I first became acquainted with Tobias Wolff’s writing through his memoir This Boy’s Life and his novel Old School, two books which reflect his concern with “that division between appearance and reality in human experience.” This preoccupation with the decisions we make, how we create ourselves and the choices who make us who we are can also be seen in The Barracks Thief, In Pharaoh’s Army, and the short story collections In the Garden of the North American MartyrsBack in the World, and The Night in Question. His most recent collection of short stories, Our Story Begins, won The Story Prize for 2008. Wolff received a National Medal of the Arts from President Obama in September 2015. Other awards include the PEN/Malamud Award and the Rea Award – both for excellence in the short story – the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has also been the editor of Best American Short StoriesThe Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, and A Doctor’s Visit: The Short Stories of Anton Chekhov. His work appears regularly in The New YorkerThe AtlanticHarper’s, and other magazines and literary journals.

This is an abridgement of a 10,000 word interview. The full interview will be published over a network of university and international literary magazines in the coming months.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

In a number of your stories like “Hunters in the Snow”, “The Night in Question” and your novels the  characters face a moral decision and I feel like the tension comes from watching how the character will act. Can you talk a little about the morality in your fiction? 

TOBIAS WOLFF

We’re making decisions all the time, a lot of them not quite clear to us which is the good and which is the bad decision. Right and wrong, we’re navigating in the fog all the time as we make those decisions, but the sum of those decisions as we go on is who we are, so I’m interested in the process by which people create themselves by this constant act of deciding and doing one thing rather than another thing. I don’t start off to create a moral in telling a story, but there are certainly consequences to the decisions that we make and some of those will inevitably have what we call a moral dimension. I don’t respond  enthusiastically to fiction when I can see a thumb on the scales, when I can see that it’s a sermon in disguise. I’m more interested in writing that explores rather than proclaims.

[...]

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Yeah, I love your short stories. You know some people say they can't get into short stories and when you talk about the great forms and what you studied at Oxford it seems like it is the place between poetry and fiction. [...] I think to me it's the way we tell stories to those around us. To me it's the most understandable medium, but some people just read novels. I don't know why. 

 

WOLFF

One of the things that I enjoy in the short story is that it's an art of implication. You don't tell everything in a short story, you test the reader's willingness, you invite the reader to participate with you in deciphering a life and seeing where it might go from the moments that you’ve shown. But the truth is most readers actually prefer to have you tell them how to think about everything and how it all ends, and to have the whole arch of the thing. It also–lets admit it–there's a great pleasure in returning to the same book day after day and watching these lives complicate and unravel and unfold in time. So I love the novel form as well. I'm reading an old German novel right now and it's long and I'm enjoying returning to it. It's a different kind of experience where you live in the world of that novel for maybe a week, right? And that's a special kind of pleasure. It isn't the pleasure that the short story offers. The short story puts a different kind of demand on the reader, and often it's a kind of intense and immediate demand, and maybe the reader doesn't respond to that kind of invitation the same way, as you mentioned, some people just don't respond to poetry.

[...]

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Yeah, you ask interesting questions. Like In “The Night In Question” it seems like you're asking how do you help the people you love without destroying yourself? And you know, that’s so interesting to me because these are the real conflicts that we have. It seems like in some of the stories, in Old School as well, you’re sort of picking up from questions or situations you posed in your memoirs. It’s like you’re asking yourself why do we make mistakes? Why do we seek out our own self destruction?

 

WOLFF

I'm not sure that we seek out our own destruction, but we are sometimes drawn to things that have bad consequences for us. You mentioned Old School. The story that the boy in that novel writes that gets him into so much trouble is actually someone else's story. In reading it, he has discovered his own stories, which is what writers want readers to do. But he hasn't been able to get out of it again, and so he has  appropriated this story, and  tells it as a  confession of who he is, or at least he thinks of it as a confession. He feels as if he's been concealing himself, and that telling this story is going to be a truthful representation of who he is. So it’s a complicated thing. His motives are obscure even to himself, though they seem to outsiders simply a case of him taking something that didn't belong to him in order to advance his own interests. But since we are privy to his thoughts and emotions, we know it isn't that simple. And  that’s how life works. The things other people do make them liable to judgement by us, and the things we do make us liable to judgement by others. But nobody really knows what goes on in our thoughts, our spirits. And there are things that we don't even know we're driven by. So I'm  interested in this disjunction between how we appear and who we are. I don't think it out abstractly, but certainly as I look back on my work, I see that it reflects a concern about that division between appearance and reality in human experience.

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Sure and that’s what’s interesting. It seems it’s something I see in the stories and in the novel, it’s this kind of mirror, you have a reflection... as you say, the imagined and the real. And you know when we dream we are our real selves as well, sometimes we are our worst selves, or even your better self when you tell a story that’s not the exact representation.

 

WOLFF

We're always shaping our narratives, whether we realize it or not. We're shaping them because the minute we turn our memories into stories or our experiences into stories we are imposing a shape on something that actually did not have a shape at the time. And so right away we do that, and obviously to our own advantage (well, not always). And, you know, again I think in those acts of retelling and telling we're not always in control of the reasons that we are doing or giving our memories the shape what we're giving them. 

    William Gass has an essay–it was in Harper’s several years ago–called “Autobiography in an Age of Narcism.” And he says that the memoir is a corrupt form because writers of memoirs will inevitably protect themselves, pretty their own portrayal up, and that's a kind of dishonest branch of history. Actually, the memoirs that I love, I don't see any particular impulse for the writers to pretty themselves up at all. If I think of Frank Conroy's Stop Time, or my own brother’s The Duke of Deception. And Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, those are some of my favorite memoirs. Those writers, I think, are quite truthful in their representations of themselves and, if anything, maybe  sometimes a little harder on themselves than others would have been. But, you know, there are obviously memoirs which go the other way like Lillian Hellman who cannot tell–Mary McCarthy was actually right about her–she couldn't tell the truth to save her soul. In every story she's the heroine, she's the one who keeps her head when everyone around them is losing theirs, and who's the only one with integrity at any given moment and, you know, you weary of that sort of thing [...] That must have been the sort of memoir that Gass had in mind when he wrote his essay. But really, I don't see it in [that way]. You know that wonderful memoir which got so beaten up, and I thought was so good, Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss?

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Oh right, yes.

WOLFF

You know she does not absolve herself of complicity in the events that she is describing, and the best memoirs don't. They see themselves as part of this fallen world that they’re describing, not an angel flying above it. And you know we do our best to understand and represent these things and, inevitably, to some extent, we fail because of the hidden promptings of our nature. Things that we can’t perhaps even face in ourselves that motivate us. Who knows...

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

In some ways you started a certain trend towards literary memoir and the acceptance of that. But just to say, this is a memoir and this is fiction–I mean, I’m not really sure that it’s important. You just take it as a work. You know, we all have imperfect memories, and the same can be said for dishonest fiction that’s just not written from a point of vulnerability or truthfulness. 

There are dishonest fictions as well as dishonest memoirs. I do think that the whole question of the honor of the memoir has to do with the intention of the writer. I think the author of the memoir really has to be committed to telling the truth that that person's memory tells them without evasion, and dodging, and trying to weasel out of the difficult stuff, and letting yourself be seen as something that you really are and as something perhaps a little less heroic.

WOLFF

That's right, I agree. There are dishonest fictions as well as dishonest memoirs. I do think that the whole question of the honor of the memoir has to do with the intention of the writer. I think the author of the memoir really has to be committed to telling the truth that that person's memory tells them without evasion, and dodging, and trying to weasel out of the difficult stuff, and letting yourself be seen as something that you really are and as something perhaps a little less heroic. And just so, yes, your memory will be definitely intentioned with other people's memories. No one has a computer chip in their brain that gets this stuff down perfectly and even a computer chip wouldn't work because it would be missing the context. A look on a person's face when you're going through an experience with them, the body language, you know, the weather, the heat that makes you irritable that day. All that sort of thing.

[...]

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I am wondering what was it like to see this kind of adaptation of This Boys Life? And what did you think of the portrayals and what were your reactions?

 

WOLFF

It was a movie, Mia. They changed many things. I knew that would happen, because a book is not a movie and you have to change things in order to make it dramatic. I had a hard time with some of it... if it had been a novel I would have just shrugged it all off and said, “Yeah, do what you want. I made it up, you can make up stuff, too.” But with my memoir, these things really happened, and these were people who actually existed  in places that were real, and when you start fooling around with that... I felt a certain possessiveness, I guess that’s the word. And it felt like certain things were being violated that shouldn't be, so it was an uncomfortable experience for me to watch the movie, I have to admit. The acting was terrific. It was Leonardo DiCaprio's first movie, and he did a wonderful job. And it was handsomely filmed. It had good music... I'm probably the last person who should have an opinion about the movie because it’s just too close to me, you know?

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

But it was a successful film in terms of, if you just considered it on its own. Although I just finished reading This Boy's Life again and can see that your memoir is quite different from the film. It must be strange to see people act out part of your life on the big screen.

WOLFF

It is, and what's particularly strange is... yes, it’s your life, but it isn't, either. It’s so altered and distant  that you can forget... (laughs). When I was watching it for the first time, I'd almost forget that this was supposed to be about my life. I don't mean to criticize the filmmakers. I think they did the best job they could. But just the experience of watching a memoir turned into film is very different from  watching a novel turned into a film. You'd expect all kinds of changes and that would be okay because after all it’s fiction. 

[...]

 

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

So you’ve lived a varied life, travelled, were at Oxford for a while, you’ve worked on ships... so, of all the odd jobs you’ve had, what was your favorite non-writing odd job?

WOLFF

Well, one of the odd jobs I had after I lost my scholarship to boarding school and ended up living in DC for a little while, before I joined the army, I had a job as a kind of watchman in a church in St. John's Episcopal Church. It was just across the street from the White House, and the rectory had a fantastic library. I mean full of really wonderful fiction and history, biography... The rectory, obviously, some of the rectors (of course because it was a very old church) had collected these books over the years. So really my job was to sit there from about five o'clock in the afternoon when the rector went home (he didn't actually live in the rectory) till midnight when somebody else came in. And I just sat in the nightly-appointed library and read. So, you know, among the jobs I had when I was quite young, that was certainly my favorite. But I've had a lot of jobs over the years and I was reporter once at The Washington Post.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Oh, I didn't know that.

WOLFF

Yeah, during Watergate. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed that. It's not an odd job, but it's a job and I applied for several months. I arrived just after the break-in, so I got to watch the whole thing play out. Well, not the whole thing because I wasn't there when Nixon resigned. I was there for the eight or nine months and as this evidence started mounting about our President, you know, corruption. I wasn't working on the story, obviously, but I was a witness to history. And Carl Bernstein was a friend of mine and we sat next to each other in the newsroom and he was sharing this stuff with me all the time as it came in, and it was so heavy. Meanwhile, I was on police beat writing obituaries and things like that because I was a brand new reporter. I really enjoyed that job a lot, too much! Really I knew that I wanted to be a writer, a fiction writer, and there were other people in the newsroom who wanted to be fiction writers. Some of them a lot older than I was. And I realized that they hadn't ever written any fiction, so to stay with that job probably meant giving up my ambition to be a fiction writer. Because, you know, you work till the paper goes to bed and then you go out and have a few drinks with your reporter friends and then you go home and go to bed and in the morning you write fiction and all that, you don't [...] So, I realized that I was going to have to give that job up, which was you know, ah... I enjoyed it in many ways, not in every way, but I certainly enjoyed it in many ways.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

How do you think teaching has influenced your writing?

WOLFF

I have no idea, Mia, because I don't know what my writing would have been like if I hadn't been teaching. And it wasn't something I intended to do, I kind of fell into it. [I worked] kind of temporarily as a high school teacher in San Francisco when I got tired of waiting on tables, and I ended up doing that for a couple of years. Then I got this scholarship to Stanford just to come and write for a year, and then they offered my a lectureship [...] I didn't have a graduate degree, I didn't anticipate that I would be a university teacher. I wasn't really looking forward to going back to high school teaching, I was thinking about what else I might do. Anyway, they offered me a lectureship here, a three year lectureship, and I said, “Okay, I'll try that.” I really enjoyed it.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I was just wondering if you can use the classroom setting to work out any kinks in the fiction?

WOLFF

No, probably not. I mean, I don't think it works that way. Certainly, maybe, if anything–because you're constantly talking about the strategies and endings, beginnings, tone and styles–there's a danger that you can become obsessively self-conscious, I think, about your writing if you're thinking that much about it, that it can almost become paralyzing, you know. There's a danger in the teaching of literature (because I teach, well, I actually teach more literature than I do writing) that you can become almost perversely self-conscious in ways that do not help you as a writer.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

What elements of writing do you think can be taught? 

WOLFF

Well, I think what you do is you can help people become really good editors of their own work. That’s probably the greatest gift you can give them, to help them become more aware of what they’re doing and what they’re not doing, and they can choose not to do that. But if they’re not doing it because they haven't realized they weren't doing it, you can help them become more aware in that way. You can also introduce them to those writers who would be helpful to them if they were to read them, that they can learn from, whose gifts perhaps in some way compliment their gifts and, you know, that there could be some sense of family almost between them and another ground of writers. I mean, you can't put a writing talent into someone's head, but you can encourage them to be more adventurous. And, if you think that timidity of some kind, too much carefulness, is holding them back–there are just things like that you can help with. Mainly, as with your art, it’s a question of doing it again and again and again and again, and that’s really how you learn. But it’s good to have, you know, for most of us anyway, I think it’s helpful to have a captive audience for a year or two, who are passionate and canny readers, who can look at your work and make you a little better aware of what you're doing. And help you realize the dream that you have of what your work could be, you know. It’s no magic, though. I mean, no one ever said it was. Writers have been showing each other their work for hundreds of years and this is just a continuation of that old tradition.

With special thanks to Lethokuhle Msimang for editorial assistance.