Q&A: Tom Wolfe

The author reflects on his past, God and society

Tom Wolfe Credit: Robin Platzer/FilmMagic

You were thirty-seven in 1967, a bit older than the counterculture. Did you feel a generation gap?
I just felt like a reporter. I actually loved the music at that time, Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes. The music, to me, was like a second childhood. But all the rest, I was happy to leave for the children. Your techniques as a reporter have always been interesting. Rather than trying to blend in, you'd show up in a suit and not make any concessions to whatever subculture you were covering. I did a story on stock-car racing for Esquire, and I figured, "Well, it's probably casual, it's racing." So I wore a green tweed suit and a blue button-down shirt and a black knit tie — that was very casual. I had on some brown suede shoes and a brown Borsalino. I don't know if you've ever seen Borsalinos, but it's almost like a fur, a thick beaver. After about three days, Junior Johnson, the racer, said, You know, I didn't mean to say anything, but everyone's asking me, 'Who's this little green man following you around?'" Once I realized I wasn't even close to blending in, then I asked some of these questions I was dying to know the answer to, like, "What is an overhead cam?" People kept talking about overhead cams, and if you're trying to fit in, it's hard to ask basic questions. So I didn't even attempt to try to fit in with [Ken] Kesey and the Pranksters. And ever since then, I've taken what I think of as the "man from Mars approach": I've just arrived from Mars, I have no idea what you're doing, but I'm very interested.

Before you started reporting on Kesey and the Pranksters, what was your relationship to drugs and the drug culture?
I didn't know anything about it, particularly LSD. I was looking for a subject for my next book, and my then-editor showed me some letters written from Kesey to Larry McMurtry. These were fascinating letters, full of paranoia and actual police sightings — he was on the run in Mexico. And I got the bright idea of going down to Mexico to find him. But before I could make that trip, he was caught by the FBI in San Francisco, by pure accident. A car pool of FBI guys were driving down the Bayshore Freeway south of San Francisco, and they looked over, and here was this guy, pulling off a beard and mustache and a straw hat. It was a hot day, and the stuff was uncomfortable. One said, "That looks like Ken Kesey." So they pulled him over, and he made a run for it. He'd been a great athlete, but he hadn't been a great athlete for a couple of years. So they caught him, and I caught up with him in jail in Redwood City.

Was there a moment in any of these stories where you felt tempted to cross the line from observer to participant?
I must say, in covering Kesey and the Pranksters, there were these all-night sessions. They'd be taking drugs. I wouldn't. And it would get very spiritual, and I remember many times, driving from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, where I was staying. It's light out, rush hour's just beginning, and I remember I would have this feeling like I had been in on something very spiritual, and all these poor ants out here going to work had missed out. But by the afternoon, I'd think, "What am I talking about?"

Your book The Right Stuff came out of a Rolling Stone assignment. How did that come about?
Jann had the idea of my going to the launch of Apollo 17, for the last trip to the moon in the Apollo program [in 1972]. His concept was that it would be quite a scene. And it was quite a scene. King Hussein of Jordan, who insisted on flying his own airplane — and he was such a bad pilot that people near the landing fields would take their children indoors — was there. And George Wallace. And a 135-year-old ex-slave — though I wonder how old he actually was — and Jonathan Winters, who was very big at that time. Ahmet Ertegun was waiting for the rocket to go off, and he was playing backgammon in the grass. It was all very funny. But I got interested in the astronauts. At night, you'd go out to where they would be launching from, and here would be this monster thirty-five-story rocket fueling up, and I remember saying, "Who in God's name would sit up there?" They look like a little thimble up there on top of this enormous rocket. "Who would do this?" That was my basic question. So it ended up not being about the social scene at all, from the beginning. It was about the astronauts.

There's a tremendous difference between the vision of youth culture in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and your latest book. I Am Charlotte Simmons. There are lots of drugs and sex in both.
Well, basically, the Sixties started it.

But Acid Test makes you want to run away with those people. And Charlotte Simmons doesn't make you want to go to Dupont University.
I wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test from inside the skin of the people themselves. They were happy to be what they were. They felt superior.

They thought they were American pioneers, lighting out for the wilderness.
Kesey used that image all the time. He was always talking about the wilderness. Whereas Charlotte Simmons as a character had one original vision of what college was going to be, and from the moment she got there, her idealism became canceled out. She never had anything to feel happy about. It was a different character with a different outlook. But neither was written as a commentary on anything that was going on. I really don't care about that. To me, the important thing about writing, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, is just discovery — to discover the way people live. I mean, since the Sixties, particularly among young people, living has been just wild, bizarre. A lot of it is possible because it's been such a flush time economically.

But what was left in the wake of this wild living? How has it changed us?
I believe that we are in the fifth American freedom. FDR enunciated the four freedoms: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom from tyranny and freedom from want. But now we're in this era of the fifth freedom, which is freedom from religion. The Sixties were all about that. That's the last restriction.

You are lamenting the loss of God in our lives, but I don't see in your writings any professions of belief. Are you a religious person?
No, I'm not a believer. I was raised as a Presbyterian, and when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I just kind of wandered off. It wasn't — I had never had this moment when I said there is no God.

But as a nonbeliever, you still seem to be defending belief.
Anyone who thinks that religion is bad for society is out of his mind. We are now beginning to see what happens when you don't have it. People get depressed when they don't have something to believe. I think the contemporary conception of the human mind has become more and more depressing. This is my problem with the atheists, people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. They're saying that there is no ghost in the machine, that it's all physical. And if it's all physical, it's going to obey certain laws. And the endpoint of the argument is that there is no free will. That you and I are machines that have had a certain genetic foundation, and as soon as we know enough about that, we'll be able to predict what'll happen when you meet me. We just need the information. That's a very depressing thought.