Penultimates: A Conversation with Thomas Farber – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Awarded Guggenheim and, three times, National Endowment fellowships for fiction and creative nonfiction, Thomas Farber has been a Fulbright Scholar, recipient of the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize, and Rockefeller Foundation scholar at Bellagio. His recent books include Here And Gone, The End of My Wits, Brief Nudity, and The Beholder. Former Visiting Distinguished Writer at the University of Hawai’i, he teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and is Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of El León Literary Arts.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your new hybrid text, Penultimates, will launch in January. What would you like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?

TF:  It might help readers to know that, odds are, I’m older than they are. “Going on” age eighty. 8-0. Have lived many thousand “waves of days,” as my poet-mother put it. Thus, though my writerly strategies are, as always, about word music (and play), I’m trying to illuminate this “stage” of life. For myself, and, if possible, others. The subtitle of Penultimates is “The Now & The Not-Yet.” That ever-increasing proximity of the “Not-Yet” for the old or “olders” is hard to ignore, but, for a writer, interesting to inform oneself about. Compelling. To read what others have said. To come to terms with. To describe. To, possibly, be guided by, make real-life use of...

KMD:  Why did you gravitate to a hybrid form as the vehicle for this particular story?  What can be achieved in the space between genres that might be more difficult in a more traditional form? 

TF: When writing, I’ve never thought about genres. I just go where I have to go to learn what I have to learn, say what I want to say. Later, I come to realize how and where I went...For instance, though I published novels (in 1984 and then 2021), I didn’t set out to write them. Simply had stories that kept expanding, needed to be told. I wasn’t, as critics then did, privileging novels as a higher form than the short fiction I was writing in the 1970s/ 1980s/ 1990s. Also, in Who Wrote The Book of Love? (1977), my very short, untitled, fable-like stories exasperated some reviewers, who wanted short fiction like that era’s New Yorker stories...So: I don’t think about literary forms, which often translates as marketing categories of the book business. Put another way, years ago I published two very long stories which I could have stretched. Made novel-length. But I’d had my say, was satisfied with what I’d written. For whom would I have changed them? And why? 

As for what the space between genres can allow, or facilitate, see my thoughts below.

KMD:  How does the book’s ethics inform your approach to style and technique? 

TF:  While writing, I hope to “please and instruct,” as ol’ Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) advised. And all writing of course has a point of view. Ethics, one might say. Some of my books have been explicitly didactic: my epigrams (The End of My Wits, for instance) relentlessly pointing out human foible, moral blindness. Or books like my On Water in which I describe human threats to all life in the ocean. Or my “vision” in Acting My Age about Donald Trump all alone on a beach. No phone, no tv, no retainers. 

When, in 1984, age forty, I started to write Compared to What?, I’d published five books, received some good reviews, awards. But the life of being a writer seemed greatly misunderstood by others. I set out to both to celebrate and to debunk, either as a farewell to writing–there being so many ways to live–or to empower myself to continue. In the early 1960s I’d heard the French word bricolage (moving past existing categories). And glaner (gleaning, gathering leftover, otherwise wasted, food). The untitled short, sometimes one-sentence, variously wry, lyric, and mordant sections of Compared to What? moved at will without regard for prevalent genres. I wasn’t trying to be innovative, was simply working to get at what was true in the only way I could. The lessons I learned then have continued to free me, keep me free... 

KMD:  You have a distinguished publication history, with multiple books reviewed favorably in The New York Times, among other esteemed venues. What do you wish you had known about building a career as an emerging writer?  

TF:  I’ve been very–crazily–lucky.  Recently out of college, an avid reader, having learned something about term-paper revising from a very demanding thesis-advisor, my writing life started in the late 1960s oral story. Age twenty-three, a journalist friend and I were “stoned rapping” with the talented, psychedelic-ingesting editor of an underground paper. Who then–mind-blowingly!–said I should “write down” the story I’d just told. And why? He’d publish it, that’s why. I did, and he did, though where the written voice of that story came from I still do not know. 

The editor then asked if I had any other stories, I wrote another twenty or so, and someone at a publishing house saw them, invited me to make a book. Amazing good fortune! 

But even after its publication as I turned twenty-seven, and after a second book, and then a third by my mid-thirties, I still was not thinking of or seeking a career as writer. I did other kinds of interesting work, had other things of interest. Also for years avoided meeting authors, not wanting writing to be a competitive sport except in hoping to measure up to the books, music, and film I admired. And I could not, as the short-tempered young fellow I was then, have handled the interpersonal politics of a MFA program, or being closer to the world of publishing. I loved NYC, but stayed away to keep my distance from the book business. Too much literary gossip, too much talk of advances and sales figures, too much maneuvering about relative status. 

But that was all many decades ago...Even now, however, I don’t think about “selling” a book until a book is done. Don’t show a manuscript to editors until it’s done/ done. 

KMD:  Will you share a favorite writing prompt with us?  

Back in the mid-1970s, age thirty and teaching for the first time (at U.C. Santa Cruz as visiting writer), I’d start seminar by having a passerby “model” for a moment, class describing clothing/ posture/ bearing, then trying to infer something about character, life story. Was chagrinned when, while I one day stood as the model, my treasured silver concho belt was described as imitation silver. Lately, I suggest that students describe their bedroom in detail, or how they get to campus, close observation of the proximate ordinary or one’s recurrent local “voyages.” Or that they describe a day–a whole day??–without smart phone or computer.

KMD:  What other projects do you have in the works?  What can our readers look forward to?

TF: Acting My Age turned out to be antepenultimate to my Penultimates, at the end of which I tease that

an Ultimates may follow. Gods willin’...Which might include a list of amends. In my case–or for each and every one of us?– perhaps requiring countless pages, numerous volumes. This even though I’ve already written various kinds of memoir. But...we all know memoir is fiction, if only in being so incredibly/ unbelievably selective. Even though we may say–believe–it’s “all true.” True at the time we wrote, is perhaps a better way of thinking about it. Amends aplenty still to make.