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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide
Special Feature

Tom Wolfe

Steger/ When you first started writing, the audience was your age. How do you see your audience now as having changed?

Wolfe/ Well, I never thought of an audience my age. It may well be true, but I think it’s all a matter of reporting. It doesn’t matter what your age is if you can get close to the subjects and spend time with them, which was the crux of what became the New Journalism. I didn’t invent that, by the way, but now it has tended to disappear from journalism, although Rolling Stone kept with it for a long time.

Steger/ Why has New Journalism disappeared?

Wolfe/ Magazines are no longer eager to pay a reporter to spend three months or half a year [on a long article]. It seems to be part of the past. Magazines aren’t flourishing anyway.

Steger/ How was the writing different in New Journalism?

Wolfe/ It’s very difficult. You have to learn to write what I call scene-by-scene construction. Instead of having this ordinary historical narrative, you do it all through scenes, which is key. One of the reasons I wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities [the way I did] was that there was no convenient way to do the reporting. It was hard enough to do The Right Stuff with seven different astronauts and no one figure that summed up the whole thing. I always wanted to do a nonfiction book about New York that would gather information about all its various facets. I couldn’t find the individuals I needed, so I said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll take a crack at this fiction business.’ When I finished that book, I was fifty-seven years old and had written my first novel.

Steger/ How do you see yourself adapting to changing publishing industry trends that encompass the digital world?

Wolfe/ I shouldn’t say this, but I don’t think I have to change anything. I don’t know what one would do to fit into the industry anyway. You have to figure out in your own mind what will be absorbing for your readers.

Steger/ Journalism and entertainment might be remaking what we once considered high literary art—namely, the literary novel. What do you see as the connection between high art, entertainment, and journalism?

Wolfe/ I think labeling is one of the banes of our intellectual existence right now. It was an influence that the French had after the Second World War. They came up with all sorts of isms—absurdisms—there’s a whole list of them. We’ve always been little colonials influenced by the Europeans. Take the French and the English—they put much more emphasis on the psychological, so American fiction has tended to do that [in the past 70 years], too. I probably shouldn’t make that statement since I’ve grown weary of reading American novels.

Steger/ What would you consider as high art in literature if it isn’t literary fiction?

Wolfe/ It would be the kind of work Michael Lewis has done in The Blind Side and Flash Boys. I consider him at the top of the heap at this moment. He has an extraordinary sense of what’s going to work in nonfiction.

Steger/ Do you use a computer for writing?

Wolfe/ No, I went back to writing books by hand when I couldn’t find parts for my typewriter on eBay. The Bonfire of the Vanities was the last book I did on a typewriter. I think the Internet has changed the writing of articles of all kinds. Because of the glare of the computer screen, it’s unpleasant to be presented with something more than eight hundred words long. It’s tiring. As a result, a premium has been put upon not so much style as brevity. It’s a curious situation because, in a way, things are moving a bit backwards. The long exegesis is not what it used to be, and I get the feeling that training in writing is not what it used to be. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that thorough anymore.

Freelance writer Martha Steger, based in Midlothian, Virginia, interviewed Tom Wolfe after The Right Stuff came out in 1979 and again after his narrative on modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, was published in 1981.

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