“Even though I’m living in California, my fictional life has stayed on the East Coast,” says Tom Barbash, who grew up on New York City’s Upper West Side, the setting for several stories in his first collection: Stay Up with Me (Ecco Press, Sept.). Now living in Marin County and teaching in the California College of the Arts’ M.F.A. program, Barbash uses BEA as an excuse to return to his hometown. During his first trip to BEA 10 years ago, he came to support two books that were coming out in the same season: the award-winning novel The Last Good Chance, and the nonfiction book, On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, and 9/11: A Story of Loss and Renewal, which became a New York Times bestseller.
This time around, Barbash’s stories—contained in a galley wrapped in glowing blurbs from Jess Walter, Dave Eggers, and David Mitchell—are remarkable for their dark humor, elegant renderings of awkward family dynamics, and emotional intensity.
Barbash’s career is a tale punctuated by precocious talent and big breaks. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter in Syracuse and only began writing short stories in his mid-20s. As he explains, with modesty and gratitude: “I had only written about two stories when Doug Unger and Tobias Wolff took me under their wing and let me into their graduate M.F.A. workshop [at Syracuse University] when I’d never applied and was still a working local newspaper reporter.” After Syracuse, Barbash earned a fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, followed by the prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. A Michener Fellowship helped him complete his first novel, and he’s been writing fiction and journalism and teaching creative writing ever since.
An advocate for short stories, Barbash finds it highly gratifying to see the collection, written over the past 10 years, in print: “In any ways, the most important writing I’ve done is in my stories. You always hear about a lack of interest in story collections, but I didn’t find that to be the case. The team at Ecco has been terrifically supportive.”
Barbash is currently working on a novel about a family living in the Dakota apartments in 1980, the year John Lennon was assassinated. But Barbash is also writing about the city in that era. As he notes: “If you want to see the New York of my childhood, rent Dog Day Afternoon or The French Connection. I’m fascinated by how tough a place it was.”
Today, Barbash signs ARCs of Stay Up with Me: Stories at Table 16 in the Autographing Area, noon–12:30 p.m.