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Geoffrey Wolff brings a diverse background, including writing, teaching, editing and a vagabond childhood, to his job as director of the fiction program.

December 17, 1995

His father was a flamboyant con man: He was expelled from college yet claimed to be a graduate of Yale and the Sorbonne. He was a writer of bogus resumes, a passer of bad checks, a defrauder of innkeepers, a car thief.

Growing up, Geoffrey Wolff spent his childhood on the move. Depending on the state of his father's fortunes, home was anything from a fleabag boarding house to a lakeside estate.

"I think I figured out once that I went to 10 schools in the first 12 years. We were always leaving town a rope's length ahead of the posse," says Wolff, 58, the new director of the graduate fiction program at UC Irvine.

Wolff, who told the tale of his con-man father in his best-selling 1979 memoir, "The Duke of Deception," continued to avoid planting roots during the first two decades of his career as a writer and teacher, a time in which Turkey, Italy, Spain, France, Washington, D.C., and Warren, Vt., were variously called home.

But in 1980, Wolff and his wife, Priscilla, then the parents of two young sons, settled down in Jamestown, R.I. Hired as writer-in-residence at Brandeis University, Wolff commuted to the Boston suburb campus to teach an undergraduate writing workshop and literature courses, and Priscilla became a dean and head of the English department at a private school in nearby Providence.

Moving into a three-story 19th century house on a three-acre plot of land thick with specimen trees, the Wolffs dug in, falling into sync with the "rhythms" of their bay-side surroundings--the rhythms of his boat, the rhythms of her garden. In time, they grew content not to go anywhere and were, as Wolff says, "just sort of gradually shutting down possibilities."

So why did Wolff give it all up to accept the job offer at UCI?

"I wanted a jolt in my life, as did my wife," he says. "Obviously this was done completely in tandem. We'd lived in one place for 15 years and loved it. But one year was slipping into the next without our really noticing it. That's always a danger."

Wolff recalls the reaction of their now-grown sons when he and his wife told them they were thinking of pulling up stakes and moving West.

"To our astonishment, they said, 'Go! Do it!' " says Wolff, as he thumps his fist against his chest: "So they also noticed we needed 12 volts right here."

The Wolffs are renting a house in Laguna Beach, about four blocks up the hill from Woods Cove.

"We're extremely happy there," Wolff says during an interview in his office at UCI, where Priscilla, who was hired to teach composition courses, has an office two doors down the hall.

Wolff, who arrived in Orange County just before the start of the fall quarter in September, has settled into his small office in the humanities office building: He's stocked the bookshelves that line one wall and hung personal pictures on the wall next to his desk--a picture of Wolff and friends on a 1962 skiing trip to St. Anton, Austria; a shot of Blackwing, his beloved 30-foot sailboat; and photos of his sons--28-year-old Nicholas, a marine biologist, and 25-year-old Justin, a PhD candidate in art history at Princeton.

Wolff, himself a 1961 graduate, summa cum laude, of Princeton, brings to his job as a professor of English and creative writing at UCI a diverse career as a writer and teacher.

As a writer over the last 30 years, he has worked as literary critic or books editor for the Washington Post, Newsweek, New Times, Esquire and New England Monthly. He also has written six novels and four nonfiction books, including an acclaimed 1976 biography of Harry Crosby, a 1920s expatriate poet and publisher who committed suicide.

Wolff's most recent novel, "The Age of Consent," was published by Knopf in February, and he is now working on a biography of John O'Hara, the novelist and prolific New Yorker short-story writer.

As a teacher, the onetime Fulbright scholar in English literature at Cambridge University has had stints teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in writing and literature at a handful of institutions, including Princeton, Columbia, Boston and Brown universities.

A stack of press clippings that Wolff has stashed away over the years are a Wolffian primer:

There's a Publishers Weekly interview shortly after the publication of "The Duke of Deception" (a 1980 Pulitzer Prize runner-up for biography) in which he says his nomadic childhood has given him a "fanatical, insane preoccupation with discharging debts" and a desire to be honest with his children (in reinventing his past, Wolff's father even denied being a Jew).

There's a 1990 Rhode Island Monthly profile that asserts that the robust, squash-playing Wolff "is not a quitter"--"not as a boy when a severe stammer earned him the ridicule of classmates . . . not as a middle-aged vacationer gasping for life on a Caribbean beach, the victim of heart failure . . . and never, never as a writer."

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