A Conversation with Steve Toltz, author of A Fraction of the Whole
A Fraction of the Whole is a larger-than-life novel, with a big
cast of characters, but at its heart are Martin and Jasper Dean, a father and
son, whose singular perspectives on the world make them both fierce enemies and
faithful allies. How did the idea for their intimate yet fraught relationship
come to you, and what do you think it says about parent/child relationships?
The idea for the relationship between Martin and Jasper Dean came from a
number of simultaneous preoccupations, the main two being my curiosity about how
it must feel to be the children of those people who are skinned alive in the
media and about how a child of a rebel himself rebels. It was not my initial
intention to say anything about parent/child relationships, but during the
writing of the book, Martin's central dilemma in raising his son became
interesting to me: How do you teach another human being to be his own person? Do
you try and pass along the characteristics of yourself that you are most proud
of, even though you know they have made you miserable? What if you think very
poorly of the education system available but you don't have the time or energy
to teach the child yourself? What if you don't want your child to follow the
herd, but you know that to stand out is a recipe for misery? Martin is plagued
by questions that have no clear answer.
You were born and raised in Sydney, Australia, but you've also lived in
Paris, Barcelona, San Francisco, Montreal, and New York. How has your travel
helped to shape the concept of this novel, in which Martin and Jasper embark on
their own misadventures?
As most of the novel is set in Australia, being away from Australia allowed
me to think about the place with a sense of clarity. Very few of my actual
experiences were written into the novelit's a complete work of fictionbut
living overseas was hugely influential in the creation of this book. The
isolation of living in a city where I knew nobody, in a foreign culture, and
trying to communicate in a language I barely knew helped my creative process in
general. Being away from your hometown, where you would otherwise live in
familiar grooves, gives space for the imagination to breathe.
You were a columnist for a film magazine in Australia and you've also written
plays and screenplays. What moved you to write a novel? Are there writers you
would site as your influences?
I haven't always wanted to be a writer, but I've always written. As a child
and as a teenager, I wrote poems, short stories, and the beginnings of novels
that usually only held my interest for about two and a half chapters. After
university, I turned back to writing without a specific plan other than to try
to supplement whatever meager income I had by entering short story competitions,
applying for screenplay grantswhatever came up. These were the years of my
gradual shift toward a writing career. As I moved from job to job, or the bottom
rung of one career ladder to the bottom rung of another, it became increasingly
obvious that there was very little other than writing that I was capable of
doing well. Eventually, attempting a novel was the next logical step. I thought
it would take me about a year. It took almost four. I've been influenced by Knut
Hamsun, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, John Fante, Woody Allen, Thomas Bernhard, and
Booklist's starred review of A Fraction of the Whole said: "Beyond all
the feverish action, this is also a deliriously philosophical novel . . . Toltz
salts it all with uproarious ruminations on freedom, the soul, love, death, and
the meaning of life." How do your characters' worldviews reflect your own? What
do you hope the novel says about the human condition?
Whether or not the characters' worldviews reflect my own depends on what day
you ask me, and then it depends on whether or not it is the morning or the
afternoon of that day, if I am feeling optimistic or pessimistic in that moment,
and in which waywhether I am feeling optimistic about myself and pessimistic
about the world, or optimistic about the world and pessimistic about myself.
It's unlikely there's an answer to that question that would remain consistent
over consecutive days. Often my characters' views are exaggerations of views I
am sympathetic to, and often they are views of which I believe the exact
opposite is equally true.
What I hope the novel says about human existence is said explicitly through
my characters. Martin, for instance, says there are four types of people in the
world: those obsessed with love and those who have it, those who laugh at
retarded people when they are children and those who laugh at them into
adulthood and old age. Jasper, meanwhile, fears human indifference. He says:
"You don't want to fall over in front of Man. He won't pick you up." Martin
believes the goal of human existence is to be freethough he never really
achieves this freedom himself. Jasper fears the fears of his father. The book is
full of their views on the human experience.