Hazards to the Human Heart

"Exploring that mysterious place called love"

July, 28, 1980

by Mickey Friedman

When the 36-year old Berkeley writer Thomas Farber sat down to begin his latest book, "Hazards of the Human Heart, " he discovered that I was an obdurate person." Why? He intended to write a colllection of short stories--his third. Who else but the personification of stubbornness would persist in a form for which the magazine market is dangerously tight and which book publishers regard with only slighly more enthusiasm than they reserve for the kiss of death, poetry.

Still, Farber says, " you have to do what you love," and he loves short fiction. Through writing his three collections--"Tales for the Son of My UnBorn Child" and "Who Wrote the Book of Love?" preceded "Hazards to the Human Heart"--he has realized that short stories are "the way I see things. I'm not going to be a kind of Dickens, writing in great expanses."

Although his works are published seperately, in magazines such as the North American Review and Cosmopolitan, Farber conceives his short story collections as books, bound by a theme. Recently, he has focused on a particular topic. It could be called male-female relationships or some other euphemistic phrase, but there's a simpler name for it: love. "In my first book, I dealt with larger events. The '60s started me," Farber says." By the 70s, all I could hear people talking about was being in and out of love. It was hard to ignore those voices. I felt like the Vasco da Gama of the gains and dangers of being with someone. The love Farber writes about is neither the sappy happy-ending illusion of the romantic novel nor the mechanical cynicism of pornography. He's concerned with love as it is celebrated and agonized over in the world he knows, and his book is subtitled" Stories of the Here and Now." Here, for example, is Farber on a marriage, from his story, "The Mad Dog Instructional League":

I don't really want to paint my wife as some kind of virgin. She simply had the opportunity to say something critical, throwing in a little self-righteousness, and did so. We just weren't doing all that well together. Still partners, yes. Sparring partners. And I was looking --after what some refs might have ruled a low blow--to clip her on the on the jaw, so to speak. Forget the so to speak. I really wanted to let her have it, not so much for the way she was, but for what we were now together. At odds. Cross purposed. Out of step. All I seemed to hear from her was no. Her eyes half the time saying "I told you so." And when truces were sustained long enough to touch, maybe to make love, then her body was so sweet and rich when I was in her I'd become enraged to think how soon it would all be bad again.

Of the hazards to his own heart, the tall dark-eyed Farber says only, "I've never been married, but I've been divorced." He has lived with a "very beautiful and quite extraordinary" woman for the past seven years, and has no children.

"Craft" is a word that recurs often in Farber's conversation. The handling and honing of his material, sometimes through as many as eight or ten drafts per story, is important to him. "I feel like a potter shaping this thing. It's very physical. I love writing it, but I also love revising it." In "Hazards," he says, he deliberately changed his style. "I slowed down. In 'Who Wrote the Book of Love?' I had the illusion that I was going right for the jugular. I scared myself, and thought I was too harsh. I wanted to be more opulent and gentle, to notice detail and to celebrate it."

Farber, who grew up in Boston and graduated from Harvard, is the son of Norma Farber, a well-known author of children's books. When he came to California after ollege, "wanting distance," he didn't dare think I'd be a writer. I thought I'd be a professor or a lawyer."

Arriving in 1960s San Francisco was a revelation. "The world changed, and I was coming of age," he says with slight self-mockery. "I was mean and lean, and more than a little bit crazy and wild." He stumbled on the underground newspaper San Francisco Express-Times and wrote some pieces for it, which led to his first book. In the process, he discovered that "the distance between the world I had grown up in and California were the stories I had to tell."

Writing short stories not being the most lucrative of activities, Farber supplements his income by teaching occasionally (he will be at UC Berkeley next year) and doing editing and technical writing. In 1978, while writing "Hazards," he received both a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction and a National Endowment of the Arts Writing Fellowship. Last year, he wrote and read his own stories on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

These activities "make me feel a kinship with the real world," Farber says. He sees writers as "outside the culture. A writer creates his world again all the time. It's a high risk as well as high reward situation." He speculates that "writers are the dangerous dreamers. They pull down all sorts of crazy lightning."

An interest that finds its way into many Farber stories is sports. "Freud said you must have love and work. I would add pick-up basketball."

Currently, Farber is doing a lot of reading, "meandering to see what I bump into that interests me," before beginning another project. He may not stick with love as a subject, and is toying with ideas as diverse as a study of adolescence or the story of explorer Cabeza de Vaca. He may even try a novel next time out: "I have greater and greater force to bring to writing. I know the craft and want to practice it."