IN CONVERSATION . . . With Tobias Wolff

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.

Such as?

A capacity for a certain kind of callousness. I did not find myself to be a heroic character.

Norman Mailer once said that if he hadn't been in the army, he might have ended up being a writer like Iris Murdoch.

Interesting! I can see that.

In these stories, you depict characters in all sorts of oddball professions: used car salesmen, strawberry pickers, religious devotees, con men, obit writers. Does much of this come from firsthand experience?

A lot of it does, yes. I wrote obits for The Washington Post at one time, for instance. But the most important part is to be alert. Flannery O'Connor [left] spent most of her life on a farm in Milledgeville, Ga., yet through being alert she found a whole world around her, made it new every time out. Anyone who survives adolescence has enough to write about for the rest of their lives.

Do you feel young writers today have enough world experience or that graduate writing programs somehow substitute for it?

Oh, lord, yes, they do. Look at David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, Donna Tartt -- I'm amazingly impressed by the nuances, their scrupulous observation of life. It's an extremely robust literary culture right now, with no falling off at all. You know, there's a grumpy thing that people do about the good old days. Kurt Vonnegut [right] once said there were never good old days. There were just days.

When did he say that?

Syracuse in '94. It must have been the shortest graduation speech in history. He couldn't have been up there for more than four minutes, and it was meaty, honest, helpful -- none of this "as you go forth" stuff. He had it really winnowed down by then.

You also write about academe, where you've spent most of your career [Syracuse and Stanford], and which you depict as a fairly hellish place.

But no more so than a corporate environment. As with any group, passions become enflamed over decisions that may seem petty to outsiders but that are important to the future of their community. Besides, it's natural to examine the difficult side.

In one story ["Two Boys and a Girl"] you write: "His irony began to sound weak and somehow envious. It sounded thin and unmanly." Is there too much irony in modern lit?

There's a certain kind of irony that can be an evasion of the truth. But irony can also be a way of confronting life, of honestly and courageously confronting atrocity, for instance, as in "A Modest Proposal" or "This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen." Young people today are experimenting with irony, but they continue to grow and evolve.

More important than irony to you seems to be economy. You strategically parse out details to create mood and character, such as a character pouring "a long stream of sugar into her coffee." Are you ever nervous that you've pared it too much?

If I repeat something, it'll spoil the effect I'm after. When I finish a story and it feels starved or I find I've cut too much into the bone, I can always go back and add flesh afterwards.

You have a lot of faith in your readers to pay attention, don't you?

Short story readers tend to be a self-screening group, but, yes, I've been pretty lucky in my readers. The best writing is writing that trusts the reader. ยท

Daniel Asa Rose is a frequent interviewer for Book World.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company