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Born in Birmingham, Alabama on June 19, 1945, Tobias Wolff's boyhood was plagued by dysfunction and hardship. Wolff's parents divorced when he was still very young, and Wolff moved from state to state with his mother while his older brother, Geoffrey, remained in the custody of their father. It would be six years before the brothers were reunited. Although Geoffrey was raised with relative privilege and Wolff grew up in poverty, both brothers were victims of serious domestic abuse and neglect.

Wolff was to suffer a difficult adolescence filled with fistfights, drinking binges, and poor grades. Wolff often told lies, both to himself and other people, as a means of escape from his miserable situation. In his imagination, Wolff believed himself to be an athlete, a scholar, and a merit-winning Eagle Scout. He was forever trying to convince himself of his status as an upright citizen. Wolff's father was also prone to destructive bouts of deception, and was eventually committed to a sanitarium after a severe mental breakdown. Throughout Wolff's youth in the industrial town of Chinook, Washington, there was not much for him to do but get into trouble and long for the day he could leave. That day finally came when, after sending in a falsified application, Wolff was accepted to the elite Hill Preparatory School on the east coast. Wolff was expelled after two years at Hill for failing grades, but although he was disappointed, he was not disheartened. After his expulsion from Hill, Wolff joined the army. During his four years in the service, Wolff was appointed an advisor to the South Vietnamese during the ##Vietnam War# Wolff describes this experience in his second memoir, In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War. After the Vietnam War, Wolff was accepted at prestigious Oxford University in London, where he earned his Bachelor's degree in 1972, followed by a Master's degree in English Language and Literature in 1975. Following his graduation from Oxford, Wolff worked as a reporter for the Washington Post. Shortly after, Wolff was awarded the Stegner Fellowship to Stanford University, where he earned a Master's degree in English in 1978. It was at Stanford that Wolff met and befriended renowned writer Raymond Carver, who was to help and encourage Wolff throughout his years as a new, struggling writer. After receiving his Master's from Stanford, Wolff began writing in earnest. He published his first novel, Ugly Rumors upon his graduation from Oxford in 1975. He published a number of stories in Atlantic Monthly, and, subsequently, a collection of stories titled In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. Wolff was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in creative writing, the St. Lawrence Award for fiction, and a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction. Wolff continued to garner praise and awards from his later novels and memoirs, including The Barracks Thief and The Night in Question. Wolff's brother Geoffrey also became a novelist. In addition to writing literature, Wolff also teaches the subject. After seventeen years as Director of Syracuse University's Creative Writing Program, Wolff accepted that same position at Stanford, where he has been teaching since 2000.