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If you like Tom Wolfe's story, you might also like:
Nora Ephron,
Henry R. Kravis,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Norman Mailer,
James Michener,
Vincent Scully,
John Updike,
Edward O. Wilson
and Chuck Yeager

Related Links:
The New York Times: Wolfe's Southern Roots

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Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolfe
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Tom Wolfe Interview

America's Master Novelist

June 3, 2005
New York City

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  Tom Wolfe

What was the Virginia of your childhood like?

Tom Wolfe: I'll tell you how calm it was in the 1930s, when I was growing up. There was a state fair that was just about three-quarters of a mile from where I lived, in an area of Richmond, Virginia, called Sherwood Park. And it was the biggest gathering of human beings annually in the state of Virginia, the state fair. At six in the morning, my mother would give me 12 nickels, and I and one of my elementary school classmates -- I guess we were eight, nine, ten years old -- would walk through the woods to the state fair. And we'd arrive at 6:30, even before the rides were really getting going, and stay there all day. The 12 nickels would get us through the day. And never was there a thought of this being dangerous. Now, in Richmond, Virginia, today I'm sure, not even in Richmond is that true. Nobody lets children go anywhere unattended. Also, I can remember riding a bicycle way into the night with my friends. I say "way into the night" -- 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. We'd be let out of the house in the morning, and the only instruction was to be back for lunch.

And I was not conscious of the Depression, which was hitting Virginia and the whole country very hard. Except occasionally a tramp -- that's a word you never hear anymore -- would come to the kitchen door and my mother would give him a sandwich. I don't remember her ever turning anyone away. And somehow tramps knew. I don't know how they marked it, but they apparently would mark which houses would give you food. And we were only about three-quarters of a mile from the big north-south railroad tracks. So I'm telling you, this was a completely different era.

What did your parents do?

Tom Wolfe: My father was a scientist -- an agricultural scientist, an agronomist, technically. And at the time I was first aware of what he did, he was editing a farm magazine called The Southern Planter. He didn't think of himself as a writer, he was a scientist and he took over this publication, but he gave advice to farmers. But in my mind, he was a writer, because I'd see him at home, sitting at his desk, with his yellow legal pads writing these articles. And then two weeks later -- I think the thing came out every two weeks -- there they would all be in this pristine, beautiful type.

It's funny that I can so well remember how things looked. At that age, everything was new. Comic strips were just wonders. They were so different from looking at one when you get older. Anyway, my mother mostly took care of me and my sister, although she had been married -- I think it was seven years -- and she hadn't had children, she went to medical school at the University of Richmond. And as soon as she went to medical school and had been there one semester, she started having children. I don't what the medicine, biology, or anything else had to do with it.

Tom Wolfe Interview Photo
But my father, I can remember the day he made the decision. He went with a classmate of his -- they had gone to Virginia Tech -- to start a farmers cooperative, which is a set-up in which farms buy things at wholesale price, and any profits are redistributed -- literally, in the form of checks -- to everyone who bought anything, according to how much they bought. They were a godsend in the '30s! The first year, I think the gross revenue of that company was about $800,000. And by and by it was a Fortune 500 company, and still getting tax exemptions for being a co-op. My father said -- actually said in writing -- that they shouldn't be getting it. That's what he did.

Were you an avid reader at a young age?

Tom Wolfe: I read all the time. You have to remember, the only alternate entertainment in those days was radio. And people would sit around the radio, I can remember it, just the way they sit around the television set today. There was Jack Benny. Bob Hope had a program. There were the same soap operas in the morning, except we couldn't see the people. And late in the afternoon, cowboy shows like Tom Mix, and the Green Hornet. It was just like television, but it just happened to be radio.

Did you imagine your own pictures?

Tom Wolfe: Yes. There was one great show called I Love a Mystery. The action always started at night. You could hear the chimes ring, and you knew it was night, and then all sorts of scary things would take place. But reading was the sort of thing you did in idle hours if you didn't want to go out and play. I just read constantly. I'm sure if I was that age today, I would be watching as much television as anybody else, but it's a huge advantage if you ever start writing.

I began to notice, when I was working on magazines years later, I kept looking over my shoulder for the new talent that would be coming along which would be competition for those of us who had reached the ripe age of 37 or 38, and it wasn't there. It just never got there. And part of it is that today, I think, so many talented writers want to go into television, or they want to go into movie writing. Those are the hot industries. But without that reading, I don't think anybody's ever going to turn out to be much of a writer.

Now my daughter Alexandra, who's 24 now, she went to a very tough all-girls school here in New York. And that school is so hard, she watched exactly one hour of television a week. Not because my wife and I said, "You can't go near that set." We never said that. She would watch Beverly Hills 90210. That was the only thing she ever watched on television. She read and read. And now-- you don't mind a father bragging a little, do you? So today she's 24 and she's got a book contract. She's worked on two newspapers. She worked on the New York Observer, a weekly here in New York, and she was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and a publishing house approached her and gave her this book contract. And I think it's partly because she read, she read, she read, she read, she read. It got to the point where she didn't care about television, didn't want to get news on the Internet, which is the main way news is distributed these days. Network television's on the way out. I just read this today. There's more advertising today on Google and one other search engine than there is on all of network television.

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