A lesson learned from Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe dead

The cover of the 1990 book, “Conversations With Tom Wolfe.”

I never went to journalism school. But I did, as a young man, develop an interest in Tom Wolfe, and that may have helped me more.

It has been announced that Wolfe died, yesterday, at the age of 88, and surely, much will be written about his life and his work. I’m not going to attempt a full obituary. But I wanted to share one little thing: Something that, I feel, has helped me throughout my career as a journalist.

It’s from a 1980 Rolling Stone interview with him, conducted by Chet Flippo, that was also published in the 1990 anthology, “Conversations with Tom Wolfe.” Wolfe and Flippo started talking about Wolfe’s clothes — the dapper white suits that Wolfe wore, even when interviewing, say, hippies in the 1960s. Wolfe argued that the clothes were more of a help to him, as a journalist, than a hindrance, because they identified him as an outsider whom people would then want to explain things to.

I’ve thought about this often when interviewing musicians or other artists. There’s a natural tendency to try to show an artist you know everything about their work. DON’T DO IT! You want them to explain things to you, so you can then pass that explanation along to your readers. There’s no point in trying to fake your way through something. And even if if you do know something, inside and out, sometimes it’s better to feign ignorance, to draw an interview subject out.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from that Rolling Stone interview where Wolfe discusses the subject.

I’m starting this excerpt right after Flippo asked if Wolfe’s clothes ever “got in the way” of his work as a journalist.

No, most often the opposite has gotten in the way. In the beginning of my magazine-writing career, I used to feel it was very important to try to fit in.

To be the chameleon?
Yes, and it almost always backfired, most notably when I went to do a story on Junior Johnson, the stock-car racer, one of the first stories I did for Esquire. I was quite aware that he was from the hills of North Carolina. A lot of moonshine and ex-moonshine runners were involved with stock-car racing at that time, Junior being one of them. I thought I’d better try to fit in, so I very carefully picked out the clothes I’d wear. I had a knit tie, some brown suede shoes and a brown Borsalino hat with a half-inch of beaver fur on it. Somehow I thought this was very casual and suitable for the races; I guess I’d been reading too many P.G. Wodehouse novels. I really thought I’d fit in until about five days after I was down there. Junior Johnson came up to me and said, “I don’t like to say anything, but all these people in Ingle Hollow here are pestering me to death saying, ‘Junior, do you realize there’s some strange little green man following you around?’ ”

I realized that not only did I not fit in, but because I thought I was fitting in in some way, I was afraid to ask such very basic questions as, what’s the difference between an eight-gauge and seven-gauge tire, or, what’s a gum ball, because if you’re supposed to be hip, you can’t ask those questions. I also found that people really don’t want you to try to fit in. They’d much rather fill you in. People like to have someone to tell their stories to. So if you’re willing to be the village information gatherer, they’ll often just pile material on you. My one contribution to the discipline of psychology is my theory of information compulsion. Part of the nature of the human beast is a feeling of scoring a few status points by telling other people things they don’t know. So this does work in your favor.

I would strongly recommend the “Conversations with Tom Wolfe” book to any journalist who hasn’t read it.

Thank you, Tom Wolfe!

One thought on “A lesson learned from Tom Wolfe

  1. Bonfire of the Vanities was one of the best novels of the 20th century; The Right Stuff one of the bet nonfiction books; and Radical Chic one of the best pieces of journalism.

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