Jan/Feb 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Paul A. Toth

Interview by Pascal-Denis Lussier

A bombing is coming. Suspense. Build suspense. A bombing is coming.

Witty, intense, inexhaustible, darkly funny, hilariously stark and entertainingly raunchy; to say that Paul A. Toth is prolific is an understatement.

Having lived in Flint, Michigan; spanning the United States in search of a new world that took him decades to realize he could only construct or deconstruct in his imagination; suffering from a disorder that imposes a narcotic soup on his daily life and that lends itself to condemnation, Paul is the product of everything that's wrong with modern day America, and yet he is everything that's right about being human. His writing expertly depicts that struggle to make sense of self and one's genuine worth in a society that barely allows any emergence of personal identity. His works are unusually clever, farcical dramas laced with undertones of violence, cruelty, and filled with a wild, rhythmical exuberance of their very own.

A true wordsmith and a voice that refuses to compromise, Paul is the author of three novels Fizz, Fishnet, and Finale, countless short stories, and numerous musical compositions. He is currently working on his fifth novel, while his fourth, Airplane Novel, is still awaiting a publisher.

I had the opportunity to ask Paul a few questions, to gain some insight into what, in a better world, would already be the next truly important American literary voice.


PDL     You've been described as part Bukowski, part Hemingway, and part Freud. I'm getting the feeling that these are labels attributed by smug literary types who are somehow seeking to categorize your unique voice. You yourself have admitted to possessing just a surface knowledge of Freud's theories, which is probably true of most people, his work and ideas have so permeated our cultural zeitgeist; Bukowski and Hemingway certainly fit into this category--everyone readily associates both writers with the tortured, debauched, unstable writer cliché and like Freud, they seem to have become generic labels. Do you think these labels are accurate when applied to you? Please elaborate.

PAT     No, I really don't see these labels as applicable. The very first line of your question comes from a blurb that was no doubt a backhanded compliment: killing with flattery. Anyway, along with my dim knowledge of Freud, I've hardly read any Bukowski. And while I have read plenty of Hemingway, he's far from a primary influence. In fact, most of the people to whom I've been compared I've never read, period, or hardly read at all. As to unstable, I'm bipolar, so that's my lot in life: an unstable atom, and I change locations if you look at me. I don't think it has much to do with my writing other than providing some insight into extreme emotional states.
PDL: In what ways do you think that your Bipolar Disorder affects your writing? What insights does it bring/offer?

PAT     It affected my work in two ways. First, the mania caused me to become extremely prolific, not in the sense of writing for the sake of writing but simply in the amount of time I was able to focus. On the other hand, that same mania caused me to hurry through pieces which, though I still believe they possess quality, could have been better had I been capable of more patience. Depressions simply shut me down. As to insights, Bipolar Disorder does lend me an empathy for those who see the world through very different sets of lenses, which is how Bipolar Disorder shows itself. The extremes of Bipolar Disorder also led to my interest in extremes, period, both in my reading and writing.

PDL     You're known as a very candid person who's willing to talk about anything quite openly. Has this created any problems with the publishing world? Your audience?

PAT     I don't think the major publishers care what I think. I know my stance regarding the memoir hasn't been popular, but I don't see the point in being a writer if one isn't going to be honest. In my mind, it's now a career move to become an alcoholic or coke addict, quit, and then write a novel disguised as a memoir. I haven't experienced any problems because of this. Perhaps it has cost me readers; I've no way of knowing.

PDL     Linking back to the previous question: you've experienced several frustrations with your publisher, Bleak House, and have even voiced these issues quite openly on public forums. Have those issues been resolved? Have they worsened? You're currently working on your 5th novel, the 4th not yet having been accepted for publication. Care to comment on all of that?

PAT     I'd say my issues with Bleak House are dead to me. The people involved have moved on, and the company that now runs Bleak House has slightly improved matters. My sometimes mercurial temperament certainly didn't help.

PDL     One of my favourite quotes is one by Susan Sontag who said: "Wanting to know a writer because you like their work is like wanting to know a duck because you like pâté." How do you feel about that? Do you think too much emphasis is being placed on tabloid-like elements of certain people's lives and that playing along with this is a required must these days in order to attain a certain level of fame?

PAT     That's an interesting question. I agree with Sontag. When I was younger, I wanted to be infamous, to be known for outrages and all the rest. As I've grown older, all of that seems so passé, even beyond cliché. Even Rimbaud seemed to eventually think so about his pre-African activities. Whenever I see a writer playing a writer, I feel as embarrassed for myself as I do for that writer. It's all so obvious. It's just another societal role to play, or a mask to wear. The more outrageous the writer, the more I know it's an act. I need only state the words "James Frey." Writers shouldn't wear masks; actors wear the masks.

PDL     How do you deal with criticism?

PAT     Terribly. I'd rather have my eyes cut out with the edge of a torn-in-half beer can. I'm as sensitive as anyone else to my work being criticized. I only take refuge in knowing critics were forced to read my work before criticizing it. If it was such a torturous read that they felt the need to torture me, then we're equal when it comes to torturing one another.

PDL     I myself once remarked that you seemed to posses the Coen brothers' ability to present fierce, graphic and unsuspected violence in such a commonplace way that, while it doesn't diminish the brutality being presented, readers tend to find humour in what should otherwise not be a funny event. Is this done intentionally--carefully piecing together certain elements to illicit this response--or is this a typical audience reaction which stems more from our own expectations of how we've become accustomed to seeing violence being portrayed in movies, television, and genre literature? In other words, do you merely depict events as you see them, and if readers chuckle at this violence, this is an uneasy reaction based on elements other than your own doing? And, if this is a desired reaction on your part, are the Coen Brothers an inspiration in this sense? Is comedian Steven Wright? Or perhaps, is this ability a bi-product of having lived in Flint, Michigan?

PAT     I certainly enjoy the Coen brothers' best films, and I'm sure they've influenced me, particularly Fargo and Blood Simple. The latter is probably closer to my sensibility. I've always found that violence is very much like a joke: the punchline has to be placed just right. This is true whether you're trying to be funny or not. But self-surprise is for me a necessary part of writing, even when, in the case of a novel, I know the ending. I usually know where I'm going but not how I'll get there. As to Steven Wright, he's a bit too arch for my taste. Flint, on the other hand, has some kind of sarcastic atmosphere; I mean it's literally in the air. It's a post-industrial wasteland; there's no way to endure it without a vicious sense of humor, like a switchblade in the pocket, because sooner or later somebody's going to pick a verbal knife fight with you.

PDL     In Fizz, am I right to assume that the main character Ray Pulaski, a.k.a. Ray Style, may have been partially inspired by Goddard, the elusive rock star in Jerzy Kosinski's Pinball?

PAT     Actually, no, because I've never read it. Ray was invented one day in an office when I thinking of the word "fizz," and began to imagine this character whose brain is fizzing, like champagne. From there, I visualized his entire perception of the world as something like a cartoon, and that he was perceived by others as a cartoon character. That was the birth of the novel, and in writing it, identity became the theme--but I had no theme in mind when I began the book.

PDL     Your three "F" novels i.e. Fizz, Fishnet, and Finale, focus on piecing together--jigsaw like--certain elements which allow your characters to develop a sense of self. Certainly it is a pertinent commentary on the loss of individuality in modern industrialized societies, but is this also a reflection of your own life and having to deal with your disorder? Is the theme of "identity" one that organically emerged unconsciously, a primary concern of yours, or one that is being imposed on the works by critics and readers? In other words, was it purely the need to tell a story that motivated these works or the need to remark on what you see as a common struggle?

PAT     I don't find myself writing for readers or critics; if I did, I would probably be more successful...or not. But the theme of identity has always obsessed me. I'm sure that's related to being Bipolar, but it goes beyond that, since the theme fascinates me whether I'm manic, depressed or perfectly fine. I've always wondered whether a person would have lived a different life had they been given a different name, for instance. Or whether one becomes a born again Christian or an atheist based upon special circumstances that may change, leaving their religious identities as basically up for the grabs of the dice. Even more so, I think the whole idea of "finding one's self" has really led people astray, on a journey to nowhere and usually at a great cost. I'll defer to Heidegger on these issues, but suffice to say I now better know my world and my being within it.

PDL     In Finale, your third and recently published book in your "F" series, we are left with the feeling that the hero would have been better off had he not undertaken his journey towards "identity" and consequently, not attained the level of awareness gained as a result of it. Is self-delusion a good thing? A good coping mechanism in our society? Do you think that happiness is better achieved through a certain amount of real-world denial?

PAT     Yes, that was the whole point of the novel. I wanted to raise the question, but I wanted the reader to answer it, so the end was left oblique. To be happier might mean lying as much as possible to one's self, and I think we've all met people who do just that. God knows what happens to them if anything causes a crack in the facade. I think it's more interesting, and probably safer, to remain aware of the world, to think about and imagine and re-imagine it. I prefer to live in our present history, part of time's stream, which of course washes over any differences between yesterday, today and tomorrow. To me, good writing in some way involves this larger world.

PDL     In your works, including your short stories, we rarely get a sense of closure or "denouement" in the traditional sense so that, despite the social problems you seem to be attacking, no real solution is ever offered. Can this be attributed to your inability to provide answers to these complex questions--and that providing such answers is beyond the scope of your work--or towards a belief that such solutions do not exist and cannot be offered?

PAT     While I can imagine solutions to the problems I describe, I don't see them as ever being realized. So the world I describe, and the world I know, is one without solutions. If you look at the "solutions" to the problem of identity offered in my three novels, one occurs via physical accident, the other through tragedy, and the last through absolute nihilism. These are not solutions most people would choose. They may not even be solutions for the characters in the sense that perhaps their lack of identity is their identity, to paraphrase the film Singles.

PDL     You claim that, according to you, your fourth and still unpublished novel, Airplane Novel, is your best work to date. Why so?

PAT     I took the most risks with it, and I think they paid off. I did a huge amount of research for the novel, but as it turned out, most of that research involved cubism. Because the narrator is a building-- the South Tower, to be exact--such a "character" would obviously "see" thousands of viewpoints. How would I replicate what I imagined a building would see? The cubists offered the answer. I read cubist poets, cubist theory, etc. And while also absorbing the 9/11 material, as well as the Koran, something like a collage emerged, and I honestly believe Airplane Novel achieves the goal of being a cubist novel. At the same time, it's funny, tragic, a fast read, and something I doubt people will very easily forget. I'm very proud of it, and I've been devastated by the poor response despite , near dissertations from major piublishers praising the work just before rejecting it because they saw no market for it. I think there is a market for it. I also think a market can be made. But the major publishers prefer prefabricated markets. And that's why they're dying.

PDL     Do you think that the subject matter is perhaps "too fresh" and delicate, the real reason why publishers are shying away from Airplane Novel, rather than a lack of market?

PAT     Broadly speaking, I doubt it's the novel's subject because 9/11 has already lost much of its cultural resonance, mostly, I think, because of the depression--oops, I mean depression. While 9/11 was supposed to be our generation's "JFK moment," the assassination of JFK wasn't ceaselessly replayed on television until one could watch it with a feeling of distance, like a moment lost to history. On the other hand, my agent at the time suggested that because the publishers to which he was submitting the novel were of course located in New York City, there might have been more sensitivity regarding the subject, especially in the way I handled it. That may be true, but New Yorkers handled 9/11; they can handle a book about it.

PDL     Should one's personal satisfaction with one's work be a gauge of potential success, or rather, should it be taken as a gauge of the work's potential inaccessibility with a public audience? Beyond marketability and other similar considerations, should editors and publishers have a say in regards to "content" in a fictional work? Should editors and publishers be working entirely in the service of writers rather than what increasingly seems to be the reverse, writers trying to cater to publishers? Writers seem to be forced to play a bigger and necessary role in the marketing of their work and less towards writing, whereas publishers are becoming more and more preoccupied with controlling content and doing less publicity work for their writers? Please comment on these aspects.

PAT     It's very shadowy when it comes to that first question. For me, I think I've found a way to offer experimentation in a way that satisfies my goals without sacrificing readability. I don't feel this is a form of "selling out" because the majority of novels I admire do the same thing. That's the category in which I wish my work to be listed. I also think it's fine for editors and publishers to make suggestions and even demands; one can always dismiss or reject those suggestions and demands. But when it comes to what major publishers do, exactly, I'm not sure. I think they're accounting firms. When it comes to independent publishers, they lack the budgets, so self-promotion is a necessary evil in that case. But the majors could easily take, say, one percent of the Harry Potter profits and put them towards publicizing new authors.

PDL     In relations to the previous question, do you find that you're being given more control with each new novel, or less?

PAT     There hasn't been a trend, since the control only markedly changed in one case, that being the "middle" novel Fishnet. My agents at the time--this is completely true--asked me to change the narrative from "quirky to conventional," then back to "quirky," and then back to "conventional" again. First of all, my writing isn't "quirky." That suggests a certain light-heartedness. All my novels are dead serious despite the humor. Second, I've basically found the advice of agents to be useless. It's to be ignored except in the case of minor changes. Never fall for it. It's very easy to write, "Completely revise this novel." To do so successfully may be impossible, but it's not the time of the agent being wasted.

PDL     Music plays an important role in your life. But not just listening to music; you also play guitar and compose. What parallels can you draw between this passion of yours and your writing? Do you set your writing to certain pieces of music, i.e., allow yourself to be influenced by pieces of music or bands you've selected to play as you write certain scenes? Inversely, do you find that what you are writing has a direct affect on the music you are simultaneously composing?

PAT     Music is most important to my writing in one sense, and that's rhythm. "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." I try to write like the jazz musicians Elvin Jones or Art Blakey drummed. Someone told me she had tapped her foot while reading one of the novels; this was to me a high compliment. I am also fond of repetition and would say my work has sometimes been influenced by Steve Reich. However, I rarely write fiction to music, which is something I once did. I now find it a distraction. As far as my own music goes, I tend to record a piece and then title it with the first thought that comes to mind. Maybe the piece is suggesting a word or words to me for that title, maybe not; I don't bother with that too much. For one thing, my music can mainly be heard on my podcast at http://tothnews.libsyn.com/, which is, besides the intro and close-out, completely lacking in narration. You hear songs and only songs.

PDL     How do you characterize your world view? Is there hope for humankind? Where should focus be placed?

I believe hope can mainly be found in the redistribution of the wealth possessed by the very small top percentage. How that happens is of no concern to me, only that it does happen. Otherwise, I suppose you could call be an absursist, except I don't want to be associated with absurdist theory, which itself would be absurd. It's not a theory; it's merely absurd that we can think. I believe consciousness was an evolutionary accident.

PDL     You're currently working towards a degree in social counselling. What motivated this redirection? Do you plan on putting less focus on writing or even giving it up entirely?

PAT     Can there seem a less likely role for me? But I've always been interested in psychology, even if my writing hasn't been influenced by Freud. I've set my sights on constructivist and evolutionary/sociobiological theory. I'm also interested in substance abuse treatment because I've walked a thousand miles in those shoes and wouldn't mind giving a new pair to someone else nearly walking on bare feet. Mostly, my work has not been affected by this pursuit, but I have been procrastinating revising my fifth novel. I think that has more to do with awaiting the fate of Airplane Novel. To date, that has been a devastating experience; I was certain it was "the one." I still believe it is. And that's not helping.

PDL     Please name three real-life heroes and three anti-heroes and briefly explain why you've selected these.

PAT     Jim Thompson because he slipped into the most popular and even crude form of writing a devastating critique of capitalism. J.G. Ballard because he created myths related to the world in which we live or may soon live, as opposed to writing yet more novels about the effects of divorce. Finally, an artist, Paul Klee, because in his work he made a world of play but also savaged injustice wherever he saw it.

As to anti-heroes, I would say: Adam Smith, since I'm no capitalist; Stalin, for fucking up communism; and Martin Luther for providing Christianity the basis to even more-thoroughly plague the earth.

PDL     If you could leave your readers with one bit of wisdom, what would you want it to be?

PAT     Can I quote REM? "If you are confused check with the sun / Carry a compass to help you along / Your feet are going to be on the ground / Your head is there to move you around."

PDL     I hate to do this but I'll end with a clichéd, almost expected question since I really would like to hear what I suspect will be an un-clichéd response (sorry for putting pressure here): what's your advice to beginning writers? Should University writing programs and workshops exist?

I'll start with the last question first. As to whether to pursue an MFA or the equivalent in other countries is a choice that I think should be tempered by two factors. First, the world only needs so many creative writing instructors. Secondly, workshopping seems to me a kind of corporate enterprise. The danger, I think, is that one begins to work towards a comfortable average that meets class approval. This leads to the "well-crafted story." I consider the solely well-crafted story to be a chair or cabinet, not fiction. "Yes, there's nothing wrong with it," but there's nothing alive about it, either. My advice to writers is to find what works best for their particular imaginations. Some may work regularly and others not. Some may work better in the morning or night. I don't think any of it matters except that writers keep pushing until they find the situation that best lets their particular imaginations through the windows of their fingers. Waiting for inspiration is like waiting to meet a new lover by sitting alone in an apartment.


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