In a review on Sunday, a critic for the New York Times Book Review said all the characters in Tom Barbash’s collection of stories, Stay Up With Me, are “lonely, unhappy and at least temporarily ruined.”
He meant it as a compliment.
Barbash’s characters are mostly well-off New Yorkers who may have material riches, but are in some sort of pain. The Times critic, Clancy Martin called Barbash a “true craftsman who sweats over every sentence,” and said “there’s something addictive about these stories — like potato chips or a stiff drink.”
It’s been 10 years since Barbash, a resident of Marin County, made a splash in the literary world. After working as a reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard in upstate report, he moved on to writing fiction, winning fellowships at the prestigious University of Iowa and Stanford’s Wallace Stegner program. Barbash had been working on a novel – The Last Good Chance, which came out in September 2003 – when two planes slammed into the World Trade Center towers. Of the more than 3,000 people who died were 658 members of the finance firm Cantor Fitzgerald. Barbash had gone to college with the firm’s CEO, Howard Lutnick, and ended up writing On Top of the Word: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, & 9/11: A Story of Loss and Renewal. It was published in January 2003 and became a New York Times best-seller.
Barbash will be talking about his new book, Stay Up With Me, with the novelist Ann Packer at Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore at 2904 College Avenue at 7 p.m. on Wednesday Sept. 11, the day after his book is officially published. Berkeleyside caught up with Barbash to ask a few questions.
Berkeleyside: When did you move to the Bay Area and why? When did you make a “break” with journalism.
Barbash: I moved to the Bay Area in the early nineties. I came here from Iowa on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and never turned back. I’m not sure I ever did make a break with journalism. I made a break with daily journalism when I went to graduate school, but I’ve done non-fiction work for Business Week, Men’s Journal, BookForum, McSweeney’s and other places, and I wrote a non-fiction book as well about Cantor Fitzgerald and 9/11. I think it’s good for writers to do both, good for me anyhow.
Berkeleyside: You have been living in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years yet your stories and your novel in progress are set on the East Coast. What is it about New York that so absorbs you? Why doesn’t California have the same hold on you?
Barbash: I think where you grew up is such a central part of who you are, and I’m also just very interested in the New York City of my childhood, and contrasting it to what it is today. My senses come alive when I’m in New York, my adrenaline flows. I love the Bay Area and have no plans to leave, but I guess I’m not done with New York yet. I will admit however to rooting for the Warriors when they played my long beloved Knicks last year. I think I’m going to Knick fan hell for that one.
Berkeleyside: Do you derive different pleasures from writing short stories and novels? Is a short story just a truncated novel? Do length limitations force you to economize your words or is there some happy challenge in creating a glimpse of a world?
Barbash: Yes, they are very different animals. The story form forces you to circle around a smaller set of moments, and find a range of meanings. You then trace the ripples that spread from those moments. The novel stretches ahead, and takes every ounce of your endurance and imaginative energy. Stories are obsessive. Novels breathe a good deal more.
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