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Off the Page: Tobias Wolff

With Tobias Wolff
Fiction Writer, Memoirist
Friday, December 5, 2003; 1:00 PM

Tobias Wolff may be best known for This Boy's Life, a memoir (and later a movie) about growing up at the hands of an alcoholic stepfather. Yet it his fiction that I like best: the novella, The Barracks Thief, which won him the PEN/Faulkner Award, and collections of stories that are shining jewels, spare and precise and richly emotional at once.

Wolff's new book, Old School, is his first novel published in the United States. He was online Friday, Dec. 5 to talk about his work.

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Read the transcript.

Host Carole Burns, a news producer at washingtonpost.com, is also a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Carole Burns: Good afternoon booklovers, And welcome to "Off the Page." Today our guest is Tobias Wolff, perhaps best known for his memoir, This Boy's Life, who will talk about his new novel, Old School.


Washington, D.C.: Where did the inspiration for Old School come from? How long has this book been percolating? I'm curious, in general, about your imaginative process -- if inspiration grabs you by the throat in a rush, or if you must eek it out a teaspoon at a time. Or some other way -- please share.

Tobias Wolff: This has been something that's been brewing in me for quite a while. I did have a few years in a school somewhat like the one I described but not exactly like the one I described--this is not a memoir. But it's certainly arises to a significant degree from the recollected anxieties, tensions, confusions that I felt as a scholarship boy from the West in an Eastern boaring school whose tone was set by Eastern traditions and moraes and a consciousness of class that was new and in some ways very disorienting for me.

And I had also been trying to understand the roots of my vocation as a writer. It seemed to me that in some way I could trace at least part of that vocation to those anxieties and difficulties. And it seemed to me then that becoming a writer was a way of resolving them, that writers formed a class of their own, and that that exempted you from the fray.

I cannot wait for inspiration to grab me by the throat. Life is too busy for that. If it grabs me by the throat when I'm having my car washed, what am I supposed to do? I have to go to work like everybody else, and hope that I will be given what I need in order to continue writing each day when I'm at my desk. But I have to be at my desk in order to receive the gift.


Carole Burns: I'm fascinated right now with the difference between writing short stories vs. writing a novel. How did you make the leap? Did your experience writing books of memoir help?

Tobias Wolff: It wasn't really so great a leap as you might think. Certainly in order to write those two books of memoir, I had to learn to sustain a narrative over the length of a book, with a single set of the same characters and a limited set of concerns. In other words, both to focus and to expand. This novel had been, as I said earlier, brewing in me for several years before I began to write it. There was never really any question of making a story out of it. The things I wanted to take on, the arc of the story i wanted to tell, the number of people involved, the issues at stake, would not have been possible to contain in the form of a story.
Certainly the difference in the process of writing a story and a novel is very pronounced. When you write a story, you at least can assure yourself with some degree of confidence that you will live to finish it. I didn't always have that feeling when I was writing this novel. But on the other hand, I did come to treasure the experiecne of returning over the four years I took to write this novel returning to the same world and the same pople and concerns and entering more and more deeply into the world, working with the shape of the novel. And that is something that you don't get with the short story, because of course you finish a short story in, in my case, two and half or three months, then you have to invent a whole new set of circumstances and call a new set of people into creation and try to figure out what's at the heart of the story, what's driving it. So you're starting life over again every three months or so when you're writing short stories, and that can be both exciting and rather draining. so each of the forms has its own compensations and difficulties.


Washington, D.C.: I love your books, and I'm always interested in what the authors that I enjoy read. Any recommendations? Any "new" authors you've come across?

Tobias Wolff: Recently I have read Donna Tartt's The Little Friend, which I loved. I really got to love The Little Friend because of its portrait of family and its very particular portrait of a family. And it's also very funny--it's a very funny book. And the main character is just wonderful. Her name is Harriet, and she's kind of a ferocious little girl, in the role of a girl detective in a way, and of course she gets everything wrong. And she's surrounded by these doting aunts, because her mother has lost control. And it's beautifully written.

I would also recommend two collections of stories I have recently read: one by D.R. MacDonald, called "All the Men Are Sleeping." It's a collection of stories set in Cape Breton, and they are the most beautiful stories, beautifully written, about this land that has lost its coherence because the fisheries have been exhausted, the land being rather unproductive. And so you get a remnant. Most of the familes have gone down to the untied state or to halifax or toronot to make their way, leaving behind a few families trying to hold their own in these difficult circumstances, and to maintain their culture against the pressures of modern, popular culture.

My last recommendation, an absolutely masterful collection of storie, by Stuart Dybek, called I Sailed With Magellan. These stories are all set in Chicago, and they're constucted around a single family but the stories take off in different directions, some of the stories do not directly refer to the family but are set in the same social milieu. But it has the virtues of both a novel and a collections of stories. You have the continuity of a novel and the variety of a story collection. And they are brilliantly written. Dybek is one of the great mastsers of the short story form.


Gullsgate Minn: Tobias Wolff: As far as favorite short story writers go, you follow Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley in line of ascension? There is much in Stuart Dybek that reminds me of your style or twist of thinking and reflecting whatever. (his Chicago stories) The short story genre, may it never die--although it can be squeezed into a prose poem occasionally with some dgeree of credibility? I look forward to reading your latest book which should be at my local independent bookstore. Thanks again for the opportunity to express my fond respect for your insights.

Tobias Wolff: Thank you.


Carole Burns: Your style of writing in Old School reminded me more of your memoirs than your short stories. What do you think? What do you make of it?

Tobias Wolff: To begin with, it is a first-person narrative, and there's no question at all that in his voice and in some of his circumstances, the narrator of Old School resembles the narrator of This Boy's Life and In Pharoah's Army. So it would be natural to feel the affinity you describe.

The crucial difference is that around a certain core of moral, spiritual autobography, i have constructed a series of events, a critical mass of which are imagined, and characters who do not correspond precisely to any I have known.


Bethesda, Md. : The world in this novel does seem very Old School. Is this a world that has passed? What's been lost and what's been gained by such changes?

Tobias Wolff: Yes, the world of this novel is passed. As this novel is taking place, John F. Kennedy is about to take office, and the world of the school and the world outside the school are soon to be turned on their heads. But at this moment, this school is still more a 19th century world than a 20th century world. It has changed largely for the good. The world of such schools was then rather misogynistic, arrogant, and insular. They could not survive in this way. My own observation of these schools over the years is that they have become much more democratic, open to all kinds of people, including young women, and more engaged with the world outside.


Carole Burns: Thanks so much, Tobias, for being with us today. And thanks to everyone who submitted questions--and even you lurkers out there, just reading.

Next week, "Off the Page" will meet Friday, Dec. 12 with Tim Parks, whose tenth novel, Judge Savage, was published this fall. In his review, The Post's Jonathan Yardley called Judge Savage "at once an intricate, skillfully constructed mystery and a meditation on innocence and guilt, crime and punishment, loyalty and betrayal."

Get announcements about "Off the Page" every week by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.


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