Tobias Wolff: 'We're all made up of the past...it's inescapable'
Tobias Wolff became a literary star after publishing a memoir of his service in the Vietnam War, but, not one to conform to stereotypes, he tells Edel Coffey that recollection is an unreliable thing, and that the emotional flag-waving of his fellow citizens makes him deeply uncomfortable
Tobias Wolff trod an unlikely path to becoming a writer. His early life was marred by a cruel stepfather, who was violent to his mother, and even tried to strangle her. The marriage ended badly and Wolff was separated from his brother for years at a time.
At the age of 15, he applied to a prestigious school and, on the basis of his own forged letters of recommendation, he was accepted on a scholarship. But, after two years, he was exposed and asked to leave. He joined the army soon after and, by 1967, he was in the special forces in Vietnam.
It wasn't until much later that he would chronicle these experiences in his feted memoirs This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army, and in the loosely autobiographical Old School.
A professor at Stanford University since 1997, Wolff can safely be described as one of America's finest living writers. Now 70, he has decided to retire from teaching later this year. Wolff hasn't published a novel since 2003's Old School and he is surprisingly open about his slow production rate, and his reasons for retiring from teaching.
"I won't be teaching anymore. I've had a good run, but I've heard my own voice to a sufficiency. I need to hear it on the page and be a bit more devoted than I have been. I have been working on a book, a novel. Teaching didn't initially take me away because I was so disciplined, but writing is really hard. It doesn't get easier and teaching is a wonderful alibi. It's worthy, but not quite as hard as writing, so you can get away with it for a while," he says, ruefully.
Memory has played a huge role in his work.
"When you sit down to compose a piece of fiction, or even non-fiction, everything that comes through you has to do with what you've seen, smelled, heard and thought about. So, in that sense, I've always thought that even a novel set yesterday is historical fiction.
"We're all made up of the past. Certainly, my work is formed by memory, even fiction that you might not think is the product of memory. When I write from the point of view of other people, I'm bringing to bear the things I've concluded about how people treat each other, speak to each other, what it's like to go out into the sunshine after visiting someone in hospital. It's inescapable.
"At other times, I more consciously draw on memory in fiction, some particular event will set off a series of recollections around an event and coalesce into the grounding material in the story."
Just because he begins from memory, doesn't necessarily make it autobiographical, however.
"I'm not loyal to memory when writing fiction at all. I use it as a point of departure, or a well to draw from, but it's a different use of memory."
Is it akin to creative non-fiction perhaps, I wonder? A nerve is struck.
"I don't like the term 'creative non-fiction'. If it's that creative, why not just call it fiction? We all invent unconsciously in the realm of memory, we're all prisms that bend the light that passes through us, but if you're deliberately setting out to fictionalise, you're writing fiction.
"It's a noble genre. Why not call it that? The only reason people use the memoir form when they're writing fiction is they are trying to avoid the rigour applied to that form."
Memoir, he thinks, by its nature, is a lesser genre.
"Nobody talks about the great American memoir. Memoirs are usually built around some kind of trauma. Take the Holocaust, for example. Quite a few memoirs dealing with the Holocaust turned out not to be true. All were published and did well before they were exposed. But, if you read them, none of them would survive a minute as fiction. They're badly written and naive and would not have been published as fiction. No one would read it if it wasn't true. Creative non-fiction is an evasion of scrutiny and readers are afraid of victimising victims again."
When it comes to writing from memory, I wonder does he use an aide-memoire, keeping note of the details of each passing day.
"I should. I would advise any young writer to do that, but in so many cases I don't follow my own advice. I had a good memory when I was younger, but memory is not to be trusted. I would love to have had a record of certain experiences as they happened, a record of my deep thoughts, but more just how things looked and smelled and what the skin of the world looked like at the time."
It was letters that helped him write from memory when he was writing his Vietnam memoir.
"Up until my 30s, I was a pretty devoted letter-writer, especially with my brother and mother. I wrote detailed letters and, when I was writing my memoirs of Vietnam, I got my letters back from that time and that helped."
Even though, he says, those letters were not to be trusted, because most of the time he was attempting to hide the truth from his mother and brother so as not to worry them.
"I know I minimised certain difficulties of my service over there and maybe sounded a bravado that I certainly didn't feel."
Still, the letters provided a useful timeline of events. I wonder what he thinks of the decade of commemorations in Ireland, as someone who has experienced patriotism and war first-hand.
"I'm very suspicious of the kind of flashy, flag-pin patriotism that politicians traffic in in America," he says.
"Yeats made fun of shamrock and pepperpot patriotism and 'Easter 1916' shows he was sceptical and condescending towards Pearse and MacDonagh and yet found himself admiring of their courage.
"I'm sceptical, nevertheless, of that flood of emotion that takes over people. The world is filled with passionate intensity. I'm distrustful of it, I don't like the rhetoric.
"There are a lot of veterans here at Stanford, and we've made an effort to welcome them and they all know it's well-intended when people come up to them and say, 'Thank you for your service', but they say, 'Why don't you tell your congressman to vote for more benefits for veterans?' Patriotism is mostly of the mouth."