Tobias Wolff traced his evolution from a boy captivated by books to prize-winning author for the Los Altos Morning Forum audience Feb. 15.
Wolff has authored a novel and edited several collections of short stories, but he is best known for his work in two genres: the memoir and the short story. He has won the O. Henry Award three times for his short stories. “This Boy’s Life: A Memoir” was made into the film “This Boy’s Life” (1993) starring Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin, with Leonardo DiCaprio at age 18 portraying Wolff.
“The first step to becoming a writer is to be a reader,” Wolff said. “I remember being huddled under the blankets with a flashlight reading Albert Payson Terhune. I loved those collies. Being able to see the world through the eyes and the mind of a dog captivated me. I read all his books.”
Wolff said the librarian noticed his selections and suggested he try Jack London.
“I was so enthusiastic that I changed my name to Jack,” he said. “I was writing all the time and began to try to imitate London’s style. I learned a writer reads differently. He notices the form, language, sense of character and voice.”
He next explored Hemingway.
“I read his outdoor books when I was 15,” Wolff said. “I probably didn’t understand the intricacies of the story.”
O. Henry was his next discovery, and Wolff found that his own short stories started to feature trick endings.
“You need to imitate until you find your voice,” he told the audience. “It’s just like listening to great music before you play. I assign my students an essay to be written in the style of Henry James,” he said. “One of the most difficult parts of writing a book is selecting names for your characters. They need to fit like a suit of clothes.”
Wolff named Leo Tolstoy as the final example of an author who influenced him as he developed his craft.
“‘Anna Karenina’ is filled with a personal tone. There are very human moments based on moral experience. It is filled with possibilities and contradictions,” he said.
Wolff is concerned about the false memoirs being published because they hurt the honest memoir writers, and some feed the Holocaust deniers. A memoir is biased in every story because “you” are the leading character. There is ongoing self-recognition.
His final advice: “Tell the truth.”
Wolff attended the University of Oxford, earned a master’s degree from Stanford University and was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing. He is the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford.
Morning Forum is a members-only lecture series held at Los Altos United Methodist Church. For more information, visit www.morningforum.com.