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Tobias Wolff's first novel "dips deep" into his own memories
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Author Tobias Wolff examines themes such as class, ambition and ethics in his novel "Old School." (Photo by Marion Ettlinger, courtesy of Random House)
You may have heard of author Tobias Wolff from his successful memoir, "This Boy's Life," which was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. He's also an accomplished short story writer. You may recognize his name because his brother, Geoffrey Wolff, is also a writer. Now, Wolff is out with his first novel, "Old School," which is the January selection of the Talking Volumes book club. Wolff says the story gave him the "ideal lens" through which to write about themes like class and ambition and ethics.

St. Paul, Minn. — "Old School" is set in a New England all-boys boarding school. It takes place in the heady first days of the Kennedy presidency, in, as one reviewer wrote, "The moment just before everything in America changed." "Old School" introduces us to a narrator who has learned to camouflage his working-class background by assuming the bearing and demeanor of his prep school peers.

Wolff, who told of his own transforming years at boarding school in his memoir "This Boy's Life," said while this work is certainly fiction, he "dipped deep" in his memories for a lot of it.

"I made sense of those memories through imagination, and giving it a fictional shape," Wolff said.

Wolff's fictional school is isolated and exclusive, and he wrote that it "crackled with sexual static." It's a place where the boys revere literature and idolize famous authors. They compete to write prose and poetry so elegant they'll be chosen to meet visiting writers.

"In this very isolated atmosphere of a boys' school, such things can take on an insanely hysterical character because you don't have the outside perspective," Wolff said. "It's the pea under the 28 mattresses -- things become really exaggerated in their importance to you."

In three detail-rich passages of the novel, Wolff describes the visits of poet Robert Frost, novelist Ayn Rand and author Ernest Hemingway. He says he immersed himself in the writers' works -- their biographies and letters -- so his portraits of them would be authentic.

"I just tried to slip their skins over mine, if you will, and to become them," said Wolff. "I didn't take their exact words. It isn't like a collage of words that they said. I really tried to become them during their appearances, and to say what I think they would've said and the way they would've said it."

In fact, Wolff says, these impersonations of writers he's admired for so long brought the greatest pleasure in writing the novel. Wolff says he doesn't think they would've minded.

"It was an act of impersonation that I felt was to some extent justified, in that each of these writers was very aware of herself or himself as a character, and manipulated their public images shamelessly," Wolff said.

In this very isolated atmosphere of a boys' school, such things can take on an insanely hysterical character because you don't have the outside perspective.
- Tobias Wolff

When Ayn Rand, author of "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged," visits the school, Wolff tells us of her morose, cigarette-smoking followers who come from Boston to hear her speak. Rand's philosophy of individualism and "rational self-interest" caused quite a stir over the course of her career.

Wolff portrays her as a waspish, impatient woman who disdains the "ask what you can do for your country" values of the day. Wolff says writing that scene was like "riffing off a piece of music."

"You get the basic chords, and then you take off and you do your solo -- and it doesn't necessarily follow the sheet music," Wolff said. "This was really the kind of pattern I used in doing it, and I loved doing it, actually."

Ask Tobias Wolff what he loves about the craft of writing, and he comes back to music -- saying literature, as with music, gives beauty to the world.

"We don't even question, I think, the necessity of, say, Beethoven's Archduke. What actual purpose can Beethoven's Archduke Trio be said to serve in the world?" said Wolff. "It doesn't propose a change in our agrarian policies, it doesn't heal the wounded. It doesn't do those things, but it brings something to our spirit that helps us survive."

Wolff says he knew he would be a writer as a teenager. A photograph of him -- first as a gangly Boy Scout and then as a serious Hill prep school student -- reveals little of the traumatic childhood disclosed in his memoir, "This Boy's Life." Tobias Wolff's father abandoned the family, and Wolff followed his mother through a series of violent relationships.

Wolff says as a kid, he retreated into books. Maybe that's why Star Tribune reporter Sally Williams, who interviewed Wolff in his California home for her profile, says he's a man who takes none of the rewards of his success for granted.

"He lives in a state of gratitude that sort of radiates from him. I think he understands that many of the turns of his life, though he is a self-made man in many ways, are ones for which he is eternally grateful," said Williams.

But his contentment, says Williams, doesn't diminish his drive -- the ambition that took him out of a remote town in the Pacific Northwest to the rarefied air of an exclusive boarding school -- and now to a successful career as a writer and professor at Stanford University.

"You get that sense when you are with him that he is propelled by something that is just unearthly," Williams said.

Wolff says the era of the boys's school, such as the one he attended, is over now -- a part of history. But plenty of all-boys schools are alive, and thriving. St. Thomas Academy, in the Twin Cities suburb of Mendota Heights, is one of them. At St. Thomas the classes are tough, the military code of conduct is strict and the bonds between the boys are tight.

On a recent day, St. Thomas students study Native American symbols in an English class, as their teacher Rebecca Benz watches. She read "Old School" over the holidays -- picked it up, she says, because she was curious about Wolff's take on boys' schools.

Benz says the fierce competition described in Wolff's novel is not something she sees in her own students. But she thinks Wolff understands this.

"I just think his style is beautiful, and that he just really probes what's going on in these boys' minds to an extent that I wouldn't have imagined," says Benz.

Tobias Wolff has traveled a long distance from his own days in that Pennsylvania boarding school, But he still asks himself the question so many writers do: "What am I doing? Am I serving some good in the world?"