January 28, 2010
Paul A. Toth has published three novels, Fizz, Fishnet and Finale, informally known as the “F” novels. These novels form a non-linear trilogy; they can be read in any order. The trilogy deals with questions of self-identity: whether we’re born with an identity, naturally develop an identity, or invent an identity. The individual novels present characters who must face these questions, and each novel illustrates a different approach and outcome. Meanwhile, Toth has published over 150 short stories, poetry, and multimedia works. Most of these pieces, as well as links to order his novels, can be accessed via his web portal.
For his next novel, Toth turned to the subject of 9/11. In this interview, he discusses how he developed the idea, his research techniques, and the reasons for his narrative choices. Toth humbly explains why he considers this work, entitled Airplane Novel, to be the 9/11 novel. The entire first chapter of Airplane Novel can be read by clicking this link.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of Airplane Novel, and what prompted you to write a 9/11 novel in the first place?
A: Actually, I had just finished reading DeLillo’s Falling Man, a 9/11 novel and one that I considered better than many critics did. Nevertheless, I was disappointed that DeLillo failed to achieve something like a White Noise version of a 9/11 novel. At some point, for whatever reason, I began to wonder whether a book could be written from one of the tower’s perspectives. That is, the tower itself would be the narrator.
Q: A bizarre idea.
A: That’s why it took me quite a while before committing to it. Some time later, still considering the project, I ended up in the hospital with a severe ocular migraine, which disabled my ability to speak.
Q: Many must have considered that a cloud with a silver lining.
A: I’m sure they did. But it was a disturbing event, obviously. I had no idea whether I would ever be able to speak again and, even worse, whether I would ever be able to write again. Fortunately, the episode passed.
Q: Your poor family and friends.
A: I know. Still, it so happened that I had to remain in the hospital over the weekend for one last test; otherwise, I would have been released. By that time, I could speak. A good friend of mine visited, and I decided to discuss the idea with him. He loved the concept. More importantly, he so happened to live just down the road from one of the architects who worked on the design of the towers. That was it. Since the architect was an acquaintance of my friend’s mother, an interview would be easy to arrange. I decided then and there that I would do it.
Q: Did you have any qualms about writing a 9/11 novel, given that yours is not exactly a household name?
A: Yes. That’s one reason I delayed making a decision. It was the coincidence involving the architect that gave me the feeling, however irrational, that this novel was meant to happen. After that interview took place, I had no lack of confidence.
Q: So, let’s go back to the tower. You’re telling me you wrote a novel from the first-person point of view of a building, that being the South Tower?
A: Yes. And while it may seem beyond the pale, one has to remember that the number of windows in and the height of the South Tower provided it the ultimate view, and number of views, not only of the event but of Manhattan itself. This considerably broadened the picture. It allowed me to move beyond the subject of every other 9/11 novel that I’ve located. All of those other titles deal with 9/11 on what I call a micro scale. Typically, they involve one family. At any rate, they’re all at ground level, and their perspectives are limited. The perspectives of my narrator would be unlimited.
Q: And how do you explain its ability to think and, as I understand it, even feel?
A: The novel explains this most difficult suspension of disbelief, but the explanation is quick. It seemed unnecessary to dwell upon it. I expected that a reader would accept the odd narrator in exchange for all that it allowed that reader to see. And I think the suspension of belief is well worth it, whether one buys my brief explanation or not. I’d rather leave the explanation to the reader’s discovery.
Q: How, then, did you research the novel? I’d imagine that it would be quite involved, since you had to not only learn the details surrounding the event but also develop a means by which to tell it from a building’s perspective.
A: Exactly. Obviously, I read every nonfiction 9/11 book, watched every documentary — except for those concerning conspiracy theories, which, while noted in the novel, do not play much of a role — and read the Koran.
Q: What are your thoughts concerning the Koran?
A: The translation I read, by A.J. Arberry, gave me the impression that the Koran is a vicious text. It cannot be disputed that there are passages of real beauty, but the greater share of the text concerns ways in which nonbelievers would or should be tormented. Interestingly, there are more than a few references to towers and fires. I have to add that I’ve no way of knowing how the Arabic Koran, sometimes known as the Holy Quran, “reads.” Further, the Bible is of course equally vicious in many passages. Nevertheless, I was not convinced the Koran is, as it’s often called, a book of peace.
Q: How did that reading affect the book?
A: Well, it seeped into every page, but more specifically, each chapter title is taken from the Arberry translation. To compensate, each chapter also contains a passage from the Bible. Often, the passages from the Bible will likely not be noticed by the reader. Meanwhile, I obviously chose passages from the Koran that seemed appropriate to each chapter’s subject, and many of these titles are, again, quite lovely, I think.
Q: How did you go about developing the unique style, which is certainly readable but far from the style of the standard “literary” novel?
A: Cubism. In Cubism, I found my answer. Someone once told me my novels were Cubist, not a surprise because I like Cubism a lot and, while strictly not a Cubist, at least for long, Paul Klee is one of my favorite artists. However, while I understood why my previous books had been described that way, and I happily accepted the description, Airplane Novel was going to be my first intentionally Cubist novel, to the extent possible.
A: Not knowing exactly what I was doing or where I was going, I delved. I read Cubist poets. I read Cubist theory. I studied Cubist paintings. Regarding the poets, the most influential as to the novel’s style were René Char, Lautréamont, Apollinaire, and some lesser-known poets I won’t mention for now. In the poetry, which, being text, could only replicate Cubism to a degree, I began to find my answer. Also, I should say that Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy was an influence, especially the collage aspect. But there was still one piece missing.
Q: And that was?
A: Henri-Louis Bergson, a philosopher and huge influence on the entire novel. I read Creative Evolution, a book so full of ideas that I doubt I digested half or more of them. What I did digest changed my perception of the world, not only in terms of the novel but my everyday life. Holding the book now, here’s just one passage that I see I’ve marked with numerous asterisks and my usual scribbled underlining: “Our freedom, in the very movements by which it is affirmed, creates the growing habits that will stifle if it fails to renew itself by constant effort: it is dogged by automatism. The most living thought becomes frigid in the formula that expresses it. The word turns against the idea.”
Q: How did such ideas affect the writing of the novel?
A: It’s important to know that the title of Airplane Novel is anything but arbitrary; a major theme of the novel is airplane novels; locate any bestselling fiction author and you’ll probably find a shelf of airplane novels…novels people read to pass the time on planes and trains or simply for escapism. The novel plays with this idea. It’s often quite comic, though the tragedy is taken with all appropriate seriousness.
Q: And what was the purpose of this sort of satirical approach?
A: The South Tower, as narrator, addresses the reader as though that reader is reading an airplane novel, which he is doing, considering the title, if not the material. This gives the narrator a chance to essentially challenge the reader’s expectations of a novel and of himself or herself. It tries to open up the space of possibilities for the reader.
Q: Thus the repetition that plays a major role in the style?
A: Exactly. The repetition is in part an attempt by the narrator to continually convince the reader of what the South Tower suspects the reader will have trouble accepting. However, these repetitions are not simple repetitions; they’re convoluted. They’re permutations. They’re not constant but appear and disappear, then reappear later. There’s a rhythm to them, rhythm being very important to my work.
Q: So music is also an influence?
A: Yes, especially the “minimalist” composer Steve Reich and certain jazz drummers, such as Elvin Jones, best known as Coltrane’s longtime drummer. The pulse, and beat, of my sentences is perhaps what I work hardest on in terms of constructing those sentences in a particular way.
Q: Why, then, would a reader want to consider another 9/11 novel, particularly your Airplane Novel?
A: Simply because Airplane Novel is the only novel that could possibly show a view of events no one has seen before. The description of the 9/11 attacks, which I of course can’t “ruin” for the reader by explaining how I handled it here, comes across in a way no one has considered before. The entire book is a re-imagining of the tragedy. The cast is fairly large, comprised of characters fictional and not, and the scale is large, even larger than Manhattan. In fact, the scale is that of the world. On that scale is balanced the precarious existence of a building that “knows“ it’s a target.
Q: Then it’s suspenseful and readable, not a novel so dense and complex that only a student forced to read it would ever do so?
A: Absolutely. This novel is a fast read, yet it’s challenging. The style, while unique, does not require much work on the part of the reader. However, that style should cause the reader to think almost by default, without the reader even noticing.
Q: And you stand by your quote that this is the 9/11 novel? How can you say so when I know it’s had a difficult road to acceptance by a publisher?
A: I think the novel itself addresses the problem with major publishers better than I can now, and it does so for reasons that will make sense to the reader. However, let me quote what Viking/Penguin, which rejected the novel, had to say about it:
“Toth’s desire to offer readers a surprising perspective on the Twin Towers and lower Manhattan is commendable, and his vision for the project is quite striking — so striking that it was on one hand a demanding, jolting read, but on the other, a page-turner. I respect how Toth consistently challenged traditional narrative conventions, both in content and structure, stripping away all of the readers’ expectations while simultaneously using them to his advantage as a storyteller. For example, the interjections made by Transmission added a voice of dissent that undermined the narration while the narrator’s hyper self-consciousness reconstructed narrative authority. This kind of bold originality was refreshing.”
Q: Rather odd that they would reject it after that kind of commentary.
A: You don’t expect to read, “However, this novel is not right for us” at the end of a paragraph like that. The entire process was similar, with similar rejection letters. It was a devastating experience. I’ll stop myself from launching into one of my crusades against the major publishers. I will only say that I hope they’ve signed their Living Wills and checked the “Do Not Resuscitate” boxes.
Q: You sound bitter.
A: I would say I’m more resigned. My most exaggerated desire is to one day develop something approaching a “cult audience.” That would be a bestseller by my terms.
Q: Did the path Airplane Novel took affect your writing?
A: In a roundabout way. I believe that one creates one’s own meaning. A baby does not arrive equipped with meaning. For a decade or more, writing has been my meaning, even my very self. However, I’ve changed that equation. I now say that my meaning is survival, and writing is something I do.