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"


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