Tom Wolfe has died at the age of 87. In 1998, William Cash interviewed the great author for The Spectator:
Yes, Tom Wolfe does own one of those 12-room Upper East Side apartments, as he wrote in Bonfire of the Vanities, ‘the mere thought of which ignites flames of greed and covetousness under people all over New York, and for that matter, the world’.
Contrary to reports in the British press, however, the 68-year-old dandy New Journalist, self-styled Zola of Our Times, does not resemble Bela Lugosi with ‘cracked lips’ and the blood sucked from a ‘ghastly livid-white’ face. Although he does wear a cape at night and has rarely been seen out in public in the last year, he looked extremely well in his whipped ice-cream suit.
As Wolfe has every reason to be: November 12 is not only the publication date of his 11-years-in-the-making new novel, A Man in Full, it is also a very long awaited pay-day. He will soon be receiving a sizeable seven-figure cheque from his publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, numerous blown deadlines after signing an original contract in 1989 for $7.5 million. ‘People kept — keep — talking about the big advance I got, but they don’t understand what advances are,’ he says. ‘If somebody says you have received $1 million as an advance, what you have really received is a fraction of the advance. You take one of these big advances, and you spread it over nine years, it’s really not that much money. You get the balance on delivery.’
Back in 1990, while at Cambridge, as part of my English finals, I had written a 20,000-word thesis on Wolfe’s satire, full of obtuse references to Thackeray, Swift and Juvenal. I brazenly sent it to him, also asking permission to interview him. Wolfe politely wrote back — his signature is like a black jellyfish — addressing me as ‘Mr Cash’, saying, ‘Alas, I have been forced to put my feet in the stocks to compel myself to complete a book against a ferocious deadline. Once that’s out of the way, you’re on.’ The letter was dated 31 January 1991.
The book was finally delivered this August. Along the way came numerous false starts, the relocation, in 1995, of the ‘I’m getting a huge Christmas bonus from the office, dear, so how about taking one of our human eggs out of the freezer? . . action from New York to Atlanta, a heart attack in 1996 and depression in 1997. There is, however, one reason for the Big Delay which has not been reported: money. While it’s common enough for literary novelists to complain or boast about the size of their advances, Wolfe’s plight was unusual. ‘It’s a terrible mistake,’ he told me. ‘Writers who strike it big probably shouldn’t have as much money as they get — don’t tell my publisher about this!’
‘Is too much money bad for a writer?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it is. But I’m not going to give any away. It’s what kept Dickens going full tilt.’
Self-comparisons with Dickens and Zola are a staple of any encounter with Wolfe in person or print. But the few journalists who have been invited up to his elegant apartment have blindly swerved past asking him about the one area of his own life and career that Wolfe relishes comparison with his ink-stained, 19th-century, Grub Street heroes: the often Balzacian state of his personal finances.
I got the feeling that Wolfe almost needs to be down to his last clean white suit before being spurred into literary action. He has produced much of his most memorable work when going for broke, either in a grotty New York newsroom, a Beverly Hills or Las Vegas hotel, or in his own doorless office, driven by constraints and economic forces all too familiar in literary history. Coleridge once described such forces as ‘those two Giants leagued together, Bread and Cheese’.
Wolfe was 57 when his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, which venally defined the money fever era of Eighties New York, came out a week before the Wall Street crash in October 1987. ‘Everything, in terms of reputation and money — and I had borrowed obscene amounts of money — hung on Bonfire. But most of all my reputation. I was extremely nervous. And so I had practically every psychosomatic malady I could dream up. Suddenly I had gout and I couldn’t walk, and my back went out, whatever that really means, and I was all hunched over.’ He soon straightened out, making $750,000 simply from the movie rights to his book, although he later disowned the finished film.
This time around, his publisher and bank manager — from whom, once again, he had to ‘borrow quite a bit of money’ — began to worry, especially before he had his quintuple bypass operation. Like Dickens, whenever Wolfe wanted some hard cash he hit the lecture circuit (as one $20,000-per-hour appearance announced: ‘Tom Wolfe Briefs Execs at AutoFact ’95 Power Breakfast on “Moral Fever”.’) As the years slipped by, Wolfe simply ‘dreaded the question’ of anybody asking him how the book was going, in particular his long-time publisher Farrar, Straus. 84 Giroux, who he says never got mad at him. ‘Later,’ he admitted, ‘I began to feel in debt not only to my American publisher but also quite a few European publishers.’
Going broke on a $7.5 million advance! as Wolfe might have put it. And all the time, art reflects life. In the original Rolling Stone magazine version of Bonfire, Sherman McCoy was a famous writer who ‘wasn’t that rich! Every month he . . . haemorrhaged money!’ For the final novel, he was changed into a bond dealer going broke on $1 million dollars a year. In the new novel, the protagonist Charlie Croker is a 60-year-old Atlanta property developer, an ex-billionaire who owes his bank $500 million and is just about to lose everything — from his 29,000-acre quail-shooting plantation in Georgia down to his last set of Georgia Tech alumni cufflinks.
The first words that made it into the final manuscript were written in the late summer of 1992 — a darkly hilarious early chapter called ‘The Saddlebags’, so called because of the ability of one of Croker’s bankers to make ‘great stains of sweat’, like the saddlebags on a horse, appear across the shirts of loan defaulters during a ‘work-out’ session in the bank’s conference room.
‘I was particularly proud of that chapter,’ Wolfe told me, ‘in which the whole point of the bank work-out session is to tell this man, “Now that you are in this much debt, you are nothing. You have no dignity left, you have no position, you are a shithead.”‘ During his research, Wolfe discovered ‘shithead’ is the term some American banks use to describe defaulters.
After graduating from Yale in the 1950s, Wolfe certainly did not enter journalism for the money. He once said that the thought of money was the sort of thing you didn’t have to worry about until you were about 45. Even when the ‘zoot-suited’ prose style is as good as Wolfe — at his best he is up there in the statusphere, as he would say, with Hazlitt — books of collected journalism (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby) or on art or architectural criticism never really sell.
But apres Bonfire came la deluge. Did the money that rolled into his account after the bestselling success of his first novel change him, or make him more greedy? Wolfe isn’t saying. His polished suit of armour has no chinks. He once told an interviewer that he would never even take his troubles to his best friend. Indeed his close friend of 20 years, the New York lawyer Ed Hayes, to whom he dedicated Bonfire, expressed surprise when I told him that Wolfe was an atheist.
The only certainty is that it will take Wolfe some time to spend the money from his advance, now that he has it, so we should not expect another novel until the cash runs out. This could take some time. The asking price for the movie rights to the new novel start at $3 million.