fact, I have a feeling I got some stuff wrong. That’s just how memory works. I guess my rule on research is: there’s very little benefit in getting it right, and there’s an enormous risk in getting it wrong. In some ways, it’s more about fact-checking than generative work. I heard Philip Roth say that he always just writes. And then he goes back and does a ton of research. And that’s when you’re working like a painter; you’ve got to put the sketch down first.
APIARY: You work a lot with recursivity in the book.
DT: I think I was 90 pages into this book when I was like, where else can Samuel and Tanya meet to have another bagel? And it’s like, oh right, they’ll just keep going back to the same deli so that when they go back again and feel different from the first time, it’ll have more meaning. In the midst of writing this book, the hardest part of my day was thinking about how I would start describing some new restaurant. And zero percent of my brain thought about going back to the deli. I just felt tired. In Goodbye, Columbus, they kept going back to the Deer Park. Every time they go back to the Deer Park, that’s the space where Neil Klugman gets to think about how he feels about Brenda. Neil Klugman when he’s in the library thinks about one kind of thing. Neil Klugman when he goes out to the apartment he thinks about one thing. And I had that moment of realizing I needed to go back to the same scenes. When I was in grad school I took these workshops with Amy Hempel and she’s always talking about the idea of recursivity. And I was like, “Yes. Recursivity. Things should recur.” But I think part of my brain wouldn’t allow the deli to recur until I needed it.
APIARY: Is that how this went from a novel to a novella?
DT: The idea of being recursive is reaching back and using something you’ve given yourself. So you have to give yourself a lot in that first draft. You have to use those tools you’ve given yourself. You have to hope that in those generative drafts, the stuff you’ve given yourself is of value. In the 100,000 word draft of this, there was tons of stuff I had given myself that was not that useful. So then it becomes about cutting.
APIARY: You’ve moved a lot between cities. What about Baltimore specifically has you writing about it 20 years later?
DT: I’m not sure those are choices. At some point I sat down and I wrote the first paragraph and then I wrote the second paragraph. But I guess now looking back, there’s something uniquely liminal about Baltimore. It’s below the Mason Dixon line, but it’s not quite a southern city. When people call a city provincial – and I’m not calling Baltimore provincial – mostly what they mean is that people tend to stay. And a lot of people who moved to Baltimore stayed in Baltimore. So the idea of injecting a group of Russian immigrants into a place like that heightens the level of dramatic tension that’s going to be there. And I don’t hate Baltimore. I don’t want to live there again. There’s this amazing generosity of a lot of Jewish families in this very Jewish neighborhood of Pikesville who were very giving, but at the same time, in some ways it might be the least-receptive city I could imagine to immigrants—or people perceived as outsiders more generally. And I mean that more about the fictional universe that I created than of the real Baltimore. It seemed like a good way to write that fiction.
APIARY: Where do you write in the city?
DT: I live in the middle of beautiful downtown Mount Airy. And I really only get to write full time in the summer. And I write either on the third floor of my house. Or at the High Point Café at the Allen Lane train station. Or at Infusion on Germantown Ave.
APIARY: How do you manage having a full-time teaching position and being a writer?
DT: I really like teaching. I also really like writing. I think the deal I cut with myself is that as a professor, you basically get 3-4 months off in the summer. And if I actually get 4 months, that’s a third of the year. And I just commit myself during that third of the year to write triple-time: three hours a day, twice a day, five days a week.
Daniel 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. His short novel, The Sensualist, will be published in March 2012 by Nouvella Books. 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. A collection of his short stories was recently named a finalist for the Bakeless Prize, and he is at work on a novel. Torday holds a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.F.A. from Syracuse University, where he taught literature and writing. He currently serves as the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Bryn Mawr College.
Limited print editions of Daniel Torday’s novel, The Sensualist, are available for purchase (during the rest of the week only) here.