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Tobias Wolff to Read from 'Old School'

April 1, 2013

"Old School" is the story of an ambitious, idealistic and insecure teenager who makes a serious mistake and eventually inherits the consequences. Wolff's unnamed narrator seems so very real that it is hard at times to remember that the book is fiction. The gripping plot has the unpredictability of real life -- by turns funny, alarming, satiric and sad -- as well as the moral weight of lived experience.

"Old School" is the first Big Read selection to have been published in the 21st century. The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in partnership with Arts Midwest. The program is designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American popular culture. A 2004 NEA report identified a critical decline in reading for pleasure among American adults. The Big Read addresses this issue by bringing communities together to read, discuss and celebrate books and writers from American and world literature.

Tobias Jonathan Ansell Wolff was born on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Ala. His father, Arthur, was an aeronautical engineer whose character was questioned in the 1979 memoir "The Duke of Deception," by Wolff's older brother, Geoffrey. As a result of his father's deception, Tobias, who was raised and remains a Catholic, did not discover until adulthood that his father was Jewish. His mother, Rosemary Loftus Wolff, a waitress and secretary, was a woman of spirit, resilience and great intelligence, who met the many reverses in her life with humor and determination.

Wolff's parents separated when he was very young. He was raised by his mother in Florida, Utah and Washington state. Eager to escape rural Washington and life with his mother's second husband, he won a scholarship to the Hill School, a prestigious academy in Pottstown, Pa. He loved the school but struggled because of his poor academic background. Ultimately, he was expelled because of failing grades in math.

In 1964, Wolff joined the U.S. Army. He spent a year learning Vietnamese, and then served in Vietnam as a paratrooper. Out of these experiences came his second memoir, "In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War" (1994). After his discharge in 1968, he enrolled in Hertford College of Oxford University, where he earned a degree in English in 1972. In 1975, he earned a master's degree in English from Stanford University, where he was also awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Creative Writing.

Wolff taught at Syracuse University in New York from 1980-97. The novelist Richard Ford and the short-story writer Raymond Carver were among his friends and colleagues. Since 1997, Wolff has taught English and creative writing at Stanford University, where he holds the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods professorship in the School of Humanities and Sciences. Among his honors are the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and three O. Henry Awards.

Tobias Wolff married Catherine Spohn, a social worker, in 1975. They have two sons and a daughter. Wolff lives with his family in northern California.

To learn more about the Big Read program, go to the NEA's website.

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