An Interview with Pauls Toutonghi
Pauls Toutonghi was at Powell’s recently to read from his new book Evel Knievel Days. It’s a coming-of-age story that is funny, quirky, touching and completely original. The backdrop is a cultural mashup of Butte, Montana and Cairo, Egypt, and it had me racing to the end to find out how it all worked out. Before the reading started, we met in the lovely Rare Book Room to talk about his book, his goals and insecurities, advice he gives his students, and much more. He also shared an anecdote about Cheryl Strayed.
What is Evel Knievel Days about?
The protagonist Khosi Saqr is a young man, twenty-three years old. His father abandoned the family when Khosi was three. Twenty years later the father returns to town (Butte, Montana) unexpectedly. The father’s Egyptian. He returns to town to ask Khosi’s mother for a formal divorce. Then he leaves and goes back to Egypt. He doesn’t have very much interaction with his son. He goes to see him where he works, but he doesn’t announce himself and so Khosi doesn’t actually meet him. Khosi’s mother’s kind of a damaged person, and he’s a caretaker for her. Despite that, he decides he has to find his father. He decides to go to Egypt to track him down against his mother’s advice. So he goes to Egypt and finds his extended family there. That’s the basic outline of the plot.
I wish I had more of a concrete answer for that. I think a writer follows his or her curiosity. It often takes you unexpected places. I was really interested in the notion of somebody challenging themselves beyond their capacities. Khosi’s need for order is a stricture in his life. He has to shatter that. I wanted to make my characters as uncomfortable as possible. I knew I wanted to write about Montana. I knew I wanted to write about Egypt.
There’s a lot of quirky humor in your book. Is that a little bit of your own personality coming through?
Yes, I think that’s very true. I often find myself being the only person in the movie theater laughing at the darker moments. That always feels very awkward when it’s a very serious moment and everyone’s transfixed, and I laugh loudly.
Illness seems to be a thread that runs through the book, Khosi’s mother has Wilson’s disease, Khosi gets very sick in Egypt, and he shows symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Any chance that you are a hypochondriac? Is that one of your issues in life?
That’s a great question. No one’s ever asked me that before. Well, yeah, I mean, yes. Well, I’m not going to say yes. My mom already took me to task for telling The Oregonian that I had ADHD. She said, “You should never say things like that.” So, no, I’m not a hypochondriac. But my favorite line about hypochondria is Woody Allen’s when he says he’s not a hypochondriac, he’s an alarmist. There’s a difference. So, I’ll go with that.
Your last book, Red Weather, focused on first-generation Latvian Americans, and this one looks at Egyptians. You shine a light on outsiders inside American culture. Have you felt like an outsider?
Sure, absolutely. I think the writer is always an outsider because he or she is writing about the world in which they live, which separates you. You’re always watching instead of taking part. I think that can exclude you, and make you feel like you’re not a part of the society in which you live. It’s weird. I’ve always felt that way for whatever reason. I think it’s because I was raised to speak Latvian and my grandparents were really patriotic Latvians. But, I had this weird last name that’s really not a Latvian last name. In the world of Latvian Americans in the mid- to late-twentieth century, that mattered. I was an outsider in that community to a certain extent, too.
Tell me about your name? How do you pronounce it?
Pauls is pronounced powls, but I go by Paul or Pauls, I don’t care. Toutonghi is two-tawn-gee. It’s Turkish, originally, and means tobacco grower or tobacco merchant.
Did you take some flack growing up with such an unusual name?
I did. It was no fun. Pauls rhymes with balls. So that’s not any good. It’s amazing the depths to which children can sink. The cruelty of children has no bounds.
What’s your greatest insecurity as a writer?
I think explication is the thing that I chase around. I either do too little or too much.
I didn’t notice that at all in this book.
I worked so hard. I cut so much out. I looked at all of this book through that lens.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was twelve or thirteen years old and my brother was printing books of poems. He was studying with Denise Levertov in kind of an informal way in Seattle. So he would make these chapbooks, and would give them to me. Of course, when it’s your older brother…so I said, “I want to do that.” So I started writing poetry. It’s what I wanted to do. Then, I got into college and met some people who were actual writers. I had never met a writer until I went to Middlebury. I realized it would be very hard to make a living from poetry so I thought, “Oh, I’ll write literary fiction!” Of course, that’s maybe a little easier, but very, very marginally. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. There’s no Plan B. I’m very bad with my hands, and I don’t really have any other skills.
What writers have inspired you?
Probably the biggest influence on me was Michael Ondaatje. I actually introduced him at Wordstock last year. It was amazing. The funny thing that happened was that after the reading, the handler gets him. So I’m there with him, and it was sort of clear that I could walk with him where he was going to sign. They walked him to the wrong area, so it was just me and Michael Ondaatje in an empty hall. He’s so humble, and he was like “Oh, so I guess no one wants me to sign their book.” It was cool, but it was awkward. I was so nervous, and I was going “What’s going on, why is there no one here?” I’m just like trying to make small talk, and I can’t really say, “Well, I think In the Skin of the Lion and The English Patient are the two biggest influences on my prose style.” It was great, though.
I love Virginia Woolf and Dostoevsky, too. Those are my three main influences. I named the main character in Red Weather Yuri Mishkin, and that’s named after Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.
Isn’t it great the way Portland seems to be at the center of the literary scene these days? Lots of writers’ groups, too.
It’s awesome. There are so many incredible writers here. It’s unreal. I have no idea why. It’s the weather? You have to stay indoors? I’ve been in a couple of writers’ groups. I was in The Taxidermy Writers Salon. We’d read, but no commentary. Right now I’m in another one, they don’t tend to last for very long, in my experience. We’re tentatively called The Novel Finishing Club.
What do you teach at Lewis & Clark, and what advice do you give your students?
I teach fiction writing. I tell them, “You will suffer.” Just kidding. I tell them to work everyday. I know it’s a cliche, but I think it’s the most pragmatic advice you can give a young writer. Work everyday, don’t worry about the end result, and finish things. If you don’t finish things, then you can’t revise things. If you can’t revise things, then you can’t get things ready to send out. If you can’t get things ready to send out, you’ll never be published.
What is your goal as a writer or as a person?
My goal is to meet Don DeLillo, and never deliver pizzas again. Oh, and to sell out my print run.
What are you reading now?
This is a little embarrassing. Right now I’m reading War and Peace.
I heard you went to Montana for the Evel Knievel Days event last week. What was that like?
Evel Knievel Days was a unique experience, to say the least. I sold books at a small table in front of a bar next to a row of motorcycles. The BMX bikes were doing flips on the dirt ramps twenty feet away from me — and I could see the Cannon Lady as she launched herself through the air into a net. Tightrope walkers, bike tricks, and cheap, cheap plentiful beer. This wasn’t a problem until dark. At that point, the festival turned a little more — spirited? The heckling began. I packed up my table as quickly as possible, and fled for the safety of the car.
Do you have a Cheryl Strayed anecdote you’d like to tell me?
I’ve met her a couple of times. Cheryl was super nice to me when I went to the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Conference. I didn’t know how they worked, but I just wanted to go so badly. I thought, “What an amazing opportunity.” This was last year. I took a plane to Denver, and I just showed up. I had these little promo boxes for my novel that I’d made myself that I think are very cool. When it became clear that I was not allowed in, and they refused to let me in, and I was crying in the lobby, Cheryl Strayed came up to me and said, “Pauls, what is wrong?” We barely knew each other. So we went to the bar ,and she talked to me. She said, “I’m worried about you. Are you OK?” She was so sweet and so nice.
Did she get you in?