Tobias Wolff: The Life & Art interview

Life & Art Intern

Vacillating between personal experience and transcendent imagination, the world of fiction rouses the senses into concocting a visual template of a story. Even more, the minds that put it all on paper, especially the young ones, live in a world that is quite their own.

Just ask Tobias Wolff, a writer who has fluctuated between fiction and memoirs (This Boy’s Life). His new novel, Old School, is largely based on his own experiences growing up in the 1960s at a New England boarding school deeply rooted in literary prestige and the story’s protagonist, who remains nameless, finds himself yearning for acceptance and literary fame, while admiring the visits of several iconic writers of the time (such as Robert Frost and Hemingway).

With a vivid narrative of irony, intense competition, teenage angst, and struggles to be known, Wolff forms a story oozing with imagination and raw emotion. In a recent interview with Life & Art at Books & Books in the Gables, the author talks about his book, the pretense behind his private education, his character’s plagiarizing, and the literary influences that permeate the lives of all writers.

L&A: Are there any parallels to your own life in Old School?
TW: Well, the narrator is in somewhat the same situation I was in: a scholarship student at a private school where there weren’t that many scholarship students. He finds himself feeling somewhat outside of things, though no one tries to make him feel that way. In those days, there was money and then there were sort of patrician and aristocratic pretensions that some people had – a system long in place at this school; people never had to talk about it, it was just understood. And so because it was unspoken, it was hard to understand and oppose. Although I did draw very heavily upon my own sort of moral experiences, the events of the novel were largely invented.

L&A: Your protagonist makes an odd jump from self-acceptance to blatant plagiarism. How do you justify what he did?
TW: Well, I don’t justify it of course; I think what he did is completely wrong. But in terms of the novel, it is how I psychologically see that happening. This is a basically honest guy and, paradoxically, I see this guy in his desperation to be seen as honest and destined to be known, so he wants to tell a story about himself that’s true and brutal. When you read something you really love, you get drawn in and you associate things from the novel to your own life, and you feel like it’s your story, your heart, your soul. When the reader has that kind of intimacy with the writer, there’s a kind of fusion that takes place between the two and it’s an extremely active thing where you’re intimately involved and claiming it as your own, just as the protagonist in the story does. For some readers, they cross the line.

L&A: So where is the line drawn between imitation and plagiarism?
TW: Exactly. He loses that. You know, it’s not dissimilar psychologically to the case of Mark David Chapman, the guy who shot John Lennon. He was so obsessed with Lennon’s music and with Lennon himself that he went by the name John Lennon when he would check into hotels, and he kind of got it into his head that he had written the music too. But then here’s this other guy who is kind of pretending to be John Lennon too and Chapman couldn’t handle it so he had to get rid of the other John Lennon, the original. There’s some kind of relatedness in the story I’m telling and incidents like that. It’s like subsuming another identity. And I think that’s what this narrator is doing too.

L&A: Of the famous literary figures you bring up through the course of the book, Ayn Rand seems to be your most animated one. She’s portrayed as somewhat of an icy bitch in this story. Is that a true portrait of her?
TW: Of the figures I wrote about, I tried to pick up their voices and the cadences of their thought, their diction. I didn’t want to just quote them, I wanted to think like they did, talk like they did. And that was the best thing about Ayn Rand. No matter who wrote her, if there was a serious intellectual question in the letter, she would answer it. Thirteen year olds, eighty year olds, non-entities…she was very democratic in how mean she was to everyone. She was equally mean to everyone, she thought everyone was a fool, but she cared enough about educating people into the “light” of her ideas that she responded personally. And I was very touched by the very democratic spirit I felt there. She was very evangelical and that’s exactly why I think a lot of people get caught up in her books. I was. She’s very clean and logical. If you can leave out the complications of human beings and human nature and social relations, you’re fine. Unfortunately, that’s the world we live in.

L&A: Do you think of Ayn Rand’s followers as a cult?
TW: They are and they’re dead serious about it too. The Objectivist movement has continued to have a tremendously devoted core of believers. It offers a very simple vision of the world that’s very seductive to young people. They don’t allow any nuance or complexity in their vision. It’s very cut and dry. She sparked a whole social movement. The Libertarian party comes right out of Ayn Rand and her institute. A lot of the ideas of the Libertarian party leaked over into the Republican Party as well, so there’s a kind of line of decent.

L&A: In the chapter “Master,” you write, “It was the nature of literature to behave like the fallen world it contemplated.” What do you feel the direction of the literary world is taking these days?
TW: I am very sanguine about our literature now. There are so many strong, talented, young writers out right now. My main concern is that the readers aren’t keeping up with the writers. I think we’re losing a lot of readers to the allure of pop culture. Reading is an active thing unlike watching something where you can just let the images wash over you. You have to take control of what you’re reading and make it ring true to yourself.

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