An interview with Joel Tomfohr, from The Write Stuff series:
Joel Tomfohr has an MA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and an MFA from Mills College in Oakland, CA. He has held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont (2013), The Cultural Center in New York Mills, Minnesota (2014), and the Headlands Center for the Arts (2014-2015). Most recently, he was the Emerging Writer in Residence at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods in Soquel, CA. His fiction has appeared in 580 Split, and sPARKLE&bLINK.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I tell them I’m an English teacher. I guess I say that because that’s what I get paid to do. If they keep prodding, I might say that I write. I might even say that, for better or worse, writing is the lens through which I process the world. It is a huge part of my identity, and yet it’s something that I do largely by myself and keep relatively private.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
I struggle when I am not physically writing, like putting pen to paper or clacking away at my laptop. I am terrorized by the fear that I might not have anything else to say, that I won’t be able to write again when I need to.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Write as much as you can and try not to think too much about whether it’s good or not. Also, I would tell them to read widely, from high to low.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Sure! I’m in a stable relationship, I have a job that I like, that is meaningful and that allows me to write, to live where I want to live, to eat, and to travel when I need to.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
There’s not just one that does the trick. I watch a lot of live music and imagine I was there. I think my favorite is footage of Cream playing Tales of Brave Ulysses and Spoonful from 1968. Jack Bruce is wearing a cossack hat, and Clapton has on a fur vest and a sleazy mustache. Ginger Baker is wailing away on the drums. Great solos, great style.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
Probably my grandpa on my mom’s side. He played baseball on a farm league—he was a good bunter. In just about all of my memories he was a kind, generous, and gentle individual.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
If I don’t think very hard, I guess I’d list off a bunch of baseball players. But, when I think about it a little more and try to remember my cosmology back then, my answer would change. I know this might sound easy, but first I would probably say my parents. My dad was a visual artist and he had a studio in our basement. He worked with metal and wood, and so when I’d go down there, I’d see all of his carvings, and sketches, his table saw, and there was the smell of varnish, and there were wood shavings on the concrete floor, and everything was dusty. Sometimes he’d give me a piece of sandpaper and let me sand something down. My mom was an English teacher and directed theater at the high school, and I used to go to her rehearsals. Sometimes she’d show her students the thing that she wanted them to do, and I’d see her transform into this completely different person. I think I just thought what they did was magical, though I couldn’t really articulate it as such. I looked up to my older brothers as well. My oldest ran track and acted in theater, and sang in choir, and he eventually got a scholarship to run track at a college in Iowa. My next oldest brother painted, and listened to Jane’s Addiction and read stuff like Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. He was generally on the fringes, and I thought that was pretty cool. I think I caught glimpses of all the different people I could become by watching them. I guess I had an idea that I would want to go into the arts in some way or another.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
I just spent two weeks in a cabin without electricity in Soquel at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods. I passed a lot of time sitting on the porch, looking at Monterey Bay, and writing in my notebook. I took a long walk in a redwood forest. I read The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, by Jose Saramago, and Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne, and Sonnets to Orpheus.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
I don’t think I could do it. I know it’s boring, but whatever. I have a hard time talking in front of a group of people, so being naked is unimaginable.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
I don’t know. Not a lot, but I think there’s enough there for groceries, a trip to the movies, and maybe a record or two. Definitely a book.
What’s wrong with society today?
Cops killing black people. White supremacy. Drones. Global warming. Demagoguery. Zealotry. Capitalism.
What is your fondest memory?
I recently went to Maui with my girlfriend and I spent one afternoon swimming in and getting pummeled by the waves. That was pretty amazing.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
I definitely don’t fall in love every day. That would be exhausting.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
The end of all the things I said are wrong with society today.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art is the communication of the experience of living, whatever that is. It’s absolutely necessary. It shows us ourselves and gives our lives meaning.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
All of the things!
What are you working on right now?
I’m rewriting a draft of a novel. I write short stories when they come to me.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I would like to do what I’m doing, but better. Always better. There are so many people whose work I admire—Micheline Aharonian Marcom is the first that comes to mind. Her first two books—Three Apples Fell from Heaven, and The Daydreaming Boy—are stylistically brilliant. They turn their gaze toward the Armenian genocide and don’t look away. Laleh Khadivi’s first novel—Age of Orphans—is another book that I admire. She seamlessly, seemingly effortlessly, combines style and story that is reminiscent of Faulkner. Keenan Norris is another writer whose both written work and work ethic I admire. I haven’t had the opportunity to read his first book, Brother and the Dancer, but it’s high on the list. Muthoni Kiarie’s writing is very admirable to me. She writes about a lot of stuff, but what comes to mind is the split identity that accompanies being both Kenyan, and American. Sam Sattin’s second book, The Silent End, is another piece of writing I admire. It is wildly imaginative and unbridled in a way that I want my work to be. Beyond my Bay Area peers and mentors, I really admire Karl Ove Knausgard. His writing is elegant, profound, humorous. He fills pages and pages with the most banal activities and it’s riveting. He embeds interesting essays in the middle of story. He captures the entire spectrum of life. I could go on and on…
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
It would be more affordable.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
A “night on the town” means walking with my girlfriend to my favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurant—Little Shin Shin—for dinner then to ice cream at Fenton’s for desert, and then going home to watch horror movies.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
I was on the metro in Mexico City and I watched a panhandler walk barefoot on broken glass. He said he would stop if people gave him money.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
50 words? I can probably tell a bad joke, maybe write a poem. 50 dollars? I would buy more books and records.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Eucalyptus. Coffee. The ocean.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
Die and live to write a story about it.