An INTERVIEW with THE PROVINCETOWN BANNER
Soul of an artist
Wolfson’s novel and monologue chronicle journey of selfdiscovery and trust
By Lee Roscoe Banner Correspondent
In his new first novel, “The Blackfish Inheritance,” author Thomas Wolfson takes protagonist Leon Perlman on a journey through many selves and through the gestalt of the 1960s in a way that speaks to many of that generation but also to anyone struggling for meaning in opposition to a difficult family. Leon is born into Manhattan privilege, yet fails in a society that defines ambition and achievement as de rigueur. He becomes a plumber, an insurance salesman, and finally a school teacher who comes to terms at last with his overwhelming father and with himself. This transformation includes the discovery of a mysterious spirit path and the support of his wife on a journey that takes them to Wellfleet. The story is often startlingly revelatory, with writing almost clairvoyant in describing people and places.
The Banner talked with Wolfson, who is delivering a theatrical performance of his monologue, “The Finer Life,” on Wednesday, Sept. 2, at Wellfleet Preservation Hall:
Banner: How much of your protagonist Leon’s story is you?
Wolfson: All of the events and characters are directly rendered from my emotional and spiritual experience. Yet in that we are always changing from one moment to the next — stumbling, gliding, forging, falling into the unknown future — Leon of the book is not the same as Tom Wolfson of today. This is fictionalized autobiography, or creative nonfiction.
Banner: Is the Manhattan you describe still intact?
Wolfson: If you mean the emergence of a post-World War II cultivated upper middle class steeped in the world of theater, art, literature, music, etc., then yes, I would think it still exists. I haven’t lived in Manhattan for 45 years. I suspect the city’s preeminence may be diminishing somewhat. New York City has grown impossibly expensive [with] materialistic value systems controlled and passed down by profit-driven corporate elites.
Banner: You are a painter, actor, writer. Talk about that life.
Wolfson: Our society values material wealth and achievement far more than artistic achievement. To claim myself as an artist, and really as a human being, is to have the courage to expose and share a unique vision regardless of whether or not it makes me an outcast or a fool. I have often felt myself to be an outcast, which has led me to question: am I neurotic, crazy, and unworthy — or am I an artist? An artist is often unconstrained by the conventional norms of society, which is not to say we have license to behave badly or narcissistically. To share one’s soul unimpeded by self-deprecation — in love and vulnerability, in the arts, in service — is for me life’s primary purpose and joy.
Banner: What’s your relationship with place in the book?
Wolfson: I have a deep love for Wellfleet and the Cape. In the context of the “now,” it is a remarkably beautiful and unusual place, which anyone can appreciate. In the context of my entire life it is the personification of my paternal struggle, pain, joy, tragedy, exasperation, family then and family now. I can no more flee from it than I can flee from myself.
Banner: How much of the book is based on your monologues? The difference between acting and writing is…?
Wolfson: “The Finer Life” monologue was adapted from the second chapter of “The Blackfish Inheritance” while I was writing it. I love the immediacy, audience participation, emotional intensity, three dimensionality and adrenalin which live theater affords. A book gives you more control to open or close it, to ponder, participate and imagine. Banner: A big piece of the novel is your relationship with the Wampanoags.
Wolfson: I was friends with Frank James [Aquinnah elder, activist, music teacher, who appears as himself in the book] for the last four years of his life. As a member of First Parish Church I worked as an ally with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, primarily raising funds for their housing assistance program.
Banner: What do you want to do for your readers?
Wolfson: I want readers to come away with compassion for their own struggles, no matter how wretched they may judge them to be. No matter how difficult life is, it is all to be celebrated, the good and the bad, the light and the dark, for ultimately it is all an awesome mystery.