INTERVIEW WITH PAUL A. TOTH
BY LISA SWANSTROM
I luckily stumbled upon Paul A. Toth's work by reading back issues of Diagram Magazine on-line -- and I am so glad I did, because, after reading story after excellent story, I was led to his novel Fizz, an un-put-down-able account of the life of Ray Pulaski. Equal parts Ignatius J. Reilly, Rainman, and rock star, Fizz's Ray Pulaski is an unforgettable character on a wild ride. In short, Fizz marks the presence of an extremely talented writer, and we are grateful for the opportunity to speak with Paul A. Toth about his work here in Sunspinner.
I enjoyed Fizz immensely. It was a relentless rush, and I mean that in the best possible way -- like eating pop rocks nonstop for three hours. What inspired this book?
Thanks for that description; that's exactly the effect I sought. The first chapter of Fizz was initially a short story. That story began with the idea of character, Ray Pulaski, who sees the world as a cartoon, every color and sound hyper-magnified. Actually, a recent reviewer somehow saw the book as "gray," a truly ridiculous statement since color infuses the book, streaking and blurring everywhere. Perhaps she read it on a gray day and confused the weather with the book. At any rate, that was the challenge, constructing Ray's bizarre perception. At that point, I hadn't too much interest in why he saw the world the way he did. But later, when I decided the story would work as a novel, Ray's attempts to understand why he so misinterprets the world in his screwball way became the novel's arc.
What was the writing process like? How long did it take you write Fizz? Was it a long, lonely road, or did you have any support along the way?
I think the short story was a great help because I had finished it at least a year before beginning the novel. So Ray and his world had been floating around in my head for some time. Normally, when working on novels, I write about 500 words a day, five days a week. Since Fizz is a short book, it wasn't a long process, maybe eight months. Also, Ray's scattershot voice was aided by writing fast, as I didn't want his voice to come across as mannered and literary. My wife, Kathryn, was a great support, since she teaches while I work at home. So, during winter months especially, the isolation is perfect for writing novels. It's lonely...but in a good way.
How did you find a publisher for Fizz? Did you submit it cold to various publishers before it found a home at Bleak House?
For a while, I had an agent for Fizz, and he submitted it to the larger houses. They had some nice things to say but passed, so I reclaimed possession of the book and began sending it out cold to small publishers. I no longer remember exactly how I found the Bleak House submission guidelines, but it's a wonderful company and is now working hard to broaden its distribution. As well, the publisher, Ben LeRoy, understood what I was getting at with Fizz, which was certainly not "gritty urban realism" (as the previously mentioned reviewer claims), but rather an utterly absurd vision of one truly fucked up man. The novel is a surreal parody of noir, and Ben understood that the tragicomic story is meant to be anything but realistic. That led to a strong relationship, bolstered by our occasional meetings at events like the recent Book Expo America.
Once it was accepted, what was the editorial process like? Were there many revisions, or was it a smooth ride from acceptance to publication?
It was fairly smooth. We had one hangup, an editorial assistant who disliked what at the time was a nonstandard usage of punctuation. The first version sailed along with commas used as they would be in speech, haphazardly, since the narrator essentially "talks" to the reader. Because this was my first novel, and I had not been having much success, I surrendered and agreed to more standard punctuation. Later, a new editor preferred the original version. Alas, I had deleted it; that version was gone, kaput. Unlike Malcolm Lowry, whose Under the Volcano burned in a fire and which he later miraculously rewrote, I was unable to reconstruct the original text. However, the only effect lost was the rapidity of Ray's narration, and I don't think the book was significantly damaged by that. The story remains the same.
We read on your website that John Tissavary, a Special Effects Technician on The Matrix, has made a short film based on Fizz. How cool! How did this happen? Where can we see the film?
John and I happened across each other in the Zoetrope workshop. I had posted a script based on the first chapter. He was looking for something to add to his portfolio. So we came to terms, and he eventually filmed it out in Los Angeles. Though L.A. is not the setting of the events of the first chapter, Ray does later travel there. And since his home town is never revealed, L.A. was fine with me. The film has been shown at a few events, including the recent &Now Festival at Notre Dame. John plans to eventually submit it to festivals, but he has been tied up with his work on the mainstream movies which actually pay for his talents. Check back at www.netpt.tv, as I'll post any showings that come about. Also, a new short film, Knotted -- based on my short story "Necktime" and the script I wrote from it -- was recently completed by director Tom Shell. See the site for updates about that film, as I think it will be a good one and probably more accessible, including, possibly, on the web.
Now that Fizz is out and, I imagine, doing well, what are you working on now?
Well, I'm working on short stories at the moment. Two other novels are in the tank. One will probably be published by Bleak House Books in the fall of 2005. With the third, I'm in the process of trying to secure better representation, since my experience with the agents for the second book was -- let's just say odd. With two new books backed against each other, I'm taking a break from novels until at least next winter, while I juice up for a new direction.
What are some of your literary influences? What are you reading now?
Right now, I'm reading Going Native by Stephen Wright. His novel Meditations in Green really impacted me. It was the first thing I've read in a while that spun my head like I was the Exorcist girl. I also enjoy Murakami. Then there's J.G. Ballard and William S. Burroughs, two big influences because they took so seriously the idea that fiction is myth and that only by constructing new myths can we hope to disengage from the ones now destroying the planet. God save us from god, or at least the interpretation of any god's word by fanatics. So I'm mostly interested in writers who deal with the world at large and our imagining and interpretation of it, not the Raymond Carver surrogates who proliferate in a flea-like vision of social minutia, rarely achieving his eloquence.
I should also mention that certain musicians -- Jon Hassell, Coltrane, Miles Davis -- are significant influences on me, as are a few artists; I cannot exaggerate my love for Paul Klee. I also find my writing influenced by the expressionists and surrealists. Finally, Rothko has been an influence, especially on certain forms of light which play a part in the third novel.
What was one breakthrough moment that you have had as a writer?
It had to be writing Fizz, when I realized that if I trusted in my 500 words a day, the story would work itself out in my mind between sessions, and I could complete a novel. Until then, all my attempts had failed.
How do you juggle writing with having to pay the bills?
It's not too difficult because all of my work duties can be rearranged as necessary. Right now, I transcribe court documents to make ends meet, and that can be done at two in the morning or three in the afternoon, as long as I meet the deadline. So when writing stories, I use the spare hours between. With novels, I write my 500 words first thing in the morning, then take care of whatever else I have to do that day.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Write about your obsessions, that which preoccupies, disturbs and moves you in this world. I'm neither pro- nor anti- Stephen King, but one thing he said impressed me: The Shining was based on one of his biggest fears, that one night he would run amok and kill his own family. It takes a lot of guts to admit that kind of fear and write about it, and the fact the book sold so well is probably as much a testament to his taking possession of that fear as it is to his storytelling abilities. It also happens to be one book by him I think stands up quite well, although I haven't read most of his other work. Put another way, write the novel you wish you could find in the bookstore right now.
PAUL A. TOTH
Paul A. Toth lives in Michigan. His novel Fizz is available from Bleak House Books. A second novel will be published in spring 2005. Toth's short fiction has appeared or will soon appear in Night Train, Iowa Review Web, Antigonish Review, Barcelona Review, Mississippi Review Online and many others. His short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Mystery Stories. He received honorable mention in the Year's Best Fantasy & Horror 17th Annual Collection, ed. Ellen Datlow. See http://www.netpt.tv for more information.
Paul A. Toth's novel, Fizz, is available through Bleak House Books
You can read a chapter of Fizz online here.