San Francisco Book Review, March 24, 2011

by Zara Raab

Thomas Farber is a recipient of Guggenheim, National Endowment, Rockefeller, Fulbright, and Dorothea Lange––Paul Taylor fellowships. He is the author of many works of fiction, creative nonfiction, screenplays, and the epigrammatic, including Truth Be Told, The Twoness of Oneness, and Hesitation Marks. Thomas Farber is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the publisher, through El Leon Literary Arts, of more than twenty novels and books of contemporary poetry, including Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, featured recently on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.

Zara Raab: Are you working on a book now?

Thomas Farber: I recently finished last edits on a new book of the epigrammatic, Foregone Conclusions, with companion essay (“Equivoques, Apercus, Spars & Catarrhs”). It will be published this summer. Meanwhile, I’m drifting/drifting toward a nonfiction (??) book about writers and their writing in old(er) age.

ZR: What are you reading?

TF: I’m reading everything I can about old age, death, and dying. I also continue to read anything that sheds light on human foible, which feeds my ongoing interest in the epigrammatic. To this end, I’ve been working my way through the journals of Frederic Raphael, and now his novels. Sharp mind, tongue, this fellow.

ZR: You recently published a screenplay. Tell us about that.

TF: My co-authored screenplay, The Two-Body Problem (now a book), began with my friendship with film buff, art lover, and math-genius Edward Frenkel, who teaches at U.C. Berkeley. Collaboration is exhilarating after the habitual solitude of writing, also amusing—ideas one would never have had on one’s own! Further, Edward is a dynamo. Edward-the-relentless! For me, the project was always going to be a book: to sell a screenplay is next to impossible. I believe this though in the past I’ve been commissioned to write treatments or screenplays, have been well paid for them. Still, a “low-budget” feature film costs several million dollars, minimum, and that’s a lot to hope others will invest in, bring to completion. At the moment, Edward and I also have a stage adaptation of the screenplay, which last December was given a stage reading directed by the gifted Barbara Oliver, and Edward and I are doing yet another revision of the screenplay before he heads to Cannes in May to spread the word to the assembled moguls.

ZR: Before the screenplay, you wrote several books of epigrams. Yet you started out with short stories and a novel, several novels. Is the novel dead?

TF: Since publishing my first chapbook of the epigrammatic in 1996, at age forty two, I’ve published a second book of creative nonfiction about the Pacific; a second novel; a memoir; three collaborations with great marine photographer Wayne Levin; a screenplay; and, along the way, four books of the epigrammatic. That is, last fifteen years I’ve been able to continue to work in different forms to express what I was yearning to find a way to say on the page. I’ve never, ever had the notion that one form is higher or harder than another. The novel is in no way dead as far as I am concerned, though writers who do think it is dead should of course refrain from trying to write one. Nor have expectations of editors or agents ever influenced my decisions about what or how to write. Never! At sixty-six going on sixty-seven, I know my time and strength are limited, have to pick my shots. Or, as always, perhaps, my shots will pick themselves. Whether or not my next book–say, the one on aging writers–will be nonfiction as I now imagine it, or a novel, or haiku, only time will tell. I’ve guessed wrong before, as with The Beholder, a novel when I thought I was preparing for a work of creative nonfiction. I still miss the nonfiction book about the female nude that it might (also) have been.

ZR: In recent years, with El Leon Literary Arts, you’ve become a publisher of some note in the area. Why did you get into the publishing business? Where do you see El Leon going in the next decade? What are some of your best sellers? What are the satisfactions of being a publisher?

TF: I started being a publisher ten years ago. A foundation, having declined to support a project I wanted to do (retelling a 19th century story with the goal of increasing social justice in Hawai’i), offered instead to help me start a publishing nonprofit. I’d always thought writers should try to create the means of production, free themselves from the marketplace. Current technology makes that increasingly possible. El Leon is pure cottage industry. Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, is our great commercial success, though commercial success was never my intention. I just like stealing fire from the gods, seeing certain manuscripts become books. Always miraculous, and, like a cathedral, the work of many talented artisans. Shawna Yang Ryan’s novel, Locke 1928 (now titled Water Ghosts) was picked up by Penguin, and Barrio Bushido, by Benjamin Bac Sierra, is apt to find a wide audience. But audience isn’t my primary concern, it’s making the book. By the end of 2011, El Leon Literary Arts will have published 25 of them, many more than I ever thought of bringing into an unwilling world. I can’t predict El Leon’s future—as with my writing, it will be a question of time, stamina, desire.

Zara Raab’s Book of Gretel draws on her experiences in remote parts of rural California. Her poems appear in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, and Spoon River Poetry Review, her reviews in Poetry Flash, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Colorado Review. Her first full-length collection, Swimming the Eel, is due out this fall.