Reading reviews is ‘a dirty little habit,’ says author Steve Toltz
Every Toltz novel pushes the boundaries in one way or another, and
nothing is right here does so in its creation of an afterlife that is neither heaven nor hell, just a dismal place with familiar characteristics: poverty, overpopulation, a dysfunctional bureaucracy, riots and wars, McDonald’s and Starbucks and a bar called Bitter in Soul. Lost souls stumble, still traumatized by their deaths. And there is no release from mortality: you will die again.
Toltz in 2008 with his Booker Prize debut A fraction of the whole. Credit:Alastair Grant
Not that Toltz believes in an afterlife. Growing up in Sydney, he did the traditional Jewish things: Sunday school, bar mitzvah, going to synagogue on public holidays. “But I turned my back on that quite young.”
His afterworld was a progressive creation, an exercise in deception for its skeptical hero Angus that is also a commentary on the limits of human imagination. “The idea that it would be some sort of reward seems solipsistic. I also didn’t want to do a version of hell – too nasty. So it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s a world where none of the big questions about the meaning of life has no answer, “an amazing little slap that just asks you more questions”.
This is one of the curious group of novels that feature a pandemic, written before COVID-19 hit. Toltz had read a number of non-fiction books about pandemics, so he was knowledgeable: “It was very strange to see something I had written as fiction on the evening news.” His research “really shocked me that we haven’t had a pandemic in our lifetimes. In a way, we all have this feeling now that we have just had this lucky time, but we know that human history is riddled with wars, pestilence and famine. There’s no real reason why plagues and wars shouldn’t be the order of every decade.
I tell him that my favorite character in the book is Angus’ wife, Gracie, a fiercely energetic woman who makes her living celebrating birth, marriage and death. She harangues gatherings with beautifully dark and cynical speeches. Far from backing down, his audience swallows him. It turns out that Toltz, who had a string of odd jobs to support his writing, once thought about training to be a wedding officiant. “But I decided not to. Too anxiety-inducing.
Gracie’s lonely attempt to perform her own C-section, with the help of some social media followers, is a story I could only read through my fingers. “I had a moment of trepidation about it and just decided to write it down,” Toltz says. “There was the case of a woman in Mexico… I wanted Gracie to go through darkness, and that was about the worst thing.
For a writer sinking into darkness, Toltz sounds rather cheerful: “It’s almost funny for me to have this vocation for writing.” He works during primary school hours so he can transport his 10-year-old son to and from class, “but I just write as much as I can…in a cafe, at the kitchen table, on the sofa, I keep moving, walking, writing”.
He first writes by hand and then dictates into his phone, using voice recognition software so he doesn’t have to transcribe. The best place to write at home is a small back room that doesn’t have Wi-Fi, and if he doesn’t pick up his phone there, “I’m really fine.”
He has an idea for another book and he’s researching consciousness. “I feel like I’m done with fear.”
nothing is right here is published by Hamish Hamilton, $32.99.
Steve Toltz is a guest at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. swf.org.au
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