Earlier this week, Daniel Torday wrote about Jewish novella-writers and discussed the complicated “Jewish Writer Question.” Daniel’s novella The Sensualist won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in Outstanding Debut Fiction. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
After five years as a magazine editor in New York City, I took the leap and the risk to exit the race and take an MFA. I was in my 20’s and didn’t know much more than that I loved books and wanted to write one. My first workshop there was taught by an African American writer whose novels I love, and whose advice — every word of it — has stuck with me every day since.
In one of my first days there, I turned in a short story about a Jewish kid who goes to visit his grandparents in Montreal, and after a long night of drinking ends up skinny-dipping in a hot tub only to see, dramatically and in great detail, that his grandfather isn’t circumcised.
This fact came under appropriate scrutiny by my fellow workshop members. Maybe the writing wasn’t so hot (it wasn’t). Maybe no one wants to read a long description of an octogenarian’s foreskin (they sure don’t!). So I demurred. The story’s been in a drawer since.
But in private conference after workshop, the novelist sat me down. He could see how dejected I was.
“Look look look — so maybe you didn’t pull of that scene,” he said. “But you’ve got material here.”
I looked at him. I said it seemed like people weren’t responding. Maybe I should find something else to write about — I’d been a magazine editor the past couple years, played mandolin in a successful bluegrass band. Who wanted to hear about these people in my family?
He was right. He didn’t know I’d spent the past decade reading the Russians, reading Melville, Hawthorne, Austen, Joyce, Woolf, Pound, Faulkner, James, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and that I’d never read a word of Babel, Singer, Malamud, Bellow, Brodkey, Ozick, Roth.
The Tradition. Keep after it. First I’d have some reading to do.
So I did.
Daniel Torday’s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2015.
Daniel Torday is the author of the novel The Last Flight of Poxl West, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and an International Dublin Literary Award nominee. Torday’s work has appeared in The New York Times, NPR, The Paris Review Daily and Tin House, and has been honored in both the Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays series. He was longlisted for the 2020 Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates Literary Prize. A two-time National Jewish Book Awardee and winner the 2017 Sami Rohr Choice Prize, Torday is Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College. His second novel, Boomer1, is out now from St. Martin’s Press.