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Arguably the most prolific American writer to move seamlessly between fiction and nonfiction since Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe has broken new ground in both genres. Known as the father of New Journalism – the art of using fiction techniques in nonfiction – Wolfe began his writing career with stints as a reporter at three newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Herald-Tribune. After making his name in magazine journalism, his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about the hippie era, became one of the signature books of the 1960s. Its success was followed by Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, before he penned The Right Stuff in 1979. Wolfe’s first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), sold nearly 3 million copies in hardcover and paperback. His second novel, A Man in Full (1998), which sold 1.4 million copies in hardcover, was followed by I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004).
My father was an editor of a magazine, The Southern Planter, where he mainly gave advice to farmers. But in my mind he was a writer. He would write it on a legal pad, freehand. Then a week later it would come back in this sparkling type. When you are really young, it was magical. So I said, I am going to be a writer like him.
I am not trying to be anything for mankind. I don’t think writers are guardians of the soul.
What I most like to write about in novels is things no one has heard about yet. That way I make something fresh to the reader. I was still working on The Write Stuff when I started hearing amazing things about college life in this country [related to the “hook-up” culture that became the theme of I Am Charlotte Simmons and a topic in Wolfe’s collection Hooking Up.] There was nothing written about it. It was weird. The only thing I saw was Coming of Age in New Jersey.
I think all writers have to do reporting. It is not something that takes great technique. It takes a relentless willingness to act like a vagrant and [hang] out. And be there when things actually occur. You simply cannot imagine life the way it happens without getting out.
[In 1989 I wrote] a long piece for Harper’s called “Stalking the billion-footed beast.” I said that fiction writers and nonfiction writers needed to leave the building and get out and take a look at this extraordinary country that we live in. [Norman] Mailer hated the notion that you needed to leave the building. None of the three [John Irving, Norman Mailer, and John Updike] did that. Thank God there were three of them. [Wolfe wrote a follow-up called “My three stooges.”]
Teachers now tell you to write what you know about. So you do that. The problem with that is the author cannibalizes the first 25 years of his life. The second novel is the problem. The second novel is about a young novelist who has gotten terrific reviews but has no money as he trudges up to his sixth-story walk-up…that is not an exciting novel. It happens so often.
I think it is very possible that the novel, like poetry before it, could die. Poetry is already living on a very high, snow-covered peak. But nobody goes to visit. And I think the same thing is beginning to happen to the novel. I say, God bless John Grisham and all the other extremely popular writers. At least they are writing things that entertain. Every writer should entertain.
[In fiction,] Strip Tease by Carl Hiaasen. CH is actually a most underrated literary novelist…And also Po Bronson [Bonbardiers, about investment banking, and The First $20 Million Is the Hardest, about Silicon Valley].
[In nonfiction,] I don’t think anyone is more exciting than Michael Lewis [Moneyball, The Big Short]. Liar’s Poker, oh my god, has the greatest beginning of any book. The other is Mark Bowden, who wrote Guests of the Ayatollah.
On balance, people, I think, will look back, particularly over the last 50, 60 years of America, as a great time for nonfiction.
I would say get out of the building and look around. I say, if you spent 30 days in any place in this country, I would say you would come up with material you never existed before.
Remarks prepared by journalist-editor Don Hudson from an author appearance in Charlotte, N.C. This interview was originally published in our July 2011 issue of The Writer.
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