With simultaneous publication in the U.S., Australia and the U.K., Steve Toltz’s first novel, A Fraction of the Whole, is about to make a big splash. And why not? A Fraction of the Whole is a big book (530 pages) with big ambitions—it covers 40 years in an often laugh-out-loud, insightful, sprawling, impossible-to-summarize tale of the larger-than-life mishaps and adventures of an Australian father and son and the various miscreants and reprobates who surround them.
"It began as a little short story of a father and son," Toltz says during a call—his first interview ever, it turns out—to his home in the Bondi Beach section of Sydney, Australia. Toltz, who is in his 30s, lives there with his wife, a painter. "In Australia and England when the daily tabloids decide to tear someone apart they can be quite unsparing," Toltz continues, explaining the seed of his story. "Every now and again there will be someone skinned alive by the media. Oftentimes they deserve it, but other times they do not. It’s sometimes as if the community as a whole takes on the hating of someone almost as a community project. I would often look at a story like that and think, what if that was your dad? It seemed to be such a bigger story that I couldn’t stand for it to be a short story, and so the story expanded in every direction."
Thus A Fraction of the Whole opens with a youngish Jasper Dean sitting in a prison cell looking back over the events that have led him to his sorry state. Many of these have to do with his love-hate relationship with his father, Martin Dean, a self-taught philosopher-rebel who has become the most reviled man in Australia. And then there is his uncle, Terry Dean, a career criminal and sports enthusiast, who is one of the most revered men in Australia.
"The book is very Australian in terms of its subject matter," Toltz says. "It’s about Australian society and a particular Australian ethos—you know, sport and criminals—but it actually touches on a lot of Australian subjects. Some Australian writers are very good at describing the landscape here, but that’s not where my interest lies. The landscape I’m describing is a social landscape."
Out of this particular terrain, Toltz fashions a novel of remarkable psychological and thematic range. In conversation he explains his scope of interests by citing influences ranging from Woody Allen to Knut Hamsun, Henry Miller to Céline, Emerson to Lemertov.
"A lot of writers won’t read while they’re writing," Toltz says. "I am someone who lets himself be completely influenced by other writers. That’s the joy of it for me. What makes a voice unique is the combination of the writer’s sensibility and the combination of influences that wouldn’t otherwise have been previously combined. Like Woody Allen. Who else would have put the Marx Brothers with Ingmar Bergman just because they were people he happened to like? Add that layer to whoever he would have been anyway and you have something completely different."
In A Fraction of the Whole, this combination of Toltz and his influences provokes both thought and laughter. "I have a tendency to want to make myself laugh while I’m writing," he says. "In the earlier version there was a little too much. I was quite prepared to justify any unbelievability if it made me laugh. But as I went along, I wanted to believe the characters and story more."
Surprisingly, Toltz says this torrent of a novel was written at a snail’s pace. It took him almost four years to complete. "Everything I wrote in the first year got written out of existence. When I look back, it’s a much worse writer who wrote those early pages. The process was really the process of my ability catching up with my ambition. In the first year I had a relatively high opinion of my abilities and then I read other stuff and realized I was nowhere near it."
Toltz adds, "In Australia—and it’s probably quite similar in the United States—you can’t just say you’re a writer without some kind of evidence to back up this wild assertion. But in Europe they don’t really require evidence. You say ‘I’m writing,’ and it’s respected as an activity."
As a result, much of Toltz’s first novel was written in Spain and France, where he met his wife Marie. "My book is the first book she ever read in English," he quips. "Now she’s gone through it a few times, so I think she’s actually read four English books, and my book has been three of those."
To realize his large ambitions for A Fraction of the Whole, Toltz hit upon an unusual methodology. "Everyone always says that all a writer needs is a room of one’s own. I’ve always had a room of my own, but for some reason after about 20 minutes I can’t stand the sight of it. So I developed a really bad habit some years ago: I go for a walk. I write in parks or on beaches or in cafes or libraries or bars. I keep moving every two hours, which was great when I was living in places like Barcelona and Paris. Now I don’t even bother trying to have a space at home. In most of Australia there are little benches everywhere. I live at the beach. The benches look over the ocean, which seems like quite a nice office to me."
Returning to the subject of his ambition to be a writer, Toltz says, "When you’re unpublished you look at books that have a certain degree of international success and you wonder, is my book as good as this one or that one, you weigh it up. The biggest challenge for me was just learning to write. When you’re writing something of this scope it is also a challenge to get every page of it to have something good on it, to not have a couple of crappy pages to get to some other good bit. But I think writing a novel is what makes a novelist of you. Just the writing of it. If I wasn’t a novelist before, I am one now."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland.