Tobias Wolff epitomizes the A-list California writer who divides his time between full-time teaching and mentoring, and practicing his solitary craft in his home office, quietly continuing to bare his innermost self to the world. The award-winning author is set to appear in Sacramento on Friday.
His last book, a collection of short stories titled “Our Story Begins,” was published in 2008, but he is now at work on a novel and another collection. Among his best-known works are the memoirs “This Boy’s Life” (1989), about growing up with an abusive stepfather in the 1950s, and “In Pharaoh’s Army” (1994), which recounts his tour as an Army officer in the Vietnam War. “Life” was made into a 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Ellen Barkin. “Army” was a National Book Award finalist.
Wolff, 69, will open the sixth season of Stories On Stage, a literary series at which actors perform authors’ short stories. Janis Stevens will perform Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” and James Wheatley will present “Bullet in the Brain.” “Martyrs” is about a college professor who delivers a most unusual lecture. “Brain” concerns a book critic’s last thoughts before his untimely murder. Wolff will talk about the stories before the program and will autograph books afterward.
The event will be at the Verge Center For the Arts, 625 S St., Sacramento; (916) 448-2985, www.vergeart.com. Doors will open at 7 p.m.; the program starts at 7:30 p.m. A $10 donation is suggested. For a list of more authors whose works will appear for Stories On Stage, go to www.storiesonstagesacramento.wordpress.com.
Wolff, 69, holds degrees from Oxford and Stanford universities, and has taught creative writing and literature at Stanford since 1997. He regularly contributes to literary journals and national magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Atlantic.
Q: You write in multiple formats. Which is the hardest?
A: There’s the sheer demand of the sustained work in a novel and book-length memoir, in keeping your morale up and having a sufficient store of invention and conviction. They take a lot of staying power, and there have been times in my life when working on (one or the other) that I wondered if I would live to see the end of it.
(Novels and memoirs) take years, but I can usually finish a short story in months. In some ways, the short story is a greater challenge, because you’re trying to fit a sense of a whole world into a “few pages,” relative to a novel or memoir.
Q: It’s the writer’s curse not to be satisfied with what he/she has written. Have you ever reached satisfaction?
A: Actually, I have. There are moments when I’ve finished (a work in progress) where I’ve thought, “That’s it, I got it!” Then I go pop myself a beer and pretend it’s Champagne. If you didn’t have those moments, it would be hard to sustain this life. But then I can look at it a few days later and think, “Hmm, it could be better.” Even after revision and re-revision, I can still see something else I should do.
Q: In 1975, you received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship for fiction at Stanford. Though you now teach creative writing in the classroom there, you also work with writers in the ongoing two-year Stegner program.
A: It’s a great ornament to American literature. It certainly changed my life, and I’ve seen it change other lives. Last year we had over 1,200 applications for five places. Some great writers have passed through here – Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone. More recently, Michael Cunningham, Kathryn Harrison, Jesmyn Ward, ZZ Packer and Adam Johnson, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year (and appeared for the Bee Book Club). Two of my undergraduates recently published books. My students get their work done, and I’ve never given an “incomplete” (grade).
Q: What’s the state of fiction these days?
A: The quality of the writing is as good as it’s ever been. What I worry about is the readership. The visual culture has distracted those who would once have been our readers.
Q: What are you working on?
A: I’m writing a series of essays. I’ve done a few stories for an upcoming collection and I’m well into a novel. This is going to be my last year of teaching. I want to devote myself entirely to my writing.
Author and life coach Joanne Jeffers Veeck of Rocklin has published three children’s books and helped co-write “Stepping Stones To Success” with best-selling author-speaker Deepak Chopra. In her debut novel, “Semester Abroad,” a group of American women college students travels through Europe, encountering a series of dramatic adventures (First Edition, $15, 230 pages).
Veeck is the founder of Women Inspiring Women, a Rocklin-based women’s “inspirational support group.” She will appear at 1 p.m. Feb. 14 at Barnes & Noble, 1256 Galleria Blvd., Roseville; (916) 788-4320.
Library book sale
The Friends of the Sacramento Public Library regularly hosts book sales at the Book Den, 8250 Belvedere Ave., Sacramento; (916) 731-8493. Typically, more than 100,000 “gently used” books, videos and audiobooks are offered for 50 cents to $2. Get a deal from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 7. For details and a calendar of sales, visit www.saclibfriends.
For reading pleasure
Three new titles worth considering:
▪ Mohamedou Ould Slah has been incarcerated in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp since 2002, despite a federal judge’s order for his release in 2010. In the military prisoner’s ground-breaking memoir, “Guantanamo Diary,” he recounts his ongoing horrific ordeal (Little, Brown, $29, 432 pages).
▪ If you don’t know your NBD (“No big deal”) from your JK (“Just kidding”), the “Social Media Dictionary” by Karen Foreman can help you navigate the newspeak of the digital world (Social School 101, $15, 242 pages). The definition for “Facebook envy” is rather telling: “Occurs when people compare their lives to other people’s Facebook posts and photos.”
▪ Pet owners will identify with “Good Dog: True Stories of Love, Loss and Loyalty” by David DiBenedetto and the editors of Garden & Gun magazine (HarperWave, $26, 336 pages). One entry, “Licked To Death By a Pit Bull” by Bronwen Dickey, concludes: “I, too, make certain assumptions about people who own pit bulls. They have transcended a long-standing prejudice and they know a good dog when they see one.”
Awards finalists set
Literary honors mean validation for writers, but they also translate into book sales. The top four are the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize.
Now the publishing industry is buzzing over the NBCC’s release of its 30 finalists in six categories for the best books of 2014. The awards are “bestowed by a jury of working critics and book-review editors” and will be announced March 12. The complete list is at www.bookcritics.org/blog.
Among the highlights is Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison’s lifetime achievement award and Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric” making it to the finals in two categories, poetry and criticism, a first for the NBCC.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.