Debut novelist Daniel Torday puts a fresh spin on World War II in The Last Flight of Poxl West, a page-turning literary tale about truth, lies and forgiveness. Eli Goldstein idolizes his uncle Poxl, a Czech Jew who served in Britain's Royal Air Force. The novel alternates between the adult Eli's voice and the pages of Poxl's memoir as the two coming-of-age stories converge. We asked Torday a few questions about the book—without spoiling the novel's many pleasurable twists and turns.
Your first published book was a novella. Did you approach the writing of a full-length novel differently?
You know, it’s funny—I tend to work in the dark a bit on projects and their size. I mean, I know what I’m writing about, but then I just put up blinders for months, years, and work work work the sentences as hard as I can. Which is to say: The Sensualist actually started as a novel, and at one point grew to as big as almost 300 pages. But as I went through successive drafts, over the course of years, it just got chiseled away until it was a novella.
The Last Flight of Poxl West, on the other hand, was about a 70-page novella my first stab at it. I’d just gotten back from a summer in Eastern Europe (more on that below!) and I thought I’d try my hand at getting Poxl’s voice down. Then I realized I had a lot more research and homework to do, so I put it down. At various points it was more like a 400-page novel; a novella with a very brief prologue; a long novel with a short story interspliced in it. At one point an editor I admire even suggested it should just contain a lot of footnotes, like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Which is I guess just to say: I have to throw a lot up against the wall to see what sticks. It’s not an efficient or smart way to work, I don’t think. But it’s the only way I’ve figured out how. Novel-making is messy business.
"Novel-making is messy business."
This novel alternates between Eli’s point-of-view as he looks back on his childhood, and excerpts from Poxl’s memoir. Which voice was easier to write?
I love the way you’ve asked this question! I could give 180-degree different answers depending on what we end up meaning by “easy.” I always had a strong grasp on how I wanted Poxl to sound—like this kind of Nabakovian Eastern European intellectual of a variety I’d heard bloviating in my Hungarian grandparents’ world when I was a kid. But over the years it actually took a lot of toning Poxl down, layering in some quieter introspection, to really bring his voice off.
Eli, on the other hand, was a very late-breaking development. I’d always known I had to find a way to balance the contemporary story of the publication of Poxl West’s memoir with the memoir itself. But how? For years the other voice was Samuel Gerson, the narrator of my first book. I had this ridiculous notion that I could be like James Joyce, and just do permutations of Stephen Dedalus in book after book. But that didn’t work. And all at once, a couple summers ago, I tried a short-story version of this story out—narrated by a middle-aged guy, Eli, who was looking back on his childhood to decipher this complicated period with his uncle. In the story, he was Uncle Saul. It took my leaving it in a drawer for almost a year before I thought to just call Saul “Poxl,” and integrate it into the manuscript. Which is to say: From one perspective it took no appreciable thought, no effort at all to just go with Eli’s voice—it came to me all at once, effortlessly. From another, it took almost 8 years of toil for it to arrive unbidden. Mysterious.
Poxl is an engaging and entertaining narrator, but as the novel progresses it becomes clear the past may not be as straightforward as he presents it. Do you think it’s possible for a person to get at the truth of their own life?
Great question! In some ways, I think we know each other the least of anyone in our lives. It’s a problem of information overload. We know too much of ourselves to know ourselves well, or as others know us. In a work of fiction, it’s easy enough to say, as Amy Hempel does so brilliantly, something like, He was so great I knew girls who would chew his already-chewed gum. But if we said that about ourselves, we’d look entirely ego-driven, self-aggrandizing.
I heard Tobias Wolff once say his favorite bad line to an apprentice story he’d ever read started, “As I walk down what other men call streets . . .” So good/bad! But put that line in the mouth of another character observing his overblown sense of self-importance, and suddenly it’s genius.
I guess part of what I’m saying, as well, is that every day of our lives we wake up a different Trisha, a different Dan, a different Leopold-whose-nickname-is-Poxl. If someone stopped us on the street and said, So, your childhood—good? Bad? Indifferent? Sum it up in a sentence. Or a chapter. Or a memoir. It would be too hard to just to give a terse response. And that’s what’s so hard in some way for Poxl in writing his memoir. He lived this outsized life—so how to tell it? Flannery O’Connor says somewhere something like, If one can’t make much of little experience, he’s unlikely to make much of a lot. Something like that applies here, I think.
"In some ways, I think we know each other the least of anyone in our lives. . . . He lived this outsized life—so how to tell it?"
At one point, a reporter asks Poxl if we’ve “reached saturation” with first-person accounts of WWII. That’s something readers might wonder as well! How would you answer the question?
It’s a question I grappled with every day of the eight years I worked on this book. I guess in some ways my main answer is that we work with the material we’re given, and a very very very long tail followed the six years of that war. I grew up with a grandfather who survived years in a Hungarian labor camp, and almost all of whose family died in death camps, and a grandmother who was so scarred and scared by the war she never admitted she was Jewish to me or to my family in the 40 years she lived in this country. To deny that as part of who I am because of a question of readership or marketplace would feel somehow disingenuous. Or maybe just a task for a stronger smarter person than me.
But the flip side is that the questions we ask of that experience have to be new questions. Fresh questions. For me in this case, I started to unearth stories about experiences within my family of a kind I’d never heard of before. Around the same time, W.G. Sebald had become, to my understanding of the situation, the first German public intellectual to raise some real questions about the Allied bombing of Germany—in a lecture in the late 1990s that wasn’t published in translation here until about 10 years ago. Then it was published as On the Natural History of Destruction, and now Germans are grappling with it for the first time. U.S., British and Canadian planes destroyed more than 100 German cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and leaving millions without homes. This was all new to me, and I suspect it might be new to some readers. So the history I was grappling with felt like news to me, anyway.
"We work with the material we’re given, and a very very very long tail followed the six years of that war. "
What research did you do for this book?
I’m not a historian, and so I have a very haphazard research method—if you could even call it that. For a couple of summers, I traveled to Europe, where each time I traced the steps Poxl would have taken from his home north of Prague, to Rotterdam and up to London. I visited with the handful of relatives who survived the war. I didn’t hire a translator or anything—I would stay in hostels and hotels, and get on trains and buses and just get a sense of a place. I was gratified to see that in The New York Times Book Review, their reviewer quoted from part of one of Poxl’s descriptions of the Elbe, the river outside of Leitmeritz, that came in part from an afternoon I took to just go walk down by the river and see what it looked like, smelled like.
But of course then I had to follow up by reading a bunch of books. The two main kinds of resources that came to feel helpful to me were a bit of a surprise: very minute military histories of single days during the war, and self-published memoirs. The military histories helped me in being able to be super specific about a single sortie, a single battle Poxl would have experienced (I use that word with all apt caveats!), or a single night in the Blitz, for instance. The self-published memoirs were great for their honesty, the sense of dailiness I really wanted to reproduce here. But they were also helpful for what they weren’t: propulsive, edited, well-written, all that readable. I was so taken with the material, I always had to ask myself the question: What would make the memoir Poxl’s writing publishable, where these ones so obviously weren’t? Some of that is of course a matter of luck, ambition, timing. But some of it does show up in the sentences, the material.
Eli’s discovery of his uncle’s humanity may take place in an unusual context, but a child’s realization that the adults in his life are people, too, is a universal experience. What drew you to write about it?
Just what you said! For years I grappled with the outsized nature of Poxl’s story, the way he was telling it. What I wanted on the other end, from the other voice, was for it to be as close and real and emotionally knowable as possible. What better, more universal way to handle that than to make the thing Eli was dealing with somehow smaller, familiar even, than it seems: Poxl was like a grandfather to him, and when he really saw who this hero of his was, it was deflating and more complicated than what he’d expected to find.
What are you working on next?
I’m always working on a thousand things at once, and waiting to see what’s getting closest to finished. So right now that includes a number of projects. One entails putting a whole bunch of the short stories I’ve been at work on into a single Word file, and seeing if they work as a book. One is either a book-length essay or a collection of essays—or both. I’ve been working for years on a strange novel about a kid who makes a brother for himself out of duct tape. And last summer I got a bunch of pages down on another large-scale new novel that’s a little too new to say much more about, other than that it’s very tentatively titled American Protest right now.
Author photo by Matt Barrick.