Tobias Wolff wishes he could say that reading Thomas Mann started him out on the road to becoming an author. He remembers reading an interview with Susan Sontag in which she talked about reading Mann and Soren Kierkegaard when she was still in grade school. Sontag even managed to meet Mann in Los Angeles when she was a teenager.
“She was very precocious,” Wolff said, dryly, during his opening remarks at the first night of UCSC’S Living Writers Series, which drew a capacity crowd to the Humanities Lecture Hall on Thurday.
Each one of us has an author like that, Wolff said. “You look back and think about who it was that made you store up extra batteries in your flashlight so you could stay up reading, and put towels under the doorway so your parents couldn’t see the light shining in the room.”
For Wolff, a creative writing professor at Stanford, that man was Albert Payson Terhune, a writer and dog breeder who surrounded himself with collies, which he described as a “tawny swarm.” Terhune found fame writing genre fiction about his dogs – with many of narratives told from the point of view of the dog.
On Thursday night, Wolff talked about the way an author can store up readings, encounters and experiences over time and how these things can make their way into a creative work years later, taking the writer by surprise.
Terhune’s books were the first “reading binge” Wolff ever went on. Though Wolff now thinks Terhune was “probably certifiable,” he found himself drawn right back to those collies with one of his latest stories, “Her Dog,” in which a man has a prolonged conversation with his dead wife’s aging dog, Victor. Together they talk about fidelity, marriage, mortality and friendship, and have a standoff with a vicious dog and its thuggish – and curiously litigious – owner. In this case, it’s clear that the protagonist, John, is talking with his own conscience, and using the dog as a mirror. “I could not have written this story without Albert Payson Terhune,” Wolff said.
All those childhood reading binges finally paid off, more than five decades after the fact.
[author photo by Photo by Elena Seibert]