After Publishing Novella, Torday Visits His Alma Mater
Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
What if Dmitri, a protagonist of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 19th-century novel The Brothers Karamazov, were somehow transported to Baltimore in 1994? This possibility captivated Daniel Torday ’00 and eventually inspired The Sensualist, his most recent novella, published earlier this year.
Torday visited Kenyon last Sunday to answer questions and read selections from his newest work. When not visiting the Hill, Torday serves as the Creative Writing Program Director at Bryn Mawr College. His work has appeared in Esquire, The New York Times and The Kenyon Review.
The Sensualist’s narrator, 17-year-old Sam Gearson, befriends a Jewish immigrant from Russia named Dmitri Zilber. Like the character in Dostoyevsky’s novel, Torday’s Dmitri considers himself to be a sensualist — someone whose worldview centers around indulging in carnal and sensory pleasures.
Though Torday initially considered titling the novella Dmitri, he agreed enthusiastically when his editor suggested The Sensualist. Torday was amused by the way the epithet “conjured up images of hairy-chested, massage-oiled men.”
Torday’s Dmitri is an unusually philosophical young man, and Torday did not want this intellectualism to come across as anachronistic, given the novella’s 1990s context.
“David Foster Wallace wrote in a famous essay that if you took any of the earnest characters from Dostoyevsky’s novels and put him in the present day, no one would buy it. Our intellectual elite would be ridiculous,” he said.
Though The Sensualist’s protagonists are teenagers, Torday says that, as a writer, he is not categorically drawn to adolescence.
Writing about teenagers appealed to him in the context of this specific story because Torday believes that their youth allowed his characters to possess the kind of earnestness that Wallace deemed antiquated.
Sam, for instance, dreams of becoming a great baseball player. Torday says that he chose to incorporate baseball in part because he realized how important sports are in his own life.
“When I was 15, even though I knew I wasn’t going to grow up to [be] 5’11’’, I thought I could be a professional basketball player — that’s not true,” he said. “But, I think that speaks to the dreams and goals you have when you’re 15, and how those change pretty rapidly once you’re 19 or 20 and you realize that even a Division III school like Kenyon doesn’t want you [to play for them].”
Even though he did not get to take the court for Kenyon, Torday’s love of sports followed him out of Gambier and through moves to Boston and later Brooklyn.
“It sounds facile, but whenever I saw someone in a Yankees baseball cap, I wanted to growl at them,” he said.
Another aspect of Torday’s life made its way into the novella. He spent much of his teenage years in Baltimore — the city in which he set The Sensualist.
Although he said “fiction is always going to be about reinventing a place to some extent,” Torday subscribes to a philosophy best articulated as, “know what you write.”
However, Torday’s current project — a novel set in London and Prague during World War II — goes against this philosophy. Though he is researching what he can, Torday said writing about a time and place he never personally experienced presents a challenge that he did not face when describing 1990s Baltimore.
With regards to his usual writing process, Torday said, “Writers tend to fall into one of two camps — painters or sculptors.” He explained that painters start with a blank canvas and add brushstrokes to it, while sculptors start with a hunk of material and chip away at it to create the final product.
Torday himself is more of a sculptor. Over the course of around seven years and over 200 drafts, he whittled away at the mountainous amount of manuscript — which was, at one point, intended to become a full-length novel — until only the 170 pages of the final novella remained.