Author and journalist Tom Wolfe's books include The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Bonfire of the Vanities and I Am Charlotte Simmons, among others.
Author and journalist Tom Wolfe's books include The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Bonfire of the Vanities and I Am Charlotte Simmons, among others. Jim Cooper/AP
Tom Wolfe wrote his new novel, Back to Blood, entirely by hand. But the author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Bonfire of the Vanities also says that wasn't entirely by choice — he'd rather have used a typewriter.
"Unfortunately, you can't keep typewriters going today — you have to take the ribbons back to be re-inked," Wolfe tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "There's a horrible search to try to find missing parts."
Back to Blood is set in Miami, which Wolfe describes as the only city where an immigrant community rose to dominate the political landscape in just over a generation. The novel deals with racial and ethnic conflict among the city's diverse inhabitants, including immigrants from Cuba, Haiti and Russia, as well as the city's long-established African-American and Anglo communities. Its central character, the young Cuban-American police officer Nestor Camacho, struggles with his identity and the ire of his community after safely bringing a Cuban refugee down from the top of a ship's mast and arresting him before he could set foot on American soil.
"If you touched anything that is connected to the U.S., like a bridge, then you were considered a 'dry foot,' but if you came in by water and you didn't make it all the way in, you could be sent back," Wolfe says.
Wolfe is known for his association with the new journalism movement, which uses techniques of fiction, such as evocative scene descriptions and dialogue, to tell true stories. In writing Back to Blood — and for the first time — Wolfe allowed someone to follow him during his research. Oscar Corral, a former Miami Herald reporter, served as a tour guide and translator for Wolfe in Miami, and videotaped several trips. The result is a one-hour documentary called Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood, which is airing this month on some public TV stations.
Wolfe says he was grateful for Corral's help, but he did warn Corral that his presence came at a price. "A reporter can not afford to have a camera around any sort of sensitive information gathering," he says. "It just puts the person off so badly."
According to Wolfe, that's why he's always felt that when a reporter is followed, "you're going to have a lot of boring stretches."
On choosing Miami as the setting for his novel
"I wanted to do [a] book on immigration. I was thinking of it even when I was doing my last book. At first, I was interested in the Vietnamese in California because they were spreading rapidly, at first around Los Angeles. Then one day I discovered they were up in San Jose, which is Northern California, to the extent that they were now publishing not only the San Jose Mercury [News] but the Viet Mercury. And I said, 'Hey, there must be a few people around here.' But unfortunately, I couldn't speak the language and it was just one group of immigrants. Then I heard about Florida. The first thing that caught my ear is that Miami is the only city — the only one I can find — in which people from a foreign country with a different language and a different culture have taken over a metropolitan area politically at the voting machine in slightly over one generation. Of course that's the Cubans."
On his sociological approach to writing
"This attention to status ... started when I was in graduate school and I was in a program called American Studies, which was a mixture of different disciplines but one [in which] you were forced to take sociology. I had always looked down on sociology as this arriviste discipline that didn't have the noble history of English and history as a subject. But once I had a little exposure to it, I said, 'Hey, here's the key. Here's the key to understanding life and all its forms.' And the great theorist or status theorist was a German named Max Weber. And from that time on, I said this obviously is the way to analyze people in all of their manifestations. I mean, my theory is that every moment — even when you're by yourself in the bathroom, you are trying to live up to certain status requirements as if someone were watching ... It's only when your life is in danger that you drop all that."
On the graphic real-life scene on which he based his portrayal of Miami's Columbus Day Regatta
"The regatta is actually a sailboat race and ends up on a rather barren little island called Elliott Key — it's about 60 miles south of Miami. When the regatta first began, after the race, all the crews and the owners and every[one] would get together and have a party. Well these parties began to get wilder and wilder, and people on the mainland began hearing about these Columbus Day Regatta parties. And so when I got there, there were easily more than 1,000 boats ... congregated around Elliott Key. I mean, 1,000 boats is a massive lot of structures in humanity, and they're waiting for the evening. And the police, until recently, didn't try to control things, so people would lash together boats, 12 in a row, which created one gigantic deck — you had to go up and down on the deck. And it became wilder and wilder and wilder, until finally they would be showing pornographic films on the sails of schooners, and they would in essence have orgies right there on the decks. I couldn't believe this ...
"I saw it personally. I stayed at this thing for a very long time. It has cooled down a little bit 'cause there is a police presence now. But nevertheless — oh, for example, I don't want to go into too graphic detail, the bare breasts began [at] about 5:30, and then we go on from there."