A Writer's Journey
Tom Barbash '83 reflects on the life experiences and intergenerational relationships that informed his most recent novel, The Dakota Winters.
Perhaps more than most, author Tom Barbash ’83 understands the sometimes-tangled relationship between a parent and child—the engine that drives his latest novel, The Dakota Winters (Ecco), about a flamed-out talk show host and his son.
When Barbash was a student at Haverford, his mother died. He says he remembers his father, a labor lawyer, breaking into tears in a cab ride they shared, one in which he’d expected to be consoled. “I resented it at first,” says Barbash, 57, also an associate professor of writing and literature at California College of the Arts, not far from his Bay Area home. “I’m 19. … You’re the father. You’re supposed to be strong. That he would break down and need my support eventually became a comfortable place. But right in the moment, I remember it being startling.”
The Dakota Winters is a story about second chances. Talk show host Buddy Winter, à la Dick Cavett, is expert at teasing personal stories from his guests until a nervous breakdown ends his career. Twenty-three-year-old Anton, fresh from the Peace Corps, helps navigate his father’s comeback even as he confronts (or not) their too close relationship. The backdrop is New York City, 1980—a year that proved pivotal to the city and country.
Along with a consequential presidential election, and a new media landscape (the launch of CNN), 1980 also featured a shocking assassination. John Lennon, a heavy presence in the story, was murdered outside the Dakota, the famed apartment building where he lived and where Barbash sets the novel.
“That is the exact moment everything is changing,” he says.
Barbash, who grew up near the Dakota on the Upper West Side, has earned kudos for channeling Lennon so well, including his trip as an apprentice sailor to Bermuda, at the helm through a life-threatening storm. “It was a pretty daunting challenge,” says Barbash, who watched “tons of YouTube videos” and read biographies of the ex-Beatle, including a memoir by Lennon’s tarot card reader.
The 336-page novel, which Publishers Weekly called “immensely entertaining,” also allowed Barbash to explore his fascination with talk show hosts, especially the way they create outsize celebrities while also revealing their too-human foibles. “I’d love that—to come back as a talk show host in another life,” he says.
After all, the Johnny Carsons or Buddy Winters are great conversationalists at heart—and Barbash has long appreciated a good conversation.
Whatever your profession, he recalls his father telling him, “The reason you should work hard and succeed [is] to be around the smartest people and best conversations.”
At Haverford, Barbash says he found classes “full of exciting, volatile conversations and different points of view” as he studied political science with an eye to law school. Then, in the midst of writing those onerous why-I-want-to-be-a-lawyer essays, he had an epiphany.
“In that moment, when I was writing and not able to convince myself with my argument of why I should go to law school, I started to have second thoughts,” he says. “That’s when I decided I should be a writer, one way or another.”
He started as a Syracuse Post-Standard reporter, catching a break when Doug Unger, a Syracuse University instructor and novelist, noticed his series—and evocative writing—about carnies at the state fair and encouraged him to write fiction. That led to a spot in the university’s elite writers’ workshop, led by novelist and short-story writer Tobias Wolff.
“I felt like I was pulled out of the sandlot by the baseball team manager,” he says. “It was a thrill. I was around really smart people. I loved talking about stories, reading intensely and writing, and being part of the conversation.”
Barbash’s first novel, The Last Good Chance, about a young urban planner who returns to his struggling hometown in Upstate New York, was published to good reviews in 2002. During the final editing process for the book, 9/11 happened. Barbash, who was friends with Howard Lutnick ’83 and others impacted by that terrible day, ended up chronicling those personal stories in his 2003 New York Times nonfiction bestseller On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, & 9/11: A Story of Loss & Renewal. In 2013, he published his darkly funny short-story collection, Stay Up With Me.
In each case, he says, he strived to take his craft to a new level. So, too, with The Dakota Winters:
“I say to my students, each book should be something you couldn’t do when you set out to do it.”