By Ygal Kaufman
Tobias Wolff, 68-year-old professor at Stanford, famed novelist, memoirist and short story writer, will be at Oregon State University on May 22nd, to give a reading and talk. The day before, he’ll be in Portland receiving the Stone Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement, a biennial award endowed by Patrick and Vicki Stone.
The award is $20,000 and according to the Stone website, “Recipients of the Stone Literary Award will give readings, master classes and lectures in both Corvallis and Portland, highlighting the value of creative communication in contemporary American culture. In conjunction with the prize, an ‘Everybody Reads’ program will feature a selected book by the writer, with events at libraries, book clubs and independent bookstores.”
I spoke with Wolff over the phone from his office in Palo Alto.
He says he was surprised by the notification of his Stone Award win when he received the call about four months ago. “I had no idea at all that this was coming. I was there [Corvallis] must have been about 10 years ago, I was there to meet a class, a couple classes actually, did a workshop, gave a reading, it’s a beautiful place,” he said.
He was casual about his readings, which he’ll be giving in Portland and Corvallis.
“I usually make up my mind what I’m gonna read about 10 minutes before, and I do it by instinct.”
Cool about it, like an Elmore Leonard character.
I asked him about how he thinks the business has changed, especially over his years teaching young writers.
“Short story collections were very, very hard to place, and that’s still true. For short story writers, it’s pretty tough, and there are even fewer journals now to place your story in, so if that’s your particular calling, you had better be doing it or for the love of it. You’re not going to get rich at it, that’s for sure,” he said,
“It’s something you do because you really almost have no choice.”
Speaking about young writers, he says “It’s like learning an instrument. To develop a style that is your own, that is the right style for the stories or the novels you want to write, you have to work at it, like anything worth doing. But we’re very impatient, we want results right away, and we want to be good right away.”
Patrick Stone, the benefactor of the award, is a Vietnam vet, as is Wolff. I asked him about the writing that comes out of periods of war.
“World War II literature really wasn’t, uh… It took well into the 50s for us to begin to get a sense for the literature that war produced and it actually went on into the 70s and 80s. And I expect these wars will do the same.”
Asked about his future plans, Wolff is open, to a point.
“I’m working on a novel.”
Can you tell us what it’s about?
“Nope, I never do. I never talk about a work in progress, never.”
And what about critics? Does he read them? He answers by quoting Hemingway.
“If you believe the good things the sons of bitches say about you, you’ll have to believe the bad things the sons of bitches say about you.”
Tobias Wolff accepts the Stone Award on Wednesday, May 21 at the Portland Art Museum at 7:30 p.m., and will do an onstage interview. On Thursday, May 22 he’ll do a reading and reception at CH2M Hill Alumni Center at OSU, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.