Written by Brianna Baker
Graphic by Allison Merchant
Author Daniel Torday was sick of RAF bombers, flights from Nazi regime, and passionate affairs in the midst of war.
Instead, for his reading at Temple on March 21, he decided to share something closer to home: a story about a young teacher in West Philadelphia, stumbling his way through starting a family and committing to his writing dreams.
As part of the MFA Creative Writing Program’s Spring 2016 Poets & Writers Series, where established authors read from their work to an audience of students and locals, Torday came to speak at Anderson Hall.
Director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College and editor of The Kenyon Review, Torday has published a novella, “The Sensualist,” and a novel, “The Last Flight of Poxl West.” “Poxl,” recently released in paperback, is a dual-narrative that takes readers through a Jewish World War II hero’s thrilling memoir and a frame-story about his nephew who watches the book’s truths unravel. A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and the winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for fiction, “Poxl” launched Torday on an extensive book tour. Because of this, at Temple he proposed something a little unexpected: to take a break and share a new story published in the current issue of literary magazine Tin House.
“Is that okay?” he asked the audience. It was most definitely okay, and with the warning that he may cry while reading, he began.
“Nate Gertzman Draws the Internet” follows the title-character, a college professor who aspires to be a father and a poet. He falters on the father front, as he and his wife face complications with pregnancy. The poet part looks just as bleak, since, instead of writing, Nate spends his time making a popular YouTube series inspired by massive open online courses (MOOCs), in which he draws chalkboard imitations of various online activities. He gets millions of hits on segments like “Nate Draws Nate Watching an Episode of The Daily Show on Hulu after Suffering through a Long ‘Advertising Experience,” but drifts further and further from his goals.
No crying occurred, but it wasn’t for lack of pathos in the piece. While listening, it’s tempting to imagine Torday himself as the man in front of the chalkboard, scrawling squiggles and boxes meant to represent Google Maps. Though fictional, Nate feels like a younger, adrift version of the author who created him. The man behind the podium, reading his published work to eager listeners, is the future for which Nate hopes.
At the very least, he’s a success story for the “Nate”s at heart, the young writers in Philadelphia who fear their passion isn’t worth pursuing. That’s what made Temple’s creative community an ideal audience.
Torday moved to his current Philadelphia home nine years ago, after finishing his MFA at Syracuse University. While his wife went to medical school, he developed the manuscripts conceived during his time in the graduate program.
He was no stranger to cities when he arrived. Though born and raised in Boston, he spent much of his adolescence in Baltimore and moved to New York City to work as editor of Esquire magazine after graduating from Kenyon College. Since “The Sensualist” was set in Baltimore, “Poxl” took place in Boston and Nate Gertzman lived in Philadelphia, it’s easy to see the influence these places have had on Torday’s writing. However, they play a role greater than just backdrop.
“Place feels really important to me as a novelist,” Torday said. “A big part of convincing a reader of the world in which a story or a novel is set comes in simply putting proper nouns down on the page – those capital letters that make us feel as if a place exists, has existed.”
Having written about – and lived in – a few of them, Torday knows that each city has its own quirks, charms, and cliches that make it unique. Still, places like New York City are undeniably more famous, and as a result, get more literary love than Philadelphia or Baltimore.
“There’s a kind of universality I think we’ve come to expect from a reader coming to New York City in a way,” Torday said. “If we say Broadway, somehow we’ve come to feel our reader knows we mean the Broadway that cuts weirdly at a 45-degree angle across the mid-section of Manhattan. Does it signify the same way if we say Broad Street or Calvert Street, Love Park or Fells Point? I guess I’d say that as a novelist, in simply asking that question we’re probably moving in the direction of finding its answer.”
But Philadelphia is not without its strengths. According to Torday, what sets the city apart – in terms of living and creating here – is its close-knit writing community.
“It’s been really great,” he said. “Brooklyn was really overwhelming with how aspiring writers there were. In Philly, there are a lot of writers, but on a smaller square.”
He’s befriended an impressive roster of Philadelphia-based writers, including Don Lee, novelist and professor in Temple’s creative writing program.
“I got to know Dan Torday when I first arrived in Philadelphia in 2009,” Lee said. “The fiction community in Philly is rather small, so I was happy to meet another fiction writer. He’s a fine writer. It’s been great to see him work hard and establish his career and win awards and get a lot of notice, and I thought his personal journey as a novelist would be inspirational for our students.”
Inspiration is just what junior religious studies major Lindsay McCormick got from the reading. Though not in the MFA program, she has taken fiction and poetry classes at Temple and regularly attends events put on by the Poets & Writers Series. Listening to a Philadelphia-based writer, however, made Torday’s talk special.
“I have so much Philly pride,” McCormick said. “It’s uplifting to know that you don’t have to be from LA or New York. You can still be someone and be from Philly.”
After the reading, Torday fielded questions about his inspiration and process. The most useful writing advice he could give, he said, is not to follow his advice.
“Be careful when writers tell you things, because what they’re telling you is this incredibly idiosyncratic thing that once happened once recently, and now [they’re] gonna make a rule out of it,” Torday said.
However, he has been able to offer some simple and infallible wisdom to his students throughout the years: to “read often and write often.”
As for tips for young writers in Philadelphia, Torday encourages them to keep attending the many readings the city has to offer, whether they be at Temple, The Free Library of Philadelphia, or some coffee shop on a street flyer.
“There is an amazing amount of resources in Philadelphia,” he said. “If you lived in rural Ohio, there might not be as many writers in a decade.”
Torday himself is proof that it’s not just quantity but quality that characterizes Philly’s creatives. Maybe with the help of established authors like Torday – and the Nate Gertzmans who are waiting in the wings – Philadelphia will one day push New York and Los Angeles to the margins.