Thursday, December 5, 1996

An Interview with Tobias Wolff

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
Knopf, $25.00

Although Tobias Wolff is primarily known for his memoirs This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army, he initially emerged as a short story writer. Raymond Carver called his 1985 debut collection, Back in the World, “an occasion for which we should be grateful,” dubbing Wolff “a young master.” Since Back in the World, Wolff has published two memoirs, one short novel (The Barracks Thief), and two more short story collections, including the recently released The Night in Question.

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.

—David Wiley

An Interview with Robert Olen Butler

An interview with Robert Olen Butler, discussing his book Tabloid Dreams
Published December 5th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Elvis Tribe Found!

By Robert Olen Butler
Henry Holt, $22.50

“JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction,” “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot,” “Doomsday Meteor is Coming,” “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed.” Do any of these tabloid headlines sound like subject matter for great literature? To Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler, they do.

Taking his cue from works such as Oedipus the King and Hamlet, Butler works under the premise that if it is to be meaningful, literature has to connect in some way with mass culture.

“I think you can look at the enduring works of great literature and see them in a certain way,” Butler said in an interview during his book-tour stop in Minneapolis. “Take this for instance: ‘King Inadvertently Marries Own Mother, Plucks Out Eyes,’ or ‘Prince Sees Ghost of Dead Father, Who Fingers Own Murderer.’ I haven’t done this systematically yet, but I suspect that every great work of enduring literature in the world can be expressed as a really good tabloid headline.”

Butler’s new collection of stories, Tabloid Dreams, takes twelve such tabloid headlines and explores them in ways that the National Enquirer never imagined. Stories such as “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” and “Nine-Year-Old is World’s Youngest Hit Man” are no longer simply third-hand reports of some Albanian scientist’s research. Like the stories in Butler’s last collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, they’re real literature inhabited by real characters.

“The themes that were most urgent from A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” Butler says, “one could describe as cultural exile, loss, aspiration, the search for self and identity, and those themes were still kicking around in me after I’d finished the book. And one late night a the 24-hour Kroger’s in Lake Charles, near where I live, those themes leaped out and attached themselves while I was standing in line, shifting a cold bottle of milk from hand to hand—they leaped out and attached themselves to one of the headlines down there on that bottom rack. I think that night it was probably ‘Boy Born with Tattoo of Elvis.’ And I suddenly realized that the tabs had consistently been getting the headlines right, but they’d been getting the stories wrong. So this book sets the record straight on a dozen important issue of our time.”

In writing these stories, Butler reclaims some of our culture’s greatest myths. He treats Elvis, the Titanic, and extraterrestrials with the respect they deserve, rescuing them from the banality to which constant exposure has subjected them. Citing the upcoming Broadway musical about the Titanic as a prime example of how amazing things can become little more than a joke, Butler returns the potency to his subjects. People love Elvis, Marilyn, and JFK for a reason, and Butler looks past their superficial treatment in the tabloids to see why these mythical figures elicit such powerful responses in the public.

“I think that this particular penchant in our society, our culture,” Butler says, “is very deeply related to mythology, folklore, urban belief tales, which we know to take seriously. Human beings need to feel as if the intensities of their mundane daily lives are connected to something larger, and we do this by projecting our daily concerns into much larger dramas—peopled by much larger figures or wildly extended circumstances. I think that’s the impulse that creates myths, and it’s an impulse that creates an interest in these kinds of stories.”

The best stories in this collection are the ones that dissect awesome events to find, at their heart, an intense human connection. The story “Doomsday Meteor is Coming” and the sister stories “Titanic Victim Speaks Through Waterbed” and “Titanic Survivors Found in Bermuda Triangle” portray the intense need for connection that impending doom necessitates.

In the meteor story, two twentysomethings, Linus and Janice, spend the day at a Gen-X “Zima Garden,” where Linus overhears a report about the doomsday meteor. While Linus goes through astonishing levels of existential dread, the oblivious Janice keeps pestering him to get his nipple pierced as a symbol of their commitment. Although her request at first sounds pathetically small in comparison to the weight of the meteor, ultimately Linus decides to go through with it.

“The implication of this story,” Butler says, “is that the imminent end of the world does not drive him to religion or to notions of a higher being. In a way he accepts the randomness, as it were—and recognizes that all he can hold on to is his girlfriend, is this other person here, who is oblivious and remains oblivious, but for whom he makes a serious gesture of connection, to the point of being prepared to mutilate his body. And so the flesh that is so vulnerable to this imminent death he then willingly violates.”

The Titanic pieces may be even better. Probably the collection’s best-written stories, they portray both the immensity of the 1912 tragedy and its effects on two very human characters. But unlike in “Doomsday Meteor is Coming,” the characters in these stories never quite get it.

Butler calls the Titanic “the symbol of man’s technological hubris at the beginning of this century. But ultimately what is most important and what lingers and what literally haunts this disembodied spirit in the first story and the woman in the last has nothing to do with all those grandiose macro things, but indeed has to do with a moment of connection—that Linus has sense enough to seize, but these two people do not, to their everlasting regret.”

For their inability to connect, the man is forever doomed to haunt waterbeds, cups of tea, and toilets, while the woman is doomed to live in an unknown time, with no chance at ever reclaiming her lost connection.

Despite the collection’s frequent zaniness, Tabloid Dream is a very serious look at the way Americans live. Butler does have a lot of fun with them, but he doesn’t make fun of these absurd dramas. He sees them as a way into our collective psyche, and if he’s laughing, he’s laughing with us.

“The jokes in this book all come from inside the characters,” Butler says. “There are no one-liners in these stories. It’s a very funny book, but it’s also as serious a book as I’ve ever written. … A lot of what we call postmodern novel writers have drawn on the popular culture, but they have done it, far too often, from the position of aloofness, scorn—or satire, parody. But I think artists need to get inside the popular culture, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to use these headlines as ways into the enduring themes that artists have always been concerned with.”

With HBO turning the book into a series, Butler is truly interacting with the popular culture, giving as much back to it as he has taken from it. This is the function of a sincere mythmaker, and Butler succeeds, although in different ways than the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, in making the seemingly outlandish cultural phenomena come alive in a very real and useful way. But like those writers, Butler looks to be in this for the long haul.

“I’ve got so many other headlines that are exciting me still,” Butler says. “I have a hunch I’m gonna write another book of these. I’ll probably call it More Tabloid Dreams Found on Mars.”

—David Wiley