In 'The Dakota Winters,' Finding A New Story To Tell About John Lennon Tom Barbash's new novel is set in the famed Manhattan apartment house where Lennon spent the last year of his life — and where, in this telling, he befriends a washed-up talk show host and his son.

In 'The Dakota Winters,' Finding A New Story To Tell About John Lennon

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"The Dakota Winters" isn't a novel set on frozen prairies but in the rarified precincts of maybe the most famous apartment house in New York, the Dakota on the Upper West Side, the place in which luminaries lived and, perhaps the most famous, John Lennon, also died, shot to death just outside the entrance.

Tom Barbash's new novel tells the story of Anton Winter, who returns to his parents' apartment in the Dakota about 1980 after a spell in the Peace Corps in West Central Africa and a spell of malaria. His father, a late-night talk show host named Buddy Winter, has just walked off his show and into a breakdown. Father and son pal around Manhattan and hobnob with Kennedys, John and Yoko and other boldface names as Buddy Winter tries to figure a way back into the limelight.

Tom Barbash, who's written acclaimed fiction and nonfiction, joins us from KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

TOM BARBASH: Thanks for having me on, Scott.

SIMON: Why this time and place for a novel?

BARBASH: 1980 in the Dakota - I grew up on the Upper West Side in the '70s and - '60s and '70s. And I grew up five blocks away from the Dakota, and it was always this great, looming, haunted castle. But I wanted to write about people who were neighbors of John Lennon in the year before his assassination. That was the sort of first conceit. And then I discovered that it was really more about this father and son - this relationship between Anton and Buddy.

SIMON: When the novel opens in 1979 and 1980, John Lennon is kind of hibernating, isn't he?

BARBASH: Yeah. Well, I mean, both - actually, both Buddy and John - that's part of their friendship is they called themselves the Dakota househusbands. And, yeah, this is a period where John and Yoko - they ended up sending a letter to the public saying, we apologize that we've needed this time apart from you. So yeah, he was concentrating on being a father.

SIMON: And he had had kind of a public breakdown, too, hadn't he?

BARBASH: Yeah. And that's something that they shared. And part of the thing that John does for Buddy is he reads the press about Buddy's breakdown. He's very sympathetic to him, and that's something that Anton senses is that John really feels an alliance with Buddy.

SIMON: How do you make John Lennon a major, plausible character in a novel, assuming that you and John weren't buddies?

BARBASH: No, we weren't. I sort of felt like I needed to have something new to say about John. And I'd read a good deal about it last year. There was a book by John's personal assistant, Fred Seaman, that was helpful. There was a book by his tarot card reader. There were - you know, I read memoirs. I read his letters. But my sense, what I wanted to say is that John's last year, to me, seemed about being a father and thinking back on his own father and about going to sea.

So John learned how to sail that spring. He bought a sailboat, the Isis, and he sailed out of Cold Spring Harbor. And then he planned this trip through the Bermuda Triangle, from Rhode Island to Bermuda. And along the way, he had a harrowing storm. And the captain, a man named Captain Hank Halstead, turned the boat to John - over to John at one point because everybody else was seasick, and John wasn't because he was on a macrobiotic diet, and Captain Hank had been sailing for 30 hours. Turned the boat over to John and then, supposedly, singing filthy Liverpool shanties at the top of his lungs, John sailed the boat through the Bermuda Triangle in a storm and saved everybody's life.

And when he gets to Bermuda - he's had a five-year drought before that - and he writes all of "Double Fantasy" in about 10 days.

SIMON: Now, to be clear, this actually happened. It's also in your novel, but this happened, so far as we know.

BARBASH: This happened. So Anton is actually John's sailing instructor in the book. And he goes along for the trip and is there during John's breakthrough in Bermuda.

SIMON: The certainty of John Lennon's death is something that hangs over the reader from the first couple of pages. Of course, we know about it, the characters don't. How tempting was it for you to write in a way that seems to presage or foreshadow John Lennon's assassination?

BARBASH: That's a really good question. For me, what I wanted to do is - I needed another focus, and I needed the book, really, to be about the Winters. And so all of the focus is really on, will Buddy get a new show? And I won't tell you. But - well, I guess I'm not giving away too much to say that he actually does, eventually. And then John is in that - John's storyline is invested in that, without saying anything more.

SIMON: Yeah.

BARBASH: But I wanted the reader to be focusing on that and almost forget to be focused on all the possibilities ahead when this happened.

And I think that's more true - I think John's death was much less sort of inevitable. And I don't think it was a winding down of his life. If I said anything new about John, it's that I think this was the beginning of a prolonged second act in John's life that would've been really fruitful, would've been extraordinary, and it was cut short. I mean, by the time I finished the book, I was even sadder than I've ever been about John's death.

SIMON: So what's the John Lennon anniversary season been like for you?

BARBASH: You know, I mean, to a certain extent - I was talking to some friends about it. I hate marking the death because I find - I was thinking a little bit of what the novel is about is those who seek fame, you know, and those who seek fame for a long time, achieve it, and then it becomes a sort of prison for them. And I feel like Chapman just sort of wanted to become famous.

SIMON: This is Mark David Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon.

BARBASH: Correct. Correct. And I - part of what the book explores, too, is this sense that people have - these sort of outsized emotions people have for people they don't know, these celebrities. You know, they feel a sort of intimacy with them, and they're allowed to resent them for choices they've made, which is sort of absurd. But one of the things that a good talk show host does is he makes those celebrities that come on seem so human and seem like your friends. And that seems sort of part of what happened there.

And in terms of the - when I was thinking about the anniversary, I'd rather celebrate the anniversary of his birthday. I'd rather celebrate, you know, the release of "Revolver" or, well, "Rubber Soul" or "Sgt. Pepper's." But that day - it's hard for me to want to mark it in any way. It's just a miserable day.

SIMON: Tom Barbash - his novel, "The Dakota Winters." Thanks so much for being with us.

BARBASH: Thanks so much, Scott.

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