An Interview with Daniel Torday

By Kyra DeVoe

Daniel Torday is the author of The 12th Commandment, The Flight of Poxl West, and Boomer1. A two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award for fiction and the Sami Rohr Choice Prize, Torday’s stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, and n+1, and have been honored by the Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays series. Torday is a Professor of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College.

West Branch: You tackle serious topics head-on in your story “Tending”. The story follows a Jewish man who decides to confront two young brothers who espouse anti-semitism online.  What role can a story like “Tending” play in today’s discussion about antisemitism?

Daniel Torday: This is a great question, and hard to answer. I guess I’d say as the grandkid of Holocaust survivors, so many of my writerly instincts are just to ask: how can I say this as openly and honestly as possible? When the bigotries grow loud enough in a culture, but the only people articulating those bigotries are the bigots themselves—that’s like a half-step away from fascism. If fiction can go a teensy way to helping forestall that last half-step, it should surely try.

WB: “Tending” begins with an interaction on Twitter. What role do your own experiences on social media have in the conception of this story?  What role does social media play in the spread of hatred?

DT: I’m on Twitter too much (insofar as being on Twitter at all is being on Twitter too much). And I did have an interaction during the Covid days where a bunch of very very open and ugly antisemites came after me there. I think the part of me governed by shame probably thought: c’mon, you’re not really going to write literary fiction that’s set even partially on social media, are you? And then my subconscious, the part of me utterly without shame, started typing.

WB: Rather than offering the antisemitic character as a villain with no redeeming moments, you offer us two young boys who have been abandoned by their father. You even offer a humanizing moment of camaraderie between the main character and these two boys. Why did you choose to do that? How does that change the narrative of the story?

DT: Having now published lots of stories and four novels, I think I can safely say there isn’t what you would properly think of as a “villain” to be found in any of them. I’d like to think we’re all redeemable, that in particular bigotries like antisemitism can find their way out of a mind—if they’re born of ignorance, then there is a solution. Reduce that ignorance.

WB: Many readers want to be left with an uplifting feeling after reading the last sentences of a book or short story. ”Tending” ends with the unrelenting line, “This is life, this is life, this is my only life.” Why did you choose to end the story in this way? Was it something you had in mind before beginning to write the story, or was it somewhere you ended up without planning to?

DT: I once heard one of my favorite writers, Amy Hempel, say that by the time she gets to what feels like the ending of a story, it tends to be a kind of cadence or rhythm that presents itself first—and then the words, the meaning that’s drawn forward. So I think I can confidently say I’d reached a point with this one where the ending flooded out and wanted to kind of explode into a dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah, dah-dum-dah-dah. Something along those lines. The words that filled it in … I’m not sure I can fully account for them.

WB: What do you want readers to take away from “Tending”?

DT: I’ll be honest in saying I’m not sure it’s my job, our jobs as writers, to thumb that scale. I wanted to present these characters as I imagined them, with as much generosity and humor as I could muster.

WB: When did you know that your story was ready for submission?

DT: I have a rule for myself that no matter what, once I finish a draft of a story, it needs to sit for at least three or four months, ideally more like six months, before anyone can see it. If I’m being honest, I’m waiting for my conscious and subconscious minds to have forgotten it enough that I can come back to it cold. If it still seems ready to go at that point, it probably is.

WB: In your opinion, what is the most difficult part about writing literary fiction? Which part of the writing process gives you the most trouble?

DT: The paycheck? No, seriously, I think it’s just the extraordinary patience, and openness, that a good story requires that makes it so hard. What we’ve been talking about here all along. I think all the time about that Fitzgerald thing about the test of a first-rate intelligence being the ability to hold conflicting ideas in mind and still retain the ability to function. A functioning mind: not as easy to maintain as you might suspect.

WB: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer, or was this a talent/passion that you discovered later?

DT: Oh, I always wanted to be a rock star. Then a bluegrass picking star. Then a dad. I wrote all along. But to be a writer—I have a 10-year-old daughter, and for a vocab test recently she had to learn the word “livelihood.” I’m not sure I’d ever given that word much thought, but now I know it’s a capitalistic word that basically means what you make money from. She said, So then is your livelihood being a writer, or being a teacher? I looked her in the eyes and then went off to make her the dinner I’d bought her from my paycheck as a teacher.

WB: As a novelist, what wisdom have you acquired that would have been beneficial to you as a writer who was just starting?

DT: Don’t take it all so seriously! When they started the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Paul Engle wanted to put up a big sign that just said that. All the major writers are funny, even Dostoyevsky. When Kafka read his stories aloud to his Prague friends, they’d apparently be rolling in the aisles laughing. It’s just when we read them badly that we miss that our great writers are very funny.

WB: Do ideas for stories find you unexpectedly, or is there a method you’ve found successful for yourself that you continually revisit?

DT: My mentor early on was George Saunders, who regularly says something along the lines of, You can control what you like or what you pay attention to, but what you can make live on the page is beyond your control. So. I think after four books, I have some idea of what I can make live, and what will be dead on arrival. But that doesn’t mean I’m still waiting for the day when some crazy Faulknerian prose arrives, and sticks. I’ve also learned that doesn’t make for much of a livelihood.