Pauls Toutonghi is the Pushcart Prize-winning author of the acclaimed novels Red Weather and Evel Knievel Days. He was born in Seattle, Washington, to an Egyptian father and a Latvian mother. His work has appeared in the New York Times, VQR, Sports Illustrated, Zoetrope, Glimmer Train, the Harvard Review, and One Story, as well as online for Salon, The Rumpus, Bookslut, The Millions, and elsewhere. He is the father of twins and teaches at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Monica Petersen. Of the process she said, “I was introduced to Pauls's writing by a friend and was immediately engrossed by his work. I admire the honesty about his writing and his personal history that embody his responses.” In this interview, he discusses using his cultural ancestry in his works, evolving as a writer, and writing about personal challenges in life.
Superstition Review: You are born of mixed ancestry to an Egyptian father and Latvian mother. Why did you choose to focus on your Latvian ancestry in Red Weather and your Egyptian ancestry in Evel Knievel Days?
Pauls Toutonghi: The cultural imperative behind a work of fiction is something that is neither straightforward nor easy to trace.
Furthermore, the sense that biography is informative of a piece of fiction is a false one to me. It's a deep oversimplification of the idea of race, of ethnicity, of identity. Where do you draw the line? Do rich writers write best about rich people? Poor writers about poor people? I can't imagine an interviewer saying: Your parents made 15,000 dollars a year in the 1980s—does that inform the lives of your characters?
As if characters don't spring wholly from the imagination. As if we even know what the imagination is. As if we even know what identity is.
All communication is shorthand. So, the answer is a complicated one.
I'm not necessarily troubled by the question; I think it's a great question. But it's one I get quite frequently, and I think any answer—any legitimate answer—masks a number of things. Or, rather, is tied to a number of things, things as broad as the economy, manuscript sales to mainstream publishing houses, book sales in bookstores, and the ability of an artist to make a living from practicing his or her art—and numerous other points.
Something happens to a work of art when we start to talk about it. And something else happens, entirely, when we start to talk about an artist. And yet another thing happens when we discuss the biography of the artist, in relationship to the work of art.
SR: In Evel Knievel Days, Khosi explains that “This is what it feels like to be half of something...You never fit in anywhere. I doubt that I'll ever be quite at ease in America.” Do Khosi's sentiments resemble some of your own feelings about your mixed ancestry. If so, how?
PT: Yes. This was me as a kid. I was half of a bunch of things, and so I never fit in anywhere.
Latvians in the 20th century in America were refugees. They were waiting for their homeland to be freed from Soviet occupation. So, they needed to keep their culture alive, and vital, and—in a significant sense—pure. They were intent on building a diaspora—a replica of their culture in the place that they'd been forced to flee.
Latvia, the country itself, is a racially homogenous place. So, the children of Latvian immigrants (such as my mother—who was, herself, born in Latvia—but fled when she was very young) were encouraged, by their parents, to marry other children of Latvian immigrants. Safeguard the culture, you understand.
So—when my mom married Joseph Toutonghi, the Egyptian ex-pat living in Seattle—it was a bit of a scandal. My grandfather did actually lock himself in his office and cry. Because it meant, in his mind, the extinction of something beautiful and beloved to him. He had no sense that I would be raised to care about Latvia—and the language, and the customs, and the people. Sadly, he died when my mom was pregnant with me, so he never got to know his grandson. My middle name, though, is his first name—Harijs.
To get back on track, though, I was forever marked, in the Latvian community, with this strange last name. A non-Latvian last name. So, despite the fact that I spoke near-perfect Latvian, I never really fit in. Or I felt like I never fit in, anyway. I was a half-breed.
But of course when you have unusual food at home, which I did, and parents with accents, which I did, then you don't fit into the mainstream of American youth culture, either—which is brutal and unforgiving of any difference (the way that American adult culture can be, as well). And, seriously—try making reservations, or doing any kind of business transaction over the phone with the name Pauls Harijs Toutonghi.
Incidentally, the last name, itself, is a modification of a Turkish last name, and our dad's family, by and large, is from Aleppo.
SR: Both Red Weather and Evel Knievel Days have a specific love interest that sets the rest of the novel in motion. In Red Weather, Yuri's interest in Hannah forces him into the world of Socialism. In Evel Knievel Days, Khosi learning that his best friend and longtime love is marrying another man sets him on his quest to find his father and his identity. How did these women become such important catalysts in each of these novels?
PT: This is a terrific question, and probably has a lot to do with my own psyche. Perhaps I'm not even the best person to speculate on this.
I know that, in my formative years, I was a bit of an exile from everything, as I've said. (Probably a common experience for a writer.) And so, the idea that I could find acceptance and love—especially sexual love—with another person, was just astonishing to me. It became something that I craved with the power of an addiction, I think.
In Red Weather, I frame this relationship in a bit of satire. The context of the Socialist newspaper, and the broader context of political activism in general, is something that the narrator, looking back on his younger self, is really mocking. He's poking fun at his sudden adulation for all things Socialist, and seeing it as hormones run rampant.
But in Evel Knievel Days, the relationship is a bit different. Natasha Mariner is a real, true love for Khosi. He's much more deeply hurt by her decision to marry. He doesn't really recover. There's more pain there.
It's interesting. I wrote Red Weather before my divorce, and Evel Knievel Days after it—and I wonder how much that experience, the alteration, inside me, of the experience of love, had to do with the amount of wistfulness and nostalgia that surround love in the second book.
But again—here is that connection between biography and text—one that I'm not certain is linear, if it exists, at all.
And what I've never said anywhere else—probably because no one else asked—is that Natasha's last name, Mariner, is actually a reference to my favorite baseball team, The Seattle Mariners, for whom I have a deep and abiding love. Which I only kind of poke fun at. Sometimes.
SR: Although you grew up in Seattle, Red Weather takes place in Milwaukee and its suburbs. Why did you choose Milwaukee and the Midwest to explore Yuri's story in Red Weather? Did a particular historical event occur in Milwaukee that made it a key setting for this story?
PT: Can I be honest? A spark for the imagination can come from anywhere. Anywhere or anything. And I think authors are rarely honest—or rarely know, for sure. But in my case—and I've also never said this in an interview—it came from Wayne's World. There's that moment when Alice Cooper talks about the history of Milwaukee; well, I've always loved that moment in the movie.
A little more on that, though:
That whole book was written from a strange place, inside of me. It was the fourth full novel manuscript I'd written. First, I wrote a historical drama—based on real events from my family history—set in Latvia and Germany during the Second World War. The dialogue was really terrible, but the story was pretty good. A little thin, perhaps?
It didn't sell. So, I decided that the reason it didn't sell was that I was writing too far from my own experience. So, next I wrote a literary choose-your-own-adventure, set in Seattle, something called The Book of Colors. Each character had a color assignment to them—I've always been something of a synesthete, even from a young age—and you could follow different colors through different parts in the book. All of the stories overlapped. Characters moved from one color to another, and, as the reader, you controlled (kind of) what you wanted to read. The caveat was—every story eventually ended up in The Hospital or The Supermarket (which, I felt, were the two main foci of the American experience).
What can I say? It was experimental. A little like, perhaps, Cortazar's Hopscotch? But, it, in turn, didn't sell, either. A big disappointment.
I decided it was too experimental. So then I wrote a dark, strange novel about the Holocaust—called Irene, Dreaming. It didn't sell, either.
With all these books, I went through the full cycle of hope and disappointment. I rendered them to the best of my ability, was conscious that they had flaws—but sent them off anyway, conscious of the fact that plenty of first novels with flaws in them get published every year. But I had no luck. I was deeply, deeply disappointed. I felt like a complete failure. Like I would never be part of the conversation I wanted to be a part of.
I'd had some luck with short stories—winning a Pushcart, being published in The Boston Review, GlimmerTrain, and Zoetrope—but no luck with novels. I couldn't replicate that success with the longer form. I couldn't even get into print. I was about to give up.
So, I decided—what the hell—to keep myself sane, I'll write a comedy. An enjoyable comedy. I was living, at the time, in rural northern Wisconsin, in a little house on Shawano Lake—and I watched, one day, Wayne's World and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, back-to-back. That was the genesis of the book. In fact, the original epigraph was a quote from Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase's character) that my agent made me take out:
“Oh, the silent majesty of a winter's morn. The clean cool chill of the holiday air. And an asshole—in his bathrobe—emptying his chemical toilet into my sewer.”
That's it. I've been outed. I'll probably never win the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, now.
In all seriousness, though, I do believe that, as a reader, I am constantly looking for a mix of different elements: Beauty and ugliness, low and high culture, imagistic description and action. Vitality. I want literature that reflects the experience of our modern moment, that feels something like it feels to be a human being, over the past two decades, here in the world, as I understand it.
Yes, I read Dostoevsky, Roland Barthes, W.S. Merwyn, and Patrick Chamoiseau. But, goddamnit, I love Battlestar Galactica, too.
SR: Although Yuri is the narrator of Red Weather, we learn more and more about his father as the story progresses. Why did you choose to focus on Rudolfs through Yuri's perspective?
PT: This is the hilarious thing about writing. You give your heart and soul (sorry for the cliche, but I think it's apt) to a book—and you have no idea, in some fundamental way, what it's about. I didn't know that the father was a main character—not at all, I swear—until the book came out.
I guess that says something about my narcissism, perhaps? I thought the book was about Yuri Balodis—this fabulous, interesting, wild, unique kid—who reads Jewish mysticism while hiding in a tree, and who grew up in this strange urban environment, an exile from everything, an immigrant to everything—a fascinating person. But—surprise! Nobody liked Yuri. Nobody liked his voice. In fact, almost all the reviews said: Well, this book succeeded despite Yuri's voice.
Instead, people liked the character of the father. And so I learned something important about fiction writing.
Unfortunately, since I never took any kind of fiction writing class—in college, or in grad school—I had to learn how to do many of these things on my own. So, almost everything I've figured out, I've figured out by having conversations with writers like Richard Bausch, and reading voraciously—books like Aspects of the Novel, Bird by Bird—or just fiction—which shows rather than tells.
SR: The three sections of Red Weather open with a quotes from Wallace Stevens' poems, either “The Man with the Blue Guitar” or “Disillusionment at Ten O'Clock.” How is Wallace Stevens important to this novel and to you?
PT: I love Wallace Stevens. “The Man With the Blue Guitar” has long been one of my favorite poems. And so, there was a certain point at which I realized—hey, this poem is really applicable to what I'm working on. The sad detachment and nostalgia of that poem—of Stevens, in general—applies to the emotional territory that I wanted to delineate: The space of the immigrant, pre-internet, pre-Skype—cut off from the place they've left.
Edward Said said that the story of exile is the story of “an unhealable rift between the self and its native place,” and I think that Wallace Stevens, in all of his luminous strangeness, is emblematic of this rift in American culture of his day.
SR: In the beginning of Red Weather, Yuri is focused on reading Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. I know you are greatly influenced by Dostoevsky, but what is significant about this novel to Yuri's story? Can this illustrate the connection between the Old Russia and Rudolfs's new America?
PT: That's an interesting idea. Crime and Punishment and The Idiot and The Devils and—to a lesser extent—The Brothers Karamazov were quite important to me, in terms of showing me the addictive power that an intellectually substantial story can have.
That said, I have the feeling, when spending time with Dostoevsky, that here's a writer whose equal I just am not. He can do things—his prose has a mystifying power—that mine does not. I probably shouldn't say that. But I reread Crime and Punishment every few years to try and learn what I can.
SR: Each chapter in Red Weather is headed by a particular date, but the chapter can extend beyond that date. Why did you choose to include specific dates for Yuri's timeline?
PT: I don't know the answer, to tell you the truth. It's been almost nine years since I wrote the book, and it's starting to fade into the past, a bit. My sense with the dates is that I was trying—for myself—to get the chronology of the book straight.
Writing a novel can be a maddening process. With that one, I struggled to clear up all of the timeline, to straighten out what happened, when. I had a vivid sense of the set-pieces, but not as much of a sense as to how they might unfold, in time.
I think this is something that a novelist learns as he or she moves along: How to situate your characters in time. It's simply one of the ten thousand different things that you need to keep track of in order to write a novel.
I've always marvelled at this: A few years back, The Boston Globe did a survey of several thousand people—asking them—do you think you have a novel in you, or some such question—would you like to write a novel? And 81% said yes. It's really an incredible number, if you think about it. If only they knew what writing a novel entails.
Flaubert, writing Bovary, said, in a letter to a friend: “My cursed Bovary hangs like an albatross around my neck.” And this is how it feels, at times. But people see the finished product, which often reads so seamlessly, and they assume that it was just a matter of typing.
SR: Both of your novels focus on outsiders: either outsiders in America or Americans in other countries. What was your approach to examining the outsider status? What did you learn through these explorations?
PT: Outsiders work well for fiction, because they are in opposition to something. They have an implied movement, no? From outside to—inside. That was what drew me to these characters, I think. Or part of it, at least.
SR: Has teaching at Lewis & Clark influenced the way you approach writing? How so?
PT: The short answer is yes.
What a fabulous thing to be doing—to be constantly thinking about literature—and writing. To read all these terrific writers: Mary Gaitskill, Sherman Alexie, Stuart Dybek, Rick Moody, Karen Russell, James Baldwin—and two dozen more—for the first time with them. I remember the joy, the emotion I felt, when I read this work for the first time.
It also clarifies many aspects of fiction writing for me. For example, we've spent the last week talking about plot as a force—rather than as a structure. And this is so valuable for me, as a fiction writer. It puts me in the world of writing, the intellectual space of writing. And I love that.
But—also—I get to see these young writers at the start of what will be, in some cases, long careers. Two of my students, Elizabeth Cameron and Riley Johnson, have gone on to study at The University of Memphis and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, respectively. They're both terrific writers. And I was there at the beginning, for them. Which is a thrill.
The more complicated answer, of course, is that if you're doing your job as you should, as a teacher, it will take up all of your time. So, between working around 50 hours per week at Lewis and Clark, and raising my twin toddlers, there's not a lot of real estate left for creative work. So, I have to try extra hard to make sure that I get some time to sit down and write.
SR: The events for your second novel start at an Evel Knievel celebration in Butte, Montana. Why did you choose the celebration of an American daredevil icon to set this novel in motion?
PT: Motorcycle stunts? A festival devoted to them? What's not to love? It's in the grand tradition of the American stuntman—the heritage of P.T. Barnum. In many ways, the daredevil is the quintessential trope of American life.
SR: One of my favorite quotes in Red Weather is a simple one about Yuri's parents: “My parents' English was a strange beast…Frequently, they added grafts from Russian, such as the ubiquitous 'in my opinion,' which hung at the end of their sentences like a passive-aggressive pit bull.” I love how this quote really characterizes the little quirks of English from non-native speakers. Is the English by Yuri's parents characteristic of the English of your parents? How did you make this dialogue so real?
PT: A good friend of mine came to America from Latvia in the early 90s. The way the parents speak in Red Weather is a combination of the way he spoke, at first—before his English improved—and the way that the Latvians of my childhood spoke, particularly my grandmother. My mother's English, while slightly accented at times, is still pretty standard—she came to the U.S. when she was eight. But I did grow up around accents of all kinds.
I also made the purposeful decision to reject dialect in my dialogue. I feel that dialect worked fine for Faulkner—God rest his soul—but it doesn't work for me. It's too hard on the eyes. It makes your reader work too hard. So, I had to think hard to come up with different ways to render the sounds of the characters' voices without this crutch. I had to be imaginative. It was fun.
SR: While Red Weather has scenes that focus on the act of preparing food and bringing people together, food is a significant focus in Evel Knievel Days with Khosi's mother's catering business and the scene involving Egyptian onions. What role does food play in your life?
PT: My family was a family anchored around food. My paternal grandmother, Lorice Toutonghi, was a terrific cook, and she used food as a means of bringing the family together. Same with my mother's mother, Benita Mindenbergs. I grew up around delicious, non-mainstream American food—and big families that loved to get together to eat.
There was also a significant ritual to it all: The grinding of the lamb for the stuffed grape leaves, the rolling of the leaves, themselves. And many other dishes that had elaborate, time-consuming processes associated with them. So: You got together to cook and you got together to eat.
Right now, I'm a slave-chef for two three-year olds. So: I make a lot of peanut butter sandwiches and mac-and-cheese. It's a bit thankless. But, hopefully, this will turn around a bit, and my family will start cooking, again.
SR: The settings of Butte, Montana and Egypt are beautifully realistic in Evel Knievel Days. Did you do any research about these places before writing Evel Knievel Days? What was your focus in creating these locations?
PT: Thank you. I worked hard to try to find the key details—the ones that would make my setting really come alive—and be realistic. So: I'm glad that worked.
I did quite a bit of research—and visiting both Butte and Cairo to find the right things to put in there. Making a place realistic isn't so much about exhaustive detail, rather it's about finding just the right thing. For example: Telling a story about the geese that landed in the Berkeley Pit in the 1990s and died—their bodies turning orange because their feathers absorbed the polluted water—it isn't clear why this works to establish setting. But it does. It's the kind of thing that feels like an interior detail—one that only a local would know. And so it feels authentic. Stack a few of these on top of each other, and the setting works.
Also, I always remember the five senses: Checking in with them, which we are always doing, as human beings in the world, will make a setting come alive, as well.
SR: The sound of the words in your fiction and your beautiful clean metaphors are reminiscent of poetic elements. In an article written for “My First Time,” you discuss your progression from poetry to short stories to novels. What inspired this progression and what have you learned about approaching each of these styles?
PT: I think that I wanted to make a living as a writer. And it's just not possible to make a living as a poet. Not that it's really possible to make a living as a writer of literary fiction (it's not). But I sort of imagined that it might be. And I had the idea that I could be a freelance writer, as well.
But—that's so very difficult. I couldn't do it. As a person who suffers from anxiety—the whole process of drumming up business, making contacts with editors, finding a discipline in which to work—I just couldn't handle it. I thought I might write book reviews for a living, but that became impossible with the advent of the Internet.
I think my heart is with poetry. But my voice—in poetry—has atrophied at the age of 24. I haven't written poems seriously in about a decade, with any consistency. And poetry, like any other craft, has to be practiced regularly. I'm rusty.
SR: Does your approach to novels differ from your approach to writing short stories? If so, how? Do you prefer one over the other?
PT: I've been asked this question before, and my answer goes back and forth. I think that which ever form I'm not working in—the novel or the short story—seems easier.
SR: Your blog post “High Risk” for Huffington Post is a sharp contrast to your identity-seeking novels. What inspired you to write this personal story about a near-traumatic event with your unborn son? What was your approach to make it sound authentic and not overdramatized?
PT: That was such a difficult moment. And yet—I had the realization that I was so very lucky—that so many people had to deal with the realities of that diagnosis, that it wasn't magically lifted for them, the way it was for me.
So, I had to remember to be respectful of these brave people, whose ranks—for one day—I was a part of. I didn't want to seem like an intruder, or someone capitalizing on their sorrows.
Of course, Mended Little Hearts (http://mendedlittlehearts.org) is helped by public mention of the incredible work it's doing. So, I didn't feel bad about that. And, of course, with The Huffington Post, almost nobody ever gets paid. So—I did that work for free. So: That eased the guilt a bit.
I am also lucky to have an understanding partner, one who is also a writer—and she helped me with this piece. She was okay with its disclosures (it's very personal, obviously), and that made it easier.
It was also quite liberating to be simply telling the truth. With fiction, it often feels like an elaborate lie. In fact, it is an elaborate lie. It was nice to just have a story unfold out of what actually happened—no more, no less.
SR: Many of your works include foreign language, specifically Latvian in “The Lives of the Saints” and Red Weather. How does the native language present itself in your writing process? Does it occur naturally as part of the character's identity?
PT: I am bilingual—and spoke Latvian before I spoke English. So: Latvian dialogue I hear in my head the same way that I hear English. With Evel Knievel Days, there were a number of points where I used Arabic phrases. Since my Arabic is terrible, I was just relying on a sense of where the other language should go. Perhaps having that bilingual capacity made writing those sections easier, for me.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
PT: Full of kids toys!