The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project: Thomas Farber


Like Thomas Farber’s writing career, his latest book Acting My Age is many things. It’s an appeal for action on climate change. It’s a chronicle of the relentlessness of human aging. It’s also a book of witty and wise observations about Trump, marriage, snow leopards, and banyan trees, among other topics. Interspersed with the ocean photography of Wayne Levin, the book interweaves the personal and the planetary with the singularity of Farber’s intellect, which moves effortlessly between the highbrow and the colloquial.

Farber is the author of more than two dozen books and has been awarded Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for fiction and creative nonfiction. He has been a Fulbright Scholar, recipient of the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize, and Rockefeller Foundation scholar at Bellagio. Former visiting writer at Swarthmore College and the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa, he teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.

In the mid-1990s, I was Thomas Farber’s student at UC Berkeley. Just in my class alone emerged acclaimed novelists Nami Mun (Miles from Nowhere), Shawna Yang Ryan (Green Island), and award-winning video game writer Christian Divine (Life Is Strange), as well as several lesser known authors (like myself). Farber made us feel like we were in a master class and part of something special. Over time, thanks in part to Professor Farber’s inspiration, our writing dreams came true.

Farber and I caught up over email to discuss Acting My Age, and talked about his views on climate change, coping with loss, and what he’s looking forward to as he faces his eighth decade on the planet. 


The Rumpus: You write about our “willed obliviousness” in the face of man-made climate change, and it strikes me that it takes a certain amount of “willed obliviousness” on the part of the individual to live without thinking about mortality every minute of every day, about our own individual climate change. Do you have any advice on how to stay hopeful without a willed obliviousness in the face of the many new challenges of our times, both globally and personally? 

Thomas Farber: As a writer, to describe even perils can be a form of hope. The music and play of even jeremiad, rant, or screed may remind us that all’s not lost. There’s also affirmation in revision after revision toward clarity, nuance, revelation.

About those committed to mitigating or moderating climate change, I’m put in mind of Joni Mitchell’s line in “A Case of You”: “I’m drawn to those ones who ain’t afraid.” Or, afraid, but determined. There’s a largely unacknowledged human proclivity—impulse; willingness?—to utterly consume other species. To… exterminate them. A corollary of our tribal species’ capacity to dominate or eliminate members of alien tribes. But of course, there are other human qualities. I think of the many volunteers trying to protect just one endangered monk seal giving birth on a popular beach in Honolulu. To protect it, if only from our overwhelming curiosity, insistence on proximity as a form of possession.

These days, we are ever-more-clearly what we produce, consume, excrete. We’ll all have to pay, be compelled to pay, increasing attention. Nothing is lost. All is interconnected.

The older I get, the more I take heart from the life of Sidney Farber (1903-1973). Physician, researcher, professor, gone now nearly fifty years. In the 1940s, my pathologist father sought cures for cancer at a time it was thought to be both monolithic and incurable. My father also steadily—relentlessly—advocated massive government investment in medical research and care. None of the extraordinary gains he made in, say, treatment of childhood leukemia or in public policy were achieved without setbacks, resistance, opposition. In these difficult times, I take heart—take courage and comfort—from keeping in mind my father’s great heart. 

Rumpus: Yes, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about your absurdly accomplished family. Your parents were Sidney Farber, for whom the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston is named, and Norma Farber, the renowned poet. You write about them with great affection in this book. How do you think that their accomplishments have affected your writing?

Farber: Each of my parents felt free—compelled—to pursue often unconventional paths. What was authentic for them. My legendary physician-father’s determination to find a cure for cancer and build a hospital for the care of children with cancer; my mother’s careers as singer, actress, poet. Though in my childhood this was not once expressed in words, their examples made it conceivable—unremarkable!—that one could pursue the essential. Nor have I any memory of hearing from either of them about fear of failure. Hard work was required, there were always obstacles, but one could pursue one’s own path. Whatever path that was.

I was in my late twenties when my father died, turned forty just after my mother’s terminal illness. By then I’d published nonfiction, books of stories, and, later that same year, a novel that received wonderful reviews. After this death of a second parent, however, I began not another novel, as my talented editor urged, but what proved to be a wry appraisal of my metier. I’d had good fortune, but was impelled to take the measure of the life I’d been so ardently—recklessly?—choosing. Writing hadn’t even ever been a career for me, was—merely—what I’d been immersed in for nearly twenty years. What I’d taken on, I thought I might now leave behind. Other lives were possible…

Neither my poet-mother nor my physician-father was alive to read Compared to What? (1988), but I believe they would have found its lyricism, improvisations, and irony consonant with their own multifaceted readings of commitments they made. Unsentimental, my meditation on the creative process and the writer’s place in the larger world turned out to empower me to continue writing. Now seventy-seven, as I’ve been rereading Compared to What? I think my parents would have felt I’d given it my best. Not that they would have approved of every single word—not hardly!—but that I’d given it my best. Which is what they expected of themselves, the example they set.

Rumpus: You write quite poignantly about the accumulation of losses one goes through as they age, not just in terms of one’s physical abilities, but also of the people one cares about. Do you believe that our capacity for loss and suffering grows as we age? 

Farber: At age seventy-seven (!) I’m sobered by the illnesses and dyings of friends. And by some of my own health debacles, not to mention the ever-more-obvious inescapability of death. Still, as many writers have observed, in older age one sometimes comes to see the beauty of the world more intensely. More accurately? And, at moments, to see an aging other for “what he is and as he is,” as poet Wallace Stevens put it, “In the stale grandeur of annihilation.”

Rumpus: You write that: “Many of the people I knew when young are either gone or much changed, in jeopardy if not diminished. But my books? They have not aged.” How often do you look back at your past books or more to the point, at the impact those books have had on people? Is there fan mail you remember fondly? Perhaps a review? 

Farber: Poet W. S. Merwin rejected or revised some of his published poems, as did poet Robert Lowell. Bob Dylan seems compelled or free to revise/deconstruct/alter his songs in performance. As for prose writers, John Fowles rewrote his bestseller The Magus more than a decade after it was first published. He’d learned, he said, more “tricks of the trade,” also wanted to add some scenes.

Suddenly years have gone by since I’ve reread most of my books. Perhaps not surprising: parts of, say, Tales for the Son of My Unborn Child were published more than fifty years ago.

If I now revisited earliest work as a line editor, I’d be merciless. But it’s also true that after the years of achieving each book, I’d given my best effort. Wrote without concern for market categories or imperatives. Writing for myself and others, in that order. That done, the finished manuscript engaged me only to try to see it into print. As it went into production I’d become an observer of the book—what had compelled such commitment? How did that all begin? I was already no longer the person who’d needed to write it, been able to write it.

Though it’s only lately I’ve come to think of it this way, perhaps each book facilitated or necessitated the next. Since I’m heading toward age eighty, so many people I knew when young are, yes, gone or much diminished. My books, however, are simultaneously stuck in time and immune from aging. Surely a form of immortality!

I’m resolved, however, to reread all of them this year. To remember what my writing life was about. I’ve begun with shorter writings: my foreword to Nacio Jan Brown’s Rag Theater (1975); my introduction to Wayne Levin’s Through a Liquid Mirror (1997). I could not write the words in these essays now, am kind of amazed to remember the work invested in the writing of them. Have no complaints. Am glad to see my name attached.

I’ve been very lucky as a writer. In 1984, after I’d published both nonfiction and short story collections, my first novel, Curves of Pursuit, was forthcoming. My editor learned that the sometimes ferocious Anatole Broyard was going to review it in the New York Times. She and I braced ourselves. But Broyard loved the book, imagined himself a sibling of the novel’s two brothers.

As for reader responses, an obsessed fan of mine, hearing that my poet mother (Norma Farber, 1909-1984) was very ill, sent a get-well card. My mother was in ICU. I’d read her the daily mail, read her the card. After well-wishes, this fan wrote that most of all she wanted to thank my mother for bringing Tom into the world. Hearing this, my mother asked, “But what have I done for her lately?”

Rumpus: I quite enjoyed the gallows humor throughout the book including: “Older, in deep shit. Putting my affairs in order.” As someone who’s also had serious health issues, I’m always amazed by the increased relevance of shit when you’re unwell. Were there works of comedy (literary or otherwise) that you turned to when you were dealing with the indignities of aging and the accompanying health problems?

Farber: George Carlin’s superb film Life Is Worth Losing is cheering gallows humor, though his live audiences seemed to imagine they were exempt from his calumnies.

Also, aging no doubt led to my adventures in the epigrammatic, a left-hand compulsion I was victimized by from my late fifties to my early seventies. Until, that is, I outgrew the form! Arthur Polgar wrote, “The striking aphorism requires a stricken aphorist.” True enough: stricken by human foible, my own and others,’ I pursued verbal prime numbers, recklessly excluded narrative in favor of the partial, overstatement, conclusion. For instance: “‘He deserved to die,’ she said. “‘He got off light.’”

Rumpus: Like the planet, the individual also has the incredible ability to heal. You’re going to teach this fall at Berkeley again. What are you looking forward to most about returning to classes (or anything else for that matter)?

Farber: Gods willin’, I’ll return to teach at Cal in January, having been away on health leave more than a year. Almost twenty-five years ago, Shawna Yang Ryan was a student in two of my creative writing seminars. Shawna’s gone on to publish very fine novels, is a university professor who’s taught creative writing. She remembers our long-ago seminars as both “magical” and “transformative,” that she left each week’s class “inspired” to write. Would that every student I’ve taught felt the same!

Rumpus: I was there, and I felt the same! Shawna also describes your seminars as “tough,” which I agree with.

Farber: Teaching’s an imperfect game, but there are times when a writer does get to share or illuminate his life’s métier, and to try to help those who seem, if imprudently, driven to pursue it.

As for “anything else” I’d been looking forward to? Because of heart surgery and then the pandemic, I’d been away from warm ocean for more than a year. But, at long last, I’m back at my “church and office,” as it’s amused me to put it, at the same small beach where I’ve spent so much of the time of my life. If I fear for what I no doubt overstate as “the death of the ocean”—the ocean will be itself long after the last humans are gone—nonetheless being by it and in it is nothing less than a blessing. Citizen of the cosmos, I thank my lucky stars!


Photograph of Thomas Farber by Wayne Levin.

Leland Cheuk is an award-winning author of three books of fiction, most recently No Good Very Bad Asian (2019). Cheuk’s work has appeared in publications such as NPR, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon, among other outlets. You can follow Cheuk on Twitter at @lcheuk. More from this author →