In Tobias Wolff’s fiction, stories of quiet despair abound. Here are tales of slow horror: strong women stuck with terminally deadbeat husbands; lawyers horrified by their own animalistic desires; men attempting to atone for their misdeeds; soldiers trying to reconfigure their lives post-service. But through the haze of accidental shootings, living deaths and lives lived uncomfortably, there is a certain mordant wit at work – a devilish streak of snail silver etched on the surface of a dark rock.
As Wolff is in print, so he is in person. Over the course of an hour-long interview in a Dublin hotel, Wolff – all twinkly eyes, military bearing, authoritative voice and sprightly moustache – is rarely less than humorous and warm, even when the horrifying story he is touching on stems from his own life rather than those of his characters. Wolff rarely deals in negativity because, to a certain extent, he can’t allow himself that luxury.
‘‘That’s what has got me through life,” he says. ‘‘The sense of hilarity that lies just beyond the edge of the awful. The two are so mingled sometimes.”
Wolff’s own life became famous in 1993, when his memoir of his childhood, This Boy’s Life, was made into a Hollywood film starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Robert De Niro. His story is a harrowing one.
Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, he barely knew his real father, a compulsive liar and conman who went to such lengths to hide his Jewish heritage that Wolff finally met his cousins only after his father had died.
With his father living mostly on the east coast with his half-brother Geoffrey, the ten-year-old Wolff moved with his mother to Chinook, Washington, where his sadistic new stepfather terrified him. Violence, betrayal, rejection and injustice: Wolff learned about all these things thanks to the vicious behaviour of his stepfather, which he documented through vivid prose in This Boy’s Life and touched on in In Pharaoh’s Army (1994), an account of his experiences as a soldier who went to Vietnam.
This is the second time we’ve met – the first was when Wolff was doing interviews for his charmingly written novel, Old School – but although he couldn’t be nicer, he is more open in his prose than in his conversation.
Language is used precisely in Wolff’s work; you sense he’d prefer to express himself through a medium he can control than one he can’t. That’s possibly why, although the film version of This Boy’s Life struck me as pretty compelling, Wolff shrugs it off.
‘‘When I sold the rights to my book to the movies, I proceeded to get a lesson that any writer should get – which is that, when you sell your rights, you don’t have them any more.’’ He laughs. ‘‘They were free to do what they wanted to do with the memoir, and they took it in different directions in terms of tone. It’s a very earnest movie.”
Wolff’s writing is far less so, but it still documents dark realities. In almost all his short stories, you’ll find a character who is constantly a little uncomfortable, a little remote from everyone else, struggling to fit in, to belong, but always falling short.
That figure flits through the stories in Wolff’s latest work, Our Story Begins, a ‘greatest hits’ package of new and collected stories, some of which date from more than 30 years ago. To some extent, you feel that what Wolff is really etching is a particularly fine portrait of loneliness; the space that echoes around these characters is agonisingly well drawn.
Through the process of rereading and editing the stories for the book, Wolff has had the opportunity to view his own writing with a little more objectivity and distance. When asked if he noticed certain patterns emerging, he nods.
‘‘I saw certain things coming up again and again,” he says. ‘‘Characters who needed to be forgiven and who couldn’t forgive themselves, who carried a burden of irrational guilt. There’s a sense of fraudulence in the characters. Some aren’t authentic, and some worry they aren’t. If we’re to speak personally, that interest arises out of a lot of experience and observation in my own life.”
In his memoir, Wolff documents how he tried to fashion an escape from his stepfather by faking transcripts to win a place at the prestigious Hill School in Pennsylvania. Wolff got into the school, but was later asked to leave when his poor grades meant he lost his scholarship.
Through his falsehoods, he was, whether he realised it or not, emulating his real father, a man whose life reads like the stuff of fiction. Duke Wolff – also known as Arthur Saunders Wolff and Saunders Ansell Wolff 3d – was many things during his lifetime: a car thief, bon viveur, heavy drinker and the kind of man who slept well at night despite never sending his ex-wife, Tobias’s grittily resilient mother, any financial support.
Right up until his death, Duke Wolff hid the fact that he was Jewish from as many people as he could, including his own sons. It was a jolt when Tobias found out the truth.
‘‘We were in my mother’s apartment, my brother and I,” he says. ‘‘I was in the army already. Geoffrey had said something that provoked her – and then she said to him: ‘Well, you’re half-Jewish yourself.’ Geoffrey was shocked and then she looked at me and said: ‘Oh, that means you’re half-Jewish too.’
‘‘I could never really get my father to be truthful about it, either. I saw him shortly before he died when I was on my way to Vietnam, and I brought it up. But he wasn’t going to go there. In order to maintain his fiction, he cut us off from his side of the family. It was foolish. It trivialised his life to do that.”
While Wolff describes himself as Catholic, his author brother, Geoffrey, is a nonobservant Jew. Like Tobias, Geoffrey has also written a memoir: in The Duke of Deception, he details and attempts to process their father’s systematic lying. According to the New York Times, when both memoirs were published, their much-written-about mother dreamily said: ‘‘Well, I guess that’s it now. That’s all the boys I have.”
Wolff says he doesn’t regret anything he wrote about her. ‘‘I showed her the book before it was published – not because I was going to change anything, but because I wanted her to know what was coming down. She understood that it was written in love. She said: ‘That’s how I was. And if you’d prettied up the picture, I would have felt that you didn’t accept me the way I really am.’ I thought that was a nice way to put it and it’s true.”
I ask Wolff how his stepfather felt when he read the memoir. It transpires that he didn’t read it until he had lost both his legs to diabetes and was on his deathbed. ‘‘My younger stepsister said: ‘I hope you’re happy. You made his last days miserable. I had my daughter read him your book and it was very hurtful for him.’
‘‘People are very irrational about the whole privacy thing. In some ways I understand it, but it did seem a strange choice of reading material for a man on his . . . ‘’Wolff pauses. ‘‘I was going to say last legs, but he didn’t even have last legs at that point.”
Wolff can’t help it. He hoots with laughter – and doesn’t look remotely apologetic for it. With so much rich source material to draw on for inspiration, it hardly seems surprising that Wolff would parlay his experiences into fiction. Although not the most prolific of writers, Wolff’s work has always been warmly received by critics.
Wolff has won the PEN/Malamud Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his writing. He currently lectures in creative writing at Stanford University. Unlike writer/professors such as Hanif Kureishi, who have slammed such programmes, he is a staunch defender of creative writing courses.
Is there any particular piece of advice he always gives to his students? ‘‘The one thing I can tell them with confidence – because it’s been so true in my own life – is that time is your enemy and everything else is your friend. You can’t rush a good story into existence, you have to gnaw at it. So I always encourage people to learn to revise their work.”
Like many of the characters in his books, Wolff appears to find a kind of refuge in the structure of the university. ‘‘I like the community of it,” he says. ‘‘The director of our programme is Eavan Boland. Salman Rushdie was with us the other day. And Ian McEwan. And Colm Toibin taught with me. A lot of literary life revolves around universities.”
After this round of interviews is done, Wolff and his wife, Catherine, will visit Toibin at his home in Wexford. Shortly after that, they will head home to Palo Alto, California, where Wolff will be returning to the drawing board, working on new material to turn into books.
Although he could easily have called his latest tome The Collected Short Stories instead of Our Story Begins, Wolff decided against such a tack on the grounds that he didn’t want anything that sounded ‘‘funereal’’. A healthy and vigorous 63, the point Wolff is making with his latest book title is simple: his story continues.