Daniel Torday, Associate Professor and Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College (on leave 2018-2019), is author of the forthcoming novel Boomer1. His previous novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, was a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice and an International Dublin Literary Award nominee.
In this Q&A with Bryn Mawr's Office of Communications, Torday discusses the themes of Boomer1, which comes out Sept. 18, and also talks about his writing process, teaching creative writing and the role of student inspiration in his work, and his desire for there "to be a lot of Bryn Mawr in the rollout" of his new book.
Q. In your new novel Boomer1, a central character, Mark Brumfeld, "begins to post a series of online video monologues that critique Baby Boomers and their powerful hold on the job market." The novel's subtitle, "Retire or We'll Retire You," points directly to this conflict among millennials, GenX, and Baby Boomers. What compelled you to pursue this particular dynamic, as opposed to Right vs. Left or some other contemporary political or economic conflict?
A: The most immediate answer is that the book is a loose retelling of Julius Caesar. I’d been reading a ton of Shakespeare for my last book, and when I read Caesar, there was just this nagging sense that the conflict between him, and Brutus and Cassius, just sounded so much like the way people frame the conflict between Boomers and Millennials. From there, I just wanted to push hard on the way some aspects of identity politics have grown so loud in the past years, and have grown so insidious in places like Breitbart and Fox News. And what aspect of our identities are more permanent than our generation, our age, our cohort?
Q. When one visits your webpage and follows the Boomer1 link, the visitor is greeted by a series of illustrations. Could you talk about the role those illustrations play in this work and how they came to be a part of it?
A: So you’re the one who’s visited my website! Seriously: the process of writing is pure pleasure, but the process of getting a book into the world can be pure anxiety. This time, though, I’ve been trying to have fun with it. I have no artistic talent, but I made a couple little drawings that ended up in the book, so I made a pile of them. There will also be some by guest artists, some New Yorker cartoonists and painters. For the past year I’ve been producing a soundtrack for the book—it’s wildly different versions of the traditional ballad “Pretty Polly,” a song that plays a vital role early in the novel. There are versions by Dr. Dog, Peter Matthew Bauer of the Walkmen, novelist Rick Moody, a couple of BMC alums, and even a couple tracks by the main characters in the book.
Q. How has the social media/new media landscape influenced your role as a novelist? Could you ever have envisioned yourself tweeting out alternate covers of the book to a wide audience before publication, for example?
A: As a novelist who’s writing novels, I think the answer is: not at all. I find it super important for writing time to be monastic, Ludditic, analog. When I’m writing, I try not to do anything else. I’m the same way in the classroom: I don’t allow any electronics in my classroom of any kind. Cells off, laptops back in the dorm. I want those four walls of the classroom to be sacred, with as few signs of the 21st century as possible. But it is the 21st century, and it’s harder than ever just to release a book into the wild and say, "Go forth!" So once the book is done, edited, and I can’t go back to it, I’m more than eager to do whatever it takes alongside it to help readers find it, interact with it, with luck be moved by it.
Q. From reading your Twitter feed, it's clear that you took a break for some time before returning to that platform. Do you view your role as a commentator or participant in the social media dialogue as part of your work as a novelist or practitioner of creative writing? Is this a separate endeavor completely?
A: I’d been on Twitter a little while before the 2016 presidential election, long enough to see trolling and real ugliness take over. I had an awful experience where a bunch of “deplorables” all started piling on to something I’d said the day of the election. So I hopped off. I’ve waded back in the last couple months and I’ve seen two things: the level of vitriol and anger on Twitter far outstrips any other platform. But there’s a way to practice radical positivity there, too, to simply find the folks who want to encourage each other, to build things rather than strip them down. But I won’t lie, it takes a monumental amount of energy to do so, and vigilance. Probably couldn’t hurt if the company itself enforced its terms of service.
Q. As you work with students at Bryn Mawr College in the creative writing program, how does that connect with your work on a long project like Boomer1? Is it the type of give-and-take where ideas you are grappling with emerge in the classroom? Is there any intentionality where your writing process becomes part of that class discussion or conversation? Or is it more subtle than that?
A: When I was an undergrad at Kenyon College, I had this wonderful religion professor. He was the minister at the Episcopal church on campus. He was in his late 60s. He’d been through bouts of cancer, had both knees replaced. You could hear him breathing from anywhere on campus. But man was he young at mind. He always had an ear for you, was always willing to take on any issue as if he’d just come to it, his mind open. I remember asking him once, "How do you stay so young?" And he said: “I get to spend my days around young people like you.” I’ve always carried that with me. I learn so much from my students. I get to read them, and I get to read more novels and stories with them in a semester than anyone would ever choose to if it were not their job.
Q. You're working with students who are interested in creative writing but have more potential outlets and avenues to express themselves to a wide audience than students from even a few years ago, and also possess more ways to communicate person-to-person than ever before (text, email, apps, etc.). How do those realities affect how you approach the subject with them?
A: One of my favorite discussions we inevitably come to in my writing classes is the point when we’re reading Donald Barthelme or Marilynne Robinson or James Baldwin and we get to ask…"so, does this sound like speech? Or the written word? What’s it even supposed to sound like?" I suspect that in 2018, grappling with a question like that will inevitably include not just dialogue, but also email and texts and chatrooms. And frankly I try to find good examples of just that—a story Jennifer Egan published in The New Yorker that started out as a series of tweets, or a Zadie Smith story told through the perspective of a futuristic kid using a kind of advanced version of Google Glass. But grappling with the contemporary epistolary novel doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also jump back and read Saul Bellow’s prolix prose, or Gilead, President Obama’s favorite contemporary novel, written in the form of a letter from a pastor to his young son.
Q. Often a news story will frame the subject of economic difference in terms like "Millennials Endanger Casual-Dining Restaurants" or "Millennials Aren't Buying Homes. Good for Them." It seems less common that news media engage with these issues from the point of view that older generations are causing or contributing to the economic malaise of younger generations. Was your approach to this subject informed by the idea of flipping this focus around?
A: This might be a good time to confess: I’m not even sure I believe in the concept of “generations.” It’s so broad as to be almost meaningless. The 18th century philosopher David Hume said something like, If humans, like insects, developed in generations that lived and died all at once, the concept might be useful. Instead we have government. So I think I just wanted to have a bone to throw out and let my characters fight over it. The book is told from three points of view—one of them Mark’s mother, Julia, who is solidly a Boomer, but has a complicated history. If I’m honest, I came to love her character maybe the most of any I’ve written.
Q. The book description states that Mark "loses control of what he began" as his videos go viral. How did you approach this concept of viral content and the creator's work perhaps causing unintended consequences or harm (or even unintended good)? Are these scary concepts for a novelist to dig into in particular?
A: I guess to some extent it was just following the organic flow of where the novel took me. Mark gets involved in a series of dark web chatrooms, with a fictional group called “Silence,” who are intent on their own version of anarchy. So some of it was just reading about groups like them, spending some time researching these little cells that crop up, and seeing how they inevitably crash into reality. A whole lot of early members of Anonymous, for example, ended up in prison. Then again, we essentially have an internet troll for a President right now. More and more, the ugliest, mustiest corners of the trollish internet have been finding their way into the light of day. So I think the more time that passes, the less of a flight of fancy it feels. Or to put it another way: entropy.
Q. According to Amazon, actor Maggie Siff, a Bryn Mawr alumna, is the reader of the Boomer1 audiobook. Was it a Bryn Mawr connection that led to her involvement?
A: You’re quite the sleuth! It’s not public yet, but I’m guessing it will be announced by the time this runs: yeah, the wildly talented actress Maggie Siff of Mad Men and Billions fame performed the audiobook, which also has music by Dr. Dog, Peter Matthew Bauer, and the novel’s author playing on it. I approached Maggie through a mutual friend in the community. She’s so smart, and so sweet, and I just got very lucky that she read the book and liked it enough to want to do it. I wanted there to be a lot of Bryn Mawr in the rollout, so between Maggie, and the bands and cartoonists involved, there are plenty. But above all, Maggie’s massive talent just lends so much to the audiobook. I’m in the middle of listening to it for the first time, and she adds nuances to the characters I didn’t even know were there. It’s revelatory for me. I never thought I’d want to listen to an audiobook of my own work. But with Maggie on it, it’s a joy and an education.