05/08/2013 by Stephen Silke
On 30 April and 1 May of 2013, short story writer and memoirist Tobias Wolff was a featured writer at Grossmont College’s Literary Arts Festival. In multiple speaking engagements he talked about his career, his short story books Our Story Begins and The Night in Question, and the books and writers that formed his literary sensibilities.
I came curious about the book The Night in Question. It contains two significant short stories, “Powder” and “Bullet to the Brain,” stories that have been widely anthologized, and are also as different from each other as two stories can be. I asked Wolff in the Q & A session if he chose his own work for that book or if an editor or publisher selected them. He said that he chose them, then stressed that, to him, the order of the stories is extremely important in each of his books. He added that most people don’t read short story books in order, that readers simply flip through the Table of Contents for the shortest one to read before bed time, but that he put great care in ordering his books, meant to be read front to back.
This plays out in The Night in Question in the sense that the short story “Powder,” located near the middle of the book, was less heavy-hearted, involving a drive through a snowed in area in an Austin Healey while exploring the relationship between a free-wheeling father and a responsible son. “Bullet in the Brain,” however, closed out that book and chronicles the death of Anders, a book critic, exploring the characters’ connections and disconnections with reality and an insular literary sensibility and what true beauty is.
Regarding the short story “Powder,” friend and fellow writer Marisol Benter noticed that Wolff made changes to it each time it appeared in print. The version that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine is different that the version anthologized and printed in The Night in Question. The story was changed yet again and a few lines expunged in Wolff’s more recent book Our Story Begins. He mentioned last Tuesday that Our Story Begins contained 10 stories that had been previously published in book form, and 10 “new” stories that had only been published previously in magazines. He opined that he “loves the process of shaping work” calling it “lapidary.”
In his lecture and reading Wednesday night, he went further saying that he liked the revision process even more than writing the first draft, claiming that it makes for a better story. He quoted poet Wallace Stevens on that point: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” adding that “very few things are hurt by cutting [that] much can be hurt by piling on [and that] generally speaking, we tend to overwrite.”
After the 45 minute lecture, he read from “Bullet in the Brain,” actively revising the story, cutting even a few paragraphs out and making edits on the fly. The story (spoiler alert if you haven’t read it) progresses from verbal and emotional externals toward the deep truth that makes his protagonist Anders’ life fraught with meaning.
The story begins as Anders finds himself in the middle of a bank robbery, and responds with sass, as it is just as cliche’d as a TV crime show. He employs the argot of an erudite book critic dispatching the criminals openly, then employs a brash insensitivity at the situation even while threatened by a gun to the cranium. As the bullet is fired, the story goes into medical jargon, and Wolff describes a clever list of all the things that didn’t go through Anders’ mind, zeroing in on a specific mysterious event in the critic’s boyhood that was particularly not high art, yet beautiful in his eyes.
The story is funny and visceral and bears an intense quality that is rarely found, and so ends Wolff’s book. Of course Wolff in the Q & A liberates himself from the implication that the Anders, the book critic in the story was one of his critics, instead he said that he is Anders “like Flaubert with Madame Bovary: ‘Bovary C’est moi.'” He said the story explores “an occupational hazard of writers,” how “it is very possible to become estranged from reality.”
Wolff wove his literary influences throughout the talk: James Joyce, Frank O’ Connor, Sherwood Anderson, Herman Melville, William Trevors, Tolstoy, Katherine Anne Porter, and managed to plug his new story “All Ahead of Them” due out soon in The New Yorker. I thought it odd that he didn’t talk about his peers, Raymond Carver (under Tom Lish), Robert Ford, and Tim O’Brien, who wrote in the same epoch, but perhaps these contemporaries were more friends rather than influences.