My name is Ulf Wolf. Ulf is a Swedish name that once upon a long time ago meant Wolf. So, yes, Wolf Wolf, or Wolf squared, that’s me.
I was born Ulf Ronnquist (meaning branch of rowan, or mountain ash, tree) one snowy night in late October, in one of those northern Swedish towns that are little more than a clearing in the forest.
Fast forward through twenty Swedish years, ten or so English ones, and another twenty-four in the US and you’ll find me in front of an immigrations officer conducting the final citizenship interview, at the end of which he asks me, “What name would you like on your passport?”
And here I recall what a friend had told me, that you can pick just about any name you want at this point, and I heard me say “Ulf Wolf.”
That’s how it happened. Scout’s honor.
Of course, I had been using Ulf Wolf as a pen name for some time before this interview, but I hadn’t really planned to adopt that as my official U.S. name. But I did.
I have written stories all my life. Initially in Swedish, but for the last thirty or so years in English. To date I have written seven novels, five novellas and two scores of stories; along with a large basketful of songs and poems.
My writing-focus these days is on life’s important questions (in my view): Who are we? What are we doing here? And how do we escape this prison we call Earth?
Why I Write
I write because I love lying, and I love lying because I really believe (and have experienced) that: “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.”
Of late, it seems that Neil Gaiman, if not actually standing up to claim credit for this quote is often, and incorrectly, nonetheless given it. Me, I’d rather credit Albert Camus, who (before Neil Gaiman was even a twinkle in papa David’s eye) did in fact say, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
Counterintuitive, some say.
Brilliantly put, say others.
Amazingly true, says I.
Yes, we have a lot of nouns and adjectives in the English language, and many of them come with very detailed definitions of many kinds, but such stand-alone words will never carry the same significance and meaning that a stream (or river) of thoughts and actions over a span of a story carry and convey.
By the end of “Great Expectations” you know Pip. No psychologist or historian could ever sum him up in a paragraph of well-chosen adjectives or clever metaphorical nouns. Never. It takes the story to birth and spring to full life our hero (of sorts) Pip.
David Faulkner once said, “Your character should breathe, stand up, and cast a shadow.” By the end of Dicken’s lovely tale, Pip casts very long, and very real shadows indeed.
According to Arundhati Roy the writer of stories or tales is the midwife of understanding. And then she goes on to sing the praise: “Fiction is the most joyous, beautiful, sophisticated, wonderful thing in the world.” Who can possibly argue with that?
Flannery O’Connor puts it another way: “In fiction, two and two is always more than four.” And that I think tells the full story, how to make words mean more than words. Her way of saying that telling a living truth takes a well-crafted lie.
And the she says, “Imagination is the light by which I see.”
This is why I love lying.
My First Story
I remember this story very well because it was my first taste of the great feeling of letting your imagination run wild on paper. It was a free-form 4th (or was it 5th) grade essay assignment, and, sitting at my school desk, pencil in hand, sometimes pencil end in mouth, I chose to invent a tale of a wolverine and a reindeer which included the wolverine dropping from a wite tree branch onto the back of the poor, doomed victim.
As I was writing this tale, I lived the wolverine's life and hunger, and blood-thirstiness, and I lost track of pen and paper as the story flowed out of me. It was magic. And it was a good story. Too good, as it happened, because not only did my teacher castigate me for plagiarizing but she convinced my parents, too, that I must have stolen the story from somewhere—for no child my age (I would have been ten or eleven), apparently, could possibly have come up with and written this story.
Too mature. Too real.
The only person who believed that I had written it was my maternal grandmother, much to her credit (in my eyes). Somehow, she ended up with the story, but by the time she passed away, and I was asking my sister (who spent some time with my grandma towards the end) if she had come across it. No, sorry, nowhere to be found.
Still, I had drunk from the fiction cup of magic.
My Writing Process
It depends on the length of the story.
If a short story, I just like to dream up a situation and then kick the protagonist into motion while I hang on to his or her coat tails and take good notes, living that life.
If it’s a longer story, I usually end out doing an outline just to make sure that the story arc actually makes sense, both logically and aesthetically.
Anything written by John Crowley (of “Little, Big” fame), Salman Rushdie, Nadeem Aslam, Mark Helprin, Arundhati Roy, John le Carré, et al. These writers are word magicians, and I read them as much for pleasure as for learning.
These days, to be honest, I don’t think I could live without my Amazon Kindle.
Honestly, I hate beating my own drum, so I don’t really pursue marketing per se. I figure (and pray—sometimes even trust) that if I write the best I can and make it available, my readers will find me.
It is Zen-like. I am a firm believer in clean and orderly.
I grew up in Northern Sweden in a village that still is not much more than a clearing in the forest. The dark mystique of the sea of trees surrounding still lives inside me, and I've returned to it more than once in my stories.
My latest long-story, “Curiosity” explores what happens after we die.
I believe this to be a question on everyone’s mental tongue, as it were; seldom expressed to others and not often even to oneself. Still, it is most likely the most important question we can ask here on planet Earth.
Teachers of the Craft
My favorite teacher, hands down, is John Gardner. He’s written several books on the craft, all of them amazingly insight- and help-ful.
I also love Flannery O’Connor’s “Mystery and Manners”
Poetry versus Fiction
A good poem, to me, is like a novel with a lot of space between words; that is to say, a good poem can actually convey the same notion, the same idea and importance as a novel, sometimes even at the same depth, just in a very rarefied manner.
Some days I drink poetry like wine, other days I can’t wait to get back to the novel in progress (going through Thomas Pynchon right now—and he is someone from way out there in left field, sometimes hard to follow or digest but never boring; and he knows words).
One of the reasons (perhaps even the main reason) I love the Kindle is the easy and excellent access to dictionaries (I have a baker’s dozen loaded on to my Kindle). My first language was Swedish, but I have now spoken English over twice as long as Swedish. Still, I look up English words quite often, to make sure I understand precisely what the writer means. Not knowing the word precisely, how could I understand the writer.
For some miraculous reason, growing up in a given country, in a given language, you seem to osmose the full language through your pores. Me, encountering English for the first time in 3rd grade, I’ve had to bite off, chew, swallow and digest each English word (or so it seems) in order to assimilate the language. Then again, if Joseph Conrad could do it, and Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), not to mention Nabokov, so could I.
I have been asked: do I think in Swedish or in English? The answer is that, mostly, I think in images.
Joy of Writing
In my view, the greatest joy of writing is the way that time ceases to exist as you enter the universe of fiction, and how the story springs alive and rushes on.
Some mornings I'm eager to get to my keyboard and on with the story just to find out what happens next (which may indeed be a surprise to both the protagonist and me).
And so, I write on, and so I enjoy the magic.