Tobias Wolff is the author of the novels The Barracks Thief and Old School, the memoirs This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, and the short story collections In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Back in the World, and The Night in Question. His most recent collection of short stories, Our Story Begins, won The Story Prize for 2008. Other honors 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 Stories, The 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 Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and other magazines and literary journals.
April 11, 2012
Jonathan Fink: When I was a graduate student at Syracuse, Mary Karr told me that when she began to write The Liar’s Club that she kept a three-by-five card of your advice posted on her computer. I’m paraphrasing, but the advice said something like, “Don’t be afraid to look selfish, petty, or small minded, or else the readers won’t believe the story is true.”
Tobias Wolff: In writing a memoir?
JF: In writing a memoir. How is that advice important to writing a compelling memoir?
TW: Well, I don’t think I said anything about getting readers to believe the story. It was about being truthful. But you ask a good question. In fact, I think a lot of memoirs take that advice a little too much to heart, and lean very heavily on the rather nasty aspects of their character as a way of showing how honest they are in their memoirs, right? You know, “I’m such a good person that I’m going to tell you what a bad person I used to be”—that kind of thing. And it can become a bit of a mannerism, an affectation. Conversion stories are often like that. For the sinner to really come around, they want to show you that, “God really bagged a trophy when they got me. I was a rogue elephant out there.” It isn’t as exciting a conversion story if you were, like, “I was a pretty nice kid, and then I got even nicer.”
A memoir isn’t everybody’s form and shouldn’t be. It is a tough form to take on because of the necessity that wherever our lives are interesting is where they intersect with other lives. You don’t have that interesting of a life when you’re alone. I could never write a memoir about what I do now because I spend all my time alone, writing semicolons and taking them out and then putting them back in. When you’re writing a memoir, you’re exposing other people to public view. And sometimes that will be in an uncomplimentary way. Or it will be in a way that, even if you do it with love, they will not be grateful for. Nobody likes someone else to take charge of his story. We want to be in charge of our own narrative, and when you see that taken out of your hands, you don’t like it.
In writing a memoir you expose other people to view in ways that they probably aren’t going to like, and so you have to be careful that you are being as objective about yourself and your part in the story as you are about other people and their part in the story. If you’re putting other people under a pretty close lens, you really have no choice but to put that lens on yourself, too. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a very distorted story in which you’re some kind of angel flying above this fallen world, when in fact you’re part of this fallen creation yourself, and you participated in the story that you’re telling, and you probably have some things to answer for, too.
It’s a question of balance. When I wrote the memoir This Boy’s Life, I really wanted to be fair. One way of being fair was not to paint myself as some kind of little saintly kid, which I most certainly was not. But now it sometimes seems to me that I leaned a little too hard on that. After all, I was a kid. So much has to do with balance – your tone, and your motive in writing. All that will play into the final form and feeling of a piece.
JF: Do you have the impulse to revise after something’s been published?
TW: Oh, endlessly. I revise constantly as I’m writing. And then when I send a piece out, if it gets accepted, when I get the proofs back I revise again on the page. And if a story or a piece should be anthologized, I’ll look at it and see other things that I can do to make it better or I think I can do to make it better. And then when it’s about to come out in a collection, I do it again. If there’s another edition, I look at it. These are not holy texts. This isn’t the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is work that as long as it’s available to me to make better, I will. One of the things that appeals to me about writing a short story is the possibility of perfection. We can’t live perfect lives, but maybe, just maybe, we can write a perfect short story or a perfect poem. So, it’s that pursuit of the perfect that makes you restless. I had a book of my selected stories come out about two and a half years ago. There were some stories that I’d published in the mid-seventies, others within a year or two of the book itself. While I was going through them all again I had a friend over for dinner one night, another writer, Timothy Garton Ash. He said, “Well, what’s the work in that? You’re just putting them together, right?” I said, “Well, yeah, but I’m going through them.” He said, “Wait, they’ve already been published in books, and you’re going through them again? You’re rewriting them again?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Do you think you should be doing that?” Because of this conversation I ended up putting a note at the beginning of the book saying I’d revised the stories again since they last appeared. I still don’t know that I really needed to do that. But, you know, I wanted to hold my head up with Timothy, so I did.
My editor, Gary Fisketjon, when I mentioned it to him, said, “Oh, yeah, you definitely should put a note in there.” And that surprised me. I just assumed all writers did that, that they were constantly adjusting and tuning and tweaking their work. The Irish writer Frank O’Connor has a great story called, “Guests of the Nation.” It was adapted years ago by Neal Jordon, a filmmaker, into a movie called The Crying Game. If you look at different versions of that story over the years, he continued to change the ending. Not what happens at the end, but the wording. He just couldn’t obviously feel like he’d gotten it absolutely right. The last line in the penultimate version was, “And anything that happened to me thereafter, I never felt the same about again.” So, then, he’s got the last version, which is, “And anything that happened me thereafter, I never felt the same about again.” He drops the preposition “to,” right? “To me.” It’s more correct, but “happened me” is how his character would actually say it. “Anything that happened me thereafter, I never felt the same about again.” It’s more striking, haunting, it has strange poetry. Just that little adjustment. He didn’t fool with it after that, but he’d been revisiting it for many years. And I recognize that impulse in myself. And it’s also probably the reason why I haven’t written a whole lot of books. I wish I’d written more. I probably should have spent less time brooding over sentences and words in stories and getting more out, but that’s how I am.
JF: When George Saunders was here last year, he described the revision process as the author going over a piece so much that the piece benefits from all of the author’s “different selves.” You sit down to revise, and the more you go over a piece, the more those different “selves” interact with the piece over time, and so the piece becomes better than if it had been written solely by one of your individual “selves.”
TW: That’s interesting. I think you almost do have to cultivate a kind of split identity as a writer. One, you have to be this free spirit who allows the work to come out and not to be critical of yourself too much when you’re writing or you’ll paralyze yourself, constipate yourself . And then after it’s down, you have to become this cold-eyed editor who hates you and wants to find fault with your work. You consider every sentence guilty until proven innocent.
JF: Do you think any of that has changed because the traditional relationship between writer and editor has changed? Do you still work closely with an editor who makes aesthetic suggestions?
TW: No, I’ve always done a lot of rewriting. I had a wonderful English teacher when I was fifteen. I had gotten a scholarship to a boarding school in Pennsylvania, and I was woefully unprepared for it. I thought I knew how to write, and I didn’t. But I wanted to be a writer. So he took me seriously, and he would edit my work very severely, and show me all the fat, the vagueness, the lack of clarity. At first I was shocked and thrown off, and then it became one of the most valuable things I was ever given: the ability to start seeing things through his eyes when I read my work, after I had gotten a draft down. I had teachers like that later on as well. By the time I ever had an editor, I was pretty well my own editor. But I have a good editor who works very closely with me and who marks up my work a lot, and gives me a chance to test my own work by holding it up to the light, asking a question about it.
Even if I decide to stick with something, I know why I was doing it. Sometimes you need to follow your own advice, though. The purpose of a workshop is not only to learn to accept advice, but to learn to reject it, to have some confidence in your own work, to remember that it is your name on the story, not someone else’s, not a committee’s. When I give their stories back to my students, I never ask later on, “Did you change that thing?” It’s their story, their decision to make.
JF: I also found, too, that if I didn’t take that advice on a specific piece, sometimes that advice would come back and permeate in other pieces.
TW: I think that’s true. Like what, in your case? Just, for example, something that you might not have taken in a specific case but came back?
JF: Well, many times, especially in a class setting, you will receive contradictory advice. Someone will write, “Best line in the story.” And then someone else will underline the same line and write, “Worst line in the story.”
JF: And so you would get contradictory advice, but I also think of things like structure or framing. For example, someone might say, “You might consider starting this poem later. This current beginning material is sort of introductory, clear-your-throat material.” And I might not necessarily take that advice for that specific poem, but on a different poem those suggestion might come back to me, and I might say, “Yeah, this is definitely ‘clear your throat’ material that can be removed.”
TW: That’s a very good example.
JF: Those sorts of things. Good coaches live in the ear. You sort of hear those voices.
TW: That’s right. But that thing about contradictory advice is true. That happens in a workshop, and you really have to learn to sort through it and to try to hear those things that are in tune with, I don’t know, the song you’re trying to sing, and not another kind of song. And you do, you pick that up after a while. But I see that even in reviews. Especially you’ll see it when a collection of short stories comes out, and this reviewer will say, “Well, another blah-blah collection by so-and-so, and it has one very distinguished story in it. There’s one significantly weak story in it.” Then you read another reviewer in an eminent journal, and they’ll have it flipped. So if you’re relying on them for guidance, don’t. To quote Hemingway, who is always quotable on such things, he said about reviews—he claimed not to pay attention to them; in his case, until sort of the end of his life, they were always pretty positive—but he said, “If you believe the good things the sons-of-bitches say about you, then you’ll have to believe the bad things the sons-of-bitches say about you.” He has a point. You can translate that to the workshop. You have to develop independence.
JF: We had some students ask a really good question in class. We’re reading the whole spectrum of your stories, and the students compared “Hunters in the Snow” to “The Chain.” These are very different stories in that the authorial presence in “Hunters in the Snow” almost feels amoral. As a reader you’re urging the characters to get Kenny to the hospital. Why are they stopping for waffles while he’s bleeding in the truck?
TW: Not very nice guys. Not my fault.
JF: And then “The Chain” almost borders on being a parable about the urge of vigilante justice: violence begets violence.
JF: So the students asked, “What allows ‘Hunters in the Snow’ to be kind of amoral while ‘The Chain’ feels almost like a parable?” I said, “We’ll ask Wolff when he gets here.” What differentiated the process of “Hunters in the Snow” from “The Chain”?
TW: I’ll tell you a little bit about the writing of the story, which was that I read a newspaper article about some guys who went out hunting, five or six of them. And they were drinking while they were hunting, and then one of them accidentally shot another one. I don’t remember how, but it was an accident. It wasn’t like it happened in the story. And then on the way to the hospital, they had the guy in the backseat of a car. They stopped at a bar, and got drunk, and forgot about him. He bled to death. So, that was the story—outrageous story. I thought, “God, if I’d stayed in Washington State and gone hunting with my old friends that could have been me!” It stayed with me, and I as I began to write it as a story, I had to make some decisions.
One thing was to get the booze out because the minute you have alcohol in the story, then the human agency leaves, the idea of choice. Then it’s just that demon rum that’s to blame. I wanted to put responsibility on the characters. The amorality is probably, you know, something of an illusion. The story is so constructed that it puts moral responsibility on the characters rather than on the writer, if that makes any sense. And they make some bad decisions, but they do it in a funny way, and in the interest of friendship. These guys who have been kind of at each other suddenly discover that there’s still the embers of friendship burning between them, while their buddy—I changed it from a car, which was at least a little bit comfortable, to the back of a truck in the freezing cold, which is almost melodramatically cruel and horrible—they forget about him, right? They even take away his blankets after a while.
JF: They even admonish him. Why are you kicking off your blanket?
TW: It’s grotesque, of course. And I had fun making it so, but it’s a dramatization, really, of things that actually go on between people. And there’s also that whole dynamic of two against one. Three isn’t two plus one; it’s two against one. I have a couple of sons who are a little over a year apart, and sometimes they’d have a friend over to play on these horrible, grim winter days in Syracuse, which you remember, and you’ve been in the very house where they grew up because Mary Karr bought my house. And I’d be upstairs working, and all of a sudden I’d hear this cry go up: “No Fair! Two against one!” And that kind of thing finds its way into the story as well. The other thing I did was reduce the dramatis personae—the number of characters in the piece—because my point was to get down into these strange, troubled relationships—the bullying, the pain, the secrecy—and it could be much more vividly seen with a smaller number of people. So I took an event that happened and changed it.
But I could imagine it happening to me. It wasn’t outside the realm of my experience. When I was a boy growing up in Washington State, I used to go hunting and my stepfather and his friends were just like those guys. A little boy drowned in the river that we lived right next to. Willy Quick. Still remember his name. Three years old. Wandered down to the river and fell in. They organized a search to try to find the body. My stepfather was a scoutmaster at that point, and he happened to have these big rafts—big, inflatable rafts. These four or five guys got into a raft, and my stepfather and I went along, looking for Willy. And my stepfather in this utterly tragic situation starts getting drunk. He had brought along a flask of Old Crow, and he got really, really drunk, and weird. Those guys, they weren’t drinking—this was too serious for that—but they actually put him off on the bank. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. They let me stay in, and I knew I had hell to pay when I got home, but I was not getting out of that raft in the middle of nowhere. It’s just the kind of thing that I could’ve imagined him doing, you know, what happens in that story. So, even though it seems kind of freakish and nearly implausible, it isn’t. But I decided to keep my hands off the scale. I didn’t want to be tipping the reader as to my attitude towards these characters. I just let them play it out on this blank, cold, white canvas.
JF: That moment is so wonderful in the story and surprising when the reader finds out after Kenny’s been shot that the farmer actually asked him to shoot the dog. For me, it felt like one of those moments that was a surprise for the writer during the writing process. Was that a surprise when you were writing?
TW: Yeah, it was. I mean, it was when I first started doing it. Then I remembered where I’d actually gotten that story.. When I was a boy, I was very fond of a book called The Compleat Practical Joker. It was an anthology of practical jokes that had been put together by a guy named H. Allen Smith. You can probably still get it at the library. And I read that when I was about eight or nine years old, and something really stuck with me. Some guys had gone hunting, and that very thing had happened. One of them had been asked to shoot a dog that was sick and old as a kind of price for hunting on the property. And the guy started joking around with his friends, and he ended up getting shot by them because they thought he’d gone off. But I’d forgotten that until I started writing “Hunters in the Snow,” and then that came back to me, and I thought it just fit perfectly into the story, and so I used it. It’s funny how a story is made up of so many different personal experiences, reading experiences, imagination and what might have happened. All those things kind of come together in the story.
JF: It’s nice too because it kind of complicates the culpability. What seems like an immediate threat from Kenny all of a sudden becomes more complicated when, oh, he’s asked to do this. It doesn’t diminish the threat, but it complicates it.
TW: Kenny was definitely trying to terrify Tub. You don’t want to say that because Kenny did get killed after all that he got what was coming to him. You probably shouldn’t be killed for a practical joke, but, you know, there are some situations where you could imagine it happening.
The other story, that was quite close to my experience. I was sledding with a son of mine right after Christmas in a park—Syracuse, Thornden Park—and as he was getting down towards the end of his slide, this dog runs out of a yard. Big, black German Shepherd, like a wolf. You can see him coming. I’m way up at the top of the hill, and I’m running, and the snow is deep. I can’t get down. The dog lunges at him, and my son for some reason moved his head. Because he had a parka on, he didn’t see him coming. The dog got him here [Wolff points to his shoulder] and was shaking him like a doll. And luckily—I didn’t get there—a teenage girl was sledding down behind him, and she jumped off and picked up a two-by-four from a pile of lumber that was behind a shed there and clobbered the dog several times over the head, and it let go and ran back in. She saved my son’s life, there’s no question about it. He was a mess. He was all bruised up. So we called the police. And the idiots wouldn’t do anything about it because they said the dog was on a chain. I said, “The chain reaches well into the park where kids are playing and sledding.” They said, “He’s on a chain. That’s what the ordinance requires.” And I said, “If you put on a chain on him that’s five miles long and he goes around killing people, is that okay?” And they doubled down on their stupidity.
I had this friend from Texas who had a rather Texan way of resolving problems. So when he heard about this, and he came over and saw my son, he said, “You gotta take care of that dog.” I was still trying to get some results with the police; I had actually gone up to the very top of the department, and I was waiting to hear from them, but they’re obviously not going to do anything about that dog. And I said, “I don’t know quite what I can do at this point.” He said, “I know what you can do.” He said, “Go out to dinner, my treat, and I’ll shoot that damn thing.” I said, “Hmm.” That appealed to me. I was mad. My friend, as you might guess, from just the conversation I’ve related so far, was a rather combative guy, tended to get in disputes with people. I said, “Geez, I feel like that’s something I should do myself.” He said, “Yeah, but they’ll know you did it.” He said, “Don’t worry about it. Maybe someday you can do something for me.” He said, “Don’t worry about it. The time will come,” as indeed it would with him. I said, “No, I don’t think so.”
Eventually, I got the police chief in Syracuse to deal with it and the dog was gotten rid of. The dog had a lot of complaints against him. He was a savage dog. And my son was okay. Not long after that my friend got into a really rough contretemps with some guy at a gas station, the guy creased his car pulling out and didn’t even stop. And my friend pursued the guy and they really got into it. And I thought, “What if he’d asked me to get involved in this? Where might that have led?” And this whole chain, if you will, of every man getting justice in this world, creates a situation where somebody is always on the short end and having to get their justice back. It’s our world, isn’t it? Everybody is trying to get even. And nobody gets even. Everybody gets further in the hole. So it was that kind of personal experience, coupled with a more general sense of how justice operates in this world when you try to get it on your own, that led me to write that story. But the atmospherics—the description of the weather, the feeling of trying to run down the hill, the rage and the feeling of helplessness when you aren’t doing anything afterwards about it, how you feel like you need to redress this wrong—all that came out of my experience. And then the rest of it was what might have been if I had pulled the trigger on this situation right then and let it go forward. I know that no good would come of it.
Regina Sakalarios-Rogers: You said before that you don’t like to talk about your work while you are writing it. When do you get to that point where you feel like it is finished or ready for someone else’s eyes?
TW: In my case, basically when I feel like I’ve brought the work as far along as I possibly can, and I don’t see any more that I can do to make it better, then I will show it to a few readers. They will make me aware of things that are insufficiently stated and developed, or overdeveloped perhaps. But that’s not usually the case. I tend to cut so much when I write that sometimes I cut out muscle and bone and not just the fat. Sometimes there is some restoration that needs to be done. As long as I can see more to do in the piece there is no point in showing it to anyone else. But once I reach a point where it feels finished to me, I wonder what other people will think, and that’s when I show it.
RSR: What do you do when you get to that point where you know there is something else that needs to be done, but you just can’t see it? Are you willing to let other people see it at that point or do you put it away?
TW: No, I just bash my head against the wall until something comes out of my head. If I know it isn’t right I don’t see any point in showing to other people because they’ll just say it isn’t right and they’ll be right. I already knew that.
JF: Carver used to say a writer is someone who is willing to sit and stare at something longer than anyone else.
TW: Did he say that? I love it. That’s right. Someone asked Evan Connell the same thing and he said, “I sit in a room, and I put in commas and then I take them out again.” With me it’s semicolons. I try to avoid them.
RSR: So the Hemingway idea of stopping in the middle so you can begin the next day when you know what’s going to happen next, that used to work for me, but I found it’s kind of impractical.
TW: Writers give a lot of advice, and I think a lot of times the advice they give is what they think would be good for other people but they don’t really do it themselves. And I have a feeling that may fall in that category. It sounds great. But if you’re writing a good sentence you’re going to stop? Are you kidding me? I don’t believe he did that. I really don’t.
I used to smoke, and my best friend also smoked. And we told ourselves that we were going to kill ourselves if we kept doing it. So when we were in our twenties we made a deal to stop smoking, both of us the same day. I lasted a week or so and then I was back on the Camels. And so I told my friend that I was smoking again, and he said, “Oh hell, I started smoking the next day.” I said, “Well you should have told me because we had a deal.” And he said, “But I thought it was good for you not to smoke. So I didn’t want to do anything to encourage you.” I don’t like being lied to for my own good. But I think that we as teachers and mentors do it all the time. For example, one thing I absolutely recommend is that anyone who wants to be a writer should keep a journal. Not necessarily deep thoughts—of all things those will things will be the least interesting to you later on—but sights, smells, sounds, things you overhear, a funny story, the surface of the world, what it’s like at a given time in your life, the sensory experience of being alive.
JF: Joan Didion has a good essay titled, “On Keeping a Notebook.” Do you know that one?
TW: No I don’t.
JF: In it, she says that the point for keeping a notebook is to stay on “nodding terms” with who you were in the past. That doesn’t necessarily mean acceptance of who you were in the past, but the notebook allows you to go back and touch that past.
TW: But, having said that, I don’t keep one. I never have. But I give that advice constantly. I don’t lie and say I do it. I just don’t say anything about that. But writers do. A poet friend of mine, I heard him tell a group of people once—he was talking about how he writes his poems—and he said he’s got the poem in the typewriter, and he has a little file card that he keeps next to the typewriter upon which he writes what he actually means to say in the poem, and he said that he often ends up using the file card as the poem. Because he actually says what he means to say on the file card. I think that sounds like great advice. But I seriously doubt that is true. As much respect as I have for him, I think he’s making a point about something and it’s a good point. But I have to say I have my doubts about the veracity of that story.
JF: I think we see that many times, especially in introductory workshops, when students move into an explanatory mode in their writing. There is a part of the students that recognizes where the story needs to go or the poem needs to go, but they don’t have the language yet. That explanatory language frequently functions as placeholder language that hopefully will be replaced with narrative or imagistic language later in revision.
Maria Steele: We were talking a little about memoir and your experiences from your own life, and I’m curious about your decision to make Old School fiction. Some people might wonder, “Why not memoir?” What advantages did fiction offer?
TW: This is a novel that takes place during a year at a boarding school. I went to such a school and had some of the experiences my narrator did. But I made up many of the crucial events in order to make it a story. What happened to me there wasn’t really a story. I had to invent. The minute you start inventing, even if you are drawing on your own experience to some extent, you should call it what it is, which is fiction. I have very little patience with novels that are masquerading as memoirs to get past the critical scrutiny of editors and, later, readers. The obvious, most recent example is the James Frey thing. But there are a lot of them. I once thought of teaching a course on false memoirs. For example, there is a writer—not really a writer, he only had the one book—a book called Fragments, by Binjamin Wilkomirski in which he describes being caught during a pogrom during the early days of World War II, rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz with his mom who concealed him because he was really little at the time. He grew up in Auschwitz and managed to survive the war and wrote this horrific book about it. Well, Binjamin Wilkomirski is actually Swiss. And he grew up in Switzerland. He was the son, adopted son, of a prosperous doctor in Geneva and a weird guy who decided to write a book about being a Holocaust survivor. But this book was taken as absolutely serious and won the Jerusalem Prize, and all these people were coming forward saying, “I think he might be my long lost cousin.”
And this has been a pattern. There have been several of these false Holocaust memoirs. There is one by a woman named Misha Defonseca, and another by a couple in Brooklyn. They turned out to have been made up. It’s not innocent. You can’t just say, “Well, there is always a lot of play and imagination when writing a memoir.” But when you deliberately falsify things like that, as Frey and all these writers did, you feed a skepticism about people’s witness, especially in relation to the Holocaust. It is very pernicious because there is a whole industry of Holocaust denial out there, and you are feeding that beast. You are doing a tremendous amount of harm when you do this because they will say, “See, it’s all made up.”
I had never intended for Old School to be a memoir. I certainly couldn’t have written that novel without having the experience myself, being in such a place, being in that culture, and all the questions about class, money, ambition and vocation that were raised in that situation. I was expelled, flunked out actually. I didn’t do what this guy does, but I could imagine doing it. I was very ambitious in a literary way. I well understand that people who have read This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, which are memoirs, may read this book and make the assumption that it’s a memoir that is just calling itself a novel. That would be incorrect. I put the word “novel” on the cover. It is a work of fiction. Once you put the word “novel” on the cover of a book, you really can do anything. If you put the word “memoir” on the cover of the book, I don’t think you can do anything. I think you have to stick to the story your memory tells you, which might differ from the story your sister’s memory tells her. If you’re sticking to the story you truly think is yours, then you are writing a memoir. But deliberately to invent and novelize and all that kind of thing, and to know you are doing it, then you are in different terrain, and you should acknowledge that fact.
JF: We were saying how much we enjoyed the characterization of Ayn Rand in the book. Did you get any blow back from that?
TW: Actually, No. I fully expected to because she’s a religious figure to those who follow her, like Paul Ryan in congress. Glenn Beck is a big supporter. I was a big fan when I was teenager. She offers very simple answers to very complicated problems, which is always appealing. It’s actually quite an accurate picture of her. I did a lot of research writing the book. I did see Robert Frost when I was a boy. He came to my school and talked. Nevertheless, I didn’t rely on that. I read a lot, a couple of biographies, a monograph about his teaching, about things he said when he talked. He’d tell people things like, “If you really want to be a writer, go to Brazil.” He’d never been to Brazil. He was very whimsical and mischievous. But he could also be mean as a snake, that sweet looking old man. It was intriguing to me. And Ayn Rand, I read her. Everybody I knew read Ayn Rand. Well, I shouldn’t say, “everybody.” That isn’t true. But a great many of the reading kids I knew, especially the girls. Girls were really into Ayn Rand. She had these powerful women in her work. She testified before congress. She was very influential. In fact, the the objectivist philosophy that she created provided the planks of the Libertarian Party that, of course, have been borrowed by the Republican Party as well. She continues to have an influence on our political life and our political discourse—the questions around values, our obligations to others, individualism, capitalism. She is still a very powerful presence in this country.
Hemingway I chose because all three of these writers were in their own way extremely powerful, influential figures—public figures as well as literary figures. Robert Frost went to Russia and had a famous, scolding conversation with Khrushchev while he was there. He was an informal ambassador, and he read a poem at Kennedy’s inauguration. He was chosen to do that. And Hemingway was the most famous writer in the world and not just famous — he created a code of conduct, a way to be in the world that wasn’t very workable for young men who tended to be attracted to it, including myself. They weren’t just big literary figures, they were also influential figures, and that was why I chose them. The book is also about influence—the yielding to a given influence and then the rejecting of that influence as we grow up.
MS: We see these boys compete to meet with these successful writers, and I think a lot of us can identify with the narrator’s ambitions and fears and motivations. That’s kind of an outsider looking in. Could you talk a little about your perspective as an insider, as someone whom other writers admire and probably imitate? What is it like to help shape someone else’s writerly identity?
TW: Well, I never know, thank goodness, what’s in other people’s minds. I can only imagine. But I don’t imagine out that way too much. I do work with younger writers. That’s something I do a lot of. But I don’t know if anyone is actually trying to imitate me. I don’t think anyone is. Maybe I’m not seeing it. I try not to create some kind of school around my work. I don’t want to try to make more people who write like me. Why would I want to produce more me’s? There is quite enough of them. When I’m working with younger writers I try to figure out what it is they are trying to do and to help them do that better rather than try to conform their work to some theory of how all stories should be.
JF: (to the students) What questions do you guys have?
Audience: Getting back to something you said earlier when you were talking about taking advice from editors versus holding your ground. When you’re a young writer, how do you make that distinction? You’re still trying to find your voice, still trying to figure out who you are as a writer. When do you decide, “Okay that is the direction I’ll go,” or, “No, I’m keeping my guns where I am right now”?
TW: There is a great deal of conversation about “finding one’s voice,” and I wouldn’t suggest that as a very helpful project. I think that is something that happens to us almost by accident. What I would do is write about things that really interest you, situations, people that really interest you in a language that seems right for the story you are telling. Your voice, such as it is, will emerge as an effect of that. It’s actually something that happens to us, not something we make happen. It happens as a consequence of our attention to other things and our interest in other things. I think it is a recipe for frustration to always be “looking” for your voice. It’s like saying, “He was searching for himself.” You know what, maybe if he hadn’t been, he would’ve found himself? Maybe if he really got interested in something and followed those interests and wasn’t always looking in, but looking out and letting things seize his or her attention and you follow that interest and passion then you become a person in the service of those passions. It’s not so much as “finding yourself” as yourself finding you in a way. Through those kinds of pursuits and the kind of loyalty you develop to certain ideas and interests. It’s the same way with writing. As to the question “How does a writer know where to stand and where to go?” I still listen to advice. I really do. I don’t shut down when I hear it. I entertain it. Basically, it’s an instinct you develop and it gets more and more refined over time. You can start parsing out whether this is really a description of something you weren’t trying to do that the person who voiced it wishes you were trying to do. Or you heard something that helped you do that thing that you actually wanted to do. And then you’ll develop an instinct for picking that up. It’s almost like a musical ear. You’ll develop a way of hearing what’s useful for you. It’s something that comes from doing it a lot.
Audience: How old were you when you first got published, and what did it feel like? How long had you been trying to get published and what was that experience like?
TW: That’s a good question. I started writing when I was quite young, nine or ten years old, though not with the idea of being a writer. By the time I was fifteen, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I even wrote while I was in the Army for four years. When I got out of the Army I went to University and wrote the entire time I was in University. I wrote a novel, which actually got picked up. I was then twenty-eight years old. It was published in England by Allen and Unwin, which was J.R.R. Tolkien’s publisher. I was just delighted with it. I was living in San Francisco when it came out. I got the novel in the mail. I bought myself a Coors across the street at the market, a 16-ouncer. I lived on Broadway and there is a tunnel that goes through Broadway, which is a big hill. I lived right at the top of the hill. There was a cement wall that ran across the street. It was very quiet—beautiful view of the bay. So I got my beer, and I went out there and sat on the top of the wall and opened my novel. I started reading it and thought, “This is terrible!” And it is! It’s a terrible novel. But it got published. I never list it among my publications.
At the time, I had really fallen in love with short stories as well. I wrote another novel, which I also didn’t like, and put it aside. Later I returned to that material in This Boy’s Life, and decided to tell it straight, tell what really happened. Then it gave itself to me. But that was many years later. I was reluctant to write a memoir. It didn’t occur to me as something to do. I liked writing short stories and had been reading a lot of them. I got really lucky. In 1975 or 76, The Atlantic Monthly picked up one of my stories for a series called, “Atlantic Firsts.” They showcased the story and made a fuss about it. That really kicked off my public writing life in this country. Other publications followed, other short stories, then a collection of short stories. I was very lucky. I’ve actually had a better life as a writer than I ever thought I would.
MS: You talked a little bit about Hemingway. In the short story, “Bullet in the Brain,” you see Anders critique something to death. It brings to question sort of this malignant cynicism in the marketplace, and I’m wondering if you find that you can be as passionately inspired as when you first started writing? Is reading Hemingway today still the same as when you wanted to type out his stories?
TW: The Hemingway stories still blow me away. The same with Chekhov. The Irish writer William Trevor, the writer Katherine Anne Porter. I’ve read almost too much Flannery O’Connor. I’ve taught her so often over the years that the effect is not quite the same for me anymore. I still use her work in my classes because my students haven’t read her yet, and I can see the effect on them, and it’s wonderful. She’s a revelation. I still read so-called “classics.” I’m reading a novel right now that I haven’t read before by Maupassant called Bel Ami. I loved his stories over the years—wonderful short story writer. He was amazingly prolific, especially for someone who died so young, like Chekov. I love reading Dickens. I become self-forgetful. When I read Dickens there is nothing I can use in my own work except the feeling of, “God this wonderful. I wish I could do something this good.”
JF: One of the things I like so much about a story like “Bullet in the Brain” is that when you begin with Anders, he’s cynical. I can almost imagine the impetus for the story might be, “Okay, I’m going to get back at the book critics.” But by the end it’s redemptive. The reader sees Anders return to his love of language. Is it possible to have a sustained attention on a character as a writer without generating some sort of sympathy for that character? Can you sustain that dislike for a character, or is sympathy inherent in the attention that you have given him?
TW: That is a really good question. The very act of looking closely at another human being—even one who does terrible things, like Pinky in Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock—makes them human to you. The Roman poet Horace said, “Nothing human is alien to me.” We have that feeling, I think, when we read. That creates problems for readers. For example, the French writer Celine, who was a Fascist and an Anti-Semite, when you read him, he’s such a good writer that you feel embarrassed to like his work. But you do. He’s humanly engaging. He’s funny. His characters are alive on the page. I could go on. Literature, at its best, has a way of encouraging a sense of human recognition, even kinship, that our habitual daily lives sometimes dim. To realize you’ve had that experience with someone you didn’t really want to have it with can be very bracing.