Author Tim Barretto  

About Tim BarrettoSearching for JoyNews and EventsBuy Searching for Joy


Searching for Joy by Tim Barretto

About Searching for Joy

Read excerpts from the book:

From Chapter 1 A Fine Day

From Chapter 3 Art and Artifice

From Chapter 5 Preventive Maintenance

From Chapter 7 A Simple Request

From Chapter 9 Better to Give

From Chapter 11 Searching for Joy

Read an Interview with author Tim Barretto



Interview with Author Tim Barretto

Interviewer: Molly Colman

What's the book about?

The most basic answer is:  it's about a man facing cancer who is trying to figure out the meaning of his life—what's most important, in his relationships with his wife and, especially, his son.  Ultimately, the book is about examining one's life, confronting what has happened, and learning to have a passion for living, a passion for life.  It's also about the complex tensions in a family, particularly in a father-son relationship.  And, I’d like to think it's about finding ways to celebrate life, and to pass this on from one generation to the next.

How did you get the idea for this book?

I posed the question to myself—what if I were to discover today or tomorrow that I have only a short amount of time to live, say 6 months, or a year…what would that do to me?  How would that change me?  By writing the book I wanted, I suppose, to learn how to live life more fully.  I do not want to feel, at the end of my life, that I have wasted it.

Writing the book has had an impact on the way I think about life.  I hope I’ve learned to value each day a little bit more, and to appreciate each person I love a little more consciously, not take life, or the people I love, for granted.  But I also think this is a lesson we all need to learn again and again in life.  As much as we'd like to think we are living each day fully, it's too easy to fall into complacency, to take life, and people, for granted.  We tend to forget things, even the most important things, fairly easily, and need to relearn a great deal in life.

Why is the book set in Portsmouth, NH?

I originally planned to have main characters, Tom and Fran, own a small hotel, or a bed & breakfast, with lots of people coming and going, unusual people, who might present unusual plot twists.  Portsmouth seemed like the best setting for this.  However, I realized after a while that that wouldn't work—the book was going to be very interior, or internal, and it just wouldn't work to have a lot of characters and unusual plot twists.  I knew the focus would be squarely, and primarily, on Tom, with a secondary focus on members of his family.  Once I understood the focus, I just decided I still liked the idea of having it set locally, and most definitely, in NH.

What made you have cancer, specifically prostate cancer, as the disease Tom suffers from?

My first thought was simply to present an illness, or disease, that was life-threatening, or perhaps terminal, but that would allow time for Tom and his family to understand what was happening and to have time to reflect upon it.  Cancer became a logical disease to consider since it kills so many people every year.  And then prostate cancer seemed to make even more sense because I was trying to find a disease that was in some way essentially male, and that would undermine a man's sense of himself as a man. Cancer is a devastating, humbling disease, and for a man, prostate cancer can be especially humbling.  It can force men to make some very difficult choices, choices that cause them to confront what it means to be a man.  Things like incontinence and impotency, especially for men who like to feel a sense of control in their lives, can present an extraordinarily difficult challenge.

Did personal experience with cancer influence your writing of this book?

I would have to say both yes and no in answer to that question.  "No" in the sense that the idea for the novel—the idea of a man confronting his own mortality—and the focus on prostate cancer specifically, developed independent of any personal experience with cancer.  "Yes" in the sense that cancer has struck many people I love and respect, and in turn that has had a profound effect on my understanding of its deadliness.  My grandfather died of stomach cancer when I was about 10, but more recently my mother died of uterine cancer in 2002; one of my sisters has twice been diagnosed with breast cancer and is, thankfully, five years beyond her second diagnosis and treatment; and a good friend and teaching colleague of mine underwent surgery for prostate cancer a month after Searching for Joy was published.  This was incredibly ironic in that he is sixty years old and an architect, like Tom in the novel, and I found out about his diagnosis right about the time the book was published.  So the fact is that while personal experience with cancer did not influence the initial concept of the novel, at least not insofar as I am consciously aware, it certainly informed some of the actual writing of the novel.

Father-son relationships are a central focus in the book; can you talk about why you were drawn to that theme?

Every parent wonders at some point, I think, have I done the right thing by my child, or by my children?  Have I been a good father?  That's what Tom finds himself asking in Searching for Joy, after he's discovered he has cancer.  Unfortunately, in Tom's case, it's a question he doesn't ask of himself seriously until it's nearly too late in his life.  For Tom, like for many of us, I suspect, it's been easy to drift along just sort of assuming he's doing OK as a parent.  When he finds he has cancer he suddenly begins to question this assumption, and he finds he's not so sure of the answer anymore.  In fact, he's very much convinced he's been a failure as a father.  His son, Ben, also weighs in on the relationship at times in the book.  And what I hope a reader sees in reading Searching for Joy is that the relationship between a father and a son is very complicated.  There's love—profound, intense, and often unspoken, and there's competition, which can also be intense and can come out in all kinds of ways, from very subtle ways to very flagrant, obvious ways.  And there's pride—pride in a good and selfless sense, and pride in a dangerous, destructive sense also.   Negotiating a father-son relationship is often not easy on either side, but whether it's a generally positive or generally negative relationship, there's no question that in some ways it's the most important and powerful relationship a male has in his life.

What kind of research did you do to write the book?

I've read a great deal about prostate cancer—symptoms, treatments, testimonials by men who have had it.  And I’ve read a good deal also about death and dying, both nonfiction and fiction.  And my wife, Mary, is a nurse, so I often ran medical questions by her.  The fiction included rereading some of my favorite books, such as Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner; The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, which led to rereading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway; A Death in the Family, by James Agee; The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy; Thornton Wilder's wonderful play Our Town.  Fortunately, UNH has provided me with sabbatical leaves which have given me time to do a significant amount of research and writing over the years.  I did much of the research and a good deal of the writing of Searching for Joy on my last sabbatical leave in 2000-01.

How did you come up with the title?

The title, Searching for Joy, actually came to me, I think, before I did much or maybe even any of the writing.  I came up with it while I was doing a writing exercise I learned from Don Murray.  Murray would sometimes ask students to brainstorm possible titles for a piece, or pieces, they might like to write, while he would do the same thing on the board in front of them.  I was doing exactly this—brainstorming possible titles on the board while my students were doing the same at their desks.  After we had done this for about 15 minutes or so, I looked at the titles I had on the board and asked which ones students liked.   I can't honestly remember how many liked Searching for Joy, but I liked it then, and it just stuck with me through the years.

Are there any particular books or writers that have inspired you or influenced your work?

Many books and writers have influenced me—countless, really.  But as for books and writers that have influenced this specific book—Searching for Joy—the ones I mentioned before were profound influences: Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety; Michael Cunningham's The Hours, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway; James Agee's A Death in the Family; Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych; Thornton Wilder's Our Town.  In a broader historical sense, novelists I've admired or who have influenced me a great deal are Dostoevsky—The Brothers Karamazov is my favorite book of all, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce… contemporary writers like Anne Tyler, John Irving, John Updike, Jane Smiley, and Cormac McCarthy…and closer to home I've enjoyed New Hampshire writers like Ernest Hebert, Becky Rule, and Jodi Picoult.  But there are many many other writers—some famous, some not—I mean, I've been focusing on fiction and haven't even mentioned Shakespeare or Ibsen, so there are plenty of others.

And I can't say enough about the support of all the fine UNH writers and mentors I studied with at UNH in the graduate fiction writing program—John Yount, Mark Smith, and Tom Williams— writers for whom I have great respect and appreciation. John Yount, in particular, helped me probably more than he will ever know by doing a couple of things:  first, he treated my writing seriously, as did all of the writing professors at UNH, and this is incredibly important to any writer—young or old—who is asking himself if he has anything worth writing about, anything worth someone else reading.  John never gave me the sense that I was wasting his time—he treated my work with a seriousness and dignity I probably didn't even have for it myself.  Second, I’ll never forget this—he invited me out one time to do some oystering with him on Great Bay, on a very cold day in December, and we had a wonderful time, and brought back bushel baskets full of oysters.  On other occasions he invited me to do some fly fishing for trout and salmon with him, and to play tennis—these things all meant a great deal to me because underneath it all, I guess what it made me believe was that my work had some value, that I as a writer had some value, whether my work ever got published or not.  And to have this coming from a thoughtful, established, tough-minded writer like John…it's hard to overestimate how important an influence that was.  And even recently…I gave him a copy of Searching for Joy, and after he had read it he took me out to lunch in Durham to celebrate the book's publication.  He’s a wonderful man, and has certainly been a profound influence.

The outdoors—skiing and fishing, for example—appear prominently in the book; what role does nature play in Tom’s search for meaning?

That's a great question.  For Tom I think nature provides a way to scrape off layers of excess, or perhaps pretension, in life and get down to what is most important to him.  He's able to see life and death as two necessary but opposing parts of a whole, the "whole" being that process that all living things go through, so far as we know.  I guess you could say that nature, for Tom, is a kind of touchstone for life—it provides a way for him to center himself, to see what is most real or important in life.

How did you find a publisher?  Was it a difficult process?

Actually, yes, it was a very difficult process.  I tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher for nearly three years and was just about to give up when I called the New Hampshire Writers Project and spoke to Barbara Yoder about the possibility of electronic publication.  She suggested, instead, that I try Beech River Books and Brad Marion.  I immediately did as she suggested and things fell into place quickly after that—it was amazing!  I felt very fortunate, and grateful, on two counts.  First, for Barbara's patience, willingness to listen and, of course, for her suggestion; and second for Brad Marion, who has been incredibly supportive right from the first time I spoke with him.



©2007 Tim Barretto | email