Thursday, April 3, 2008

Writing New York with Tom Dolby

Tom Dolby, Dagmar Dolby, Ray Dolby, Natasha Desterro, and David Dolby.
Tom Dolby (yes, that Dolby) is an accomplished novelist who recently published The Sixth Form, his second novel. It tells the story of two teenage boys, one gay, one straight, unsteadily navigating their way at a fictitious boarding school named Berkley Academy in Massachusetts. Tom himself went to Hotchkiss but the novel is not an exposé of the school — although it does faithfully document certain teenage wickednesses. Better yet, it is a genuinely felt exploration of teenage insecurity and all the secret fervor that informs their inner lives, the lives they often work so hard to hide.

I was thinking on my way over here how the description of a book as a ‘coming of age story’ is over-used. It doesn’t mean an awful lot.

I think it’s totally a label. It’s probably just an easy way for the publisher to say this fits into the category. What I realized with [this] book is that is sort of a sexual, emotional coming of age but that’s just one aspect of the whole story … someone once said to me ‘What happens when you’ve come of age? Do you ever have to go through that again?’

Yes, maybe life is one long coming-of-age. There is a scene [in Sixth Form] that I particularly love is where Ethan [one of the main characters, a teenage boy who is involved with Hannah, an attractive, 30-something teacher] is handed a bottle of wine by Hannah, asked to open it, and he doesn’t know how.

Yeah, I mean drinking, and knowing how to drink or knowing how to open a wine bottle, it’s like a symbol of being an adult, and he doesn’t have any idea. The thing about the sexual coming of age that’s interesting to me is that I realize that gay or straight, it doesn’t matter. They’re kind of going through their separate journeys but it’s kind of the same thing.

Do you think so? Because if my own son came to me and told me he was gay, there’s only one thing that would worry me about it and that is I imagine their adolescence is even more agonizing than if you’re straight. You’re saying maybe not?

Right, right. I think it’s so hard to say. I’m sure there are gay teenagers who have an easy time and straight teenagers who have a miserable time. It could go either way. I thought with these two boys, there is almost a similar level of angst.

  Daniel Vosovic and Tom Dolby at a book launch party for Tom's “The Sixth Form" hosted by Christian and Gillian Hearst Simonds at the Rugby Ralph Lauren store on University Place.
Yes, I was wondering if these kinds of books are less a coming-of-age than a kind of emotional samizdat, where you are sending messages to people about an underground emotional life, one they are too shy to talk about on the surface.

Yes! Yes! I love that idea.

Who do you think your readership is? I think parents would be curious to read this book.

It’s really all over the map. There’s a lot of parents and it is young people, which I find very flattering. I’ve actually gotten emails from Hotchkiss parents for example … they all want to find out what’s going on at the school! [starts to laugh].

I have the impression that America doesn’t like its teenagers very much.

Yeah, teenagers are sort of these scary beasts that nobody knows how to deal with!


I don’t think they are scary beasts, and they’re not like that in your novel either. They’re very vulnerable.

Melissa de la Cruz and Tom Dolby celebrating a collection of co-edited essays entitled, Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys: True Tales of Love, Lust, and Friendship Between Straight Women and Gay Men.  
It’s weird actually in society because they’re either these sort of incommunicative monsters, or they are totally sexualized, in terms of females particularly. And yeah, I don’t think either of those perceptions is accurate. Teenagers can be incommunicative, but they’re always trying to tell you something. That’s what I found when I visited the school [Hotchkiss].

You went to Hotchkiss. Did you like it?

I was there for three years and I was totally free of the sort of distractions of living in the city, living with my parents. I was in a new place, so it was definitely a new experience, just in terms of growing up. I think getting out of the house, getting away from your parents … I had a fine relationship with my parents but there’s that particular sort of leap of growth that a lot of kids take in the freshman year of college, but sometimes you’re just ready to do it little bit earlier.

One of the things that could be worrying about boarding school is that it is such a world of privilege in many ways, that you’re always surrounded by lots of other privileged people.

I don’t find it’s really the case actually. The schools are very diverse, even if they’re not as diverse as public school. There’s a certain equalizing factor that’s really wonderful because you have the privileged kids but there are only so many ways they can manifest what they have. They might have a slightly fancier computer, or … even their clothes. It’s not really considered cool to have nice clothes. You will not see a Gucci or a Louis Vuitton handbag within a hundred miles.

But school can be a brutal place.

I feel like boarding schools have become a little bit more socially aware, and almost like emotionally aware. Even since I was at Hotchkiss certain things have changed. There are these rituals. I mean they never allowed hazing and yet even when I went back to the school I heard about some things, just these really stupid rules. They don’t currently use trays in the dining room because they did and the sort of unspoken rule was that it was really uncool for girls to use trays because they would be eating too much or something. So I said to the kids, ‘Well do the girls just, like, go up twenty times to get their meal?’ and they said ‘They just eat like an apple or whatever.’ Luckily they got rid of the trays so now everybody has to go up twenty times. At it’s absolute worse, you do have sort of The Lord of the Flies.
Last month, San Franciscans Francoise and Andrew Skurman held a cocktail reception at their apartment on Nob Hill to fete the publication of Tom Dolby's The Sixth Form. Guests enjoyed a stunning 15th-floor view of the Bay from the Skurmans' silver and white pad, which was designed by Skurman, an architect, himself.

Attendees included Dagmar and Ray Dolby, David Dolby and Natasha Desterro, Jennifer Siebel, TV personalities Jan Yanehiro and Liam Mayclem, novelist K.M. Soehnlein, Richard Goldman, Antonia Clark and Michael Cohen, Monika and Harry Hunt, Helene de Baubigny and John Golob, Vaughn Woodson, JaMel and Tom Perkins, ACT's Carey Perloff and Heather Kitchen, Jean and Sandy Robertson, Barbara and Jim Willenborg, and Jerry Rosenstein, among others.
Liam Mayclem and Jan Yanehiro
Lucy Weissman and Tom Perkins
Andrew Skurman and Francoise Skurman
Dagmar Dolby, Richard Goldman, and Helen Hilton Raiser
Peter Solmssen and Barbara Willenborg
Tom Dolby and Jennifer Siebel
Robert and Jacqueline Young
Lucy Weissman and Natasha Desterro
Francoise Skurman, Antonia Clark, and Monica Hunt
Helene de Baubigny and John Golob
Vaughn Woodson and Peggi McGlynn
Tom Perkins, JaMel Perkins, Kathleen Solmssen, and Peter Solmssen
What are you reading at the moment?

There are some really interesting books that have come out in the last five years about how people view money and class, the sort of new era of money that we’re in. Bobos InParadise [by David Brooks], was one of those, and Richistan [by Robert Frank] that came out, I think over the summer. These books are just fascinating to me because it’s not what I’m used to in terms of my relationship to money.

Did you grow up privileged and wealthy?

I was very fortunate growing up but my parents were really very practical people. Their biggest fear in the world was spoiling their children. They don’t like to waste. I’ve sort of gotten this lesson buried in me. It doesn’t matter how much you have you just don’t waste money.

As a writer, do you feel that you’re always on the outside?

I think even when you’re on the inside, you’re still observing things. Writers, maybe we create these fantasy lives for people. I feel like I’ve never really not been a writer. I’m constantly imagining what other people are doing—and it probably has no bearing on what they’re actually doing! That’s just what I do.

— Lesley Hauge
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