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 Raymond Chandler.
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.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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