Tom Barbash’s third novel, The Dakota Winters, sets a 20-something’s coming of age in a richly drawn New York City in 1979, as he struggles to come to terms with and step out of his exuberant father’s shadow. We chatted with Barbash about writing this colorful novel and what comes next.
What inspired The Dakota Winters?
I started out by wanting to write about a family living in the Dakota apartment building in the year John Lennon was assassinated. I grew up five blocks away from that hauntingly beautiful castle with the dry moat outside and the gargoyles and the arched entryway, and the famous people living within. I then imagined a celebrity father, a famed talk show host trying to get his life back, and it all started to come together.
Buddy Winters feels immediately recognizable in his landscape. What did you draw from as you fleshed out this character’s place in his own history?
I appreciate your saying that. I drew on the great talk show hosts my parents used to watch, particularly Dick Cavett, who had to my eyes the best job in the world. He had such a wide range of fascinating guests, and his shows were cultural events in and of themselves. The more I learned about that world, the more it seemed you would need to bring along your best brain to work, that you couldn’t afford to drift or fall into a funk. And I wondered about someone breaking under that pressure. I’ve also always been interested in the shifting roles we play with our parents, and someday likely with our kids, how unnerving it can be when someone who has taken care of you your whole life now needs your guidance and support.
The attention to setting plays a huge role in this story’s telling. What drew you to New York City in 1979? What did your research process look like as you prepared to write the novel?
The novel spans from late 1979 through 1980, and the more I lived in that year, the more I saw it as a pivotal year in the life of New York City and the country. You had the hostage crisis and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, and a presidential election that changed everything. And you had the end of disco and the birth of new wave, so many great bands. In order to write the book, I lived in that year. I read the archived New York Times right through the year, and by reading The New Yorker and New York Magazine, I knew which bands played in which clubs and what movies were out and where. I watched a lot of those movies and read the magazines and some of the books that came out, and felt as though I was there, as unable as my characters to imagine the world we all live in now.
What begins like a straightforward coming-of-age story weaves its way through so much of its setting that the city and the narrator seem to commiserate in their mutual growing pains. How did the place itself feed what you were able to show about Anton?
The city was a dicey place back then, in particular the Upper West Side where your sense of danger could change literally block to block. I lived on 77th Street off Columbus near the Dakota, and you could see, back then, that block starting to gentrify. Anton both loves the city and longs to eventually leave it because it feels so much like his parents’ world and not entirely his own.
John Lennon’s character adds pivotal depth to Anton’s story. I can imagine the challenge of situating a fictional character into a pivotal moment in a well-known celebrity’s life. How did you prepare to step into Lennon’s story and voice? What were the challenges? What did you most enjoy about this process?
Yes, indeed, it was a daunting task to bring John to life in a novel. I read several biographies, and then the accounts of his personal assistant and his spiritual adviser, and I watched dozens of interviews of him on YouTube (and those great movies—A Hard Day’s Night, Help, Let It Be), and I read his collected letters. But the best thing I did was to read some of the books he read in that last year and watch the movies he watched. His assistant Fred Seaman listed many of these in his book. In that way I could track his fascinations, one of which was the sea.
New York City in 1980 was not without its own turbulent sociocultural landscape, often in ways that our present news cycle seems to mirror. How much did the state of current events play into the writing of this story?
There are so many parallels, issues in the Middle East, specifically Iran, tensions with the Soviet Union, a celebrity presidential candidate that few people at first took seriously, and a country obsessed with fame and being famous. I think both that time and our current moment are periods of great anxiety. I do think John’s breakthrough in Bermuda and Buddy’s smaller one on his new show offer proof that there are second acts in American life, albeit quieter ones.
What are you working on next?
A novel that takes place within the world of movies. But I’m still scratching out the particulars. More news to come.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Dakota Winters.
Author photo by Sven Wiederholt.