Finally getting a hold of him, after being repeatedly asked to call back by his assistant, EDWARD KEENAN spoke to Tom Wolfe by telephone from his home in New York, where he’s on a short break from being “out shamelessly flogging my book.”

FEMINISM, AGING AND DECIDING TO WRITE NOVELS
EYE WEEKLY: A profile of the New York social scene in Bonfire of the Vanities maybe seems like it was a bit of a gimme for you, and the corporate titan in A Man in Full also was maybe an obvious subject. College life strikes me as less so. What attracted you to the subject?

TOM WOLFE: To me it actually seemed obvious. I was working on A Man in Full since the 1990s, and I would hear these stories that just came through the air about co-ed dorms and political correctness — there was all kinds of talk about that. And binge drinking — there was now a name for heavy drinking — and I heard a little bit, not all that much, about drugs, and it was obvious that certain ideas were being nurtured and spreading from colleges.

A good example is feminism. As far as I know, there was never any debate about the rights of women to work in the upper levels of corporations with men, it just seemed that one day all the corporate leaders woke up and scratched their heads and said, ‘Gee, I guess we have to hire some women, and I guess we have to put them high up in the field, as high as it gets beneath the glass ceiling,’ and they didn’t know why. Gee, all this happened and it seems like this is all you have to do and there was never any debate.

And also all the new topical value seemed to be coming out of the colleges. I think just the co-ed dorms alone seemed to be titillating enough to for somebody to stake out on it.

So at one point when I was working on A Man in Full, I was having so hard a time with that I was tempted to drop it and do something on colleges. I thought it could be done very quickly. By somebody it probably could.

EYE: It never seems to work out that way does it?

WOLFE: Not for me lately.

EYE: I was rereading “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” [Wolfe’s November, 1989 essay for Harper’s Magazine] the other day and of course you mention this New York social novel you had been thinking of writing. You figured you would finish in a year or two, which turned into more than a decade, I guess, and went from being non-fiction to fiction.

WOLFE: Right.

EYE: Fiction seems to take you more time. Looking back over your published work, it seems that you had a book every year or two for a while, and this switch from journalism to novels has sort of slowed the pace.

WOLFE: I have a feeling, I wrote something on this line when I was young. Of course when you’re young the possibility that you ever might be old is ludicrous. I mean, I was born in 1930, so I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, if I reach 70 it’ll be the year 2000.’ But that’s not even — obviously by the time you’re 70 you’re not even functioning, so what does it matter if you get there. And as you get old you say, ‘Well, maybe I’ve got a few more years.’

Anyway, I read that writers tend to become more perfectionists as they get older. Now this is ex post facto author’s psychoanalysis, but perhaps they feel there’s more at stake because they’re so wonderful in their later years and that the world will expect something closer to perfection. There’s writers who get the idea that the world expects anything from them, but the world can get along fine without you.

But there’s also the challenge — I’d never written a novel before and here I was 54 when I started The Bonfire of the Vanities and I’d been thinking of this non-fiction Vanity Fair for a long time. Then I said to myself, ‘If I’m ever going to do a novel, now’s the time.’ I had a limited financial cushion from The Right Stuff. And I must have sat catatonically at my desk and I just couldn’t get — I think I was intimidated by switching to this new form. That’s when I went to Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone and suggested a serial novel, and I think Jan was probably the only editor in the country that was mad enough to run a serial novel at this point in history. If people want a story every week they just turn on the television, there’s lots of stories that resume every week. But he went ahead and did it, and I think if it had not been for that I could have never finished it. I knew I could meet a deadline if I had to meet a deadline, having worked for newspapers for 10 years. And pretty much the way it worked out, I didn’t miss an issue for 27 issues, that’s a little over one year’s worth. Of course I had to change it a great deal, because I’d basically written a first draft in public.

I really only meant to write one, just to prove that I could do it. And that seemed to go over pretty well, a lot better than I thought it would, so I thought, weeellll, I’ll do another one. And that’s the one that stretched on forever. I tried to jam so much into that one book, A Man in Full, there was going to be a Japanese component, an Art World component, there’s a whole novella that appeared in the collection Hooking Up — a novella called “Ambush at Fort Bragg” — that was originally part of A Man in Full. Just why, I’m not sure, where it was going to go in there.

And then I think there was the lure — I know you’re not supposed to mention sales, but god, that book sold a lot of copies. So I thought, ‘Ahhh, I’ll do one more.’”

THE POLITICS OF CRITICISM
EYE: The critical reception of the new book has been mixed. But it seems like there’s something more than not liking the book in the negative reviews that have appeared. The viciousness of the invective makes it seem like they must have had their knives sharpened for a long time, laying in wait for your next book. And I wonder what you think motivates that kind of all-out personal attack.

WOLFE: I don’t know whether that’s the case or not. I always assume that if somebody gives the book a bad review, after all I can’t confront them and say, “You did too like it — you thought that book was great.” So I don’t know, George Orwell once said that it was impossible to enjoy a book written by someone whose political views differ from yours. And now, I’m not very political, I have no agenda, but I can’t stand go along with all these sheep that live in New York in the writing and literary and journalistic community. And if I make fun of contemporary art, as I did in The Painted Word or From Bauhaus to Our House, that’s taken as a political act. That’s a conservative thing to do. Now neither of those books passes any critical judgment in the sense of questioning taste, but they do knock certain icons, so I guess that’s sufficient.

I don’t know. If somebody doesn’t like the book, I guess they didn’t like it.

EYE: I guess that looking over your work — not just this book —one thing that sticks out in much of your writing, fiction and non-fiction is that status is of paramount importance. And I wonder if you ever read these reviews and think that status considerations play a part in their tone.

WOLFE: [LAUGHTER]

EYE: Hunting the big dog or what have you.

WOLFE: Well that’s, I suppose, always possible. But on the very subject of status — it has always bothered critics, I think, when fiction dwells on status. For example in [John] O’Hara [author of Butterfield 8], whole novels turn on that very subject. And I think a lot of people, and this would include a lot of critics, they reject the theory because it’s an uncomfortable theory. And many, many people just assume the world doesn’t work that way, I think. Psychological problems are fine, but status problems are something else again, it seems a little, it seems kind of dirty.

EYE: Now contemporary North Americans have no problem looking at fiction written in the 19th century and seeing the class structure played out there and seeing that class is such an important factor in, say, Dickens, for example. But maybe they nurture this belief that they live in a classless society and these status considerations conflict with that. Which again they must read as political somehow.

WOLFE: That’s possible. I really don’t know whether that’s the case, but it’s certainly possible.… You know, you’re right. I think particularly writers — and artists too, people in the plastic arts — feel that they’re part of an aristocracy that is aloof to all of these considerations. Matthew Arnold wrote that, I believe he said that there was now a fourth class, there’d been the upper class which he called the barbarians, the middle class he called the philistines, and the working class or lower class — it used to be that the lower class meant people who worked, it doesn’t anymore — the lower class were called the populace. Even then you didn’t have funny names for the lower orders. They were called the populace rather than barbarians or philistines. And he said that now there’s a new class, which, this isn’t very mellifluous, he called them the people of sweetness and light, a kind of a charming aristocracy of taste. And I think a lot of them — and I may include myself — believe that if you’re a writer or an artist or something, then somehow you’re aloof from that whole status breakdown.

FREE LOVE AND THE 1960s
EYE: On the subject of status, looking back to the introduction of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, way back in the beginning, you point out that you realized that in Las Vegas, on racetracks, in teenage dance crazes, there were new, essentially American art forms being created and that no one was paying attention because it was popular and because it was proletarian. Do you feel vindicated now that almost our memory of the 1960s is almost entirely made up of those things?

WOLFE: To me it was pretty clear that for the first time, probably in human history, that young people were able to get their hands on enough money to express their beliefs or just simply attitudes in a big way. For example, if you’re able to customize a car, that takes money, and most of these custom cars — the title, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby was a car after all — they somehow had the money to create these forms. And they were by no means from the upper orders, these were street kids in Los Angeles. And the same thing would later be true with surfer communes that I talked about in The Pump House Gang, they would be young, really just boys and girls no older than 14 or 15, living together communally in the same town where their parents lived, and somehow they had the money — often the money was probably from their parents — to live this kind of communal life. And out of the communal life comes the possibility of styles such as the baggies, the swimming suits that the boys wore that now look like the NBA basketball shorts. And they had the vocabulary, “Hang ten” and all that.

Then there were the hippies were the same in a big way, living without working in a colourful manner. It was only made possible because there was somehow money in the air that could be somehow tapped into. What I found in the hippy communes would be three or four women with children and no husbands and each would qualify for aid to dependent children and if you’ve got four in one house then that’s not bad, that goes a long way to paying the rent. And that was all new and I think it was — I wasn’t really writing them in terms of predictions, the subsequent history has played out pretty much according to the — “youth revolution” seems like such a trite term — the changes that the youth living together created.

Without The Beatles, there’d be no heavy metal and all the other things that have come along. The Beatles look like pretty tame music now but they showed the way in the ’60s for everything else. It started in the ’60s and now it’s standard, in the life of young people particularly.

EYE: Now I guess this is something that ties back into the current novel. One of the criticisms or observations people have is that — and I think you said it yourself — is that you found it really interesting, the sexual atmosphere on campuses. And as one of the primary chroniclers of the counterculture of the 1960s and being an eyewitness to the sexual revolution in the first place, was it really surprising to you that on college campuses the attitudes are what they are today?

WOLFE: That’s something that also started in the ’60s in these communes, it was the idea of releasing all the restraints on sexual behaviour in the communes. I don’t know if you remember that a townhouse in New York City blew up, on West 11th Street. It turned out to be a bomb-making factory of the Weathermen or SDS, one of those fairly violent anti-Vietnam war groups, and it was a real explosion, demolished the whole thing. And running from the ruins were two naked girls. Everyone assumed that the force of the explosion had blown their clothes off. That wasn’t true at all. The commune had decided that as they went around making bombs all day they would wear no clothes, so they became a nudist colony. And of course, also a — to use an old term — a free-love commune.

And the seeds for all of that came from out of the 1960s.

EYE: So is that just playing itself out on college campuses?

WOLFE: What I kind of bring out in the book, in one way, is to have one of the main characters who is a male senior who’s a virgin. Males have always hidden their virginity, but he’s really obsessed about the fact that he is a virgin and all of this sexual carnival taking place around him. But this atmosphere, I found extremely hard on women. Women used to have natural outs if they didn’t want to engage in sexual activity — they had to be in by 10:30, or boys couldn’t come into their dorm — there was always something that they could point to, something that seemed external to their own decision-making, something that kept them from granting the boys’ wishes. But now there’s really nothing other than a desire not to have sex.

And girls now respond like boys do. It used to be that the worst slut in the world would maintain a veneer of virginity, and today there are female virgins in college who try to create an air of sexual experience. It’s turned around 180 degrees. And the most extreme version of this is the co-ed bathroom. I can’t imagine that there’s one girl out of 50 who likes that, but you don’t want to object, because that makes you very uncool or prudish. That’s something also that was never debated. Co-ed dorms were never debated either, they’re something that just happened in the colleges. You can make an argument for co-ed dorms, a feminist argument, it’s stretching things a little bit, but you can make the argument that unless you’re able to form the same kind of old-boy or in this case old-boys-and-girls network through close contact, you are at a disadvantage if you intend to go into business. But I don’t see any argument for co-ed washrooms or bathrooms.

GOOD NOVELISTS, AND HOW THE FRENCH RUINED AMERICAN FICTION
EYE: You issued a challenge to novelists in The New Journalism, and then seeing that the challenge hadn’t been taken up, in 1989 in the Harper’s essay, you took up your own challenge to write a novel that would compete with The New Journalism. Since then, have any other writers been getting it, the way that you think they ought to?

WOLFE: Well, certainly someone like Richard Price. He had written three novels based on his own experience; the first one was what I consider a really superb novel called The Wanderers, which was about growing up in the Bronx as a teenager with all sorts of gangs forming. And there’s a lot of humour, as well as suffering in that novel. Now, there are many instances of writers who create wonderful first novels based on their own life so far, and he did, he wrote… the next two novels were, let’s see… one was called Blood Brothers, and the next was called Ladies’ Man, and he was drawing on his experiences since then, but the experience was getting thinner. He’s such a great writer, I mean these books are not bad books, he’s just one of these naturally gifted writers. But then I think he reassessed his choices, then did something I admired tremendously. I don’t know how exactly he hit upon the subject, but he decided to go out and get in amongst the low-level and a few high-level drug dealers in Union City, New Jersey, which is just outside of New York, and did so. He started off with police contacts, and through them he eventually made contact with the dealers themselves, and then wrote Clockers, which I think is a wonderful, wonderful novel. Another example would be Po Bronson whose first novel — he’s only in his early thirties, I’d imagine — his first novel was called Bombardiers, and it was about the investment banking world, and probably based on his own experience, working for First Boston Investment Banking in San Francisco, but his next one was The First $20 Million Is the Hardest, which was about the Silicon Valley, and he had nothing to do with the Silicon Valley but he just went out into the Valley and essentially did reporting and came up with what seems to me the only treatment from the inside, there may be others, but — that I know of that whole wonderful history, particularly in the 1990s, up until the bubble burst in the Silicon Valley.

So those are two novelists I like. Another is the interesting figure of Carl Hiaasen. In a literary sense, he’s usually written off as a genre writer who writes comic thrillers, who does write comic thrillers, but he has enough talent and enough curiosity about the world outside of his own world to branch off in any direction he might ever want to. He is — although he’s a very wealthy novelist, I’d imagine, unless he’s squandered [laughter] lots of money, which I doubt — he maintains his job on the Miami Herald as a way of constantly being in touch with new phenomena, new things that are happening in South Florida, and with every novel there’s some new information about the life that goes on there, so he’s another writer I do admire.

EYE: The elite, and of course your Three Stooges [Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving], have yet to embrace the type of writing your like. Is it the same cultural snobbery that made people overlook the types of art forms and cultural movements your wrote about in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby that cause the art elite to embrace theory over nearly everything else and that now causes them also to try to stay away from the realistic, reported novel?

WOLFE: Yes. I think there are so many writers that consider themselves part of a charming aristocracy — that’s not my phrase, that was the phrase of Catulle Mendes, in France in the 1880s when that kind of world — charming aristocracy of taste coalesced, and at that time they were part of the literary world — for the first time the literary world began — and they valued above all else the poetry of Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Rimbaud, and they all stated that realism, or naturalism as they called it, had come to an end. At the same time as they happened to say that, Zola was probably the most popular novelist in the entire world. And probably Maupassant was second. Both realists using great detail. But that idea of the charming aristocracy in which the poet doesn’t so much need to address the information as he wafts a sensibility. You don’t get direct meaning from the poem, you get zephyrs that move you on some higher emotional level.

Now that didn’t hit the United States until after the Second World War, but then it hit in a big way. It would have hit earlier, except that, starting in 1900 with Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, the American realistic novel rose and it was so powerful — it starts with Dreiser and then you have Dos Passos, Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Faulkner and Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton and Richard Wright and Thomas Wolfe, my namesake … and eventually Steinbeck in 1939 with The Grapes of Wrath. These are all realistic novels done by writers who understood you had to go outside of your own life. Hemingway went to Spain to the Spanish Civil War to get new material. Steinbeck knew nothing about these Oakies and the migrant labour camps. He’d heard about them and nobody had written about them — almost nobody had written about them at all, but certainly not from the inside — and he bought an old truck and got some blankets and some food and started travelling around to the migrant labour camps where people were working for 12 and a half cents a day, and came up with what to me is unquestionably one of the great American masterpieces.

The French fashion would have started in the ’30s, except that the Depression hit and suddenly wafting sensibilities had to take second place to what was happening right in front of your face.

But after the Second World War, finally the French won out and it suddenly, in the literary, world began to seem rather loutish and amateurish to dig into the dirt of realism. And it was time to do the small novel of psychological nuances.

And it just killed the novel. In recent weeks, both Philip Roth and V.S. Naipaul, both obviously highly regarded, both say they give the novel maybe another 25 years. And they’re quite right. Unless novelists go back to the spirit of the novel — or the American novel anyway — in the first half of the 20th century. The easy solution is to just go out and do it. The United States is such a bizarre, sprawling country and the terrain has hardly been touched. I mean you can settle in anywhere in the United States, if you spent a few weeks in a place you’d encounter more strange stories than you ever dreamed existed. In no small part because there’s so much money out there and people can obviously make their feelings — I mean Las Vegas was created by gangsters, which enabled people with no education (most Mafioso never finished high school) to create this whole architecture and this entire city. And that’s what the strip is. It’s a gangster idea of Miami.

EYE: And it’s a monument to themselves.

WOLFE: It is.

WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE AN AMERICAN ICON; THE TROUBLE WITH ALBEE AND FELLINI
EYE: I won’t keep you much longer, but I have one awkward question that I want to ask. Almost every character that you’ve ever written about, status something that’s there for them. You must be aware that you are an iconic figure in American letters. When Harper’s Magazine was looking for somebody to put on the cover of their sesquicentennial issue alongside Mark Twain, there was you. You sell millions of books and you’ve contributed dozens of phrases and concepts to the culture and I guess —

When you look at yourself in the mirror with a second set of eyes, as Hoyt does in the book, what does it feel like to be Tom Wolfe?

WOLFE: You know, I wish that every morning I looked in the mirror and felt like an icon — I’ve, I’m really — I love the question because it raises the possibility that it might be true — I just cannot possibly think that way.

I mean, bless you for even toting it out as a question to which the answer might be yes, but you know I grew up in the South and we’re always raised to be essentially modest, and I.… Well, to answer the question, I’ve never really entertained the thought — it might be dangerous to entertain the thought, ‘Hey, I’m an icon — hey, listen to me.’

EYE: Well certainly I’m not surprised by that response at all, but it’s certainly something that, you know, in The Right Stuff with Chuck Yeager and the astronauts, it wasn’t something they talked about. And I understand obviously that nobody walks around thinking of themselves that way every day, but I just wondered if you sometimes sit back and feel like a Master of the Universe at all.

WOLFE: I still have creditors, and — on a more serious level, I’ve seen signs of writers doing that and it becomes a fatal flaw. I’ll give you a good example: Edward Albee became extremely celebrated for his first play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and I think at that point he decided that that play was awfully rooted in the here and now, in the particular era of the 1950s, and that from now on he maybe should write plays that were more timeless and had more symbolic richness so that they could be as easily appreciated in the year 2500 as today. And that’s when he began to write plays like Tiny Alice, which were forms of magic realism, I would say. Even Fellini fell into this trap, a little bit, after the huge success of La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2 he began to do movies that featured clowns who are ageless figures… and there were all sorts of archetypes in these films … and not realizing that the real power of La Dolce Vita was specifically rooted in Italian life after the Second World War in Italy and for that reason it’s just as easy to watch that movie today, it’s just as powerful, just as funny as it was when it was made.

So I think it does become a trap for writers who think that way — I think in long-term ways.

THE TROUBLE WITH NORMAN MAILER
EYE: Norman Mailer springs to mind for some reason.

WOLFE: He’s a good example of what I’m talking about, because after The Naked and the Dead, which was a realistic novel and was a great success, he began listening to the Francophile view that the novel of the future would be the novel of psychological nuance and sensibility and things on a much tighter, narrower scope, and he wrote a book called Barbary Shore which is a book about, near as I can remember it, about a group of intellectuals living in a rooming house in Brooklyn. What a come-down after a book that had gone out into the world and tied huge events to the individual psychology.

EYE: Well, as you mentioned about Hemingway and Steinbeck, Mailer wrote that he specifically signed up for the army because he wanted to write The Book of WWII and it’s exactly that kind of research you think he abandoned.

WOLFE: I think I read somewhere that he transferred from one zone to another because there wasn’t enough going on in his zone to get the kind of material he wanted. If that’s all true, God bless him.

EYE: But he abandoned that?

WOLFE: He did. But then he lucked out with The Executioner’s Song when this remarkable guy Lawrence Schiller, a photographer who gets great book ideas and he tries to get a writer, preferably a well-known writer to collaborate with him. He supplies the idea and the material — and the material through his own reporting, and all the writer has to do is type it up. And that’s what happened with The Executioner’s Song, which was the only novel of Norman Mailer’s to get a good reception after The Naked and the Dead.

And Schiller just turned up at his door one day like Santa Claus — “Hey here’s the story of Gary Gilmore, the killer.” The Gary Gilmore case was a great sensation, I can’t remember why, but it was. And as far as I can tell, all that Mailer did was transfer passages from the tapes that Schiller had made with Gilmore and Gilmore’s family and people who’d been affected by the killing and so on — just transferred from transcriptions of tapes right straight into book form.

Mailer has never been able to write dialogue. To write dialogue, you really have to be interested in somebody besides yourself. (Laughs) And with these tapes, suddenly he had realistic dialogue. And after it was a success, he should have drawn a logical conclusion there that he should get Lawrence Schiller to do all the work for everything else he wrote and then he could just write it up. But he ignored the obvious and.…

I have come to the conclusion — and I am sincere about this — when you first decide to be a writer, usually that means “I’m going to be a novelist,” and you assume that 95 per cent of a great novel is your own genius, 5 per cent is the clay that you’re using to demonstrate it. I would turn it around a bit. I would say it’s 65 per cent content and 35 per cent talent, that really makes the difference.

Originally published in Eye Weekly December 9, 2004. 

Advertisements