[NOVELIST AND MEMOIRIST]
When guessing a woman’s weight, aim low
Never land a helicopter in a confined space
If you want to sweet talk a girl, say you’re into Ayn Rand
Tobias Wolff is a short story writer, a memoirist, a novelist, a father, a husband, a jazz aficionado, a hiker upon remote mountain trails, a winner of literary awards, a neophyte pianist, and the mentor of many young writers. He was born in 1945 in Birmingham, Alabama, grew up in Florida, Utah, and the Pacific Northwest, attended Concrete High School in Washington, the Hill School in Pennsylvania, Oxford University, and Stanford University, where he was a Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer, and where he is now the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences. He is the author of short story collections, memoirs, novellas, and novels, including In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), The Barracks Thief (1984), Back in the World (1985), This Boy’s Life (1989), In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War (1994), The Night in Question (1996), and Old School (2003).
Wolff’s writing makes us recognize those aspects of ourselves that are hardest to acknowledge: our selfishness, our pride, our cowardice. But he also brings to light our potential for self-understanding and compassion—the knowledge that comes from years of honest introspection, from the desire to make sense of the decisions that shape our lives. For his rigorous intelligence and his deep empathetic understanding of humanity, he has been compared to Chekhov; he is Chekhovian, too, in the gorgeous simplicity of his language and in the way characterization gives rise to the shape of his narratives. He is a tireless reviser, a believer in the process of writing. In answer to an anxious question of mine a couple of years ago, he told me, “The only way to learn how to write a novel is simply to do it.”
This interview took place in June 2004 at his office at Stanford, where he and I had spent many an office hour hashing through drafts of my own stories when I was a Stegner Fellow.
THE BELIEVER: Do you think that the tendency to be hard on yourself in your memoirs translates to the tendency to be hard on the protagonists of your fictional narratives?
TOBIAS WOLFF: I hope not. I do write, as indeed most writers do, about things that have gone wrong. There’s not much of a story if things have gone right. Stories are about problems, and not the kinds of problems that result from a safe falling out of a window, but from somebody having a choice and having a problem with that choice, and then the series of consequences that follow from making that choice. To portray that honestly is to show the way people parse out their choices, and self-interest naturally comes into play. It isn’t so much a matter of wishing to be hard on people as wishing to be truthful. If there’s a moral quality to my work, I suppose it has to do with will and the exercise of choice within one’s will. The choices we make tend to narrow down a myriad of opportunities to just a few, and those choices tend to reinforce themselves in whatever direction we’ve started to go, including the wrong direction. Our present government likes to lecture us on the virtue of staying the course. Well, maybe it’s not such a good idea to stay the course if you’re headed toward the rocks. There’s something to be said for changing course if you’re about to drive your ship onto the shoals.
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