This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff: A Look Back, Thirty Years Later

Steven S. Drachman: Hard to believe that it has been three decades (well, three decades and nine months) since the publication of This Boy’s Life, the memoir by Tobias Wolff, which told of his difficult childhood in the 1950s, and his own self-invention (“I was a liar,” he wrote. “I couldn’t help but try to introduce new versions of myself as my interests changed.”) Stuff happens in the book, of course, and the characters are vivid – especially the character known in the book as “Dwight,” the childish and insecure man who tormented young Toby during his brief reign of terror as the boy’s stepfather in a small industrial town, and side characters like “Arthur,” the “uncoolest boy in school,” to whom Toby is drawn – but the story is really about a boy deciding whom he will become. It made a great splash upon its publication – among other things, the book was turned into the movie that made Leonardo DiCaprio a movie star, in 1993. I interviewed Wolff for a New York Times story about the film’s release, in 1993, but I think now the longer conversation about the book itself might be interesting to the public, so here it is. The answers have been edited, the conversation refocused on the book, rather than the film, and the questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

DRACHMAN: Why did you decide to handle the writing of the book as nonfiction instead of doing a novelized version? I read a lot of your other stuff, which is autobiographical.

WOLFF: How do you know?

Because you said so in interviews.

(Laughs). Like what?

Like The Barracks Thief – your experience in Vietnam.

Well, actually, now, The Barracks Thief is not set in Vietnam. It’s set at Fort Bragg. And it was not autobiographical except that I used a setting in a life that I knew well. In that sense I suppose everybody’s fiction is autobiographical to some extent, but the events that I talk about there are not autobiographical to the extent that I was one of those three boys – that simply is not the case – but what is true is that I was a paratrooper and I was stationed at Fort Bragg waiting to go to Vietnam and I was an officer instead of an enlisted man. So I adapted things a lot. I was also an enlisted man there, but I wasn’t waiting to go to Vietnam at that time. So there’s a lot of alteration of the circumstances that would never allow me to call that a memoir.

I recall writing an attempt at a novel at one point and using things from my own life, and even thinking at one point, Better disguise that a little more. And I would think that writing a memoir like this you would have the same thoughts. Did you ever think of doing it as fiction?

Actually I did. Originally that was my intention. Years ago I tried writing one account of those years heavily fictionalized and actually I tried it more than once, and couldn’t ever get it to come to life.

What actually happened was I started writing some of these things down pretty straight from life just as I remembered it just to give myself a bank of experience that I could draw on later in my fiction. And I realized as I was kind of writing this stuff out more or less straight – although of course nothing is really “straight” in an artful construction like a memoir, that is things are even without the writer’s knowing it, certain things are emphasized, other things are not, there’s a compression of time and you’ve just changed the whole nature of experience by putting it into narrative. I mean, life doesn’t happen in sentences, and if you put in everything that happens you have overwhelming banality.

There’s a tremendous amount of editing that goes into the construction of any artful narrative, whether based on experience or largely invented. So there’s already a difference between memoir and real life, that’s why I don’t call it an autobiography, I call it a “memoir,” that is a story according to memory. Memory itself is a very imperfect recorder of experience. It’s very very subjective, obviously.

But, nevertheless, to get back to your original question, I didn’t call it a novel because it isn’t a novel. I never thought of it as a novel, I didn’t have I don’t think frankly it would be a good novel when I read it. Its interest for me – anybody can make this stuff up – but its interest for me is that it actually happened, and I believe that’s part of its interest for the reader as well. When I invent a lot from my personal experience I really do feel compelled to call something a novel or a short story. When I’m staying close to the truth as I remember it, I give up a lot of the prerogatives of the novelist, and the obligations of the novelist. For example, being fair. It’s a very unfair book. I do not try to be fair, in that I do not try to explain or understand or be compassionate about certain people whose behavior seemed to be at the time to be inexcusable or oppressive. There’s no attempt at objectivity in this or depth of compassion to those for whom at the time I did not feel compassion. So there are a lot of things you do differently in a memoir than in a novel.

How long did it take you to write this?

I worked on it for the better part of four years. Thinking about it, doing preliminary sketches, and that’s also counting a lot of the time I read it and thought about it. I was also writing some stories during that time as well, but I would say then a good 3 years of fairly concentrated writing on it. I write every day but I’m not as productive as I wish I were. I throw away most of what I write and come back to it again and again, so I don’t seem to have written as much as I had once hoped I would.

What was different about the final book – did it go through a lot of revision at the publisher?

Not really, no. I added another 15 pages but otherwise there wasn’t a lot of revision at all.

What was different from the final version as you wrote it that was different from what was in your head when you were starting it?

It’s hard for me to recapture the original design because once I’ve written it then the original design gets sort of lost. It’s fuller, I suppose, than I intended it to be. I had intended it to be more suggestive.

But the story really demanded to be fleshed out in a lot of ways. For example, in the first draft, I did not have any account of why it was that my mother and I ended up in Utah. I just started off with us there looking for Uranium as if they’d been dropped from Mars, which is kind of how I felt at the time. I was trying to recapture some of the sense of bewilderment and dislocation that a kid can have in a situation like that, a kid who doesn’t really know all the explanations for why he’s uprooted, and suddenly in another state halfway across the country. But it really didn’t work very well in the narrative so I had to give some accounting, some, I suppose, background to the situation that the mother and son were in, and a lot of things like that really came up where I had been holding back information. Information, explanation, background, flashback, I hate those things in fiction. They bore my socks off, especially my own, it bores me to write it, I’m much more in the present moment when I write fiction than going back over the past, it’s not a mode that’s congenial to me.

Now some writers obviously can do this with tremendous skill and without losing any of their velocity and without losing any of your sense of being in a present and consequential moment, but anyway, there was something of a departure for me to do that.

There are other things that I really don’t remember very well. I suppose too I cut out some things that seemed to me finally to be interesting to me only because they happened to me. I finally ended up using events that I recalled that seemed to have a pattern that helped me to understand how this person became who he was, you know, the endless forging of identity that goes on in the book and that’s the kind of thread that it’s about, and not as some readers seem to believe about my “hard life,” which I really never thought of as a particularly hard life.

It really is more about how somebody creates himself. And that’s the sort of unifying experience of the book that I put together in that final act of fiction in which he creates his own past in order to seize a future for himself that he thinks would be better than the one that would be given to him otherwise. Those things are the polestars of my reconstruction of the book through the first draft. Which nobody else saw, incidentally.

When I read it the first time, it struck me that it seemed as though it could be easily translated to the screen. Did you think that when you were writing it?

No, not at all. I in fact I didn’t think so and I was a little surprised that someone wanted to make a movie out of it because it seemed to me so utterly reliant on voice for its effect, and the voice is so untranslatable that it set me looking back at the book again to try to imagine how they were going to do it, because it doesn’t move so much by visual images and by episodes as – well, just to back up again, it’s the same thing, the debate that’s going on now, to the extent there is one, about A River Runs Through It. Some people seem to think the whole book’s been lost, because the quality of the voice has been lost in the filming. I haven’t seen the film, I have no idea one way or the other, but it is true that often the best movies are made from books in which voice is not an element at all, like, oh I don’t know, Day of the Jackal. If you actually read that book, it’s not interesting at the level of art. It’s got a neat plot that lends itself wonderfully to a movie, where time and again you see books like Lord Jim, incredibly sophisticated in their structure and in their music, which just cant make that transition to the screen because whatever it was that made that book interesting can’t be carried over. I had a suspicion that would be true of my book.

In fact, my very decision to write it as a memoir seemed to me at the time to probably restrict the audience somewhat. It’s probably that if I wanted a lot of readers I’d do better to call it a novel and whatnot, but there wasn’t really much of an appetite for this kind of thing at the time. I think there is more now. But I was writing it out of a sense of personal necessity to some extent, and then as I was writing it out of the sense that it was making a hell of an interesting story. And it might be interesting to other people too.

But I don’t have visions of movies dancing in my head when I write, I couldn’t write that way. The question is as I know from all my friends who have deal with this is once you sell it, you lose all control over it, and its just preposterous that you can dictate what the outcome will be like.

Finally, the money talked louder than my doubts and so we sold it to Warner Bros.

Were you worried when you were writing it about the people you were writing about? I don’t know if you know whatever happened to Dwight?

He died. Interestingly enough just a few days before they started filming. I hope the events weren’t connected.

But I had no contact with that family for all the 30 years after we left Washington State, except a time shortly after when he followed my mother back east with the intention of killing her. Otherwise my last sight of him was in Washington, DC in police custody. But other than that I have never seen any of the children since and I never saw him again. As far as being worried about what people might think about what I said about them, my approach was this: I would be absolutely as honest about myself as I would be about them. In other words, I wouldn’t hold them to a standard that I wasn’t holding myself to. And if I can take the heat, then they can too. They’re going to have to.

I’m not a fabulist like Italo Calvino for example, and I draw my material from my life, not that everything I write is autobiographical, but my material very much depends on the life I’ve lived and the people I’ve known, and for me to worry to the extent that it became prohibitive would utterly disable me as a writer, and I won’t allow that to happen.

Did you hear from anyone?

Oh yeah, lots of people. In fact, the character called Arthur in the book – I didn’t call anybody by their real name except myself, my mother and my brother and my father, but everybody else’s name I changed, and to tell you the truth, I even changed the name of the village I lived in in Washington State. I wasn’t trying to get revenge.

The way I found out [that Dwight had died] was his children showed up at the movie set in Concrete, Washington – that is a name I did not make up. My mother and I had had a trunk stolen with all our family pictures in it many many years ago, and his children were very friendly to me and my mother, there was never any bad blood there, and they were very curious about the project, and they are even in the movie, I believe they are in a basketball scene. And they met the actors and actresses who are playing them in the movie, toured the set and [showed] the director of the movie all these pictures from the old days, then consequently my stepbrother had those pictures copied and sent them to me so we had a little correspondence after all these years.

What did Arthur think?

He liked the book a lot. And didn’t seem to dispute anything, didn’t seem to find any of it inaccurate. You know I admired him a lot, as I came to write the book and remembered what an incredibly independent person he was at a time and a place that was not hospitable to that kind of eccentricity. And he was very courageously himself always. He is still an extraordinary character.

Did anybody have qualms about the book?

Not that I know of. No one has said so to me. Now, you know, by way of his children as they told people on the set that my stepfather really hated the book. But of course he did! He was supposed to hate it!


Steven S. Drachman is the author of Watt O’Hugh and the Innocent Dead, which is available in trade paperback from your favorite local independent bookstore, from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and on Kindle. Tobias Wolff is the author of numerous acclaimed short stories and other works.