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EASTSIDER TOM WOLFE
EASTSIDER TOM WOLFE
Avant-garde author talks about The Right Stuff

10-6-79

During New York City's newspaper strike of 1963, a 31-year-old Herald Tribune reporter named Tom Wolfe visited California in order to write an article for Esquire magazine about the souped-up, customized cars and the crowd they attracted. When Esquire's deadline arrived, Wolfe was unable to pull the article together, so he typed out his largely impressionistic notes and sent them to the editor, who decided to run "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" exactly as written. Thus was Tom Wolfe established as one of the most important new talents in American journalism.

Today he is generally recognized as the foremost proponent of what might be called the nonfiction short story. The majority of his eight books are collections of factual articles written in the style of fiction. His latest effort, The Right Stuff (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $12.95), is about the seven Mercury astronauts and the world of military flying. Over cocktails at the Isle of Capri, a restaurant not far from his Eastside apartment, the slender, gentlemanly, and slightly bashful author spoke at length about his new book and a dozen other subjects. Dressed in a one-button, swallowtail, yellow pinstriped suit — "it's kind of an early Duke of Windsor" — he poured forth his colorful phrases in a rich, soothing, mildly Southern accent that rang with sincerity.

"I began this book in 1972, when Rolling Stone asked me to go down to the Cape and cover Apollo 17. Somewhat to my surprise, I became quite interested in the whole business of: what's the makeup of someone who's willing to sit on top of a rocket and let you light the candle? And I ended up writing four stories for Rolling Stone … in about a month. And I thought if I spent a couple of months in expanding them, I'd have a book. Well, it's now 1979 and here we are." He laughed heartily. "It was so difficult that I put it aside every opportunity I had. I wrote three other books in the meantime, to avoid working on it.

"I ended up being more interested in the fraternity of flying than in space exploration. I found the reactions of people and flying conditions much more fascinating. So the book is really about the right stuff — the code of bravery that the pilots live by, and the mystical belief about what it takes to be a hot fighter jock.

"Flying has a competitive structure that's as hotly contested as the world of show business. And the egos are just as big — in fact, in a way, they're bigger. … It's hard to top surgeons for sheer ego. I think surgeons are the most egotistical people on the face of the earth, but pilots usually make the playoffs: they're in there."

An excellent caricaturist who has published hundreds of drawings and mounted several major exhibitions, he confessed to being vain about his artwork because "I don't feel as sure of myself as I do in writing." A book of his drawings will come out in 1980. He also has a captioned drawing each month in Harper's, the magazine where his wife Sheila works as art director. Tom was a lifelong bachelor until they were married last year.

He arrived in New York in 1962, armed with a Ph.D. from Yale and three years' experience on the Washington Post. "I really love it in New York. It reminds me of the state fair in Virginia, where I grew up. … The picture of the East Side really is of the man living in the $525,000 co-op, leaving the building at night with his wife, both clothed in turtleneck sweaters with pieces of barbed wire and jeans, going past a doorman who is dressed like an Austrian Army colonel from 1870."

No relation to the novelist Thomas Wolfe, Tom Wolfe has written only one short piece of fiction in his life. He is now thinking about writing "a Vanity Fair type of novel about New York" as his next major undertaking. In the meantime, he is working on a sequel to The Painted Word, his book-length essay abut modern art that appeared in 1975.

"Another thing I'd like to try is a movie script," he added. "I've done one — a series of vignettes about life in Los Angeles. … But many talented writers just go bananas in trying to write for the movies. Because they're not in charge of what they're doing. All that a good director can do is keep from ruining the script. He cannot turn a bad script into a good movie. He can turn a good script into a bad movie. And often, I think, it happens, because the director is given a power that he simply should not have."

Another possible project, said Wolfe, is a second volume of The Right Stuff, to bring the story up to the $250 million Soviet-American handshake in 1975. The 436-page first volume has been received with acclaim. In the New York Sunday Times book review, C.D.B. Bryan wrote: "It is Tom Wolfe at his very best. … It is technically accurate, learned, cheeky, risky, touching, tough, compassionate, nostalgic, worshipful, jingoistic — it is superb."

* * *

An Interview with Tom Wolfe

from The Westsider, 11-22-79

Tom Wolfe, one of the most original stylists in American writing today, burst spectacularly on the literary horizon in 1965 with The Kandy Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, a collection of articles about contemporary American life written as nonfiction.

Wolfe's adoption of stream of consciousness, his unorthodox use of italics and exclamation marks, his repetition of letters, and his effectiveness in inventing hip phrases with nonsense words and classical references, helped establish an entirely new literary form — the nonfiction short story.

His reputation was cemented by such books as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Pump House Gang and The Painted Word, a lengthy essay on modern art. Wolfe sometimes illustrates his work with pen-and ink drawings.

His latest book, The Right Stuff, deals with the age of rockets, the early astronauts and the world of military flying. Published in September 1979, it is a critical and commercial success that has already hit the best-seller list.

A tall, slender 48-year-old transplanted Southerner with a rich baritone voice, Wolfe speaks softly, chooses his word carefully, and exhibits a kind of schoolboy bashfulness when discussing his own work. A New Yorker since 1962, he lives on the Upper East Side with his wife Sheila, the art director of Harper's magazine. On the day of our interview, Wolfe is wearing his customary one-button, swallow-tailed, yellow pin stripe suit, which he describes as "early Duke of Windsor."

Q: What made you decide to write this book?

A: Back in 1972, Rolling Stone asked me to go down to the Cape and cover Apollo 17. That was the last mission to the moon. … Somewhat to my surprise, I really became quite interested in the whole business of what's the makeup of someone who's willing to sit on top of a rocket and let you light the candle? And I ended up writing four stories for Rolling Stone in about a month. And I thought if I spent a couple of months in expanding them, I'd have a book. Well, it's now 1979 and here we are." (He laughs.) It was so difficult that I put it aside every opportunity I had. I wrote three other books in the meantime, to avoid working on it.

I ended up being more interested in the fraternity of flying than in space exploration. I found the reactions of people and flying conditions much more fascinating. So the book is really about the right stuff — the code of bravery that the pilots live by, and the mystical belief about what it takes to be a hot fighter jock, as the expression goes. I became interested in people like Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier back in 1947. When the seven Mercury astronauts were chosen, they were not the seven hottest test pilots in America, although they were presented as such at the time. The arrival of the astronauts as a type completely upset the competitive hierarchy of flying.

Flying has a competitive structure that's as hotly contested as the world of show business. And the egos ar............
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