Writer Nick Tosches was born in Newark, New Jersey and began his writing career with music magazines like Creem and Fusion after a series of very odd jobs. In 1982, he published Hellfire, a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis that Rolling Stone claimed was “the best rock and roll biography ever written.” Among other Tosches books are Power on Earth, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, The Death of Sonny Liston, Where Dead Voices Gather, The Last Opium Den and The Nick Tosches Reader, an anthology. He has also published a collection of poetry, Chaldea, and three novels, Cut Numbers, Trinities and most recently, In the Hand of Dante. Nick Tosches is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, writes for a variety of publications and lives in New York City.
Robert Birnbaum: When you insert yourself as a character in a piece of fiction, you run an extraordinary risk of people expecting the real Nick Tosches to resemble the character ‘Nick Tosches’. Did that concern you at all?
Nick Tosches: No, in the instance of this particular book [In the Hand of Dante], I realized as I got down to actually writing it that so many of the feelings the first person character was going to express were my own that it should be in the first person and not the third. It just seemed more natural. Of course, then there is that blurred line between what is actually real and what is semi-real and what is absolute fiction or a lie. So, yeah, I guess, you could call it a risk, but in a way it is just an ambiguity that lends itself to the effect of the fiction.
RB: Maybe I overstated it as a risk. In any case, when readers go through a book they look to the author or wonder about the author’s commitment to the values and opinions expressed. You removed the normal distance between the writer and the fictive opinions. Perhaps you will end up spending more time talking about that than you want to?
NT: That’s true, that’s true. In my case, I tend to—naturally tend to—see things from many different angles. Therefore, there are many different views espoused and understood. It’s just really a matter of expressing one self or other self through whichever voice.
RB: You wouldn’t disavow any of the stances taken or opinions made by the character ‘Nick Tosches’?
NT: No. Actually, no. That’s a difficult thing for me to say but I’d say, “No.” You have to take in to account that it’s Nick Tosches in different moods, different states of mind.
But the house that had begun, in 1837, as Little and Brown of Boston had been once upon a time, independent and venerable, a hundred per cent of itself unto itself. Now its revenues were less than one tenth of one percent-a mote in the eye, a miniscule morsel between the teeth-of the Moloch of mediocrity that was the world’s largest entertainment and media conglomerates: and the revenues of Time Warner Trade Publishing were less than a third of what AOL alone spent on promotion… (In the Hand of Dante, pg. 87)
RB: There is the Nick Tosches that went on a—to use a contemporary word—rant about the publishing industry. Are those your normal feelings? (laughs)
NT: Let’s say that’s Nick Tosches coming to a calm resignation with reality, through a moment of anger and confusion. When I was young and started writing there were a lot of independent publishing houses that were owned by actual human beings, for better or for worse. I had a romanticized or realistic view of writing and publishing. And years pass, you turn around and it’s almost like, “Hmm, I got a job at Enron.”
RB: Or AOL.
NT: Yeah, here it is. You are just a digit in some computerized accounting system. It’s not even Bob Kratchit, it’s some computer that you can’t kick. I think that’s pretty much the sad reality of it.
RB: In your case is there a book that you want to write that someone won’t allow you to write, or rather won’t publish?
NT: No, I don’t believe that. It’s what they’ll choose to try to sell. Which might be a book by a great author such as John McEnroe.
NT: That’s basically what I am saying. It’s what they choose to be marketable. The new and improved Pepsident…
RB: There is the argument offered that the Stephen Kings and John Grishams and Michael Crichtons subsidize the short story collections of unknown future literary giants.
To survive, editors had no choice but to serve the golem. Even if they entered the business with literary souls, even if they still paid lip service to literature, the truth was that the only way for them to rise was to serve the golem. Spirit imagination, courage, individuality, profligacy, no more. A love for the classics might be professed, but the truth was that no editor could or would publish these books today. The truth was that these classics were still in print and sold, if often not read, only because they were on the required reading list and therefore on the compulsory purchase list of almost every victim of the diploma mill racket. They were not Oprah material, these books, not the stuff to which this other racket, publishing, had now devolved to the point of no return (In the Hand of Dante, pg. 89-90)
NT: Yeah, that’s always been held true. I think that’s basically a myth that’s dear to publishers because when you see what they do with the money, for the most part, they are not subsidizing creative works. They’re subsidizing a would-be Stephen King or an Oprah Winfrey cookbook. The funny thing is, it’s the Stephen Kings and the John Grishams that make no money for the publishers. Only on their first books do they ever make a profit, after that there’s no profit for the publisher because they are paying them into the millions. They are paying them what they are going to earn out. In a way, that’s a doubly invalid argument because they are not bringing in the money in to pay out. The first John Grisham book made a lot of money. Ever since then Doubleday might have a made a few hundred bucks. At most. Because they pay him so much just to keep him. It’s prestige. That’s what prestige has come down to. It’s a doubly fatuous argument and—I don’t know, in a way, I shouldn’t complain there are people in a lot worse circumstances these days. I really think it’s getting harder and harder to get published, period, for someone who has not been published. And to be published well. When the heads of companies are no longer the heads of companies. They are people like Steve Case who doesn’t even know if he has a job. All he knows is that he saved AOL from going bankrupt by basically ruining Time-Warner and he’s the head of a publishing company. God knows what he reads. I think we are really entering or have entered a post-literate age. Like ancient Egypt where only the high priests still know how to read. We read newspapers or watch sound bites on television.
RB: I’d almost agree with you. But enterprises like Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s indicate that there is a youthful literary groundswell.
NT: Yeah, that’s a good sign. And I hope it’s strong enough to really swell and to shake things up. What’s going on there, for instance, is a good thing.
RB: Dave Eggers is self-publishing his novel.
NT: And that’s all fine and good. We used to have a lot of independent booksellers and independent publishers. And to get back to my own private rant, it’s just come down to product on a shelf where if you walk by a book store window, it’ll be seasonal. Thank god for the bombing of these buildings near where I live because that’s a whole new genre of non-fiction and memoir.
RB: 9/11 is turning into a brand.
NT: It’s a brand name. What is it that Levi has? 511’s? Now we have 911. Ironic, it’s the number you call for an emergency.
Gangrene. Amputation. An unpleasant malady. An unpleasant treatment. At this point in my life, however, I lived with the threat of amputation. Diabetes. It doesn’t get much play among the AIDS-and-breast-cancer crowd, but it kills more people each year than both of these combined. Aids afflicts about three quarters of a million persons in the United States and breast cancer about two and a half million…Diabetes afflicts sixteen million people in the United States. AIDS kills about thirty odd thousand Americans each year and breast cancer about forty odd thousand: a total of about seventy-five thousand. Diabetes kills about one hundred and eighty thousand Americans each year. The annual government research budgets for AIDS and breast cancer total more than two billion dollars. The annual government research budget for diabetes is less than three hundred and fifty grand. You look at the figures and tell me that disease is not a fucking fashion industry. (In the Hand of Dante, pg. 35-36)
RB: I was also struck by your observations on diabetes and your conclusion that certain diseases are fashionable.
NT: I spoke of that with a couple of physicians and they perfectly well agree with me. Giving free finger prick tests would save more lives than this whole routine where they go about giving free this test or free that test. It is a fashion show, the figures and the money. It’s politics. It’s interesting that they play with human life here and then make such a fuss what goes on in third world countries. Where here, as we speak it’s fashion week in New York. They should have fashion week for disease. Come right out and do it. The new buttons and the new lapel pins. I knew about the diabetes angle from reading diabetes literature and it really amazed me when I saw the actual medical figures.
RB: Why do you read about diabetes?
NT: Because I have diabetes and you try to learn to live with it. You really don’t know you have had diabetes unless you are tested for it as a young person or through the years and I was never one to go to doctors. I lost a lot of weight and I figured, “I’m dying.” So I went to the doctor and he said it was diabetes. It’s funny, most of the deaths caused by it are undiagnosed. It is the third greatest cause of death that there is and yet the government doesn’t subsidize a fingertip of research. I guess there are sexier lobby groups.
RB: The notion that it’s controllable seems to mitigate against a sense of urgency.
NT: It’s the leading cause of blindness and the leading cause of amputation. It’s the third leading cause of death.
RB: I’ve read that you have chosen or predicted the year of your death .
NT: Yeah, yeah.
RB: Why would you go and do that?
NT: Because it seemed like a good year to die. Now that it’s getting close I may postpone it. It seemed like good year to die.
RB: Don’t you have a lot you want to do or get done?
NT: Yeah, I do but I also want 7 years of peace and serenity. It used to be that I wanted many years of peace and serenity. Now I’ll settle for 7. It might come down to 3. We all deserve a little bit. You get tired after a while. I would love to see what I would write if I did not have to write. And that could only be answered by not having to write.
RB: The reason you have to write is for financial reasons?
RB: Well, you didn’t have to write this novel.
NT: I got a contract to write it. I could have written another thing. (pause)You’re absolutely right. My own circumstances are always brought about by myself. I choose, often, to write books that are not necessarily of the most marketable nature. But they are things that appeal to me. To me a book is a big undertaking. It’s not necessarily like writing a magazine article when you know it’s over in a couple months…No, you’re right. Like I said before, I should not complain. That does not prevent me from complaining. (laughs)
RB: A writer who I spoke to, a former student of E.L. Doctorow, quotes him as saying, “Do the least amount of research you can get away with.” Apparently, you did a lot of research for In the Hand of Dante and even learned some Latin so you could translate some texts that had never been translated before. Why did you feel that it was necessary to do that?
NT: To me it was a beautiful and enlightening experience. Sometimes, I figure, if you get so far immersed in something, even if you only use 1% it will have a resonance that might be subconscious or under the surface, or a ripple effect. I did, I went crazy. Plus again, research is a way to evade the actual writing. Or escape it. It’s like that Herman Melville phrase ‘the sub-sub librarian’. It’s always had an appeal to me, a great one.
RB: Do you know Hebrew?
NT: I’m not a Hebrew scholar by any means, I’m not a Greek scholar—but I know enough to navigate my way around and to know where to turn or whom to ask for further elucidation.
RB: This translation from the book of Genesis, “And the gods rested.” Not, “And God rested.”
NT: Yeah, the gods…eloi and elohim.
RB: Which is the occasion for your strongly expressed anti-monotheistic commentary…monotheism as the root of all evil.
NT: Yeah, I do believe that monotheism is the root of all evil. Sometimes I think thought is the root of all evil. We are such arrogant creatures we have 19 synonyms for ‘think’ and none of them has a negative connotation. But yeah, I do believe that monotheism…well, look around the world today. It’s the root of all evil. ‘Eloi’ and ‘elohim’—listening to the convoluted arguments that have come up over the centuries—that when that is not revealed—which it is usually not—in the course of Hebrew education or rabbinical education, when it is discovered, it is explained in this really convoluted way. Like, “By microphone, we really mean fork.” (both laugh)
RB: Did this different translation change the course of the book?
NT: Yeah, I would say it did change the course of the book, in a way. Just as a lot of discoveries did. That did because it seemed—because a lot of the book is concerned with, for lack of a better word, theological winds. That seemed to be a pretty powerful and pivotal moment. And how does one come to grips with that when you have a Christian and a Jew speaking of ‘God’. And it turns out that Christian and the Jew are both mis-educated, for the most part, as to the fact that, no, it’s ‘gods’. It only becomes ‘God’ in later books of the Bible.
RB: When did you start writing In the Hand of Dante?
NT: I would say 7 and 5 years. I had the idea 7 years ago.
RB: For this particular novel. My understanding is that you have always been interested in Dante.
NT: Always Dante. I had always wanted to write—I thought when I got really old and they paid me to write whatever I wanted—which the day may never come now, I realize—I would write a book about Dante, somehow. Because I’ve always loved Dante. I was lying on a semi-deserted island beach somewhere and it hit me, “Okay, I’ll just interweave two tales, 700 years apart. They are both related to Dante. And I can do my Dante thing through that.” And then I embarked on it. It was sort of like a long voyage between, going into medieval Latin and ending up in those strange corners, like even with Hebrew, it took about 5 years, pretty much. And then it was done. And I didn’t know what I had done. I left the book on a window sill for 3 days and just looked at. Finally, I gave it to Little Brown and my agent, simultaneously. And just waited a few more days. On the part of Little Brown there was this long pause of about 2 weeks. And then I got a call from Michael [Pietsch], who is the president of the company, and he said, “First I found this book very disturbing. Now I think it’s magnificent.” That accounted for the long pause and God bless him.
RB: Is your writing edited?
NT: No, it’s copy edited. I make typos and sometimes I make stupid mistakes. We have sort of reached an agreement where I am not edited. [There are] very gentle suggestions that are left completely up to me and sometimes they are really good suggestions, so I do them. Sometimes I ignore them. To their credit and the courage of Little Brown there were only three lines censored from the book. I think that had to do with the climate of the times. And I can’t say that anything else was actually censored. My ravings might have gone on a little too long and been redundant and may have been suggested to be cut. On reading them with a cold eye I agreed. Except for those three lines everything else is as writ.
RB: So here we are. Is this your masterpiece?
NT: Who am I to judge? I feel it’s my favorite book that I have written.
RB: Have you felt that way after completing other books?
NT: I’ve felt good after several of them. I felt that for me it was a personal breakthrough and it was a good book. I felt that way about 3 or 5 of the 12 books that I have written. I think coinciding with the beginning of this book, this feeling of getting older and realizing, “I shouldn’t fuck around any more. Whatever gift I have should be dedicated to God or the gods and just come forth honestly and do the best I can.” Without trying to have an eye to whether this would lead to more money. That was a breakthrough too. Also, it was the most fulfilling book I’ve written and comes closest to what I have ever tried to do. I’m sure if I were to read it again now, I would say, “I should have spent another five years on it.” Of course, that can always happen. You can turn to Marcel Proust. I’m proud of all my books because I have actually done them. If you build a cabinet or a bookshelf or anything it might not be fine carpentry but you did it. And you can sit back and say, “I did that.” They’re like postcards that you did something with your time. Of the 3 or 5 books I’m really proud of I’d say this is the one and at the same time I also have the beginning of the next one in my head and on one page of paper. Will there be a publisher who will publish it? I don’t know. It all depends what this does in the near future. 50 years from now or a 100 years doesn’t have much effect on now.
RB: I can’t think of too many writers who get the enthusiastic and sometimes overheated reviews that you get.
NT: I’ve been very fortunate. I have struck a lot of different responsive chords in a lot of different people. Either made people laugh or…I’ve gotten lots of letters to explain this to me that I’ve given people strength when they thought they were alone in thinking or feeling strange things. In the Hand of Dante has gotten a couple of nasty reviews and I have gotten my share of nasty reviews. You are right; I have been very, very fortunate. I can’t account for that and say it means my books are good because that really has nothing to do with it. I would be really curious to know why that is. It’s always been gratifying. Maybe it seems that they are not out to get me.
RB: The books you have written about Dean Martin, and Jerry Lee Lewis and Sonny Liston give each of them a context.
NT: It’s true. They are called biographies but to me they are something else—a biography of a mystery, a biography of a time, whether it’s a century or a span. I love that. Every subject of a biography that I have done there has to be something about that character that I felt an empathy for and it was maybe a mystery in me that I tried to solve. Or just tried to solve that through that. But it had to be something that intrigued me. I always thought of them as a central character in the foreground of a bigger story.
RB: When you wrote Dino, did you say that he was the last living person you were interested in writing about? Did you change your mind?
NT: I’d be interested in writing about anyone. I thought that I said, “The last person that I would be interested in writing about that they would pay me to write about.” There is probably a guy riding by on a bicycle that has a great story… With Dean I exhausted it. With Sonny I really exhausted it. I emptied it all out of me. I really tried to give the guy his soul and some dignity. He’s dead what good did it do him. But there was still a lot of resistance to that, especially in England. You find out how deeply ingrained racism is under any name, in these politically correct times. I got an e-mail from the guy doing the DVD package for the Michael Mann Ali movie, asking for my take on Liston. I just wasn’t interested.
RB: You had already written about it.
NT: And why be a frill to something when I don’t agree with that angle on history?
RB: In the novel you singled out Hubert Selby Jr., Phillip Roth and Peter Matthiessen as writers that you truly admired.
NT: Hubert Selby. First of all because I remember when I was a teenager I read his first book and it gave me courage to write. I thought if he could write in this manner about these things and be considered a writer then it didn’t all come down to Herman Melville, which I had difficulty with. So, he gave me a lot of courage. Philip Roth is, I think, an unbelievable stylist and truly literary writer who can make me laugh and delve into some dark places that are uncomfortable for people. Peter Matthiessen, his combination of naturalism—he’s an actual scientist/naturalist who can actually write—and the lyricism that has resulted in books like Far Tortuga and Killing Mr. Watson. I singled these three out because a lot of the other ones are dead.
RB: You’ve been quoted as saying that you had 10 or 11 books that you wanted to write. Does that list change?
NT: I’ve narrowed it down—I mean, I have endless ideas—but there are three books that I would love to be able to do. I have one of them in my head with one page on paper. It has to do with, it takes place at the moment of someone’s death and the person realizing, “Wait a minute, I’ve been here before. I remember this, I remember that.” And there is this endless period until he comes down to something based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the gods turn out not to feel as we perceive them to feel. I want to do something really good with that. It’s like the Dante book where I can spread out and end up somewhere other than where I started.
RB: Are you more inclined to write fiction as you move forward?
NT: More and more. The older I get, history itself seems to be a fleeting and meaningless thing. Even though I love to read ancient history, modern history. I can breathe better with fiction and I can get to places I want to get to for myself and for the book, meaning for the person who reads it. There’s always non fiction in fiction, the trouble is there is a lot of fiction in non fiction. (laughs)
RB: Let’s talk about the physicality of writing. Is it physically challenging?
NT: Oh yeah. People innocently actually think it must be fun. It’s such a solitary thing. It’s physically grueling because of this tense position that you assume for 18 hours, for days at a stretch. Sleeplessness, irregular hours. Alienating yourself from those that are close to you, losing people through that. And understandably so. I used to think, “Well, this book must be good, I lost a girl friend.” It’s not a pleasant thing. It has it’s great payoffs, during the course of things. You would think each book would become easier. It becomes easier because you know you can do it, it becomes harder because you know what it entails. It’s like painting a room, “Christ, why did I start?” A lot of it comes back to that Dorothy Parker line, “I hate writing, I love having written.” It’s a popular mythology that people think you are having fun, you’re enjoying yourself.
RB: Thanks very much.
NT: Thank you.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing