Wolff is the author of four highly decorated short-story collections, as well as a second memoir, 1994's In Pharaoh's Army, an account of his mostly uneventful, reluctant stint as an Army lieutenant in Vietnam.
Over the course of his career, Wolff has moved fluidly between fiction and nonfiction, not blurring genres by lying his way to truth, but instead challenging lies as a way to find truth at the heart of deception. "I hate the sound of a false sentence," he says. "I hate the sound of a false sentiment."
Now Wolff--who visits Portland this week as a guest of Portland Arts and Lectures--has published his first novel. Old School, set in the early 1960s, is fiction, yet it reads as if the unnamed narrator is the young Wolff, a prep-school boy recounting what happened between his hardscrabble boyhood and a military tour.
The novel mines the vein of moral weight that underlies Wolff's best work, with details drawn from memory but deepened and compressed by the power of imagination. Old School's economical form was inspired by Joseph Conrad's belief that "a work of art must carry its justification in every line," Wolff said in a phone interview. "I really like to have everything pulling its own weight."
Willamette Week: In Old School, you seem to be returning to familiar subject matter. Why this novel now?
Tobias Wolff: I've never written about becoming a writer, which is what the novel is about, the process of discipleship and rejection, of writers as godlike figures, that whole worship and detestation through which we progress through life.
The notion of class seems important in this novel.
Particularly the idea of writing as a way of somehow trumping the power of class, transcending it, solving one's vexing worries about identity and belonging. Which, of course, writing doesn't solve.
Class also plays a role in your first memoir, This Boy's Life.
The narrator of This Boy's Life is just becoming aware of it as a fact, not how it actually works, but the nuances of it. I'm a product of the working class--my mother worked as a soda jerk and a secretary, and she was married to a guy who painted houses for a living.
Why did you write a memoir?
The popular myths about the time when I grew up--in the 1950s and early 1960s--were so false, and so reassuring. TV was still new enough that people were kind of undefended against it. In the movies there was such an idyllic sense of the era--what a load of bullshit that was! I wanted to tell the truth about my times, to declare myself. I certainly took to heart the fact that I wasn't a celebrity. I think people respond to it because they get hungry for some kind of smack of the truth--even it tastes a little tart.
Do readers approach your fiction as if it's autobiography?
I always get asked that question, although I suppose I ask for it, writing in the first person. I've created a persona that readers might feel they recognize.
One of the recurring themes in your work is the question of deception. Why are you so interested in lies?
Mankind can not bear very much reality. If we really thought about where our food came from, what's in it, how animals are treated, or think about what happens to the world every time we turn the ignition key of the car--we could hardly walk. We are just living in a sea of things that implicate us in this fallen world. I do think to become fully human, we have to unlearn the desire to cover ourselves.
Tobias Wolff speaks Tuesday, Dec. 2, at Portland Arts and Lectures.
Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 227-2583. 7:30 pm. $5-$24. All ages.
by Tobias Wolff
(Alfred A. Knopf, 195 pages, $22)