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With his long-awaited second novel now released, Steve Toltz talks about writing Australia. By Leigh Sales.

A Fraction of the Whole, Quicksand author Steve Toltz talks to Leigh Sales

Author Steve Toltz
Credit: COURTESY PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE AUSTRALIA

Seven years ago, Australian writer Steve Toltz burst onto the international literary scene with a novel that was immediately and almost universally labelled dazzling, inventive and hilarious. A Fraction of the Whole, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was the tale of two brothers, one the most loved man in Australia and the other the most despised. It has taken Toltz until now to release a second novel, Quicksand. It is as sprawling as his debut and studded with similarly delicious bons mots.  

Leigh Sales Your books are so rich that it’s hard to know where to start really so I’m just going to dive right in on page 257 of Quicksand: “mirthless poets”. Come on, are there really any other kind?

Steve Toltz You’ve started at a really hard question!

LS Okay, page 258: “A failed entrepreneur is a loser but a failed artist is always an artist no matter what.” One of the things I love about your books are these great one-liners, how do you come up with them? 

ST It’s just what comes out of my pen in the same way that another writer might be describing a landscape. I guess I think on paper. When I’m writing, I do something quite old-fashioned which is I contemplate. I will shut down and think about it. What do I want to say about artists? I have probably half-a-dozen thoughts about art in general. But I created this character who is an art teacher who has all these philosophies and I’m like, okay, now I have to come up with all these thoughts about art and I don’t have any. I sit there and just think.

LS Do you need isolation to do that or do you prefer to be in an environment like we are now, a cafe, where there’s people and movement?

ST It doesn’t matter. Sometimes it also helps to read something unrelated, like a medical textbook or a newspaper. It’s about setting your mind a problem and forgetting about it. And then later the connections get made. I enjoy playing with ideas.

LS When you were a kid, did you like writing, did you consider it a viable career?

ST The first kind of idol I ever really had was Roald Dahl and he was probably the most influential writer on me. The first things that I tried to do were always Roald Dahl ripoffs, whatever that is, I don’t really know. But it was not something I considered a career, it was just my default hobby.

LS When you’re working on something, what’s an average day for you?

ST It changes. I still try to work in two-hour blocks. I used to move around a lot from place to place but now I just sit as long as my body can stand it. I still write longhand and then eventually I’ll type up what I’ve written, probably throwing out 90 per cent or not even typing it up. And then it kind of accumulates.

LS Are you somebody who blurts it all out and edits it later or are you a writer who needs to finesse as you go?

ST No, I’m unable to finesse as I go. My process has become more sculptural, in terms of winding up with a massive block of text once I’ve transferred it to the computer that needs to be hewed.

LS You’ve lived overseas a lot yet your books seem so uniquely Australian.

ST I feel like I can only really write about Australia. I can’t imagine writing a story about anywhere else unless I was writing about an expat. You know, you look at the blank page and there’s the terror of the blank page but it’s never really that blank. Only a rare writer will see that and think, “Hmm, should I set this one in Mongolia?” You do have a lot of the bulk stances, for example, you’ll often do your own gender, your own age group. So it’s just good to avoid having the void, to have something that you know well. There’s enough creative choices to be made anyway. That makes one fewer, especially when I’m not very interested in national topics.

LS What do you mean by “national topics”?

ST Well, let’s say I’m unlikely to write anything about postcolonialism. For me, I’m still playing around with the essential ideas of being human and that we’re going to die and that we’re here and we all suffer. I might as well play with familiar surroundings to explore those themes.

LS I lived overseas for four years [in Washington, DC]and, all of a sudden, it was almost like when the Keanu Reeves character in The Matrix takes the pill – things that had seemed normal to me, once I left Australia, they seemed so peculiarly Australian.

ST Oh yeah. You definitely see what is very specific about Australia when you’re away. I like that. Also, there are always pockets of Australians when you’re overseas and it’s very, very evident.

LS There was a story in the Australian news recently about a girl who had claimed that clean living had cured her of multiple cancers and then she was exposed as a fraud. And there was blanket coverage in the media and absolutely everywhere she was referred to as “Disgraced wellness blogger”. I must admit, I thought of you, because it sounded like such a Steve Toltz sort of thing to happen because it was somebody around whom the entire nation could coalesce to despise.

ST We like to have somebody to pick on and hate. 

LS Is that a peculiarly Australian thing?

ST No, I think the internet has definitely created targets. And also we have to cycle through them because we get bored very easily and we’re on there 24 hours a day.

LS Yes, we probably hated on Christopher Skase for a good four or five years but we got through the blogger in about 48 hours. That is the genesis of A Fraction of the Whole, that national hatred idea. Quicksand is different. It’s hard to describe what that’s about succinctly but would it be reasonable of me to say that it’s partly about long-term friendship and the benefits and frustrations of having known someone very well for a long period of time?

ST My favourite relationships to write about are love–hate relationships. And what is a better love–hate relationship than somebody you’ve known for a long time? I mean, if you don’t have a love–hate relationship with somebody that you’ve known for a long time, then you don’t know them very well. 

LS Do you have long-term friends of the type in Quicksand?

ST I would never draw any real-life connections. I don’t want anybody to see themselves in the characters! But yes, I do have very long-term male friends. 

LS How long did it take you to write Quicksand?

ST Six long years … I was probably flummoxed for three years. It was trial and error. I think I was on page one for the first three years, quite literally. Not on the same page one and probably about 87 of those are in the book in different places. In the end, I’m hoping that’s just not my process. Although it has now been twice. It had so many different beginnings that it just took me a long time to find the right way to tell the story. 

LS As a reader of a book, when a book is complete, it’s hard to imagine that there were choices. And especially when something is complete and it seems really perfect, like a Beatles song, it almost feels like they must have discovered it, not created it.

ST Well, that’s where the work is. That’s the difference between art or talent and what is just hard, gruelling slog, to make it seem, not effortless, but fluid.

LS How much pressure is there when your first book has come out and it’s a massive hit, Booker Prize-nominated and so forth, and then you have to go back to work and write a second one?

ST The pressure is exactly the same as it was to write the first book. As unlikely as it is, I still see it as my livelihood, and so the pressures are just the same as anybody who’s trying to make a living. Although I’m not able to write a Dan Brown book, so obviously a dense, long book is not the best course of action for that! The two goals are running at the same time: trying to be true to my creative vision and, at the same time, I don’t want to be telemarketing.

LS But it’s hard. I was shocked the other week when I saw Richard Flanagan, after he won the Booker Prize, say he was a whisker away from taking a fly-in, fly-out mining job just to get some cash. When people at that level have to do that, it’s very disheartening.

ST I know, it is. Also, I’m slow. If I churned out one of these every year and a half, it might be a different story.

LS You need a James Patterson-esque factory.

ST Exactly!

LS How do you find the whole writers’ festival circuit?

ST I haven’t done it for a while so now I’m on the precipice of it. I love any excuse to get out of my room. I’ve been sitting in my room for six years! Let me out!

LS Do writers at festivals have groupies? For example, someone such as Ian McEwan. Does he have to fight to his hotel room through a throng of women wearing chocolate-stained cardigans, all thrusting feverishly thumbed copies of Atonement at him?

ST If only it were true. I’ve seen no evidence.

LS Do fans quote lines in your books back at you? There are a lot of quotable ones. “He looks like a taxidermy fail” is one of my favourites. [Toltz laughs.] I’ll be using that. And passing it off as my own.

ST Please do, please do! Yeah, every now and again people do. Because the books are very dense, something that I think is particularly funny is not necessarily the one that is resonant. Looking at discussions of A Fraction of the Whole online, there are ones that resonated again and again and they’re not necessarily the ones that I even gave much thought to.

LS Do you understand the desire of fans to meet the writers of work that they love?

ST Sure. I do understand it. There are people that I’d like to meet but I wouldn’t know what to say if I met them.

LS Like who?

ST Most of my literary idols are dead. But I guess I’m an old-time Woody Allen fan.

LS You’ve never bumped into him around New York?

ST No, I never have. It’s also that there are those kind of people that you know would have no interest.

LS Hmm, true. As if you could go up to Woody Allen and say hello. I once met Jonathan Franzen, and I loved The Corrections, and he was so rude that it made me love The Corrections a little less.

ST Yeah, it’s very hard to avoid that happening.

LS But I’m very happy to say that having met you, my admiration of your work remains intact.

ST Oh, good, thank you.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2015 as "Toltz No.2". Subscribe here.

Leigh Sales
is the anchor of the ABC’s flagship current affairs program 7.30 and the author of two books.