Originally created 05/10/04

Renowned memoirist releases novel set at boy's school



STANFORD, Calif. -- Tobias Wolff strides past the 19th-century sandstone arcades and towering palms that frame the entrance to Stanford University, slinging a battered leather satchel over his shoulder and adjusting his wool driving cap.

Energized after teaching his advanced fiction writing class, he appears trim and youthful despite his gray mustache. All traces of the middling student who had to bluff his way into private school are gone - now he comfortably inhabits the skin of revered professor and literary legend.

Wolff firmly established his image with his 1989 memoir, "This Boy's Life." His latest, "Old School," is a work of fiction, but it clearly picks up where his memoir left off.

Considered by many a master of the close-to-the-bone memoir, Wolff has earned his one-day-a-week teaching job (and his comfortable book-packed office) and he revels in the freedom it grants him.

"This Boy's Life" arrived on bookshelves just as Americans were suffering a collective hangover from prime-time TV soap series like "Dallas" and "Dynasty," which offered a view of American family life that was filled with wealth and betrayal.

"I don't blink at calling it a genre-breaking book," Gary Fisketjon, his longtime editor at Alfred A. Knopf, says. "It was a huge influence that he exerted. It suddenly was the sort of book everyone was writing."

"Popular culture had created such a sense of unreality about American life that maybe that created an appetite for true accounts of what it is like to live and grow up in this country," Wolff says later in the day during an interview with The Associated Press at his home in the hills above the campus. "A memoir like mine would probably work against the grain of that somewhat and maybe be a little reassuring to people who did not grow up in an 'Ozzie and Harriet' household."

He sits in his spacious living room, alive with afternoon sunlight. The room is dominated by a wall of windows that look out over the red-tiled rooftops of Stanford University. Wolff says the view is distracting; he prefers to work in a basement office.

His latest work, "Old School," is fiction, he says, not a memoir. Yet "Old School" picks up where his memoir leaves off. "This Boy's Life" told about how he escaped a rough home life and Washington state public schools by lying on an application to snag a scholarship for the fancy East Coast Hill School.

The unnamed narrator in "Old School" is a "book-drunk boy" attending a similarly exclusive school in 1960-61. The highlight of the academic year is a writing competition, judged by famous authors - Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, Ernest Hemingway. The prize? A private meeting with the author.

"I think writers are entitled to use every kind of device available to them to bring the reader into their world in a spirit of belief," Wolff says. "That's where you want them to be. You want the reader to leave doubts at the door and to enter your world with an open heart."

Nonetheless, he encourages readers to make connections between "Old School" and "This Boy's Life."

"The core of the narrator's personal experience, his outlook on things is undoubtedly something that I'm bringing up in my own life," Wolff says. "The story I wanted to tell could only have happened in that period. You just don't have that kind of adulation of writers anymore."

Wolff was drawn to a writing life by his hero, Hemingway.

"He changed the language of our literature," Wolff says. "He gave young men, especially, a kind of pattern of how to be a man, not always for the better, but he gave it to us anyway - the cool, taciturn, self-sufficient. ... It was all-pervasive, it really was. It was very attractive."

Hemingway killed himself when Wolff was 15. He remembers hearing the news on the car radio, while he was waiting for his brother, Geoffrey, to finish a job interview.

"It was shocking because nobody knew what we all know now," Wolff says. "We still had this idealized image of him that he himself had created."

Geoffrey Wolff went on to write his own memoir, "The Duke of Deception," about growing up with their father, a sort of parallel book to his brother's story about life with their mother.

Unlike his literary idol, Wolff enjoys a stable and solidly unglamorous life. He's been married to his wife, Catherine, for nearly 30 years. Their two grown sons live in New York and their daughter is a freshman in high school.

Wolff teaches at Stanford and is unfailingly polite and gentle with his students, who tend to dress casually in jeans, T-shirts and sandals. During a recent class, one woman sits cross-legged in her chair. Despite signs prohibiting food and drink, several students have sodas and bottles of water in front of them.

Wolff sits at the head of a U-shaped table, listening intently, leaning forward in his chair, offering suggestions and encouragement to the fledgling writers.

One student asks Wolff whether his use of flashbacks is confusing.

"It does slide in time a bit," Wolff says. "It's a bit unmoored that way."

To another, he says that introducing five characters in the first chapter results in "crowding up everyone in the beginning of the story."

To yet another, he says his short story is a "brilliant first chapter of a novel."

Wolff refuses to use his own books in class, saying that would put undue pressure on himself and his students.

And while he's proud of his work and confident in his writing ability, he must be coaxed into talking about himself. He's more interested in hearing about the minutia of Scott Peterson's double-murder trial in nearby Redwood City. He worked briefly as a reporter in Washington, D.C., and remains fascinated by the news.

After getting kicked out of the Hill School - Wolff failed a math exam, lost his full scholarship and couldn't afford to stay - he joined the Army and went to Vietnam. Later, he found himself wandering in New York, spending the money he'd saved in the Army. When a friend invited him to England, he went. He listened to friends again when they encouraged him to apply at Oxford University. He only had a GED, so he hired tutors and spent months cramming for the entrance exams. Three years later, he graduated with honors.

Like Wolff, the narrator of "Old School" seizes an opportunity to reinvent himself and his past at a school where no one knows him. And just as Wolff did in "This Boy's Life" and "In Pharoah's Army" - Wolff's memoir of his time spent as a Special Forces officer in Vietnam - the narrator fails to maintain a false facade.

"I remember vividly that self-consciousness," Wolff says. "Sometimes you just make up whole histories, identities for yourself. I could get away with it because no one knew me."

Though it's generally touted as such, "Old School" is not Wolff's first novel. He's embarrassed by his first, "Ugly Rumors," which he calls "terrible."

"Old School," which Wolff says took four years to write and originally was twice its current length, has been well-received by critics and readers alike. It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and runner-up for the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction. Wolff says it's selling faster than "This Boy's Life," which was made into a 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin and Robert De Niro.

Fellow memoirist and longtime friend Mary Karr says Wolff is "incapable of writing a bad book."

Karr, author of "The Liar's Club" and "Cherry," both memoirs about her childhood, met Wolff in 1978 when she was a poetry student at Radcliffe College and Wolff was a teacher. When she began her first memoir, she says she wrote Wolff asking for advice.

She rattles off his response from memory: "He said, 'Take no care for your dignity. Don't be afraid of appearing mean-spirited, small-minded, selfish or anything else. And don't use your experience as a tree to be shaken for its cautionary fruits. Tell your stories and your story will be revealed."

Wolff says that great American literary subjects like Jay Gatsby and Huck Finn symbolize the freedom to reinvent oneself along with the inherent dangers of denying one's past.

"We have this illusion of being able to self-create," he says. "That's an illusion. Nevertheless, it's interesting to watch ourselves try. ... We need not accept the past as our only definition, but to deny it altogether ... is to garner yourself a fall."