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. Continue reading