Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Exclusive: Tobias Wolff Shares How Life and Writing are Interconnected

Growing up, award-winning author Tobias Wolff always knew that he wanted to join the military and be a writer one day. He accomplished both, joining the military when he was 18 and publishing his first short story collection, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” in 1981.

“I did have a literary impulse to join the military,” Wolff told the Iowa Independent during a telephone interview. “I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 16, and I joined the Army when I was 18. I was very aware that many of the writers I most admired had drawn on this type of experience, although I wasn’t really paying attention to what they were saying in their work -- which was to stay away from it.”

Wolff, who currently teaches with the writing program at Stanford University, will be a guest of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop Thursday and will read from his new collection of short stories, “Our Story Begins: New and Selected Short Stories.” The reading is free and open to the public and will be held at 8 p.m. in Lecture Room 2 of UI Van Allen Hall.

Wolff, who also has worked as an editor and journalist, is known as a master of the short-story form as well as for his memoirs. "This Boy's Life" describes his turbulent childhood, and the National Book Award nominee "In Pharaoh's Army" is an account of his tour of duty as an officer in the Vietnam War.

His most recent novel is "Old School," published in 2003, a book that a Publishers Weekly review described as "a delicate, pointed meditation on the treacherous charms of art." Critic Keir Graff wrote for Booklist, "His storytelling is economical, his prose is elegant, and his meditations are utterly timeless. Some readers may wish to turn from the last page to the first and begin again."

Fellow author and Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien said of Wolff's collection "Back in the World": "Tobias Wolff is dynamic. In his spare, cool, lucid prose, without gimmicks or artifice, he tells terrific stories. Terrific, I mean, in the classic sense -- he isn't afraid of drama. ... The magic of his fiction cannot be explained. It is the ancient art of the master storyteller."

The late Raymond Carver, a UI alumnus and former faculty member, called Wolff's collection "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs" "The work of a young master … I have not read a book of stories in years that has given me such a shock of amazement and recognition -- and such pleasure."

Wolff's work is represented in more than 50 anthologies. He received the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novella "The Barracks Thief," and he also has received the Rea Award, three O. Henry Awards and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His memoir "This Boy's Life" was made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro, Ellen Barkin and Leonardo DiCaprio.

During a telephone interview with the Iowa Independent, Tobias Wolff shared some of his thoughts about the writing process, his life experiences, and how the two are interconnected.

Iowa Independent: Why do you feel drawn to the short story?

Wolff: It’s a challenging form for a writer. Because of the compression and essential nature of a short story, you don’t have any time to waste; you have to get right to it. It’s not as forgiving a form as the novel, which makes it more difficult in some ways and also more challenging for the writer. It’s something I just find myself drawn to again and again.

Iowa Independent: Do you find it more challenging than writing a novel?

Wolff: No. The immediate difficulty of the short story is finding the essential pattern of events in the story -- saying so much but not too much while making sure you say enough that every sentence is pulling weight.

It takes years to write a novel and requires a certain degree of stamina, whereas a single short story does not require the same stamina and continuity of work. It’s a form with its own unique challenges, and I don’t make distinction that one form is superior to the other. They are rather different in nature, that’s all.

Iowa Independent: Writers in the workshop setting use the short story form as a means of developing a breadth of work and use the form as a playground to cultivate their writers’ craft and voice. Does this notion hold true for you and your students at Stanford?

Wolff: The creative writing workshop does tend to favor the short story, because it is a length that can be dealt with more conveniently in this type of setting. I happen to think there are more natural novelists than short-story writers. I encourage students to bring in chapters of novels if that is what they really want to be working on. It is harder in some ways to confront a novel in the workshop, unless the writer brings in the entire novel, which is quite a bit. You are always dealing with parts.

I do think the short story is a wonderful kind of laboratory to study and learn about the craft of writing. Not many people are called to do that as their life’s work any more than many people are called to be poets.

Iowa Independent: Oftentimes, beginning writers are told to write what they know about. Your story “The Barrack’s Thief” and recent novel “Old School” tap into your autobiographical past. What are some of the advantages or pitfalls of this advice?

Wolff: I never tell anybody to write what they know. I never have in my life and never will. It would tend to be a very confining ethos to work from. Take an Iowa writer such as Marilyn Robinson and her latest novel, “Gilead.” Is she a 19th-century male minister? No, but she has inhabited that character so fully that if her name wasn’t written on the book’s cover, you could imagine that it was written by the 19th-century minister.

In the two works you mentioned, “The Barracks Thief” and “Old School,” some of the milieu of the social world, the world of the military or the boys school I did experience, but I did not experience the events in the book. These are works of fiction. I make a clear distinction between fiction and nonfiction, and these are works of the imagination, so I’m writing about what I don’t know.

Iowa Independent: After the “This-Boy’s-Life” part of your life, I sense that the military gave you a mode of escape from your past, almost a rebirth when you could start afresh. Is this a fair assessment?

Wolff: I would say that’s pretty fair. I always assumed I would eventually end up serving in some branch of the service. All the men I knew when I grew up did. I wanted do it when I was young and single and didn’t have any responsibility. In the world I grew up in everyone served, and you were expected to do so as well. All of the men I knew had served in Korea and World War II. I always knew I would; it was just a matter of timing. It did offer me a chance to sort out some of the confusions of my youth. It seemed to offer a highly clarified life, a life of simplicity, although it turned out to be anything but that.

Iowa Independent: Similar to you, a number of military veterans who took up the pen after the war eventually penned a novel chronicling some of their experiences during the war, whether it be Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” or Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Vonnegut and O’Brien said this was their way of getting this story out of them, therapeutic value, so they could move on. What was your motive, or what compelled you to write “In Pharaoh’s Army” in 1994 and why the 20-year incubation period?

Wolff: Generally speaking, when I’m writing something very personal it takes about 20 years to surface. Part of it was that I wasn’t strongly motivated to write about Vietnam when I got back. I ended up writing a short story about Vietnam and ended up publishing it in a magazine and collection of short stories, but I knew that there was a lot that I was not really saying in this short story -- things I had known and seen over there that got lost in the fiction.

To remedy this, I wrote a rather longer piece of nonfiction. To be honest, I didn’t really want to write another memoir after “This Boys Life,” but I found myself drawn to this material. Or to put it another way, I found this material drawing me out, and I put aside other projects and attended to it -- almost in spite of myself, to tell you the truth.

Iowa Independent: Can you clarify what, specifically, drew it out for you?

Wolff: Writers often talk about choosing their material, but I think their material chooses them sometimes.

Iowa Independent: Soldiers nowadays, in particular in Iraq and Afghanistan, are penning their memoirs while they are still in battle or soon afterward. What can be lost in the immediacy of this type of writing process?

Wolff: There is very little coming across that could be said to be of literary quality. I think it’s very valuable for the troops who are writing these long e-mails and milblogs about their experiences to get down the immediate sense of what is happening, because it’s very easy to forget this stuff. But to actually sift it out and figure out what has happened to them morally and spiritually as a result of these experiences and how these experiences have formed a pattern in their lives will take years to sift out.
Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Veterans' Events Hit Eastern Iowa with a Flourish

In the wake of the five-year anniversary marking the war in Iraq, a number of veterans-related events are scheduled this week in eastern Iowa, primarily Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.

"Doonesbury’s" Garry Trudeau: As part of the 2008 Coe College Contemporary Issues Forum, Garry Trudeau will be speaking at the Contemporary Issues Forum in Cedar Rapids at 7:30 tonight. The event was originally scheduled in February, but was rescheduled because of inclement weather.

For the past 37 years, Trudeau has communicated primarily through his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip, "Doonesbury." However, the war in Iraq has indirectly prompted him to speak out on related issues, bringing the war home to readers through the experiences and perspective of B.D., a veteran of Gulf War I and the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

For many "Doonesbury" readers, the war in Iraq hit home in April 2003, when Trudeau decided to blow up B.D's leg while B.D. was serving in Iraq. B.D.'s leg had to be amputated, and his injury, coupled with the psychological effects of his experiences, helped inspire more than 220 strips. It also resulted in two books: "The Long Road Home" chronicles B.D.'s journey home and transition into the civilian world, while "The War Within" captures B.D.'s internal struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to bringing the war home through "Doonesbury," Trudeau has helped capture the day-to-day experiences of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan through his milblog (military-blog), "The Sandbox." Lightly edited by longtime editor David Stanford, "The Sandbox" features dispatches from milbloggers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, who share their observations, comments and anecdotes with readers at home.

Read an exclusive Iowa Independent interview with Trudeau here.

Tickets for the event, at $10 for the general public and $5 for students and seniors, can be reserved by calling the Coe Box Office at 319-399-8600.

“Iowa Stories: The Vietnam Experience”: In 1989 University of Northern Iowa professor Marilyn Shaw, 57, of Cedar Falls wanted to preserve Vietnam war memories through the oral tradition, which she adapted into an oral-interpretive play, "Iowa Stories: The Vietnam Experience." The play will be performed for the fifth time at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Englert in Iowa City. Tickets are $12.50.

Drawing from 28 interviews with Vietnam veterans from Iowa, Shaw interweaves their stories into nine character archetypes for her play. As one of the vets told Shaw, “You can hate the war, but don’t hate the warrior, because the warrior is doing what he [or she] was trained to do.”

University of Iowa Anti-War Committee’s Peace Week: As part of its Peace Week, the University of Iowa Anti-War Committee is sponsoring a number of veterans’ events designed to bring discussions about war and peace into the community and the classrooms.

Andy Duffy and Jason Munford will be part of a panel discussion at the South Room in the UI’s Iowa memorial Union at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Duffy, an Iowa National Guard medic who served at Abu Ghraib prison in 2005-06, founded the Iowa City chapter of the Iraq Veterans Against the War and recently testified at the Winter Soldier hearings in Washington, D.C.

Munford, an Air Force veteran, will share his experiences as a conscientious objector after he was ordered to deploy to Iraq.

Thursday night will feature Eli Painted Crow, a retired Army veteran of 22 years, who will share her recent experiences during a recent deployment to Iraq and explain why she’s speaking out against the war. A Native American from the Yaqui Nation, she is a grandmother of eight and mother of two sons who both served in the military. She will be speaking in the Iowa Room at the IMU at 7 p.m.

During the 2006 Veterans for Peace Conference, she spoke out about a barrage of injustices she said were committed by members of her unit during her deployment to Iraq. She said she witnessed and faced several incidents of discrimination, racism, sexual harassment and sexual abuse/assault committed by her fellow soldiers, prompting her to leave the service upon her return.

Eli Painted Crow Speaks at 2006 Veterans for Peace Conference

Moreover, in conjunction with the Peace Week’s events, the UI Veterans’ Association will host a forum on veterans’ benefits, health care and homelessness. Guest speakers will include Mike Hull, post commander of American Legion Post #17, Iowa City; Stephanie Linn, President of UI Veterans Association; and Tom Kelly, co-founder of Vets Helping Vets. The forum will take place at 7 p.m. Friday in the Illinois Room at the IMU.

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Commentary: Lest We Forget … It’s the War, Stupid!

In case you didn’t already know, last week marked the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war. If you didn’t, don’t feel too bad, for you are in good company. A Pew Research Center poll recently found that only 28 percent of American adults surveyed were able to say that approximately 4,000 Americans have died in the Iraq war. The same survey found that 84 percent of Americans are aware that Oprah Winfrey endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for president.

In cased you missed it, the Pentagon reported that four U.S. soldiers were killed by a bomb blast in southern Baghdad late Sunday, raising the death toll for American forces since the start of the war to an even 4,000 casualties, thus officially marking a new milestone.

As the American public’s attention span continues to shrink and shift away form the seemingly endless war in Iraq, so does the press. According to the News Content Index conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the percentage of news stories devoted to the war has sharply declined since last year, dropping from an average of 15 percent of the news hole in July to just 3 percent in February.

Moreover, a Pew's News Interest Index survey found that Iraq was the public's most closely followed news story in all but five weeks during the first half of 2007. However, it was a much less dominant story between July 2007 and February 2008, not to mention the Iraq war has not been the public's top weekly story since October 2007.

Maybe if Oprah broadcast her show live from the Green Zone in Baghdad for a week or two, her global presence would ignite a surge of media coverage and Americans would tune into the war more.

Until then, who is to blame for the current surge of sound-bite news coverage of the war in Iraq? The mainstream media? The American public?

Answer: both.

While the corporate media is driven by quarterly profit margins and prey upon its viewers’ psychological vulnerabilities, it is the media consumer who ultimately decides what the media reports and does not report. Although the laws of supply and demand do come into play in this profit-driven context, journalists have a higher calling and obligation to reporting the truth and what people need to know, in lieu of what people want to know.

Nonetheless, as Greg Mitchell’s new book, “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq,” suggests, the mainstream media has blood on its hands when it comes to its flawed coverage leading up to the war in Iraq and the five years since it began.

Since former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards first announced his bid for the Democrat nomination in January 2007 in Des Moines, the American public has been consumed by the presidential race, which has helped feed the mainstream media’s obsession with covering the political horse race. Meanwhile nearly 1000 soldiers have been killed in Iraq since Edwards announced his candidacy.

While coverage of the presidential race receives top billing in the media, exit polls from many of the states that have already held their primaries and caucuses indicate that the economy is the top concern among voters, trumping health-care costs and the war in Iraq. The loss of jobs to overseas companies and the recent subprime lender meltdown have helped contribute to voters’ fears about the economy.

But rarely does the mainstream media hold the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan accountable for the impending or not impending economic recession. Newscasters and political pundits keep asking the million-dollar question, “Are we in a recession?” and pawn this off a if it was news in and of itself. Meanwhile our government keeps dropping an estimated $10 billion to $12 billion a month into the bottomless money pits of Iraq and Afghanistan. And this is only the front-end cost of the war.

Oftentimes economic experts have argued that the best way to revive an economy is by going to war, but ironically. President Bush’s decision to invade and indefinitely occupy Iraq is what has helped push our economy to the brink of a recession.

It’s the War, Stupid

I sensed the political winds changing during the Michigan primary, or nonprimary as far as the Democratic race goes, when the GOP focused on the economy as a means of shoring up support. This makes sense, given the industrial make-up of Michigan’s job market. Ever since then, the economy has been the top issue polled among likely voters, but the Democratic candidates only serve to shoot themselves in the foot if they ignore the $3 trillion white elephant in the room: the Iraq war.

Obama has made an attempt to connect the dots, but he hasn’t been vigilant enough about framing this argument in the minds of voters. It doesn’t help that the mainstream media has stoked a new fire in the Obama camp, fanning the flames of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s controversial comments.

On the other hand, his opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton, has had to spend time putting out small fires on the campaign trail, oftentimes ignited by her very own high-level surrogates such as adviser James Carville and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, the inferno in Iraq rages on.

Not only have the front-end costs of financing the Iraq war helped cripple our economy, but it’s the back-end costs that will keep the economy bed-ridden for years to come. In their new book, “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Costs of the Iraq Conflict,” Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz argue that Americans will spend decades treating the physical and psychological wounds of Iraq veterans, and when the economic consequences of the invasion are taken into account, the costs will surpass the $3 trillion benchmark, nearly a third of the current debt the Bush administration has already helped accrue since its 2001 takeover.

Not only did the Bush administration not have an exit strategy for ending the war, but it had yet to implement a budget plan for paying for the strategy not have. Sounds like something straight out off Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” only more tragic, for the true cost of the war is the loss of human lives. These costs cannot be measured, nor can they be absorbed or paid back.

According to the National Priorities Project, the government has already spent more than $500 billion on the war in Iraq and estimates that Iowa taxpayers have paid $3.5 billion for the cost of the Iraq war through 2007. For the same amount of money, the group estimates that health care for 1,033,512 Iowans could have been provided, or 562,896 scholarships for university students could have been awarded, or 77,321 elementary students could have been hired.

This year, while Iowa lawmakers struggle to find funding to provide children with health care coverage or turn to the lottery as a means of replenishing funding for veterans and their families, try and remember one thing and one thing only:

It’s the war, stupid!

And you don’t need Oprah to tell you this to make it so.

Originally posted on the "Iowa Independent"

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Braley’s Probe Helps Guard Receive Deserved Education Benefits

Thanks to the efforts of Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, Iowa National Guard members will have one less thing to worry about when they return from deployment.

Braley announced today that all 595 members of the Iowa National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry affected by an Army error last year that disqualified them from receiving GI Bill education benefits have now had the error fixed and qualify for full GI Bill benefits. Nationally, the issue has affected more than 3,700 soldiers in 34 states.

“I’m happy to hear that every 1-133rd member who was initially denied GI Bill education benefits because of the Army error can now draw full benefits,” Braley said in a statement. “The Pentagon made a mistake, but I’m glad they fixed it.

“I’m even happier to hear that 74 of these vets are using their full benefits to further their education. These Iowans are making the most of a great opportunity.”

Last August, nearly 600 members of the 1-133rd returned from a 17-month tour of duty in Iraq — the longest continual deployment of any ground combat unit in Iraq. Many of the troops learned they didn’t qualify for GI Bill benefits because an Army error in the wording of their orders left them one to five days short of a 730-day qualification threshold.

In October, when Braley discovered his constituents’ education benefits had been shortchanged by the Pentagon, he helped launch a formal congressional investigation into the matter. Braley was suspicious that some members of the 1-133rd’s active duty orders were written one to five days short, thus denying the citizen soldiers full-time education benefits.

"When the Pentagon's ineptitude leads to soldiers and their families being denied the benefits they deserve, it is Congress' role to provide oversight, accountability, and answers," Braley said in a October press release. "While I'm hopeful that the cases of the members of the 1-133rd will all be resolved before classes begin next spring, the question of why the Army worded soldiers' orders just one to five days short of the 730-day requirement, when the Army clearly knows that this is the threshold for receiving Montgomery GI Bill Benefits, is still unresolved."

Soldiers who qualify for Montgomery GI Bill benefits can receive up to $894 per month for educational expenses; the benefits can be used for up to 10 years after leaving the service.

If the error was not corrected, the 1-133rd soldiers would’ve only qualified for less-extensive Reserve Education Assistance Program (REAP) benefits. These total up to $660 per month, but reserve members no longer qualify if they leave the service.
Originally posted on the "Iowa Independent"

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Lawmakers Turn to Lottery to Help Build Veterans Trust Fund

In an attempt to fulfill a promise made to Iowa veterans in 2003, lawmakers have turned to a familiar source of revenue: gambling. By a vote of 75-21 Wednesday, the House passed House File 2359, a bill that would direct the Lottery Authority to develop two additional scratch tickets and two additional pull-tab tickets with the profits dedicated to the Veterans Trust Fund (VTF) until the fund reaches $50 million. After that, the lottery game revenue would flow to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The trust fund was created to "assist veterans and their dependents who slip through the cracks of the federal system," Rep. McKinley Bailey, D-Webster City, said on the House floor. "As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, those cracks become more and more apparent. As a state we have an obligation, a sacred obligation, to ensure that our veterans are taken care of when they come home. That means picking up the slack for the federal government when it lets our veterans down."

Bailey estimated those games would produce up to $3 million a year for the trust fund at a minimal impact on the general fund.

Lawmakers, led by the Republican majority, created the VTF in 2003 with the intent of giving the state flexibility with regard to Iowa’s returning veterans and their families, in particular issues that aren’t covered by federal funding such as job training, unemployment assistance, travel expenses for wounded veterans related to follow-up medical care, nursing home care, counseling programs and honor guard services.

Moreover, lawmakers intended for the VTF to eventually contain $50 million. The current balance is $5 million, and Gov. Chet Culver’s 2008 budget does not contain any additional revenues for the fund. The reason Culver didn't propose more money is that only the interest is being spent, Charles Krogmeier, the governor's staff member who put together the budget, said in a January statement.

The proposal did not receive overwhelming support in the House. Some of the Republican lawmakers took issue with using lottery funds, arguing the revenue stream is unreliable and that creating a lottery for just the veterans doesn’t seem fair to other causes. Rep Scott Raecker, R-Urbandale, offered an amendment to fund breast cancer research, domestic abuse prevention and the Senior Living Trust by expanding the number of lottery games.

Bailey argued the amendment would destroy the bill, contending lottery officials told him the bill would work if there was only one cause benefiting from the games.

House Minority Leader Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City, wondered if the next step would be to have a bake sale rather than continue general fund appropriations to veterans programs, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported. Ironically, he added, it was Gaming Day at the Capitol, sponsored by the Iowa Gaming Association."How appropriate," Rants said.

The bill now moves on to the Senate.

Originally Posted on "Iowa Independent"