Author Spotlight: Toby Lloyd, ‘Fervor’

    Tovyah is at odds. He’s a new student at Oxford University, where his arrogant attitude and pompous approach alienates him from the rest of his classmates; meanwhile, at home, his mother Hannah’s memoir retelling the traumas of her father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, has been making waves regarding whose stories should be available for disclosure. Hannah’s brash behavior isolates her kids, especially Elsie, who runs away in protest and comes back different. To Hannah, Elsie is the perfect subject for her next book, but Tovyah bears the brunt of his mother’s actions as people draw swastikas on his dorm room door. When Elsie visits him at school, he begins to wonder if her turbulent nature is the result of a tense family dynamic

    Our Culture sat down with Toby Lloyd to talk about the multi-faceted nature of Judaism, mining other lives for content, and life at Oxford.

    Congratulations on your debut novel! How has early reception been for you so far?

    It’s been really great. A bunch of reviews are appearing in various places, a few in the US, a few [in the UK] — it’s all very exciting, and very new to me.

    Fervor is a huge novel that spans families, histories, and separate POVs — how did you go about piecing it together?

    ‘Piecing together’ is a good term for it, because it grew organically. I didn’t set out to write a book that had all these perspectives and all these threads — it just kind of coalesced into a novel. The piecing together happened in the revising and redrafting, thinking about how all these strands could belong side-by-side.

    The initial problem starts with Hannah interviewing her father-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, for his memories so she can write a book about it. Her liberal children take issue with this because she’s dredging up the past that he’s tried to repress, and it clearly pains him to remember. However, there is merit in the idea of pursuing these stories, because soon, we won’t have any first-hand accounts of what happened. Why did you want to write about this dichotomy?

    I think if you’re going to have a character write another character’s story, which Hannah does, it’s more interesting if not everyone wants her to do it — there’s tension there. It’s a complicated thing, recounting any trauma, and the Holocaust is a very specific type of trauma. On the one hand, never talking about things and repressing them entirely is potentially dangerous, both emotionally and psychologically, for the individual, but also, dangerous for the culture, not to face up to things that have happened. On the other hand, talking about them and revisiting them isn’t straightforwardly good and positive either. That dichotomy, as you say, is what energizes that strand of the novel.

    Another criticism of Hannah’s writing is that she’s telling this story she maybe isn’t supposed to tell, all for a book that does fairly well and gets her some notoriety. Did you want to make a comment about mining someone’s life to end up being used for content?

    I didn’t have a specific point I wanted to make, but I think this topic is fascinating, and I wanted to explore it. It’s true — any book that’s a narrative in some way will tread into someone else’s life, whether it’s fictional or not, because we can’t write about just ourselves. We live in a relational world. So there are always going to be people who are hurt by books. It’s kind of the obvious thing to do, if I’ve got a writer in my book, that the books she writes should be painful to other people — that’s a dramatic point. And of course, any kind of writing about writing becomes self-reflexive. So readers might think about the ethics of what I’m doing.

    Her books also cause waves upon their publication — Tovyah, at [Oxford], who has nothing to do with it, bears the brunt of his mother’s strong opinions and intrusive writing. Why do you think people feel such a strong need to associate him with what his mother does?

    Very interesting Freudian slip, there, you said that Tovyah was at Harvard, and he’s at Oxford.

    Did I say Harvard? I wrote Oxford!

    I’m sure you did, but I say ‘Freudian,’ because one of the things that happens in the book is that there’s some anti-Semitism on campus, and there’ve been stories coming out of Harvard recently, so I wonder if that was in the back of your mind…

    But I guess, in a sense, it’s a microcosm of what a lot of anti-Semitism is — any kind of racism — one form it takes is holding an individual to account for the people that they come from. And Tovyah is not just held to account for the actions of Jews in general, but of his mother. It’s beyond his control — he’s not answerable for what she does or says, but people make him so.

    Tovyah, the youngest of the Rosenthal children, is such an interesting character because he’s clearly brilliant, but also a jerk to his classmates at Oxford. What did you pull from in order to create this character, and was any of him inspired by your time at Oxford?

    Yeah, absolutely. I think he’s quite a recognizable type — he’s a very intelligent and well-read young man, but he’s tremendously arrogant. And he’s a nineteen-year-old undergraduate who behaves as though he’s a professor. There were a few of those types around when I was at university, who defined themselves against being young, they hated so many of the things their peers enjoyed — going to club nights and drinking too much and I dunno, pop music. Tovyah’s so enmeshed in his high-brow tastes. Although he’s extreme, I think a lot of us feel some sort of affinity

    towards people like him — you’re drawn to that serious, scholarly approach to the culture. I don’t think he’s simply a figure to deride.

    Most of what we know of Tovyah is told from the point of view of Kate, one of the only students at Oxford that try and get close to him, and as a result, is his only friend. Why did you want to have this outside view of him?

    I always conceived of the Rosenthal family as the fascinating characters in the book. Kate, who narrates most of it, is not fascinating. I hope she’s not dull, but she’s not the most interesting character, and it’s a common trope in novels — if you’ve got a character with charisma, the narrator is the less interesting best friend. I’m thinking of The Great Gatsby, On the Road.

    There’s a sense that a) these objects of awe and fascination can’t be on the page all the time — they’d lose some of their brilliance, so we have to see them partially. And b) the narrator, who is more of an everyman or everywoman, is better placed to tell their story because they don’t intrude as much. If they’re too interesting themselves, they’d be a distraction.

    I really enjoy that you weren’t afraid to touch on ideas that happen in modern Jewish families — when Hannah and Elsie visit Tovyah and Kate at Oxford, they get into an argument about Zionism, the Jewish diaspora, and the Holocaust. Similarly, when Tovyah announces to his family he doesn’t believe in God, things blow up. Did you set out to include different ideas and positions that encompass contemporary Judaism?

    I’m very glad you said that — absolutely. I knew I wanted to write a very Jewish book, and I  thought it was necessary that there’d be multiple Jewish characters, and those characters would  represent a range of ideas of what it means to be Jewish. So there’s Orthodox Jews, liberal Jews, secular Jews, Zionist Jews, anti-Zionist Jews, queer Jews, and I thought this was important so the book wasn’t saying Jews are like this or like that — they are like other people: various.

    We both grew up with Jewish mothers, and I can definitely identify with some of the stereotypes Hannah’s intensity brought. Did you pull from anyone in particular to create her character?

    I mean, she’s very unlike my mother, so there’s no particular model.  Her character was born out of the idea of this woman who’s not raised religious but converts to Orthodox Judaism and becomes very zealous in the religion. Then came the idea of this character writing a Holocaust memoir of someone who doesn’t want her to write it… that seemed very rich to me. It was a kernel of characterization, and everything came from that.

    Elsie, the family’s only girl, is at the heart of this story as she takes up a major issue with her mother’s work — she even runs away to prove her point. She comes back different, and the characters around her aren’t sure if her new personality is a result of her family’s insane pressure, or there’s a more mystical, sinister root taking form within her. Did you want to keep it intentionally vague?

    To my mind, it’s a novel of competing views, as you’ve said. We’ve got both atheist and religious worldviews in this novel, and I wanted to keep these things in balance. I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in God, but I didn’t want to write a novel where the atheists were really smart and right about everything and the believers were really foolish and wrong about everything. That seemed to me a very cheap thing to do. I wanted to keep the possibilities of different ways of seeing the world in balance, and in a way, the book is about how people explain the terrible things that happen to them. Such things are never finally settled — your life never reaches a point where everything makes sense and you’ve joined all the dots.

    Finally, what are you working on next?

    I am working on a new book — it seems quite different to me, but with certain similarities. It’s set in a school, and the book is about teachers, safeguarding in schools, and extremism. 

    Fervor is out now.

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