Friday, November 9, 2007

On briefly meeting Tobias Wolff

Francis Marion University is holding the Pee Dee Fiction & Poetry Festival this weekend. FMU is about an hour and fifteen minutes' drive from here so I drove up to see Tobias Wolff, who was doing a reading, discussion and book signing on Thursday evening.

After reading from This Boy's Life (the section in which the stepdad sprays the Christmas tree white and also finds mold all over the beaver skin and chestnuts), he answered questions and discussed his work, etc.

Here's some of what Wolff said, from my notes, which of course are a mix of direct quotes and summations:

+ Wolff read Tolstoy in his 20s and became interested in how the Russian infused his life into his writing. Tolstoy kept a journal due to his "need to be absolutley clear to himself about himself."

+ Wolff began writing an autobiographical record of his own life to mine it for fiction, and eventually the autobiographical record took on "a life of its own." This Boy's Life was his turn from fiction to autobiographical writing.

+ Someone asked how people in This Boy's Life reacted to what he wrote. "I've never been challenged on factuality.. ..my stepsister thought I had been unkind to her husband." The stepdad also thought Wolff had been unkind about him, but Wolff thought he had "dialed it back a bit."

+ Some people decide not to write memoir due to emotional attachments, but if he did that, he wouldn't have anything to write about, so he won't avoid it, but he went on to say something about himself in others' shoes when he is writing these things.

+ Regarding writing about himself in memoir, he said he is "very much part of this fallen creation" and tries to include himself in that context.

+ "Memoir to me is the subjective, individual" recollection of the past, and "you have to make allowances for that when you read a memoir."

+ The topic of how his mother is portrayed -- Wolff said his mother told him, "If you had prettied up the picture [that would mean] you wouldn't have accepted me as I am."

+ Someone asked which of his short stories he would like to be remembered for when he died. Wolff said, "All of them." Everyone laughed. "I can't do that." He said it would be like picking one of his three kids.

+ Someone asked what is it that Wolff still really had to write about. "Friendship. ..I've never quite figured out how to get that down." He's had some lifelong friends who are very valuable to him. He said Joyce showed The Dubliners to some of folks in Dublin and someone told Joyce something like, "But you didn't get the hospitality! Dubliners are very hospitable people." So Joyce went back into the manuscript and added a scene of a Christmas party. Wolff was making a parallel between Joyce omitting hospitality and his own omissions of friendship. He wants to "find a way to get friendship and those bonds in my writing."

I was standing in the doorway at the back the whole time, so I was one of the first in the lobby. Wolff walked out and they set up the book-signing table just behind me. I was second in line. I wanted to ask him what he thought about reconstructing quotes from the past. But I heard him tell one of the organizers to have all the books open to the title page because that would help the signing go a lot quicker. I thought, oh great, he just wants to scribble through the book signing as fast as he can. So I opened my copy of This Boy's Life to the title page and set it in front of him. But after introducing myself I asked something like, "What's your rule of thumb for recreating dialogue that happened so long ago?"

A little of my own reconstructing a few seconds after his answer: He said, "Well, I kind of hear it in my mind. Grown ups [adults?] tend to repeat themselves a lot, so they had a kind of shtick. So it wasn't hard."

The cool thing was that he was warm, looked me in the eye, and wasn't hurried. Brief, but considerate, and not hurried, despite the long line behind me.

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