Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted near the end of Tom La Farge’s life and remained unfinished upon his passing on October 22, 2020. La Farge’s wife, the writer Wendy Walker, wrote the following in an email after she typed up his longhand answers: “Even dying of brain cancer and often not knowing where he was, he had such amazing clarity of mind about writing…. Some of the handwriting was hard to read and I made the best guess I could at some places—where I couldn’t guess, I just noted (illegible). Of course, he would have rewritten these answers to make them absolutely clear. These were his thoughts as jotted down for a first go-round.” I decided to include the unanswered questions as an opportunity to add bonus information where applicable. I also included the questions in the hope that readers can keep some of them in mind as they discover and enjoy La Farge’s work.
George Salis: How would you explain the difference between an ‘adult’ fairy tale and a fairy tale period, or is there no major difference? Are the best children’s books those that an adult can enjoy too?
Tom La Farge: I think that difference depends on the valence you assign to the word “fairy.” That word can charge both the form of representation within that imaginal world and the manner in which the forms are made present to a reader: a presence that mimics a realistic history, or one that draws upon other sorts of representation, more inventive.
What we call fairy tales are most commonly folk tales rising from particular cultures, from a tradition of oral telling that often embodies the values of a natural allure and is aimed at young children. They are called “fairy tales” because they appeal to the appetites of young children for tales about magic and supernatural beings. Children learn from them how to steer clear of situations that thwart the will and adult fairy tales, to the extent that they present a magic world, do so with karmic (?) overtones.
The world of narrative fiction is a terrain divided by a wall, on one side of which lives mimetic fiction while across that wall…
The world of narrative fiction is divided by a barrier on one side of which lives mimetic fiction, where all looks like something the reader can recognize and set in place within a familiar framework, while on the other side words and images are barbarians, whose habits are not known to us.
GS: I remember watching a YouTube video of Ray Bradbury in conversation, and when he was asked about current authors he enjoys, he said that he greatly prefers modern children’s authors over ‘literary’ authors. To paraphrase, he said there was much more creativity and earnestness coming from the children’s books of his days. Is this something you can agree with to an extent or have ever felt in your reading life?
TLF: To answer this I would need to know some definitions. “Children’s authors” I take to be writers who shape their work to appeal to quite young readers and make it a commodity to be consumed by them. It cannot be too richly allusive to things that won’t be familiar to such readers. Children’s authors must trim their vocabulary to bring what they’re saying within reach.
As for literary writing, that could mean that the reader is expected to do some work to understand what’s being said and that work may demand the effort to become aware of the levels of meaning in an author’s language.
As for “literary writing,” to me the phrase says almost nothing about writing. Works that are constructed of language are intrinsically literary, since all the choices that must be made are a selection and arrangements of words. “Creativity and earnestness” as contrasted with “literary” writing strikes me as a kind of slap (?) and seems to accuse “literary” authors of pretentiousness and style driven by the models of other writers, of being imitative in order to impress. Such a response renders the reader liable to a charge of being unwilling to do the reader’s job and of giving up when the going gets too hard or the subject strays outside the terrain of the reader’s own interests.
GS: The back of The Crimson Bears makes a Tolkien comparison. Was this an influence on your trilogy? What other literary spirits animated you? Lewis Carroll? Aesop?
TLF: The Tolkien books offered me so many things to think about that I can’t think of many others that sent me in so many directions that I have continued to pursue. Travel and landscape were two of them. Tolkien didn’t only imagine another world, something I’m still actively looking for, he gave it inhabitants and he mapped it.
Never really very close to my father, who was fifty when I was born and died when I was 8, I found that we shared a world when he read me The Hobbit.
P.G. Wodehouse was another animating spirit, and from his writing I learned how to shape a sentence.
[Tom La Farge’s father, Christopher La Farge, was known in his time as an accomplished author of mostly novels in verse that focus on Rhode Island life, such as Hoxsie Sells His Acres (1934), The Sudden Guest (1946), and Beauty for Ashes (1953). His circle included such notable writers as Pearl S. Buck, Clifton Fadiman, Upton Sinclair, and John Dos Passos, all of whom worked together to publish a short-lived magazine called ’47—by artists, for artists. Among other things, they published a short story by Ralph Ellison that was later incorporated into Invisible Man. Literature and art must have been in the La Farge blood because Tom’s uncle, Oliver La Farge was also a writer and won the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Laughing Boy. Tom’s grandfather, Christopher Grant LaFarge [sic] was a respected architect who worked on parts of the Bronx Zoo and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Tom’s great-grandfather, John La Farge, was an artist who specialized in murals, stained glass (especially in churches), and more. Continuing the artistic tradition is Tom’s son, Paul La Farge, author of The Night Ocean (Penguin Press, 2017), among other novels.]
GS: What made you choose ursine protagonists? Is a bear your spirit animal, as it were? If not, what would be your spirit animal and why?
GS: Do you think the idea of talking animals allows humans to feel more connected to the web of nature, something that most of us so often deny? Conversely, is anthropomorphism reducing or appropriating in some way?
TLF: [The following is from the bio on La Farge’s website: “Reading and travel — twin vectors of escape — have formed me as a writer by exciting a love of strangeness and an impatience with exclusive concepts (adult/child, male/female, human/animal) and proprietary domains (realism/fantasy, serious fiction/genre fiction). I have always written to readers as a reader.
“My first book, the novel The Crimson Bears, grew out a bedtime story I was telling my son Paul. It is rooted in my love of foreign cities and of animal stories, to both of which I was introduced very young by my father. He took me to Europe for three years when I was two, in 1949, and his farm in Rhode Island offered me a pool full of frogs and a library full of illustrated books. When at nine, after his death, I was sent to boarding school in Switzerland, fear and loss sharpened my thinking about adaptation to difference, a theme that pervades two recent texts, my novel Zuntig, the most recent of my books to appear in print, and 2 Chameleons [currently unpublished]. This text is a memoir of a year (1997-8) spent in Chefchaouen and Essaouira, Morocco, with my wife, the writer Wendy Walker and juxtaposes the trajectory of our experience in a foreign world with the lives (and deaths) of two chameleons given into our care — the realest animal story I have ever written.”]
GS: Can you talk about the publisher’s decision to split The Crimson Bears in two? Do you think that led to the book being smothered in the crib as it were?
TFL: That decision was made by Douglas Messerli of Sun and Moon for practical reasons on his end. I sent the whole manuscript together and would have preferred to see it published all in one volume. Nothing in the structure of the book suggests to me that it would find more readers if brought out in two volumes. It interests me that no one has found A Hundred Doors weaker than The Crimson Bears. Two-part books sometimes use the first part to ask questions and to pose problems and the second to answer or resolve them. But I had found a world I was comfortable moving around in, so I followed my nose.
GS: How did the Omphalos come about to connect your various novels?
TFL: The word omphalos suggests an organic coherence which I think the books have, though it’s not something I designed. I didn’t want to write mapped stories, though I always liked maps.
Though I later decided to call the series The Enchantments [The Broken House (2015), Maznoona (2016), and Humans by Lamplight (2018)], my first name for them was The Mole Place novels after I found Mole Place, the booksellers’ center of Bargeton, seemed the right center of gravity through which to direct the strands of story to weave the larger web. A good bookstore pumps (?) the heart’s-blood of story through any fiction.
GS: There are what one could call ‘postmodern’ or ‘metafictional’ elements in your Crimson Bears trilogy. For instance, the beginning of Zuntig echoes, in a way, Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Can you talk about your interest in the metafictional?
TFL: I have never set out to make my writing “metafictional” and the very term is hazy to me, so I find this topic hard to discuss. Metafiction seems as though it ought to resemble allegory, in which I do have some interest. Allegory superimposes a figurative level of story on top of a more literal level. The story you’re reading implies another story and may indeed be about writing a story.
I have come to enjoy reading fiction that uses constraints that structure what’s being written, the way that Perec used the facade of a building in Paris to articulate the story he writes in Life A User’s Manual. He has created what I see as an architectural allegory.
GS: Your wife, Wendy Walker, has dabbled mostly in experimental forms since her first novel but you’ve stuck with that traditional form. Do you believe there’s more to the novel as a form than what has already been written? Or do you stick with it out of familiarity, for instance?
GS: In 2009, you and Wendy Walker began the Writhing Society, “a constrained-writing salon at the Proteus Gowanus Gallery and Reading Room in Brooklyn.” As your website explains, “There is no fee for attending. Anyone can walk in; no reservations needed, nor any prior experience, only a delight in language and a willingness to play. We explain what needs explaining, but this isn’t a class, so minimal instruction. There is no set sequence of topics; we do whatever seems most interesting on any given night and do not follow any sort of syllabus. Usually we write, but from time to time we try out constraints in visual or visual-verbal composition. Often the leaders only sketch out an idea for a constraint, and the writhers refine or reinvent it. We often engage in collaborative composition, passing work around the table for others to extend. And we always read aloud what we’ve written, not for critique as in a writing workshop, but because in this sort of writing the listener often finds a sense that had escaped the writer, who comes away liking the work better for having been shown that meaning.” How long did the Writhing Society go on? What are some of your best memories of it? Are there valuable insights you can share that stemmed from your literary exercises?
GS: What is your favorite example of constrained writing?
TFL: [La Farge wrote a series on constrained writing titled 13 Writhing Machines which consists of three pamphlets that should prove valuable to those interested in Oulipian writing and literary innovation in general. Here is a taste of what La Farge discusses: “In Homomorphic Converters, the second pamphlet of 13 Writhing Machines, several procedures for homomorphic composition are examined, including ‘Homovocalism’ (re-using the vowels of one sentence in writing a new one), and the ‘Chimera’ (keeping the sentence structure of one text while replacing the words with vocabulary from one, two, or three others). ‘Homoikonism’ is the conflation of visual forms with imagery not usually associated with those forms (a bowl of vegetables turns out to be the face of a man, when you turn it upside down). ‘Homoikonism’ discusses the visual applications and is illustrated throughout the pamphlet by several homomorphic alphabets.”]
GS: What is a novel you think deserves more readers?
GS: On the whole, your writing has been wrongly neglected yet despite this you continue to write. Why?
GS: Do you agree with the notion that one should write as though it were posthumously?
You can read a reprinted story by Tom La Farge on The Collidescope here. You can find a review of Zuntig here and a review of The Crimson Bears here. Be sure to check out the upcoming Tom La Farge Award for Innovative Writing, Teaching, and Publishing here.
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Tom La Farge was born in 1947 in Morristown, New Jersey. His father, Christopher La Farge, was a writer who wrote him letters with drawings of animals and introduced him to Pogo and Tolkien. At Harvard Tom wrote a thesis on Austen’s Emma and was president of The Harvard Lampoon. After graduation he turned to teaching as a way to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War. His first marriage, which produced a son, the writer Paul La Farge, ended in divorce in 1973. Tom went on to earn his doctorate in Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Princeton. In 1978 he met the writer Wendy Walker, who became his literary partner. They married in 1982 and lived in Manhattan on the Upper West Side.
Tom’s first novel in two volumes, The Crimson Bears / A Hundred Doors, takes place in a city of animals where the ability to speak becomes a political crux, and was published by Sun and Moon Press in 1993-4. His next book, Terror of Earth, won an 1996 America Award and was nominated for the Fisk Fiction Prize by Carol Maso. Zuntig, another novel set a world half beast fable, half animal ecology, came out from Green Integer in 2001.
In 1997-8 Tom took a self-financed sabbatical in Morocco, and that landscape thereafter fully informed his imaginal world. A trilogy called The Enchantments emerged from that experience: The Broken House (2015), Maznoona (2016), and Humans by Lamplight (2018), all from Spuyten Duyvil Press. During this period he also published criticism, translations and poetry in Chain, Parnassus, Paradoxa, Western Humanities Review, Furious Fictions, Marginalia, Black Scat, Words Without Borders and The &NOW Awards.
In 2008 Tom retired from teaching and moved to Brooklyn so he and Wendy could join the collective of the Proteus Gowanus Gallery/Reading Room. There they founded a press, Proteotypes, and a salon/class devoted to experimental writing procedures, The Writhing Society. Tom kept a blog to publish what the participants produced and also wrote three of a projected series of 13 Writhing Machines, pamphlets exploring different types of literary constraint. In 2015 he was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer. He continued to write until a few weeks before his death in October 2020.
His website is here.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.