Paul A. Toth is 41 years old out of Flint, MI. Here at THE2NDHAND.com and in our broadsheet series we’ve published his work quite extensively, which is not to say exclusively. He has the longest and most impressive list of lit-mag credits you’ll ever seen in a writer’s CV or resume or bio or… He’s written for all the good ones, you see, from Eyeshot to MonkeyBicycle to Pindeldyboz, and then some. If you haven’t seen his name around, or read one of his stories, I do not know where you’ve been over the past five years. I don’t normally say stuff like that, but there you have it.
On the occasion of the release of Fishnet, the second in the trilogy of novels about self and identity he’s got going (the first being 2003′s Fizz, the third not yet out), I had a talk with him about sundry things, not limited to his obsessions with impending death, exploded views, and life without alcohol, all of which follows. The man is a fine writer, anyhow, and I’ll highly recommend his books. Buy them here and elsewhere.
Paul A. Toth
You grew up in Flint.
And you’ve been writing how long?
Forever, really. With a fair amount of seriousness in my 20s and I really got serious in my 30s.
Were you publishing early too?
I started trying to publish here and there in my 20s. That was before the Internet, and it was tougher to get published — your only options were the print magazines, and just like now, it was especially hard to get anything off-the-wall into the university journals and the like.
Do you think the existence of the Internet and online magazines has made the university journals and the old staid literary magazines even more conservative?
Yeah, I wonder. I don’t read that many of them, but when I do it seems to me that they’re not responding to changes in the world. I know there’s definitely exceptions, and you probably know all their names, but besides those, I can read a lot of those stories and it sounds to me like something I would’ve read in 1980. And it always strikes me — don’t they know that there’s a world that’s significantly changed since then? I think what my problem is is that this doesn’t seem to have affected their prestige at all — I would still love to have one of those credits.
Every writer wants that Ploughshares credit or whatever.
Yeah, pick a name. They refuse me, usually. But I think as far as relevance, the Internet has brought fiction forward and kind of made it something that takes into account all of the changes in the world, the current state of things, whereas all the print journals don’t, so…. I think, to me, that’s a pretty crucial part of writing. Everything doesn’t have to be about 9/11 or anything, but all of it should be at least somewhere in the mix. At least the sense that the world has changed, and not “Oh well, we’re still writing stories as though it’s 1980.”
Everything, really. Just the Internet alone has really changed people’s lives, anyone who uses it, anyway. People’s attention spans have really changed because of it, I think. I thought about that a lot when I went back to school. My reading list suddenly went far higher than what I normally read, and it was completely apparent to me the level to which the Internet, and the computer in general, had just completely ripped my attention span down to nothing. That’s one big change.
But the world is still sort of slowly falling apart.
Yeah, and I mean just think about the fact that — let alone the stuff that’s happened in the last five years — I’m still blown away when I think about the Soviet Union being gone. The cold war just kinda slipped away. And at the time, the amazing thing — I remember hearing it on the radio, I had a job where I could put on headphones and listen to the radio while I did my crap work, and I was just amazed that it was as if nothing was happening to almost everyone around me. It seems strange to me that a lot of writers don’t seem curious about any of this. There’s still a lot of stories about “my divorce” and “my adulterous affair” and all that stuff.
Who are some of your favorite writers working today?
I think one guy who does what I would love to be accused of doing is Haruki Murakami. He’s one who I think really captures the feeling of what it’s like to be alive now. Another would be — though he’s not at all prolific and I don’t think he’s written anything in years, but I think he has a new one coming out — Stephen Wright, not the comedian. A book he’s written is Meditation in Green — I always mention that one. It’s actually about Vietnam. But there’s one about a family obsessed with UFOs, and it was written years ago, but you would think it was written now. It really captures that weirdness in the air. And I’ve only read one book by David Mitchell, but he’s really good too. His work involves the world — the world is in there, is all I care about. Not that everything has to involve politics or history or whatever.
I think your stories, the ones I’m more familiar with, and Fishnet, aren’t dealing with contemporary issues or politics directly, but you definitely have this sort of allegorical thing going on.
Exactly. In some ways I hope that readers who aren’t attuned to that kind of thing can read the stuff at its own level, but in Fishnet for instance the whole apocalyptic thing is definitely referring to people nowadays playing — especially some of our leaders and some of the Islamic elements — they basically want their apocalypse to happen. So, yeah, I try to refer to it, but not date everything too much. But it should be apparent that the characters live in a world and not some Sims’ universe. Look at White Noise, for instance. That almost seems to me like a post-9/11 book, though it was written before then. It’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about, though, because it does an amazing job of evoking the weirdness in the air, again. And if you go back and read the better writers from the 60s you definitely know what was in the air then. They may not be writing about Vietnam protests, and probably the ones who survived that didn’t, but you still know that they were driven by something that wasn’t just a selfish little…
“The weirdness in the air…” I think of Thomas Pynchon immediately.
Yeah, exactly, there’s a great case. He’s writing about WWII half the time and it seems more relevant than most of the stuff you read today that’s supposedly written about today.
And your stories, and Fishnet, and everything else. They do a good job of capturing “what’s in the air,” but then again they’re linked by each being about a single person, and the family around this person, and then the world around them is constantly slipping away, or falling apart in a lot of ways.
I think “exploded view” shows up as a phrase in about ten-thousand things I’ve written. That actually happened to me once. After a hallucinatory experience, I headed down to visit my grandmother, and I wasn’t on anything, but I’m sure something was still there, and I was sitting on the porch and had this sense — I’d been reading physics at the time, so I was probably set up for it — I had the sense that everything is coming apart underneath the surface, and it’s happening all around you all the time, but you’re just better off not being too aware of it. Usually my characters all feel themselves coming apart in one way or another. And there’s always a question of whether the world’s doing what they really think it is. I usually leave that open. In Fizz it’s all Ray’s projection, so you’re never sure….
There is a big disconnect in that book between Ray’s self-prescribed identity and the way he’s actually perceived by the people around him.
Yes, and in the trio of novels, including Fishnet and Fizz and one more not yet out, that’s the thing that really draws them together. A couple characters cross over here and there, but they’re all about the self. With Fizz, the basic idea was, OK, how we perceive ourselves is mainly an accident. At the end, he hits his head, and that’s what “fixes” him. And in Fishnet I started to think about, all right, let’s do some different approaches to the same theme — we create our own stories, you know — and then also present that we do have some choice in the matter, but who we are is still confusing. And then the third one takes a totally different route.
We’ve probably gotten into this a little bit, but to tie things up — why write?
The first answer is: I’m not too good at anything else. And the second, I just think that I always felt pushed in creative directions, and I tried different things when I was younger, nothing I ever really excelled at, so I stuck with it. The other part of the equation is that my dad died fairly young, and that had the main effect of making me become completely, probably overly, obsessed with the thought that I don’t want to have that happen to me and, you know, not have gotten anything done in my time. That’s what motivates me now, especially because you hit 40 and once in a while you see a guy drop dead of a heart attack. It starts becoming more real. And the only way I’ve found to deal with that is to tell myself, keep working, to have as much done as I can, so when the time comes, there won’t be any possibility of that regret — I’m sure I’ll have plenty of others, anyway. And writing provides the main meaning in my life. I’m not religious, I’ve had my political leanings, but since they’re completely out of favor, they don’t really matter too much.
You’re driven by death, chasing death away.
Or it’s the only positive reaction I can find to it. When I quit drinking, I knew AA wasn’t going to do it for me. I couldn’t make “not drinking” the meaning of my life. But when I quit I had to replace it with something. So I wrote.