"Wolff's writing makes us recognize those aspects of ourselves that are hardest to acknowledge: our selfishness, our pride, our cowardice. But he also brings to light our potential for self-understanding and compassion." — The Believer
Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff was born in Birmingham, Alabama. His father was an aeronautical engineer, but also a pathological liar and con artist according to the 1979 memoir The Duke of Deception (Random House, 1979), written by Wolff's older brother, Geoffrey. As a result of one of these many deceptions, Wolff, who was raised a Catholic, did not discover until adulthood that his father was Jewish. His mother was a waitress and secretary known for her humor and determination. "If I'd known both my sons were going to be writers, I might have behaved differently," she once joked to Wolff (The Guardian).
Wolff's parents separated when he was young. His brother—who was seven and a half years older than Wolff—lived with his father; Wolff was raised by his mother in Florida, Utah, and Washington state. At the age of 10, Wolff changed his name to "Jack" after the author Jack London. He was an avid reader, idolizing writers like London, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and Anton Chekhov. He also loved writing stories. "I used to write them for friends of mine, to turn in for extra credit," he told The Missouri Review. "I never really made the connection between the things I read and the writing I was doing until I was a freshman in high school, when a friend of mine said to me one day, 'You should be a writer,' and the idea stuck."
Eager to escape rural Washington and life with his stepfather—experiences he recounts in his memoir This Boy's Life (Grove Press, 1989)—he won a scholarship to the Hill School, a prestigious academy in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. He loved the school but struggled there and was ultimately expelled because of failing grades in math. His first novel, Old School (Knopf, 2003), is based on these experiences. He told The Paris Review that the school granted him his diploma in 1990, "but only after the headmaster made sure to read a selection of Wolff's fictitious letters of recommendation to that year's commencement audience."
After working briefly on a ship, Wolff joined the U.S. Army in 1964. 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 (Knopf, 1994), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. After his discharge, he enrolled in Hertford College of Oxford University, where he earned a degree in English. 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. In the meantime, he did stints as a waiter, night watchman, high school teacher at a Catholic school for boys, and reporter for The Washington Post during Watergate. "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" (Boston Review).
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. "I'd always thought that as soon as I made enough money to give up teaching and just write, I would," Wolff told the Boston Review. "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." Known for his short story collections as well as his novels and memoirs, Wolff has received such honors as the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Rea Award for the Short Story, three O. Henry Prizes, two National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowships, and a 2014 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.
Wolff has been married to his wife since 1975. They have two sons and a daughter. "I find that all the best things in my life have come about precisely through the things that hold me in place: family, work, routine, everything that contradicts my old idea of the good life," Wolff told The Paris Review. "It's the gravity of daily obligations and habit, the connections you have to your friends and your work, your family, your place, even the compromises that are required of you to get through this life. The compromises don't diminish us, they humanize us."