Interview with Tom Wolfe
For his latest novel, Back to Blood, Wolfe explores Miami inside and out. Writing the entire book in longhand—typewriter parts became too hard to find and his Mac annoyed him with its "winking"—Wolfe dove into the racial politics of the metropolis. Folding in the Cuban community with porn-addicted billionaires, a self-loathing Haitian professor who hates teaching Creole, a buttoned-up ace reporter, and the trend-hopping collectors at Art Basel Miami Beach, Wolfe attempts a vivid tableau of a city caught in ever-shifting power games. Interviewer Margaret Wappler chatted with the 81-year-old writer about his latest opus.
Back to Blood is clearly a deeply researched book. What process did you undertake to write it?
Tom Wolfe: Actually, I worked the way I always do. I was contacted by a former reporter for the Miami Herald whose name is Oscar Corral. He made a documentary about my research [Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood]. Through him I would just go from one introduction to another. I already knew pretty well the police chief there, John Timoney, who obviously had lots of information. That was a good luxury, to have access to Timoney. There's quite a lot of police work [in Back to Blood]; he was wonderful for giving me information on how that worked.
I also started meeting people in places like Hialeah, which is in Little Havana, but it's not so little anymore. There are 220,000 people in Hialeah; it's like a separate city, with rows and rows of houses, casitas, and there, as in my book, you'll see a truck for an exterminating company parked in front of a house. And that truck shows that person is self-employed, has his own company. [The father of the main character, Nestor Camacho, proudly owns a fumigation company.] I approached this novel a little bit backward. I like to find an interesting new setting or milieu and then wait for the characters to walk in. I had never thought about having a young Cuban policeman as a protagonist and his former Hialeah girlfriend. I didn't really know these types of people. I didn't start writing with a young Cuban cop or a nurse in mind, either.
GR: How did you choose these characters, and was it challenging to research them?
TW: It wasn't that challenging because I had a lot of help from my friends, who first introduced me to Hialeah and then introduced me to the police force there, which is 50 percent Cuban, 70 percent Latin of some derivation, 18 percent black, and 12 percent American white or Anglo. It pretty well reflects the population at large. I didn't realize that Miami is a city where a majority of people there are recent immigrants. This is a nation of immigrants, but we're usually talking about people two or three generations back.
With fiction, sometimes what you think is a minor part brings up characters who end up taking over. While you're writing, you're God, and you can pretty much bring in anybody you want. But I really did have wonderful help from many of the people living there. It was not as difficult as I imagined from the outside. Practically every second-generation Cuban speaks English, and they learn English in school, and it becomes their major language.
GR: In Back to Blood you depict two newspaper men: the young, ambitious reporter John Smith and then the older editor Edward T. Topping IV, a classic WASP who sees himself as "the last lost soul of a dying genus." Do you relate to both of those characters?
TW: Absolutely. I really relate to John Smith and pretty much with the psychology of being a reporter. I have been through events that I could never imagine myself going into. Not because I'm brave but because it's what I had to do. I've been caught in cross fires—oh, my God—but you do it. I did not go to St. Paul's School like John Smith did, but when I started newspaper work, I started in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was a city built by immigrants who spilled over from either Boston or New York because they couldn't get jobs in those big cities. When I was there, there was a big Italian population and an Irish section and people would come up to me and say, "What are you?" The question was really, What is your national or ethnic origin? I had no idea what they were talking about. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. I can remember so well when the Armenian family moved in. It felt like the entire universe had changed.
With John Smith, I meant to depict him as a fish out of water. He doesn't fit in [with the city's diverse culture]. And often there are people like Topping, because he's close to the ownership of the paper, who are also aliens. He's very WASPy, and he's not sure of himself in this particular situation. I think all of us are conscious of color in a way we don't always want to admit.
GR: In the past you've criticized the state of the novel. What do you think of the medium these days? Do you still find it less and less viable or do you think new developments like the e-book or print-on-demand technology are revitalizing it?
TW: I don't really know the answer to that, but it seems to me it gets weaker and weaker because of the influence of these MFA programs. They teach young people to "write what you know," which would mean things you've experienced. Now that's perfectly good advice, but it's usually not good for more than one book. Emerson once said every person on earth has a great autobiography to write, if only he or she can distinguish something unique in his or her experience. That's true, but he didn't say two! This is when things get interesting: You can write a brilliant novel based on the first 25 years of your life, but you have to have material built in. Then the second novel is about being a young guy whose first novel is a big success critically, but he doesn't have any money, and he doesn't have a girlfriend. And he's trudging up the five flights to his Brooklyn apartment, saying, "Ah, hell." That's not really very interesting to me.
There have been all these attempts to break away from the realistic novel, now considered old-fashioned. But to me, it's like saying electricity is old-fashioned. Electricity gets right down to the composition of matter—and it works! It's the same way in writing, in fiction or nonfiction. You can't give up realism without giving up the very electricity of prose in my humble, nonjudgmental opinion.
GR: Goodreads member Micah Harding asks, "Based on your withering view of modernist and postmodernist architecture expressed in From Bauhaus to Our House, what do you think about the works of Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava?
TW: I like those two because they've broken out of the formula. I love the curves, the willingness to use obviously unusable elements. Gehry's curves are what really make the whole thing interesting, if not particularly practical. I gather he makes the curves based on engineering technology from NASA. That interests me, but I'm not following the scene all that much. It's hard to come up with any other figures who've broken successfully out of the mold the way those two have.
GR: You've said in the past that you're uninterested in political journalism, at least in writing it yourself. That said, are you regularly reading anyone this election season? Anyone you think is particularly astute?
TW: No, I really don't read those things. About the only person [who writes about] politics in the press who interests me, because he's very conceptual, is David Brooks from The New York Times. By conceptual I mean that he will look for a sound theory to explain whatever has happened rather than just go off on a heavily covered diatribe based on ideology. To me those things are absolutely worthless, but Brooks has a lot of interesting ideas. But I don't really read that much political coverage. I haven't had time to pay attention to the current election because I was swamped finishing this book. Writing a book and finishing it is not like winning the 100-meter dash in the Olympics, where you pump your fists in the air and say, "I'm done and everyone knows I'm done!" A book, just finishing it, that's just step one. There's all this editing and rewriting and then going over proofs. By the time it's over...well, it's not a very thrilling feeling.
GR: What do you think of the state of journalism these days? In 2007, you said you'd given up reading blogs. Do you still feel that way?
TW: Yes, I think in that context I was thinking of Marshall McLuhan, who said if you hand a primitive people—I can't remember the exact quote—but basically a whole generation has been transformed into a people with a tribal mentality. They'll only believe what the last person they talked to tells them. That's what blogs are, so little fact-checking, and pretty soon—this is just a prediction—there will be no such thing as a [journalist's] beat, something you cover whether you get the story of the day or not. A beat is when you keep talking to people in the area, you stay up and listen to a good tale, with any luck, and you stay current with what's going on whether it's the school beat, police beat, or any other.
GR: But so many newspapers today have their own blogs. The newspaper's digital presence is essentially inspired by blogging.
TW: There should be some word that distinguishes someone who really wants to inform you about what's happening from the rest of them—but they are blogs, aren't they? I don't really follow them, but do you find that they have a much less broad take on everything going on?
GR: Well, it depends on the blog, but I think I see what you're getting at. They might not emphasize as much the old-fashioned journalism skills of hitting the streets and getting the story.
TW: See, that's really my impression. I know from talking to people who teach in journalism schools that a lot of young people going into that field think you can get everything online. They don't seem to get it that somebody has to put a foot on the pavement sometimes. You can't get it all from reading an uninformed blog. That's a problem in terms of the news. We probably in this country cover less news than we did 75 years ago. It's a total surprise given what's going on out there.
GR: Goodreads member Nick asks, "When you were writing The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, you were roughly the same age as those you were writing about. But that wasn't the case with Hooking Up or the background research for I Am Charlotte Simmons. Does being older make it harder to infiltrate contemporary youth culture?"
TW: Now that I'm even older, well! [laughs] Here's the thing: Most people don't understand reporting. They really don't. The thing is that everybody in every situation is an alien for one reason or another on the first day. Then if they've gotten used to you and haven't kicked you out, that shield that people might have put up against you has disappeared. When I wrote about the surfers in a book called The Pump House Gang, they thought I was extremely old, and I was 32. But I really did get close to them very rapidly. There are different ways of doing that; Jimmy Breslin, wonderful reporter, but he would come on very strongly, and it worked for him. I favored the "Man from Mars" approach, from [Paris Review cofounder] George Plimpton: "I don't know anything about what you're doing, but I'm interested. Can you show me how to do it?" The thing about the "Man from Mars" approach is that I don't think age is a factor. In some ways, it can even be a help.
With I Am Charlotte Simmons, there were lots of reviews, one of them by a young man who'd written a memoir about his experience at Yale. He said, "How can someone older than 74 years old suddenly write about college life?" My response in print was to say, "Do me a favor: Read mine and read yours and you tell me which has captured more of college life. Seems to me you're telling us about one small part of Yale life, which is about the intellectuals, and as you know, that isn't a big part of any college." Well, I never got the results of the experiment.
GR: What are you reading now that's inspiring you?
TW: Well, I've been reading a lot of material that inspires me for a book I want to do, a nonfiction book. If things go well, it'll be my next book, and it'll be called The Human Beast. It's the story—as opposed to the theory—of evolution and how that concept of Darwin's spread its gospel throughout the entire world of educated people. In sociology there's a new branch called the concept of construction; it's also called the sociology of truth. Very few things become gospel unless there are individuals to promote it. In the case of evolution, it was Thomas Huxley. He saw to it that university faculties were filled with Darwinists so that whenever you went into a biology class, that was the viewpoint you got.
Then with the neo-Darwinist, they believe there's no such thing as free will, that we're all genetic mechanisms that react automatically to the environment and one another. I heard a lecture on neuroscience and war, and a question to the panel was, "If someone's actions could be predetermined by evolution, how could you really penalize him for some heinous crime? He had no control over himself!" This is considered a big problem if you don't think there's any such thing as free will. Well, there was a lot of sputtering about that, but it's true. There's a theory in sociology that all ideas are culturally determined by the society you're in. So at a certain conference a young sociologist got up and said, "Well, if that's true, then how is your theory, that everything is culturally determined, culturally determined?" Laughter broke out, and that was the end of that.
I'm not a registered neuroscientist, so I don't know how what I will do will be received, but I think it's a really exciting story with lots of repercussions.
GR: Do you think this new book will touch upon those who reject evolution theory in favor of creationism?
TW: Oh yes, that fascinates me also. I can remember when there were so many people, this is just in my lifetime, who were devoutly Christian, who didn't question anything. Now it's really very strange for someone to have those feelings. But you know it's all part of the sociology of truth. This new book, the title is taken directly from Émile Zola's book La Bête Humaine, which came out some 15 years after Darwin's The Origin of Species. In many universities, no matter what department you're in, if you say that you don't believe in the theory of evolution, you become an anathema. It's all very interesting to me.
Interview by Margaret Wappler for Goodreads. Margaret has written about arts and culture for the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, the Believer, Fader, NYLON, and other publications. Her fiction was recently anthologized in Joyland Retro, and she has been published in Another Chicago Magazine, Black Clock, Facsimile, and Public Fiction. She lives in Los Angeles.
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