Tom Wolfe: Writing Nonfiction 'Became A Great Game And A Great Experiment'

May 15, 2018
Originally published on May 15, 2018 2:24 pm

Tom Wolfe wasn't interested in fitting in. In his signature white suit, the best-selling author and journalist described himself as "the village information gatherer."

"For me, it is much more effective to arrive in any situation as a man from Mars," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1987.

Wolfe died Monday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 88.

Wolfe was at the vanguard of "new journalism" in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, he said, journalists were expected to assume a "neutral" or "objective" voice. "I frankly found it absolutely boring," he said — and made "a great game and a great experiment" of using "techniques that short story writers and novelists use."

His works included The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Wolfe spoke with Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1987 and with Dave Davies in 2012. We remember Wolfe with excerpts from those two interviews.


Interview Highlights

On getting writers' block while working on a story about customized cars in Los Angeles in the early 1960s — and how that lead to an epiphany about his journalistic style

I went to the managing editor of Esquire, Byron Dobell ... and I told him ... "Byron I'm sorry, I just simply cannot write the story, I just have to drop the assignment." He says: "You can't do that. ... Why don't you just give us your notes and we'll get some competent writer to put them together?"

So with a very heavy heart one night ... I started typing up these notes in the form of a memo ... as fast as I could do it, to get this humiliating task over with. And I ended up typing at top speed for about eight or nine hours. And in that time I produced 50 typewritten pages.

I took this over to Esquire, turned it in about 9:00 o'clock in the morning, went home to sleep. I got a call about 4:00 that afternoon from Byron Dobell saying, "Well Tom, we're going to knock the 'Dear Byron' off the top of your memo and run the memo as the article."

That article became ... "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," which was the title of my first book. What had happened was, in writing what I thought was a memorandum to a single individual who was about my own age ... I had somehow liberated myself from all of the fears and all of the constraints that you feel when you are going to write something as formal as a magazine article for a national audience. I had reached that kind of tone that a lot of people are able to reach in writing a letter to a friend.

On how his writing style can also yield bad writing

It can lead to excesses, particularly in the form of purple prose. It's a very demanding form and I think a lot of people who try it don't realize how much reporting you have to do first. Without the information behind it, all of these techniques — which are things like scene-by-scene construction and use of extended passages of dialogue and point of view in the Henry James sense — without the facts, which can only be obtained through reporting, it can really fall flat. ... It can become just a verbose technique.

On wearing white suits and his conscious effort to not try to 'fit in'

I used to try to fit in. I remember doing a thing on stock car racing. I went down to North Wilkesboro, N.C., ... and I wore a green tweed suit and a blue button down shirt and a black neck tie and some brown suede shoes and a brown Borsalino hat. I figured that was really casual.

After about five days, Junior Johnson, whom I was writing about, came to me and he says, "I don't mean to be rude or anything ... but people I've known all my life down here ... they keep asking me, 'Junior, who is that little green man following you around?'"

It was then that it dawned on me that ... nobody for 50 miles in any direction was wearing a suit of any color, or a tie for that matter, or a hat, and the less said about brown suede shoes the better. ...

I was also depriving myself of the ability to ask some very obvious questions ... if you're pretending to fit in, you can't ask these obvious questions.

On the 'bargain' between the press and the people they cover

I don't think it's an inalienable right of the American press to be cooperated with. You know, most people if they let the press observe them, are striking an implicit bargain. They know that there's something in it for the press and they feel that there's something in it for themselves, and I think we might as well be frank about it — it is some kind of bargain.

On whether the people he writes about ever regret allowing him access — for example, those portrayed in his 1970 essay "Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny's" which mocked white liberals eating fancy hors d'oeuvres at a fundraising party for the Black Panthers at Leonard Bernstein's house

As a journalist, you have to take the position that ... the process of discovery that you are going through is as important — if not more important — than any issue that is involved in the story that you're writing. Looking back ... I think it was important to see exactly how the phenomenon that I called "Radical Chic" worked and what it was all about. ...

You can't afford to be constantly wringing your hands over the impact of what you're doing, whether you're talking about the impact on the individuals that you're writing about, or the impact on the issues that are involved — in this case, support for radical groups in the late 1960s. I was heavily criticized after that for ... drying up fundraising for these radical groups among wealthy people, among socialites and in New York. Well, whether I did or I didn't, I don't think you can worry about that. I think if you start worrying about that you're no longer writing, you're involved in public relations.

On writing his 2012 book 'Back to Blood' by hand

If I had my choice I would be writing by typewriter. I worked on newspapers for 10 years. I typed with the touch system and unfortunately, you can't keep typewriters going today. You have to take the ribbons back to be re-inked ... It's a horrible search to try to find missing parts. So I went to the computer. And the computer kept winking at me, you know, like: "OK, big boy. I'm ready. Let's have some action here." ... It drove me nuts. The fact is, I was born too early. That's all that means.

On describing the 'status' of his characters

This attention to status ... started when I was in graduate school. ... I had always looked down on sociology as this arriviste discipline. It didn't have the noble history of English and history as a subject. But once I had a little exposure to it, I said: Hey, here's the key. Here's the key to understanding life and all its forms. ... This, obviously, is the way to analyze people in all their manifestations.

I mean, my theory is that every moment, even when you're by yourself in the bathroom, you are trying to live up to certain status requirements as if somebody were watching. ... It's only when your life is in danger that you drop all that.

On being an octogenarian

I always say: Look, that's a hobby of mine. It's not an occupation. It's something, you know, I like to do at night. But I think it doesn't really matter how old you are if your health is all right and your mind hasn't gone yet.

Beth Novey, Bridget Bentz and Nicole Cohen adapted these interviews for the Web.

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