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Afghanistan Report

John Sifton serves as Afghanistan researcher with Human Rights Watch. His articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine and the International Herald Tribune. Since 2001, he has made nine trips to Afghanistan. Sifton is also an attorney.


Other segments from the episode on December 22, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 22, 2003: Interview with John Sifton; Interview with Tobias Wolff.


DATE December 22, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: John Sifton discusses the progress and lack thereof in

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The US is in a state of high alert because of the danger of a terrorist attack
during this holiday period. After the attacks of September 11th, US-led
forces bombed Afghanistan and drove out the Taliban regime, which had harbored
leaders of al-Qaeda. Now the US is helping Afghanistan rebuild and move
toward democracy. Yesterday the military announced that the American forces
in Afghanistan will be expanded to help increase security surrounding
reconstruction projects. A Loya Jirga, or grand council, is now meeting in
Kabul to draft a constitution.

My guest, John Sifton, is the Afghanistan researcher for the group Human
Rights Watch. He's gone there every few months since September 11th and just
returned from a three-week visit. He monitored the election of delegates to
the Loya Jirga. After the Loya Jirga convened on December 13th, he met with
delegates and talked with observers. President Hamid Karzai has said he hopes
the Loya Jirga will complete its business by the end of the year. I spoke
with John Sifton this morning.

Iraq is almost seen as a showplace for the United States right now, what the
United States can do if it tries to help or force a country toward democracy.
Is Afghanistan seen as a showplace now, too? After the UN goes in, you know,
ousts the Taliban, what happens next? Does the country fall apart? Does it
become a democracy? How much help does the United States give in that

Mr. JOHN SIFTON (Human Rights Watch): The United States ousted the Taliban,
but essentially their accomplishments ended there. And I know that sounds
pretty amazing, but essentially that's true. What happened was the Taliban
collapsed. What happened next? The allies of the United States, the
mujaheddin leaders who were fighting against the Taliban, who fought with the
US against them, took over the country. Then what happened? Not much. Not

Some projects to rebuild the country started in a few places, but for the most
part the entire country has plodded along since then: very little progress on
reconstruction; very little progress on good governance--you know, making the
ministries work better, starting to have a real civil service; very little
progress on building up democratic institutions, civic society groups,
political party, laws and groups like that. There's been a little sort of
mini-renaissance in Kabul. There are all these newspapers and NGOs,
non-governmental organizations, aid organizations. But outside of Kabul
there's very little progress.

I mean, I don't want to be completely cynical here. There are a few places
where things have happened, I agree. Herat, the city in the west, and Kabul,
a city in the east, have seen reconstruction privately. But for the most
part, if you scratch the surface, you'll see that those reconstruction
projects are underwritten by factional leaders, by warlords and such. This
isn't really a legitimate reconstruction. It's a sort of power elite that's
paying for some of this reconstruction. And then outside of those cities, in
the rural areas--nothing, absolutely nothing. There's one single
accomplishment, which is the road from Kabul to Kandahar has been built, and
that took way too long. But other than that, you know, what's happened? A
few things there, a few things there, a well, an irrigation system. But, you
know, where's the hydroelectric dams that they promised? Where's the roads
connecting all the major cities? It's not as though these things haven't been
accomplished. They haven't even been started.

GROSS: And who is blamed for that?

Mr. SIFTON: When the Taliban fell local governance was put into the hands of
military factional leaders. Now why there was reason to think that some of
these people could actually provide security in the sense of stopping
fighting, stopping the Taliban from shelling certain cities, the simple law
and order, the sense in which people would be free from being looted, being
robbed by gunmen, things like that--these people are not the right men for the
job. The military factions in Afghanistan are themselves thieves; they loot,
they extort money. And so to expect them to sort of bring security to
ordinary Afghans outside of the city, it was, in some sense, a ludicrous idea.
But yet that's what the United States did.

GROSS: Is that considered to be payback for the warlords' military assistance
during the ousting of the Taliban?

Mr. SIFTON: To a degree, I think it is a sense of, `These guys helped us with
the Taliban, so we're going to let them have the keys to the kingdom.' And
certainly that was the sentiment that I heard. I testified before House of
Representatives' International Relations Committee on this subject, and that
was a message I was yelled at by a certain congressman about this issue. And,
you know, he said, `These guys--you call them warlords, but, you know, these
guys were with us. They fought against the Taliban. We should be thanking
them,' you know, so on and so forth. So there's a sense of what you said.
You know, these guys helped us, and so they're given a free check.

But I think what it also is is just a sort of mistake; that the Department of
Defense men, the people on the ground, the men and women in the US military,
got down there and they sort of figured these guys were better guys than they
are. And that mistake, I think, comes out of a lack of understanding of
Afghanistan's recent past.

These guys didn't just appear; they have a history. They fought against the
Soviets, and when the Soviet regime collapsed 10 years ago, they took over
Afghanistan. And Afghanistan 10 years ago--many people don't remember this
because there were other things going on at the time: the Soviet Union was
collapsing; there were the problems in the Balkans. But 10 years ago
Afghanistan was a mess. There was a civil war raging. In Kabul's streets it
wasn't an extraordinary thing to see troops firing in civilian areas from
mountains outside of Kabul straight into civilian areas. It wasn't uncommon
for there to be kidnapping, widespread looting in the streets. People used to
talk about bodies lying in the streets, even dogs dragging body parts around.
It was a horrific scene of inhumanity. And who's responsible? These
mujaheddin leaders, who are now in power.

GROSS: My understanding is this is part of the reason why the Taliban were
welcomed in some quarters when they took over because at least there was law
and order.

Mr. SIFTON: There was a degree of relief when the Taliban first took over
because there was a thought that they would bring stability, at least to Kabul
city, which had been wracked by violence. That optimism was quickly consumed
by fear because of the Taliban's strict and capricious and cruel
interpretations of Islamic law. But they did bring security in a limited
sense of the word. They brought peace in the sense that there was no longer
groups fighting it out in the streets, kidnapping women and children and, you
know, raping daughters and wives. But, you know, there was a flip side to
that, and it was a different type of evil.

GROSS: John Sifton is my guest, and he's the Human Rights Watch's Afghanistan
researcher. He just returned from Afghanistan.

What was your mission in Afghanistan?

Mr. SIFTON: We went to monitor and observe some of the last elections to the
constitutional convention, which started Sunday before last. There were
elections of all the regional censors to elect delegates to go to the
convention and debate a draft of the constitution. Unfortunately, the entire
process, from the beginning to the end, was dominated by factional leaders.
And there was intimidating, vote-buying, death threats riddled throughout the
whole process. And we saw that even in Kabul city itself, where there are
peacekeepers and an increased number of international monitors. I saw myself
intimidation under way. The head of the Kabul Intelligence Secretariat was
there. The head of all of Afghanistan intelligence was at the election.
There were several commanders there. The entire process was conducted within
an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. And so a lot of the delegates that
were elected were just factional proxies. And the few courageous souls who
did sort of step up to the plate and fight were put under enormous pressure
and are now outnumbered at the convention.

GROSS: Now you've said that the elections to the Loya Jirga were manipulated
through fear and intimidation and that a lot of these former warlords have
either been elected or have had their proxies elected to the Loya Jirga.
Actually the former so-called warlords aren't allowed to be in this Loya
Jirga. Is that correct?

Mr. SIFTON: It's true that there is a prohibition against people who are
currently military commanders in Afghanistan's defense ministry, but the rule
is widely flouted by commanders especially outside of Kabul. Some people were
sidelined, but even the infamous leader Rashid Dostum in the north was
elected. He was disqualified by the constitutional commission. But
subsequently President Hamid Karzai appointed him to the convention, to the
disappointment of many delegates. So there was that sense that, yeah,
everybody was getting in. And this is the same as last year's Loya Jirga.
There's really a sense that anybody who holds a powerful stake in
Afghanistan's militarily dominant culture can get a spot at the Loya Jirga.
You might have some trouble on the way, but ultimately you'll get in.

GROSS: Why do you think Hamid Karzai appointed Dostum if Dostum is a former
warlord who's not even supposed to be in the Loya Jirga?

Mr. SIFTON: A few days before the Loya Jirga started, Lyse Doucet of the
BBC, competent reporter, BBC's strong horse, you know, old-school reporter,
had an interview with Hamid Karzai, and she asked him that question. And he
said, `He was elected. It's good for the country. Do you prefer war?' Now
those are three different responses. The first is, `He was elected,' OK.
Well, he was also disqualified by the constitutional commission because of his
military post, so that's kind of a strange response. Second thing he said:
`It's good for the country,' and, `Do you prefer fighting?' You know, `Do you
prefer war?' He's on stronger ground there. There are political necessities

And I understand President Karzai and the US can't just completely sideline
these people. But what we've seen is that both President Karzai and the US
administration have made very few efforts just to marginalize these people; to
tell them, `Hey, we'll deal with you. You know, we have to deal with you. We
can't just ignore you. But you can't have everything. You know, there has to
be legitimate governance.' What we've seen is a sort of failure to enforce
that idea. And so President Karzai--in a way, I feel sympathy for him. He's
in an extremely, extremely difficult situation. But he hasn't pushed hard
enough against these people to say, `I'm sorry, you can't have the keys to the
kingdom. You guys can't rule this country. You helped defeat the
Soviets'--well, in Dostum's case, he was with the Soviets till the end. But,
you know, the mujaheddin leaders--he could say to them, `You helped defeat the
Soviets. You helped the Taliban with US support. But, you know, you can't
have it all.' But that's just not something he's saying.

GROSS: What are some of the directions the military leaders, the former
warlords, are likely to head in at the Loya Jirga? What are some of the
things they would like to see in the constitution?

Mr. SIFTON: Well, actually, interestingly, most of this stuff doesn't really
matter in the end because, as it turns out, the US and Karzai have recognized
that these guys run the show. The concern of the US right now is to get the
Loya Jirga to approve a draft of the constitution, which has already been
promulgated, which gives President Karzai very strong presidential powers. It
looks like that draft will be accepted, and the reason it looks like that's
going to happen is that it seems that Karzai and the US have made deals with
most of the factional leaders to get them to use their bloc voting power, the
proxies they control, to approve it. So the majority of the delegates--there
are 500 or so delegates--are proxies and allies of the factional leaders. But
it looks like they're on board. So that issue about the presidency is

The other issues about human rights, about little sort of technical
issues--should there be habeas corpus, a right, you know, to the defendant to
be brought before a court?--things like this, may not get discussed in the end
because the whole discussion has been consumed and dominated by this issue of
the presidency, strong presidential powers.

GROSS: If President Karzai has been making deals with some of the factional
leaders in return for them voting for a strong presidency, what kind of
relationship is he likely to have with them in the future? And, I mean, if he
really is a strong president, can't he use that strength to limit their power?

Mr. SIFTON: Well, our worry is that he'll emerge with a strong presidency on
paper, and meanwhile these guys who made deals will become all the stronger.
There's a sense that he still holds the money; Karzai has the international
money at his disposal. But he can't quite bring these guys under control.
There's very little sense that the constitution's going to allow him to do
that, the new constitution. He's still going to face all the same problems.
How do you enforce an order? These guys have their own military weapons.
They have their own SUVs. They even have their own tanks in some places. How
do you enforce the order? Very difficult. So he's made deals with them to
give them even more power than they already have. There's very little sense
his job is going to be any easier in coming months and years.

GROSS: My guest is John Sifton, the Afghanistan researcher for the group
Human Rights Watch. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is John Sifton, the Afghanistan researcher for the group
Human Rights Watch. He just returned from Afghanistan, where the Loya Jirga,
or grand council, is convening to write a new constitution.

What is the debate about whether the constitution should be based on Islamic

Mr. SIFTON: The discussions haven't been dominated by questions about Islamic
law vs. human rights and things like that. They've been dominated by the
question of whether the system of government should be a presidential one or a
parliamentary one. The discussions about Shariah and human rights, which
could have taken place, which aren't really taking place, are about things
like: Should the Supreme Court have the power to interpret legislation to
see whether it is contrary to Islamic law? Should courts have the power to
discharge or overturn legislation? What should the qualifications be for the
Supreme Court? Should people have religious training or not, and what would
that mean?

Personally, I don't think that the constitution will settle a lot of the
issues about Islamic law and human rights because, at the end of the day, the
emphasis on these questions and the answers to these questions will be in the
hands of judges appointed to Afghanistan's judiciary, not tomorrow but 10
years from now. So the weight, really, is on those judges. We can draft the
language and make it perfect or imperfect or whatever today, but essentially
whatever we draft, the interpretation will ultimately be laid down 10 years
from now. And the real emphasis here should be placed on making sure that
that court, Supreme Court of Afghanistan, isn't dominated by fundamentalists,
Islamic scholars, whose interpretation of Islam is not in accordance with the
majority of Afghans. And that's what we're concerned about here, right?--is
democracy, to make sure that the people who are interpreting these laws have a
vision of Islam and a vision of human rights which is similar to the Afghan
people's. And that's what we should be worried about. The question of the
constitution itself, though, may not be where these issues will be resolved.

GROSS: Has there been much debate yet about women's rights and what the
constitution will have to say about that?

Mr. SIFTON: There has. A women's group put together a draft of the
constitution that they presented before the constitutional convention started.
There are a lot of delegates to the convention; 100 out of 500 are women. And
a lot of those women have been pretty vocal about women's rights. But the
sense right now is that the draft, as presented by President Karzai, will be
adopted. And it doesn't really contain very special protections for women's
rights. It's not, you know, against women's rights, but it's certainly not a
sort of proactive document. There has been discussion of whether the
constitution needs stronger protections, but those discussions don't seem to
have gotten very far. The sights have been placed pretty low since the
Taliban fell. You know, in comparison to the Taliban, life is better. But as
many women in Kabul will tell you, you compare life to the Taliban, anything
is better.

GROSS: Well, how has life changed for women in Afghanistan, in the cities and
in the country? Can they walk around without burqas? They can walk around
without male escort? Are girls going to school?

Mr. SIFTON: Millions of girls have gone back to school, but the majority of
the school-age girls are still out of school, partly because of security
concerns--families are afraid to send their girls to school because--the sense
that they might be sexually assaulted or even kidnapped on the way to school,
especially outside of major cities. At the same time, in the cities, there is
still a lot of fear. There's no enforcement making women wear the burqa, but
yet you walk around most areas, women still do wear the burqa. There hasn't
been any scientific polling or studying, but if you go around and ask a lot of
women why they're still wearing the burqa, they talk about the sense of
instability. They don't know whether Karzai's government may fall in a year,
and there'll be some extremely conservative, new government that might create
problems. There's also a sense that there continues to be gunmen, police,
intelligence, army guys who go around and still harass women if they're not
wearing a burqa. They may not arrest them or beat them, like the Taliban did,
but there's a sense that you can run into trouble if you don't wear a burqa.

GROSS: John Sifton is the Afghanistan researcher for the group Human Rights
Watch. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up: Tobias Wolff, author of the memoir "This Boy's Life,"
talks about his new novel, "Old School," about a boarding school student who
wants to be a writer. And we continue our conversation with John Sifton, the
Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with John Sifton, the
Afghanistan researcher for the group Human Rights Watch. He's visited
Afghanistan every few months since September 11th. He just returned from a
three-week trip to Afghanistan, where a Loya Jirga, or a grand council, is
currently meeting to draft a new constitution.

What is your popularity in Afghanistan as a human rights worker? Who sees you
as the good guy, and who sees you as the bad guy?

Mr. SIFTON: Well, unfortunately, it's become clear that the warlord factions
in Afghanistan are aware of our presence, and they are worried. They're
keeping an eye on what we're doing. They're especially concerned about the
past because they know that we've been looking at some of the things that have
been going on 10 years ago. Now we've just studied what--Human Rights Watch
was working on Afghanistan in the 1980s documenting abuses by the Soviets. We
documented abuses by the Taliban. This is the thing we do. But they also
know that there's this other period, this period between 1992 and 1996, when
the mujaheddin themselves were in control and they committed atrocities. And
I think that they're very worried that we may bring those issues up as well.

There is an Afghan Human Rights Commission, which is looking at these issues
but is extremely timid about pushing them and rightly so. If you were to hold
a press conference releasing some report about mujaheddin atrocities 10 years
ago, your life would be in danger; my life would be in danger, but especially

GROSS: Because so many of those people are powerful again.

Mr. SIFTON: Yeah, people like Rasool Sayyaf, people like defense minister
Fahim, people like the education minister, Kenuni(ph). These people have
pasts, and they know that they could be called into account for them, so
they're rightly afraid. There are also abuses going on now. A lot of the
factional leaders in Kabul are implicated in massive land-seizure abuses.
Hundreds of homes have been seized by local commanders or people acting with
the protection of local commanders in Kabul. The homes are subsequently
rented or given away to supporters. This is a huge scandal that's happening
right in Kabul city itself, but if you talk about these things, if you report
them, you can be in danger.

GROSS: United States has announced it will be sending more troops to
Afghanistan to increase security in the hopes that it will protect workers who
are rebuilding Afghanistan. They also want to protect aid workers. Do you
think that that will be helpful to your effort and the efforts of other aid
and human rights groups?

Mr. SIFTON: Yeah. Yesterday's announcement by the US military about
expanding their forces, especially in the south, is a welcomed step in the
right direction, but it's not enough. There needs to be more effort placed on
sidelining the military factional leaders and bringing in more legitimate
representation at the governmental level, the local governmental level, and
that's what we're not seeing.

GROSS: Now there's been Taliban insurgencies in parts of Afghanistan. Have
you yourself seen evidence of the Taliban trying to, you know, get back power
in Afghanistan?

Mr. SIFTON: It's interesting what they're up to. There's a lot of
psychological warfare: pamphlets, warnings delivered to people; schools being
set fire in the night. It's not a sense that the Taliban could, you know, run
into a town and take over the governmental offices and all that stuff. I
think that's beyond their power. But they still have the power to intimidate
and to keep people from cooperating with the Western agencies and with the
Karzai government, and that's really their worst effect.

GROSS: I remember when you joined us not long after September 11th, and you
had been in Afghanistan; you were describing what it was like before September
11th to see, like, these Toyota pickup trucks filled with, you know, local
Taliban leaders patrolling the streets to make sure that men were wearing
bears and women were wearing, you know, the burqa. Do you see anything like
that going on now?

Mr. SIFTON: What there is is intimidation of people who are cooperating with
the West. So let's say you're a schoolteacher in the south in, say, Zabul
Province, and you teach girls mathematics, Dari, science, and you're on your
way to school. Suddenly somebody comes up to you and says, `Stop teaching or
we'll come for you in the night,' or, `Stop teaching or your family will be in
danger.' That's what we're seeing: behind-the-scenes, subtle threats,
messages delivered at night nailed to your door saying, `Don't cooperate with
the Western imperialist forces,' things like that. Another thing we've seen
is pamphlets with pictures of the US forces searching homes, searching
women--you know, padding them down--things like that, extremely divisive
images that, you know, might get people to say, `Oh, the Western people are
imperialists or against our culture,' things like that. Women's education is
a big issue that the Taliban has pushed on, and I think that's one of their
biggest focus. They're not so interested at this moment making sure people
are wearing burqas, growing their beards.

GROSS: So what are they doing to try to prevent girls from going to school?

Mr. SIFTON: They've set fire to many schools in the south. In the middle of
the night a school will burst into flames, even get hit with a rocket
sometimes. Another thing that happens is that teachers get threatened, told
not to show up, or parents get threatened not to send their daughters to
school. But, interestingly, in a majority of cases, people say they don't
send their daughters or sisters to school because they're afraid of local
forces creating problems for them, security problems: you know, harassing
their daughters or even kidnapping them. So it's definitely not just the
Taliban that's having an effect on women's education. It's also the

GROSS: One of the questions in Iraq and Afghanistan poses is: How do you
create a democracy in a country that has not been a democracy? Do you feel
like you're learning any lessons about what to or what not to do?

Mr. SIFTON: The lesson in Afghanistan is that without providing a semblance
of stability before you seek to create a governmental system and a democratic
governmental institution--could face a lot of problems. You must address the
basic law and order of the streets before you can expect people to move into a
political process which is democratic. Many political opponents, party
organizers, journalists, don't even feel safe enough to criticize the United
States, let along Afghanistan's warlords. So in what sense could you have
democratic elections that are free and fair in a situation like that, in which
there's so much intimidation? The lesson is provide security, provide a
semblance of stability before you move forward, and that's what we haven't
done in Afghanistan and what we're not doing in Iraq. Iraq is a more
difficult case, of course, but it's definitely something which could have been
addressed in Afghanistan and hasn't.

GROSS: In trying to create stability, is there the possibility of creating
something that leans in the direction of becoming a police state?

Mr. SIFTON: There's always a concern that, in the short term, to create
stability you really need to crack down on the spoilers. It's true. I'm not
going to deny it. Some of these people, these warlords, who are creating
instability may need a dose of `vitamin B-52,' as some of the Afghans call it.
I don't pretend that there isn't an ugly side to enforcing stability, and I
know that there are a lot of hard choices out there. But these are the hard
choices which have to be made. When a warlord, like Ismail Khan in the west
and General Dostum in the north, refuses to bring his troops under control,
there have to be consequences. There are no consequences for these men when
they flout Karzai and they flout human rights standards.

GROSS: Do you feel like you make a difference?

Mr. SIFTON: The work we have done has led the US to realize it has a problem;
that its strategy has been flawed. And this is the single thing that, you
know, we feel like we actually had an impact on. But, you know, human rights
reporting is an interesting line of work because, essentially, you give
recommendations which are almost never followed. That's not where our success
is. Our success is in bringing facts to the attention of people who don't
know about them. It's like the tree falling in the forest. Nobody knows if
there was a, you know, climate of fear outside of Kabul: extortion,
kidnapping, local commanders, you know, raping young women and boys. We
brought it to the world's attention, and so there was a new sort of sense of
reality about the situation in Afghanistan. That's our benefit. But other
than that, it's difficult to see how our recommendations are regularly
followed. They just aren't.

GROSS: Well, John, thank you for coming. And I hope you're feeling better

Mr. SIFTON: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: John Sifton is the Afghanistan researcher for the group Human Rights

Coming up, writer Tobias Wolff. His new novel, "Old School," is about a boy
who wants to be a writer. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Tobias Wolff on his new novel "Old School"

Tobias Wolff is best known for his 1989 memoir "This Boy's Life," which was
adapted into a film. Wolff's memoir was something of a companion piece to his
brother Geoffrey's memoir, "The Duke of Deception," a portrait of their
father, a con man who fooled even his own children into believing he was from
an aristocratic background. When Geoffrey and Tobias were children, their
parents split up. Geoffrey lived with his father; Tobias, with his mother.
While Geoffrey was learning genteel manners, how to shoot and handle a boat,
Tobias and his mother were virtually broke. "This Boy's Life" was about those
early years. Now Wolff has written his first novel, "Old School." It's about
a boy who is attending an elite boarding school on a scholarship and
desperately wants to be a writer. "Old School" is about class conflicts and
what this boy goes through to find his voice and his identity. Tobias Wolff
teaches at Stanford University.

In the school that your novel is set in, there's a tradition in which one boy
is given a private audience with each visiting writer, and we're talking about
visiting luminaries. It's Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, Ernest Hemingway. Was
there a tradition like that in your school?

Professor TOBIAS WOLFF (Stanford University; Author, "Old School"): Yes,
there was. Indeed, I saw Robert Frost at my school. And I'm actually a
couple of years younger than my narrator, so I was sitting in the back and I
didn't get a chance to hear anything he said. And that's the great thing
about writing a novel--is that you can go back and make those moments that
were not satisfactory in life just as perfect as you want to make them. And
so obviously in the novel I get to not only have him speak right in my ear but
even, in a sense, to have a conversation with him in the novel, which is
something that I felt was long overdue.

GROSS: One of the writers scheduled to visit is Ernest Hemingway, and your
main character says, `I already admired Hemingway above all other writers, but
the truth was that I'd been drawn to him mostly by his life--that is by the
legend of his life--and by a set of ideas about his work that spilled over
from the legend.' What about you? What was the influence of Hemingway on

Prof. WOLFF: Oh, that's a pretty clear statement of how Hemingway affected me
as a young boy. Remember those big pictures that they used to have at the
back of Life magazine, big black-and-white--took up a whole page? And I
remember when I was about 14 or so seeing a picture of Ernest Hemingway
leaving Madison Square Garden with Marlene Dietrich on his arm after a prize
fight. And I remember thinking, you know, `This is a great reason to be a
writer.' There was very much the sense of an extraordinary life to be lived
that belonged to the writer, and he exemplified this. And, of course, what
one could never know at my age is that these were the things he was doing when
he wasn't writing; that he was a man of tremendous industry who worked very
day, even, you know, when his back was killing him. And he even stood up to
write. As he himself once said, he came to his work like a priest to the
altar, and he had that kind of mission about it.

But I have to say that, as a boy, it was the glamour, the travel, the hunting,
the fishing, you know, what one imagined of his beautiful women, that kind of
thing, the thrill-seeking, really, seemed so deeply connected to his writing
that, when I was a boy, I couldn't separate it. And it drew me in, there's no
question. As I grew older, of course, I began to see the beauty and the art
of his writing, and this eventually, of course, displaced any notions I had of
his life. And it's the work that endures in my love, especially those early
stories, those beautiful, tender stories, and the early novels I particularly
love as well. But he never really lost his touch.

GROSS: Would you read some of the advice that you have Hemingway giving in
your novel?

Prof. WOLFF: Sure. This is some advice that Hemingway is giving the narrator
of the novel. `Don't talk about your writing. If you talk about your
writing, you will touch something you shouldn't touch, and it will fall apart
and you will have nothing. Get up at first light and work like hell. Let
your wife sleep in; it'll pay off later. Watch your blood pressure. Read.
Read James Joyce and Bill Faulkner and Isaac(ph) Tennyson, that beautiful
writer. Read Scott Fitzgerald. Hold on to your friends. Work like hell, and
make enough money to go someplace else, some other country, where the damn
feds can't get at you. Did I say keep your friends? Keep your friends. Hold
on to your friends. Don't lose your friends. I don't know. I guess that's
it. That's the sermon for today.'

GROSS: How did you write this advice from Hemingway?

Prof. WOLFF: Ahh, great question. You know, this was the greatest fun I had
in writing this book--was impersonating these writers, I mean, literally
becoming the person that I imagine them to be. And I did this by immersing
myself in biographies and reimmersing myself in their work and particularly in
reading their letters. That's as close--I mean, they were all very
calculating about how they appeared in public, so they were never free of
self-consciousness entirely. But there are moments in their letters when they
really do shine through, and certain characteristic habits of thought and
language begin to show themselves. And it was like hunting some elusive prey,
and you'd just see them there for a minute, and then I'd grab them.

And, I mean, there is maybe a kind of hubris in trying to assume the persona
of these writers, but I felt I had a license to do it, if for no other reason
than that they themselves were so assiduous in cultivating kind of fictional
personae of their own. I mean, each of these three writers--Ayn Rand, Robert
Frost and Ernest Hemingway--were very careful to project a certain image of
themselves into the world, and they tended that image very carefully.

GROSS: Ayn Rand is one of the visiting writers who comes to this school in
your novel "Old School," and she gives some advice. Why did you choose her?
Were you ever under her spell as a young man?

Prof. WOLFF: I was, indeed. I confess that I was. I read Ayn Rand when I
was about 17, late 16, and I was under her spell for, I'm afraid, longer than
my narrator in the book, for about a year. And I cringe when I recall my
arrogance at the time, an arrogance which somehow her worked seemed to
encourage not only in me but in my contemporaries who read it. I mean, we all
imagined ourselves this steely eyed Howard Rourke. And she has a very
seductive message for the young, or at least I think the young are
particularly vulnerable to it. She gives very simple answers to very complex

GROSS: Would you read some of the advice that you have Ayn Rand giving the

Prof. WOLFF: You bet. Ayn Rand, in this passage here, is meeting with a
group of boys from the school, and they're here to hear her wisdom, and here's
some of it. `Boys, let me tell you what your value does not derive from. It
does not derive from the self-sacrifice demanded by some party or state or
from the church of some ludicrous god. It does proceed from the people. In
exchange for your reason and your freedom, they may give you a certificate of
virtue, even some power, but this is worthless. It is less than worthless.
It is bondage. When your power comes from others' unapproval, you are their
slave. Never sacrifice yourselves, never. Whoever urges you to
self-sacrifice is worse than a common murderer, who at least cuts your throat
himself without persuading you to do it. You must revere yourselves. To
revere yourself is to live truly. And as I know only too well, to live truly
is to live at war--yes, at war--with the people and the party and the
guilt-peddling Jesus industry.'

GROSS: Oh, it must be so heady to hear that when you're a kid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WOLFF: Absolutely. Absolutely. Oh, complete freedom, all constraints.
And, of course...

GROSS: And you're a hero for doing it.

Prof. WOLFF: You're a hero for doing it. And, you know, the argument here
underlying all this is you really don't owe anybody anything. And she herself
used to say that she had never been helped by anyone in her life; that she had
done everything herself. But when you read biographies of her, as I did, you
see that, in fact, she was helped along in her life at many important points,
as we all are. We all survive on the mercy of others and the kindness of
others, and this was something that she could not recognize in her scheme of
things. She, for example, claimed that she had never made a mistake in her
life. She really was extraordinary. She wasn't stupid, but she had an
extremely, radically narrow vision of things, and it did not allow for the
nuances and the complications of human relations and for the systems of debt
and obligation that we naturally incur as we go through life and have some
responsibility to return to others. That formed no part of her vision.

GROSS: My guest is Tobias Wolff. His new novel is called "Old School."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tobias Wolff. His new novel is
called "Old School." And it's about a young man in a prep school who very
much wants to be a writer and is trying to find himself and his voice.

Your young writer realizes at some point that everything he's been writing has
been kind of false; that he's writing in the voice of the person he wants to
present himself as being, but he knows it's not the person who he really is.
Is this something you know from experience, from when you were young? Did
you, too--I think this is true of a lot of writers--cultivate the voice that
you think you should have or that, you know, if you were a different person
you would have because you didn't want to reveal who you really were?

Prof. WOLFF: Yes, I think that's absolutely true, or if it wasn't a question
of wanting to conceal who you were, it was certainly a matter of wanting to
appear in a certain way to the world. And actually I don't think that's a
problem that ever goes away for writers. You know, certainly the memoirs test
you. Be very, very wary of always presenting himself or herself in a way that
shows that the memoirist is always the person with the virtue in a situation
where everybody else is compromising: the person who always has the witty
thing to say when everybody else is tongue-tied; the lone exemplar of
principle when everyone else is weak at the knees. You know what I mean.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Prof. WOLFF: To always be--and, frankly, that is something that one sees in
some memoirs, some very celebrated memoirs, indeed. And then I always feel a
certain shrinking from those kinds of books. I think that writers need to see
each other as part of a fallen creation.

GROSS: Do you have any regrets of anything you've ever revealed about
yourself or somebody else in your memoirs?

Prof. WOLFF: Not really, no. To tell you the truth, I don't. I was touched
when Annie Dillard told me that when she was writing her memoir, "American
Childhood," that she showed her manuscript to everyone who was in it and
allowed them to make changes according to their memory of how things happened
or their sense of themselves. And I thought that was an extremely generous
approach to the writing of the memoir. My own approach is to tell the truth
as I remember it, even knowing that as I remember things--will not be in
agreement with the way everybody else remembers them simply because we all
remember things differently. And so for me to, you know, regret the way I've
told things would be, really, to regret the way I remember them, and I can't
really do that because the sum of my remembrance, really, is who I am. I
mean, we are--remember in "Blade Runner," when they want to humanize those
droids, they give them a memory. That's what makes us human. And so I would
be disavowing that part of me, which is me all together. And so, no, I can't
say that I would do it any differently.

GROSS: Tobias Wolff, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. WOLFF: My pleasure.

GROSS: Tobias Wolff's new novel is called "Old School."

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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