The Making of ‘The Sensualist’

It took 10 years and 230 drafts for Dan Torday to create his novella.

By Yara Jishi                                                                                                             

The novella The Sensualist is set in Pikesville, a Baltimore suburb where writer Daniel Torday spent his high school years. Set in the 1990’s, the novella takes readers into the realm of fiction that tackles late adolescence through the character of Samuel Gerson.

The 175-page novella is the first for Torday, who is director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College in suburban Philadelphia.

The Sensualisttells the story of Gerson’s breaking out of the small tight-knit Jewish community where he spent his whole

Dan Torday

life. Ready to quit the baseball team and recently befriending Dmitri Abravomich Zilber, a Russian, Jewish immigrant who is infatuated with the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Samuel’s world begins to change.

 When his grandfather commits suicide, Gerson begins to spend more time with Dmitri and his sister Yelizaveta, fueling a series of violent and disturbing events. This evocative coming-of-age story reminds readers of the struggles of late adolescence and the evolving nature of friendship.

Behind the glossy, light-blue finished copies of The Sensualist are 10 years of writing, drafting, researching, and editing. It took Torday 230 drafts before he felt that it was finished to his satisfaction.

The tale of  Torday and his process behind writing The Sensualist offer not only a close look at what it takes to get published, but also insights into the creative process and the steps it takes to make a mark on the literary world.

 In its raw and truthful take on adolescence, The Sensualist showcases the intertwining of fiction and non-fiction, and the struggles and triumphs that occur in attempt to say something lasting and real about human relationships.


Getting the Idea

Readers often wonder how much of the writer is present in what they write.

Do the main characters speak closely to the writer, or not at all? Do writers attempt to disconnect themselves from the world of fiction they create, or place themselves in it?

 For Torday, it’s a bit of both. Coming up with the idea for The Sensualist was a combination of his upbringing, heritage and literary interest.

Torday’s upbringing was a different from Samuel Gerson’s. Torday spent most of his younger years in Boston, where his mother is from. After living in the suburbs of Boston for several years, Torday and his family moved to Baltimore, where he spent his high school years.

“I felt like an outsider there,” Torday said, “it was a tight-knit, but closed community in a lot of ways.”

Torday constructed Gerson’s character to be an outsider, to be a character who didn’t know where he fit amongst friends and the tight-knit community he was born into. Gerson, literally meaning alien or outsider in Hebrew, grapples with his identity and sense of belonging throughout the novella.

 “There were periods where I had to think of him like me, and periods where I had to think of him differently,” Torday said, speaking to the versatility in constructing characters, and the ways they end up being a compilation of the writer and his experience and of other people he has met.

 While Torday’s upbringing influenced much of the novel and the formation of the idea, heavier influence derives from his personal literary interest. Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karmazov manifests itself heavily in the novella, and the tendencies of the character in Dostoyevsky’s novel named Dmitri Karmazov speaks heavily to Dmitri Zilber.

 “I stopped in the middle of reading, put the book down and thought, ‘that character of Dmitri is very violent’, and I was a pretty angry 15-year-old in a lot of ways,” Torday said.


Starting to Write

            Torday began to write The Sensualist when he left his job as an editor at Esquire Magazine to began his Masters of Fine Arts program at Syracuse University. He would visit Bennington College in Vermont frequently, where his wife was finishing her post- baccalaureate program, and sit in front of a computer and just begin writing for a strict three hours a day.

The relationship between Samuel Gerson and Dmitri Zilber is what pushed the initial drafts forward. In The Sensualist, Dmitri ends up with Samuel’s sweatshirt by way of a synagogue clothing drive. This simple plot device is what pushed Torday to pursue their friendship, and to keep writing it through.

            “Somehow, this idea of Dmitri’s character inheriting Sam’s sweatshirt felt really important to me, and from there I’d just type forward,” he said. “Those initial drafts pushed me through their friendship pretty quickly.”

            In crafting The Sensualist and moving forward with drafts, Torday created his characters and scenes along the way. It isn’t common to meet writers who know the outcome of their novel before it’s end, and for Torday, The Sensualist developed through a compilation of his own experiences and heritage.

            A crucial component of this novella is Jewish heritage, especially that of Samuel Gerson’s grandfather. Torday’s

The Sensualist

own experiences and the fact that he himself is also Jewish speak heavily to the experiences of Samuel in the novel. The parts of the novella pertaining to Torday’s grandfather mobilized several of the scenes throughout the text. Samuel’s grandfather, who commits suicide well into the novel, further entangles Samuel in the world of Dmitri Zilber and the violence that ensues.

            Torday’s own father was born in Budapest just after World War II ended. He then moved to New York with his parents in the early 1950’s. Sometime between the beginning of World War II and its end, Torday’s grandfather obtained false papers that he made for himself,  but they changed his last name and religious affiliation from Jewish to Christian, similar to Samuel’s grandfather in the novella. These components of The Sensualist underline the ways in which historical non-fiction entangles with the fictional world Torday creates.


Getting Stuck

            The Sensualist was written over the course of approximately 10 years, but that isn’t to say there weren’t lapses in the process. The drafts wouldn’t always push forward, and crafting on some days proved to be a struggle.

Speaking about getting stuck, Torday said it happened frequently. “I think the biggest thing for me was just realizing that often I needed to go back and use what I’d already given myself.”

He recalls a moment early on, when he was trying to find a place for Tanya, one of Sam’s high school friends in the novella, and Sam to meet. He felt that he didn’t have the energy to invent a new restaurant and describe it. After thinking about it, he realized the material was already there.

He said, “ I realized: Oh, right. Just have them go back to her parents’ deli. And then, seeing it differently, it will actually give a sense of change, of emotional shift.”

            While many of us are familiar with the term “writer’s block” that occurs during the creative process,  Torday reminds us that it isn’t always about generating new material, but working with what’s already down.


230 Drafts

Torday wrote about 230 drafts of The Sensualist. Though many of these drafts consist of shifts in plot devices, events, and character names, other drafts consist of differences that are minute and difficult to notice. 

“The last version I have was something like  number 230. But some of those new versions, particularly late, might just incorporate moving text around, or putting in or cutting word,” Torday said.

In the published version of The Sensualist, Dmitri’s full name is Dmitri Abramovich Zilber. In earlier drafts, more specifically in the second version draft of the first chapter, Dmitri’s name is ‘Dimitri Ivanovich.’

Through changing what might seem like trivial details, the overall novella itself easily shifts. Initially, the entire novella was to be titled Dimitri, until Torday’s publisher suggested the title ‘The Sensualist’. Decisions on titles and character development result from the compilation of the many small details in the text, and Torday’s 230 drafts are illustrative of this aspect in the creative process.

As some details that vary from draft to draft are small, others are larger in scope. In the first version of The Sensualist, the novella’s ending is drastically different compared to the published version.

 “I hadn’t let Dmitri get in trouble, and it was this awful 20-page scene of Dmitri and Samuel at a football game at the high school, and it was supposed to be symbolic and everything,” Torday said in the midst of a chuckle.

The ending of the published version deals with Dmitri’s arrest after he and group of other friends commit violent acts against another character in the novel, Goldstein. In forming this ending, it took some journalistic capabilities.

 “I didn’t know enough about the juvenile justice system to write about it. I went down for a week to Baltimore, stayed in a hotel and visited the DJS (Department of Juvenile Services),” Torday said. “They let me hang out with a DA and just sit through trials.”

How much about the world do you have to know to write about it?

 For Torday, his experience as an editor in the non-fiction world was an advantage. “It was almost like being a journalist,” he said. “Having worked as an editor, and having written non-fiction, I knew how to do research.”

Torday shows readers and writes that it isn’t only the world you create, but the world you portray. While the characters in the novella speak to fictional constructs (as much as they are based on his real-life experience), the accurately portrayed and tangible setting of Pikesville makes room for an ending as raw and cutting as in The Sensualist, and to get there, it meant research.


Editing until the End

            Progressing through writing over the course of so many years pushes one to wonder, how often does a writer go back and change what they’ve written, and how do they just make it to the end?

In the process of writing The Sensualist, Torday only moves forward. “I only edit with a pen on a printed-out draft, so I only edited once I had a complete draft with a beginning, middle and end,” he said.

            That’s not to say that the content in The Sensualist hasn’t undergone serious shifting, adjusting, and cutting. Looking back on the novella, Torday recalls the amount of events and plot material that had to be cut from the story.

“It’s easy enough to say I can cut these lines because they’re not my best, but what’s harder is to cut your best work because it doesn’t belong to the story you’re telling anymore,” Torday said, reflecting on scenes he had to let go.

            In a lot of ways, the inclusion of the material that’s been cut would have made this novella a novel, which is what it was originally set out to be. Torday initially started writing The Sensualist as a novel, but publishers didn’t “love it.”.

 In the midst of trying to chop it down, Torday realized that in cutting scenes here and there, it would end up a novella.


Is it ever really done?

            After so many years put into this novella, can it ever really be done?

 Torday says no. “I still think about it, and I beat myself up over some of the things that I cut,” he said. “I wish I could have more dramatically incorporated things about my grandfather, for example.”

For Torday, some scenes in The Sensualist play over and over again, and he speaks to the difficulty in having to let a part of your work go for the sake of the larger picture. “Part of the experience is having to cut your writing, and not everyone agrees, but you have to do it.”

            The novella might not be finished in Torday’s head, but the logistical process of getting it published came to an end in April of 2012. Now, the glossy blue, pocket-sized copies are out there on the shelves for people to read. But for Torday, the nature of this accomplishment differs drastically than the other arts.

He recalls when he tried to make it as a musician, when a song or a solo is finished being performed it was a short-lived experience. “People clap, or, you know, throw a beer can at you,” he said. “Even when a record comes out, there’s a day it comes out, and people focus on that day, and same with movies.”

With books however, the sense of accomplishment is drawn out. “They take a long time to read and they’re read in private, and the release can take months.”

            Reflecting on the finished product, it isn’t about the publication or the frustration and triumphs felt during the process of it all for Torday that speaks to this accomplishment.

            “I think the biggest thing I’ve been reminded, if it doesn’t sound grandiose or too introspective, is just that the edifying part of writing isn’t publication, or its attendant frustrations and few triumphs.

          “It’s that quiet time when you’re doing the work, saying something you didn’t know you knew in a way you didn’t know you could say it. That is the payoff. And I think that’s in some way why I write: for that quiet, untrammeled, private enjoyment.”