ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tom Wolfe's new novel, "A Man in Full," has been number one on bestseller lists East and West for weeks. It's Wolfe's 12th book, his second work of fiction. He was promoting it in the San Francisco Bay area this week and spoke to students at the US-Berkeley School of Journalism.
TOM WOLFE, Writer: My last two books have been novels, but I have gone about them in exactly the same way that I have gone about non-fiction.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: "A Man in Full" is about a colorful Atlanta real estate tycoon who has built one high rise too many and is going bankrupt. It's also about a young factory worker in the bay area who ends up in jail after losing his job as a result of the tycoon's problems. Wolfe told the aspiring journalists in Berkeley he had done a lot of reporting in Atlanta and in Oakland and other East Bay locations to get his story right.
TOM WOLFE: You know, it's not just that reporting gives you a bigger slice of life, gives - lends verisimilitude to what you are doing - it's that it feeds the imagination.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Wolfe was a reporter on the New York Herald-Tribune, among other newspapers, long before he was a novelist. Among his non-fiction books are "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" about hippie idol Ken Kesey and "The Right Stuff" about the heroes of the early space program. I talked to him in the Berkeley Journalism School Library about "A Man in Full."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You've always said that good reporting was crucial to writing a good novel, and here we are in a journalism school; it seems quite appropriate. How much of "A Man in Full" is reporting and how much just came out of your imagination?
TOM WOLFE: Just about everything was from reporting, because it's about things I knew nothing about when I started. I mean, I knew nothing about quail plantations in Southwest Georgia, for example. I knew nothing about county jails in California and the life inside of them. I knew nothing about Atlanta politics and racial politics until I went out and did some reporting on it. To me, reporting is absolutely essential to the novel now more than it ever was.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why?
TOM WOLFE: It's because the novel is not going to be able to compete with television, with movies, with other forms of stories unless it exploits to the full what only - what only print can do and what only - in this case - the novel can do - and that is to bring people inside of these amazing worlds that exist in the United States today. I mean, this is an absolutely bizarre country but bizarre in a wonderful way if you happen to be a writer. And so many writers today are taught that the only valid material is their own lives and their only valid feelings are their own feelings, and so they end up writing about their own lives. And once they've cannibalized their own experience once, there's not much left for them to do; whereas, writers, if they were willing to write the way Zola did or the way Dickens did, by being reporters, going out and finding new material, they could open up this whole country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So how do you work? Let's take the Santa Rita Jail, the Alameda County Jail that you treat in great detail. Did you go visit it?
TOM WOLFE: I Did go visit the Alameda - Santa Rita - it's called. And I did it in the following way: I had a friend who himself had a friend who was in that particular jail, and he started telling me stories about Santa Rita. And so I said, do you think I could go visit your friend, and he said, I'm sure. He said, inmates are just dying to have visitors; they'd love to have a visitor.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you go to the jail. I imagine you spent some time in Oakland. You treat Oakland in quite a bit of detail.
TOM WOLFE: Oh, I did, and, see, these are all things that I knew nothing about before I went into it. I didn't know anything about life in jail, any kind of jail in this country. I didn't know anything about life in Oakland. And I had a long passage of a young man - one of my heroes - Conrad Hensley - being put through a terrible ordeal when his car is towed and taken off to a car pound and sort of - the deepest East Oakland - and way into the slums - and I researched every single step of the way.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you resent it when the Oakland Tribune retraced your steps too, and the Oakland Tribune reporter says, oh, no, he's wrong here or he's right here, and he said there were no telephones and, in fact, there are telephones on the street here - does that bother you?
TOM WOLFE: Oh, yes. I didn't see that piece, incidentally, but that would bother me, because to me it's important to get it right. It sounds like - if they're right - I got some things wrong. The reader, I think, doesn't particularly care whether it's right or wrong.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But you do take some liberties, don't you?
TOM WOLFE: Well, I do take some liberties. Well, you have to. But I didn't take any with the open streets just for the hell of it. I love getting those things right, and it may be a kind of useless fastidiousness of mine - these are - after all - novels. But that's the way I am.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I found in my reading of "A Man in Full" - I found it to be a novel about morality in America, about virtue. Is that what you want people to take away from it?
TOM WOLFE: You know, I didn't think about this as a novel about virtue, but that's what it became. That - I would never even instinctively have - write a novel that has a particular message from the outset. To me, novels are a trip of discovery, and you discover things that you don't know and you assume that many of your readers don't know, and you try to bring them to life on the page. But when I introduced the subject of stoicism in this book, suddenly, it became a tale of morality. I had this young man, Conrad Hensley, who was out of work and through mishaps was in Oakland. His car is towed, and he eventually gets into a fight with somebody at the pound, the private car pound where these cars are taken, and he ends up in jail. He really has no one to turn to. His wife has given up on him; his parents are worthless, ex-hippies. He has nothing; he has nobody. And, by mistake, he's sent this book about the stoics, and he reads these lines from Epictetus and learns that Epictetus, himself, had been sold as a slave when he was 10 years old to a Roman - he was Greek, himself - he was sold to a Roman military officer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And it gives Hensley, who was already a good man, the - almost the theology or the ideology of his goodness.
TOM WOLFE: Right. Stoicism - a true stoic has no dilemmas. I'll give you just one quick example. Epictetus, like most - practically all philosophers in Rome - had a long beard, and the emperor Domitian, who followed Nero - this was all in this era of flesh pots in Rome - was - and had it with these philosophers, who were kind of thorns in his side - and so he issued a euchasa that said all philosophers must cut off their beards or be beheaded or sent into exile. So - and the beard was the symbol of being a philosopher. So either you deny your own nature as a philosopher, or you're going to die or be sent into exile. So they came to Epictetus, and they told him the choice that he had - either death or shave off your beard - and they said, we'll give you 24 hours to decide. He says, I don't need 24 hours. He says, I'm not shaving it off. And they said, well, we'll behead you. He said, go ahead; you do what you have to do, and I'll do what I have to do; my body is only a bowl of clay with a quart of blood in it; and someday I've got to give it back anyway. Ah - this - this is stern stuff and it's so alien - what I liked - it's so alien to the age that we live in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that this book - I mean, this book is appealing to a lot of people - it's now in its fourth printing - the first printing was 1.2 million - do you think it's so appealing because of people's fascination with the life of the wealthy in Atlanta that own plantations and capture rattlesnakes and breed horses, or do you think they're most fascinated with the stoicism and this life of virtue that this young man takes on?
TOM WOLFE: I think people are responding to the detailed picture of life - of life in America. And this new - the injection of this new element of stoicism and this kind of unrelenting picture of virtue - I think it does intrigue people - it's so alien to this particular period.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You really like Conrad Hensley - this young man who becomes a stoic and breaks - he breaks out of prison when the earthquake destroys the prison. I can tell you really like him. It's quite different, I think, from "Bonfire of the Vanities" where - at least I can't remember a character you liked as much as you like this one.
TOM WOLFE: I was worried that he was too good. But I think - because good characters are very hard to make interesting - particularly good young characters - ingenues are rather difficult to make interesting - but I think the injection of stoicism into his life made all the difference. When - to have him escape from jail thanks to an earthquake I think could have been just a kind of hokey coincidence to get him out of jail, but he genuinely believes that Zeus did it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You've gotten a lot of good reviews, a few bad reviews. Does it bother you when somebody like John Updike in the "New Yorker" says that this is entertainment, not literature? He says you're trying too hard to please us, and he wrote that it's vulgar. Or he's implying that it's vulgar.
TOM WOLFE: I think he said that novel has to be exquisite.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes.
TOM WOLFE: Not vulgar and coarse. I'll leave it up to almost anybody. What would you rather have, exquisite or vulgar and coarse? Anyway, you have to take Updike is part of a matched set of Updike and Mailer. Mailer also did a review. Why are these old bones rising up from off their palettes? These men are in their 70s - off their palettes to try to shoot down this book that's -
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why? Why do you think?
TOM WOLFE: I think it gets down to the prediction that I made. Now the future has arrived in the form of the "Bonfire of the Vanities" and "A Man in Full," and others, I think, will move in this particular direction. And it's casting a shadow. And they found themselves in the dark, and so what do you do when you're in the dark? You whistle in the dark to try to boost your own carriage, and you try to say that's not really a bid shadow; that's - falling over me. It's - you know - this is not literature; it's entertainment; that's an amusing dichotomy in itself - literature can't be entertainment? Or you say - I think Mailer says, well, this is entertaining but it's not really a novel. So we can invalidate it. It's whistling in the dark.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Tom Wolfe, thanks very much for being with us.
TOM WOLFE: Thank you, Elizabeth.