Last Wednesday evening I went to Cooper Union to hear Tom Wolfe talk a bit. I had run into Mr. Wolfe on the street before, but this was a good opportunity for me to see if he had anything interesting to say.
He did, of course.
Mr. Wolfe began by reading from his latest book, "I am Charlotte Simmons." As he tried to set up the scene he'd be reading he gave us a little background on the characters that he'd be reading about couldn't keep himself from going off on tangents about the characters, the towns they were from, the jobs their fathers had, etc. I was struck by how "real" Mr. Wolfe's fictional characters were to him . . . it seems his stories take place in fully realized worlds, as far as he's concerned, and these are worlds that he knows forwards and backwards and he's only giving us a portion of everything that he knows about these people and places that he's invented.
During the reading Mr. Wolfe came across a particularly obscure word in the story (of course I didn't make a note of what the mysterious word was) and after reading the word he paused and said to us "That's one of five words I put in the book assuming that no one would know what they were . . . I put them here to compliment the reader."
After his reading the floor was opened for questions, and it was a while before anyone stood to ask him anything. I think everyone sat there, like me, wondering "What would I ask Tom Wolfe if I could ask him anything?" Mr. Wolfe took most of the questions to be opportunities to tell stories, not that I'd blame him. For example, when asked how he went about collecting information for his fiction and getting started on a novel, he talked about setting out to write his first novel, "Bonfire of the Vanities." He said that at first he thought the topic for the book was clear enough in his head, and then proceeded to sit in a "catatonic state" in front of his typewriter for six months. He found he couldn't just draw on his memories, he had to go out and do some serious observing and handle his fiction like the "new journalism" he helped found. (He described new journalism as "a complicated form of writers block" and brought up [briefly] the film version of "Bonfire of the Vanities" stating "Don't ask me to evaluate that movie.") He said he did all this "reporting" for his novels because "Things have to be plausible, but this isn't a plausible era."
He then moved on to talk about writing "I am Charlotte Simmons," which (more or less) he decided to write because "there wasn't a single book on coed dorms . . . what a sensational subject, and not a single book!" When asked how his research on college campuses went, he said that "I went to a lot of fraternity parties, but I didn't fit in . . . and it wasn't just how I was dressed." When asked if being a celebrity on the college campuses impeded his research, Mr. Wolfe replied that he found that "the lack of recognition was breathtaking."
Mr. Wolfe also said that his next project (which he intends to be "little", but his wife would tell you otherwise) would be about contemporary social-structures in the United States (doesn't seem like such a departure from previous work to me). When asked about how he think New York has changed since the publication of "Bonfire" in 1987, he says that Queens is certainly different (it its ethnic make-up) these days and that Wall Street hasn't changed so much, except now it's all about hedge funds, or something like that.
By the end of the evening I decided that if I had a question for Mr. Wolfe, it would be "What do you think Sherman McCoy is doing right now?" But I'm no journalist, so I didn't find out.