An Interview with Paul A. Toth

Interview by Dr Bob Rich

FF: Paul, writing humorously about serious topics is one of the most difficult things a writer can do. Was this your intent with ‘Fizz’? And if yes, are you a person who makes people laugh in your everyday life?

Paul A. Toth: That was the intent, and part of the difficulty was not trying to be funny but playing it straight. It’s Ray’s utter earnestness in self-delusion that’s funny, and winking at the audience, letting them know it’s meant to be funny, as well as sad, would ruin the effect. As an example, look at comedian Steven Wright’s act. I’m not even sure he’s joking.

As a person, I can be funny, but some of that laughter I’d rather avoid. Once, I was working on a movie set in the middle of the desert, my only job blocking traffic on a two-lane road to God knows where. I turn my head one way, the helicopter zooming overhead for an expensive panoramic scene. When I turn the other direction, here comes an Asian man riding a bicycle straight into the shot. Where that man came from, where he was going, and why he was riding a bicycle in hundred-degree heat, I still don’t know, but that was my last day on that job. That kind of thing happens to me a lot.

FF: What grabbed me in ‘Fizz’ was that you have zeroed in on the greatest unacknowledged epidemic of our age. So many people live lives empty of meaning. They don’t have anything to live for besides their own little egos. Everything around us teaches us to be selfish, to ‘seek happiness’, and this is guaranteed to be self-defeating. I think your book is brilliant because it presents this tragedy in a humorous way. Can you comment?

PT: I think humor draws the audience closer to tragic characters. With Ray, I simply exaggerated the kinds of jagged, destination-less journeys so many take today, wandering from born again Christianity to feng shui. The point of the humor: We’re in a place with no roads leading out, but everybody’s selling maps.

If Ray is a hyper-version of the kind of lost souls you mention — and certainly I’ve been one of them at various times — he’s different only in degree. Take a simple case, the short guy with a Napoleon complex, bullying his way to overachievement. He’ll likely discover all his efforts accomplish is that people now say, “What a little asshole.”

If we’re all duped and doomed in our attempts to escape our little selves, then perhaps the only solution is to stop trying to escape….because there isn’t one, except self-delusion. But once that point is reached, then a person, even a Ray, can give up trying to be “larger than life” and make the best of his or her situation. Then they can do whatever it is they’re equipped to do as well as they can. So if at first Ray seems the object of the mockery in Fizz, hopefully readers will eventually realize all those offering him one solution or another, a magic key, are the real target, including the religious. Ray’s just a hapless victim, an Everyidiot for our times.

FF: Paul, you have done a brilliant job of entertaining us with a social critique, and as I said, that’s not easy. Does your book present a solution?

PT: ‘Fizz’ does hint at a kind of solution, but it lies only in better understanding the problem itself. It’s like a mathematical equation inaccurately transposed on the blackboard. No amount of work, prayer, chanting or therapy at the student health center will solve that problem. The problem is the problem.

I think everyone, especially the Rays of the world, must gain the ability to at least occasionally — as I by chance heard on the radio one day — think like a mountain. In doing so, we can take a measure of comfort in our near microscopic place in the larger picture. This demagnification should lighten the burden, lending a kind of gleeful sense of humor to the situation. We can write books knowing they may go nowhere, or raise children knowing they may go haywire, rather than doing so with the hope they will “fulfill” us. After all, if most anxiety is related to the fear we’re small, insignificant and mortal, once we grasp that we really are small, insignificant and mortal — just like everybody else — we can become a little more realistic in our expectations. Hopefully, by taking the focus off that neurotic, twitchy self-concern, we can aim it at what we want to do with our lives.

I point anyone interested to Robert Wright’s book ‘A Moral Animal’ and something called The Long Now Foundation. Wright illustrates how evolution led to this drive for self-satisfaction and “designed” the sensation to be fleeting. Among its other projects, The Long Now Foundation demonstrates a grander than usual scale of time with its 10,000 year clock, set to chime, yes, every 10,000 years…a physical reminder of the “think like a mountain” premise. With proper perspective, we can stop deluding ourselves easy solutions to our problems and the world’s exist. Until then, we’re easily attracted to charlatans. Of course, not all charlatans know they’re charlatans. Often, you have to buy your own lies before you can sell them. Dr. Phil seems thoroughly sold. But with simple perspective, we can save money on self-help books and reemploy a few gurus. And if the need arises, we can hopefully find someone equipped to help us through with real therapy and proper medication, rather than infomercial shamanism.

Ray doesn’t have access to any of these remedies, so he must learn the hard way. Without giving away the ending, he has to literally bang his head against the problem if he’s to have any hope of reordering his outlook and life.

FF: You mentioned working on a movie set. What other life experiences would you like to tell us about?

PT: I’d have to say moving around a lot from my home town here in Flint, Michigan was a good education. My stuff isn’t as autobiographical as some writers’ work. But having lived in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Denver, I managed to experience life on both coasts and in between, and drove through the South on the move from D.C. to Denver. So Ray’s train trip from Los Angeles to Denver was based on a train trip of my own from Michigan to Denver — although that took place before I moved there, when I was headed to a William S. Burroughs conference. And the choice of L.A. for his mother’s new home was easily made. So I often use places I’ve been as locales: free research. Flint itself was also a good education…in everything that’s wrong with the world.

Also, while I look forward to moving from Michigan again, my somewhat accidental arrival back here not long after turning thirty ended up working in my favor, as it forced me to finally concentrate on writing. For the same reason, I enjoy the slowing down aspect of aging — but only for that reason.

Of the places I’ve lived, I think California will always be an alluring locale for my fiction. Having not grown up there, it remains a strange and haunted place for me. Unlike many people, I actually liked Los Angeles. Maybe I shouldn’t have left, but that’s another story.

FF: My experience is that every writer approaches the task differently. Some plot a book meticulously, others let it grow as it comes. Some have regular hours devoted to writing, others do it when the inspiration strikes. There are those who write first, ignoring typos and spelling and grammar and then come back to sort it out (this one horrifies me!), then there are the meticulously obsessive types like me — always the editor, even when in a creative frenzy.

I think both other writers and the general public love to look over your shoulder to see how you do it. It has the same fascination as watching a blacksmith, or a glass blower or any other craftsperson. So, how do YOU do it?

PT: I start with something like twenty pages of notes. That includes a bare sketch of the plot but mostly consists of ideas about the main character, the tone and style of the narrative, and maybe a few lines of dialogue. I set a minimum of 500 words a day. Usually I work in the morning, but if day-job deadlines interfere, I’ll switch to afternoons or catch up on weekends. When things are moving well, the index cards in the living room and bedroom and car and everywhere else fill with details for use the next day or later. I edit as I go, correcting mistakes and tinkering, so the initial edit is really just the first continuous edit. I have an end in mind and know the major turning points, but otherwise situations and characters evolve in the process. My first challenge in finishing a novel is maintaining interest and confidence, so I try to surprise myself, as if I’m reading a book someone else is writing. What do I expect to happen next? Okay, then we’re going somewhere else.

When I finish the first draft, I edit the whole thing, then start a rewrite, which is actually more of an adding-in process. I tend to race when I write, so I work on the pace of the story, slowing it where necessary, maybe adding a few new plot threads, deepening the characters and so on.

A second major edit follows. Finally, I read the whole thing word-for-word into a microphone, which allows me to catch not only errors my eyes miss but also misplaced beats, on-the-nose dialogue and other nuances. That’s the supposed final draft, but since I have an agent, unsuccessful submissions may mean further rewrites will be requested. With my second novel, those rewrites led to a far better book, much as I would have preferred to avoid them.

Like the blacksmith and glass blower you mention, writing has its well-known apprenticeship. But I think most of that apprenticeship involves trying out different ways to write — using an outline or not, writing 2000 words a day or 500, in the morning or afternoon, etc. — and learning what works. The right habits get the subconscious, or whatever you’d like to call it, in on the action, like some guy in a trenchcoat: “Psst, pal, over here. Got something to tell ya.” You have to get to Deep Throat in the parking garage.

He fills in the gaps you don’t know, has all the best information. Some go looking for Deep Throat with maps and outlines, others let him find them by always being accessible. I’m the latter. I know he’s gonna call, usually in the middle of the night, so there’s a pile of index cards beside the bed. Hopefully, I can read my own writing the next morning. But it doesn’t matter how you do it. Just get to Deep Throat.

FF: You mentioned a coming book. If it’s not a secret, would you like to tell us something about it?

PT: Sure. It’s still in the submission process, but the next novel tells the story of Maurice Melnick, a graphic artist and painter who often sinks into his own imagination as if into a swimming pool. He’s fixated on capturing in a portrait his wife’s suddenly changing, middle-aged smile. He comes to learn this “idee fixee” is driven by biological facts he has long sought to escape.

Meanwhile, his hometown of Solemn, California — a mythic place representing all the single-industry towns faltering in globalization — collapses around him. Events force Maurice to decide whether he’ll sink or swim.

It’s a book filled with ghosts, fencing, an abandoned bandage factory, Norwegian siren songs, alcoholism, sunlight, and bodies of water. I should add that ‘Fizz’ and the next novel are part of a very loose trilogy, the books connected by theme rather than plot. However, we do learn more about Ray’s fate in book two, while at least one character in that novel will appear in the last, which I’m writing now. But one need not read the books chronologically.

FF: Back to the glass blower and the blacksmith. As an editor, I get stuff sent to me that turns me into an Elementary School English teacher. I then ask my clients if they’d take their brakes to be fixed by a mechanic who doesn’t know how to use a spanner or screwdriver. How did you learn the craft of writing, and what advice do you have for hopeful writers?

PT: I took the hard knocks route, mainly because despite a few attempts, I never jibed with university life, especially the group living aspect. Living with just one other person pushes the limits of my affability, not to mention the endurance of the other person. But I designed my own curriculum and studied well enough to earn a BA from the University of Toth. So, for example, before reading Ulysses, I tried to cover Joyce’s inspirations as best I could, from Homer to Virgil. I also followed the threads of other writers’ loves, so that Burroughs led to Celine, and so on. At the same time, I tried to read novels I assumed I wouldn’t like but thought I should know — not always succeeding, in the case of Henry James. And I wrote sporadically until my thirties, when I finally started focusing and progressing.

The advice of writers is always suspect, since it rests on their personal experience, which may not apply to anyone else. But I do think there are constants.

First, books. They should be to the writer as raw meat is to the carnivore. Otherwise, the desire may be misplaced. Fame and fortune as a writer? You’re better off polishing your basketball skills and trying out for the NBA.

Second, forbearance. As I said earlier, it takes a long time to sift through the wrong ways to write and get to one’s particular right way, and it takes even longer to shake off the shadows of influence. Meanwhile, every year a person continues writing, a large percentage of equally experienced peers quit in despair. Thus, setting aside prodigies and geniuses — far fewer in number than announced — one has less and less competition with every year of the slog.

Third, focus. Often, people interested in writing also want to be musicians and painters, all with equal seriousness, or lack thereof. There aren’t too many Goethes out there. If a person wants to succeed, I refer them to the following old saying: “Pick one thing and do it well.” I’m not saying don’t write and paint and play music; I’m saying write, if that’s what you want to do, and don’t take the rest seriously. Unless you’re Goethe.

Finally, decision. A person should bet the time allotted him or her well. The way I see it, life is a casino, time the chips, and one’s game should be carefully chosen. Writing is a game with lousy odds. If there’s anything else would-be writers can and want to do, the odds are probably better. If not, then they know their game. Just don’t expect the dealer to be kind.

So there you have it, B-F-F-D: Books, forebearance, focus, decision. I’m stealing that from Glengarry Glen Ross.

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t assume the major literary journals are looking for fiction that pushes boundaries. They’ve drawn the boundaries tighter than a circle of workshop writers. Judging by what they publish, they’re not even aware modernism existed. I think we could do without another ten thousand stories about graduate school, weak-willed marital partners trying to “find themselves”, coming-of-age tales hopefully somehow featuring baseball, and, if you can throw it in the mix, ethnic cooking. But maybe that’s just me.

FF: Paul, tell me, why would any sane person decide to be a writer?

PT: No sane person would, if financial reward and mass approval were the goals. Both involve lotto odds. You’re better off buying scratch tickets at 7-11 or appearing on a reality show. Consider screenwriters. Though well paid, few can name a single one, even though they create the stories that drive one of America’s most popular forms of entertainment.

But story is crucial. It’s invented or reinvented history, which in turn suggests we can reinvent ourselves or at least how we see the world. I think we can. I think we better. Our royalty — I mean current administration — is driven by apocalyptic fantasy — I mean theology — not too unlike our enemy combatants. Seems like a good time to get to work on new storylines. That’s one of the reasons those literary journals I mentioned so annoy me: They favor fiction that has become an ineffectual little thing, impotent and bloodless. Even the humor is weak, worse than Garrison Keillor. If alive today, Hemingway would probably shoot himself before he started writing.

But forget all that. Finding a small audience is still possible, one that will see the world in new ways through a writer’s stories and novels. I can’t think of anything better. If you want to be a writer, and status is important to you, confer it on yourself. There’s a good chance no one else will.

Myth, some say, and I’m one of them, is as close to magic as we can get. Look at its power: Hell, the story of the Prodigal Son can still get an intellectually underendowed President semi-elected. I suppose if Merlin had existed and was reborn today, stripped of his status and even cool hat, he’d still want to be a magician. And so would I.

Paul A. Toth’s book is Fizz.
Publication details: Published 2003 by Bleak House Books of Diversity, Inc.
Ordering info:

Copyright 2004, Dr. Bob Rich.

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