Headmaster Dougherty, Tobias Wolff '64, and Tony Reid '75
On the evening of Monday, February 27, author and Hill favorite son Tobias Wolff ’64 read from his novel Old School and conversed about reading, writing, and The Hill School -- past and present -- with Tony Reid ’75, director of The Humphrey Family Writing Center, and Headmaster David R. Dougherty.
The dramatically presented event featured readings from Wolff’s other novels and several short stories. Readers included Hill faculty members Meg Watson and Dan Bettendorf and Hill’s student Writing Fellows
“It’s wonderful to be back here,” Wolff said, adding, “It never ceases to amaze me that I was able spend several years of my life at The Hill. It changed my life. I’m very grateful to this school.”
Wolff noted that The Hill of the 1960s was a very “literary place” and a place of “artistic and intellectual excitement” where students wrote passionately and competitively. It also was, he said, a placed marked by “a heavy atmosphere, a gravity, particularly among many classmates who didn’t share [his] exuberance at being here” as a scholarship student. Much of this atmosphere is captured in Old School, the critically acclaimed 2003 novel that bears a photo of The Hill School’s dining room on its striking cover.
Reid said he arranged to bring Wolff back to campus in part so that the author could “honor his friend, David Dougherty” prior to David and Kay’s retirement this coming June.
“I really want to thank you for your service to this school,” Wolff said, addressing the Headmaster. “The atmosphere here now is lighter [than it was in the ‘60s]. I like it better. I take my hat off to you for all you’ve done.”
Mr. Dougherty noted that, despite the concerns expressed by “maybe 10 percent” of Hill alumni, the decision to make the School coeducational in 1998 was indeed the best decision for The Hill.
In a lively, entertaining, and touching “Q and A,” Reid and students joined the conversation.
“Why did you get kicked out of Hill?” asked Reid. (Wolff never officially graduated, but was presented with an honorary diploma by Headmaster Dougherty during a visit to The Hill several years ago.)
“I wish I could say I had hosted an orgy in my dorm room,” Wolff shot back, to thunderous laughter and applause. However, he noted, he actually was asked to leave the School after several unsuccessful attempts to pass Algebra 2.
With a serious turn, a student asked Wolff about the impact of his service in Vietnam, a period that Wolff drew from in work such as his novel In Pharaoh’s Army. Wolff said he entered the U.S. Army at age 18, credulous, trusting of authoritative figures, and with a sense that military service “was expected of men in this country.”
He said he saw "how my government misrepresented what was going on over there” and saw “the government tell lies, [which] really was a shock to my belief system, and made me very skeptical of authority and committed to getting to the truth of things,” he said. In his writing, he added, he always strives to represent “the truth.”
When asked by a student to describe his writing process and inspiration, Wolff stated that he doesn’t wait for inspiration. “It may not happen,” he explained, adding that inspiration “comes to me when I sit down to work. Things grow and accumulate in the process of working.”
“You have to show up,” he added. “Talent follows and fills the space made by the work.”
Wolff said that most of his time is spent rewriting rather than writing first drafts – and “that is what I like most….that’s when I feel joy. I love rewriting. In fact, the hardest part is letting it go.”
The author closed the evening by saying how touched he was to be on Hill’s stage for this pre-farewell event for the Doughertys.
“I am touched and grateful to see you here, just a couple of months before Kay and I depart The Hill,” the Headmaster said.