Tobias Wolff's The Night in Question

With a short story, you "can't sit back and relax"

Tobias Wolff: "My wife is always joking when she reads my rewritten things"
  • Tobias Wolff: "My wife is always joking when she reads my rewritten things"

Author: Tobias Wolff, born in Alabama, 1945, served in the U.S. Army from 1965-1968. After discharge, he attended Oxford University, graduating with a First in English. Later, on a Stegner fellowship, he attended Stanford, graduating with an M.A. Wolff worked briefly at the Washington Post, where he wrote obituaries. (Readers will find in The Night in Question the story “Mortals,” in which the journalist is fired when he writes an obituary for a man still alive.)

Wolff teaches English and creative writing at Syracuse University: “Raymond Carver used to teach here,” said Wolff in a recent telephone interview, “and I came because of him. It was meant to be a year, but we’ve stayed nearly 17.” Wolff s wife is a social worker; the couple has three children. Wolffs first memoir, This Boy’s Life, was made into a film starring Robert De Niro as Toby’s stepfather and Leonardo DiCaprio as Toby. Wolff has twice won the O. Henry Prize for short stories and has been awarded two National Endowment for the Arts grants and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

The Night in Question; A.A. Knopf, 1996; $23; 206 pages

Tobias Wolff s sixth book and second short story collection offers 14 stories. Readers familiar with Wolffs two memoirs (This Boy’s Life and In Pharaoh’s Army) occasionally will find themselves in familiar Wolffian territory and time frames — the Pacific Northwest where Wolff grew up with his divorced mother; the Vietnam War, in which Wolff served; the Bay Area, where Wolff lived while he attended Stanford; snowy New York state where Wolff teaches.

I found that I could read only one or two of these stories in an evening. This inability to read more had nothing to do with story length or bedtime’s approach. Rather, the stories give themselves with such intensity that they wore me out. More precisely, I felt as if I’d been entertaining someone with big problems who sat down on my sofa and poured out without pause his heart-rending tale.

In the story “Firelight,” the narrator recalls his boyhood in Seattle. He lives alone with his mother. They are terribly poor. She says to him that before she married his ne’er-do-well father, she turned down a marriage proposal from a Yale All-American football player. The boy, insufficiently clad for the chilly wind through which he and his mother walk, is outraged. He thinks that had his mother married the Yalie, “I would be rich now, and have a collie. Everything would be different.” The morning that Mr. Wolff and I talked, he had just arrived in Boston, on the second stop in his book tour. I said to him that I couldn’t get those sentences out of my mind, that they had replaced for me Brando’s On The Waterfront plaint on what might have been — “I could have been a contender.”

But I wanted to ask Mr. Wolff about the short story, and I did. When he teaches the short story in a course in literature, he said, his concern was to break down his students’ preconceived ideas about short stories. “I bring in different kinds of stories and show how many things a story can be. The older I get the more infinite the possibilities of the story form seem to me to be. There is the story according to Chekhov, according to Tolstoy, according to Calvino, to Barthelme, to Carver, and take it on from there.”

What advice did he give student writers of stories?

“Not to be confined to any model or to any school of writing but to find those forms that are most expressive of whatever it is they have to say. Find their own music.”

How does working on a short story differ from doing a longer piece?

“A short story is a very challenging form, of course. You don’t have leisure. You can’t sit back and relax. To write in brief and to write effectively in brief is harder I think than to write at length, especially if you are ambitious for what you want to do in that brevity. That’s what makes the writing of a short story continually a pleasure and makes it exhilarating in the sense of taking on something difficult and doing it in what you hope is a new and interesting way.”

Short stories, I said, have a way of staying with me that novels don’t. Does that make sense to you?

“Well, it does, indeed. I think it is one of the appeals of the short story. I have that same feeling. Many novels do indeed stay with me, but in a very different way than stories. I remember them, as novels. Whereas a story so closely follows the form in which we record our memories that a story can also take on the quality of memory itself; so that it becomes much more intimate. As a reader, one tends to feel the story almost as a part of one’s past, whereas a novel, I think, tends to remain always a literary experience. The story, though, begins to feel like a personal experience.”

Critics praise Mr. Wolff s spareness. “Spare beauty” is a typical comment. Does he cut and cut and cut?

“My wife is always joking when she reads my rewritten things. ‘Well, you have to at least tell them where they are and what his name is.’ It’s a joke that I take out so much that I sometimes render things incomprehensible. But my instinct is definitely toward the essential. I want to get to the bone as quickly as I can. Exposition and flashback and authorial confidence and those sorts of things often can work against the velocity of the story. I prize that in a story. I like for a story to get where it’s going in a hurry.”

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