Best known for his short stories and his autobiographical writing, Tobias Wolff riveted readers and held them fast with This Boy's Life, a groundbreaking literary memoir that redefined the genre for an entire generation.
Although Tobias Wolff has described his own youthful self as a liar and an imposter, he has achieved in his writing a level of honesty so unflinching it is almost painful to read. The author of two groundbreaking literary memoirs and several volumes of autobiographical fiction (short and long), Wolff is not just willing to lay bare his pretenses and self-deceptions; he feels an obligation to do so. Like Rumpelstilskin, he has spun experience, memory, and a remarkable gift for storytelling into literary gold.
Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Wolff barely knew his largely absent father, a man he and his older brother Geoffrey (also a writer) have described as a con artist and a compulsive liar. While he was still young, Wolff's parents officially split up. Geoffrey went to live with his father; Tobias stayed with his mother, who moved around from state to state in a steady, westerly progression that finally landed them in Washington. Never a good judge of character where men were concerned, his mother married an abusive martinet who made her son's life miserable. Wolff recounted his misspent, miserable youth in This Boy's Life, a groundbreaking 1989 memoir that later became a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro.
Wolfe escaped his troubled home environment by falsifying an application to a private boys' school in the East and fabricating a resumé so remarkable it got him in. He flunked out before graduating, enlisted in the military, and was sent to Vietnam -- an experience he chronicled in a second memoir, In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War, published in 1994. When he was discharged from service, he visited England, fell in love with the country, and studied, with the help of tutors, to gain entrance to Oxford. He graduated with honors in 1972 and received a scholarship to Stanford, where he received his master's degree.
A three-time winner of the O. Henry Award, Wolff is widely respected for his short stories. His first collection, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, was published in 1981 and received rave reviews from such past masters of the genre as Annie Dillard and Joyce Carol Oates. Subsequent anthologies have only served to solidify his reputation as a preternaturally gifted storyteller. His 1984 novella The Barracks Thief won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction; and in 2003, he published his first novel, Old School, a shrewdly observed, heavily autobiographical coming-of-age tale set in an elite boys' boarding school.
Nearly as famous for his teaching as for his books, Wolff served on the faculty of Syracuse University for 17 years before accepting a position at Stanford in 1997 as a professor of English literature and creative writing. He is also a crackerjack editor and has shepherded several short story anthologies through to publication.
Good To Know
Leonardo DiCaprio beat out 400 hopefuls from Los Angeles, New York, Florida, and all places in between to star as Tobias Wolff in the film version of This Boy's Life.
Separated at a young age by their parent's divorce, Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff both grew up to become successful writers. Geoffrey's 1979 memoir of life with his con-artist father is called The Duke of Deception.
In an interview with The Boston Book Review, Tobias Wolfe discussed the phenomenon of selective memory this way: " Memory is something that you do; it is not something that you have. You remember, and when you remember you bring in all the resources of invention, calculation, self-interest and self-protection. Imagination is part of it too."