Steve Toltz is an Australian writer. Quicksand is his second novel.
Did you have any say in the choice of the title?
I picked the title. I chose it, I guess, because the book is about struggle and fear and suffering. It had a few meanings, but the idea of quicksand, at least in its television version of quicksand, is that the more you struggle, the deeper you sink. The book is mainly about fears that are logical and reasonable, and fears that are illogical and unreasonable. There was a television trope in the 70’s or 80’s on quicksand in a lot of TV shows, with the character falling into quicksand. As a child, I was afraid of quicksand, and as I was writing a book about fears, that’s what I chose. But I was also afraid of spontaneous combustion…
One atypical element in the story is Aldo’s one-liners, which encapsulate his theories, his predictions. How did they find their way in the story? When did you realize they were crucial to the story?
For me, it’s all about the process of writing. One cannot choose one’s own style or one’s own smell. There are some writers who will have a character go from one place to the other, and they will describe the landscape, everything that they see on the way, but for me when I have a character going from one place to another, I’d like to describe everything that they would think. It is just what comes out in the act of composition. They’re not ideas that I kept separately, and then threaded them in, they’re ideas that come during the act of composition.
Could you tell us a few words about how you set out to build the structure of the novel?
It was with great difficulty. A lot of writing for me is problem solving, so if I have a narrative that I want to tell, sometimes what doesn’t work in 3rd person needs to be in 1st person and sometimes what doesn’t work in the present tense needs to be in the past tense. In this case, there was one autobiographical element of the book, which was that the character is in a hospital. I had an incident where I was paralysed, I was in a wheelchair and I spent some months in a hospital. Because I write prose and I like to invent, when it came time to telling this one little part of the story that was true, I found that I couldn’t write it. First, because it had already happened to me. The story had already been told. Once the story’s already told, it’s dead. That’s why I had to find a way to reinvent it, so as not to write it as a poem. Every creative choice, such as whether to do it as a confession, or whether to do it in the 3rd person, is as a result of coming to an obstacle where it’s just not working.
Aldo is such an ambivalent character, such a colourful character, yet the main voice of the narration is Liam’s.
I consider this book and my previous book to be spiritual autobiographies, and I like to divide myself in two characters. The characters are both a little bit me, which is why they both have their turn in the 1st person.I find that when you really want to interrogate a character, the best way is from inside and from outside the character, so that’s why I had Liam speak as well.
One of the big questions in the book is bad luck, self-harm by another name, and Aldo is wondering all these terrible things that happened to him, and it feels like maybe it’s his fault, or perhaps some external faults working against him.
At some point in the novel, Aldo says to Liam “not everyone is eligible for happiness”, which is kind of a bittersweet statement, not completely hopeless, because he still tries a lot of things in his life. Do you think Aldo’s statement would sum up the book?
It mirrors the Kafka epigraph at the beginning of the book, which contains lots of hope. I guess because the book is about fear and suffering and endurance, and, I guess, the absurdity of endurance, and how obstinate a character is during moments of trauma. Of course, if you are in a position of suffering, the thorn in your side is everybody else’s hell.
Even when he’s in a horrible position, the fact that he can look beside him, and see suffering a little bit worse means that not only is he uncomfortable and unhappy, but he realizes he has to be grateful for his unhappiness, because it can always be worse.