Monday, April 28, 2008

Tobias Wolff - "Our Story Begins"

Tobias Wolff came to Kepler's on April 28. Bookseller/blogger extraordinaire, Terry Meagher, hosted the evening. In case you couldn't make it, here's how the evening went in Terry's words.~~

It's always interesting to contrast the store's peaceful atmosphere during those waning moments prior to closing - when the last handful of stubborn patrons are slowly lulled to the exit by that rhythmically croaking chorus of frogs that night manager Chuck insists on playing - with the energetic ambience of a packed house at one of our author events. I'm referring here not to that crazed excitement of a maddening, midnight-sale crowd at some big-box retailer, but rather to the civilized, expectant energy of a community of readers gathered to show its appreciation: in this case, for one of our foremost practitioners of the short story form, Tobias (a.k.a Toby) Wolff and his collection of new stories and selected classics "Our Story Begins".

Tobias arrived promptly at 7P and despite the darkly unnerving quality of his fiction, the author was hardly the brooding figure, but a rather robust, nearly "happy-go-lucky" kind'a guy. He made a pit stop in the Ordering department, merrily signing stock and discussing with Frank - our Head Buyer - the finer points of Denis Johnson's National Book Award winning novel Tree of Smoke (while I dutifully flapped book jackets to the title page).

I began with an introduction, highlighting a few of Toby's stories that particularly moved me, but was - and this is a first - interrupted at the mention of his new story "Her Dog" by the hand waving author himself "No further, please!" The censure was legit, as the story was one of two he planned to read that evening. (After a flustered moment or two, I regrouped, and the evening proceeded normally)

Tobias read two stories: "Say Yes", ostensibly a conversation about race between a husband and wife, and the aforementioned "Her Dog", an inventive narrative that evolves into an imagined dialogue between a dog and its negligent owner. Toby was quite forthcoming during Q&A. He spoke of the early influences on his decision to pursue writing. One inspiration was the author Albert Terhune, a writer who wrote a great many books all from the point of view of collie, stories that Toby, as a child, found fascinating (perhaps this explains the recurrence of dogs in his own stories). Also, he just loved to write stories as a kid, bartering with lazy classmates: "you write my story and I'll give you my lunch candy for a week" kind'a deals. His confidence was shaken when one of his ghost written stories received a "C" (a "C"?!) and quickly restored, enhanced even, when the teacher revealed she was simply punishing the student for cheating, knowing full well the exceptional story had been by Tobias.

Toby is attracted to the short story form because it allows him to work "under the illusion" of perfecting something. He is not unlike the sculptor; paring down, polishing until all that remains is the story's absolute essence. Unlike some other writers - Joyce Carol Oates, perhaps even Alexander McCall Smith? (see Bobbi Emel's event report of 4/22) - from whom the words just seem to flow endlessly and easily, Toby must constantly rewrite - which he actually loves - because at this point he is over his anxiety of getting the full idea of the story on paper. Toby also pointed out that once a story is published, out there in the world, it really does assume a life of its own; meanings and interpretations are now in the hands of readers. A high school teacher eagerly popped up from his chair and wanted to know about the symbolism of the wife's bleeding finger in "Say Yes" - "I tell my students it represents the idea that regardless of skin color we all bleed red". Toby is fine with this interpretation, though it was his intention that story be not about race at all, but rather about the wife discovering that her husband's love is conditional.

Bringing this same concentrated attention of short story writing to the novel is somewhat intimidating for Tobias. Old School took 4 1/2 years to write, and given Toby's "high sensitivity to mortality" he often feared "what if I'm struck by a bus? Two whole years of work for naught! Speaking of Old School, Toby went on at some length when someone posed a question about the novel's narrator, who apparently comes under the spell of that founder of Objectivism, philosopher Ayn Rand, author of the still briskly selling The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and the un-ironic Virtue of Selfishness. Toby admitted having been under the sway of the philosopher himself during his younger days, much to the consternation of friends. While Toby feels Rand perhaps originally had a point, he eventually dismissed the philosophy of the woman who proudly "has never been helped by anyone in my life" as ridiculous and somewhat mean-spirited. Read her biography, Toby said, and you'll see she was blatantly helped left and right all her life. (Apparently, the intransigent Ms. Rand was known to publicly reduce to tears her own supporters who - perhaps in an enlightened "What's wrong with this picture?" moment, dared to challenge her philosophical precepts. Tobias slyly mentioned that the Ayn Rand Institute itself eventually reasoned - coldly and correctly, of course - that it would be in the organization's own selfish, best interest if Ms. Rand cease all public engagement with her disciples, insisting she stick to pen and paper..... Alas, what a great blogger that Ms. Rand would have made!)

The signing went smoothly. Toby kindly offered to personalize books, even signing those stacks of backlist titles that a couple of deadly serious collectors brought in. (Even I had fun meeting our customers while writing out personalized messages on slips of paper - though I felt oddly waiter-like, my post-it pad and pen in hand, held up to my face, as I went through the long line, half wanting to say " and our Special tonight is "Our Story Begins...".) I also got to chat with Toby's friendly spouse, Catherine, while handing copy after copy of Old School, This Boys Life, etc., to Tobias to sign.

Terry (left) with Tobias Wolff (right)


Mark Coggins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Coggins said...


Nice job on the write-up and the introduction!

Here's another post on the signing which also includes a picture of Tobias:

Anonymous said...