Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
( Date approximate).
Q&A Tobias Wolff: Soldiers
I turned into a predator, and one of the things I became predatory about was experience. I fetishized it, collected it, kept strict inventory . . . and of all experiences the most bankable was military service.
In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War (1994)
HB: At the end of In Pharaoh’s Army you write “I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.” That’s a strong statement about your early commitment to literature.
TW: It wasn’t just literature either. I think I was talking about work. Let’s remember I was coming out of four years in the army, and though the army advertises itself as the place where you go to become a man, actually it’s a place where boys go to remain boys. Everything is done for you. You never have to find a place to live. You never have to cook a meal. You never have to worry about running out of money before the end of a month. In other words, you can continue to live the life of a child in the army.
HB: So much for dismissing art as self-indulgence.
TW: I think the fact that artists have to find the will in themselves rather than in some external structure to do something difficult, doubles the effort. You’re responsible for yourself. You take that kind of responsibility, and you live or die by it.
HB: John McPhee talks about how he used tie himself to his chair with his bathrobe sash to force himself to sit and write.
A lot of your work is about the building and the testing of character. The desire to test your character led you to become a soldier.
TW: That’s the initial impulse.
HB: Your life was a mess. You were hungry for experience. The writers you admired had gathered their experience as soldiers and you wanted to follow in that path.
TW: That’s certainly true. Of course, like most young people who are star-struck, I was captivated as much by the ethos of these writers’ lives as by their work. Seeing pictures of Hemingway leaving Madison Sq. Garden with Marlene Dietrich on his arm seemed like a pretty good reason to become a writer.
If I had been paying more attention to what they were actually saying about their soldierly experiences, I might have had second thoughts. What they were saying, of course, was don’t do it. But I admired the artistry with which they said that so I didn’t really learn the lesson very well. Maybe young people don’t; maybe it’s futile telling them not to do this. I can’t help but think some kid will read my book and say, that’s a cool book; if I had an experience like that I could write a cool book, too.
HB: Hemingway comes up a number of times in In Pharaoh’s Army. Your buddy Stu says, he “did not love words, and to be a writer you had to love words.”
TW: There’s a difference between love and promiscuity. Hemingway loved words but he wasn’t promiscuous with them. I love Hemingway but in a completely different way than I did before. I was subject to the myth of Hemingway, the idea of Hemingway — the hunting trips, the fishing, the boxing, the physical life, the freedom his life seemed to promise, and the courage that was very genuine in his case.
What I admire in him now is not the tough upper lip but the tenderness, so evident especially in the early stories before he became captive to his own PR. In Up in Michigan and In Our Time, some of the stories from a woman’s or a child’s point of view are so sympathetic and humane.
HB: Was he your a model as a prose stylist?
TW: When I was younger, absolutely. Again, I would find different things to admire in his prose now. What I liked when I was younger was what seemed to me the tough sound of his language. Now it’s the exactitude, the cadences, the music. Hemingway is cartooned as a minimalist writer but he’s not at all. His sentences are often very long and rolling and have a tremendous momentum. He’s an extremely musical writer. He started off as a poet and that shows up in the prose, sometimes self-consciously and to its detriment, but he’s an absolutely beautiful stylist, certainly the most important in American literature in the twentieth century. He changed all the furniture in the room. You may not know he did, but the way you move around the room now is the way he set it up. You’re responding to it one way or another. He’s the one.
HB: What you were saying about Hemingway’s tenderness put me in mind of your short stories. There’s so much chaos and uncertainty, so much doubt in people’s lives, then things will sometimes resolve in completely unforeseeable acts of compassion. I’m thinking of “Desert Breakdown, 1968” the first short story in Back in the World, where the girl dives down for the bike, and “The Rich Brother” at the end of that volume. The reader is completely unprepared for that kind of feeling.
TW: Thank you. I appreciate that. I guess one of the reasons we write is to discover that in ourselves.
HB: It comes as a surprise to you, too?
TW: Yeah. A lot of times what is for me most valuable or interesting in my writing comes to me while I’m writing; in fact, almost all the time. If I proceed according to plan with a story, and I get to the end just the way I thought I would, it’s always a dead story. I always have to be hit, knocked off pattern.
HB: So for you, as for the reader, compassion may be the least expected outcome.
TW: Absolutely. I’m always grateful for it. Kafka has that wonderful line about literature being an ax to break the frozen sea of the heart. That isn’t true only for readers; it’s true for writers as well.
HB: It seems you work in two basic forms, the memoirs, and the short story, which can be a long short story, as in The Barracks Thief.
What is the short story for you? Is it about capturing people before they have a chance to pose? Is it a snapshot? Does the short story have an elegance the novel cannot because the novel has to deliver something more definitive?
TW: The more I read short stories, the less confident I feel to define them. The more widely I range through the literature, the more my ideas are challenged and refuted. I can talk about the virtues of the short story but am I talking about the short story as written in Africa, as written by Chekov, as written by Tolstoy?
Even between Chekov and Tolstoy, for instance, there are tremendous differences. You can regard them as the two extremes. Tolstoy writes short stories as if they were small novels. He sets forth a situation, has an introduction, if you will, to the characters, the place, and the motives that drive his characters. Then he releases the characters into a dramatic situation intensely, beautifully, and often at length. He poses a classic novelistic challenge to the main character, and has a resolution, usually rather resounding, and sometimes even a little novelistic coda, as, say, at the end of Master and Man, when he tells you what happened to the two characters many years after the events describes. That’s still one valid way of writing the short story.
Then you have the Chekovian story, which starts absolutely in mid-stride, in media res . You’re told nothing about any of the characters. You show up and they’re acting out their natures on this little arc of the circle, and then you intuit the rest of the circle from that arc. And it ends almost in mid-stride, too.
HB: That seem the more contemporary approach.
TW: Well, Chekov is certainly the father of the contemporary American short story.
HB: Your stories are recognizably from our time and place because they honor chaos.
TW: I would hope they also reveal a certain moral or spiritual pattern. Each story is constructed on some intuition of moral worth or spiritual insight.
Some writers would argue against using the story to enact that kind of feeling, wanting only to replicate the chaos.
HB: At the end of In Pharaoh’s Army, when you and your friends are about to jump out of a plane, I was strongly reminded of Yeats.
TW: Of Yeats?
HB: Of “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.”
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
. . .
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to me seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life this death.
TW: How beautiful. I’m glad I reminded you of it. I didn’t have it in mind, but maybe in some way, as I hope is true, what we read and love becomes part of us and shows up in strange ways without our even knowing it. It could be some cellular memory of that poem is in me, and present in what I write. I love Yeats and read him very carefully. That’s wonderful.
HB: That feeling was reinforced when This Boy’s Life: A Memoir (1989) opens with something flying into space as well, in this case the truck flying off the road when its brakes go.
TW: That particular episode is a good illustration of your point about randomness.
HB: You were raised primarily by your mother, your brother primarily by your father. Both of you turned out to be writers and both have written memoirs. When you wrote This Boy’s Life, Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception was already written.
TW: And published over ten years before. I never wanted to write a memoir. When Geoffrey published his, a book I love, I thought, great, this is over, I don’t have to do it, it’s been done to perfection.
I was led into This Boy’s Life by writing some sketches of growing up with my mother I had been planning to use as a kind of bank for my fiction. And also I wanted my kids to know something more about me than they would know by the way we live now. I wanted to leave them some account of where they came from, of where I came from, of what their grandmother was like before she became the prim and proper old lady that they know. I started writing these things down while working on a collection of short stories. Then I started getting really interested in it, spending more time on it until it completely displaced the other work I was doing. And I felt, well, this is a completely different story than my brother’s. I’m not replicating anything here at all.
HB: The two memoirs almost but not quite fit together to make a whole.
TW: After I finished my book I looked at his again and noticed that our accounts often disagree. The spirit is compatible but the details differ.
It seems to me this culture has evolved an extremely naive view of how memory works. Good evidence is the credulity with which we greet the hundreds of thousands of allegations of Satanic abuse, though there’s never been a body found out of the allegedly thousands of babies killed.
It’s a view of memory as a static thing, a tape that gets filed away that will be exactly the same when you pull it out. There’s no recognition that memory is something that you do; it is not something that you have. You remember, and when you remember you bring in all the resources of invention, calculation, self-interest and self-protection Imagination is part of it too. We really have to be a lot more realistic about the limits of memory.
HB: So the discrepancies between your memoirs and your brother’s are part of the truth.
TW: Absolutely. We have been accustomed to talking about computers using the human mind as metaphor, trying to make the computer like the mind but better, faster. The metaphor is starting to slip the other way; we are starting to talk about the mind as if it were a computer, which it is not. Computers are incapable of imagination and intuition. We are incapable of the kind of recall the computer has.
Thousands of people in this country are going through nightmares because of the faith that people can store memories completely intact and call them up again. And it’s nonsense.
HB: Do you read writers who write about childhood?
TW: Not in a systematic way. If I hear about something interesting I read it. One of the books that made an impression on me last year was Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. I think it’s a remarkable memoirs, one of the most honest and unsentimental and undeceived. None of that bullshit rhetoric about recovery, no answers given, no facile cut away out of the situation.
And of course, the standards, like Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood or A Childhood, the Biography of a Place by Harry Crews, Stop-time by Frank Conroy, and Speak Memory, Nabakov’s memoir
HB: I want to ask about your father, whose absence looms so large in your book, whereas in your brother’s book it’s his presence that’s the problem. Your brother wrote, “There was nothing to him but lies, and love.” Your father was a con man.
TW: A con man is someone who systematically practices his scams on people. My father was much more impulsive than that. He wanted a car, a stereo, a Rolex, and bang! he’d make up a name, or use a friend’s name or write a bad check. He wasn’t really a con man. I wish he had been. It would have been more like a career move.
HB: In This Boy’s Life, you describe him driving through a stop sign, and when you point that out he tells you he stopped for the last one. It implied some weird sort of inner accounting.
TW: He had his own rules for dealing with the world. They weren’t, unfortunately, any one else’s rules, so he didn’t get any credit for following them.
HB: And there’s the issue of him running as fast as he could from being Jewish.
TW: Since these books came out I’ve discovered it how very common it was to do that. I don’t know what it was in the atmosphere of this country. Maybe it had something to do with Europe at the time, the anti-Semitism in the air. The irony in my father’s case is that he learned his anti-Semitism at home. His family was German Jewish, and they were very snobbish, calling Eastern European and Russian Jews “Yids.”
HB: You write about one of your Jewish friends throwing eggs at a passing car and screaming out in fury, “Yid!”
TW: His father was a cantor. James Baldwin writes about this kind of thing in The Fire Next Time. It’s one of his great insights. He says one of the worst legacies of racism is that those who are despised and looked down upon begin to take that loathing upon themselves and turn it on each other. Baldwin defines that as one of the hardest things to exorcise. It’s hard enough for whites to get rid of their hatred, but what a terrible thing it is for black people or Jews who have breathed in this hatred for centuries to get it out of themselves.
HB: Do you feel any connection to the body of Jewish American writers?
TW: I love their work. I love Roth, Malamud, Bellow but because I don’t know anything at all about the culture they write from, have no connection to it, no connection to the religion — I didn’t even know I was half-Jewish until I was nineteen — I read it from outside.
I have very few lingering resentments of my father, very few, but one of the ones I have is that by concealing his Jewishness he also had to conceal his family from us, a wonderful family in Hartford I have since become acquainted with. This rich web of culture I could have belonged to was denied me and I do resent that.