An interview with Tom Barbash

Tom-BarbashTell us about your apprenticeship in art – what experiences have made you the writer you are today?

My first real job after college was as a reporter in a rural county in upstate New York. My job was to look for stories, to listen to people, to write about them in ten to 15 stories a week. It had a powerful effect on me. That it was a rural world so different from the Manhattan apartment building where I’d grown, helped shape the way I saw myself and where I’d come from.

I believe I read that you’ve studied with the great Tobias Wolff? What was that like?

It was learning at the foot of a master. We had the chance to borrow his instincts; to see the way he took a story apart, or to see what he loved in his favorite writers and why. He could be tough on a story, but never in a mean way. You learned to revise like crazy before ever handing something in.

I wonder if there’s a kind of landscape that you are particularly drawn to? In your collection of stories, there are several places in New York City, but even more set in rural communities and quite often there’s snow. What makes these elements so attractive to work with for you?

There is a lot of snow in the collection, isn’t there? I’d always liked snow growing up, and then when I moved upstate it was like getting way too much of what you wanted. Endless snow days. The snow, or cold in three stories becomes dangerous: Somebody’s Son, where an elderly couple is imperilled by a faulty window, January and Birthday Girl, where cars skid to bad effect. I love writing about Manhattan, because it’s still such a rich place to draw from (and all the other writers seem to be writing about Brooklyn).

In both The Break and Her Words there are situations in which parents seem inappropriately close to – or excessively meddling with – the love lives of their adolescent children. This is such an intriguing trope, and I wondered how it spoke to you. Is it envy of the promise of youth? Or the difficulty parents have in letting go of their love affairs with their kids?

In both stories a child’s new relationship awakens yet-to-be-understood feelings in a parent. The mother in The Break, and the professor father in Her Words, are still working through the wreckage of their own marriages. I also imagine that it might be strange to have the child you’ve raised suddenly become the lover of a stranger, and do so in your house.

In fact, quite a lot of stories feature an undramatic but deep-reaching change in family life. New partners for parents after death or divorce, for instance. What draws you to this dynamic?

Again, the notion of a stranger in the house. In The Women which is somewhat autobiographical, the narrator in the wake of his mother’s death sees a trail of women sleeping over with his father. Equal to the protectiveness he feels toward his mother’s memory is the thought of Who are these people, and what do they want?

stay up with meI also noticed that dreams crop up a fair amount. Long ago I wrote about half an academic book about dreams in fiction (I should have finished it, I know) so I’m very curious about what you think is happening to your protagonists when they dream?

It actually surprised me to look back and see that there were quite a few dreams in the book. But I think they work in that so many of the characters don’t know why the feel what they feel or do what they do, and the dreams represent their hopes and fears I suppose. Though I never plan it that way.

Finally, I felt there was a quiet but persistent interest in the false self – the masks we try to assume to keep ourselves private, or viewed a different way, the people we try to be who we think we need to be, but who in fact we are not. Would you say that was one of your literary preoccupations?

I like that a lot, and I think that is something I’m drawn to. It’s actually a quality I somewhat admire in the characters and in people in general. They don’t take things lying down. Timkin in Ballon Night has every reason to hide away somewhere and keep his apartment locked off but he musters up the energy for one last great party with the hope it can bring his wife back. You have to admire that. Or I do anyway.

I’d love to know a bit more about how you work. What triggers the germ of an idea for you? Are you a big re-writer? At what stage do you let people read your drafts?

As you mentioned earlier, place is big. Also, a predicament. A young man has a job in which he has to con an old couple, but essentially he wants to be caught. The more the con progresses the more he hopes it falls apart. Or a young woman suffering from heartbreak begins to go to drastic lengths to break herself if it. Then I try to throw some humor in. I love revising and am pretty obsessive about it. After I’ve revised a draft a couple of times I’ll show it to one or two of my writer friends

I understand you teach creative writing – how does that feed into your own writing?

I teach great stories and novels and I learn alongside my students what makes them great. To be honest, teaching, when it’s done well, can be quite exhausting, but my students often inspire me with their new found love of a good story, or a great sentence. Plus, they keep my music taste from being stuck in the 1980s and 90s.

And what are you working on right now? (Whatever it is, I’ll be reading it.)

Thanks. It is a novel set in the Upper Westside of Manhattan in the year 1980, specifically a family living in the Dakota apartment building in the year of the Lennon assassination. I grew up five blocks away and know the territory well.

Interview by Victoria Best, one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Read our review of Stay Up With Me by Tom Barbash here: ‘It was only a few pages long, yet it was enough to shift its way under my skin.’

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