Thomas Farber teaches creative writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Among other awards and prizes, he is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and three NEA Fellowships for creative writing. He is the author of over 20 books of fiction, non-fiction, essays and a few oddities—books of the epigrammatic–thrown in. http://www.thomasfarber.org
He also founded and directs the non-profit publishing house El Leon Literary Arts, which publishes literary and graphic works that are perhaps just too economically risky for commercial publishing.
We will be talking to Tom about the art and science of teaching creative writing.
Andy: Tom, let’s say I have a concept for a novel. There are these 4 brothers. One is a priest. One is an atheist. One is a moron. And one is a voluptuary. They have a father who is a schmuck, and he gets killed by the moron. There’s also some material in it about sin and redemption to make it look deep. If I take your class in creative writing, what can you do for me to make this into a serviceable novel?
Tom: Andy, you well know this plot will never fly, not even in a Russian novel. But if it could…
In my seminars, one of the things that gets conveyed is that prose is a recalcitrant form, almost always takes a number of drafts and much time to get to the heart of the story. There has to be a willingness or, actually, a great need, to bother. There are plenty of books in the world; the book market is cruel; and there are so many wonderful other things to do in the world. I myself don’t privilege books over, say, affection, gardens, music, dance, etc. etc. Writing is only for the needy of a very particular sort. Writing may also create at least as many problems for the writer as it solves or ameliorates.
Andy: So maybe you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Can you make a better silk purse?
Tom: Yes. So much of writing is at the level of craft, like so many other crafts. Much of the pleasure in writing is in the revising, making something truer in language. The process of discovery.
Andy: My friend and I have been walking around Lake Merritt. She isn’t a writer, but she has been writing a novel. We talk a lot about what is working and what isn’t. Most of our conversations revolve around: the plausibility of the concept and plot, the robustness and believability of the characters, the quality of the dialogue, flow of the writing and how to make it dramatic. Are we on the right track? Are there some other issues that we should address?
Tom: Novels are quite an enterprise. Doctorow said there’s no way out of one except to finish, which can be a long haul. So many things to learn more or less simultaneously, so many things that affect each other. Probably better, if one can, to start with a shorter form—a story, taken from what would be the novel if extended—and master what one can at that length. As for these different variables you mention, plot is, I think, the least important to worry about. That is, I think you can make any story tellable in the telling. It’s the telling, line by line, that binds the reader to the story. As for dialogue, one can learn so much from reading a writer who’s good at it. I think of the genre writer George V. Higgins, whose The Digger’s Game or The Friends of Eddie Coyle were almost all dialogue. You read them as a writer to learn how Higgins did it. Not quite the same as reading for pleasure. Finally, regarding characters, you simply want them as (virtually) alive as the living.
Andy: If we were in your class, how would you advise us to work with these building blocks?
Tom: A writer is someone who writes. There is no way a priori to know how good a book is until it is written. So you write one story, rewrite. Write another. Rewrite. Much is inevitably being learned, if only that one would prefer an easier path to happiness. I think it was Frost who said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
Andy: What do you think about writers conferences? Are there any you especially like?
Tom: I’ve been a part of only two. One was the Berkeley Writers Conference, hosted by the late Lenny Michaels, at which I met the late Grace Paley and had the pleasure of time with her. Such an amazing woman. Also met then-unpublished Elizabeth Tallent, read her extraordinary story ‘Ice,’ soon to be published by The New Yorker, the first of many of hers they took. I’d have to say that was quite a conference!
The other conference was when I read at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, a low residency writing program. Probably the most attentive and hungry audience I’ve ever read to. A marvelous eagerness in the people there to write and to write well. Also, a fine and committed staff.
Andy: You know, the cliché is that publishing is a marriage between art and commerce. In my humble opinion, these days the commerce is the dominant partner, and it is looking more like S/M. Are things getting worse for good literature or is it business as usual?
Tom: Well, as you know better than I, the industry is in disarray. At its best, publishing is where commerce and art intersect, but for all the well-known reasons both aspects are struggling. It’s a wonderful time to have a small non-profit press, however, to do just what one loves with a very, very low overhead. Perhaps New York publishing will reform with a business model somewhat closer to El Leon’s, though no doubt with far less pro bono…Our business travel and entertainment budget last year was less than $200.00.
Andy: Gee, that is how much I have to pay for lunch with one of my big author / clients.
Andy: Read any good books lately? What do you recommend? And are there any books that your writing students should read about the craft of writing?
Tom: I just reread Grace Paley’s A Conversation with my Father, a story from which I never fail to learn more, both about our lives and about the craft of storytelling. Also, just reread Philip Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools,’ a miraculous poem, again, one that teaches me both about our mortality and about the craft of words. Updike said that a writer is a reader moved to emulation. One could do worse than to try to emulate Paley or Larkin. As for nonfiction books about writing and the writer’s life, I wrote one, originally published as Compared to What?, later reissued as A Lover’s Quarrel. Also, my latest book, Brief Nudity, is both a writer’s memoir, recounting aspects of life as a writer, and also an argument– by example—of how one might go about telling such a life story.
Tags: andy ross, andy ross agency, ask the agent, berkeley writers conference, book publishing, books, brief nudity, conversation with my father, creative writing, el leon literary arts, fiction, grace paley, lenny michaels, literary agent, literature, philip larkin, thomas farber, university of california, writing