I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
His is the taut, trim, prose of an athlete. Intricate and highly compressed, Tobias Wolff’s explorations of our emotional and moral infrastructure are psychological travelogues, beginning in one place and ending in another. His first story collection published in 1981, In The Garden of the North American Martyrs was the handbook for aspiring writers. Tobias Wolff was the man who had mastered the story, who knew how to contain and control it and simultaneously, when to let it run. I studied that book top to bottom, backwards and forwards, along with the volumes that followed: Back in the World (1986), The Barracks Thief (1984), and his two stunning memoirs This Boy’s Life (1988) and In Pharaoh’s Army (1994). The Night in Question—Wolff’s newest collection of stories just out from Knopf, once again puts us in the hands of a master-craftsman.
Tobias Wolff watches himself and the world from a certain distance—always observing, taking it in, piecing things together. The result is an intensely compassionate, rich and wry prose style that shows us ourselves in all our graceless glory. Tobias Wolff and I met for the first time during the telephone calls that were this interview. When we spoke we were each on summer vacation, each by a lake looking out on the water. Liberated by the anonymity of the telephone, I felt I could ask Wolff all the quiet questions about what it means to progress as a writer, to mature. Our conversation left me feeling that what seems impossible might actually be possible—gaps can be bridged, progress is constantly being made.
A. M. Homes How has the process of writing changed for you over time?
Tobias Wolff I’m not sure it has. No, it probably has. Let me say that I am now a little more reconciled to my peculiarities as a writer. When I first started writing, in my teens, I could write eight pages a day. And I believed that all eight pages were deathless prose. Now I am reconciled to writing a paragraph or two that I’ll end up keeping.
AMH I wonder whether it gets harder and harder on some level.
TW Every successful piece of writing you do, I mean successful as art, illuminates even more greatly the difficulties of what you do. You’re always trying to top yourself. You don’t want to do what you did before again and again. You get tired of certain conventions. You want to do other things, so you’re creating the difficulties as the very condition of your art. It’s a way of keeping it exciting for yourself, but it also makes it increasingly harder.
AMH How do you know when you’re finished with a story?
TW When everything necessary is done, and I feel as if even another word would be superfluous—would, in a manner of speaking, break the camel’s back. That sense of completion comes about in different ways, and plot is only the most obvious of them. You should feel, when you’ve finished a story, that it has achieved a life independent of yours, that it has somehow gathered up the golden chain that connected you. This feeling is not always reliable. I often go back and revise endings that I was pretty sure about when I set the last period to the page. In writing, of course, everything is subject to revision. But I am guided, however roughly, by inexplicable instincts like the one I have just attempted to describe.
AMH In your story “The Chain” and in “Bullet in the Brain” events spiral and flip out of control, one bit of wrong thinking folds into the next in an effort to clarify or correct the last. Is this a recurring theme with you?
TW Some of my writing is about folly, and the capacity folly has for reproducing itself, how it multiplies. How a bad idea becomes ten bad ideas, becomes a hundred bad ideas. Stories are a good kind of theater for folly.
AMH A minute ago you mentioned your peculiarities as a writer—how would you characterize them?
TW Oh, I’m not the best judge of that at all. I can say something about my intentions, though even those are finally beside the point when the work is finished. But I’m looking at the story or the book from inside, and I’m often unaware of what is plain as day to people regarding it from the outside. For example, a graduate student at SUNY/Albany sent me an essay of hers concerning the terrible fate of dogs in my work, together with some speculations about my motives in writing about them in this way. She had plenty of evidence from my work—dogs shot, burned, even eaten. Yet in all honesty I’d never been aware of this … pattern, if you will, or peculiarity. I guess you’d be justified in calling it a peculiarity. And I’m glad I was unaware of it, because otherwise I might have avoided it and not written some things that I’m pleased to have written. That’s the danger of excessive self-consciousness—it either becomes very constricting, or leads to self-parody of the worst kind. Like X. J. Kennedy’s poem about the goose that laid the golden egg. She sticks her head up her rear end to observe the process, then gets stuck in that position. His poem concludes, “If you’d lay well, don’t watch.”
AMH I’m interested in the idea of writing from a moral point of view. In one of the In Pharaoh’s Army interviews you said, “It seemed to me that I was responsible for a moral accounting. A book like this has to be a personal moral inventory.” Concepts of morality come up a lot in your work.
TW When I talk about the “personal moral inventory” it’s not so much about the immorality of the war itself, but the sense of how an ordinary person is complicit in the ongoing folly of his time. Even with honorable intentions and a certain measure of innocence, you can become a part of the very thing you fear and despise. And this shows up in my fiction. It isn’t a question of the stories being moral fables. “Don’t do this because something terrible will happen.” It’s more an exploration of the moral sense that dominates our lives for better or worse, the constant effort of trying to find the right thing to do in complex situations. I can’t imagine not having that kind of reckoning in my work because it’s at the center of our lives. Everyone I know is puzzling things out, trying to figure out the right thing to do. We’re all in a web of connection to friends, family, community, and the moral sense is what determines how we honor those connections. To leave that out of one’s fiction seems to me to be impossible. It’s going to be there, so it’s better that it not be there by default, but that you have some edge of consciousness about its workings.
AMH We were talking before about how events in your stories spiral, how wrong-headed thinking multiplies, for instance, in your story “The Chain.”
TW Here’s a man who’s trying to find the right thing to do. He isn’t just trying to get even, he’s trying to do what is right in this situation. He acts out of love for his daughter, through rage at the wrong done by the indifference of others, and from a sense of the wrong of being too timid in the face of evil. All these good motives are at work in what ends up being an absolutely catastrophic mistake.
AMH One of my favorite stories in the new collection is “Casualty.” I was fascinated by the structure, the nurse who essentially ends the story isn’t there at the beginning. This is very conservative of me, but I always think the people in the beginning of the story must be the same people around at the end of the story.
TW It does seem unfair, to spring a new character on you at the end. In the case of “Casualty,” I had her in mind from the beginning. I didn’t want too narrow an understanding of who gets hurt in this war. The word casualty usually refers to soldiers, but the damage ripples out in every direction, and touches all these people and harms them deeply … I had her in mind all the time I was writing that story, but how could any reader know that? Now if I had done that to evade the consequences of the story for the characters who were there at the beginning, B.D. and Ryan in particular, then I think her late appearance would be a mistake. But their stories are pretty well settled when she shows up.
AMH It’s interesting that she was always in your mind—it works that she doesn’t appear to us until later, it makes the story keep going.
TW She is very much a part of their story, but she isn’t present until their circumstances compel her to enter. Then the story becomes as much hers as theirs. At one point I was thinking of calling it “The Nurse’s Story.” It would give people some sense that this was coming. I did realize that it was a gamble to introduce her so late, and give her so much weight. But her presence brings something essential. There’s an almost romantic obsession with soldiers in most writing about war. It may not mean to be romantic, but it ends up that way because it views soldiers in isolation from the consequences of what they do and what is done to them. You don’t see how they’re situated in a web of relations, how one person’s suffering bleeds into other lives. That is what is missing from so many of these war narratives, and why the nurse was so important to me.
AMH I love the part when she slips the one dying guy’s hand into the other’s, that’s just so lovely.
AMH How has the way you write about Vietnam changed over the years?
TW I couldn’t write very much about it in the beginning. I have one very short story in my first book which touches on it. I’m still hesitant to write about it.
AMH Why do you think?
TW It’s one of those things you just don’t want to get wrong. There’s a way of writing about Vietnam that is extremely stale: the helicopters; the jazzed-up soldier lingo; all the acronyms; deadpan talk about killing. There’s a strong pull exerted by the conventions of war fiction in particular. That’s why I ended up writing about it in a memoir, because I thought I could resist those pressures more successfully by being faithful to my knowledge of my own situation, of the effect of that situation on my character and nature. I wouldn’t just be writing about what everybody already knew about.
AMH I’ve always been fascinated with the Vietnam War and I wonder where people who’ve been at war put the experience?
TW What do you mean?
AMH Where does it fit inside you? How do you reconcile it? Does everybody who has been in the war have side effects from it?
TW I don’t have post-traumatic stress syndrome. But I have no question that others do have it. It comes about through prolonged exposure to combat, which I did not have. I had some, but not very much, very little, compared to most of the people I knew. I got lucky—the place I was sent that year was quieter than many other places. The luck of the draw, really. It was bad enough for me. I had my stomach full of it and then some. But nothing like what happened to others. I was very lucky, and lucky not just in terms of surviving it, but lucky in that when I got home I was still healthy enough psychologically to have a reasonable life. But a lot of people weren’t.
AMH Are you by nature very aware?
TW Cautious you mean?
AMH I’m thinking about situations in which a person has to be aware of their surroundings, of their safety, and then about being a soldier, where something could happen at any moment, a sniper, something falling out of the sky, a land mine—and what that does to you.
TW It had effects, there’s no question about it. Nobody gets away scot free from something like that. I certainly have a healthy sense of the dangers of this world. One way I do notice it is that I worry about my kids. One of my boys just started driving and the other will start driving in another month. I try not to think about it or else I’ll go crazy. Nevertheless it’s there. One of my boys likes to go for long walks at night, and although we live in a reasonably safe neighborhood, it’s bordered by an unsafe neighborhood. I hear myself Mother Henning him all the time on this.
AMH I have the feeling that you are a wonderful teacher and a good father. How have you transcended the experience of your own father?
TW How do you learn to be a father without being your father?
TW It has always come naturally to me to be affectionate with my kids and to enjoy them. They certainly make it easy. I have great kids. They’re funny, they’re good company. They always have been. It just hasn’t seemed like hard work to me, to tell you the truth. One thing of course that makes it easy is that I have more time than other people do. I teach, and I work at home. When my kids come home I’m there. They can come up and talk to me. I’m not under the kind of pressures that make it hard for most people to be the kind of parents they want to be and just don’t have the time to be.
AMH But you also remade your experience of family.
TW Oh, I was always pretty nervous about the whole idea. It’s sort of like writing. You approach it very warily and then when you’re in it, it teaches you what to do. But yeah, I had real doubts about my abilities to pull this thing off. But the moment children arrive, you’re so busy with them, you find yourself doing the right things. Most of the time, anyway. I hope.
AMH I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the differences in your experience of writing nonfiction and fiction?
TW I hold myself to very different standards when I’m writing fiction and nonfiction. I have to be able, with a straight face, to tell myself that something is nonfiction if I say it’s nonfiction. That’s why, although there are autobiographical elements in some of my stories, I still call them fiction because that’s what they are. Even though they may have been set into motion by some catalyst of memory.
AMH Why do you think people want everything to be true?
TW They’re uncomfortable somehow with imaginative reality, which is a very powerful reality against which we have few defenses. They’re perhaps unaccustomed to art and the assumptions of art. I’m not really sure.
AMH Do you think it’s an American thing?
TW I think Americans are more accepting if they think it’s nonfiction. Is it an American thing? No, my guess is it isn’t. Writers and artists have always done what they could to seduce the audience into a sense that what they’re looking at is genuine. That’s the great power of movies, isn’t it? They give you the feeling that what you are looking at is life happening before your eyes. Writers invite that kind of approach to their work. We want people to believe it while they’re reading it—we want them to enter our world fully.
AMH I’m curious about how we grow up, the progression of things. You’re 51 now—you seem incredibly stable—what about a midlife crisis? Are they inevitable? Do you have to have one? Do you feel one coming on?
TW I had mine when I was in my teens, that was my midlife crisis.
AMH Right, precocious.
TW I’m grateful to have had the life I’ve had. First of all, I feel lucky to be alive. I feel lucky to he sane and whole, to have a life as a writer. What a privilege that is, and one that for years and years I thought I would not have, that this would be something I would just do on my own all my life. That I would probably have to end up doing something else, and do this when I could. It still astonishes me that I’ve been able to have a life as a writer. I don’t teach a lot, but I love the teaching that I do. And I meet people like you. What’s to complain about?
AMH I don’t know.
TW I do feel sometimes—which may be the kind of propellant for a lot of these absurd chapters in the lives of people my age—a sense of having become too comfortable, of being an old shoe and wanting to push myself to thinner air. But I find ways of getting around that. I drive too fast. I ski the black diamond slopes, and I play cutthroat softball. I’m being facetious. But that restlessness is still there. I don’t think it’s in a virulent state, I don’t think I’m going to destroy my life in obedience to it. It isn’t at its deepest level philosophical. I know I have found the ground on which I must make my peace, through these people I live with and not through change of circumstance or a dramatis personae.
AMH In In Pharaoh’s Army you write about joining the military to get at an experience. And I think about you having settled down, teaching and living this seemingly stable life; from where do you get experience now?
TW In The End of Alice you write very powerfully and persuasively from the point of view of a pedophile. Am I to think therefore that you must have experience with pedophilia?
AMH I actually know nothing about it, which is the funny thing. I did a lot of research.
TW You know that old chestnut of Flannery O’Connor’s, about anyone who survives adolescence has enough to write about for the rest of their lives. There’s a strong, very early story of hers in DoubleTake magazine called “The Coat,” written from the point of view of a black woman. She wrote it when she was in her 20s, at Iowa. How the hell did she know to do that? In the end, the writer’s task is not to accumulate experience, but to develop a consciousness that can see the world with some accuracy and fitting sense of drama.
AMH You went to boarding school, and then into the army, and then off to study in England; did you feel comfortable in all those settings or were you an outsider?
TW I felt right at home when I went off to that boarding school because I had wanted so much to go there. It was funny to be happy in this place where all the other kids wanted to be home. But it was much more peaceful than my home life. And it was intellectually alive, there were people talking about ideas and books in a way I’d never even known you could, except through my brother in the brief time we’d spent together before I went off to school. So I was quite happy and at home in that place. But God knows there were transitions to be made. I was aware of there being class tensions at Oxford, but as a Yank I was outside of those considerations. And I really felt as if I belonged to a community when I was there, an artistic and intellectual community. Those were the people I knew at Oxford, and they were not consumed by questions of class. Artists and intellectuals are their own class. These were people who were committed to writing, and reading, and understanding. And we talked incessantly. My real education came not so much through the classes and tutors, as through my time with my friends. The pubs closed at ten, so we’d buy some booze and sit around somebody’s room and just talk, talk, talk, talk, and I’ve never forgotten that. The sharpening effect on the mind, the awakening, was so exhilarating that questions of class and economic status really didn’t play much of a part. I started writing in a disciplined way, as soon as I got to Oxford, and that was very important to me. I was reading, making friends, traveling—it was a God-given time.
AMH Were they amazed that you had been a soldier?
TW We didn’t talk about it very much. First of all, I did not have a way of talking about it that did not make other people extremely uncomfortable. I had this compulsion to rub peoples’ noses in the horror of it, to tell them the worst things. But I would tell them in this cruel laughing way. Because the minute I started on that subject I’d go back to being a soldier, and that’s the way soldiers handle it. I began to see how discordant a note this struck whenever we started talking. Most of my friends learned not to talk to me about it, and I never brought it up, I never brought it up.
AMH But that in itself is fascinating. I’m always amazed by splits in people.
TW Well, I still have plenty of those.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee