Q&A: A Bay Area writer cut from Hemingway cloth

Name: Perry Garfinkel
Age: 66
City: Berkeley
Position: Freelance writer, teacher, drummer

J.: You’ve been a New York Times contributor since 1986, written “Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All,” and “In a Man’s World.” You’ve also ghostwritten several books. When did you get into writing?

Perry Garfinkel: Ever since I was in second grade, I wrote creative sentences and started getting stars at the top of my essays, but I never followed the journalism track. I didn’t work for my high school or college paper. But after getting my undergraduate degree in English, I had to make a choice of where to go and what to do. So, the summer after graduation, I got an internship at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. At the time, the Vietnam War was hot and heavy, and graduate school was a deferment from the draft. My draft number was 267 and I was sweating bullets. But they only got up to 200, so I never went to graduate school.
J.:
Do you ever regret that? 

PG: For years I thought [writing] is what I’m going to do until I figure out what I’m really going to be when I grow up. Then around age 28-30, I had already started to work for the Boston Globe and helped to start a magazine called New Age Journal. It was when I got a book deal that I said to myself, “This is what I’m doing.” It’s one of those things when you look back at your life that all the arrows were there, but I am very anti-arrows. I go against the tide, even my own tide [laughs]. I thought, “This is what I do, and this is what I do well.”

Perry Garfinkel

J.: You are a lifelong percussionist and recently wrote a piece in the New York Times about how music influences your writing. How does it?

PG: I play traps, but I’ve studied tablas, which are a type of drums in India, and played conga and the bongos a little. There are a lot of metaphors between writing and music. There are allusions to writing that have to do with the beat and the pause. I became aware that my writing had a rhythm that I was unconscious of until I started analyzing it and started to teach writing. If I’ve written a long sentence, I need to write a short sentence to balance it. I’m a huge fan of Hemingway and he was a big fan of staccato. Lately, I’ve been writing more staccato-y.

J.: When did you move to the Bay Area?

PG: I moved in the winter of 1980. I was crossing the Richmond Bridge into Marin when I heard on the radio that John Lennon was shot. I was in a U-Haul with all of my worldly possessions and was moving into an apartment in the Inner Sunset. My ex-wife and I had been talking about moving out here for some time, and since we had a 1-year-old daughter, we separately moved together. I was going between both coasts for a while, but I’m back now with all of my stuff under one roof.

J.: You were born in New York and grew up in New Jersey in a Conservative Jewish household. How do you affiliate now?

PG: I’m an unaffiliated Jew in the classic tradition of the Jewish movement. I may attend High Holy Days, or maybe I don’t. Maybe I perform Shabbat. I do Hanukkah. Even days I don’t go to shul, I still fast on Yom Kippur and take a day of retreat, whether it’s a hike in the Berkeley Hills or in temple. I also practice the principles of Buddhism, which are meditation, compassion and awareness in the present moment. I call myself a Bu-Jew.

J.: So would you say you practice equal parts Buddhism and Judaism?

PG: I’ve always been a nascent spiritual pilgrim. After my bar mitzvah, I moved away from Judaism and found Eastern disciplines in my 20s. But I have the Jewish shtick: I have a very Jewish sense of humor, I’m charming, a rascal. I also love corned beef and smoked fish.

In a crowd of people, I know I’m Jewish: I subconsciously look around and think who is Jewish and who is not. Like Woody Allen, I kind of know when I’m in a room full of goyim.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to liz@jweekly.com.

Abra Cohen