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Arts & Entertainment
11/09/03, G-01

An Interview with Tobias Wolff

Tobias Wolff, the author of two novels, two memoirs and three short story collections, is best known for his 1988 memoir This Boy's Life, a coming-of-age tale which became the basis of the successful 1993 film starring Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DeCaprio.

"That memoir came about from my attempt to understand how I could survive such a troubled childhood," said Wolff, in a recent phone interview from his home in Northern California.

For the most part he was pleased with the film adaptation of his book. "But whenever someone is filming the story of your life," said Wolff, "you'll always have a few reservations about some changes they've made. I think it's a strong film with wonderful performances, and I'm a big fan of the director Michael Caton Jones."

On Monday, he will conduct a public reading at 8:15 pm at the Assembly Hall at the Campus Center of the University at Albany's uptown campus. Earlier that same afternoon at 4:15 pm he will present a seminar in the same location. Both talks are free and open to the public. They are presented as part of the New York State Writers Institute.

In Albany he will be reading from his new book of fiction Old School (195 pages, $22, Alfred A. Knopf), which was published in November.

"This story had been trying to get out for quite a few years," said Wolff. "It came from trying to understand the impulse that led to me becoming a writer."

The story takes place in a New England prep school during the early 1960's. The narrator, like Wolff himself, was rooted in a working class background, but found himself trying to mimic the bearing and manners of his schoolmates.

"I found myself at a prep school during those years," said Wolf. "This was after I had spent most of my life with my mother, who was a soda jerk at Dairy Queen, and my stepfather, who was a manual laborer."

He said the prep school world was his father's world. "I had no contact with my father from age six till fifteen," he said. "I tried to fit into this prep school world, but it felt like the 19th century to me."

In Old School Wolff writes about how authors were treated liked deities. In the book Robert Frost, Ann Rand and Ernest Hemingway are scheduled to visit the school and are met with great fanfare.

"It was sort of like that at my school," said Wolff. "Robert Frost did visit, and what I noticed was that writers had the power to travel from one class to another. This was probably one of the reasons why I wanted to become a writer. During those years authors had star quality."

Wolff admits that writers no longer have this power. "I can't imagine a book coming out today that would create such an impact like Uncle Tom's Cabin did before the Civil War."

He remembers a time when books created a tremendous stir and could actually impact public debate. "Writers like Hemingway had a sense of real importance about them," said Wolff. "Non-fiction books can sometimes create a stir, but books of fiction have lost that power."

Wolff believes much of this came about with the advent of radio and television. "Image has taken power away from word," he said. "In our habit of observing moving images we've become very passive. We don't have to think when we're watching television. We don't have to use our imagination. If you read Tolstoy you have to do all the work. Your imagination smells the smoke from the battle, hears the roar of the cannon, and all of this is created from black marks on paper. There's a collaborative effect between the writer and the reader."

He is currently enjoying his work as a teacher of writing and literature at Stanford University. "Right now I'm teaching a Great Books seminar series for incoming freshmen," said Wolff. "I love the kids. They're very enthusiastic with great questions. They keep me energized as a writer."

Wolff once believed that to be a successful writer you needed to live a life rich with experience. "I came of age with writers who embodied that," he said. "People like Hemingway, Mailer, James Jones and Jack London. I joined up to go to Vietnam so I'd have an experience I could later write about. I no longer believe you need to be shot at to be a writer. All you need to do is keep your eyes open. Be alert. Experience is all around us. Flannery O'Connor spent all but one year of her life on her farm in Georgia, but she wrote so well because she knew what life was about. She paid attention."

As a Vietnam veteran he's concerned about the direction of where we're going in our current war with Iraq. "It sure feels like we're making the same mistakes we made in Vietnam," said Wolff. "But with this war we've added in some profiteering to go along with the lies."

In his memoir In Pharaoh's Army about his time as an officer in the Special Forces in Vietnam, Wolff writes about his craving to become respectable, to take his place one day among respectable men. "Partly this was out of an appetite for the things respectable men enjoyed, things even the dimmest of my prep school classmates could look forward to as a matter of course. But I also didn't want to end up like my father who had ruined his good name. I wanted to be a man of honor."

Wolff laughed when asked if he had become that man of honor. "I think the child I was would be astonished that I attended Oxford and Stanford and became a writer and a college teacher," he said. "But the real honor I feel is that I've raised three happy children and that I'm doing work that I love. It seems almost magical at times how it all came about."

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