Tom Wolfe On Writing

Here’s something from an interview with Tom Wolfe from the January/February American Spectator, which will be of more interest to those of you interested in reporting. The headings are mine.


I started writing the same sort of pieces for Esquire. Its editor, Harold Hayes, wanted a piece done on Muhammad Ali, and Ali wanted to be paid for it. . . .

When I joined him on Monday, to every question I asked him, I would get an answer that I had read in the clippings beforehand. I was trying to ask him questions where he was bound to have some new material, but I couldn’t get anywhere. But I could be with him all day. So the whole story ended up being about the people he ran into and the incidents that would come up. . . .

Most of his hangers-on had nothing to do with boxing. One night we went to a nightclub. There must have been a dozen people at a big table and everybody was ordering drinks and every kind of food. When the waiter brought the desserts, Ali got up and stretched, said it was a little stuffy in the restaurant, and left. I was pretty quick to get out too. That was the kind of thing that that story was full of. Ali just didn’t want to pay the bill.


I was very influenced by Jimmy Breslin and Gay Talese. They had been using this technique in which you turn an article into a scene and use a lot of dialogue, often dialogue that had nothing to do with the heart of the story. . . .

Breslin would do things such as cover a trial in Newark, New Jersey of some mobster. Most trials would start around 9:30. But he would get there at eight because he wanted to see the defendant coming through the door. So here is this mobster type and he had his retinue with him and they are all kind of joking around, with the defendant hitting the arm of one of his friends right below the deltoid where it hurts like hell to be hit, with the other friends saying, “he is always hitting Ralphie on the arm.” Anyway, Breslin would put all of this dialogue into the story. And then you get into the trial and the guy loses the verdict and suddenly he is not lively anymore. It was all like a scene. Breslin and Talese would go from scene to scene to scene rather than having these boring narrative interludes, with that terrible second paragraph, “Jeff was actually born in Carson City . . . .” Every time I would read stories with paragraph likes that I would think, “Oh God, we have to go through this again.”


I began to honestly believe that this New Journalism was far more exciting in a literary sense than fiction was. And you could make that case because talented young novelists were all going to these MFA programs and being told, “write about what you know,” which is brilliant advice for your first novel but it makes them helpless on their second novel. It was Emerson who said every person in the world has a great autobiography in them if only they can remember the details that made them different from other people. But Emerson didn’t say you could write two that way.


I used to go through the dictionary looking for unusual but nontechnical words. At one time I thought the greatest word was jejune and I would throw it into every piece, because something about it appealed to me.


I started out like most young writers, thinking that great writing consists of 95 percent of your talent and 5 percent your content. But you have to write about something and pretty soon I had those figures really turned around. It was more like 75 percent content and 25 percent ability.

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