Chatting with Tobias Wolff
The award-winning author lectures in New Paltz this month
Photograph by Elena Seibert
Storyteller extraordinaire Tobias Wolff, best-known for his masterful memoirs (including the 1989 best-seller This Boy’s Life) and his thought-provoking short stories, currently teaches at Stanford University. Wolff, 64, has garnered many accolades in his long career, including the prestigious O. Henry Award for short stories (which he won three times) and the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his novella The Barracks Thief. On April 1 he’ll give a lecture at SUNY New Paltz. Here, Wolff sounds off on writing programs, why you can’t spot a star, and the clever Kindle.
You taught at Syracuse University for 17 years. Do you miss anything about living in upstate New York?
Well of course the friends we had, the pace of life, it was just a little more relaxed and human. I can’t say that I miss being housebound seven months of the year. It was a very lovely place to live while we were there.
Are you familiar with the Hudson Valley?
I’ve been to Vassar a couple of times; the Hudson Valley is beautiful. One of my favorite things to do is take the train down into New York City along the Hudson River, especially in the winter, when there are big blocks of ice jammed up against the shore.
You’ve been quoted as saying that you can’t teach writing. So what do you try to impart to your students?
I try to encourage their love of reading. In any given class of undergraduates, very few, if any, are actually going to end up being writers. So you hope to make them aware of the extraordinary achievement of the writers that you introduce them to. They can acquire some objectivity about their own work. But basically, I use the writing course as something of a literature course.
Are you honest with your students about how difficult it is to make a living writing?
Oh, they’re quite canny about things like that. Most of them take the course because they love writing and they want to give it a shot. It is applicable in all types of ways. It has to do with clarity and expression; with the refinement of one’s ideas; with the ability to revisit an idea and make it better. It is a very helpful major in all sorts of ways.
You started out as a reporter at the Washington Post. Did you like that?
I did. I was low on the totem pole, I did the police beat, obituaries. But I was there during Watergate, it was very exciting. Carl Bernstein was a friend of mine.
Can you tell when one of your students is going to go on and make it big?
What about Alice Sebold, the author of the best-selling novel The Lovely Bones, who was one of your students at Syracuse?
She was a really nice kid. But if you had asked me if I thought she was going to be a successful writer, let alone a best-seller, I wouldn’t have predicted it. But I wouldn’t have said no either. It has to do with how hard you are willing to work; it isn’t a question of an immediately apparent gift. When you are working and having to hold other jobs and you come home at night, you can either watch TV or you can write a little. That’s the kind of person that Alice was and that’s why she became such a wonderful writer. Very few people start off as wonderful writers. I see real glimpses of talent in some of my undergraduates, but I know most won’t find it a very appealing way to live and will do other things. And some will have a vocation for it and will produce work of real originality and substance.
This Boy’s Life was made into a 1993 movie. I thought it was pretty well done. What did you think?
On the whole I was very pleased with it. But since it had to do with real events in my life, it made it difficult to accept when they would change things. Something in me would say, “Hey — it didn’t happen that way.”
It must be nerve-wracking to watch a movie about your life.
Yes. I took my mother with me and that made it even more nerve-wracking, but she enjoyed it.
Have you ever taught memoir writing?
No, I don’t want to. I think it would be very hard for an 18-year-old to write a memoir. Give them a little time, let their experience ripen.
What do you think of reading books on a Kindle?
Well, I have a Kindle, but I don’t use it. It was a gift and I was very happy to get it. I downloaded some books onto it, but I reach for my real books all the time, just out of habit. But I think they are great instruments. The idea that some kid in a village in India can have a library of a thousand books is just wonderful.
Tickets for Wolff’s lecture are $18. To order, visit http://speakerseries.tix.com or call 845-257-3972.