At 82, Tom Wolfe stands as one of America’s most venerable writers. Over a 50-year career, which began with an obscure reporting job he took as a break from his Ph.D. work in American Studies at Yale University, he has produced a steady stream of consequential articles and books, many of them culture-changing bestsellers: The Right Stuff, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full.
And he is not done. In 2014, he will publish a new work of nonfiction.Titled The Kingdom of Speech, the book, according to publisher Little, Brown, will range “from 19th-century anti-Darwinism to current scholarship proposing that humans are divided from animals by their power of speech.”
Cementing Wolfe’s status as one of the great chroniclers of life in America’s greatest city, the New York Public Library in November purchased his papers and letters for $2.15 million. Wolfe recently reflected in an interview with TAS contributing editor George Neumayr at his apartment on the Upper East Side.
How do you account for your career?
It helps to know from a very early age what you want to do. From the time I was five years old I wanted to be a writer, even though I couldn’t even read. It was mainly because I thought of my father as a writer. Actually, he was an agronomist. But he was editing a magazine called The Southern Planter, which gave advice to farmers.
I would see him writing on a big yellow legal pad. And then about two weeks later there would come out a publication in type. I don’t know if I can explain it, but when I was young type was so refined. It had these sharp edges. I wish I could relive the excitement of seeing type for the first time. So it was pretty clear that I wanted to be a writer.
Everyone is taught the essentials of writing for at least 13 years, maybe more if they go to college. Nobody is taught music or tap dancing that way. When I went to high school, my most passionate desire was to be a professional baseball player. But something within me told me that was not going to happen. So I continued my interest in writing. And then I went off to graduate school.
I went to graduate school because I figured that I would need a way to make a source of income while writing. Graduate school turned out to be fabulous. The field was American Studies and through that I discovered sociology. In college I had somehow picked up the idea that sociology was one of these arriviste disciplines, sort of like economics, though in economics they still don’t know what they are doing. American Studies introduced me to sociology, economics, history. It took me five years to get the doctorate. At that point I had been on campuses for nine years. And I thought, “I need a break.”
So I got a job on a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts. And that to me was so much fun. Of course, I was living the experience through the eyes of Ben Hecht, with his stories of Chicago reporters going up to the top of buildings and pissing down on the river below.
Anyway, I was really quite carried away with it. I worked for newspapers for several years. Then I finally got a job on the New York Herald Tribune. And it was while working at the New York Herald Tribune that I did my first magazine writing. I did it for what is now New York magazine but at that time was a Sunday supplement for the New York Herald Tribune, which was probably the greatest, if I may say so, Sunday supplement there ever was.
Sunday supplements used to be throwaway material. If something didn’t grab you immediately, you just tossed it in the wastebasket. But the Sunday supplement for the New York Herald Tribune was different. I was always conscious of having to get the reader hooked as fast as possible. I tried all kinds of things. Weird typographics, weird sounds.
I remember doing one piece called “The Voices of Village Square.” This came about because there was a women’s house of detention near where I lived in Greenwich Village. I would often hear the inmates, who were right above the streets, yelling out the window. One of the things they liked to do most was yell a boy’s name, and then if somebody who happened to be walking by had that name he would look up and they would shower abuse on him. I wrote a whole story about that.
I remember it was Christmas time, and they were singing, “We wish you a Black Christmas and May All your Christmases be Blaaaaack.”
Was that your first attempt at what came to be called the New Journalism?
I am trying to think. It probably wasn’t the first. I can’t remember what the first one was. Anyways, I started writing the same sort of pieces for Esquire. Its editor, Harold Hayes, wanted a piece done on Muhammad Ali, and Ali wanted to be paid for it.
Hayes said, “We don’t pay people for stories, but you will be on the cover of a magazine.” However, Hayes said to Ali, “You are special, so we will give you $150. The reporter will be with you for five days and we will pay you $50 on Monday, $50 on Wednesday, and $50 on Friday.” Ali said, “Terrific.”
When I joined him on Monday, to every question I asked him, I would get an answer that I had read in the clippings beforehand. I was trying to ask him questions where he was bound to have some new material, but I couldn’t get anywhere. But I could be with him all day. So the whole story ended up being about the people he ran into and the incidents that would come up. On the second day he was here in New York City making a movie called I Am the Greatest. Although he was a great showman, he wasn’t much of an actor. There was a certain fake befuddled approach he would take. Anyways, on Tuesday we were in a taxi together going across Central Park and suddenly he said to me, “Tom, it is a nice day. Why don’t we just get out and walk awhile?” So we got out and stood on that depressed highway that goes across Central Park. At this point he put his arm on my shoulder and he said, “What day is it, Tom?” And I said, “Well, it is Tuesday.” And he said, “But it feels like Wednesday to me.” I got the drift. So I told him he wasn’t going to get the money until the day he was supposed to get it.
Meanwhile it turned out that he was performing [in that movie] under contract for a group of Kentucky businessmen and they were not going to let him go to New York with hangers-on because they thought he would blow all his money. I noticed he was always very well-dressed and that he was wearing a black or navy necktie with small letters of a radio station on it. “Do me a favor and don’t print that,” he said. He explained that he had no cash and that the radio station had given him something like $150 just to wear the necktie.
Most of his hangers-on had nothing to do with boxing. One night we went to a nightclub. There must have been a dozen people at a big table and everybody was ordering drinks and every kind of food. When the waiter brought the desserts, Ali got up and stretched, said it was a little stuffy in the restaurant, and left. I was pretty quick to get out too. That was the kind of thing that that story was full of. Ali just didn’t want to pay the bill.
I was very influenced by Jimmy Breslin and Gay Talese. They had been using this technique in which you turn an article into a scene and use a lot of dialogue, often dialogue that had nothing to do with the heart of the story.
Gay Talese and I were more or less rivals. He was writing feature stories for the New York Times and he also had done some pieces for Esquire. I remember one of his began with Joe Louis flying to Los Angeles from New York and he was met at the airport by his then current wife—he had some others—and the wife said, “You don’t have any necktie.” And he said, “I was up late last night and I just didn’t pull myself together.” And she replied, “When you go to New York you are 25 years old; when you come back here you are 75 years old.” My reaction upon reading that was: How the hell did Talese get this dialogue? I decided he must have faked it, or he must have piped it, as we used to say. It turned out that he had ingratiated himself with Louis enough that Louis had let him fly back with him to Los Angeles. So it was all quite real.
Breslin would do things such as cover a trial in Newark, New Jersey of some mobster. Most trials would start around 9:30. But he would get there at eight because he wanted to see the defendant coming through the door. So here is this mobster type and he had his retinue with him and they are all kind of joking around, with the defendant hitting the arm of one of his friends right below the deltoid where it hurts like hell to be hit, with the other friends saying, “he is always hitting Ralphie on the arm.” Anyway, Breslin would put all of this dialogue into the story. And then you get into the trial and the guy loses the verdict and suddenly he is not lively anymore. It was all like a scene. Breslin and Talese would go from scene to scene to scene rather than having these boring narrative interludes, with that terrible second paragraph, “Jeff was actually born in Carson City….” Every time I would read stories with paragraph likes that I would think, “Oh God, we have to go through this again.”
So the New Journalism began. I didn’t name it that. It was actually Pete Hamill who went up to an editor and said, “Why don’t we do a story on this new journalism?” And that was the title of the piece.
To put “New” before something is asking for trouble, because it is not going to stay new very long. At that time there was something called the “New Conservatism.” My God, it was about the fifth one.
I began to honestly believe that this New Journalism was far more exciting in a literary sense than fiction was. And you could make that case because talented young novelists were all going to these MFA programs and being told, “write about what you know,” which is brilliant advice for your first novel but it makes them helpless on their second novel. It was Emerson who said every person in the world has a great autobiography in them if only they can remember the details that made them different from other people. But Emerson didn’t say you could write two that way.
I used to go through the dictionary looking for unusual but nontechnical words. At one time I thought the greatest word was jejune and I would throw it into every piece, because something about it appealed to me.
Another thing I learned quickly is that it is very hard to use the first person unless you really are a principal in the story. I remember Norman Mailer wrote a long piece about the astronauts after the moon landing. Norman Mailer is all over the story. But Norman Mailer hadn’t made any of the flights. It struck me as pretty sad stuff. It is very tricky to use the first person.
I suppose the success I have had comes from a holdover of the journalistic emphasis on reporting. If a young person comes to me for advice on how to be a successful writer, I say, “Leave the building.” My God, it is a bizarre world out there.
I didn’t write my first novel until I was 54 years old, and even then I didn’t mean to do it. I decided to do a nonfiction novel. Truman Capote had become famous for In Cold Blood, which was a nonfiction novel I never gave him much credit for because he wrote for the New Yorker and the New Yorker feuded with me, which goes on. I had read Vanity Fair by Thackeray and I thought, “This book is a great idea.” I could do a nonfiction Vanity Fair about New York.
One day I went over to Esquire where my girlfriend, who would become my wife, worked. I started wandering around. Most people were at lunch. So while waiting for her I walked into David Halberstam’s office and there on his desk was an invitation from Leonard and Felicia Bernstein to a party for the Black Panthers at 835 Park Avenue, which was really Park Avenue to the third power. And I said, “God, I got to go to that.”
So I took down the telephone number on the invitation. And I took a chance that some sort of committee would be handling RSVPs instead of the Bernsteins. So I just called the number and I said, “I am Tom Wolfe and I accept.” When I got there, there was a little security check. But sure enough there was my name on the list. It was going to be a chapter in this nonfiction novel, but it was so good that the old firebell rang and I had to write this as fast as I could. So I wrote it up for the Herald Tribune.
So I ended up writing a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was based on things I knew nothing about, such as the district’s attorney office in the Bronx. I knew nothing about the Bronx. I didn’t know how prosecutors worked; I didn’t know how the Al Sharptons worked. In fact, he hadn’t come into prominence yet. So I drew a generic race hustler. And that took a fair amount of work. These were all things I didn’t know much about and had to report.
I started out like most young writers, thinking that great writing consists of 95 percent of your talent and 5 percent your content. But you have to write about something and pretty soon I had those figures really turned around. It was more like 75 percent content and 25 percent ability.
Did you have an advantage over your colleagues because you had a doctorate?
Well, I will give you an example. My first job was at the Springfield Union and there was a case of a black family living in the basement on a floor made of dirt. And one of the members of the family had gotten very sick from eating dirt. I was to go out and learn about this family. I had remembered from Yale graduate school that there is a disease called Yaws, a deadly disease that people get from eating dirt.
Usually people who are eating dirt, those few who are, are depressed, woebegone people. This came out among slaves in the antebellum South; that’s where you would find many instances of Yaws. It was such an old disease I am not sure it ever got a Latin name. It was just Yaws. So when I wrote that article and built these historical references into the piece, my colleagues thought, “Wow, historical references in a story about a bunch of people eating dirt down in a cellar.”
What was your relationship with editors like?
Well, I don’t think I have the ideal personality for reporting. I am soft-spoken; I am not particularly aggressive. But the great thing about journalism is that if you are assigned to ask a total stranger questions that he really doesn’t want to be asked you just do it.
Before I became a reporter I read a book about how to succeed in business. You might have thought it was useless. But it wasn’t. It said, “Whatever industry you want to go into, don’t be discouraged because you will find there are thousands of companies in that field but you only need one job.” I can’t tell you how that uplifted my soul. Relying on that piece of advice I must have sent out at least forty applications to newspapers of any size. I got three replies. Two were polite rejections and the third one asked me to come on up for interview in Springfield, Massachusetts, which I didn’t know anything about.
So the basic principle of realizing that there are thousands of employers out there and you only need one job worked. My intention had been to do that for a year and then go back to academia. I had finished my dissertation at the end of the summer and it was really too late to find a decent job in teaching. Besides, I felt that I needed a break.
Did your father encourage you or was he freaking out?
I thought he was going to freak out. I had finished my graduate work and he had footed the bill the whole way and now I had to tell him that I was not going to be starting a teaching job at, say, Princeton but that I was going to be writing obituaries for the Springfield Union. So it took me three days to work up the nerve to call my father. Instead of expressing disappointment, he said, “Well, I hope that all works out well for you.” It only dawned on me about 10 years later that his reaction may have been, “Thank God, I am getting that guy off the payroll.”