The Big Read Blog (Archive)


December 11, 2008
Washington, DC

New to The Big Read list this year is the novel Old School by Tobias Wolff, a noted author of novels, short fiction, and memoir. In this interview excerpt from the Old School Reader?s Guide Wolff talks about the purpose of fiction and how the writing of a novel differs from writing short stories.

NEA: As a fiction writer you?ve been most associated with the short story. What for you, imaginatively or creatively, are the differences between writing a short story and writing a novel?

WOLFF: When you write a short story you at least have some confidence you?re going to be able to finish it! From the time I first put words to page on this book and the time Old School actually was published, it was five-and-a-half years. Aesthetically I can?t say that I find the experience that much different -- the kind of pressure you put on yourself to get the right voice, to write the sentence perfectly, to rewrite, to rewrite, to rewrite -- all that is similar. Really, in each case it?s mainly going to the desk every day. I often am quite mystified about what I?m going to do when I sit down. And the work teaches me how to write it as I go. My first drafts would really make you wonder, if you saw them, why I ever chose this line of work. Revision is crucial to my work.

NEA: Do you have any thoughts on the human purposes of fiction?

WOLFF: Fiction gives us a place to stand outside ourselves and see our lives somehow being carried on, to see the form that our lives take in some apprehensible way. Most of the time, experience washes over us moment by moment, in a way that makes it difficult to discern the form in lives -- the consequences that choices have that will only appear years later, in many cases. Fiction shows us those things in a kind of apprehensible form and something we can comprehend, and see, and actually feel. We kind of see our lives almost acted out in front of us in miniature. And that?s both exciting and also often very chastening, I think.

Add Old School to your reading list for 2009 by checking out The Big Read with Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, and Roseville Public Library in Roseville, California. Check the calendar at for event information.