The SALON - Spring 2014
Meet and mingle with the Literati (bring your own wine and cheese)
The Spring Interview:
Tom Barbash in Conversation
by Perry King
Stay Up With Me Stories and The Last Good Chance, winner of the California Book Award
Tom Barbash is an American writer of fiction and nonfiction, educator and critic. He is the author of the award winning novel The Last Good Chance and the bestselling nonfiction work On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick & 9/11: A Story of Loss & Renewal. His fiction has been published in Tin House, One Story, McSweeney’s, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Narrative, The Best American Non-Required Reading, and other publications and have been performed on National Public Radio’s Selected Shorts Series. His criticism has appeared in the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. His recent short story collection Stay Up With Me was published in 2013 and was picked as a Best Book of the Year by NPR, Amazon, and The San Francisco Chronicle. The paperback version will be out later this month.
He is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. He currently teaches in the Writing Program at California College of the Arts. He lives in Mill Valley.
Tom Barbash and I met in the midst of his book tour last fall. He extended me an invitation to his book reading at the Mill Valley Tennis Club. Little did I know that tennis had a huge influence not only on his discipline of writing but also connected him to some very important people as described in his nonfiction book: On Top Of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick & 9/11.
Barbash arrived at our rendezvous at a Tam Valley cafe after dropping off his son at elementary school. Dressed in relaxed jeans and plaid shirt, he projected an engaging look between a schoolteacher, father and athlete. We ordered coffee and tea.
MillValleyLit: Kids love to tell and listen to stories. Were you a storyteller at a young age and did you have storytellers around you?
Barbash: Both. My mother was a writer but my father told more stories to us than my mother. They were chapter stories; told in twenty minute, or so, episodes. They’d end always on the edge of a cliff, plot wise, and then we’d have to pick them up again.
MillValleyLit: These were stories before bed?
Barbash: Some. My dad would tell us stories when he’d drop us off at school. We lived in New York city and I remember him telling us a story in a taxi cab and dropping us off, and about a month or two later he started in on the story and our cab driver said he’d been wondering what happened to the characters. He had a surprising recall, but really the stories were pretty good.
I used to tell stories too. My parents’ best friends had kids that were a couple years younger than us, and on our weekends away together I’d tell them stories. It was something I did pretty naturally, but I didn’t study it in college. I took it up later.
MillValleyLit: You have a young son; is he fascinated with story telling?
Barbash: I feel like a fast order chef with him. He wants very specific storylines and themes. Lately he’s wanted me to include particular super heroes, professional athletes and Pokémon characters. We also read him stories before bed and I tell him stories on the way to school.
MillValleyLit: That’s great! Like your dad did with you.
Barbash: Yes, he always wants a couple of stories on the way to school. That’s continuing the Barbash tradition.
MillValleyLit: I read about some of your favorite current authors such as Cheever, Chaon and Tobias Wolfe. At a younger age, what authors were some of your great influences?
Barbash: At a young age I loved all the E.B. White books, The Trumpet of the Swan, and Stuart Little. In High School a big book for me was Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. I read it at the right age. I loved the idea of living an unconventional life and learning for the sake of learning.
MillValleyLit: Was there a teacher that stoked your interest in writing?
Barbash: Yes, there was a writer named Laurence Shames, who taught me in ninth grade, a creative writing class. He actually is a pretty well known author. He has written a number of novels and nonfiction books. (Editor’s note: 20 books, 4 NY Times best sellers and a critically acclaimed 8 novel series on Key West) It was exciting but it never seemed like something I’d do as a vocation. After college, while working as a reporter in Syracuse I met Tobias Wolfe and the excellent novelist Doug Unger, who were teaching fiction at S.U. and for some unknown reason they took me under their wing.
MillValleyLit: And your mother was a writer?
Barbash: Yes, when I was growing up she was working for a literary agency, doing some editing. She co-wrote a novel with her best friend under a pseudonym and then she wrote a book for a sports medicine doctor, Dr. John Marshall, who was the doctor for Billie Jean King and Julius Erving (Dr. J), and all these different people. She had a contract for another book but then she passed away. She had a contract for a book on Frieda Lawrence, but she got sick. She had lung cancer.
(Editor’s note: a fascinating book it would have been - Baroness Frieda von Richthofen, relative of the Red Baron, was wife of D.H. Lawrence, and reported to be the real Lady Chatterley.)
MillValleyLit: I’m so sorry. She died when you were in college?
Barbash: Yes, and the last story in Stay Up With Me is sort of about that.
MillValleyLit: It’s never easy to lose a parent at any point. So your mom was interested in sports. Did your whole family play tennis?
Barbash: Yes, my dad especially. My dad (who was a lawyer) played squash and tennis. It seemed that it was very important in our social circles to be a good tennis player. More so than I think it is now. (He laughs…) And actually there is a story in the collection called “The Academy.”
MV LIT: The Tennis Academy story was fabulous!
Barbash: Thank you.
MillValleyLit: With respect to tennis, there is a discipline and focus in playing. You played tennis in college. Did you find that the tennis helped you in your writing?
Barbash: Very much so. I pursued it at first in a solitary way. I would go with my dad when he had a game and I would practice serves by myself, or hit off the wall for hours.
I think the ability to be by yourself, training and trying to get better was really good for me. And then I’d usually enlist a friend for groundstroke drills, and try to outwork everybody. As a writer it’s a good trait to have. Talent is one part of it but the people that succeed are the ones who are willing to go back into the manuscript and revise.
MillValleyLit: In Stay Up With Me “The Tennis Academy,” you gave a great description of an obsessive coach. Do you think the character traits are different in 21st century literature vs. the 20th century? Such as obsession, angst and neurosis?
Barbash: That’s interesting, I’m not aware that there was less of it, but a different sort. I think the big difference in a literary sense between this century and last has to do with attention spans. People are experiencing the culture in smaller bites. You have access to so many voices and images that it’s hard to maintain a continuous thought.
As for my obsessive tennis coach, he’s a little too focused, and too enthusiastic about the young player he’s coaching. He seems creepier than he ends up being. The ending of the story surprised me because he winds up in a better place than I’d imagined.
MillValleyLit: I just thought it was funny.
Barbash: In a strange sense his voice wrote the whole thing once I had it down. It’s all letters and as I’d finish one I remember reading it to my sister. When I thought I was done, she’d say, “Write another one.”
MillValleyLit: Yes, people and readers do seem to have shorter attention spans and desire for instant gratification.
Barbash: That’s true. I think that along with hooking a reader early on you need to hook yourself. There needs to be something set in motion that can’t be stopped. A friend of mine calls it the boulder on top of the hill. He says we push it over the top in the first line and then it starts to roll and crash into things along the way.
MillValleyLit: Yes, that gets you to turn the page but not necessarily only choose the “page turner” novels.
Going back to the 20th century writers such as Hemingway, there were a lot outward demons, exploration, bulls, and we don’t see that as much today.
Barbash: There seems to be a movement back to that. There was a broad sense that short stories got too static in the 80’s and 90’s. These days writers like George Saunders, Karen Russell, Junot Diaz, Rivka Galchen, Ben Fountain, Jess Walter, they’re all doing interesting things with voice and form and content.
MillValleyLit: Oh yes?
Barbash: For me capturing a physical place and a character’s connection to it is a way out of writing static stories. Put a character on an icy road in Upstate New York, or send a reluctant young man to schmooze an elderly couple out of their 300 acre home, and things are going to start happening.
With regard to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, I read somewhere that most men stopped reading literary fiction entirely when they graduate college. A lot of them will read non-fiction, or they’ll read Tom Clancy style thrillers, it used to more of a staple for the educated American man to read Hemingway or John O’Hara or Fitzgerald.
I’m hoping for a resurgence in reading, where reading a book like Phillip Meyer’s “The Son” is as imperative as watching The Sopranos or Game of Thrones. Women still read however, as evidenced by the terrific book clubs I’ve been visiting.
MillValleyLit: Yes, all my female clients are big readers but the men tend to read biographies which are very interesting and fascinating, and tend to forego fiction. So your dad was a lawyer and you originally wanted to be a lawyer. Did you go to law school?
Barbash: No, I realized that I didn’t want to go to law school …..when I was writing my essay on why I wanted to go to law school. If I couldn’t convince myself, then I didn’t think I should go.
MillValleyLit: Ha, that’s funny. So in college you were studying …
Barbash: I thought I was heading for law school and was a political science major.
MillValleyLit: I thought you might have studied Environmental Studies. (as he demonstrated in his award winning novel The Last Good Chance)
Barbash: I ended up being a newspaper reporter and covered among other things, the environment. I lived in an upstate New York county that was chock full of toxic waste sites, which of course leached into my first novel.
MillValleyLit: Love Canal and many toxic waste dumping and superfund sites were big in the news at that time. So your first writing job was a reporter. How did that come about?
Barbash: I took a semester in Journalism School at University of Missouri, gathered up enough clips together to get an internship at Syracuse, and then I convinced them during my internship to hire me full time. I never went back for my degree. I wanted to write for a living as soon as possible.
MillValleyLit: Sometimes that’s better. I remember my first journalism school assignment at Berkeley was an obituary in which I suspected the death in San Francisco was not as it seemed but that it was a murder! The people I interviewed were scary and I realized I was in way over my head.
Barbash: I covered a double homicide my first week on the job.
MillValleyLit: You did? It tests your fortitude. In The Last Good Chance you did get some information about Superfund sites while reporting in Oswego County?
Barbash: Yes, there were something like twenty seven toxic waste sites up in Oswego County. The novel is at its core about the two New Yorks, upstate and downstate, how the money and power of downstate is built in some ways on the back of upstate. Your toxic waste, your prisoners, your power plants, all things the things you want to keep from sight are sent north to counties starving for the jobs and the tax revenue. They end up making a sacrifice. That uneven relationship interested me.
MillValleyLit: Yes, and that is still happening today.
Did your reporting experience help you in your second nonfiction book On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick & 9/11: A Story of Loss & Renewal? I understand you played tennis in school with Howard Lutnick, the Ceo of Cantor Fitzgerald (who lost nearly his entire company when the Towers fell.)
Barbash: Yes, it helped to have been a reporter as well as a novelist because it was a very complex story with a multitude of plot threads to hold together. I felt that all I had done in my life up until then went into the task of writing that story, and yet I was still unprepared for how overwhelming the project ended up being. I was reporting it, writing it and figuring out what it was all at the same time
MillValleyLit: Yes, you were dealing with the biggest wound in our country in a long time and it seems that your characters have deep wounds, too. Did you find that you wove this 9/11 experience into your later short story characters?
Barbash: Maybe not directly, but my characters have often dealt with loss, and are usually under great stress.
MillValleyLit: In your current book Stay Up With Me the story “The Break” is about a mother and her son on Christmas vacation. She describes her desire for everything to go well for her son but she crosses over the line. She doesn’t seem to know where to pull back. You address that really well.
Barbash: That happens in a few of the stories; the thought you could help someone else’s life turn out better, but by being overly concerned with it, you create a mess.
MillValleyLit: Some of the characters in your book do try to be so helpful but blow it!
Speaking of blowing - in the “Balloon Story” I could really visualize my self nose to nose with the inflating Thanksgiving Day floats. You describe it so well.
Barbash: We had that party at our house (the night before the Macy’s Day Parade.) I grew up in New York City on the block where they blew up the balloons.
MillValleyLit: Your main character didn’t want to upset the party (thus keeping the appearance of marriage bliss despite the fact his wife had just left him) even though his life was falling apart. I can see that Manhattan is dear to your heart.
Barbash: I think 9/11 changed my relationship with New York. When I was growing up, New York was a comparatively dangerous place – I always say to friends, Go watch “The French Connection” or “Dog Day Afternoon.” In the 90’s it became an invincible place, and then after 9/11 it became vulnerable. Seeing it that way in the early days after 9/11 deepened my affection for the city.
MillValleyLit: Yes, so many powerful stories you must have heard. I had a college mate’s wife who worked on that floor of the Trade Center, and was dropping her son in the day care downstairs on 9/11. She realized she left her pass at home and couldn’t go up to work yet. She was that close to death.
Barbash: All chance, and how pure luck played into it.
MillValleyLit: Yes, when it’s not your time… Yet, have you found that your experience in California, and California personality traits are infusing their way into your writing?
Barbash: There will be at least two or three scenes in my new book set in California and I’m sure I will write about California in years to come.
There are so many transplanted Easterners here…and a lot of people go back over the summers, too. It seems that New York is still rich material for me.
MillValleyLit: It’s what you know really well, but every once in a while you must find a California ism that strikes you or an unusual Californian that interests you?
Barbash: Or at times I’ll read a writer that nails California and I’ll be jealous!
MillValleyLit: Oh yes, such some of the writers who we’ve interviewed in our magazine (such as TC Boyle, Louis B. Jones)...I sent you an email on what San Francisco Magazine compared Mill Valley Literary Review to a rare 60 year old Scotch!
Barbash: Right, that was good.
MillValleyLit: What precipitated your move to Mill Valley?
Barbash: We’d always go into Tennessee Valley for hikes or be in the city and want to do something different so we’d go to downtown Mill Valley. We were so amazed that it was so close yet felt like you were someplace completely different. Another big factor was Tennessee Valley, all those this spectacular trails 15 minutes outside of the city. At certain times of the day you’ve got a trail all to yourself. It really clears your head.
For me it’s a new kind of life, because I grew up on the 17th floor of an apartment building. Nature was Central Park.
MillValleyLit: So you taught at Stanford for a while and now you teach at California College of the Arts. How has your fatherhood and your teaching affected the balance of getting your writing done?
Barbash: I have to be well organized. There are many hours to do it all. But I think you can create a good balance. It also keeps me grounded.
I fear writers can be very concerned about sales numbers and their reviews and there’s something about fatherhood that grounds you and makes you think a little bit less of yourself.
MillValleyLit: They give you back what you give.
Barbash: He’s now making requests for things he’d like to see in the next book.
MillValleyLit: So what’s in the future for you? You have a new novel you’re working on?
Barbash: My upcoming novel is set in New York. The New York of my adolescence.
MillValleyLit: That’s great. And I know you will be mentoring at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference?
Barbash: Yeah, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve heard amazing things about it.
MillValleyLit: Anything I missed that you are working on?
Barbash: I’m working on the novel and on a couple of screenplays. When I’m done with my novel I may think about doing some more nonfiction. I like going back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. They feed one another if you do it right.
MillValleyLit: Thank you for your time and we readers look forward to your upcoming work.
Recent interviews were with T.C. Boyle and Louis B. Jones, available in Stacks
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the Publisher of The MILL VALLEY LITERARY REVIEW
J. Macon King and Big Red promote going Green
John Macon King is Publisher of The MILL VALLEY LITERARY REVIEW. John was the humor columnist for The San Francisco Marina Times. When he was 86’ed from North Beach, and plotted his escape to Marin in 1986, he was advised by the Rainbow Tunnel Troll, “If you want to blend in with the locals you should buy a Jeep Cherokee, a golden retriever, and take a chill pill.”
In Mill Valley, he revived the dormant Rhubarb Revue theatre, has given invited readings at the Book Depot, the Sweetwater, Sausalito Women’s Club, Mill Valley Outdoor Art Club, and his articles and short stories have been featured in the Marin IJ, various magazines, and San Francisco's Beat Museum. After penning several screenplays, he nestled them in his desk drawer, safe from the money and glamour of Hollywood. He states his proudest achievement is amassing “the largest private cocktail shaker collection in southern Mill Valley.”
His adventuresome spirit and theatrical experience bring emotional depth, immersive dramatic style and existential humor to his writing. King’s upcoming novel, The Circus of the Sun, tantalizes us with this premise --- "Amidst the sexual and cultural frenzy of '79 San Francisco, a volatile musician is beguiled by an incandescent artist, unveiling disturbing past relationships."
King explains how MillValleyLit came to be:
Q. What was your background for this literary venture?
A. I have always enjoyed a passion for reading, writing and the creative community. While earning a Creative Arts degree I worked in a library and then as a manager at the bustling SFSU bookstore. In Marin I found a niche as a marketing consultant for LucasArts and basked in the creativity at Skywalker Ranch. In 2000 I revived the Rhubarb Revue community theater, after its seven year closure, to encourage regular folks to take to the stage and perform along with seasoned performers. This same concept I applied to MillValleyLit - mixing emerging writers with published authors. The Rhubarb continues to be a venue for local writers and talent. http://tamvalley.org/rhubarb2012.shtml
Q. You have had previous experience as Editor of a community newspaper and web site?
A. Yes. Four friends and I put out an underground newspaper in high school when our work was censored in the school paper. This was small town midwest in the early 70's and the paper, and our audaciousness, were very controversial. No students had ever done that in the entire school district. We had Freshmen passing them out at the Homecoming Parade! The principal grilled the prime suspects, and really wanted to expell us, but he couldn't prove it was us. Emboldened, we printed two or three more issues. Ironically, the bigger secret was we were printing them at a local church! A sympathetic minister believed in our 1st Ammendment rights. The premier issue was called "The Dove" (you know, anti-Vietnam) and then we changed the name to "The Cynic," I suppose more properly reflecting our attitudes. At our high school reunions teachers and classmates were still talking about it.
With that depth of experience, I became Editor in Chief for The Progress TVIC newsletter which at times went to 2,500 homes in Tam Valley. After negotiating with Marin County to assume the name and site, we launched www.tamvalley.org as our own Tam Valley Improvement Club site. It was really the first neighborhood web site. I soon gave up on expensive paper, printing and mailings.
Q. Besides the poetry readings did you participate in other groups?
A. I took several writing seminars including Syd Field and Robert McKee. McKee's was a huge group, but a handful of us went to lunch with him every day of the seminar. I knew the Van Ness\Polk (SF) area well so I helped pick the spots. That was fantastic. For a number of years I was the only male in an engaging Mill Valley book club led by Barbara Nelson. The women were supportive and interested in hearing a masculine perspective, which I did my best to uphold. MillValleyLit developed from all those experiences.
Q. What other contributions have you made in the community?
A. My secret identity is the meek mild-mannered computer consultant known as Computer Whiz. I specialize in helping small businesses and home offices. Besides the Rhubarb Revue, my community activities formerly included: Vice President of the Tam Valley Improvement Club (TVIC), Founder and Chair of T.V. Services District's Revitalization and Safety Commission, President of the Marin BNI Power Lunch, Tam Valley School Technology Coordinator, and consultant to three successful local political campaigns.
Q. Tell us more about your upcoming novel, The Circus of the Sun.
A. In the cultural and sexual frenzy of late seventies San Francisco, The Circus of the Sun exposes frayed musician Jack to the incandescent painter Bretta and the creative entourage in her gravitational pull. Despite having sworn off women, the reforming bad boy Jack finds that he cannot resist the sexually charged, liberated Bretta. When Bretta's bizarrely flawed friend Michael returns, the mystery of their relationship is a shadow that creeps into Jack's psyche like fog through the Golden Gate. This San Francisco based literary fiction pinballs from hard-drinking North Beach bars, drug-fueled Haight streets, to all night raves and punk moshes, Sierra saloons, and elite mansions of Malibu.
San Francisco Magazine Feb. 2014 http://www.modernluxury.com/san-francisco/story/the-literary-review-disrupted
Marin Magazine June issue: "Local Literature" at top of page 30. Marin Magazine is available by subscription, on select newsstands, and a snazzy digital version at: http://digital.marinmagazine.com/marinmagazine/june_2013#pg1
Mill Valley Herald's front page interview with King: http://www.marinscope.com/mill_valley_herald/news/article_3329e140-8c20-11e2-91d0-001a4bcf887a.html
Barbash photo 1 courtest Dennis Lynch Editor, Flavorpill
Barbash photo 2 courtesy Mrs. Dalloway's Bookstore - Berkeley
other headshots from authors
King headshot, OTR shirt phots - Perry King
Additional photos by J. Macon King except some stock promotional book jackets, posters, archival, or credited.
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All writing, submissions, and comments are the views of the respective authors and interviewees do not necessarily reflect the views of MillValleyLit or Editorial staff.