Column by James Tobin
It’s been nearly 20 years since my wife and I were opening our menus at our favorite restaurant in Ann Arbor and I glanced up to see Tom Wolfe being seated alone at the next table.
I breathed in Leesa’s ear: “That’s…Tom…Wolfe…”
Her eyes got very big.
It was a difficult meal. What could you say, knowing Tom Wolfe could hear every word?
Finally we paid our check and got up to go.
I wouldn’t have said a thing. I couldn’t reveal myself for what I was — a worshipper.
Then I heard Leesa saying: “Mr. Wolfe, I just wanted to say how much my husband and I love your work, and we’re so glad to see you here in Ann Arbor!”
Oh, no. Mortals who speak to a god are struck down.
He smiled and rose, shook our hands and gave us five lovely minutes of conversation. He said he was visiting Ann Arbor to do research for a novel about college students.
Then it was over.
It was not over.
In the car Leesa said: “He’s researching campus life! He’ll need help!”
I was aghast. But I knew what she meant.
I’d just started the risky business of earning a living as a freelance writer. Freelance writers live or die by good contacts.
So I typed a letter saying Mr. Wolfe might get something out of a series of stories I’d written as a reporter at the Detroit News. The stories were about the underside of student life at the University of Michigan, from the “hook-up” culture to intellectual alienation. And if he needed someone to do a little research…
With some quick sleuthing, Leesa figured out where he was staying. Just before midnight I handed the letter and the stories to the hotel clerk in an envelope marked “Tom Wolfe.”
We spent all the next day, a Sunday, away from the phone. We got home at 6:30 a.m. The voice-mail light was blinking.
“Mr. and Mrs. Tobin, this is Tom Wolfe. I’ve read the stories and I’d be very glad if you’d join me for dinner this evening.” I called.
He had a reservation for 8:30 p.m.
This part is hard to explain.
Not the evening itself. That was wonderful.
He told us he was talking to lots of people about the everyday lives of students at big universities. Michigan was one of three campuses he was visiting.
He asked about the students I’d pro led. How had I done the interviews? (Tom Wolfe is asking me how I do interviews…) How much time had I spent with them? What was going on that he should know about? Then I was asking him questions — about The Right Stuff, a book I venerate as a sacred text of narrative nonfiction; and about his novels, The Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, which I’d just read. I can’t remember a thing he said except that after all the procrastinating (Tom Wolfe procrastinates!) every book, long or short, takes a year to write. He was warm, charming, kind. We talked for two-and-a- half hours. Then we went home. The hard part to explain is what I wanted from him. In that waking dream of a dinner, I felt as if he were a shaman who could transmit the magic I needed to write as he wrote. I, the undeserving acolyte, might be anointed, if only he would choose me.
No… please don’t leave without giving me the magic…
I never heard from him again.
He’d been working on the novel that became I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), which the New York Times’s reviewer called “a hellish vision of sex, drunks and gangsta rap… by far the weakest of his novels.” Leesa couldn’t finish it, which discouraged me from reading it.
But my veneration is undimmed.
When Wolfe died in May, I thought about what I had wanted from him.
Only now, after writing many more words, can I see what he offered instead. It wasn’t what I’d wanted, but it was what I’d needed. It was the example not of a magician but of a craftsman. I wish I had seen it then.
How did he get to be Tom Wolfe?
By working. A writer’s work begins with listening, look- ing, asking questions and learning. I didn’t have much to tell him, but that was part of his work — to ask one person after another until he could assemble a story worth writ- ing. He’d been working that night.
Gifted or not, Tom Wolfe or not Tom Wolfe, at the peak of one’s powers or struggling just to put words on the screen, a writer’s job is to get to work and keep working. That’s the only magic.
James Tobin is a professor of journalism at Miami University of Ohio. His most recent book, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, was a finalist for the 2014 Chautauqua Prize. He is one of three Miami faculty on the grounds during the 2018 season as part of a pilot Faculty Fellow program made possible by a philanthropic gift aiming to expand dialogue beyond the confines of Chautauqua in the tradition of the Chautauqua movement as envisioned by its founders. Tobin will lead post-10:45 a.m. lecture conversations at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Smith Wilkes Hall. (An extended version of this essay appears in the Summer 2018 edition of the Michigan Alumnus magazine.)