The Writing Obsession

Tobias Wolff on his new novel, Old School, an examination of literary ambition gone awry

Old School

Old School
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Tobias Wolff
208 pages, $22

Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that the books we read fall into one of four categories: those we don't bother to finish; those we finish because we believe for some reason we should; those we finish because we enjoy them; and those we are so consumed and overwhelmed and thrilled by that merely reading them feels inadequate—we have the impulse to inhale them, or perhaps to tear out the pages and chew them up. For me, Tobias Wolff's new novel Old School was such a book.

It is 1960, and the unnamed narrator, a scholarship student from Seattle, is a senior at an East Coast boys' boarding school. A few times each year, a famous writer visits the school—in this particular year the line-up is Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway—and the school holds a writing contest in which one boy meets privately with the writer. "The atmosphere of our school crackled with sexual static," the narrator explains. "The absence of an actual girl to compete for meant that every other prize became feminized. For honors in sport, scholarship, music, and writing we cracked our heads together like mountain rams."

Writing is the activity the narrator is infatuated with above all:

I knew that Maupassant, whose stories I loved, had been taken up when young by Flaubert and Turgenev; Faulkner by Sherwood Anderson; Hemingway by Fitzgerald and Pound and Gertrude Stein. All these writers were welcomed by other writers. It seemed to follow that you needed such a welcome, yet before this could happen you somehow, anyhow, had to meet the writer who was to welcome you. My idea of how this worked wasn't low or even practical. I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.

When not seeking authorial anointment, the narrator and his classmates act like, well, teenage boys—they vie for the attention of teachers, smoke on the sly, and get rowdy at dinner. Wolff beautifully depicts both the oppressiveness and the privilege of boarding school:

A warm wind blew across the hilltop, and with it the faint cries of boys chasing balls. The school lawns and fields were a rich, unreal green against the muddy brown expanse of surrounding farmland.... From this height, it was possible to see into the dream that produced the school, not merely English-envy but the yearning for a chivalric world apart from the din of scandal and cheap dispute, the hustles and schemes of modernity itself. As I recognized this dream I also sensed its futility, but so what? I loved my school no less for being gallantly unequal to our appetites—more, if anything.

It is this contradiction between chivalric ideals and more prosaic appetites that is the narrator's undoing in the short-term. However, the glimpses we get of his adult life reveal that he eventually does become a successful writer. Although writing about writing is tricky, Old School never feels self-consciously literary; Wolff's observations are entirely organic to the novel, and deeply true. He eschews the cheesy, cheerful maxims of "how to" books, instead acknowledging that how and why people write, and especially how and why they write well, often remains essentially mysterious.

In the narrator's own quest for writing glory, he repeatedly misleads his classmates and teachers, and much of the novel concerns lies and falsity. Yet the narrator is unflinchingly honest with the reader, especially in expressing his own powerful self-interest. It is, perhaps, something teenagers and writers share—a tendency to feel things strongly, a sense of longing and ambition. Or, as Wolff puts it, "the tension of hope."

Wolff, who was born in 1945 and grew up primarily in the West, attended The Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. After leaving the school during his senior year, he entered the Army and served for four years in Vietnam. Ultimately, he attended Oxford University and went on to receive a master's degree from Stanford University, where he has taught since 1997.

In addition to Old School, Wolff is the author of six books: the memoirs This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army; the story collections In the Garden of North American Martyrs, Back in the World, and The Night in Question; and the novella The Barracks Thief. He has received the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award and served as the editor of several anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. Wolff's first published story, "Smokers," appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1976; it also was narrated by a prep school boy who disguises from others what he wants, but cannot disguise it from himself.

I spoke to Wolff by phone on October 29.

—Curtis Sittenfeld

Tobias Wolff
Tobias Wolff   

Given that you've written stories, memoirs, a novella, and now a novel, how do you decide what form a particular idea will take?

I'd once thought of writing a short story based on the literary competitions we used to have at The Hill School and the visit made there by Robert Frost. But as I thought more about it, the idea grew. There were questions of class I wanted to write about, and then I wanted to talk about literary ambition, about vocation, about friendship, about the adulation of writers and the way your attachment to certain writers changes as you grow older. This was obviously going to be too large a subject for a short story. And I didn't want to write it as a memoir, because I wanted to bring in writers I never saw—I had been attached to them and I had wanted to put them on the stage for a while.

When I finished the first draft, it was a much longer novel than it is now. It was almost twice as long and had a lot of what I think of as digressive material. The narrator went home with different friends from his school, he went to his own home in Seattle, and the postlude, if you will—the account of his life after school—was much longer. But I felt as if by letting him out of the school so much I was letting the air out of the balloon. It seemed to sag at those places and I think it's much more taut now. I like the claustrophobia the novel generates by keeping him at school. The pressure builds.

For this novel to work, the reader has to believe in these boys' becoming so madly passionate and competitive about this writing business. That can only happen when there is a complete failure of perspective, which requires a very enclosed world, like an army or a priesthood. Great mistakes can be made because the view becomes so narrow. If I was continually letting the main character off the reservation, it was implausible that he could come back and maintain that level of obsession. I thought it essential not only to the form of the novel but to its psychology and its atmosphere that I really keep the circle drawn close around him. That governed a lot of the revision I did.

Have you ever looked back or missed any of the cuts?

There's one thing I cut that I loved. It was a class one of the masters taught, but I didn't finally think it had to be there. In a funny way, sometimes the more you tell, the more you take the mystery out of certain characters. It felt a little too much like the reader was getting an English class, if you know what I mean, and readers don't like going to school when they read a novel. If it had been essential to the novel, I would have kept it, but it wasn't. You know that old expression "Murder your darlings"—well, this was a darling I had to murder.

So Frost did in fact visit The Hill School?

Absolutely. Now, I'm about three years younger than my narrator, so I was a squirt when Frost arrived, and I was sitting in the back and didn't hear a thing he said. I didn't even hear any of his poems, though I had read them and we had of course studied them before he came to our school. It was just an extraordinary experience being in the presence of this great man, this great poet, and it stayed with me, obviously, over the years. One of the things that draws writers to writing is that they can get things right that they got wrong in real life by writing about them. This time, I got to hear him talk and got to have a much more vivid and proximate encounter with Frost.

In order to do that, of course, I had to steep myself in Frost's poetry, and I read several biographies and all his letters that have been published. I'm not really quoting him in the book, I'm riffing off my sense of what he would have said through my sense of his character.

I read the Ayn Rand section once to a group of scholars. One of them came up to me afterwards and said, "I've written two books on Ayn," and my heart just fell. I thought, Ah, hell, she's going to tell me I got it completely wrong. And she said, "You absolutely got her to life. That's exactly the way she was." I felt so gratified. In the end, you're making a character out of a real person and that's always very hard to do. I felt justified in using Robert Frost and Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway in this way because all three of them, to an extraordinary degree, very consciously crafted their public images. They cultivated certain personae to present to the world at large for their own advantage. And in each case, the images they concocted of themselves for public viewing were rather different from who they actually were. They were creating fictional characters of themselves, so I thought it was fair to meet them on those terms. Their own fictionalizing gave me permission.

Was writing their dialogue intimidating or fun or both?

Oh, I loved doing it. I got to have conversations with these writers, conversations I'd always wanted to have. And I enjoyed the research tremendously, though it did lead to some unexpected revelations. I thought Ayn Rand was very much a creature of my time. Well, I was doing the research at the Stanford University library, and almost invariably the books I was looking for on Frost and Hemingway were there on the shelves. Some of them hadn't been taken out, I'm afraid to say, in years. When I started doing my research on Ayn Rand, on anything about her or by her, I almost always had to put out a call order for it because some undergraduate had it. She is extremely popular still with people of that age. Her books continue to sell and, I'm afraid, to influence young people.

Your novel didn't make me want to read Rand, but it did make me want to reread Hemingway.

Read the stories. They're so beautiful. I teach Hemingway from time to time in my courses and I'm always struck anew, especially with the early stories, by how tender they are. It took him time to create that rather crusty persona of his and, though I think he remained a beautiful stylist to the very end, that crustiness leaked over into his work later on in ways that are unfortunate. His characters become less interesting as time goes on. But the early stories haven't lost an ounce of their power or their tenderness or their originality. They're absolutely stunning. How anybody that young could have had so much authority is absolutely beyond me.

You said the way the boys in the book regard writers is partly a reflection of how they've lost perspective.

It's also real, though. It's real passion. The narrator in particular is obsessed. The narrator sees writing as a passport out of what he sees as the mediocrity that he's been born into. He knows he can't belong to the class that the people around him belong to, so writing is a way of transcending class altogether. This adds fire to his obsession. But it's certainly true that many of the boys that I went to school with were, like me, smitten with books and writing. Our idols were writers.

Do you think that happens today for teenagers?

No, I don't. Why? I'm not sure. For one thing, I think the whole class question has been considerably mitigated. We live in a much more democratic society than the one I grew up in. The schools themselves are coeducational now—that brings a level of coolness and sanity to the proceedings. The other thing is that in the forty years or so since I was in school, movies and television have become much more influential in the lives of young people and to some extent have drained away some of the passion for literature that we used to feel. I used to get a certain picture of the world from what I read and even a sense of how to be in the world. I'm not sure young people find that in literature anymore.

I also wonder how many young people see their parents reading. My mother was a reader—it was just something we did. We didn't sit and watch a box in the corner at night. We read. And certainly the families of the boys I went to school with read. When I visited them on vacations, we would talk at night, but then people would pull out a book. It was a much more literary culture than it is now.

How common do you think it is for adults, as opposed to teenagers, to have that feeling of being overwhelmed or consumed by a book? Do you ever feel that?

I sure do, with the right book. Most recently, I've had that feeling reading Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. I found that an extraordinary and indeed overwhelming read. I was completely taken up into the world of Asia Minor at the beginning of the century, the diaspora of the Greeks when Kamal Ataturk was driving them out of Turkey, and then the Prohibition days in Detroit. It has a great epic sweep, a very powerful current. I frequently have that experience when I read. If I can see as I begin a book that it's just not the kind of book I enjoy, then I don't usually pursue it to the end. There are so many books that I do want to read and am probably not going to have time to read in my life that I go on to the next one.

What percent of books do you stop early on because you know they're not going to do it for you?

At least half. And I don't even pick them up unless I think there's some good chance that I'm going to be taken up by them.

Among writers, it's a faux pas to ask if a work of fiction is true, and it's also the first question that non-writers ask. Does the question bother you?

I understand the question and indeed I have it myself sometimes when I read. If a novel has an autobiographical feeling to it, I sometimes wonder. I'm too good-mannered ever to ask a writer, but I wonder. When you visit Hannibal, Missouri, they'll tell you, "This is the fence that Tom Sawyer painted." They try to market that novel as a document from life. There's a natural appetite in people to connect what they read to real things.

So I understand the questions. I don't always answer them. Do you have one in particular?

The most obvious one is, what was your experience at The Hill School? Is it correct you did not graduate from there?

I was asked to leave in my last year not because of any misbehavior but because of my academic record. It was so abysmal that I lost my scholarship and of course couldn't afford to go. I just couldn't make myself study things I wasn't interested in, and now I wish I had. Not that I regret the path my life has taken, but I can't help my daughter with her math homework. It's ridiculous. I simply couldn't pass a math course while I was there. I'll give myself this break—they were studying mathematics in a form that has since been completely abandoned.

But it was a felix culpa. It felt like a disaster to me at the time and I ended up enlisting and spending four years in the Army. But the truth is, I think I ended up having a much more interesting life because of that expulsion. I don't regret it.

In the novel, the main character becomes a successful writer and is asked to return to his school to read, but he declines. Have you ever gone back to The Hill School to read?

I've been back a couple of times. The school really changed my life. I'm very grateful to it. They gave me an ideal of an educated person to try to live up to. And they encouraged my writing, which was the most precious gift they could have given me. I feel nothing but affection for the school.

I know from This Boy's Life that you faked your transcripts and wrote your own letters of recommendation to get in.

Yes, that's correct. When I went back to give a lecture there about twelve years ago, they presented me with a high school diploma, which was very sweet of them. The then-headmaster, Charles Watson, who had been my hall master when I was a boy there, read a couple of choice excerpts from one of the letters I had written for myself. But otherwise, it's kind of a non-subject. They don't want to glamorize it, because they don't want it to happen again.

There's so much in Old School about the layers of lies we tell ourselves and each other, and how in a weird way some of these lies actually get at the truth. Do you think most people walking around are lying either consciously or unconsciously, or are liars the exception?

I think we're all self-deceived to a degree, and it can become pathological in some people. There's a wonderful line in Eliot's "Four Quartets": "Mankind cannot bear very much reality." There's a great deal of willful blindness in our living that's probably necessary. For example, when we eat, we don't look too deeply into where our food comes from. If we did, we probably wouldn't be able to stomach it. The clothes we wear—where do they come from, who makes them, at what expense, to whose profit? They are rare people who are willing to look at every aspect of their lives and say, "I can't do this anymore because whenever I start this engine, I bring the world that much closer to extinction. I can't wear this shirt because the people who made this shirt are being exploited—they're not even allowed to go out on break, they're fired when they get pregnant."

How many people are there who will parse their lives in this way, take them apart analytically and, if you will, morally? Most of us don't do that, and the truth is, most of us can't do it. Just in day-to-day living, there's a built-in dimension of self-deception or blindness, and that gets carried on in our relations with each other. We tend to overlook our selfishness, to almost forgive ourselves for it in advance. We fudge things to get ahead without thinking about it much or meaning to—people who consider themselves honest perhaps don't always correct a misapprehension that another person has about them to their advantage. There are many levels of falsity, conscious and unconscious, in the way we live.

Do you think fiction allows for greater truth?

I don't know about greater. The truth is the truth. But fiction has its own way of producing a sense of truth, and it's one that I'm increasingly more comfortable with than nonfiction. When you're writing nonfiction and holding it up as the truth, you're really accountable in all kinds of ways, and it can make you overly careful. And there's always this self-protective urge that you don't feel as strongly when you're writing fiction. In writing two memoirs, I found myself guarding very much against the urge to defend or protect myself, and perhaps went too far in the other direction of showing my faults in the interest of being honest. You don't have to worry about that so much when you're writing fiction.

Now for a lighter question—does it bother you at all or did it give you pause that there's that movie called Old School?

My novel excerpt in The New Yorker was published before the movie came out, and I identified that piece as part of a book called Old School. When I heard about the movie, I went to the publisher and said, "Do you think we ought to change the title?" They were determined not to. They said, "These things are going to have completely different audiences." They argued adamantly that I should stay with it, and I thought about it for a while and figured, what the hell? I like that title. I came up with it myself. It's the right title for the book. So I decided to stay with it.

So have you seen the movie?

I saw part of it on an airplane. It was pretty funny.