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An Eye for What Is Human

Tobias Wolff talks about his first collection of short stories in more than a decade.

November 1996

In his new collection of short fiction, The Night in Question (Knopf, 1996), Tobias Wolff, a contributor of six short stories to The Atlantic in past years, focuses largely on the consequences of people's decisions: a father takes revenge on a dog that attacked his daughter, unleashing a series of tragedies; a woman dreams of her girlhood and vividly recalls the day she chose to marry her now-domineering husband; a man is shot dead while standing in line at the bank because he can't keep from taunting a bank robber. Throughout, Wolff demonstrates what Tim O'Brien calls "the ancient art of a master storyteller" with his compassionate understanding, wit, and dramatic tension.

Wolff has written two memoirs: This Boy's Life, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the basis of a major feature film, and In Pharaoh's Army, an account of his service in the Vietnam War. Wolff's other books include two collections of stories, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs and Back in the World, and The Barracks Thief, a novella. He has received the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and the O. Henry Award, which he has won twice for his short stories. Since 1980 he has been a writer-in-residence at Syracuse University.

Wolff recently spoke with The Atlantic Monthly's Ryan Nally.

Excerpts from two stories in
The Night in Question read by the author in RealAudio:

  • The Other Miller
  • Smorgasbord

  • Your recent collection of short stories, The Night in Question, is a compilation of stories written over the past decade. Is there an organizing principle? How did you decide what to include?

    Certainly I have ideas about why the stories belong together. I can imagine all of the people in these stories inhabiting some common world. There are obviously moral and spiritual preoccupations that gnaw at all these people, and those preoccupations are the thematic subject of the stories and the book.

    Several of the stories in The Night in Question close with ambiguous and apparently tangential endings. Does this reveal anything about your own theory of the story? Do you admire or have more respect for this "open" form?

    wolff picture I have no theory of stories, just a theory for each story I write. A particular form is right for a given story and that's all. I don't like generalizations about literature -- I think the general is the enemy of the particular and the particular is the friend of the writer. Overarching theories of literature are completely useless to a writer, to tell the truth.

    I love, for example, the fables that Tolstoy made up for the serfs on his estate. Stories such as "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" that end with the flourish of an O. Henry story. At the same time I like the openness of Chekhov's stories, and most of the stories in Joyce's Dubliners.

    One story of mine that has been said to have a rather tangential ending is called "Casualty." It's about two young soldiers in Vietnam, one of whom is killed. But it actually ends in the mind of a nurse who has not previously been introduced in the story. My point is to change the nature of the story. I wanted to show how deeply disturbed this young nurse has become by the horror she's had to deal with. The "casualty" of the title really refers as much to her as it does to the boy who has been shot. Where the form seems to take an almost arbitrary tangent, to use that word, it really hasn't at all. The story is making its point by using the form to express it.

    In a recent review of The Night in Question in The Boston Globe, Gail Caldwell observed, "There's a fondness throughout for the sweet aberration, the weird twist in the road that fixed the entire journey." If that's an accurate observation, where does your interest in the "sweet aberration, the weird twist" stem from?

    I think that life is composed almost entirely of sweet -- or not-so-sweet -- aberrations. But the word "aberration" implies a predictability in the course of life, and I don't think life is predictable. Obviously a story can't be entirely chaotic and random, but it is open to contest; whatever is going on is subject to change, sometimes violent and immediate. There's always something that shakes people up and forces them to make choices that reveal their true selves. Aberrations over the long reach of a life can almost begin to be a parallel course of normalcy; they're thus essential to our self-understanding.

    In two different interviews you quote Flannery O'Connor's saying: "Anyone who survives adolescence has enough material to write about for the rest of his life." What is it about the experiences of youth that motivate you to write about them?

    When O'Connor said that, she was refuting the idea that you have to go to Africa and murder lions, or work as a policeman in Hell's Kitchen, to write fiction. There is sufficient drama in the passage of ordinary life. It wasn't just adolescence that O'Connor was referring to there.

    As for writing about youth, I find it compelling because you're catching people at a moment where, if they turn just five degrees in another direction, twenty years down the line they're going to end up very, very far from where they'd have gone if they had continued on their original course. That's the way we are when we're young. We're always turning by these minute degrees that forever after change the course of our lives. That situation is inherently interesting for the fiction writer.

    You've moved around a lot in your life. How has a sense of place affected your writing?

    I don't have a single place that I write about the way Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, or Ivan Turgenev did. I should note that Turgenev lived in France most of his life but wrote about Russia. I feel a little like Turgenev. For some reason or another, the place that I mainly grew up in -- Washington State -- continues to be a locus of my imagination. I find myself going back there in my fiction, and also to California. Perhaps because I'm not living there, I can mythologize it. Yoknapatawpha County is really a construct of Faulkner's imagination; it doesn't correspond in any documentary way to where he lived. It's the same with me. I go back again and again in my fiction to the West. I don't confine myself there, but it had a powerful effect on me when I was growing up, and it continues to call me back when I write.

    Has your experience in Vietnam had any effect on your choice of subjects or themes?

    I have certainly been moved to write about that place and experience. More importantly, it has very much influenced my outlook on things, since the whole thing was a massive exercise in national and personal self-deception. It may be one of the reasons I return to the topic -- I suffered myself as a result of that self-deception and truly cynical manipulation of people's faith. My history exerts a pull on me when I'm writing.

    You were one of four judges for Granta's 1996 Best Young American Novelists contest. How do you feel about such prizes? What do you make of some of today's new fiction?

    All of the judges entered that process in good faith, and we were all a little chastened by the difficulty of it. It was a rather partial and incomplete process, and I don't know whether it was worth it, but my hope in participating was at least to hold some writers up for regard -- and maybe even, in frustrating those readers of fiction who thought that others should have been on the list, forcing them to make a stand and declare their tastes. It generated controversy, in that a lot of writers -- David Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker, and Richard Powers, for instance -- were mentioned again and again while the ones actually on the list were not. So it did serve a purpose.

    I wish we could all be prize-free and trust our own judgment. Take reviewers, for example. All writers resent reviewers, but how could they live without them? How is the average reader supposed to have any idea where to turn without an indication or sorting of what's out there? The process is horrible but I can't imagine how anything would work without it. Judgment is part of our nature. It's simply a callow pretense to declare yourself too high-minded ever to judge or make comparisons.

    Having written two memoirs -- This Boy's Life (1989) and In Pharaoh's Army (1994) -- how do you react to Margaret Atwood's recent statement: "It's a feature of our times that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography -- but if you write an autobiography, it's assumed you're lying your head off."

    I see what Atwood is getting at, but I disagree with her. I don't assume that people are lying their heads off when they write an autobiography. I start each book in good faith. But I'll tell you when I start getting suspicious: when the writer insists on being the hero of every anecdote, the courageous figure in every contest, the only one with any principles or decency in the book. I have, I think, an eye for what is plausibly human and what isn't. When I encounter a plausible self-description full of the failings and the virtues that I would recognize in myself and anyone else I know, I can take that story. I meet a memoir the way I meet a person: I trust them until I have a reason not to.

    The word "moral" shows up quite a bit in reference to your writing. Have you made a conscious decision to be a "moral writer"? What informs your sense of morality?

    No, I haven't made a conscious decision to be a moral writer. I write about what concerns me and moves me. Like other people, I find myself in a web of family, friends, and community, and often my desires and obligations are at war with one another.

    People are constantly puzzling out who they are and what is the true nature of their obligations. The struggle to arrive at an answer -- however imperfect and subject to change -- is what I would call the moral life. I write about that spiritual reality but I don't write moral stories in a cautionary way.

    What are you working on now?

    I'm working on a novel. Beyond that, I will say nothing. I'm superstitious.

  • More Books & Authors features in Atlantic Unbound


    1. Jacket image of The Night in Question: Norfolk & Western Train No. 16, The Cavalier, leaves Williamson, West Virginia, on a rainy day, December 1958. Jacket photograph by O. Winston Link; jacket design by Carol Devine Carson.
    2. Tobias Wolff. Photo by Marion Ettlinger.

    Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.