Thursday, April 16, 2009


I saw Tobias Wolff at Arcadia University last week. He read from his collection of new and selected (previously published) stories, Our Story Begins, which is now out in paperback.    

Wolff also spoke about his life as a writer and how it all began.  As a teenager, Wolff saw a picture in Life magazine of Ernest Hemingway with Marlene Dietrich on his arm and thought, "I want to be a writer."  This was back when writers enjoyed the glamorous life, when they were featured in the black and white photographs of Life--Hemingway at his camp desk in Africa,  F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris. Once he began writing, Wolff said, he realized all the hard work these men had had to do before they attained the glamorous life.  

With each of the stories Wolff read, he briefly talked about their origin.  His fictional work is not autobiographical.  He saves that for his memoirs - so far This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army.  Instead he says that "more and more it is the interior life" that he is describing.  An emotion, a decision, revisited in fiction. "Her Dog" captures the regret a man feels as he walks his dead wife's dog.  The dog talks.  As Wolff says, "Anyone who has a dog, knows they talk."  The dog is hard on the man, insisting that he, the dog, treated the wife better than the husband had.  

Next he read "Bullet to the Brain."  A book reviewer is caught in a bank robbery and can't help critiquing the cliched language of the robbers.  The idea for this story began when a friend of Wolff's was telling him what happened when he witnessed a bank robbery.  Wolff was disappointed that what the robbers said was something right out of a TV show.  

If you have a chance to see Wolff, I highly recommend it.  Not only is he one of today's best short story writers, he's funny and has an amazing memory for the words and stories of other authors.
After the reading, a reception was held at the Grey Towers Castle.  Once a private residence, it is now the jewel at the center of Arcadia's beautiful campus.  Take a tour if you're in the neighborhood.

I'm not sure if Wolff is hobnobbing with Hollywood stars, but he certainly is glamorous.

Monday, April 6, 2009


This weekend I attended a reading at the home of the lovely and gracious Leigh Jackson. About twenty of us gathered to see author Susan McCallum-Smith read from her collection, Slipping the Moorings. I had never been to a reading in someone's home before and I have to say I enjoyed the intimacy of sitting in a cozy chair by the fireplace, looking at the greenery outside the casement windows while listening to the author read.

McCallum-Smith is a striking woman, fair with almost white blond hair. She has a Scottish accent, which is delightful. I could listen to her all day. Then again, the primary reason I listen to NPR's Coffee Break Spanish is for the Scottish accents.

But it is not only her accent that makes her readings so enjoyable. She's a good reader. She brings her words to life, she connects with her audience, and she knows how to leave them wanting to read the rest of the story.

On this afternoon, she read excerpts from three stories--"Ploughman's Lunch," "Hell Mend You," and "The End of the Season." Some writers write the same story over and over again. Not so with McCallum-Smith. Her scope is evident in just these three stories. In the first, we meet Tom in London. His wife of over fifty years is leaving him; he stops in an art gallery after having lunch with her to collect himself and to try to convince himself that she'll change her mind. In the second, it's young mother Carol-Anne in a Glasgow police station. Something's happened at the family home. In the third, Mrs. Merrick, a woman in turn-of-the-century New York, receives a guest at an odd hour. It's a young woman.

There is something about having an author's voice in your head as you turn the pages of a book she spent years of her life creating that is very personal. It's as if she's reading just to you.

Now, I must go and find out what happened to Carol-Anne in "Hell Mend You."

Check out McCallum-Smith's website for upcoming events or to order Slipping the Moorings.