Daniel Torday explains the inspiration behind his gripping coming-of-age tale about a Jewish high-school student in Baltimore.
by Eve Gleichman
The Sensualist – a novella Daniel Torday began 10 years ago on a train from Budapest to Bulgaria – rewinds us to 1994 where readers 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.
You have a lot in common with your protagonist, Sam Gerson. Do you generally write what you know?
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.
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.
But your Dmitri is toned down – he’s breaking into homes, but he isn’t killing his father.
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 Dmitri 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 Dmitri Karamazov.
You’ve moved a lot between cities. What about Baltimore specifically has you writing about it 20 years later?
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.
How do you manage having a full-time teaching position and being a writer?
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.
The interview above was reprinted with permission from APIARY Magazine and was conducted by youth editor Eve Gleichman.
About the Author
Daniel Torday’s fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in Esquire, Five Chapters, Fifty-Two Stories, Harvard Review, Glimmer Train, 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. 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 BA from Kenyon College and an MFA from Syracuse University, where he taught literature and writing. He currently serves as the director of the Creative Writing Program at Bryn Mawr College.
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