One Book, One Chicago Fall 2008
Q&A with Tom Wolfe
What made you choose to write about Project Mercury over 30 years ago?
Two psychiatrists had been assigned to study the astronauts. In their first report they said that all seven had certain things in common: they were all white, they were all Protestants, they were all first sons—four of them had junior after their names—they were all from stable families and they were all born in small towns. That was me!—except for the small town part. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. All those things in common turned out to be either irrelevant or just wrong. But that was all right. I’m never happy until I’ve done enough research to explode my own hypothesis.
How did the astronauts and their families react to the book?
As far as most of them went, I have no idea. If that sort of thing worries a writer, he should switch to p.r., where you’re always on the side of your subject. If you’re going to write nonfiction, you have to believe that what you’re doing is more important than any person, cause, political party, issue or anything else. Most of the astronauts seemed to like what made them look good and not what didn’t. In other words they were like Everyman—except for Alan Shepard. He hated the whole thing, down to the paper it was printed on.
How does journalism today, in particular feature writing, differ from when you started out in the field?
Not a whole lot, except perhaps for the curious fact that there is more of it today than ever. That’s because any managing editor with half a brain realizes that film, television and radio are so time-driven, they can’t compete with print feature stories. Print remains the only medium that can explain anything remotely complex. The other electric medium, the Internet, is print made unpleasant to read. It’s back-lit. Besides, computer information scrolls up. That’s terribly reactionary. The monks were so happy to get rid of those damn scrolls back in the 13th century.
Do you think you’ll ever return to writing nonfiction?
Originally, I was only going to write one novel, to prove to myself and any random doubters that I could do it. But that novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, was such an astounding success, at least to me, I’m afraid I got swept away. I’m currently working on a novel about immigration. But believe me, if I could have found one good real-life story that got to the heart of the whole question, I would have gladly undertaken the book as nonfiction. Nonfiction remains the most important literary genre in American literature of the past 60 years. I’d be happy to return to it. My novels are based on the same kind of reporting. Any other type of novel’s days are numbered, if you ask me.