IN CONVERSATION . . . With Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff at his home in Stanford, California.
Tobias Wolff at his home in Stanford, California. (Antonio Olmos/Eyevine - Zuma Press)
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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Given his subject matter (a world "where wounds did not heal, and things did not work out for the best"), a phone interviewer might be forgiven for expecting Tobias Wolff to sound dour, forbidding or at least gravelly. Pleasant surprise: The author's voice is musically mellow, punctuated by an easy laugh. He was speaking from his hotel room in Aspen, Colo., where he treats himself to an annual week of fanatical skiing.

-- Daniel Asa Rose

How does it feel to be called a master of the short story form?

Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

I'll bet you're sick of the term "dirty realism" -- first applied to you and fellow writers Raymond Carver, Richard Ford et al., by Bill Buford in Granta in 1983.

You're right, I am. I don't even know what it means.

To me it means martini drinkers writing about beer drinkers: the fascination certain middle-class authors have for working-class characters.

But I'm from the working class! My mother was a soda jerk before going to school to become a secretary. If I hadn't won a scholarship to boarding school, I may not have become a writer at all. Besides, from the get-go there's been a literary tradition of exploring [the underside]. With "Moll Flanders" [1722], Daniel DeFoe presented a very direct, unvarnished portrait of a pickpocket and a prostitute. Still, I wish the label would go away.

To an uninitiated reader, how would you describe the difference between your vision of the world and, say, Raymond Carver's?

Our whole lives were different. I didn't struggle with alcoholism or desperate poverty. Maybe I had a wider experience of the world.

Did your time in the military contribute to that experience?

Well, four years in the military, both as an enlisted man and as an officer, was not a negligible passage in my life. Three or four stories in the collection reflect that. I learned a lot about myself -- not all of it very pleasant.

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