Books & Ideas

An Interview with Tobias Wolff

August 25, 2014

In "The Night in Question," as with a few of Tobias Wolff’s other short stories, there was a man mired in a moral quandary: he had to choose whether to prevent a train from crashing into the river or to save his little son from a fatal engine room nearby.

Many elite college students in America face a less extreme moral dilemma: whether they —intelligent, high-achieving students — should pursue lucrative offers in Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the like, or follow their true calling—which might not necessarily mean financial data-crunching and manufacturing flawless PowerPoint slides for corporate clients. This question is surely not a life-or-death decision, but the amount of misery it has produced among bright young graduates does remind me of the existentialist knots that often surface in Wolff’s stories.

This past spring, as part of a course on public service at Stanford, I had the chance to interview Wolff about vocation and morality. Prior to becoming an acclaimed author and professor, Wolff held various jobs: working on a ship, serving in Vietnam, reporting for the Washington Post, being a waiter and night watchman and teaching at a high school, not to mention finishing memoirs, short stories and novels in between these stints. Naturally, he was the right person to entertain inquiries about eschewing safe paths and seeking a life that matters to one’s fellow beings. With the brevity and articulation of a master storyteller, Wolff shared his thoughts on why the world needs Chekhov or Mozart and how art and literature could reflect our inner truths more authentically than certain political or religious ideologies. And much like Chekhov, he never felt the need to preach as he sat in his peaceful sunlit office, calmly taking queries from a young student about service, literature and life philosophies.

—Quyen Nguyen


Quyen Nguyen: Could you describe your profession in a few words?

Tobias Wolff : I'm a teacher, and a writer. Probably for the last few years, more of a teacher than a writer. I teach in the English Department and the Creative Writing Program here at Stanford, and I write short stories, I write memoirs, essays, novels—three novels.

QN: Why did you decide to teach?

TW: That's a good question, with a long answer. I was in the army for four years, then got a degree at Oxford University in English. When I finished at Oxford, I worked as a reporter at the Washington Post. I had already formed the very firm intention of writing fiction, but I enjoyed being a reporter. I liked being around other reporters – they’re great company. It was also very exciting because I was there during Watergate, a reporter's dream. My desk was right next to Carl Bernstein’s, and he was showing me some of the unbelievable stuff he and Woodward were coming up with. It was very exciting, but I didn't write a word of my own. It was all reportage. So I left the Post and moved to San Francisco, which I loved, but had a very hard time finding work. It was '73, during a recession, lots of PhDs driving cabs, that kind of thing. So I worked at first as a night watchman and then as a waiter. I made plenty to live on and I had enough time to write, but it was stultifying intellectually.

So I applied for a job as a high school teacher at a Catholic boy's school, Sacred Heart. I found that I liked it but it was hard to get any work done. I really had to steal the time, but I liked the interchanges with the boys, rowdy and rough-edged as they were. They were a discipline challenge for sure but I got them under control and I think I made a difference to them during the two years I taught there. But I definitely needed to find more time to write. I got very lucky and received a writing fellowship, the Wallace Stegner fellowship, here at Stanford for a year. When I finished the fellowship, they offered me a job as a lecturer. I did that for a couple of years and really loved it. I loved teaching, being with other writers, immersed in literature. And I had enough time to write. I was married by then. My wife soon became pregnant and I had a family to support, which I couldn't do on my writing alone at that point. Again I got lucky, and was offered a professor's job at Syracuse University where I taught for some seventeen years. Came back here in '97, and by that time I was doing well with my writing and could have lived just on that but I really found that teaching. . . Well, I’d always thought that as soon as I made enough money to give up teaching and just write, I would. But I’d become addicted to the company of writers and people who cared about learning and literature. I couldn't live like Salinger, for example, and shut myself up alone. I needed that intellectual friction and I liked the sense of helping younger people along in their work. So even after I was able to leave teaching, I kept doing it and have kept doing it.

QN: Why did you decide to teach here at Stanford?

TW: A number of reasons. The creative writing program here is by a degree of magnitude the best in the country, so I'd be working with the best students. It's rewarding to work with people you can learn from while they learn from you. The undergraduate students and Stegner Fellows here work hard and profit by the teaching we give them. So it was not really a struggle to decide to move here after Syracuse. And my wife is a fifth-generation San Franciscan so she was dying to get home. I probably would have lost my marriage if I had decided to stay at Syracuse.

QN: Do you consider your work as a form of service?

TW: I will admit that my motive is probably not philanthropic. Some of the effects of what I do are probably helpful to people. There's a certain kind of book that when I read it, I feel like I have company in the world. I wish I had had, when I was younger, a book like This Boy's Life to read, to know that there were other kids living the kind of life I lived, this oddball existence. So there is a way in which writing can become a companion for people. It has been for me, and I hope that my work does that for others. There's no doubt that if you parse out my motives, there's probably a great deal of pure ambition, vanity, competitiveness, all that sort of thing, which does not mean the effects cannot be positive.

You used an expression in your email, "conscience-laundering," and I thought about that. I don't want to award a kind of nobility to the decisions I've made because they've probably, in some way or other, been self-serving. But let's take the case of somebody like Mozart. He probably didn't intend to change the world, yet can you imagine the world without that music? Can you imagine the world without Chekhov's short stories? Chekhov resolutely refused to become an ideological spokesman for any party, faith or creed. He was a doctor and he looked at society almost as a doctor would. He didn't give rosy diagnoses; he held up a mirror, if you will, to his fellow man. I have found his work immensely valuable, a fountain of insight. Also a great help to me as a writer. Though indeed he sometimes felt he was betraying his human duty by being a writer. He talked about medicine as his wife and writing as his mistress. He was very civic-minded. Peasants were always coming for him for treatment. He risked his life during a great cholera epidemic in Russia, as did Tolstoy. He would have never made a plea that his fiction was as important as medicine. But I can't imagine a world without Mozart or without Chekhov. Their motives do not matter in the end so much as what they've actually done. He could have meant his work to be a gift to humanity. If he didn't mean it to be a gift, it's still a gift! As a writer, you hope that your work will have that effect, whatever your motives are. But it's a hard call. I have certainly felt a kind of questioning of my own vocation.

QN: The phrase “conscience laundering” was taken from Peter Buffet’s article, “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.” He defined “conscience laundering” as “feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.” Do motives behind this sort of feel-good charity matter?

TW: If you are talking about a single human being rather than a corporation, I don't think that it's possible for a human being to be disinterested. But we have to try, obviously. Have you heard of Joyce Maynard? Joyce Maynard is a novelist. When she was seventeen or eighteen, a freshman at Yale, she wrote a brief memoir in the New York Times Magazine. Precocious, one might think, looking backwards so early. J. D. Salinger read it and wrote her a fan letter. He ended up moving her in with him, persuaded her to give up a scholarship at Yale, used her, discarded her, all with this great theater of purity. He considered himself a very “pure” soul who believed that if you do good, you're really doing it just to flatter yourself. So he did no good, certainly safe from that sin. You might read a recent Times article by Joyce Maynard, “Was Salinger Too Pure For this World?” in which she writes about this continual exercise, this question of "Is this good thing you're doing really for yourself?" "Can you escape self-flattery in doing what others would conventionally call a good thing?"

It is a political act to force someone to enter the mind, the spirit, the perspective of another human being.

And I would suggest that if you give food to someone who's hungry, they don't give a shit whether you're doing it for yourself or them. But if Carnegie is working kids at ten cents per hour and then building libraries, well, though the libraries are a good thing we still have to hold him accountable for the exploitation of children.

But it's a complicated issue and I think we have to live with a little conscience-laundering if that's what it takes to try to do something that benefits other people. If there's a sense of self-congratulation for some good we do for others, then we have to live with that. This idea has obviously vexed people forever, this tension between the deed and the motive. In the Four Quartets, Eliot writes, "And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / By the purification of the motive / In the ground of our beseeching." So he's obviously grilling himself in this way too. I don't know if it ever goes away.

QN: This sounds like a concept we talked about in class, "mixed motives.”

TW: Is any motive ever pure? Is there such a thing?

QN: So if purity or fanaticism is dangerous, what are your thoughts on the relationship between religion and service?

TW: Again, there'll be all kinds of motives. No doubt, there are some Catholics who do service thinking that'll give them a better afterlife.

QN: Right, I was trying to draw a distinction between your view and that kind of "resume-padding towards heaven" approach.

TW: Ha-ha. . .! What a great expression. That's very good, I like that. To the extent that religion is working towards peace, feeding the hungry or visiting the prisoner, for whatever reason, I am okay with that. But it so quickly leads to the claim of possessing exclusive truth, and then the making of every other religion into a competitor or, worse, an enemy. So I have a problem with absolutism. Even within Buddhism, often viewed as a religion of peace, there are sects that have sometimes violently opposed each other. We see that in every faith. Everybody's looking for that heretic in their faith, right? You gotta be "pure." We see it in politics. The purity of some Republicans is contested by other Republicans. Same with Democrats. People want to feel like they’re wielding the sword of truth against the decadent liberalism or decadent conservatism of the other person. That vice has its roots in fear.

QN: Are we morally obligated to serve or to be useful to society?

TW: I don't think we have to pay attention to what society promotes as useful because it doesn't know what is useful. The great Chinese sage, Zhuangzi, has a lot of fun with the idea of usefulness. He has this man with a gourd that is so big he can't use it as a spoon because it's too flat. His friend then tells to him to cut it in half and use it as a boat. Usefulness is something that looks different to different people. We have a socially constructed idea of usefulness that doesn't pay sufficient attention to the nature of the thing we're looking at. So again, going back to Mozart, in what way is he useful? In measurable terms, he is not useful. You can't even say music uplifts or purifies the soul. As we know, the officers at Auschwitz and other concentration camps liked to make the inmates play Beethoven to them and they would weep while the music was being performed. So you can't even say that music is necessarily transformative, though it can be.

What I do think is that it's hard for us to live with ourselves if we don't feel useful in some way or another. Have you seen that movie The Hurt Locker? There's a guy who disarms bombs, a highly dangerous job. When he comes home, there is a striking scene of him standing in an American super market, looking at this dazzling array of goods, and he just wants to go back to Iraq. He reads about a bomb going off in the newspaper and he thinks, "I could have saved those people." He has experienced actually being useful. People like him have this rare experience of having their usefulness made dramatically apparent to them, so they keep going back to give support to others even in this violent, terrible context. We all have a hunger for that sensation of usefulness. It's a little harder to experience that as a writer, maybe a little easier as a teacher. No doubt society and the cultures we grow up in all elicit this need to be useful, but it's also something that's hardwired in us. It's not necessarily a divinely inspired thing, it may well be an evolutionary adaptation, but it's there.

QN: What is the relationship between politics and writing for you?

TW: Depends on what you mean by politics. If you take it to its root, polis, the Greek word for the community, then I think literature is almost inevitably going to be an exploration of that community. Chekhov held the mirror up to his community, and that was a political act. I think it is a political act to force someone to enter the mind, the spirit, the perspective of another human being. We are often resistant to this experience because it forces us to give up all our ideas about other people and actually enter their lives and see through their eyes. That's a radically political act to me. As in what I've said about Chekhov before, I myself tend to resist becoming a mouthpiece for any party. But you can't be without ideas about what's good and what isn't.

I'm a great admirer of Flannery O'Connor's work, but even there I find myself bridling a little sometimes at the discernible purposefulness of her work, seeing her thumb on the scales, which I never feel in a writer like Chekhov.

QN: We are reading bell hooks’ chapter about “Engaged Pedagogy.” What is your pedagogy?

TW: I certainly wouldn't keep teaching if it's just recitation of what I know. It's a cooperative process. When I'm lecturing in the Thinking Matters course, I don't allow laptops in my class, so people have to look at me. They can write things down. But I'm not giving out information. It's a conceptual exercise. I'm really trying to get people to challenge me and question me. And I do that sort of thing because I care. I don't teach literature as a collection of movements, "okay, now we move to the Augustan age." Literature is a theater of choices, values, and the way in which one's character takes shape and in turn shapes one's life. Those are the questions that literature brings to dramatic life, and, I hope, awakens something in my students. Again, I don't want to award myself a merit badge. It seems natural enough to want to have a kind of communion with others, challenge other people and have them challenge you. It's more fun to live that way.

QN: In the short story "The Night in Question," you told a story about this man who had to choose between saving his son or saving hundreds of people on a train. When we are doomed to choose between “objective goods” like this, how do we do it? How would you advise students who are choosing between, say, taking up a secure & lucrative job and doing service in their own way?

TW: If I had chosen to, say, work in an office to make more money for my family I’d be miserable. It'd be so against my nature that I would have made everybody else miserable. I probably would be drinking too much and bringing home my own unhappiness. So you can't underestimate the effect of your discontent and unhappiness on others if you make a choice for purely practical reasons that will come back and bite you in that way. I thought about this a lot. I have a great friend in Syracuse who's very active against all forms of war, the training for and financing of war, and he went to jail for deliberately trespassing on Griffiss Air Force base in upstate New York. He had a couple of kids and my initial reaction was, you have a debt to them, and there is something irresponsible in your indulgence of your ideals at their expense. But as time went on, I realized what an extraordinary example he had given his children on how to actually live according to your principles. Principle is something that only has value in the performance of it.

But I'm still torn in different ways by those considerations. I don't have the strict pacifist belief my friend has, so I wouldn’t agree that what he did was necessarily the best thing to do. But just the showing of that quality of belief, the performance of it, may have had as much value for his children as the kind of support he could give them by being at home, going to his job every day and coming home at night. It's a tough call. There's a tug of war in my own mind about these issues.

If this makes any sense, we're called to different things, in different ways. By saying that, I guess I’m implying a caller. Nature, if you will, calls us to different kinds of things.

QN: Thank you for these insights.

TW: We’ve had a lot of "enlightenment" today, haven’t we?

QN: Well these are very big questions. . .

TW: They are big questions. To talk these things out, it's challenging,. They are the basic things, the fundamental things. And maybe there's a danger in settling them to our satisfaction. Maybe we're supposed to wrestle with these questions all our lives, you know? Maybe we're not supposed to be comfortable.

Photograph: Elena Seibert.

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