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WWII Novel-Memoir Explores The Blurry Line Between Fact And Fiction

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WWII Novel-Memoir Explores The Blurry Line Between Fact And Fiction

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WWII Novel-Memoir Explores The Blurry Line Between Fact And Fiction

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I read a lot of memoirs and interview a lot of memoirists, and I will confess that I sometimes wonder in the back of my mind if the authors are being truly honest in their depiction of events. A new novel by my guest Daniel Torday gets right to that question.

The novel is narrated by a 15-year-old in 1986 whose surrogate uncle writes a memoir about his experiences in World War II when he was a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia who managed to get to England, enlist in the Royal Air Force and fly key bombing missions over Germany. The memoir becomes a best-seller and the uncle is a hero in our narrator's eyes. But he's later unmasked as having fabricated parts of the memoir.

Daniel Torday's novel "The Last Flight Of Poxl West" manages to be about World War II, the Holocaust, the place of novels and memoirs in the lives of their readers and what the 15-year-old narrator makes of all of this. The novel alternates between the nephew's narration and the pages of the uncle's memoir. Torday is director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College.

Daniel Torday, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a short reading from your novel. Do you want to just introduce it briefly for us?

DANIEL TORDAY: Sure. So this is from the very beginning of the book. We've just met the narrator Eli, and he's telling us about some of his early experiences with his uncle Poxl, who's one of the two voices in the book.

(Reading) This was an entirely different kind of war story than the ones we read at Hebrew school, a story not of survival, but of action. It was as if he was crafting his great account before my very eyes, and I don't know that I've been so close to history since. My Uncle Poxl was born in a small city north of Prague, but he had a diplomat's accent. His cars had Rs, his parks, too. And unlike the living survivors we met or whose books we read in Hebrew school, his tongue wasn't thick and muddy with Slavic consonants. As he described in the middle chapters of his book, I'd heard each of them as we talked over fudge and whipped cream. He had been sent to London by way of a year in Rotterdam. By the time the Luftwaffe began bombing the East End, he was enlisted as a squaddie. Poxl was a Jew who had flown for the Royal Air Force during the war and lived to write about it. Though he carried in his broad shoulders the complicated burden of his own actions in those days, he had rested his fate from the inevitable bearing down of history upon his fellow Ashkenazi Jews, and not only that, but he lived to write about it, too.

GROSS: That's Daniel Torday reading from his new novel, "The Last Flight Of Poxl West." So you had to write a memoir within your novel. It's very meta (laughter), especially since the memoir turns out to not really be very true, at least parts of it. What were you thinking about memoirs at the time you wrote this? I mean, he writes - the uncle writes a memoir because - he'd prefer to write fiction. But he thinks, people don't want to read fiction, so if I want to be read, if I want people to hear the story, I have to write it as a memoir. So I was wondering, like, do you have no faith in the memoirs...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...That you read, or did you feel like you kind of felt - did you kind of feel that, like, if you wrote a novel, no one would read it, so there had to be a memoir within it? Like (laughter), what kind of strange motivation did you have?

TORDAY: That's a great question. And I think there sort of are two lines to how those decisions got made. And one of them was just when the book came into its conception. It was about 10 years ago. I'd been working as an editor at Esquire magazine for four or five years, and it was at a moment where there were just a number of controversies over the veracity of books and stories that were coming out. The Jayson Blair thing at The New York Times had happened. The James Frey "A Million Little Pieces" controversy had been going on.

And actually, during the time that I was at Esquire, just before I got there and just as I was leaving, we had published a memoir by this writer named Nasdijj, who was a Native American writer. And we had published a couple of his essays, and I think he had three books that were published to great acclaim. And it turned out that he was actually a guy named Tim Barrus, who was a Caucasian guy living in the Pacific Northwest and had had a hard time getting his own work published so made up an almost Sherman Alexie version of himself.

The other sort of line of that for me was that there's also just a long history of Holocaust memoirs that have been fabricated. The writer Ruth Franklin, critic, has this wonderful book called "A Thousand Darknesses" that is about just, like, instance after instance, from this guy Benjamin Wilkomirski, to a number of other sort of high-profile events, where there were these stories of Jews during the World War II that turned out to be anywhere from partially false to having been written by somebody who wasn't Jewish, had absolutely no experience whatsoever. There was one by an Italian woman who claimed to have been raised by wolves in the woods of Poland that turned out she wasn't Jewish and had not even been to Poland. So, you know, I think for me, there was both this almost sort of atavistic, eternally recurring event of memoirs that turned out to potentially be false, but then also, you know, within this subject matter, Jews during World War II - having those stories sort of either verified or not. And so it was a subject matter that interested me.

GROSS: So the uncle, his memoir fills a real need in the nephew. And for the nephew, all the stories he's heard about World War II at home and in his Hebrew school, they were all about the Holocaust. They're all about people perishing. They were all about people in his own family who perished or survivors who come speak at the school and almost perished and had family who perished. But you know, they had all, you know, near-death experiences themselves, but they survived.

But this is a story - the uncle's memoirs - a story of real heroism. You know, he managed to get out at the right time, before the Germans invaded the Netherlands. He signs up for the Royal Air Force. He flies these kind of daredevil missions. So it really fulfills a need in the 15-year-old for a different kind of Jewish story, for a heroic Jewish story. And I'm wondering if that - it was that way for you at all because your younger - but let me see. Is that true? Are you younger than the nephew is?

TORDAY: I'm a little more than 10 years younger than Eli is in the book, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, 'cause I figured by the time your generation comes along, you're separated from the war by a couple of generations, and you probably weren't surrounded by Holocaust stories in the way that older people were.

TORDAY: Yeah. I mean, I think it was a particular moment in history and a particular moment in the distance from those events. So for what it's worth, my father was born just after the war. His parents were in Hungary, and they both survived the war through complicated means in Budapest. My grandfather falsified papers to make himself appear to not be Jewish anymore, and that was how they were able to live out the war in Hungary during that period. And then basically, two years after the war ended there - and that was where the war ended in some ways - my father was born and then, I guess seven years later, came to the United States and moved to Long Island. And so they lived in this sort of Hungarian shtetl, I guess, on Long Island.

And I grew up going to their house and sort of seeing them return to Hungary every year. You know, they took whatever little money they had from a bakery on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn and from the jobs - small jobs they were able to do, and they all - they just went back to Eastern Europe all the time and then brought whatever Eastern Europeans they could to their house.

So I guess what I would say is, I think there is - let me put it this way. There are the survivor stories that we heard early - right? - when we read Elie Wiesel or when we read Primo Levi. There are some amazing stories of some of the very first books that came out in, like, the '50s. There was one book that was published that literally was - the cover was from the cloth that - from the actual uniforms that the survivors wore at Auschwitz. That was literally what the book was published in as a cover. That is, like, a very, very specific moment in history for those survivors' stories to be told.

But at the same time, this, in some way, was the emotional reality that I grew up with. In Hebrew school, they were still making certain that we were meeting survivors who had that tattoo on their arm. My grandmother died in the early '90s without ever once admitting she was Jewish to me or to anybody else.

GROSS: Really?

TORDAY: She lived her whole life in the United States from 1954 until - and I don't remember the exact date - until the early '90s without ever admitting she was Jewish. I never asked her directly, but that was her experience. My grandfather actually, at her - after her funeral, admitted to the rest of the family that he was Jewish and then wanted to tell those stories for the next decade of his life.

GROSS: Wait a minute. So did you grow up not knowing you were Jewish?

TORDAY: So my background was...

GROSS: You went to Hebrew school, right?

TORDAY: Yeah, my background was complicated. So my father actually was bar mitzvahed the year before I was. So he had grown up with an aunt who lived on the Upper West Side, on Riverside Drive, in New York, and on weekends, she would take him to Zabars and tell him essentially, you know, there's this other background. So while my grandparents were going to midnight mass for Christmas - and, you know, I would see that when we went up there - there was this sort of other ambient story that was going on underneath. So for me - you know what, I should also say - and then my mother's family - she was raised in a very religious home in Boston, and so...

GROSS: Jewish?

TORDAY: Jewish. And so I was raised Jewish, and I was raised going to Hebrew school, in some ways because I think my parents wanted to rest this experience that had been stolen from them during that war as an opportunity to give it to me. So I know Hebrew, and I studied all of that stuff. But it also - the background behind that was always that it had, you know, come close to being obliterated. Essentially everybody in my grandfather's family was killed during the war with the exception of his brother, who had been a communist functionary, and so was in Ukraine and then came back. The whole rest of his family were taken to death camps and most of my grandmother's family, with the exception of some of the relatives who I tracked down for writing this book.

GROSS: So when your father's parents, your grandparents, would return to Hungary, would they live as Jews there? Surely, even though they lived as non-Jews during World War II to cover their identity, they had community and family there who knew they were Jewish.

TORDAY: That's a great question. Yeah, and it's hard because I wasn't there with them.

GROSS: Right, so you don't know?

TORDAY: But as I understand it, the answer is no. But that's to say - I don't know that there were very many Jews in Hungary when they were going back.

GROSS: Right.

TORDAY: And I certainly think that when they went back, they would not have wanted people to know. I'll also say, while my grandfather converted and changed his papers during the war, my grandmother's family actually had converted in the '30s out of fear of what they thought was to come.

So some of that fear - part of what I'm saying is, I mean, it's such a long history of - from those moments of fear that a thing like this might happen, until it happened, that you can imagine that for those next 60 years in the United States for somebody like my grandmother to say, listen, this will happen again.

GROSS: And that's what you grew up with, this sense that this could happen again. It could happen here.

TORDAY: I mean, I don't even know if I've dealt with it yet, right? Like, there's just this ambient fear underneath - I mean, look what's happening in Europe again right now. There's this huge wave of anti-Semitism. I do not, for a second, mean to suggest that that fear should make anyone capitulate or change their actions, but they lived with a kind of fear that they were never able to give up. And I guess what I want to say is, you know, for the reader or for the listener, like, what would that experience be to truly never, in one's entire life, live without the fear that something the size of what happened during that war would happen again?

GROSS: Well, this really adds a new level of complication to what is truth because within your novel is a memoir that one of the characters writes. I mean, half the book - more than half the book is this memoir, but the memoir turns out to not really be true, or at least much of it isn't true. And at the same time, your past wasn't true. I mean, the things you were told about your own family weren't true.

TORDAY: And I guess that's what I mean when I say that for me, I want a privilege - whatever means it takes to get towards truth over whatever means to convey fact, right? So I want the facts in this book to be accurate. I want, for the most part, when I'm telling stories about things that happened in London or Rotterdam that I was not able to ever be in, for them to be as accurate as possible. But the truth sometimes doesn't come across through just telling that story. So for instance, could I write a good memoir about that story I just told you, Terry? I don't know, you know? And maybe one day I would try, but it's so complicated. And I think it's very easy to get lost in some of the facts, right? At times, as I'm telling you that story, there's all kinds of facts that I'm leaving off the table.

GROSS: Of course. We'd be here for hours.

TORDAY: We would. I mean, we could be here for the set 300 pages of a book, right?

GROSS: (Laughter).

TORDAY: And that's the hard part, is that when you try to strike at the truth...

GROSS: Yeah.

TORDAY: ...You have to find those sentences that are going to get you there. For me, it turned out that when I started to try to uncover some of those stories, I literally left that job at Esquire, took some of the money that was left over from unpaid vacation days and flew to Budapest to start tracking these stories down.

GROSS: My guest is Daniel Torday. His new novel is called "The Last Flight Of Poxl West." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Daniel Torday. His new novel, "The Last Flight Of Poxl West," is narrated by a 15-year-old whose surrogate uncle writes a memoir about his experiences in World War II as a Jew who fled Czechoslovakia, made his way to England, enlisted in the Royal Air Force and flew bombing missions over Germany. But the memoir is revealed to be part fabrication. When we left off, Torday was talking about his relatives in Hungary during the Holocaust.

You have a personal essay about going to Budapest. And you go to this cemetery in which your family members are buried, and these are people who died in Holocaust. And in that sense, I'm surprised that they're in a cemetery.

TORDAY: That cemetery is in very serious disrepair.

GROSS: Right.

TORDAY: And, in fact...

GROSS: But, I mean, they're not in a mass grave.

TORDAY: Right, right. They're not - well, that's it. So they're actually not buried in the cemetery. So my grandfather's family was from this small city north of Budapest called Gyongyos, which I'm probably saying wrong. My Hungarian's rough. The family members who were taken off to death camps there - they essentially just made headstones for them and put them in the city cemetery. My parents took me for the first time to Budapest in 1989, essentially right after the wall fell. And when we went up to Gyongyos that time, that cemetery was essentially impassable. It was just covered in weeds. We basically couldn't even get in. I return there, you know, 10 years later, and it had been better manicured. And you could go in, and those headstones were there enough to actually see the names.

GROSS: So the headstones are there, but the bodies aren't.

TORDAY: That's right.

GROSS: So the cemetery is kind of a fabrication. It's a memorial, but it's not the real thing in the sense that the bones aren't there.

TORDAY: Yep. And that's - I mean, so let me put it this way. So there's a plot line in this book, "Poxl West," in which one of the things that's very difficult for this character as he's writing his memoir is that, you know, his parents have been taken to a death camp. And a woman who he's become engaged to is killed during the Blitz, and one of the guys who he trains for the Royal Air Force with is killed on a flight. And he essentially says, you know, without any obsequies, without the opportunity to see these bodies interred, I'm not able to get past it.

And I guess what I would say is, in terms of the long tale of this particular war, isn't that a huge part of what we're grappling with - right? - that there wasn't an opportunity to sort of lay these bodies to rest. You could put a headstone up. You could write a book. You can try to find some way to put it to rest. But the thing that we do as humans, most often, is we take that body and we bury it or we send it off to sea. And here's an entire family, my whole family - my grandparents' whole family with the exception of themselves and scattered relatives from the Diaspora - who weren't able to do that.

GROSS: Having grown up with stories about the Holocaust, did you feel like your character doesn't invoke this need for a heroic story about World War II - a heroic story about a Jew during World War II?

TORDAY: I mean, that is the truth behind the book, ultimately. And part of what I want to say is that I don't know if I'm exactly wanting to validate that experience of being 15 and wanting a hero instead of a victim, but that definitely was the experience of hearing these stories over and over again. And I don't feel that now in my late 30s, but there is a way in which there's only so many Elie Wiesels or so many Primo Levis that you can read before you start to say, like, well, so was someone fighting back, right? And that is just the sort of knee-jerk reaction that I think I wouldn't want to validate.

But at the same time there is this experience where, you know, maybe putting that big capital H - Holocaust - word on top of the experience can keep us from seeing all the various stories, right? So in this case, when I did make that trip to Europe, there had been this sort of shadowy story that I'd heard about my grandmother's first cousin, this guy named Honza North, who had trained for the Royal Air Force after leaving his home north of Prague and by way of Rotterdam, ending up in London. So - and he was alive at the time, so I went back and spent a bunch of time talking with him. He was actually injured during training, and so he never flew any sorties, but I spent a lot of time talking to him. He actually became the oldest person in the U.K. ever to receive a Ph.D. at the age of 93.

GROSS: Whoa (laughter).

TORDAY: He went after a Ph.D. in classics for decades. In some ways for me, that expressed this sort of, like, huge emotional truth that although he had flown these planes, although he ended up for British Airways and then working for British Airways for years and years afterwards, he wanted to be reading books, right? In the book, I made him a Shakespeare scholar because I knew more about than I did about classics.

But I think ultimately, for me, trying to seek those stories and then finding them was a particular kind of validation. There were tons of stories of Jews who ended up fighting even either for - in Canada - for Canada, for the United States in Britain for the war apparatus in lots of ways. There were multiple Eastern European wings in the Royal Air Force. Some of - there were some Jewish pilots amongst them, right? And so the idea that there were sort of these other stories, and they may not have been the central story - that really kind of perked my ears up and felt like a ripe emotional territory.

GROSS: Before the uncle, the memoirist is unmasked as having written fiction with fact in the memoir, he's doing a reading. And a student asks him at the reading, with all due respect, isn't possible we've reached a point of saturation with all the first-person accounts of this particular war? And the uncle says, this is my life as I lived it. I simply sat down and reported the heroism in which those around me in those harrowing days partook.

So did you ask yourself a similar question when you were writing your novel? Do we need another World War II book? Has there been, like, way enough written about World War II? What can I possibly add to World War II fiction?

TORDAY: Emphatically, yes, over and over again. You know, and I think in some ways, there sort of are two things that you always want to do as a writer, right? And one is to really uncover a story that hasn't been told, and then the other is you're just given material that you can make live. For me, in some ways, the emotional experience of being a sort of second- to third-generation family member dealing with what was going on in that war was the story, right? And so in some ways, in tracking it down, the question was both how to tell it, but then also how to uncover it, right?

So I think when I was 13, 14, 15, if I - if a survivor came and then somebody said, well, your grandfather's a Holocaust survivor, then I felt like I suddenly could glom onto this thing and that I knew what it was. But then when I uncovered those facts, it got much more complicated. My grandfather was in the labor camp in North of Budapest during the war. And when he was at that labor camp - so during that period and for most of the vast majority of the war, Hungry was an Axis power, so it actually was allied with Germany and Japan.

So in a labor camp, one of the things that he always was unable to let go of was that one of his jobs that he told me about was to lift bombs - help lift bombs onto planes. And then he realized only later that those planes flew with the Luftwaffe and that those bombs would have been dropped on London during the Blitz. So there was this sense of a very, very complicated experience that he'd had of both trying to survive during that period, but also having in some material, literal way having helped to perpetrate some of the violence that was going on. That's complicated, right?

GROSS: That's really complicated. I'll talk more with Daniel Torday after a break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Daniel Torday, author of the new novel "The Last Flight Of Poxl West." It's about a 15-year-old Jewish boy and his surrogate uncle who writes a World War II memoir that turns out to be part fabrication.

So you play mandolin.

TORDAY: I do.

GROSS: Bluegrass - that - you've managed to work that into your World War II story. (Laughter) And the way you do it is that the uncle, when he flees Czechoslovakia, goes to the Netherlands, where he falls in love with a young woman who happens to be a prostitute, but also sings in this bluegrass duo with another woman. And because bluegrass is so American, they call themselves the Tennessee Sisters. Though the woman's name is Francoise, on stage, she's Tennessee Mabel.

And if there's a specific song that they sing that figures into your book, and it's a song that's called "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?," which is a very kind of potent (laughter) - potent title. Let's just hear a little bit of it. So this is Bill Monroe and his brother Charlie, as recorded in 1936.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT WOULD YOU GIVE IN EXCHANGE FOR YOUR SOUL?")

BILL AND CHARLIE MONROE: (Singing) Brother afar from the savior today, risking your soul for the things that decay. Oh, if today God should call you away, what would you give in exchange for your soul? What would you give in exchange? What would you give...

GROSS: So that's Bill and Charlie Monroe recorded in 1936. And the song "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?" figures into the new novel "The Last Flight Of Poxl West" by my guest, Daniel Torday. So why did you choose that song?

TORDAY: It's, in some ways, the resonances of the lyrics really worked - right? - that idea of what would you give in exchange for your soul and then this much bigger question of what it meant for this character, Poxl West, to be fleeing people over and over again. And, you know, there's a sort of last flight of Poxl West that takes place in the book. For me, it's this last flight that he takes from himself of just never quite being able to look at the material as directly as he wants to. Some of it is also just you work with the material you're given. I don't know why I love bluegrass music. And it always has been a little bit of a joke in the background - that this, you know, pretty Jewish kid from the suburbs in the Northeast came to love what is, in some way, at its roots, pretty Christian music.

GROSS: What's it been like for you as a Jewish writer and musician who, at least when you were younger and perhaps still, was or is immersed in Jewish mystical texts to sing Christian hymns in bluegrass bands? Do the - do the words of those Christian hymns have resonance for you?

TORDAY: Often. You know, and I think for me, that's what's exciting about the music - is just to feel like these traditions are tied up in each other. When I got to Kenyon College, which at one point had been, in part, an Episcopal seminary, there was an experience of going to take these religion classes that were in Christianity. And suddenly, you know, from the midst of the Book of Common Prayer, there's a moment where it says holy, holy, holy.

And I say to myself, like, oh, my gosh, when I was a kid we would say kadosh, kadosh, kadosh and raise up on our toes each time we said it, and it's just a literal translation. And then on top of that, to have a professor - there was a wonderful religion professor there named to Donald Rogan. He validated that, right? I was in these classrooms, and he would say, you know, when I had that realization, here's the Hebrew behind this English we're reading. He would say, well, Dan, you know Hebrew, so what's going on behind here? And so for me, you know, the Pentateuch, those first five books, we share in common as Jews and Christians. And so...

GROSS: The Old Testament, as it's often called. (Laughter).

TORDAY: The Old Testament - exactly, yeah. Sorry. When we look at the Old Testament, the first five books, there's a way in which that stuff underlies a lot of those Psalms, right? So I don't know if I mean to create one single continuum, but there was both this sort of joking questioning in my head. Like, I love the Louvin Brothers, and they have these songs called - like, there was an album called "Satan Is Real." There's a song called "The Christian Life" that I really love that Gram Parsons later recorded and I often sing. And sometimes I can start to push it in the direction of feeling like, well, what are these words? But at the same time, I just - you know, it's something about the energy behind that music actually feels like it belongs to everybody.

GROSS: And the beautiful thing about those songs, whether you're Christian or not, is that they speak to life and death. They speak to what the righteous path of life is.

TORDAY: Absolutely.

GROSS: What it's like to stray from that path.

TORDAY: And I'd also say, like - I mean, absolutely, that's true, and also, isn't that the experience of a lot of the music we listen to? Like, I love to listen to Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, and a lot of those guys started as gospel singers, right? And there would be this - like, isn't there - I think it's Ray Charles' "I've Got A Woman" that the tune, itself, was actually a gospel tune. And then all of the sudden, it's this, like, deeply secular and potentially even hedonistic thing that's being talked about. Isn't that what a lot of 20th century music was about - was taking those sacred songs and making them work? And the lyrics can change in a lot of ways.

GROSS: OK, let's talk about sex.

(LAUGHTER)

TORDAY: I knew you'd ask.

GROSS: So there's a couple of sex scenes in the book, but the sex scenes are in the memoir that's within the book. So you're not writing the sex scenes in your voice. You're writing them in the voice of a character. And in so it's kind of, like, doubly distanced. And I'm sure - not having ever written one myself, I'm sure writing sex scenes are kind of challenging.

TORDAY: Impossible.

GROSS: Especially, yeah, if you're somewhat inhibited or shy. One, is this first time you've written sex scenes? And, two, was it easier to do it with this double remove?

TORDAY: So I want to answer those two questions separately 'cause they're both really good, so the second question first.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK.

TORDAY: The spark of this book was almost ridiculous, which was that I had flown to Eastern Europe. And I was at - I went to London. And I had this cousin, again, Honza, and I was staying with him at his house in Richmond, which is just south of Heathrow. And I knew he had this war experience. I knew he'd trained for the Royal Air Force, and he knew I wanted to talk to him about it. And that night, before I went to bed, he said, listen, I've written about these experiences, so just read this. And he handed me a 20-page manuscript. It was called "Learning Dutch." He said read this. We'll talk about it in the morning.

And, you know, I mean, it was, like, all I could to get into that bedroom, brush my teeth and read it. And it was basically just this 20-page reminiscence of his having fallen in love with a prostitute when he first got to Rotterdam and then these incredibly graphic descriptions of these prostitutes having sex with each other, his having sex with them.

It turned out my, like - everyone in the family sort of knew about this. And they would say, like, oh, did Honza show you "Learning Dutch." And so, like, that was the first thing for me to grapple with, right? So here's this person looking back on this unbelievable experience. I mean, it's almost a tall tale of heroism during a period where we thought there were no heroes. And the memory he wants to share, both on the page and with me, is just basically what it was like to be 19 and having sex for the first time.

To your first question - so my first book was a novella called "The Sensualist." And that idea of sensualism, actually, was almost more like existentialism, right? It was saying less you need to be hedonistic than just what does it mean to be a human in the world. But when I wrote that - the first draft of that book, I actually was lucky enough to be working with one of my favorite writers, Mary Gaitskill, when I was up in Syracuse. And she's, I think, in some ways, the best living writer of sex that we have. Her stories and novels are just these - have these amazing depictions of sex, and they're - and they're some of the strength of her work.

And she asked me, somewhat predictably, when I had finished that book, well, what if you wrote a - write a little bit clearer of a sex scene in this moment? And almost just to please her, I said, OK, I'll just write a sex scene. And I wrote, and it was good. I mean, I don't mean to say that in a self-aggrandizing way, but it worked. It fit the book. I was under her tutelage.

GROSS: Did she approve?

TORDAY: She approved, and it stayed. And people have mentioned oftentimes in a book that it both sort of made them uncomfortable, but that they liked it. And so there was that moment - I, as a writer, there are these times where there's just a thousand taboos in every sentence that you're not sure if you want to break, and sometimes you just need to give you the imprimatur, to say just try this.

GROSS: So you teach creative writing at Bryn Mawr, and now you've published a new novel. Do you want your students to read it?

TORDAY: I want them to buy it. No. (Laughter) Of course, I definitely do want them to read it, and I want to be able to talk with them about the process. I think in any book, there are years of really bad versions. In this case, there's dozens and dozens - maybe even hundreds - of awful pages that it took to get to the book that's here.

The process that it took to get this book is not one I would ever try to replicate.

But for many years, there was just a preface and an afterword from a narrator who wasn't Eli, who then set up Poxl's memoir. And it just never felt sufficient. It didn't dramatize what had gone on in the reception of the memoir. And I could never figure out how to deal with it. And about six years into writing, I actually just sat down and wrote a short story about a guy named Eli and his uncle Saul, in which this complicated reception of the memoir took place. And at first, I didn't even realize that it could belong to this book. I just thought, OK, I've gotten that out of my system. Now I can do something with this book.

And then about a year later, I said, like, well, wait. What if I actually just combine the two and intersplice the memoir with this other narrative. And at first, you know, the thought was, well, that won't work. You know, it'll be too hard once the fabrications have been revealed for you to want to continue reading Poxl's work. And just then over about another year of work I was able to finesse it enough so that hopefully now it works.

And what I would say is, you know, the main thing I want my students to know - and to any aspiring writer out there - is, you know, a book doesn't work for a really long time before it does work. I love the short story writer Deborah Eisenberg, who, when she was asked, when do you know you've finished the story, she said, well, it's just not finished until it's finished, then it's finished.

And there's a way in which, like, that is the experience, right? Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's just not a story. And then at some point, you just pull the trigger, and it's a story. So here, you know, for me, I teach a novel-writing workshop, which is always a hard thing to do. And part of what I ask the students to do is just write as many pages as they can possibly write, knowing that there's years of work ahead of them.

GROSS: Daniel Torday, thank you so much for talking with us.

TORDAY: Thank you so much for having me on.

GROSS: Daniel Torday is the author of the new novel "The Last Flight Of Poxl West." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Torday directs the creative writing program at Bryn Mawr College. Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews of a remastered 1932 Artur Schnabel recording that Lloyd considers a revelation. This is FRESH AIR.

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