Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff was born on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama. His father, Arthur, was an aeronautical engineer but also a pathological liar and supreme con artist, as detailed in the 1979 memoir The Duke of Deception, by Tobias's older brother, Geoffrey. As a result of one of these many deceptions, Tobias, who was raised and remains a Catholic, did not discover until adulthood that his father was Jewish. His mother, Rosemary Loftus Wolff, a waitress and secretary, was a woman of spirit, resilience, and great intelligence, who met the many reverses in her life with humor and determination.
Wolff's parents separated when he was very young. He was raised by his mother in Florida, Utah, and Washington state. Eager to escape rural Washington and life with his mother's second husband (experiences vividly recounted in his memoir This Boy's Life), he won a scholarship to the Hill School, a prestigious academy in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. He loved the school but struggled because of his poor academic background. Ultimately, he was expelled because of failing grades in math.
In 1964, Wolff joined the U.S. Army. He spent a year learning Vietnamese, and then served in Vietnam as a paratrooper. Out of these experiences came his second memoir, In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War (1994). After his discharge in 1968, he enrolled in Hertford College of Oxford University, where he earned a degree in English in 1972. In 1975, he earned a master's degree in English from Stanford University, where he was also awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing.
Wolff taught at Syracuse University in New York from 1980 to 1997. The novelist Richard Ford and the short-story writer Raymond Carver were among his friends and colleagues. Since 1997, Wolff has taught English and creative writing at Stanford University, where he holds the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods professorship in the School of Humanities and Sciences. Among his honors are the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and three O. Henry Awards. In 2015, Wolff received the National Medal of Arts.
Tobias Wolff married Catherine Spohn, a social worker, in 1975. They have two sons and a daughter.
"There is a need in us for exactly what literature can give, which is a sense of who we are, beyond what data can tell us, beyond what simple information can tell us; a sense of the workings of what we used to call the soul."
—Tobias Wolff, from Stanford Today interview
On January 5, 2008, Dana Gioia, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, interviewed Tobias Wolff at his office at Stanford University. Excerpts from their conversation follow.
Dana Gioia: Would you characterize Old School as an autobiographical novel in any sense?
Tobias Wolff: The events of the novel are themselves, to some extent, autobiographical, in that as a boy of that age I was in such a school. The school that I went to was like this one, a very literary place. Edmund Wilson had gone there, and I heard Robert Frost there. There was a great sense of excitement, always, around the visits of these writers, around the literary magazine, about trying to get stories published or even to get on the editorial board. In some schools, of course, it would be the football team, and football was no small thing at this school either. So my somewhat vague ambition of being a writer really became solidified there. The actual events of my time there would not have lent themselves to a memoir. I was certainly aware in bringing this forward in this voice, in this situation, that a lot of readers familiar with either or both of my memoirs would make assumptions about this being, in fact, a memoir disguised as a novel. And I really didn't mind that.
DG: As a fiction writer you've been most associated with the short story. What for you, imaginatively or creatively, are the differences between writing a short story and writing a novel?
TW: When you write a short story you at least have some confidence you're going to be able to finish it! From the time I first put words to page on this book and the time Old School actually was published, it was five-and-a-half years. Aesthetically I can't say that I find the experience that much different—the kind of pressure you put on yourself to get the right voice, to write the sentence perfectly, to rewrite, to rewrite, to rewrite—all that is similar. Really, in each case it's mainly going to the desk every day. I often am quite mystified about what I'm going do when I sit down. And the work teaches me how to write it as I go. My first drafts would really make you wonder, if you saw them, why I ever chose this line of work. Revision is crucial to my work.
DG: One of the strokes of genius in Old School is that at the very end, just when you think the story's over, it continues with a twist in another voice. Did you have this coda in mind when you began the book?
TW: No, but it was important, I think, because although the narrator talks about writing, we never really see him writing anything, and we don't get any of his stories. He's always talking about telling other people's stories and telling us what this friend wrote and what that friend wrote, but where's his story? Finally he tells a story. He is, after all, a writer.
DG: Do you have any thoughts on the human purposes of fiction?
TW: Fiction gives us a place to stand outside ourselves and see our lives somehow being carried on, to see the form that our lives take in some apprehensible way. Most of the time, experience washes over us moment by moment, in a way that makes it difficult to discern the form in lives––the consequences that choices have that will only appear years later, in many cases. Fiction shows us those things in a kind of apprehensible form and something we can comprehend, and see, and actually feel. We kind of see our lives almost acted out in front of us in miniature. And that's both exciting and also often very chastening, I think.
"The fact that a writer needed solitude didn't mean he was cut off or selfish. A writer was like a monk in his cell praying for the world..."
—from Old School