Last Saturday, as I waited to board a flight from Reagan International in Washington, DC, I stepped into a bookstore to check out some magazines. My flight was at 9 p.m. and I had arrived at about 7 or so. Standing, then shifting and staring at the magazine rack stood a gentleman whom I recognized at once. But I wasn’t terribly sure it was really him. Draped in what I can only call a “Sherlock Holmes” type winter coat and clutching a beige leather satchel stood a tall, lean man with wispy white. I had to be absolutely sure, so I looked down at his feet. Black and white wing-tip shoes, polished to a high sheen that would make any army captain smile with pride. The coat hung loose over a stark white double-breasted suit. Yeah, that’s him, I told myself. “Er, excuse me,” I said. The man must have thought I wanted go past him and jumped back to allow me to walk by. I stuck my hand out and somewhat reluctantly asked him, “Would you happen to be Mr. Tom Wolfe?” His eyes lit up for a second and in a soft Richmond drawl said, “Yes, I am.” He looked a little surprised that he was so recognizable. Endearing, I told myself. But his hallmark white suit was a dead giveaway.
I asked him a few questions about his most recent book, I Am Charlotte Simmons. I mentioned to him that I had read a review of it in the New York Times and saw a faint grimace emerge and then quickly disappear. He joked about how President Bush liked the book and so had to be a smart man for it. Although the book has been on the best-seller list it hasn’t done all that well at the cash register. As I shifted uncomfortably on my feet, the conversation naturally moved on to what he is working on now. Apparently the chronicler of American society has finally discovered immigrants. I was amused but suggested that he read Suketu Mehta‘s writing in the New York Times. He didn’t quite get the first name, so I had to spell it out for him – S-U-K-E-T-U. We batted around the name of another writer with a last name Mehta – Ved Mehta – though he seemed more interested in Mr. Mehta’s wife’s writing.
I asked him more about his writing and how over the years he was able to secure so many wonderful interviews. Using his book, The Right Stuff, as an example, he quite candidly admitted that if you are writing about a man, you should get to know his wife even better. “Men, just lock up. The women like to talk,” he said.
Given that I am closely aligned to SAJA, I asked him if he would consider speaking at the annual convention, held at Columbia University. He said he enjoyed speaking to student audiences. I suspect a gaggle of journalists would be another story.
Mr. Wolfe spent nearly 15 minutes with me before hurrying along through security and boarding his flight back to New York city. Just before bidding goodbye, though, he asked me again to spell S-U-K-E-T-U, and so I did.
By the way, I just got word that Suketu Mehta has won the 2005 Kiriyama Prize in non-fiction writing for his book Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Congratulations!
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