As his co-workers at The Washington Post investigated Watergate in 1972, Tobias Wolff was a negligent obituary writer. A colleague, aware the cub reporter wasn't following protocol, phoned in a fake death notice. Another journalist saved Wolff from exposure by warning him about the ruse. But the emerging short story writer often wondered what would have happened if he'd mistakenly published the death notice of a living man. From his undistinguished stint as a journalist came the story Mortals, about a man craving recognition who calls in an obit for himself and furthers the deception by complaining when it's printed. This bleakly comic tale is included in Our Story Begins, an omnibus volume of Wolff's stories, which combines selections from his three previous collections with 10 new pieces. Mainstream success arrived for Wolff with the 1989 memoir of his troubled youth, This Boy's Life (released next month by Highbridge in a new audio version). It was furthered by the 1993 film adaptation, in which Wolff was played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Until then, he was best known for his role in the American renaissance of the short story. Along with Richard Ford and Raymond Carver, he was tagged as a pioneer of 'dirty realism', denoting the new orthodoxy of sombre and minimalist fiction about blue-collar life. Wolff tetchily dismisses the term as 'utterly meaningless'. His stories often explore the lies people tell to reinvent themselves and colour their underwhelming lives. Wolff himself owes a lot to bluffing. As a delinquent 14-year-old in the backwater town of Chinook, Washington, he won a scholarship to study at an elite east coast preparatory academy, the Hill School, by forging straight-A grades on blank report cards and fabricating testimonials on school letterhead. 'I felt full of things that had to be said, full of stifled truth,' he wrote in This Boy's Life. 'I believed that in some way that was not factually verifiable ... I was an Eagle Scout and a powerful swimmer, and a boy of integrity.' The boy's talent for dissembling seemed destined to land him in prison, where his father, an alcoholic conman, did time for passing bad cheques. Instead, Wolff made a career out of telling the truth through fiction. His stories build towards old-fashioned epiphanies in spare and unsentimental prose. As the title Our Story Begins suggests, they respect traditional form, with clear beginnings, middles and ends. One important literary influence was his brother, Geoffrey, also a writer, and older by seven years. Their parents divorced when Tobias was five: he moved with his mother to the west coast, while Geoffrey lived with their father on the east. Before the brothers were reunited, when Tobias was 15, they lost touch for six years. But they independently became aspiring writers. 'I discovered my brother - who I looked up to, especially in that way that you look up to someone who you hardly ever see - to be completely besotted with literature,' says Wolff, 63, in a phone interview from California, where he teaches writing at Stanford University. They have remained close ever since and their relationship, as Wolff tells it, has always been remarkably free of rivalry. The brothers' shared literary leanings may have owed less to uncanny coincidence than heredity; their father, Arthur, was an inveterate teller of fictions - a scam artist as charismatic as he was duplicitous. Not until he was 19 did Wolff, now a practising Catholic, learn that his father was of Jewish extraction rather than Episcopalian as he claimed to be. Geoffrey recounted his life with their father in The Duke of Deception (1980). A decade later, Tobias wrote about his upbringing with their hard-up but endlessly optimistic mother, Rosemary, in This Boy's Life. Her second husband was no improvement on Arthur; Dwight, a mechanic, relished humiliating his stepson and terrifying him on drunken car rides. 'She was feckless in her decisions about men,' Wolff observes. Wolff warmed to his father on a visit before attending The Hill school. But he felt less forgiving after the first of his three children was born. 'When I realised what it was to have a child, it became unimaginable to me that someone could just walk away from them.' The Hill confirmed his desire to be a writer. 'It was an atmosphere in which literature was honoured above all things.' William Golding and Robert Frost visited during Wolff's time there. But Wolff failed to rise to the academy's standards. He failed a crucial maths exam, his scholarship was withdrawn and he was forced to leave. His 2003 novel Old School depicts the intrigue and rivalries at an exclusive boys' boarding school in the 1960s. The narrator, a closet Jew, plagarises a story in an effort to win a literary competition where the prize is a private audience with Ernest Hemingway. The book drew upon 'the crisis of identity that was triggered in me by my transformation from a rural school in Washington State to this very expensive, socially conscious and literarily conscious school'. After leaving The Hill, he spent four years in the army, including a year's stint in Vietnam. 'It seemed almost inevitable for me to join up,' he says. 'All the men I knew when I was growing up had served. Vietnam wasn't on when I joined up, so there wasn't the counter-cultural questioning of the obligations of military service.' It felt significant that several of his literary idols - including Norman Mailer, Hemingway, Erich Maria Remarque and James Jones - had served in the military. 'I thought that as a writer it was something that I should know about.' The lessons of combat proved less glamorous, though: 'I discovered within myself the temptations to abuse authority and power.' After Vietnam, he spent six months preparing for the entrance exams at Oxford, where the former school drop-out went on to graduate with a first in English. Bill Clinton was also a student there and, though they weren't friends, Wolff jokes that he might have passed Clinton the joint he didn't inhale. It was two decades before he began work on the memoir of his Vietnam days, In Pharaoh's Army (1994), which was the time necessary 'to find a form for those memories and see myself in them from a distance'. Asked what remains in him of the scamp from This Boy's Life, Wolff mentions 'the longing for home, for family, and that tendency towards mythologising'. But, he adds: 'I don't self-mythologise anymore: I'm just too tired, too old.' It's safe to say that the fibber who improvised his own reference letters will not be writing his own obituary.