Thursday, March 5, 2009

Wolff Wins The Story Prize

Last night the winner of The Story Prize was announced: Tobias Wolff, for his collection Our Story Begins. Each of the finalists -- Wolff, Jhumpa Lahiri (Unaccustomed Earth), and Joe Meno (Demons in the Spring) -- read from their books and discussed their work at the ceremony before the winner was announced. The $20,000 award Wolff received, in addition to an engraved silver bowl, is the largest first-prize amount of any annual U.S. book award for fiction. Lahiri and Meno each received $5,000.

Judges Daniel Menaker (veteran editor -- The New Yorker and Random House -- and author of two short story collections and and a novel), Rick Simonson (long-time bookseller at The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle), and Hannah Tinti (author of Animal Crackers, a short story collection, and The Good Thief, a novel) cited Wolff’s work for its sense of detail and its humanity: “The previously uncollected pieces by Wolff in this new collection show an increasingly severe insistence on the most telling and specific detail as the author creates entire worlds, entire life stories, out of eloquent molecules of narrative. The emotional impact of these lapidary stories is specific and powerful.” They went on to say: “It is this great sense of the human condition, combined with the close detailing of everyday life that makes Tobias Wolff such an exceptional writer. He deserves The Story Prize, not only for his early work showcased in Our Story Begins, that many of us have studied and read and learned from in the past, but for the ten new stories included, that show he is still at the top of his game.”

Tobias Wolff was born June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama. He spent much of his adolescence in the Skagit River Valley area of Washington State. Wolff has been a professor of English and Creative Writing at Stanford since 1997 and was director of the Creative Writing Program there from 2000 to 2002. Prior to teaching at Stanford he taught at Syracuse University (1980 to 1997).

Wolff has written two novels, two memoirs, and several collections of short stories. His brother, Geoffrey Wolff, is also a professor (UC-Irvine) and author of fiction and memoir. Their mother was once quoted as saying "If I'd known both of my sons were going to be writers I might have behaved differently."

Wolff's first memoir, This Boy's Life -- about his adolescence -- was made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Ellen Barkin. His second memoir, In Pharaoh's Army, chronicles his tour of duty in Vietnam.

But what Wolff is best known for are his short stories. He published his first collection, In the Garden of North American Martyrs, in 1981. His novella The Barracks Thief won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1985. His other short story collections are Back in the World and The Night in Question. Our Story Begins, published in 2008, includes both new stories and stories from previous collections. Unlike some authors, Wolff isn't reluctant to tinker with his older stories, altering texts or changing titles: "I have never regarded my stories as sacred texts."

Wolff decided around age 14 or 15 to become a writer, "and never for a moment since have I wanted to do anything else." In an interview with Joan Smith for, he talked about teaching and writing, and especially about writing short stories.

"There's a joy in writing short stories, a wonderful sense of reward when you pull certain things off." "The best stories seem to be perhaps closer in spirit to poetry than to novels....Everything has to be pulling weight in a short story for it to be really of the first order....A novel invites digression and a little relaxation of the grip, because a reader can't endure being held that tightly in hand for so long."

Although Wolff teaches writing seminars, he says he doesn't think writing can be taught, that in his writing seminars he tries to "help people become the best possible editors of their own work, to help them become conscious of the things they do well, of the things they need to look at again, of the wells of material they have not even begun to dip their buckets into." He also noted that he prefers teaching literature over writing because he doesn't have to be so careful of people's feelings when teaching lit as when teaching writing: "I have to be honest, of course, but I have to be sure that my honesty comes in a form that is not destructive because it can very easily become so."

I've long been a fan of Tobias Wolff -- I remember being completely bowled over the first time I read one of his short story collections. If you haven't yet read anything by Wolff, you have a huge treat in store -- go for it!

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