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

May 15, 2018
Originally published on May 18, 2018 1:21 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 below. The audio link above contains only experts from the 1987 interview.


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.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today on FRESH AIR, we commemorate author and journalist Tom Wolfe, who died Monday at age 88.

Tom Wolfe was one of the early practitioners of what came to be known as New Journalism, adapting novelistic techniques for his nonfiction books and articles. He coined such widely accepted expressions as radical chic and the Me Decade, chronicled Ken Kesey and his fellow LSD travelers in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and America's first astronauts in "The Right Stuff." He wrote reported pieces and profiles for such magazines as New York, Esquire and Harper's. And eventually, he experimented with writing fiction.

In 1987, his first novel, honing in on the privileged and greedy brokers of Wall Street, became the best-selling novel "The Bonfire Of The Vanities." That's when Terry Gross spoke with Tom Wolfe and asked him about making the transition from new journalism to fiction and what inspired him to write "The Bonfire Of The Vanities."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TOM WOLFE: It was a piece of curiosity. I was curious as to what would happen if I did try to do a novel. I was curious about just sort of throwing down this challenge to myself. You know, I have bad-mouthed contemporary fiction so much.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: That's right. (Laughter).

WOLFE: It's just awful. I mean...

GROSS: I was going to get to that. (Laughter).

WOLFE: I've been a little outrageous about it. So I said, even though I'm asking for a lot of trouble, I'm just going to throw down the gauntlet to myself and see what'll happen if I do it. And having done that, I'll say, I'm now going to try to prove that it's not only possible to write realistic, even naturalistic fiction about today, but that it's desirable to do it. So I also wanted to prove a literary point.

GROSS: Your new novel explores several different cultures within New York City. One of them is the haves, and the main character is an investment banker who's finding it hard to save any money on his million-dollar-a-year income.

WOLFE: Yes.

GROSS: And he thinks of himself as a master of the universe, someone who can't be a saint 'cause he's a master of the universe, and he's too busy, and he has too much responsibility. What genre of person do you think that is? I mean, is this a person who typifies a certain attitude in the '80s?

WOLFE: I think it's quite typical of the '80s, that - which is a period of tremendous prosperity among certain people in large cities. There's probably never been a period of such prosperity. And particularly in New York, where the world of investment manipulation has created a gigantic industry, by now far and away the biggest industry in terms of dollars, and in some ways in terms of just sheer numbers of people in New York City.

And it leads - the colossal accumulation of money leads to the belief among those who have it that this accomplishment translates into all areas of life and that if you are able to make a lot of money, let's say on Wall Street, that you're also able to do anything else that you want to do with your life. In other words, that you are able somehow to be a master of the universe. And this is a great pitfall in every area when you start thinking you can translate an ability in one area into the rest of your life.

GROSS: Now, you got your doctorate in American studies. Why did you go into journalism? Not that there's a whole lot of professions waiting for people with doctorates in American studies.

WOLFE: Well, you put your finger on one part of it, and very few people realize that. Oddly enough, the work I did at Yale to get a doctorate in American studies turned out to be of inestimable value in journalism. It so happened that I finished my dissertation at the end of one summer. And it was too late to get a job teaching, which is the natural thing for someone in graduate school to do.

So I decide, well, I'll do something else for a year and get a job teaching the following year. So I got a job on a newspaper in Springfield, Mass., which is a few miles north of New Haven and, somewhat to my surprise, loved it from the very beginning. I was a general assignment reporter covering whatever came my way, filling in on the police beat on the weekends. And I really never wanted to leave it once I got started.

GROSS: You started to use the techniques of fiction to write journalistic stories. What were you reacting against in the style of journalism?

WOLFE: There was a neutral so-called objective voice that journalists were expected to assume at that time. And we're getting back to the late '50s and the early '60s. And I, frankly, found it absolutely boring. I also, having had it in the back of my mind that I was, you know, at some point, I was going to - I was going to quit journalism and write fiction. I mean, that's what everybody starts - everyone interested in writing starts into journalism with - that's the idea.

I began to be intrigued with the notion of, well, here I am a journalist. Why not use, if it's possible, some of these techniques that short story writers and novelists use while doing nonfiction? And this became a great game and a great experiment and pretty soon, by the mid-'60s, seemed to me much more important than writing fiction. I mean, there was nothing going on in fiction that even remotely compared in excitement with what was going on and what at that time was called New Journalism.

GROSS: Was it a sudden thing that got you to write that way? Did you suddenly say, well, I can't write this piece in the old style, I've got to write it in this new style, the old style just won't work? Or did your writing gradually evolve?

WOLFE: No. Well, I did have a kind of involuntary epiphinal (ph) moment in - let's see, what year was it? - it was 1963 it must have been. There was a - late in '62, a newspaper strike began. I was by now working for The New York Herald Tribune. And I suddenly found myself out of a job. And I needed to make some money, so I went over to Esquire magazine and sold them on the idea of a story on customized cars, which at that time were being made in very fanciful forms by teenagers in Los Angeles, the era of Big Daddy Ed Roth and George Barris and so on.

So they said, OK, go on out to California and do this story. I remember checking into the Beverly Wilshire hotel and over the course of four weeks running up his enormous bill. I came back to New York, found myself utterly blocked. I could not write this story. I went to the managing editor of Esquire, Byron Dobell. And I told him, I said, Byron, I'm sorry, I just simply cannot write this story. I just have to drop the assignment. He says, you can't do that. We've got about $10,000 worth of color plates of these ridiculous automobiles you're supposed to be writing about already made. We can't do anything about that. So 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 - as a matter of fact, after - oh, it must been after 9 o'clock one night - I started typing up these notes in the form of a memo which began - Dear Byron, the first place I saw customized cars was at a teen fair in North Hollywood, Calif - straight as I could do it but 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 o'clock in the morning, went home to sleep. And I got a call about 4 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. And that article became the one entitled "The Kandy-Colored 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 - Byron Dobell - that 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. There are many great writers of letters who freeze when they are told to write a course paper or a...

GROSS: Well, a lot of people tell you write it as if you're telling your friend about it. Of course, easier said than done.

WOLFE: ...When they are told to write a course paper.

GROSS: You (unintelligible) a lot of people tell you write it as if you're telling your friend about it - of course, easier said than done.

WOLFE: Well, that...

GROSS: It implies that you're more articulate somehow when you're talking to a friend about it, which isn't, of course, necessarily true.

WOLFE: Not necessarily true, but you are freer. And it'll work the first time for anybody.

GROSS: Well, that article established a new style for you, which you've been building on for a long time. Now, that style has created real reverberations within journalism. And I want to talk to you a little bit about the legacy of that style. It seems that it spawned a lot of terrific writing, and it spawned a lot of bad writing, too. I don't know if you feel that way - do you (laughter)? - that there are a lot of excesses that have been...

WOLFE: It can lead to excesses, particularly in the form of purple prose.

GROSS: Yeah.

WOLFE: It's a very demanding form. And I think a lot of people who try don't realize how much reporting you have to do first without the information behind it. All 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 just becomes a - it can become just a verbose technique.

GROSS: There's also a certain kind of novelistic writing that has entered newspapers where the article might start, it was 4 a.m. Little Johnny awakened with a start. There was a big noise outside. He looked out the window. War had broken out.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And instead of just the headline saying war broke out, you have to get through all this descriptive, novelistic writing.

WOLFE: Well frankly, I don't see it tried enough. The great day of this form of writing in newspapers was at the New York Herald Tribune when it was desperately trying to overtake The New York Times. And that's what really started early brilliant work by people like Jimmy Breslin or Gail Sheehy and many others. It didn't - you know, we never overtook The New York Times, but it was - we sure made a great show as the ship sank.

BIANCULLI: Tom Wolfe speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's 1987 interview with author Tom Wolfe, who died Monday at age 88.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Can I ask you the dread questions about your white suits?

WOLFE: Yeah. Now we're getting serious. Let's (unintelligible).

GROSS: Yeah, let's get down to our real business here. I mean, your signature as far as your wardrobe goes has always been the three-piece suit, tailor-made, usually white. Something I've always wondered about wearing a white suit is that you really have to protect yourself because anything is going to get you dirty. And as a journalist, it seems to me you really want to dive into a situation and do what needs to be done. But if you're wearing all white, you have to keep everything at a certain distance.

WOLFE: Well, two things that come to mind when you ask about that. One is I have discovered that for me - and maybe it doesn't work for everybody - for me, it is much more effective to arrive in any situation as a man from Mars than to try to fit in. I've tried it. When I first started out in journalism, in magazine work particularly, I used to try to fit in. I remember doing a thing on customize - on stock car racing. I went down to North Wilkesboro, N.C., to do a story on a stock car racer named Junior Johnson. And I tried to fit into the stock car scene. I wore a green tweed suit and a blue button-down shirt and a black knit tie and some brown suede shoes and a brown Borsellino hat. I figured that was really casual, really - the stock car races.

And after about five days, Junior Johnson, whom I was writing about, came up to me. He says, I don't mean to be rude or anything. He says, but people I've known all my life down here in Ingle Hollow - that was where he came from - say, they keep asking me, Junior, who is that little green man following you around? It was then that it dawned on me that, A, 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 can assure you. So I wasn't - you know, I wasn't fitting in to start with. I was also depriving myself of the ability to ask some very obvious questions if I thought I fit in. I was dying to know what an overhead cam was. People were always talking about overhead cams. But if you're pretending to fit in, you can't ask these obvious questions. After that, I gave it up. I would turn up in - always in a suit, and, you know, many times a white suit and just be the village information gatherer. And you'll be amazed, if you're willing to strike that role.

GROSS: When you were doing the research for your book, "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," which is about Ken Kesey and the psychedelic acid trips, were you dressed like that, too?

WOLFE: Oh, yes. And it would - actually, to have tried to fit into that scene would have been fatal - perhaps literally fatal. Kesey had this abiding distaste for pseudo-hippies or hipster. There was really no such term at that time. But - well, it was called pseudo-hipsters - you know, the journalist or lawyer or teacher who on the weekends puts on his jeans and smokes a little dope and plays some Coltrane records and tries to be part of the scene. And so he had a device called testing people's cool.

And I remember once witnessing this. It was on a - one of these weekends. And he said, all right, let's everybody get nekked (ph) - it was his word for naked - and get on our bikes and go up Route 1. This was in California. And they did. They took off all their clothes. They got on the motorcycles. And they started riding up Route 1. Now, this separated the hippies from the weekend hipsters, if you will, very rapidly. But now I didn't have to worry because I wasn't - I was in my three-piece suit with a big, blue corduroy necktie, and the idea that I was going to take any of this off for anybody was crazy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WOLFE: So, you know, I was safe.

GROSS: Well, you probably just looked like another freak to a lot of freaks.

WOLFE: Well, after about two weeks, one of the - Ken Kesey's group, the Pranksters, named Doris DeLay, said to me, you know, you got on the weirdest outfit around here. And it was the most unusual in that particular little corner of the woods.

GROSS: Would you ever let a journalist observe you, hang out with you? I don't mean just interview you and write a piece about you. Maybe this has happened already. But say a journalist wanted to almost move in with you for a few weeks, really get a sense of your life, follow you around on a story you were writing. Would you let anyone do that?

WOLFE: Probably not. I don't - I've never felt that anybody owes me the courtesy or favor of letting me observe them or that nobody owes - has any obligation to answer my questions. You know, most people, if they let the press observe them, are striking an implicit bargain. They feel that there's - they know 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's some kind of - it is some kind of bargain. Not that the outcome is going to be - the outcome of what is written should be a certain thing but that, OK, I'll give you this freedom of observation in hopes that I'm going to get this particular - I think that's the way it works out.

GROSS: That leads me to my final question, which is some people probably who got written about by you felt burned afterwards - thinking specifically of the "Radical Chic" piece that you wrote about a fundraising party for the Black Panthers at Leonard Bernstein's house. I'm sure he was sorry that you were there.

WOLFE: Yes, I think he - I think he was. I think you have to take - as the journalist, you have to take the position that what you are doing is important, that the process of discovery that you are going - that you're going through is as important, if not more important, than any issue that is involved in the story that you're writing. And looking back at the story on Leonard Bernstein and the Black Panthers, the story "Radical Chic," I think it was important to see exactly how the phenomenon that I called radical chic worked and what it was all about.

And I think 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 - which I don't think I did - but drying up fundraising for these radical groups among wealthy people, among socialites 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.

BIANCULLI: Tom Wolfe speaking to Terry Gross in 1987, when his first novel of fiction, "The Bonfire Of The Vanities," was published. Tom Wolfe, who also wrote "The Right Stuff" and "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," died Monday at age 88. After a break, we'll hear from Edward St. Aubyn, the British author whose Patrick Melrose novels currently are being dramatized as a TV miniseries on Showtime. And I'll review a new TV movie based on the work of yet another author, Ray Bradbury, whose HBO version of "Fahrenheit 451" premieres Saturday. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL CHARLAP TRIO'S "MAKE ME RAINBOWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.