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If you like Tom Wolfe's story, you might also like:
Nora Ephron,
Henry R. Kravis,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Norman Mailer,
James Michener,
Vincent Scully,
John Updike,
Edward O. Wilson
and Chuck Yeager

Related Links:
The New York Times: Wolfe's Southern Roots

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Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe
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Tom Wolfe Interview (page: 4 / 4)

America's Master Novelist

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  Tom Wolfe

In your career, you've written fiction that's very realistic, and non-fiction that employs some of the tools of fiction. How did you come to these hybrid forms?

Tom Wolfe: When I was in college, like almost everybody who was serious about writing and thought they might themselves be writers, I thought that writing was 95 percent genius. You had to write about something, so the other five percent was just this clay that you fooled around with. That's why I think there are so many terrific young poets, because poetry is the music of literature. Just playing with words can do just marvelous things, when it's used as music. But then you reach a certain age and you realize that the ball game, in terms of prestige in literature is not poetry, it's prose. Whether that's good or bad, that's the way things are. And at that point, you find the young writer cannibalizing his life -- let's say he's 22, 23, 25 -- and he writes his first novel. And it may be great too.

Everybody's life has great material. In fact, Emerson said, "Every person on this earth has a great story to tell, if only he can figure out what is his unique experience." But he didn't say everyone has two. He said everyone has one.

So now the second novel comes along, and that's when you get this kind of pathetic novel. It's about a young novelist who had a great critical success with his first book but he really didn't make any money, and he's living in this four-story walk-up in the Clinton area of New York, and he doesn't have a girlfriend, can't go out to dinner. And this is not really a terrific novel. Nobody really cares about his fate after his great critical success.

The writing programs, where you get the Masters of Fine Art in writing, are always telling people to "write what you know." And students interpret that to mean your own life. Unless you're Count Tolstoy, there's not that much in your own life. I'd be out with a cup if I had to write surely what's based on my own life. But in the 19th century, where there were so many great realistic novelists, they understood. You had to go outside of your own life to get new material. Even Dostoevsky, we think of him being such an internal, psychological creative force. When he wanted to write about the student radicals of his era, he went to the archives. And then started going -- he'd hear about a meeting of some of these groups, he'd go attend, to just get the material. Dickens was, of course, famous for this. Zola did it just time after time after time, going to a new area of life. He wanted to get all of France into a series of novels, and he pretty well did. He'd go from farming to warfare, to whatever he thought he really hadn't covered yet.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

You yourself didn't start out writing fiction, but journalism.

Tom Wolfe: I became involved in what eventually was known as "the New Journalism" as soon as I got to New York. I still had in my mind I was going to write novels. But this new journalism -- which was writing non-fiction using devices of the novel, and still being accurate in the journalistic sense -- was so exciting. You know, people like Jimmy Breslin and Gay Talese who were doing it, and many others. Well, I just wasn't interested particularly in the novel, until after I'd done The Right Stuff, which was non-fiction, and I had written it like a novel. It was the first time in my life I ever had a little cushion of money. And I decided this was a good time, if I ever would sit down and write a novel, this was the time to do it because I could afford it.

Because always, in the back of your mind, those people are saying, "Boy, this non-fiction stuff is the most elaborate writer's block I've ever heard of. You don't tackle the big one because you've discovered this new thing that's supposedly better."

So it was at that point that I started The Bonfire of the Vanities. And at first it was going to be a novel about New York. It had no real focus. It was going to be based more or less on Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Hence the title, The Bonfire of the Vanities. I thought I could -- I had been a reporter for all those years here in New York, and I thought I could just draw upon my experiences, the things I'd seen, and write this book. And I found I couldn't. For the way I wanted to write a novel, I had to go out and do reporting just like the reporting that I did for The Right Stuff, for the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, or anything else that I had written.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

And the example that really got to me was when...

I decided I should have a great party scene -- a party of great social wattage in a Fifth Avenue apartment -- in this book. And I had been to a number of parties like that. And so, I said, "At last. I don't have to do any research for this." So I wrote this chapter, and then I read it over, and it was like a gossip column. You know, just "Who's that person? Who's that person? What did he say? What did she say?" So the next one I went to, I just shut up. I was just on the receiving end of whatever was going on. And for the first time, I noticed the strained, willfully raucous laughter that goes on at parties like that. People laugh in this frantic manner as if to say, "See! I'm a part of all this, and I know what's funny, and I'm just having the time of my life because I fit in!" And then I'd notice that the worst fate in the world was not to be in a conversational cluster. And if somebody's left out, you'd see them studying paintings as if they were very fascinated with art. They'd talk to empty spots on the wall. At last resort, they'll go up to a wife or a husband and start conversation. But you've already lost the game if you're reduced to doing that. There were so many things that I saw once I was not a participant. I was just there. I noticed that, at that time -- and we're talking about the 1980s -- in an apartment of great social wattage, there was never modern lighting. There were no down-lighters, which is essentially industrial lighting. It was always, you were always sometime in the 19th century. Everything's overstuffed. There are these sort of small amber lamps that make everybody's complexion look pretty good. And I just never would have noticed any of this from my own experience. And I discovered that if my radar isn't on, if I haven't switched it on, I don't notice any more than anybody else does.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

I think you have to listen hard, even if you can't take notes at the moment. And this is just to write fiction!

What do you think of as the American Dream? A New York Times reviewer attributed to you a sense of wonder about the American Dream, as evidenced by some of the people you write about in Hooking Up. Do you still have a kind of romanticism about that?

Tom Wolfe: I think The American Dream is very much alive. That's why there's incredible immigration to this country. And the idea is that no matter where you start out, you have the freedom to reach the height that your ability will enable you to do that. And the New York Times has just run a long series about class in America. They don't even realize they're not talking about class, they're talking about status. I mean, when they have an article -- one of the articles was about some evangelical Christians who somehow have come into money, and they know enough to go to Ivy League colleges, and they're making inroads at Brown and so forth and so on. That's class? These people have moved up? That is just sheer status. They've improved their status through hard work. And the entire series. Class, to have real class, it was understood in Marx's day, you almost have to have a land-based economy. People have to be pretty static. And there has to be symbolism. There has to be a sense that in one class you cannot wear -- in a lower class you cannot wear what they wear in a higher class. There's a certain kind of obeisance you have to make to people who are above you. And all that is gone in this country.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

Tom Wolfe Interview Photo
You'll notice that during the '60s, when there were all the student protests, everything was against the middle class. I never heard a single outcry against the upper class, because there really isn't any upper class in the European sense. Today, for example, it's true that if you went to Harvard or Yale yourself, your children have a better chance than the children of somebody who didn't come out of that background. But it's far from being a class thing, because even if the family has been three generations at Harvard, let's say -- you really don't find much of that -- you're not automatically in. They still have to reach a certain threshold in SATs and all the rest of it.

Where are the Astors today? Where are the Vanderbilts? What are they running? The Rockefellers have lasted pretty long. I think they still have a Senator. But these families are more like the Chinese rule of "rags to riches to rags" in three generations. There just are not dynasties in this country, except for dynasties like an Enron dynasty that last about seven years.

Too bad we have to stop there. I wish we could go on and on.

All right.

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 22:25 EST
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