Tom Barbash

The Rumpus Interview with Tom Barbash

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I first met Tom Barbash in the fall of 1995, almost twenty years ago. Man, he was handsome! A much-esteemed Jones Lecturer at Stanford, I was beginning as a Stegner Fellow, and decided to watch him carefully, trying to learn what I could from his example. People whispered that he’d had an actual career as a reporter before turning to fiction. Some spoke in hushed tones of his feathery jumper on the basketball court. What I remember best about Tom from that time is still true now: he is an intense listener, a true believer in the power of the story, and really the most encouraging writer to his peers I know. His generosity extends to his teaching, of course, and his pride in his students is also something I try to emulate.

Tom Barbash met his wife in my kitchen, in my apartment on Page Street in San Francisco. This was in the spring of 1997; I’d published my first novel, and brought together a motley group of writers I knew, as well as scientists from UCSF (where my then-girlfriend, now-wife worked). I remember hi-jinks in the bathroom; I think at some point (I was drinking), once most people had left the party, Eddie Chuculate took off his shirt to show some knife scars; and somewhere in the kitchen, Tom worked his magic on a beautiful scientist named Hilary. She checked in with me a day or so later, asking, “Is he an axe murderer?” “I don’t think so,” I said. Then added, “No, I’m pretty sure he’s not.” Now they’ve been married a long time and have an excellent son, as well. I take an unlikely amount of credit for all of it.

Over the last twenty years and more, Tom Barbash has earned wide respect from some of the most celebrated writers of this generation, as well as the scores of students he’s taught. A master stylist who has published both a celebrated novel and a book of nonfiction, he now brings out Stay Up With Me, a collection of stories so astute and controlled, they stand as a testament to his dedication and stake his claim as a master of the form. It was my pleasure to ask him a few questions about it.

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The Rumpus: First, let me say that this is a really impressive and accomplished piece of work. I’m always really interested to read first collections of stories when they aren’t the author’s first books. Collections are so often first books, and you’ve written a novel, The Last Good Chance, and a book of nonfiction, On Top of the World, and you’ve been working and reviewing and teaching this whole time. So this is one way of saying that Stay Up With Me reads to me almost like a “greatest hits” or a retrospective of stories gathered over a period of time—the pieces are so distinct, and resonate, but my suspicion is that these are the pick of various litters, representing different stages of your storytelling. Is that fair? And how many years do these stories span? How has your sense of what a short story is changed, and where in these tales is this change apparent?

Barbash_Stay_Up_with_MeTom Barbash: There is a lengthy span between the first story I wrote in this collection, which happens to be the story “January,” and the most recent, “Birthday Girl,” but they share a lot in the way of style and setting, and gobs of snow. I went through a period as a writer—and as a person—in which I retreated from my Upper West Side of Manhattan past. I’d lived for a while in a rural county in central New York, and so that was the world I wrote about. Of course I’d sometimes have characters from downstate living upstate, but it took a while for me to start writing about where I grew up.

Ultimately a lot of the currents and themes carried over. I also went back into the older stories and reworked them, because I became a better writer over the years and could spot flaws. I loved having another chance to make them stronger, and to bring them closer to me, made them less like a greatest hits compilation, and more like something written in the same extended burst.

Rumpus: I sometimes had a distinct, not at all distracting sense of another writer’s world when reading these stories. For instance—and this is a huge compliment—“Balloon Night” wouldn’t seem, in locale and attack and restraint, out of place in a Cheever collection. And the hospital situation and its tensions in “Birthday Girl” felt resonant with Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing.” I’m sure these are not your conscious decisions, but for me I felt these compelling connections and hauntings. I suppose my simple question is this: what writers do you claim as influences?

Barbash: Well Carver and Cheever are big ones. John Updike, Mary Gaitskill, and Dan Chaon are story writers I love and have learned from. And there are dozens more. I’ve come to believe that style, and even form, arises from a collaboration between the writer and the character. The characters guide me to the form of the story. I’ve read and re-read deeply, and so there are elements of the writers I love that find their way in, but it’s never conscious.

Rumpus: While I’m riffing on Cheever—somewhere, he writes in his journal: “I hope to someday be able to tell the story of a happy man, a success.” Of course, he failed. And your stories here are pretty dark—vehicular crashes of various kinds, relationship crashes, plenty of dying parents, misapprehensions, misunderstandings, unsatisfied yearnings… Is this the province of literary fiction, do you think? A tendency or choice on your part? Or, any thoughts about why happier stories are harder to write (or harder for readers to buy)?

Barbash: My characters tend, if wounded, to be emotionally resourceful. Often they’re in that way station between when loss happens and when it can be fully comprehended. In the meantime they’re fighting to get something back, and occasionally they prevail in surprising ways. I think more than a few of these are hopeful stories ultimately, because of the character’s refusal to take things lying down.

But in answer to your question, I need a real struggle in order to care deeply enough to write about something.

Rumpus: Do you worry about your characters being likable? I’m thinking of the mother in “The Break” here, but other characters, as well. You never seem to hesitate or lose focus by becoming anxious that your readers might resist these people.

Barbash: I think one’s person’s unlikeable is another’s lovable. I love the mother in “The Break,” but I tend to love people who are going through stuff—big stuff. The reader becomes a confidante, I believe, for the characters—we are their best and closest friends, the ones who get the unvarnished truth. Or maybe truth’s not the right word, because we also get their misapprehensions and rationalizations. But we get what they believe to be true.

On Top of The WorldRumpus: I’m curious about how your previous life and work as a reporter have influenced your practice of writing fiction (or really, living). There are certainly direct correspondences in the excellent “Paris,” where Kistler claims to be the voice of a downtrodden community, even as its members are upset with him. He sees his role as representing what he sees. Is this what you’re doing?

Barbash: A version of that story happened to me. I had written about a small hamlet upstate, and had been called into a meeting about my story, which, as it turned out, had upset a lot of people. The idea of spending a few days in a place and becoming the voice of the community, of course, is absurd, and by the end of the story, he’s at least on his way to figuring that out. But being a reporter took me out of myself and that shaped me as a writer.

Rumpus: And then I’m also thinking of “the overview game” that Abby and Willie play in “Spectator” (they “eavesdrop or spy on people and try to size up their lives from their faces, their arguments, their clothes”), which recalls something David Foster Wallace said:

Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. The minute fiction writers stop moving, they start lurking, and stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy, somehow. Almost predatory. This is because human situations are writers’ food. Fiction writers watch other humans sort of the way gapers slow down for car wrecks: they covet a vision of themselves as witnesses.

Which is to ask if this is how you operate and also if you believe fiction writers inhabit this world in a different way than those who don’t write fiction.

Barbash: For me, it might be less in the act of seeing and more about remembering, or recollecting and assigning significance. Or it might be that I spot patterns of the behavior of friends and strangers—or links between seemingly disparate actions. I think writers tend to hear a different message from the ones our friends and acquaintances intend. We see what’s revealed, which makes us dangerous. I’ve had the experience of being with a writer friend and knowing I’d given away something I’d meant to hide.

Rumpus: One thing that I love about these stories is the restraint you show. There’s very little explanation, especially of the emotional variety. Even when your characters are incredibly reflective, they don’t seem to arrive at insights or true understandings of their situations. Perhaps that’s left up to us readers. Is this your desire?

Barbash: I think they arrive at partial understandings. I’m suspicious of epiphanies, because they so rarely last. I’m always relearning things I thought I’d learned for good a while back.

Rumpus: This collection is full of beautifully realized and realistic stories, the kind where a reader might happily sink so fully into them, that the notion of there being an author is completely absent. We forget about the story being fictional—something that someone dreamed up. And then we come to the hilarious and troubling “Letters from the Academy,” which takes the form of a one-sided epistolary narrative from a tennis coach to the parents of a strange prodigy.  This story seems to revel in its written-ness, its identity as a story; it feels a little more experimental, and also just more baldly funny. Less subtle, perhaps? I wonder if you have thoughts on these questions, or about the genesis of this story, or how it fits with the rest?

Barbash: I started with a single letter, just a few sentences and then that story wrote itself. I think the voice can carry a story. I used to go off in the winters to the Harry Hopman’s Tennis Academy in Florida. It was where a lot of the best players in the world trained. And many of the kids stayed there year-round. I always envied them. One of the kids I played against had a famous jazz musician father. He was really good, and I had the sense his father was away more than he would have liked, and that tennis, and tennis coaches, had filled the void.

In terms of how the story progresses, I found myself swept up in the tennis coach Maximilian Gross’s blind enthusiasm. He’s actually pretty good at what he does. He’s just missing the big picture, like a lot of us.

Rumpus: Most if not all of these stories employ pretty strict limitations of point of view. In stories like “Somebody’s Son” and “Paris,” especially, the action is focalized so specifically through one character’s understandings and desires, and then startles us when the words and actions of those characters, to whose thoughts we haven’t had access, suddenly reveal our protagonist’s misapprehension. How does such limitation work for you to bring depth, and how does it guide you when writing a story? What do you suspect or hope the effect is on a reader?

Barbash: I think the second, or outsider’s, perspective can come as you layer a story. It’s as though you’ve grabbed a secondary character and asked them, “What do you make of this guy?” and the hope is that the answer surprises you as the writer. Mrs. Berner’s perspective in “Somebody’s Son” came as a surprise, but the story fails without it.

Rumpus: The stories written in the first-person range from narrators closer, I suspect, to your experience, but then there are also stories told by women (“How to Fall”) and Indian-American professors (“Her Words”—maybe my favorite of a strong bunch), and even the really affecting female second-person of “Birthday Girl.” Do you have thoughts about the difficulty, efficacy, and/or necessity of writing from these perspectives that are further from your own?

The Last Good Chance

Barbash: I tend to listen to my friends and family empathetically, and I try to help work through their problems from the inside. I try to adopt their thinking. I think narrators expect a high level of intimacy with their readers, and vice versa.

I heard a quote once attributed to Martin Amis. When asked if he believed everyone had a novel in them, he supposedly answered, “Yes, and I want all of them.” I believe that we can access stories, and voices from those around us, more easily often than from our own imperfect memories.

Rumpus: One time in college, I was in an independent study with one other friend of mine. Our professor admonished us at that time: “Don’t let yourself be only an East Coast or only a West Coast writer.” We were young and kind of drunk, and nodded along; later, we admitted we had no clue what he was talking about. I’m still not sure. Which is to say that you’re from the east, yet have lived in California for about twenty years. And yet these stories have a very East Coast—New York City and upstate—flavor to them. Is this a conscious decision, or do you have any thoughts about this conundrum?

Barbash: I think it’s probably better to make a region your own, and then maybe you can go somewhere else, but a lot of great writers have stuck to one region. I’ll write about California someday, I imagine, but I don’t know when.

Rumpus: How do you balance your teaching and your writing? More specifically, how did you manage to write this amazing collection while also, no doubt, constantly talking about student stories, and teaching published stories in class? I admit that I, after almost twenty years of teaching, often feel that I’ve lost the short story as a form. It’s something I read critically, and technically eviscerate, and respond to—it’s part of my job. I mean, I love stories, but they’ve become tangled up with my talking about writing in ways that are really counterproductive to the level of confusion I need to write fiction. This is a question, though, not a pathetic series of admissions by the interviewer: if the short story is the typical instrument of a writing workshop, and you’ve been involved in various ways with the teaching of writing for many years, how has that affected your writing of stories?

Barbash: Considering you wrote one of my favorite, all-time story collections, The Unsettling, I’d love to lose the form the way you have. When you teach, it’s sometimes necessary to consciously not write for a month or two—and then pick a time in the future to sink back in. It makes you less frustrated and more in control. I do best when I give myself breaks and come back hungry.

When I teach, I try to assign writers from whom I can learn. I also love the process of learning about story writing as a group. But you’re right that weekly discussions of craft can get in the way of the strangeness you need to write stories. One good thing the teaching has given me is the ability to read and revise my own work.

Rumpus: What’s next? Long or short? East or west? I can’t wait.

Barbash: A novel set in New York. But there’s a trip to California late in the book, so maybe I can get my West Coast feet wet. Johnny Carson makes an appearance, but that’s all I’ll say for now.


Peter Rock is the author of seven works of fiction, most recently the novels The Shelter Cycle and My Abandonment. He lives in Portland Oregon with his wife, two fierce daughters and sweet Pit Bull. More from this author →