An interview with Tobias Wolff, discussing his book The Night in Question
Published December 5th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine
This Boy’s Stories
Writer Tobias Wolff Discusses New Collection
By Tobias Wolff
The new collection extends Wolff’s already formidable mastery of the short story form. Stories such as “Bullet in the Brain,” which delves into the memory of a smart-ass book reviewer at the moment of his death, and “Lady’s Dream,” which blurs the line between dream and reality as a woman remembers her courtship, stretch the limits of the form to terrific lengths.
Speaking from his hotel room in Seattle—which is not far from Concrete, the town he immortalized in This Boy’s Life—Wolff elaborated on his unique approach to short fiction.
The Story “Bullet in the Brain” is very different from your other work. How did it come about?
Why did I write that story? Because it surprised me. I think that I wasn’t really planning to write that story. I got hit by lightning or something when I was writing that story. The second half of the story came to me not as part of the original conception of the story but in the writing of it. It was originally intended to be something different. As happens, I think, when writers are at their best, I was kind of ambushed in the process of writing that story, and my idea was hijacked by some other—I can only call it inspiration—that came to me in the writing, and I just let it rip, basically. Something takes over, and you have to let it lead you—perhaps where you didn’t intend to go. But when that happens to writers, they should definitely surrender.
That switch in the middle is amazing. A lot of your stuff is pretty spatial, pretty in the real, and this one really goes inside—almost stream of consciousness. Is this something that you’re trying to explore, or did it just happen?
Well, I’m obviously open to it happening, or it wouldn’t have happened. Yeah, I’m very interested in pushing the story form to whatever limits I can push it to. And this seemed to offer a way of exploring the form in a different way than I had before. And I liked the feeling, and I’m open to doing it again. It was a lot of fun writing that story.
I think of Umberto Eco’s quote about wanting to poison a monk—had you just been wanting to shoot a book reviewer?
Yeah, I won’t deny that there was a little bit of, shall we say, puckish ill will intended in that story, and a return for services rendered.
You actually got a bad review?
I’ve been very gently treated by reviewers, but a lot of friends of mine have been roughed up very badly and very deeply hurt—one of them to the point where she stopped writing, for years and years. I’m not going to name her, but she was one of the pre-eminent short story writers in this country, and she was savaged on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. And she simply stopped writing. Writers are very fragile people, most of them. It isn’t that reviewers shouldn’t be honest, that’s not it, but some of them take pleasure in cruelty. And there’s almost a hatred of writing in some of their reviews. There aren’t that many of them who are like that—there are just a few. And at the same time I have to say that I recognize—I just couldn’t have written that story just about someone like that. Then they’d just be a cartoon to me. But I recognize in myself a propensity for that kind of detached and caustic oversight in life—a certain ironic distance, shall we say, from life itself that I don’t like—a quality in me that I recognize and that I recognize in a lot of other writers too. And I think that if you indulge it you can become dangerously detached from life. It’s usually a more spiritual danger, but in this case it becomes a physical danger too. The sort of reviewing habit—that sense that life owes you novelty and originality all the time, that life should be putting on a superior and entertaining performance for you all the time—is a kind of dangerous expectation for the spirit, and in this case, obviously, it becomes a dangerous one physically for the guy.
He seemed to be reading instead of living it.
Exactly—life as text.
But you take this jaded character back to the essence of why he loves language—with his last memories.
Returned him to his source.
This bullet saved him, like in Flannery O’Connor.
Like Flannery O’Connor, yes, the way violence works in her stories sometimes—it can wake people up.
So if there had been someone to rob a bank every minute of his life, he would have been a good man.
That’s right, exactly. It’s funny you say that—I was sitting around with some friends last night, and we were quoting Flannery O’Connor. I came up with that great line of Manley Pointer’s while he’s stealing that girl’s leg, and he’s going down the ladder of the hayloft, leaving her up there, and he says, “You think you’re so smart, ’cause you don’t believe in anything. I’ve been believing in nothing my whole life.”
Your story “Lady’s Dream,” with its mixture of reality and dreams, is different from a lot of stuff you’ve done too.
Sometimes, perhaps, as maybe also comes out in “Bullet in the Brain,” the present can become insubstantial to us. This is a way of figuring the past—and that moment when you perhaps see back to where you might have gone another way, and you imagine yourself back there, and your life has taken a particular turn. I mean I wouldn’t go in a different direction myself, in the way my life has gone, but I know a lot of people would. And I imagine somebody going back to that source moment of the situation they’re in now—and would they do it differently? And this woman, in finding herself there, discovers that she loves this man. And, in a sense, accepts that condition that she’s lived in that she does not like all over again. Usually a dream is an escape. In this story, it becomes almost a kind of renewed commitment.
Your story “Sanity” also features a dysfunctional family that ends up sticking together.
Yeah, [April] manipulates her stepmother into buying the car. Then she has to stay. It’s kind of like that story about Atlas handing the world over to that other fellow, kind of tricking the other strongman into holding the world on his shoulders, so he can get out from under it. And in a way that’s what we do—sanity in this world means a certain calculation sometimes. It’s hard to keep your head above water and to manage things, especially for the young, and this kind of coolness, perhaps, in necessary to survival.
Your story “The Chain” is something of an allegory. I’ve never seen that happen in your stories—I’ve never seen a moral in your stories before.
The moral is so obvious that we know it already. You know what I mean? It’s really a question of following—of being forced psychologically. My project in this story is to make the reader want to do what the guy does—and to follow the psychological process by which someone can commit an irrevocable wrong.
So your plan was to make the reader root for doing these terrible things, these irrational things?
Well, here’s the thing. This story is based on something that happened to me. I had to watch my four-year-old son be savaged by a dog as I ran down a hill. It was just exactly the scene that I described at the beginning of that story, and that dog was on a 100-foot leash, and the police would do nothing about it. And it seemed wrong to me that that dog should be allowed to stay in that yard like that. And I felt morally obliged to do something about that, even if the law wouldn’t help me. And in the end, I didn’t. A friend of mine offered to do it for me, and I wouldn’t finally let him do it. But I could imagine, in a weak moment, in an angry moment, in a moment such as I experienced and could understand if someone else did it, saying, “Yes, take that dog out, because I’ve tried everything else. This dog needs to go.” And what would happen from that moment on, the terrible things that could be set in motion? I mean it’s happening everywhere in the world, isn’t it? Everybody’s trying to get justice. The Bosnians are trying to get justice. The Serbs are trying to get justice. The Hutus and Tutsis are trying to get justice. The Chechnyans are trying to get justice. And one man’s justice is another man’s injustice. So when you start that thing, it doesn’t stop. It’s never stopped, in fact, from the first time. It just goes on and on. We’re caught in this chain, really. It’s our condition. What I’m trying to do is understand it—how even with good intentions, that thing can happen. I don’t consider [Gold] an evil man. I think of Gold as a man not unlike other men I know—trying to work out the best thing to do from a number of very imperfect choices.
In “The Life of the Body,” like in “Bullet in the Brain,” there’s this really self-satisfied character whose world just gets shattered. This seems like something you’re interested in, at least in this collection.
Yes, I am. That’s something stories can do, I think. Just for a moment they can hold up a true picture to a person, to allow them just for a moment, perhaps, to glimpse their real face through that wishful portrait that they carry around in their mind. Though Wiley is a figure not unlike many who profess the life of the mind, it seems to me. There’s a distance between what he professes and how he lives. It is in this story, as stories do—it’s dramatized. Stories are dramatic moments. But I don’t consider him, again, a monster of hypocrisy, or anything like that. His main enemy is himself. You know when he talks about not liking contemporary fiction—the funny thing about that is that I think he would benefit from reading some contemporary fiction. He would learn something about self-scrutiny from it. And the personal life, he’s pretending not to have an interest in that. He finds it more comfortable to indulge in the kind of generalities of a day gone by and to lose himself in a world that no longer exists—and all in the interest of being very high minded. There’s something that he could learn about himself in contemporary fiction that, I think, is symptomatic of his flight from reality. He’s a very familiar figure to me and not a bad figure. I’ve had teachers like him, and they were good teachers, actually. Some of the best teachers I had were people like him. There are traits of that man in myself, or I couldn’t have written that.