Interviews | December 01, 2003
Interviewer: In your new novel, Old School, your narrator claims—truthfully, it seems to me—”No true account can be given of how or why you became a writer. . . .” However, I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the course of events that led you to pursue a career as a writer.
Wolff: It was, I suppose, a tendency in my nature, to some extent encouraged by my reading, and at one point by the example of my brother, Geoffrey, who is seven and a half years older than I. When a brother is that far ahead of you, he has a kind of avuncular influence because you don’t compete with him the way you would with a brother who’s closer to your age. Although we grew up on opposite ends of the country, when I was about fifteen we spent a summer together. He had just graduated from college and was absolutely book-drunk. He’d been an English major and wanted to be a writer himself. He had me reading all kinds of writers I’d never even known existed—Sophocles, Camus, you name it. That was a crucially important summer for me. I hadn’t seen Geoffrey in six years. It was like meeting someone new and dazzling, who was at the same time my brother. I looked up to him, and his enthusiasms were catching.
Interviewer: Was that what awakened your interest in writing?
Wolff: Even as a boy I’d written stories. I never stopped writing them. I used to write them for friends of mine, to turn in for extra credit. Of course they were childish, imitative things, like any kid writes, but I loved writing, and I loved reading. I never really made the connection between the things I read and the writing I was doing until I was a freshman in high school, when a friend of mine said to me one day, “You should be a writer,” and the idea stuck. Though I read a lot and loved to write, it had never occurred to me to be a writer, but somehow that suggestion, coming from a fourteen-year-old boy, forced a connection between those two passions. I thought, “Huh. I could be a writer. I write, I read.”
But you can’t trace this vocation or any other to a single event or set of circumstances. It’s really the way life plays on your temperament, on your interests—which of course change from time to time. And—this is something people don’t say very much about—it has a lot to do with what you’re not good at. After a while your choices get winnowed down by your inabilities as much as they’re formed by your abilities. There are one hell of a lot of things I can’t do. So I do what I can, like anyone else.
Interviewer: In This Boy’s Life, you say that you sent a story to your brother about two dogs fighting in the wilderness, and in the collection For the Love of Books, which Ronald B. Schwartz edited, you talk about how, as a child, you were attracted to those stories of animals in the wild. Although you might not have been aware of them at the time, do you recognize distinct stages in your writing now, correlating to what you were reading at the time?
Wolff: The stories that you mentioned were written under the influence of Jack London. Later I fell under the spell of Hemingway, or Hemingway as I perceived him then—his stories look to a young teenage boy like something he can write too. I couldn’t understand the experience and the depth of artistry that went into his stories, but it looked easy. I did a lot of that kind of imitation. I learned by imitating—and that’s fine. People don’t appreciate the extent to which writers need to imitate in order to get where they’re going, or how long the apprenticeship will be. When we go to a concert and hear how effortlessly Wynton Marsalis plays the trumpet, we don’t go home afterward and think we can do that too. But when we read Hemingway, we’re apt to think, “Well, hell, I know all those words. I can put them in that order. I could be Hemingway.” Writing is one art where people fool themselves into thinking it’s easier than it is.
Interviewer: In Old School, you address imitation, and imitation when it goes too far and becomes plagiarism. In the novel, the incident is presented in such a way that the audience does not necessarily feel obligated to condemn the plagiarist. I was wondering about your own thoughts regarding plagiarism?
Wolff: That’s a good question. In all honesty, at first blush it’s rather flattering to be plagiarized. And the plagiarist has already been punished; the very act of plagiarizing means that you have confessed an inability to do something on your own, which is a pretty harsh verdict to bring on yourself. No one else can condemn you more than you have already condemned yourself. So there’s something pathetic about the plagiarist.
But there are distinctions to be made. There’s the sort of plagiarist who does it strictly for reasons of personal advantage at school or work. This is the dullest and most contemptible kind, and a very different thing from plagiarism of a creative work, which usually proceeds, paradoxically, from admiration.
Interviewer: How is that kind different, in your mind?
Wolff: It’s often a very good, passionate reader who plagiarizes a story—someone whose connection with a given work becomes so powerful that his sense of it being “his” story—a feeling every writer wants to create in the reader—allows him to forget that he did not, in fact, create the story. But think of it. A story—a written story—is a series of black marks on a white page. That’s it. And from these marks the reader is conjuring up Anna and her love for Vronsky, or the retreat from Caporetto. Readers share in the active imagination of these worlds, and this forges an intimacy between the reader and the writer. In the intensity of their reactions, some readers will cross the line and confuse themselves with the writer. Say the writer is revealing something that seems straight from your own soul, your own life—that you feel belongs to you. You might then convince yourself that the plagiarism you’re committing is actually personal revelation. It can even seem an act of honest confession.
It’s no accident that the man who shot Jesse James, Robert Ford, revered Jesse James and sometimes went by his name. The man who shot John Lennon, Mark David Chapman, used to check in to hotels under the name John Lennon. He admired Lennon so much, took his music so personally, that he lost his sense of where one ended and the other began. He had to subsume the other by killing him. Plagiarism is a sort of psychological annihilation and appropriation of the other. It’s very atavistic, in a way. It’s like eating someone’s brain or their heart to take on their qualities.
There’s a very interesting case from the late nineteenth century of a novelist who wrote a novel called Olympia that chronicled the affairs of a society woman. A young man in Philadelphia became convinced that the woman in the novel was his sister and that therefore the novelist had slandered her. Well, there was no actual connection at all between the novelist, who lived in New York, and this man’s sister, who also lived in Philadelphia. But there was something in the novel that was so persuasive to this young man that he began to stalk the novelist and eventually shot him dead.
It was the same impulse at work that I think the plagiarist feels: that this somehow belongs to you and you’re taking what’s yours. That may be an odd way of coming at it, but I think there’s something there. Again, I’m not talking about the guy who’s doing it for a grade in a class or to advance his career at The New Republic. That’s a different thing altogether. But there is a kind of plagiarist who defies easy definition, who participates, however perversely, in the creative life of the writer.
Interviewer: As you began your writing career, did you have many disappointments?
Wolff: Well, yes—mainly disappointments in myself. You have an idea in mind of what you want to achieve when you sit down to write something. It takes many years to accept that you will always fall short of that. Maybe now I can write the book that I might have had in mind five or twenty years ago. You’re always lagging behind your best ideas. Your in-house critic has always got the jump on you. That’s good insofar as it sets a standard, forces you to stretch and grow, but at the same time there’s always that wince at falling a little short. Now and then you might get away with something, and even the critic in you will say, “Well done.” But most of the time, it’s, “Hmm, pretty good, but…”
Interviewer: Does it get easier or harder?
Wolff: The only thing that gets easier about it is at least you know you can do it. You finish a good number of stories in your life, and you’ve written a few books; then you know that if you stay with it, it’ll get done. You don’t know that when you first start out. It does seem, sometimes, endless, and you wonder if you have the stuff to finish a book, to really bring a good story home. After a while you learn that if you stay with it you’ll get there. In that sense it gets easier.
But the work itself? No, because you’re always asking more of yourself. In that way, no, it doesn’t get easier. I wouldn’t say it gets harder, though.
Interviewer: Do you set any schedule or minimum time limit when you sit down to work, or do you allow yourself more flexibility?
Wolff: When I’m generating a story or a book to begin with, I tend to work a little less than when I’m revising. Once I get something finished and I start the process of revision, I work fairly long hours at it. -I find that very exciting. The other is a little more difficult and draining. You know, I have three children, and I teach and do other things. So I can’t pretend to keep absolute banker’s hours at my writing desk, though I wish I could. That’s just not possible in real life.
Interviewer: Is there any pressure to live up to what you’ve done in the past? When a book is as well received as This Boy’s Life, or three stories from one collection are chosen for Best American?
Wolff: Sure. You don’t want to be worse than your last book. If you’ve had a book that’s done well, you want your next book to do at least as well. But you also know that you cant really gauge the quality of a book by its reception. Most of the books on the best-seller list, for example, even those of the supposedly literary caste, don’t generally bowl me over. So I’m not going to beat myself up for not being on it. I consider it a wonderful piece of luck if a book gets a warm reception and sells a lot of copies. Obviously one wants that to happen, but it isn’t the standard by which I judge my own or anyone else’s work.
Interviewer: Can you speak a little about the standards by which you do judge your work?
Wolff: It’s a very personal thing. I ask myself, “Would I be interested in reading this? Would this speak to me?” If the answer is no, then this is not a work that I would want to wish on anyone else. It isn’t that I don’t care whether other people like my work or not—I do—but I can’t second-guess other readers. I don’t know what other readers like or don’t like, and I can’t try to tailor my writing to a bunch of phantoms. The only person whose tastes I’m absolutely certain of are my own. I know what I like, and it isn’t something that satisfies a particular theory of writing or life; it’s just in the writing itself and in the momentby-moment progress of a story or a book that I find pleasure or interest in. That’s the standard, finally, that I hold myself to: whether or not I would finish the damn thing if I were the reader.
Interviewer: Toward the end of Old School, the narrator meditates on the writer’s life and concludes that it’s not really as solitary as others make it out to be. He compares the writer to a monk in a cell, praying for the world, a task “performed alone, but for other people.”
Wolff: That’s him at a certain age. That probably wouldn’t be my last word on it, or his.
Interviewer: You do hear about writers lamenting-with various degrees of seriousness-that so much of the writer’s life is spent alone, gazing inward. Is that a concern for you?
Wolff: It certainly is. There is a sort of healthy detachment, I think, but to be habitually isolated and removed from life can encourage a selfishness that will be no good to you as a person or as a writer: a selfishness about the sanctity of your time and privacy. I think it would be very much to the benefit of a lot of writers to be thrown out into the world a little more. William Butler Yeats’s father once said, “Writing is the social act of a solitary man.” There is a sense in which you’re most social when you’re most alone as a writer because you’re addressing other people and creating a community of readers. You hope you are, anyway. But I would be lying if I said this very privileged life didn’t have some traps for the soul.
Interviewer: In 1984 you received the PEN/Faulkner award for The Barracks Thief. Since then, the works we’ve seen from you have been memoirs and short stories. What’s motivated your return to longer fiction now?
Wolff: This was the story I wanted to tell, and it ended up being this long. It’s just as simple as that. I had originally conceived it as a long story. Robert Frost visited my school when I was a boy, and I’d been thinking about that. Then I remembered this literary competition we used to have, and that found its way in. Then there were two other writers. The story grew into a novel; I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write a novel.” It grew under my hand as I was writing. It was longer than it is now; I’ve done quite a bit of trimming, as I tend to do when I’m revising. It wasn’t a strategic decision: “Okay, I’ve written two memoirs and three collections of short stories. Time for a novel.” That’s not what happened.
Interviewer: As someone who writes both nonfiction and fiction that often comes from your own experiences, are you concerned that readers might read your autobiographical fiction and make assumptions about your life?
Wolff: I’m afraid that’s not something I can avoid, especially if I go into the first person. That’s something I have to live with; I don’t know what I can do about it at this point. I have written a couple of memoirs, and it would be preposterous of me to insist that readers divorce themselves from all memory of anything else I’ve written when approaching something new.
I do take the distinction between genres very seriously. When I call something a memoir, it’s my understanding with the readers that they can accept this story as a chronicle of actual events as I remember them. When I call something a novel, it’s fiction, and readers need to be smart about that. You don’t want to pick up a novel and assume that it’s true. If it were, the writer would call it a memoir instead.
But I can’t stop readers from reading the way they’re going to read. I know that certain stories of mine have invited autobiographical readings because they seem to coincide with my memoirs. People have said to me, “Why didn’t you include, say, ‘Firelight’ in This Boy’s Life?” and the answer to that is, “Because it didn’t happen.” I might use colors from the same palette and use experiences from my memory and my own life, but I take off. I’m not loyal to the facts or to my memory. I’m really inventing. I’m after a different kind of truth, if you will, when I write fiction.
There’s no question at all, though, that the genres cross. Readers understandably might wonder if such-and-such a thing happened. There are elements of Old School that are autobiographical, no question about it. The competition among aspiring writers at my old school is something I’ve often thought about and wanted to get down: the love of literature that would now seem almost miraculous among kids that young; the presence of luminary writers at our school from time to time, and how those visits stoked our own hopes and fantasies. I wanted to try to capture that. How considerations of class confused that passage of my life, encouraging in me a tendency to pretense. This was the first real encounter I had with the power of class to determine destiny.
So a lot of things went into the writing of this book that came, if not out of my direct experience, then from the experience of my spirit when 1 was growing up. All that played a part. However, if you consider the events in this book against a historical standard, it’s very much a novel.
Interviewer: Like many other writers, you don’t really like to talk about what you’ve written—at least not in much detail.
Wolff: I don’t know what I would say about it. I don’t want to dictate to the reader how to read my work. It’s anybody’s to interpret; I don’t have control over it, and I don’t like shutting down the possibility of readers coming to their own conclusions by telling them to see it this way or that way. It is what it is; it’s on the page, and readers will make of it what they will. I kind of like the play of possibilities that readers bring to a work, sometimes noticing things that, in all honesty, I hadn’t really intended but were actually there. That is, they were not at the conscious level of intention, and yet they were demonstrably part of the work. Good writers are often if not generally better than their intentions. What makes writing so interesting is all the unexpected things that happen when you write. If you write according to a blueprint and it comes out just the way you designed it, my guess is that it’s not going to be very interesting work. Not very lively. The best work I do comes out of the ways in which I’m surprised while I’m writing, out of the ways that the original notion of the story or the book gets waylaid by promptings I couldn’t anticipate.
Wallace Stevens once said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” That’s just what I’m talking about here. You are subject to all kinds of confrontations with unexpected material and revelations when you write. If you weren’t, you would hardly want to do it. It would just be typewriting, as Truman Capote would say; it wouldn’t be writing. The process of writing is made exciting by these moments.
Interviewer: Do you ever find yourself torn when deciding whether to make something a work of nonfiction or fiction? Or by the time you get to the writing stage is it pretty clear in your mind?
Wolff: Old School was clearly going to be fiction. I never had any hesitation about how to frame this particular book. I was hesitant with writing This Boy’s Life, at the beginning. It had never crossed my mind before I started it to write a memoir. It overwhelmed me, really; it took me by surprise that that’s what I was, in fact, doing. In the initial stages I would, from time to time, try to pull it off course and start fictionalizing it. It just didn’t work at all when I did that, So I finally had to be clear with myself because a memoir and a novel are very different. They may not appear so to the reader, but to the writer they are fundamentally, organically different. You cant fudge it. You have to know what you’re doing; you have to be very clear about it.
But I do understand that that difference is not always clear to readers. Bookstores sometimes put This Boy’s Life in the novel section, and readers have said, “Oh, this would be a good novel. Why didn’t you just call it a novel?” I didn’t call it a novel because it’s a memoir. I couldn’t have written it as I did if I had conceived of it as a novel. The truth of it is, I don’t think it would be a good novel. It’s not supposed to be read as a novel, and if it were, I don’t think it would be successful. It’s not shaped that way. No novel could acceptably end as this book does. It’s too open, as a life is open. It would have been false to bring it to the kind of conclusiveness we expect in a novel. I know that some readers are really frustrated by the ending. “Okay, well, how did you end up writing the book then? How did you get from there to here?” I had hoped that the reader would understand even by the title This Boy’s Life that when the kid is no longer a boy, when that parental safety net is gone and he’s on his own, this particular story is over. He’s launched into the world, and that’s the end of that boy’s life. He’s not a boy anymore.
Also, I encounter questions as to how or why the boy in this book became a writer. People say, “There’s no clue given.” Well, I think there is. This is somebody who’s inventing himself constantly and who is aware of stories and books and the power of stories to create another reality. These are things I discovered about myself in writing the book. I’d forgotten the way I used to change my name all the time, whenever we would move. When I started writing the book I remembered that. Indeed, when I go back to Washington State and see people I went to high school with there, they still call me Jack. That’s their name for me. But when I started writing it, I hadn’t talked to anybody who called me Jack in twenty-five years. I’d forgotten.
And it was amazing how much I had not truly forgotten but had not thought of for many years that came out in the writing. I had to cut so much stuff it was unbelievable. People said, “How do you remember so much?” My God, I remembered ten times what I had in there. The problem was finding the patterns by which to organize the book and give it a structure that would reflect the arc of the life, while at the same time not repeat things constantly—which meant a great deal of excision.
Interviewer: Is there an impulse, sometimes, to fictionalize what really happened in an effort to protect someone?
Wolff: I changed names. That was my device for protecting people. It didn’t seem to work very well, since everybody knew who everyone else was. I mean, those who would know, knew. I wouldn’t say there was an impulse to “fictionalize.” You have to emphasize and ignore certain things in order to create a narrative at all. You’re shaping constantly. Even putting experience into language is to shape it, put your stamp on it. This is not an innocent activity, right? I mean, it’s got consequences. You’re making it personal. That’s why people’s memories of the same thing are different. So you get this natural shaping that to another person might seem to be fictionalizing. But having said that, I also have to say that the people I went through these experiences with were all alive and they were certainly aware of the books. They were going to read them. If my own honesty weren’t enough, there’s a built-in discipline from the knowledge that I’ve got people reading over my shoulder who know very well what happened, and that definitely discourages one from being too exuberantly imaginative.
Interviewer: Yet memory is still subjective.
Wolff: All accounts of the past are subjective. I remember a piece that William H. Gass wrote about ten years ago, called “Autobiography in the Age of Narcissim,” in which he pretty much dismissed all memoir and autobiography as an illegitimate form of literature. He even has a sentence in there: “He who writes his memoirs is already a monster.” His argument is that it’s a bastard branch of history, but without the documentary spine, so to speak, without the objectivity and detachment of history, the commitment to reach the truth. That autobiography and memoir are too inevitably self-serving to satisfy the standards either of literature or history.
Interestingly enough, he doesn’t mention a single memoir in his essay. Like all Gass’s work, the essay is very smart and beautifully written, but it’s fundamentally wrong. I think the reason he doesn’t mention a single book is because once he, opens that gate he loses his whole thesis. Who would dispute the achievement of Nabokov in Speak Memory, for example? Of Mary McCarthy in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood? Of my own brother Geoffrey in The Duke of Deception? I could go on citing memoirs that have succeeded to the status of literature, that are clearly not simply self-serving. That’s not what their aim is, and certainly not their result.
But Gass’s fundamental confusion, it seems to me, in his critique of the memoir form with reference to history, is the assumption that historians are objective and detached and free of the imaginative, subjective impulse. If that were the case, all histories working from the same set of documents would reach the same conclusions, and of course they don’t.
Interviewer: Speaking about history, much of your work is grounded in a specific time. You often write about America or Americans in the 1960s. Does that time in America’s past hold a certain appeal for you?
Wolff: It must, because I have gone back to it. In this last book, when I started writing about the boys at this school, I felt as if I was writing about one of those tribes they discover now and then that still uses stone implements, you know? The moment they’re discovered, everything’s going to change; they’ll have a satellite dish in their yard in two years.
That world I’m writing about is so close to us in years, and yet remote. It belongs as much to the nineteenth century as to its own time, 1961. There is that sense of having observed and having indeed even been part of a vanished culture that intrigued me. Part of that vanished culture wasn’t just social; it was literary as well. I wanted to capture the moment just after Kennedy was elected, when Robert Frost was the poet supreme, Ayn Rand was building a really weird cult following and Hemingway set the pattern for young men—taught them not only how to write but how to talk and think and thirst for conflict in which to prove themselves. Well, we found it, and how. This was a particular moment in our national life, still rooted in an archaic past just before the convulsive transformations that we’re still trying to make sense of. There are no black students in this school, for example. It’s still a time when a headmaster would meet fierce opposition to bringing black, or rather Negro, students in. Such resistance would be unthinkable now at such a school; indeed they recruit black students—and it’s only forty years later. That’s no time at all in this world.
Interviewer: You bring up Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, and both of those authors, along with Hemingway, make appearances in the new book. Each is an influence on your narrator to varying degrees, but there’s a sense that the narrator goes from adoration to questioning. Have you felt this same sense of connection and then questioning of your own influences?
Wolff: I wanted to capture the youthful conviction that whatever you’re most passionate about that day has to be the greatest thing that’s ever happened. So I wasn’t really after an objective evaluation of these writers. They are as they are seen by a young acolyte, who, as time goes on, will see the flaws in one and proceed to another. This is a narrator in search of a father, and a god. He’s looking for some kind of anointing; he wants something to transform him. He’s looking for this in literature. But literature’s a pretty tough god to follow.
The book takes the form of an homage to the power of literature, and to the writers who create it. But it isn’t meant to be an act of hero worship. It simply records the power of influence, and the kinds of hopes that people pin on these dreams of transformation.
Interviewer: You teach one undergraduate creative writing class a year at Stanford. My understanding, though, is that you don’t feel that writing can be taught.
Wolff: I don’t think that anyone can be taught to be a writer. Absolutely not. And you never know who is going to be a writer. You don’t know how people will develop. What you can do is help people become good editors of their own work. Even if, finally, the stories they write for you are not especially good, they will have learned something of what a writer thinks about, the kinds of questions and problems that a writer comes up against in achieving a piece of fiction. Even if they don’t become writers—and very few will—they can become really good readers. I can think of no better way, in fact, to learn to appreciate the complexity and infinite possibilities of literature than to try to write some yourself.
Interviewer: What about the ones who do become writers? How, if at all, does your teaching influence them?
Wolff: Out of the hundreds of people one teaches over the course of a lifetime, some of them do it. Many of my students have become writers, some of them very successful writers. It wasn’t because of me, but I was probably of help; maybe some of what they learned in my class helped them think about their work in a new and fruitful way. They don’t write beautifully or interestingly because of me, but they may have gotten to where they wanted to go a little faster because of some of the things they learned. But you can’t turn another person into a writer. It doesn’t work that way.
Interviewer: A lot of writers give up teaching once they have achieved a certain level of success, but you’ve continued to teach. What’s the appeal?
Wolff: You know, I could give it up. We could manage. But I would find it hard not to teach. If I’m doing too much of it, teaching eats into my work and I resent it, but I’m not doing so much that it really gets in the way. I’m teaching right now, for example, a lecture course with another professor here. The course meets twice a week, and we each lecture once a week. This is not terribly onerous. We’ve got two hundred freshmen, and we’re teaching books we love. Two days ago, I gave an hour’s lecture on Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan nych, ” a very important story. Two-thirds of these young people are going to go into the sciences, in one way or another—medicine, computers, physics. They’re not going to be humanists, at least not by occupation. This is a chance to help them frame questions about themselves, to help them learn the habit of questioning what they do, how they’re spending their lives. And there’s no better story for raising these questions than “Ivan Ilych.”
I feel like I’m doing something in the world that’s a good thing to do, when I’m doing that. I would miss it. I’d rattle around a bit too much if I didn’t teach at all. I love my colleagues here, both the writers and my other friends in the university.
It’s a community. Writers are isolated—we’re scattered all over the country. We don’t tend to have the writing colonies I think we used to have in New York or Chicago or San Francisco. It’s a much more diffuse culture now, the literary culture of this country. So we make it where we are.
If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.
Want to read more?Subscribe Today
SEE THE ISSUE
Jan 12 2015
A Conversation with Mary Roach
Mary Roach’s wildly successful books, including New York Times bestsellers Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, blend serious scientific inquiry with uproarious comedy,
Apr 28 2014
A Conversation with Chang-rae Lee
Chang-rae Lee’s novels are often peopled by characters who don’t quite fit into the cultures in which they find themselves. They are stories of cultural identity and assimilation, tales of
Jan 31 2014
A Conversation with Daniel Talbott
Sarah Schwab: Can you talk a little about how you started writing and what advice you have for other first-time writers? Daniel Talbott: It’s funny, because I still think of