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Questions for Tobias Wolff
The writer, now Stanford professor, toes the line between he writer, now Stanford professor, toes the line between autobiography and fiction
by Colleen O'Brien on Nov 14, 2004
Q: Your new novel, Old School, is not autobiographical, right?
Well, I couldn't possibly have written the novel if not for the time I spent in a school like this one, as a scholarship boy like the narrator. I had a lot of confusions because I was faced for the first time with the power of class. I grew up in a monolithic world of working-class people. I was aware that they weren't the only people in the world, but to find myself in another so very different created the predictable sorts of anxieties that someone that age would have. It's like being put in the middle of another tribe without speaking their language. So the novel does have an autobiographical core, in that it documents a passion for writing that I escaped into in the face of these confusions, along with many other boys. We had a kind of reverence for books and writing. Writers were our rock stars, really. That's a world that's gone, like the world of the Plains Indian. It was a very peculiar world, and when I think of it now, it really seems almost more like the 19th century than the 20th century.
Q: Did you actually get to meet the writers you describe in the novel?
I saw Robert Frost; he did come to my school. But I'm actually younger than the narrator of my book by three years. So I was one of the squirts sitting in the back and I didn't really hear a damn thing he said. I had been taught his work pretty thoroughly, because before a writer arrived, the school marinated everyone in his work. I didn't have a very sophisticated understanding of it -- I was just a kid. But it really was an event, having him there, and I've never forgotten it. So when I made him part of the book I steeped myself in Frost's letters, read several biographies, read and reread his poems and lived with him to the point where I felt as if I could say what he would say in a given situation. I'm not quoting him in the book. I'm riffing off my sense of him, which I think is a pretty deep-reaching sense, if that doesn't sound too immodest. We can never know another person entirely, not even the person we're married to. But about as far as one can go, I went, and the same is true of the other writers who appear in the book.
Q: Your portrait of Ayn Rand is not a totally flattering one. Is that also partly from memory?
No, I crossed paths with her from a distance once, and the sense of her physical presence comes from that. Again, I'm not faithfully quoting her. But she was a megalomaniac, and she talked about herself the way she does in the book. She saw herself as the hero of a melodrama, and she lost the line between her characters and the world she wrote about, and herself. Good writers do that too; Proust certainly did. It isn't a disqualification for writing well. Hemingway often deliberately blurred that line. And Fitzgerald as well. I think she was essentially a fantasist, and kind of mad, wonderfully mad in her own way. She wasn't stupid. Sophisticates have a lot of fun at her expense, but she was actually a dangerously smart woman.
Q: And Hemingway, you're not quoting him?
Well, yes and no. Obviously what he's saying to this boy about his work, and some of the things he says about writing and life in general, I'm making up. But he would've said it, I'm sure. He did say a couple of things that I have him saying. He said that Fitzgerald had a soft mouth. And he did say -- which tickled me enormously -- that Nora Barnacle, Joyce's partner, had asked him to take Joyce lion hunting.
Q: In the book, established writers are asked to give advice to hopeful writing students. I'm sure you've been asked the same sort of questions. What kind of advice do you give?
Patience, mainly. I was not a particularly gifted writer. I had great desire, but I didn't have great gifts. I'm not Mozart or Rimbaud or Conrad. So for me, it's been really just a kind of beaverish gnawing away at the work that gets me there, and that's what gets most people there. Most writers get better as they age -- it's not necessarily the case, but more often than not. You season, you wear into your art.
Q: In the book, both Frost and Hemingway suggest that the boys should get out in the world and do something or go somewhere. Is that your advice also, or just what you thought they'd say?
I don't know what Hemingway actually said on the subject, but he certainly would have believed that. But Frost actually advised some poor sod to go to Kamchatka at one point. I got his point, I think, but I'm not sure. He didn't explain it. He was very mischievous, Frost, and he gave very contradictory statements about things. For instance, all his life he resolutely denied that his poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowing Evening" had anything of life-weariness or thanatos in it, that it was just about a guy stopping his horse for a minute to listen to the snow fall. Well, this is simply not true. Indeed, the poem he borrowed the most famous line from, a poem of a high Victorian poet named Beddoes, uses the line "My sleep is lovely, dark and deep," and Frost borrows that line, with a little change. Now, in Beddoes' poem, guess who speaks that line? It's Death speaking that line, trying to seduce someone. Frost was very aware of the source of that line; he changed it to "the woods are lovely, dark and deep," but you can see the connection. The temptation to surrender to death is there in his poem, it's there in the movements of the poem and the mood and the rhythm: everything about it. And he knew it, but he was very mischievous and liked to throw people off his track.
Q: A couple of times in the novel, the established writer doesn't understand the intentions of a young novice. For example, Frost was so sophisticated, or maybe so mischievous himself, that he couldn't imagine that a young boy would write a poem just to admire him. He read it as a parody.
That's right. Frost was very quick to take offense. You didn't really have to slight him or insult him for him to think that you did. He was absolutely spring-loaded to be offended and hurt. He was a very touchy guy, and he would have reacted like that to what was actually an homage. I think he would, anyway.
Q: When you dedicate the novel to your teachers, do you mean the writers who have influenced you?
Ah, clever girl. Absolutely, yes. It isn't just the people I had in classrooms, it's everyone who taught me, and writers most of all.
Q: There are a few points in Old School where your protagonist stops writing things he wants people to believe about his life, and he starts writing honestly. Did you have a transformation like that?
Yes. It's more dramatic in the novel, of course. But I began to understand that a lot of the work I admired was extremely honest and did not protect or conceal the writer, but actually bared the writer in ways that I myself had been afraid to do. It wasn't the revelation of a moment at all, it was something that grew in me over the years. Of course this isn't the only measure of literature. Dickens, for example, has novel after novel in which there's no one like him at all, but he certainly understands the frustrations of poverty, of injustice, of people's cruelty to each other, because these were things that he experienced. I do think that in the best writing there is this emotional or spiritual core that is always at bottom autobiographical. It's the experience of the pain and anxiety and loss and hope and love one has felt that allows you to imagine other lives and to call those lives into being, in a way that the reader assents to and believes. There is, inescapably, a personal element in all the best writing.
Q: Why do you think writers resist that at first?
That's a good question, I don't know whether it's just me. But when we're young, we become very self-protective. Young people are hard on each other, they mock each other, they look for weakness. They're like pack animals, they'll tear the weak ones to shreds. So we learn very quickly to cover ourselves, to try to appear stronger, more powerful than we are. Of course, this can also make us appear ridiculous. But it's something most of us do pretty early on, and then to become fully human we have to unlearn it as we get older and dismantle our fortifications.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say about the novel or the experience of writing it?
It was a pleasure to write, in that it was a chance to revisit my affections and passions and the beginnings of the life that led me here. It was not an easy novel to write, but it was ultimately a pleasure.
by Colleen O'Brien on Nov 14, 2004