Tobias Carroll Goes West
I first met Toby Carroll at the book launch for Reel, his lush and lyrical debut novel. The day happened to coincide with the patron saint of mumbles, Bobby Dylan bringing home the gold with the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. The sandwich board out front of the book store made some snarky quip about it that I can’t recall.
The book launch, like Toby, like Reel, like the other short fiction I have read by him, and like the wonderful journal he and Jason Diamond run, Volume 1 Brooklyn, was incredibly affable and unpretentious. I had the pleasure of watching two old friends discuss things like the intricacies and nuances of 90s Jersey hardcore, the value of getting out of your comfort zone, and self-prescribed rules for writing like only using two word band names in your book. In short, it was fun.
I had the pleasure of talking with Toby about running a record label, his early days as a zinester, rock music, characters, process and much more. He’s incredibly generous and kind and you should buy his wonderful novel today, out with Rare Bird Books.
NR: I’d like to start off with a question that I wondered the whole time I was reading Reel — as someone who is a New Jersey-native and has been a New Yorker for some time, why does this book take place in Seattle?
TC: There are at least two answers to that. The shorter one is that, for a while, I vowed to write something set in every city I visited–which, if nothing else, worked pretty well as a writing prompt. More than a few of the stories in my collection Transitory emerged from this; so did Reel, in terms of both the inclusion of Seattle and the section later in the book set in Charleston, South Carolina. The trip by train as it appears in the novel is fairly similar to one that I took down there several years ago for a wedding, though my choice of reading material was fairly different from Timon’s.
The longer answer is that Seattle has appealed to me for a really long time. Two of the artists that were on the label I helped run were from there, and a third was from Vancouver. For a couple of years in my 20s, I thought that I’d end up living in Seattle, and I sometimes wonder if, on some parallel Earth, there’s a version of me who ended up moving there around 2001 and is incredibly well-adjusted.
The first time I went to Seattle was in November of 2000. A couple of years later, I realized that this had been, in a lot of ways, my first real solo travel as an adult; given that I was 24 at the time, this is a little embarrassing. I had an early flight out to Seattle from Newark. I got in and met up with the friend I was staying with and then wandered around by Pioneer Square. (My first two days out west were spent in Portland.) I had some time to kill; I ended up in Waterfall Garden Park for a little while and then stumbled onto a bookstore, which turned out to be Elliott Bay Book Company (in the location they were in prior to their move to Capitol Hill) and bought a tin of mints that had a ludicrous amount of caffeine in them. I’ve been drawn to the place ever since–I think I’ve been back about once a year for the last ten years.
At the time that I was working on Reel, I was writing a lot of short stories that were set in and around the Northeast, and I’d just started to realize that a failed novel–also largely set in the Northeast–didn’t actually work. So setting Reel in a place that I had less of a formal connection to felt freeing; it also felt like I was doing things in a markedly different way than I’d done them with this novel that didn’t work, and that was also important.
I don’t know why this book felt nostalgic to me, but it did. These characters aren’t teenagers, but perhaps they suffer a bit from residing in a state of arrested development? Was any of this book a nostalgia-glow for you to write, or is this just my reaction because I get sentimental and nostalgic in the fall?
I don’t think the book brought up that much nostalgia for me as I was writing it–in my mind, at least, it’s set a little over a decade ago, but I never state that outright in the book, and I don’t think it’s that important to the narrative. (Though there are some hints: the presence of Black Halos; Timon thinking about the title of a 1996 Behead the Prophet NLSL album; etc.)
That said, there was a sense of wanting to evoke Seattle closer to the time when I first encountered it, as opposed to in its current tech-boom/real estate crisis state–but at the same time. But “nostalgia” doesn’t seem to precisely describe that feeling. Some of the musical choices, though, did hearken back to meaningful periods in my life; the artists referenced tapped into a nostalgic spirit more, if that makes any sense.
I love the part where Timon goes from this formal dinner with a client to downing a shot by himself in his apartment and looking for a show to head to at random — like, who is this guy? kept entering my head. Then I felt I instantly recognized him as he downed his third shot at the bar and got in the pit to throw his weight around. Was that sort of the impulse to write Timon? Like, who is this dude on a Monday?
I’d always had that first scene in mind as the opening of the book, and so figuring out what made Timon tick became part of the process of writing the first draft. Some of that came from the aspect of the book I’d mentioned earlier: trying to do things very differently from how I’d done the novel that didn’t work. In that book, the main character had a nonexistent relationship to his family, which led me to Timon’s family being a fairly major presence in his life. That in turn led me to the weird pulp-riffing aspects of the novel, which let me tease out different corners of his world.
At some point, after I finished the book, I realized that Timon is, in his own way, something of the subject of a metafictional joke. Specifically, if he was living in a detective novel, he’d be this brilliantly unstable figure using his abilities to unravel mysteries–but he’s not, and so instead he’s this guy who drinks too much and makes an ass of himself at punk shows.
It makes sense to me, anyway.
I’ve gotta ask, has anyone you know ever used the phrase “brunching econo”? I laughed so hard reading that, felt very…scene lingo, with the obvious reference to The Minutemen.
That came from a very, very early version of this novel–before it was, necessarily, a novel. I wasn’t sure if I should keep it in–it seemed a bit like a darling that might have needed to be killed–so I’m glad to hear that it worked for you.
Tell me about the writing process for this book. You worked on it for quite a while, didn’t you?
I did. I spent a year or two trying different versions of it; I had the opening scene and would sometimes get a little bit further, but it never entirely worked for me, and I’d always go back to the beginning. Around 2010, I started working on a version that clicked. Part of that probably had to do with some conditions I imposed on myself when writing it: I didn’t work from an outline, so I was discovering these characters as I wrote the first draft. Some of it also came from the fact that, emotionally and experientially, my head was in a certain place where I could better write it than I might have been able to a few years earlier.
In terms of the process, a lot of that ended up involving being influenced by things around me. The scene involving the camping trip, for instance, was partially inspired by me looking at social media one week and noticing that a whole bunch of friends of mine, in different parts of the country, were going camping at roughly the same time. I figured that it might not be a bad thing to have some of the characters in this book follow suit.
You said at the book launch that you probably wouldn’t want to hang with someone like Timon — but that didn’t stop you from writing about him. Why is that? Why write about someone you don’t like? What makes him compelling or empathetic to you? Or maybe he isn’t…
What makes him compelling for me is that he is aware that something in his life is very wrong, and he recognizes that, on some level, he needs to confront that. There’s also, for me, a weird interest in writing characters onto whom I’ve grafted certain aspects of my personality, which I then crank way up. Timon has certainly inherited some parts of me that I’m not crazy about; ditto Owen from my story “An Old Songwriter’s Trick”; ditto one of the main characters from a book I’m revising now. There’s something a little therapeutic about that, too–of trying to understand yourself by seeing how certain personality traits look at a distance.
That said, I don’t think I would have wanted to write a novel solely focusing on Timon. I don’t think he works without Marianne acting as a kind of narrative counterpoint–which may have also been something that made this version of this story click in a way that previous versions had not.
Did you always write fiction or was that something that you found later in life? I know you wrote zines and ran a record label.
I always wrote fiction, though a lot of it wasn’t great, and I got in way over my head, in terms of wanting to write things rather than actually writing them. (Ah, the hazards of being in middle school and really wanting to write science fiction epics.) When I was in college, I was studying film, and so for a while, most of my storytelling was being done in screenplay form. When I was 23 or 24, I started writing fiction again. To some extent, that came as a result of the zine and label–through them, I came into contact with a guy named Adam Voith, who was in the process of starting a small press called TNI Books. I did a little bit of writing for TNI–I contributed a story to their website, maintained a blog there for a while, and interviewed dälek for their journal Little Engines–and that was my entry point into the literary world.
Can you tell me about the label you used to run and maybe talk about how that compares to running a lit journal.
My friend Scott started a label called Your Best Guess in the mid-90s; the first release on it was a seven inch by his band My Favorite Citizen. At the same time, I was doing a zine called Eventide, and was starting to think about whether I should start putting out records. I was asking Scott for a lot of advice, and eventually, we realized it would be easier for me to come on board his label than, essentially, each of us work on stuff in isolation. Our tastes are pretty compatible, so it wasn’t a tough decision. I don’t know if running a label has that much in common with what I do at Vol.1 Brooklyn, except that both are things I’ve done where I’m working alongside a friend of mine where we share an aesthetic. We’ve also done a few chapbooks at Vol.1 Brooklyn, which has brought back some zine-making memories (as well as me applying my rudimentary print layout knowledge that dates back to the late 90s).
Talk to me about your early zine-ing and what, if anything, it taught you about writing books and stories.
The beginning of my time zine-editing was pretty much a case of learning by doing. The first issue was laid out in Microsoft Word because I didn’t know that other programs existed for print layout. I didn’t know too much about how to structure an interview starting out, and so the early issues abound with awkward questions and abrupt transitions. But there was also some sense of writing for an audience there, but also of starting something to focus on the things that I cared about that I didn’t necessarily think we being covered in other zines. I think that’s really important.
When you read or write, do you find yourself more drawn to a certain aspect of writing? For example, plot, characters, setting, or mood? Is there one of those, or perhaps another, that you find yourself more fascinated with or that you feel is the most important?
Characters and mood are what I’m drawn to the most as a writer, I’d say. As far as as a reader, it varies–sometimes I’ll crave something deeply atmospheric; at other times, I’ll want to be fully immersed in a work where plot is the dominant element.
So the day of your book launch happened to coincide with this dude named Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I really do hate to bring it up again, but I’m curious, as someone whose literature is soaked in music, what do you make of a musician, of Bob Dylan, winning the prize?
I have mixed feelings on Dylan’s win. I have a lot of smart friends who’ve made convincing arguments as to why it’s A Good Thing, and a lot of smart friends who’ve made convincing arguments as to why it’s A Bad Thing. For my part, I’m curious about what it’ll mean in the future–will we see Brian Eno or Jay-Z or Laurie Anderson start to show up on the annual “who’s the favorite” lists of odds? Or will Dylan’s win end up looking more and more like an anomaly as the years go by?
In terms of previous American Nobel winners, I can very easily look at (to take two examples) Toni Morrison or William Faulkner and chart out the considerable literary influence that each one has had, and (for that matter) continues to have. Dylan’s influence on literature as a whole seems to be a lot harder to map out. I’m sure that, for some writers, it’s there, but is it more prevalent than any of a much larger list of musicians of a similar stature? I don’t know if I’m convinced.