This extensive interview with author and journalist Tom Wolfe, who passed away on May 14, 2018, appeared in Writer’s Digest in 1974, shortly before the publication of Wolfe’s iconic book The Right Stuff.
Interview by Joe David Bellamy
Tom Wolfe began a revolution of sorts in the reporting of American popular culture with The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Stream-line Baby in 1965. At heart a moralist and social observer and critic, as well as a dazzling stylist, Wolfe has generated avid attention, both for the originality of his essays and for his association with the genesis of the so-called “new journalism,” of which he would have to be described as the leading practitioner.
In his more recent books, The Pump House Gang (1968), The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), and Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), Wolfe has continued to inspire admiration and controversy by daring to experiment with techniques previously thought to be solely within the province of the novelist. In The New Journalism (1973), in fact, he set out to formulate, define and illustrate the principles and practice of the new journalists and paused to take potshots at contemporary writers of “the new fiction,” whom Wolfe characterized as “busy running backward, skipping and screaming, into a begonia patch …”
Most recently, in his forthcoming, eagerly awaited book on NASA and the moon voyages, to be called The Right Stuff, Wolfe forges merrily along the new journalistic path he has worked for the last 10 years to cultivate. Now, just past 40, Wolfe seems youthful and chipper as an athlete, canny and thoughtful as a historian.
Two little-known facts about him: he does, in fact, hold a doctorate in American studies from Yale and has played semi-pro baseball. Famous for his flamboyant, especially his white, suits, Wolfe is dressed to the teeth (in a white suit), looking every inch what he has come to embody for many readers: The most famous pop writer in America.
The following interview took place in October in New York’s southern tier, where Tom Wolfe had flown in on Mohawk’s screeching Flight 469 from LaGuardia order to present a lecture a few miles across the New York-Pennsylvania border at one of the Pennsylvania state colleges.
WD: What about your writing techniques and habits? I’ve noticed from some of your prefaces that you seem to write your books fairly quickly.
WOLFE: The actual writing I do very fast. I make a very tight outline of everything I write before I write it. And often, as in the case of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the research, the reporting, is going to take me much longer than the writing. By writing an outline you really are writing in a way, because you’re creating the structure of what you’re going to do.
Once I really know what I’m going to write, I don’t find the actual writing takes all that long. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in manuscript form was about 1,100 pages, triple-spaced, typewritten. That means about 200 words a page, and, you know, some of that was thrown out or cut eventually; but I wrote all of that in three and a half months.
I had never written a full-length book before, and at first I decided I would treat each chapter as if it were a magazine article—because I had done that before. So I would set an artificial deadline, and 1’d make myself meet it. And I did that for three chapters. But, as in the case of most magazine pieces that I’ve written. I usually ended up staying up all night one or two nights in the last week that I wrote. It’s horrible.
Oh, that is horrible.
And as you get older, it’s more horrible. After you finish, you’re wiped out for a week almost, because your system just can’t take it. I know mine can’t. But if you’re writing an article, as far as you’re concerned that’s the only thing you’re ever going to write. You’re writing that article and it absorbs your whole attention, and you can do that sort of thing and survive.
But after I had done this three times and then I looked ahead and I saw that there were 25 more times I was going to have to do this, I couldn’t face it anymore. I said, “I cannot do this, even one more time, because there’s no end to it.”
So I completely changed my system, and I set up a quota for myself—of 10 typewritten pages a day. At 200 words a page that’s 2,000 words, which is not, you know, an overwhelming amount. It’s a good clip, but it’s not overwhelming. And I found this worked much better. I had my outline done, and sometimes 10 pages would get me hardly an eighth-of-an-inch along the outline. It didn’t bother me. Just like working in a factory—end of 10 pages I’d close my lunch pail.
That’s interesting. Kurt Vonnegut was saying—in a symposium he attended with Barth, Fieldler and others at Brown University—that writers now either characterize themselves as thinkers or as shamans, you know, as these magical madmen. And Vonnegut said he was on the madman side, and certainly that is a very good characterization of where he is …
The two adjectives that writers most like to have applied to them today are “brilliant” and “outrageous.” All the rest, I mean, forget them. They just don’t do the job. But to be brilliant and to be outrageous is to be, in effect, called a mad genius. And that’s what the writer wants to be called, just as the artist wants to be.
You see someone like Claw Oldenburg objecting when an interviewer asks him what is the theory behind his work. And he will act as if: “Theory? What are you talk-ing about? Don’t try to burden me with theory.” Of course, the guy is acutely sophisticated, and he’s thinking all the time. And I’m sure that practically everything he’s done has come out of rational considerations.
This is doubly true for writers, because writing is such an artificial form—just sheer artifice from beginning to end. And for an artist, for a writer, to try to act as if he is a holy man, I think, is absurd. Because you’re doing this very artificial thing: translating sounds into visual symbols which are supposed to jog the memory of the reader in various ways. And just the fact that you have to go through such an education to learn to use the medium at all means that you are a rational man by the time you get to the point where you can write.
But this is part of the modern sensibility, the modern worldview of artists in all fields. I think that the new developments are going to come from the people who’d ignore this attitude. The novel didn’t really reach this state of sanctification until the early ’20s, by the way. Because before then you run into Henry James still arguing that the novel should be considered as a major form.
Maybe you’re a similar sort of precursor. Maybe in 20 years it’ll seem absurd that the nonfiction novel, or the New Journalism, whatever you want to call it, was once thought to be illegitimate.
And some old nonfiction bellcow will be getting up at the Nobel awards and making some stupid statement, like Faulkner’s: “I do not accept this for myself, but for the sweat of the human spirit … ,” you know, this kind of thing. Well, when you hear that, you know the form is past its prime. It’s become religious.
All that business about not accepting the end of man—I always thought that was rather optimistic of him.
Faulkner was an interesting figure in all of this, because he really did a lot more reporting than you would think. He did a lot of wandering around, just to pick up information, accurate details, and that sort of thing. I think [Ken] Kesey is a good example of this too. Kesey’s first novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was written after he volunteered to work in a mental ward, specifically to get material. Then he went out into logging country, specifically to get material for Sometimes a Great Notion. After that he was going to do a novel about a town called Davenport, California, which is down near Santa Cruz. It’s a beautiful shore, the Pacific and Route 1, one really nice community after another, until suddenly it turns entirely gray. The leaves are gray, the trucks, cars, houses are gray; and it’s all because the only industry in Davenport is a concrete factory. And this huge smokestack belches out this dust, such a quantity that everything is covered in the town.
Kesey had been down by the shore camping out with his son. He went to a pile of debris to get some firewood, and he found a crude cross made of a couple planks nailed together, and it said: “This memorial is for all the workers of Davenport, California, who died of silicosis.” Apparently, people were just dropping off like flies from breathing in that dust all day long. So he was going to get a job in a factory, or try to, and then write a book about the whole thing. But just about this time he got involved with the whole psychedelic experience.
I notice you still seem involved in this book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Has there been a measurably different response to it? Has it been more popular, for instance. than your other books?
Well, in fact, it has been the most popular book I’ve written.
Why do you think that is so?
Well. I’m glad it’s true because it’s the longest thing—it’s really the only book-length piece of writing I’ve done. It’s more of a sustained effort, I mean; and it tells a longer, more complicated story than anything else I’ve done. And also, I think the subject itself is one that’s had a great effect on this country, and it continues to have a great effect. We’re far from seeing the end of this psychedelic movement. It just takes so many forms.
What novelists interest you the most?
My great discovery of the last 18 months has been Balzac. I never read anything by him before that, and I happened to read his biography first. I was struck by the fact that for 20 years, from around age 30 to age 50, he was averaging three books a year, most of them full-length. There are a few collections in there, but most of them are novels. Sixty books—20 years …
And he slept five hours a night, right? He was writing all the rest of the time, something like that.
Well, he had very erratic hours, according to this biography. I don’t remember it saying exactly how long he would sleep, but he would get up at 6 P.M., for example, and he might entertain until midnight—and then start working. And drinking all this coffee. …
And he found that the coffee didn’t have its methedrine effects, its caffeine effects, if he ate too much. So he would make a point of not eating. He would keep a bowl of fruit beside him, just to give himself some sustenance and blood sugar, and then he would have a pot of very thick coffee. Apparently, it was the thickest Turkish coffee … I really feel writers should produce a lot more than they do …
Balzac is an example worth thinking about. That’s one trouble with the comparative ease of financial success in writing in this country. The one really successful book like Catch-22 or In Cold Blood is enough to live on for the rest of your life, unless your standard of living is so high that you eat it up. And as a result, it’s very easy for writers like Heller or Capote to just put off writing more and more. You start letting five years drift by between books. You don’t live that long.
Book World—Book Week it used to be—did a very cruel thing once. They decided to do an article on all the novelists who had allowed 10 or more years to elapse since their last book. So they interviewed them all; but instead of running the interviews one after another, they would put down the question and then the answers that all of them had given to this specific question. So, one question was: “Do you think that the fact that you haven’t written a novel in 10 years or more will hurt your literary reputation?” So Ellison says: “Well, it didn’t hurt Stendahl’s.” And Heller says, “Well, it didn’t hurt Stendahl’s.” And Katherine Anne Porter says. “Well, it didn’t hurt Flaubert”—a little switchoff there. The next one was back to Stendahl again.
What living novelists interest you the most?
For my money, the best of the current novelists is Philip Roth. I think he’s terrific. Oddly enough, he’s much more of a social historian than anybody would usually ever think of him. Particularly, you look at these vignettes, these set pieces, in Letting Go or in Portnoy’s Complaint—a picture here of the Bohemian, the aging Bohemian, a picture of the—oh, the father sitting in the chair in Portnoy’s Complaint. He sits all day in the chair worrying about his heart trouble and his bowel movements. Those kinds of things are marvelous. And then the scene with the woman, the girl being interviewed by the social worker to see if she’s fit to adopt a child. These are marvelous pieces which are real social vignettes rather than psychological vignettes. I think Portnoy’s Complaint will grow in stature as the years go by. Very funny book.
You know, I ran into him on the street the day before he turned in Portnoy’s Complaint, and he told me he had sort of wanted to jog himself into a new style, because most of his first three novels are very much influenced by Henry James. So he read a lot of Henry Miller! And it really worked. You know, it doesn’t end up being something that’s written like Henry Miller. It just enabled him to break away from his old style and into something that really has a lot of drive and energy about it.
I can’t make myself read Saul Bellow; I’ve tried. He leaves me flat. Actually, I like Kerouac a lot; of course he’s dead now. I just liked his tremendous momentum. I’m a great fan of Calder Willingham’s, though he seems to have dropped out of everybody’s memory somehow. He’s excellent on dialogue. Perhaps for that reason he writes a lot of movies, but I don’t think he’s ever been happy as a movie writer. There aren’t very many happy movie writers.
Who do you think are the new journalists or nonfiction writers now who are most worth reading—your competitors, your colleagues, or however you wish to look at them?
The one who interests me the most would be Hunter Thompson. He’s developed into the greatest humorist in America. He wrote some things for Scanlan’s —I laugh just thinking about them, one on the Kentucky Derby, and one on Jean-Claude Killy selling Chevrolets. Just marvelous! Michael Herr is a new writer who 1 think has written the best thing written about Vietnam in any genre. There’s surprisingly little good stuff out of Vietnam, in a literary sense. The Herr thing is so much better than what Mary McCarthy did. Mary McCarthy did this thing called face-reading, where you look at people’s faces and read their faces. It’s somewhat like a phrenologist reading skulls.
You see what you can tell by the vacuity of his eye-sockets. This is total demoralization. Every time I read this I want to go up to the writer and say, “Talk to them, ask them a question, see what they have to say!” Anyway, Mike Herr. Gay Talese’s work I like very much. [Jimmy] Breslin, I think, is awfully good. I’m afraid Breslin has just turned to the novel for good as his main interest, which is too bad because he never really settled down to write what might have been a major piece of nonfiction. He’s done terrific shorter things, and I hope he’ll do it some day. Let’s see … Capote’s In Cold Blood I liked very much. I’ll be very interested in his new book, Answered Prayers.
I understand that you are working on a novel yourself—called Vanity Fair. [Editor’s Note: This would later become Bonfire of the Vanities.] I gather it’s an effort to do for New York in the ’70s what Thackeray did for London in the 19th century?
Well, I’m weighing whether this should be fiction or nonfiction, because everything in it is going to be based on a journalistic reality. The question is to me a completely technical one. I think novelists have been very much afraid of New York as a subject. You really can’t grasp it. And it’s just amazing how few New York novels there have been. You get the work of Louis Auchincloss, who deals with a very small segment of New York. His work has been very much like [John P.] Marquand’s. Of course, Marquand was dealing with Boston. I have dealt with New York to a certain extent in nonfiction, in articles. So now I am trying to decide how to do this book, whether it’s going to be technically better to do it as nonfiction or as fiction.
You seem to be consistently interested in social hierarchies and status strife. I would assume from the title Vanity Fair that this subject is likely to continue for you.
I consider it such a fundamental analytical tool, really. It’s one of the first things I always look for. It’s also an amazingly taboo subject. If I were going to stay here a little longer, I’d love to have someone make me a social map of this town. I’ve done this many times.
What you do is you get an actual map of the town. The first thing you do is shade in the area where the wealthiest, young, middle-aged doctors live—let’s say, the doctors in their early 40s, maybe early 50s. Usually this will be the most prestigious new area in town. Often you’ll find there’s a prestigious old area which is made up of these large houses left over from families who made their money before World War I. This old section will tend to be towards the center of town. And it may often be very close to what is now a very bad section. I don’t know—that’s just an example. Then you shade in with another colored crayon the worst section. This is usually the black slum. Then you shade in the old, white working-class neighborhood. Sometimes it’s literally across a set of railroad tracks; it might not be. By this time you’ve got sort of the high and low ends of the hierarchy. Then you start figuring in the rest.
Then you decide where you want to live on the map, right?
No. You may fill it all in and then decide to get the hell out of there (laughter). Once you start getting these variations, there are all sorts of story ideas or possible subjects if you’re writing. Or if you’re just looking for magazine pieces, they’ll start suggesting themselves.
It’s also instructive to look for the location of the hospital or hospitals which the rich patronize, and also the schools. Hospitals are very funny because wealthy people tend to value their skins very highly, and they really believe that their skins are far superior to others. In a small town you’ll often find the rich sending their sick out of town to the big city for anything much above the level of a tonsillectomy, maybe even for a tonsillectomy. So that’s kind of nice to get a line on too. Of course, the schools, I guess, are pretty obvious. Anyway, this approach of looking at things through this perspective of status has its advantages. At the very worst it can make you see the relations between a lot of things that might otherwise not seem to be related.
Do you have any ideas on what you’ll be doing next after Vanity Fair?
There are a couple of long-range things that I’d eventually like to do. One is to write a book on status, which would be to try to make a very fundamental book expressing everything I think. It wouldn’t necessarily even fall underneath the umbrella of the New Journalism.
I’d just have to start from square one, explaining it, because I think eventually, in this brain research, they are actually going to find a status mechanism. My prediction—and remember you heard it here first—is that it’s going to be found in a reticular formation, which seems to be a part of the brain that is like a main crossroads. It’s all sorts of channels and a kind of funnel, a funnel through the crossroads.
The brain seems to be a great yes-no mechanism. And it’s in this particular area that such a question as, “Am I hungry or not?” is decided. This center seems to process the information coming in on everything from, “Am I hungry or not?” to things such as, “Am I successful or not?”—which is much more complicated. Brain physiology really fascinates me. There is some great stuff coming out of the current interest in brain, physiology. The idea that people’s minds can be controlled through this kind of research—such as these transistorized units that can be imbedded in your skull to control certain things, or a pill that can control certain things—this doesn’t interest me at all. This is scare stuff.
What does interest me is the horrible possibility that people might actually understand their own minds, the workings of their own minds. …
How do you like living in New York? Being from the provinces, I suppose you could be called a non-native …
I still find New York exciting, to tell the truth. It’s not the greatest way to live in the world, but I still get a terrific kick out of riding down Park Avenue in a cab at 2:30 in the morning and seeing the glass buildings all around. I have a real cornball attitude towards it, I suppose, which I think only somebody born far away from there would still have. It’s still the ambition capital; it has that going for it. Also, if you’re writing for a magazine, such as I have done, or for that matter if you’re in publishing of almost any sort, it’s kind of a company town, too.
Do you think those sorts of connections are essential for a writer? Do you have to live in New York to be a writer, do you think?
No. I don’t think that has much to do with it. The best thing it can do for you is just simply fire up your ambition, or keep you working. Because there are so many people around you all the time, hustling to make it in their careers; and they’re so intolerant of the lack of success. It does sort of keep you working in a way, but there’s certainly no reason why anybody should have to be there to write—unless you’re working exclusively for certain magazines. That’s a different story, because they tend to give assignments to people they can call up on the telephone. There’s no reason why they should do that, because they can call up people in another city; but its just a state of mind they get into.
Do you think it necessary—as a nonfiction writer—to have an agent?
I don’t think you need an agent until you have a book contract to deal with. An agent’s not going to help you much—in nonfiction—in getting a piece published. An agent can help you in fiction, because the magazines tend not to pay as much attention to fiction that comes in over the transom, as they say. They’ll read it. Oh, somebody will read it. It won’t go unnoticed. But if a well-known agent says they have a terrific new writer of short stories they’d like for you to look at, they’ll really pay attention to it. It’s not true in nonfiction.
One last question: Why do you travel around giving lectures?
Well, I don’t really do it that much. I give about 12 a year. I will not discount the economic factor. That’s certainly a part of it. I also find, though, that the questions that you’re asked at a college—and most of the talks I give are at colleges—do a great deal more for you than the questions that you get anywhere else. A student will tend to ask very wide open questions, very basic questions, whereas sometimes older people, whether they’re in New York or wherever, tend to be more polite, or they’re afraid to ask a question that might seem naive.
For example, once I was asked the question: “Why do you write?”—which really spun me around; because I didn’t have any ready answer for it. It really made me think.
And the answer I came up with after standing mute at the podium for about 30 seconds, which seemed like an eternity—suddenly, it just popped into my mind—was something from the Presbyterian catechism, which I hadn’t looked at since I was 7 or 8, I guess.
The first question was, “Who created the heaven and the earth?” And the answer was “God.” The next question was, “Why did he do it?” And then there was this marvelous answer, which was “For His own glory.”
You know, that’s really something. I don’t know—it just jumped into my head. And suddenly I realized that that’s probably the only honest answer for “Why do you write?”
And after I started thinking about that I also saw that the only possible source of objectivity in writing is that you would be so much more concerned with how you handle the materials than you would with the issues involved, the subjects that you’re writing about, that you could end up with a kind of egotistic objectivity. I guess there isn’t much other kind.
I see this happening when I read particularly Dostoyevsky, who always started a book with some moral stance that he wanted to demonstrate. He would start in with this in mind, but then he’d get so involved with his characters, he’d be so anxious to make them come alive, that this would take over his entire imagination. And after a while it would be rather irrelevant, this moralistic idea that he was talking about.
The same thing happened in Balzac. Balzac was a conservative who was to write conservative pamphlets, but his work ended up doing more to bring on the revolution of 1848 than that of any other writer because he gave such a devastating picture of the decadence of the French bourgeoisie.
Joe David Bellamy, author of The New Fiction, was publisher and editor of fiction international and associate professor of English at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.