The Rumpus Interview with Geoffrey Wolff

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First-time readers of Geoffrey Wolff’s A Day at the Beach might be surprised to learn that most of it was composed during the Bush Administration—the first Bush Administration, that is. Thanks to the efforts of one of Wolff’s biggest fans, Ann Patchett, the collection of autobiographical essays has been freshly reissued after almost a quarter century. But there is nothing dated about these brilliant, moving, and frequently hilarious recollections, which trace a loosely chronological course from Wolff’s “apprenticeship” as a writer of pretentious love letters (and obituaries for the Washington Post), to his time teaching English literature in Turkey (and partying with James Baldwin in Istanbul), to his middle-aged adventures in fatherhood, open heart surgery, mountain climbing, and long-distance sailing. As Patchett says in her introduction to the new edition, every writer hears the commandment to “write what you know,” but few have combined the daring to live as richly with the skill to reflect as thoughtfully on those experiences as Wolff.

A particular treat in this new version—and, perhaps, an enticement to those who read the original printing—is the added essay, “Heavy Lifting.” Among other things, it recounts the fateful summer Wolff reconnected with his then-teenaged brother, Tobias. Yeah, that Tobias Wolff. Most people would agree that the younger of the Brothers Wolff has achieved more fame as a writer. (When Leonardo DiCaprio plays you in the movie adaptation of your childhood memoir, it’s safe to say you’re pretty damn famous.) But “Heavy Lifting” touchingly shows the beginnings of what has become a lifelong friendship, as the reunited siblings bond over books, music, and “the babes” on San Diego’s beaches—all while their conman father languishes in an insane asylum a few miles away. The piece also goes a long way towards proving the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction. You simply can’t make certain things up—like the fact that two of our country’s most respected autobiographers are not only related, they were both fathered by a man who completely fabricated his own life history.

Geoffrey Wolff spoke with me by phone from his home in Maine.

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The Rumpus: Several of the essays in this book deal with fatherhood, especially your relationship to your father, Duke. He’s a fascinating character. He was constantly trying to pretend he was someone else, but it seems like he was also a genuine, even charming person, at least with members of his family. 

Geoffrey Wolff: One of the chief characteristics of my father’s charm was that, for all the fact that he was trying to leave the impression that he was somebody grander than he was, his style was to not take himself seriously. That was the authentic thing to him. He had a lack of solemnity and self-importance. And I learned that from him.

He was very quick to laugh at himself. And I’ve always found that there’s very little that I can do with the things that have caused me pain in life other than to laugh at them. I hate solemnity and piety.

Rumpus: That’s very apparent in this collection. There is a moment in “Heavy Lifting,” where you are in the middle of recalling that uncomfortable summer with your brother and your father and you stop yourself and say, “But there I go getting gothic on you.”

Wolff: These things are being written after-the-fact, and we all survived that summer. So when I might be tempted to turn to lamentations, I have to remind myself that this happened but it’s over now.

I learned a lot from Toby on this, in particular from one story he wrote, which was a kind of offshoot to This Boy’s Life. It’s called “Smorgasbord.” It’s about a schoolboy and he’s talking about some girl he had a crush on and he begins to make fun of himself and the kinds of love letters he wrote. And he stops himself in that story and suddenly speaks as the author, and I remember the actual phrasing he uses, he says it’s easy enough to turn “wintry gazes” on what we were once.

He’s saying that it’s too easy to do that but that, in fact, those powerful feelings you used to have when you were fourteen or fifteen years old have as much integrity as anything you could make of them now. They were perhaps not as well expressed or as emotionally articulate as they might have been, but they were real things. And that’s the place that I want to inhabit when I write about my life. These things happened, they were huge, but the same kinds of things were huge for everybody. Everybody has their heart broken when they’re fourteen years old.

Rumpus: And yet, not everybody had a father who was a fraud and who uprooted his family over and over again.

Wolff: That is so. That is obviously a peculiarly unbalancing thing to experience. But god knows, I’ve met plenty of people who’ve said, “I never really knew who my father was,” or that their father kept things from them by omission. But to be systematically lied to is a different thing.  And it had a consequence on the way I came at telling his story, because I couldn’t rely on anything.

When I wrote about him [in the memoir The Duke of Deception], I turned often to documents. I had to have some sort of piece of wood to hang on to. His father was a public enough figure in Hartford that he had a lot written about him. That’s how I found my family, through the Hartford Courant.

Toby was different. He wasn’t of an age where Duke had much influence on him. So when he came to remember what his childhood was, he relied completely on his memory. But mine is constantly being modified by things I’ve learned as opposed to what I remembered. That leaves its mark on the page. And my style, for better or for worse, is to leave the traces of my search for what I want to say on the page, trying to get the right word or right fact.

Rumpus: I think that openness about your own uncertainty allows you to access—and depict—some very painful memories and experiences. Recounting some of the things you do would have been emotionally devastating for a lot of people.

Wolff: The experience of doing it was more exhilarating than painful for me.

Rumpus: Really? How so?

Wolff: I had to learn while I was doing it that the most painful scenes with my father required me to think about his point of view.

In any narrative the I, I, I, me, me, me is completely self-destructive, so when you make the decision to inhabit these scenes as you would do for a novel or a short story, you have to think of the other characters involved and understand what they’re seeing. That’s the part that was exhilarating because it brought them back to life. I’d get angry at him sometimes, but there were many things that made me laugh.

Rumpus: Your humor also allows you to access risky emotional territory. The funniest pieces in this collection are also the most alarming. I think I laughed the most while I was reading the title essay, which is about you having a near-fatal heart attack.

Wolff: I wrote “A Day at the Beach” while I was recuperating from my surgery. I finished writing it within six months of the time it happened. That’s very unusual for me. It was, dare I say, fun, because I had a kind of outside picture of myself that amused rather than shamed me.

Rumpus: Another very funny piece is “Matterhorn,” about how you took up mountain climbing after your heart attack.

Wolff: Yes. Travel and Leisure said they wanted someone to write about Gstaad or about Zermatt. They were interested in the expensive hotels, and the piece I turned in was the last thing they ever commissioned from me. It wasn’t exactly what they’d had in mind.

Rumpus: Have you climbed any more mountains lately?

Wolff: No. I was doing some climbing in California and then I had to go under the knife again, so that put an end to that. I can’t even ski anymore, I’m afraid. I can still sail, at least, but I hobble around on a goddamn cane.

Rumpus: In “Matterhorn,” you call mountain climbing “deep play.” That term goes back to Jeremy Bentham and describes activities that are so risky, it seems almost irrational to partake in them.

It struck me that writing, especially the kind of introspective, autobiographical work that you engage in, could be a form of deep play. Your style is definitely playful, but it also takes a lot guts to explore your own past. There’s always a chance that you’ll fall off the side of the mountain.

Wolff: Sure. I talked to Frank Conroy about this, actually. When a book is finished, when it’s about to be published and read by strangers, that’s when the trembling comes, when you think, My god, what have I told people here? It is terrifying. All you’ve got to do is read a couple of really bad memoirs and you’ll realize it’s the most terrifying way of shaming yourself in the world.

I’m thinking of Norman Podhoretz’s Making It. Here is a guy who obviously thinks that the only reason anybody writes books or reads books is to get closer to rich people, and assumes that everyone is just like him. And then you read a book like Mommy Dearest and you think, What were they thinking? So of course, it’s full of risk. But that’s not to say that it makes me feel brave to do it.

Rumpus: What do you hate about Mommy Dearest? That it’s so overwrought?

Wolff: Yes. There isn’t anything circumstantial about it. It’s like being hit by a tidal wave. It’s all happening to her, happening to her, happening to her.

There’s an autobiography by a man named Mark Harris called Best Father Ever Invented. Mark Harris was a pretty good novelist. He wrote a wonderful baseball novel called Bang the Drum Slowly. And he decided to write a memoir about being a father and, in it, he describes breaking his three-year-old son’s arm with a coat hanger because the kid had bothered him while he was writing, and then goes on to say something like, “All of you have done things like that and I forgave myself.”

He has no idea what he’s saying, and I think anybody who’s trying to get things right is in that risky territory for a long time during the narrative.

Rumpus: Your issue with that scene is that, in his depiction, it was all about him and his own suffering as a writer instead of about the kid whose arm he just broke?

Wolff: Yes. It’s the context. And the context of that scene is how hard it is to write a book. The kid bothered him when he was finally on a roll in his writing and [the arm-breaking] was an incidental thing to that.

Rumpus: Wow. That’s awful. I think most people assume that autobiographical writing brings the author to a new level of self-recognition or understanding. But it seems like what you’re saying is that bad memoir writing actually generates less self-awareness.

Wolff: That’s true, and it’s especially true when the first person begins to overwhelm every part of it. When you just remember how hard it was for you, how bad it was. The woe-is-me story.

Rumpus: Good memoir writing focuses more on other characters than the author, is that it?

Wolff: That is exactly what I think. I was just on a cruise in Australia and New Zealand with my older son and my two grandchildren, an eleven-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl, Rosemary. Rosemary is a memoirist. Her subject is the sociology of her classmates in the third grade—what they wear, what they say, who the boys are, which boys are stupid and why, which teachers are unfair and why.

When she told these stories, they were always about other people. She didn’t say, I went to school and I felt so lonely or I hadn’t done my homework. The stories always had other people in them, and yet they were completely autobiographical. I was learning exactly what her tastes are, her likes and dislikes. I’d sit for hours with her and listen. I know all about her friend Olivia and how good her cartwheels are, and the horrible boy to whom she said, “This is so over.”

Rumpus: The power of her stories is the power of her observations, which is what gives you access to her character.

Wolff: Exactly. It populates the world. 

Rumpus: Your brother, of course, is a pretty good memoirist himself, but both of you move back and forth between autobiography and fiction quite comfortably. Take Tobias’s story, “Smorgasbord,” which you referenced earlier. It’s hard to tell exactly whether it should be read as a fictional short story or as autobiography.

Wolff: That story started out as part of This Boy’s Life. But when he decided to end the book before he goes to The Hill School, he changed the autobiography into a short story, which is substantially different. Toby is very conscious of the line between the two things.

When he wrote In Pharaoh’s Army, about his time in Vietnam, his first instinct was to write a novel. But he realized at some point that he didn’t feel that he had a right to the characterizations he was making about his made-up characters. In other words, he hadn’t earned his way to them on the page. And so, he decided that he would just write long letters to himself about what he had experienced. Once he started doing that, he realized that he wanted to tell it as truly as he could.

Rumpus: Is that how you decide whether to write something as fiction or nonfiction, too? If you don’t feel like you’ve “earned your way” to what you’re trying to say, do you use memoir to depict the very process of doing so, or trying to anyway?

I’m thinking about the subject of your father in particular. You’d written about him before in The Duke of Deception and the novel Bad Debts, and you return to him in several essays in this collection.

Wolff: Bad Debts was a novel about a con man. Black comedy had certainly made an imprint on me at the time. You can see traces of Bruce Jay Friedman and Heller and certainly Stanley Elkin in it. So it came out sort of as a cartoon, and I wrote The Duke of Deception from the point of view that I’d screwed the story up and trivialized it. And maybe I taught myself a lesson I didn’t mean to teach myself—that fiction seemed to me to be inauthentic, too hastily and loosely imagined.

Rumpus: You and your brother were separated for a long period after your parents split up, but you seem quite close now. 

Wolff: It’s been a lot of fun. I don’t want to speak for Toby, obviously, but the thing we have in common is that we were both on the move so much as kids, and the place that our mother would dump us is the library. It was sort of free daycare.

Our mother wasn’t bookish. But she certainly encouraged us to read, because it kept us out of her hair. Libraries were free and she could be confident that we would be safe there.

Rumpus: “Heavy Lifting,” is about the summer you reconnected with him. Did you really give him daily reading and writing assignments during that time?

Wolff: I’m afraid I did. I think I was practicing teaching on him. And I was so full of the sanctity of the word and so forth, so serious about it. Toby didn’t really have anything better to do with his time and I suppose it was partly to keep him out of trouble, though I’m not sure I succeeded all the way in that.

Rumpus: Do you think your tutoring had a positive effect in the end?

Wolff: He has said so. He’s been very sweet about that.

I’m seven years older, which is a pretty big gap, so we didn’t really talk about what we were reading together until he was at Oxford. [We’re] perfectly willing to go vulgar. You wouldn’t confuse us with Susan Sontag. It’s not all Proust and Kafka. And we keep bouncing books off each other. That’s been a great part of having him as a brother.

We talked last night and got to laughing about Peyton Place, which came out in the fifties. He had just read a biography of Grace Metalious, who was sort of the Danielle Steel of her time. It was hot stuff. And they made a terrible movie out of it.

Rumpus: What are some of the other guilty pleasures that you guys share?

Wolff: We have an unquenchable appetite for vulgar comics and humor. I think I’m the master of all that Funny or Die has surveyed. I’m a great Zach Galifianakis fan and Will Ferrell, though we were both a little let down by the new Ron Burgundy movie.

You know, we might be talking about The Wire, which I think is one of the great novels of our time, but at the same time, we’ll talk about A Dance to the Music of Time, these novels of manners in England. And we both share an enthusiasm for Edward St. Aubyn. We talk about him a lot. So it’s a grab bag.

Rumpus: Do you guys share drafts of your writing?

Wolff: Well, for me, there’s been a lot less to show recently, but absolutely. We have little short-hands we use, like “Mute the violin here.” But, also, when you’re building to a climax of comprehension, there’s a tendency on my part anyway to let rhetoric roll me along a bit, and he hears that at once.

Rumpus: What an incredible resource for both of you, to have an editor who knows you so well.

Wolff: I’ll say. We can both hear the false clink of something. You know, a coin that’s not made of what it’s supposed to made of. We can hear that and call each other on it. He certainly can hear when I’m putting on a long face or pulling on my beard about something.

I’m a great Red Sox fan and my favorite player is Dustin Perdroia, the second baseman. I was telling Toby that he might just be my favorite baseball player ever. He asked me, “What is it about him?” and I said, “He’s got this amazing work ethic.” Toby started breaking up, and he said, “I never thought I’d live long enough to hear my brother commend somebody for their work ethic.” He immediately heard the bullshit in it.


J.B. Powell is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. His first novel, The Republic, is available from Livingston Press. More from this author →