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Tom Wolfe: Writing Nonfiction 'Became A Great Game And A Great Experiment'

Tom Wolfe wasn't interested in fitting in. In his signature white suit, the best-selling author and journalist described himself as "the village information gatherer."


Other segments from the episode on October 29, 1987

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 18, 2018: Obituary for Tom Wolfe; Interview with Edward St. Aubyn; Review of the TV adaptation of Fahrenheit 451.


DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today on FRESH AIR, we commemorate author and journalist Tom Wolfe, who died Monday at age 88.

Tom Wolfe was one of the early practitioners of what came to be known as New Journalism, adapting novelistic techniques for his nonfiction books and articles. He coined such widely accepted expressions as radical chic and the Me Decade, chronicled Ken Kesey and his fellow LSD travelers in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and America's first astronauts in "The Right Stuff." He wrote reported pieces and profiles for such magazines as New York, Esquire and Harper's. And eventually, he experimented with writing fiction.

In 1987, his first novel, honing in on the privileged and greedy brokers of Wall Street, became the best-selling novel "The Bonfire Of The Vanities." That's when Terry Gross spoke with Tom Wolfe and asked him about making the transition from new journalism to fiction and what inspired him to write "The Bonfire Of The Vanities."


TOM WOLFE: It was a piece of curiosity. I was curious as to what would happen if I did try to do a novel. I was curious about just sort of throwing down this challenge to myself. You know, I have bad-mouthed contemporary fiction so much.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: That's right. (Laughter).

WOLFE: It's just awful. I mean...

GROSS: I was going to get to that. (Laughter).

WOLFE: I've been a little outrageous about it. So I said, even though I'm asking for a lot of trouble, I'm just going to throw down the gauntlet to myself and see what'll happen if I do it. And having done that, I'll say, I'm now going to try to prove that it's not only possible to write realistic, even naturalistic fiction about today, but that it's desirable to do it. So I also wanted to prove a literary point.

GROSS: Your new novel explores several different cultures within New York City. One of them is the haves, and the main character is an investment banker who's finding it hard to save any money on his million-dollar-a-year income.


GROSS: And he thinks of himself as a master of the universe, someone who can't be a saint 'cause he's a master of the universe, and he's too busy, and he has too much responsibility. What genre of person do you think that is? I mean, is this a person who typifies a certain attitude in the '80s?

WOLFE: I think it's quite typical of the '80s, that - which is a period of tremendous prosperity among certain people in large cities. There's probably never been a period of such prosperity. And particularly in New York, where the world of investment manipulation has created a gigantic industry, by now far and away the biggest industry in terms of dollars, and in some ways in terms of just sheer numbers of people in New York City.

And it leads - the colossal accumulation of money leads to the belief among those who have it that this accomplishment translates into all areas of life and that if you are able to make a lot of money, let's say on Wall Street, that you're also able to do anything else that you want to do with your life. In other words, that you are able somehow to be a master of the universe. And this is a great pitfall in every area when you start thinking you can translate an ability in one area into the rest of your life.

GROSS: Now, you got your doctorate in American studies. Why did you go into journalism? Not that there's a whole lot of professions waiting for people with doctorates in American studies.

WOLFE: Well, you put your finger on one part of it, and very few people realize that. Oddly enough, the work I did at Yale to get a doctorate in American studies turned out to be of inestimable value in journalism. It so happened that I finished my dissertation at the end of one summer. And it was too late to get a job teaching, which is the natural thing for someone in graduate school to do.

So I decide, well, I'll do something else for a year and get a job teaching the following year. So I got a job on a newspaper in Springfield, Mass., which is a few miles north of New Haven and, somewhat to my surprise, loved it from the very beginning. I was a general assignment reporter covering whatever came my way, filling in on the police beat on the weekends. And I really never wanted to leave it once I got started.

GROSS: You started to use the techniques of fiction to write journalistic stories. What were you reacting against in the style of journalism?

WOLFE: There was a neutral so-called objective voice that journalists were expected to assume at that time. And we're getting back to the late '50s and the early '60s. And I, frankly, found it absolutely boring. I also, having had it in the back of my mind that I was, you know, at some point, I was going to - I was going to quit journalism and write fiction. I mean, that's what everybody starts - everyone interested in writing starts into journalism with - that's the idea.

I began to be intrigued with the notion of, well, here I am a journalist. Why not use, if it's possible, some of these techniques that short story writers and novelists use while doing nonfiction? And this became a great game and a great experiment and pretty soon, by the mid-'60s, seemed to me much more important than writing fiction. I mean, there was nothing going on in fiction that even remotely compared in excitement with what was going on and what at that time was called New Journalism.

GROSS: Was it a sudden thing that got you to write that way? Did you suddenly say, well, I can't write this piece in the old style, I've got to write it in this new style, the old style just won't work? Or did your writing gradually evolve?

WOLFE: No. Well, I did have a kind of involuntary epiphinal (ph) moment in - let's see, what year was it? - it was 1963 it must have been. There was a - late in '62, a newspaper strike began. I was by now working for The New York Herald Tribune. And I suddenly found myself out of a job. And I needed to make some money, so I went over to Esquire magazine and sold them on the idea of a story on customized cars, which at that time were being made in very fanciful forms by teenagers in Los Angeles, the era of Big Daddy Ed Roth and George Barris and so on.

So they said, OK, go on out to California and do this story. I remember checking into the Beverly Wilshire hotel and over the course of four weeks running up his enormous bill. I came back to New York, found myself utterly blocked. I could not write this story. I went to the managing editor of Esquire, Byron Dobell. And I told him, I said, Byron, I'm sorry, I just simply cannot write this story. I just have to drop the assignment. He says, you can't do that. We've got about $10,000 worth of color plates of these ridiculous automobiles you're supposed to be writing about already made. We can't do anything about that. So why don't you just give us your notes and we'll get some competent writer to put them together?

So with a very heavy heart one night - as a matter of fact, after - oh, it must been after 9 o'clock one night - I started typing up these notes in the form of a memo which began - Dear Byron, the first place I saw customized cars was at a teen fair in North Hollywood, Calif - straight as I could do it but as fast as I could do it to get this humiliating task over with. And I ended up typing at top speed for about eight or nine hours. And in that time, I produced 50 typewritten pages.

I took this over to Esquire, turned it in about 9 o'clock in the morning, went home to sleep. And I got a call about 4 that afternoon from Byron Dobell saying, well, Tom, we're going to knock the Dear Byron off the top of your memo and run the memo as the article. And that article became the one entitled "The Kandy-Colored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," which was the title of my first book.

What had happened was, in writing what I thought was a memorandum to a single individual who was about my own age - Byron Dobell - that I had somehow liberated myself from all of the fears and all of the constraints that you feel when you are going to write something as formal as a magazine article for a national audience. I had reached that kind of tone that a lot of people are able to reach in writing a letter to a friend. There are many great writers of letters who freeze when they are told to write a course paper or a...

GROSS: Well, a lot of people tell you write it as if you're telling your friend about it. Of course, easier said than done.

WOLFE: ...When they are told to write a course paper.

GROSS: You (unintelligible) a lot of people tell you write it as if you're telling your friend about it - of course, easier said than done.

WOLFE: Well, that...

GROSS: It implies that you're more articulate somehow when you're talking to a friend about it, which isn't, of course, necessarily true.

WOLFE: Not necessarily true, but you are freer. And it'll work the first time for anybody.

GROSS: Well, that article established a new style for you, which you've been building on for a long time. Now, that style has created real reverberations within journalism. And I want to talk to you a little bit about the legacy of that style. It seems that it spawned a lot of terrific writing, and it spawned a lot of bad writing, too. I don't know if you feel that way - do you (laughter)? - that there are a lot of excesses that have been...

WOLFE: It can lead to excesses, particularly in the form of purple prose.

GROSS: Yeah.

WOLFE: It's a very demanding form. And I think a lot of people who try don't realize how much reporting you have to do first without the information behind it. All these techniques, which are things like scene-by-scene construction and use of extended passages of dialogue and point of view in the Henry James sense - without the facts, which can only be obtained through reporting, it can really fall flat. It just becomes a - it can become just a verbose technique.

GROSS: There's also a certain kind of novelistic writing that has entered newspapers where the article might start, it was 4 a.m. Little Johnny awakened with a start. There was a big noise outside. He looked out the window. War had broken out.


GROSS: And instead of just the headline saying war broke out, you have to get through all this descriptive, novelistic writing.

WOLFE: Well frankly, I don't see it tried enough. The great day of this form of writing in newspapers was at the New York Herald Tribune when it was desperately trying to overtake The New York Times. And that's what really started early brilliant work by people like Jimmy Breslin or Gail Sheehy and many others. It didn't - you know, we never overtook The New York Times, but it was - we sure made a great show as the ship sank.

BIANCULLI: Tom Wolfe speaking to Terry Gross in 1987. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's 1987 interview with author Tom Wolfe, who died Monday at age 88.


GROSS: Can I ask you the dread questions about your white suits?

WOLFE: Yeah. Now we're getting serious. Let's (unintelligible).

GROSS: Yeah, let's get down to our real business here. I mean, your signature as far as your wardrobe goes has always been the three-piece suit, tailor-made, usually white. Something I've always wondered about wearing a white suit is that you really have to protect yourself because anything is going to get you dirty. And as a journalist, it seems to me you really want to dive into a situation and do what needs to be done. But if you're wearing all white, you have to keep everything at a certain distance.

WOLFE: Well, two things that come to mind when you ask about that. One is I have discovered that for me - and maybe it doesn't work for everybody - for me, it is much more effective to arrive in any situation as a man from Mars than to try to fit in. I've tried it. When I first started out in journalism, in magazine work particularly, I used to try to fit in. I remember doing a thing on customize - on stock car racing. I went down to North Wilkesboro, N.C., to do a story on a stock car racer named Junior Johnson. And I tried to fit into the stock car scene. I wore a green tweed suit and a blue button-down shirt and a black knit tie and some brown suede shoes and a brown Borsellino hat. I figured that was really casual, really - the stock car races.

And after about five days, Junior Johnson, whom I was writing about, came up to me. He says, I don't mean to be rude or anything. He says, but people I've known all my life down here in Ingle Hollow - that was where he came from - say, they keep asking me, Junior, who is that little green man following you around? It was then that it dawned on me that, A, nobody for 50 miles in any direction was wearing a suit of any color or a tie for that matter or a hat. And the less said about brown suede shoes the better, I can assure you. So I wasn't - you know, I wasn't fitting in to start with. I was also depriving myself of the ability to ask some very obvious questions if I thought I fit in. I was dying to know what an overhead cam was. People were always talking about overhead cams. But if you're pretending to fit in, you can't ask these obvious questions. After that, I gave it up. I would turn up in - always in a suit, and, you know, many times a white suit and just be the village information gatherer. And you'll be amazed, if you're willing to strike that role.

GROSS: When you were doing the research for your book, "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," which is about Ken Kesey and the psychedelic acid trips, were you dressed like that, too?

WOLFE: Oh, yes. And it would - actually, to have tried to fit into that scene would have been fatal - perhaps literally fatal. Kesey had this abiding distaste for pseudo-hippies or hipster. There was really no such term at that time. But - well, it was called pseudo-hipsters - you know, the journalist or lawyer or teacher who on the weekends puts on his jeans and smokes a little dope and plays some Coltrane records and tries to be part of the scene. And so he had a device called testing people's cool.

And I remember once witnessing this. It was on a - one of these weekends. And he said, all right, let's everybody get nekked (ph) - it was his word for naked - and get on our bikes and go up Route 1. This was in California. And they did. They took off all their clothes. They got on the motorcycles. And they started riding up Route 1. Now, this separated the hippies from the weekend hipsters, if you will, very rapidly. But now I didn't have to worry because I wasn't - I was in my three-piece suit with a big, blue corduroy necktie, and the idea that I was going to take any of this off for anybody was crazy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WOLFE: So, you know, I was safe.

GROSS: Well, you probably just looked like another freak to a lot of freaks.

WOLFE: Well, after about two weeks, one of the - Ken Kesey's group, the Pranksters, named Doris DeLay, said to me, you know, you got on the weirdest outfit around here. And it was the most unusual in that particular little corner of the woods.

GROSS: Would you ever let a journalist observe you, hang out with you? I don't mean just interview you and write a piece about you. Maybe this has happened already. But say a journalist wanted to almost move in with you for a few weeks, really get a sense of your life, follow you around on a story you were writing. Would you let anyone do that?

WOLFE: Probably not. I don't - I've never felt that anybody owes me the courtesy or favor of letting me observe them or that nobody owes - has any obligation to answer my questions. You know, most people, if they let the press observe them, are striking an implicit bargain. They feel that there's - they know there's something in it for the press, and they feel that there's something in it for themselves. And I think we might as well be frank about it. It's some kind of - it is some kind of bargain. Not that the outcome is going to be - the outcome of what is written should be a certain thing but that, OK, I'll give you this freedom of observation in hopes that I'm going to get this particular - I think that's the way it works out.

GROSS: That leads me to my final question, which is some people probably who got written about by you felt burned afterwards - thinking specifically of the "Radical Chic" piece that you wrote about a fundraising party for the Black Panthers at Leonard Bernstein's house. I'm sure he was sorry that you were there.

WOLFE: Yes, I think he - I think he was. I think you have to take - as the journalist, you have to take the position that what you are doing is important, that the process of discovery that you are going - that you're going through is as important, if not more important, than any issue that is involved in the story that you're writing. And looking back at the story on Leonard Bernstein and the Black Panthers, the story "Radical Chic," I think it was important to see exactly how the phenomenon that I called radical chic worked and what it was all about.

And I think you can't afford to be constantly wringing your hands over the impact of what you're doing, whether you're talking about the impact on the individuals that you're writing about or the impact on the issues that are involved - in this case, support for radical groups in the late 1960s. I was heavily criticized after that for drying up fundraising - which I don't think I did - but drying up fundraising for these radical groups among wealthy people, among socialites in New York. Well, whether I did or I didn't, I don't think you can worry about that. I think if you start worrying about that, you're no longer writing. You're involved in public relations.

BIANCULLI: Tom Wolfe speaking to Terry Gross in 1987, when his first novel of fiction, "The Bonfire Of The Vanities," was published. Tom Wolfe, who also wrote "The Right Stuff" and "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," died Monday at age 88. After a break, we'll hear from Edward St. Aubyn, the British author whose Patrick Melrose novels currently are being dramatized as a TV miniseries on Showtime. And I'll review a new TV movie based on the work of yet another author, Ray Bradbury, whose HBO version of "Fahrenheit 451" premieres Saturday. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Our next guest is Edward St. Aubyn, best known for his quintet of semi-autobiographical novels known collectively as the Patrick Melrose Books, books that have just been made into a Showtime miniseries. The title character and the author share many key traits. Both hail from an upper-class British family that was posh but monstrous, and both as boys were sexually abused by their fathers.

In the Showtime version of "Patrick Melrose" - Part 2 is televised Saturday night - Benedict Cumberbatch plays the title character now in his 20s. He's a drug addict haunted by memories of his childhood and his father. Here's a clip from the opening episode in the miniseries. Patrick's father has just died, and after a particularly emotional and destructive stay at a New York hotel, Patrick phones overseas to check in with a friend.


BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) Johnny. Johnny. Can you help me?

PRASANNA PUWANARAJAH: (As Johnny Hall) Patrick, how are you?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) Oh, fine. I tried to kill myself last night.

PUWANARAJAH: (As Johnny Hall) Where are you calling from?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) The bottom.

PUWANARAJAH: (As Johnny Hall) Christ. You were right. Patrick, tell me when you land. I'll come and meet you.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) Look. I haven't got long. Can you hear me?

PUWANARAJAH: (As Johnny Hall) Yes.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) I've decided I'm going to take control of my life. I'm going to get clean. Hello, Johnny. Can you hear me?

PUWANARAJAH: (As Johnny Hall) Yes, I can. That's wonderful. But are you sure this time?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Patrick Melrose) Of course. People always make such a fuss about these things.

PUWANARAJAH: (As Johnny Hall) So what do you want to do, Patrick? Patrick, what are you going to do instead?

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Edward St. Aubyn, author of the semi-autobiographical "Patrick Melrose" novels, in 2014.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Let's talk about the "Patrick Melrose" novels. First of all, the character is from a family that has money passed on over the generations. It's a family that has, you know, a historic past. And I imagine your family was that way, too. Could you just give us a sense of what kind of historical background your family is from?

EDWARD ST. AUBYN: Well, on my father's side, I'm told we came over with the Norman Conquest and was part of that invasion. It's a family that's been in the same place for a long time. I don't know why that's considered a virtue, but in England, it is. And they still own land, which they were recorded as owning in the Domesday Book in 1087. The head of the family lives in a castle and has a title, all that kind of stuff.

GROSS: The head of your family - is someone - there's still a castle?

ST. AUBYN: Yeah. But I'm, you know, quite remote from all that. But that's the kind of family that it is. And I should say - sorry - I should add, on my mother's side, there's a different story, which is a story of American money made in the middle of the 19th century coming over to Europe in a very Henry James-ian way and marrying into European aristocracy. That kind of story. So those are the two types of background that I'm from.

GROSS: One of your characters in the first novel in the Patrick Melrose series, "Never Mind," the character Nancy, is thinking about the psychological impact of inherited wealth. (Reading) the raging desire to get rid of it and the raging desire to hang onto it, the demoralizing effect of already having what almost everyone else was sacrificing their precious lives to acquire, the more or less secret superiority and the more or less secret shame of being rich. Can you talk about the downside of that kind of legacy of money?

ST. AUBYN: Well, I think if - probably the simplest thing, since I know where you're equating from, is to continue reading the sentence, if you'll allow me.

GROSS: Sure.

ST. AUBYN: (Reading) Generating their characteristic disguises - the philanthropy solution, the alcoholic solution, the mask of eccentricity, the search for salvation in perfect taste, the defeated, the idle and the frivolous and their opponents, the standard bearers, all living in a world that the dense glitter of alternatives made it hard for love and work to penetrate.

And as we know, Freud famously said that love and work is what keeps us sane. So the downside side of the world being talked about, though, being thought about by Nancy is that it's very difficult for love and work to penetrate it.

GROSS: Love was very difficult in your family. The character of Patrick Melrose is raped by his father when he's 5, and that continues for several years. And my understanding is that that happened to you, too.


GROSS: I'm not going to ask you to read that scene, but there is also a scene that's very upsetting. It's not rape. But there's a scene where the father picks up Patrick by his ears and basically - and Patrick hates it when his father does that. But the father says, I'm going to drop you right away. Don't worry about it. It's going to be fine. And he doesn't. And Patrick feels like his ears are going to fall off, and it's just such a kind of petty act of sadism to do that to a child when you know the child's hurting. So you've got, like, the incredibly horrible thing - the act of rape. And just that more smaller thing - there's, like, picking him up by his ears. You must have asked yourself a million times. Why would a father do that to his son? Like, what could he possibly be thinking? Like, how deranged can he be to do that?

ST. AUBYN: So that was a prominent question in my mind for many years. That's right. Yes, that's in the build-up towards the rape. We just get a little foretaste of David Melrose's sadism, his trickery and his desire to transfer his immense, raging unhappiness to his son. I think that is the reason why my father was so sadistic - is that he had so much spare pain, you know, that he needed to get rid of it in other people.

GROSS: I imagine, as a 5-year-old, you had no comprehension of what was going on.

ST. AUBYN: No, I didn't. I didn't. But I knew that it was wrong. And I knew that it was bewildering and horrible. So, I mean, I understood some aspects of it very well. And I knew that I was desperate to not to remain in a body that was being treated like that. And during the rape scene, Patrick imagines himself leaving the bed and taking refuge in the body of a gecko, which then scuttles away over the tiles. And part of him, some fragment of him, is unviolated, but the rest of him is destroyed.

GROSS: Right after the rape, the father ask Patrick if he's hungry. And the father says, well, I'm starving. You really should eat more. You know, build up your strength. You know, then the father goes out to lunch. And at lunch, the father is thinking that perhaps he pushed his disdain for middle-class prudery a little too far.

(Reading) Even at the bar of the Calvary and Guards Club, one couldn't boast about homosexual-pedophiliac incest with any confidence of a favorable reception. Who could he tell that he had raped his 5-year-old son?

Do you think, first of all, that your father's raping of you had anything to do with his disdain for middle-class prudery?

ST. AUBYN: I think that the people who behave in ways which are very destructive, immoral, which they they know to be wrong, search for whatever excuses, pretexts and lies that are available to them. And someone like David Melrose will naturally choose to regard the disapproval that most people would feel about what he does as middle-class prudery. That's the defense available to him. Other people would use other defenses, other explanations, you know, about character formation or Ancient Greece or, you know, whatever. You know, or imagine that the victims are really enjoying it all. People tell themselves the craziest stories.

GROSS: He seems to, instead of feeling shame and horror at his own actions, to just be wishing that he could, like, talk about it with somebody, share the experience.

ST. AUBYN: I think he did. He's not literally imagining that he would like to sit at the bar of the Cavalry and Guards Club, He's just - he's realizing in his own contemptuous and snobbish way that he's gone quite far in it, that there is actually no one who he can tell about this. And David Melrose is a very isolated figure. And he turns - one of his successful transfusions is that he turns his son into a hugely isolated figure. And, you know, at the end of the chapter, you're talking about what you were talking about earlier where he's picked up by his ears. Patrick runs away and hides. And the chapter ends with the sentence - nobody can find me here, he thought. And then he thought, what if nobody can find me here?

GROSS: And apply that to your life.

ST. AUBYN: My own life. You know, I remained very isolated by similar experiences that I had and, you know, never told another human being the truth about my childhood until I was 25, when I made a suicide attempt and realized that I would succeed the next time if I didn't tell the truth.

BIANCULLI: Edward St. Aubyn, author of the Patrick Melrose novels, speaking to Terry Gross in 2014. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2014 interview with Edward St. Aubyn, author of the semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels. Both St. Aubyn and his character, Patrick Melrose, were raped by their fathers over the course of several years, starting at the age of 5.

GROSS: When you did reveal that you were raped as a child, what was your mother's reaction? Because she didn't know, right?

ST. AUBYN: She said she didn't know, that's right.

GROSS: But you don't necessarily believe her?

ST. AUBYN: Well, I do. I do because people have extraordinary capacities for compartmentalizing things and denying things, you know. And to some extent, this is the subject of the last book in the volume. It's one of the subjects. At last, Patrick has thought of his mother as a fellow victim of David Melrose's tyranny and violence, but he begins to wonder whether there was a collaborative element, perhaps not consciously but between her masochism and his sadism.

I think, you know, back in my life, I would say that I got a letter from an au pair who had looked after us as children after "Never Mind" was published saying that she'd heard me screaming down the corridor, and she knew something terrible was happening. But she was 19, and she was frightened of my father. And she never dared do anything about it. And she'd felt guilty all of our life. Well, none of the au pairs were able to to bear our household for more than a few months.

So if she knew, how could my mother, who there the whole time, not have known? There must have been, you know, some kind of split in her mind. But I don't deny that people can split their minds in that way. I don't mean that she really knew and was approving of it. I think she must have been in a position to know if she was prepared to acknowledge it.

GROSS: What was their reaction when she - when you told her she couldn't be in denial about it?

ST. AUBYN: She said that my father raped her as well and that she'd, you know, refused to go to bed with him after the birth of my sister. And then he'd raped her and that she was going to leave him but had become pregnant. And I was that pregnancy.

GROSS: You said that your novels, the Patrick Melrose novels, are really about how to become free and free of anger and resentment. And what Patrick Melrose learns at the end of the fifth novel I think I would describe as compassion for yourself, which sounds like a cliche but that is so hard to achieve. Is that something you feel like you've worked on for a long time?

ST. AUBYN: It's very hard to paraphrase the last chapter. And - but there are lots of elements in it. And that's what you described as one of them, yes. He renounces the search for consolation. So there's an element of stoicism and austerity in it. But he also discovers that, you know, as he's become less and less obstructed by hatred and resentment, that there is this kind of spontaneous generosity which is compared with, you know, with your hand going out to rub your knee if you just banged into something. It's just a spontaneous reassurance or comforting in it that he hasn't really known before, which is very, you know, natural to a lot of people.

But it - so there are all sorts of discoveries in the last novel. And they weren't discoveries that I'd made until I wrote the last chapter of the last novel. I wasn't looking back on some sort of, you know, little epiphanies, which I was going to share with the reader. I discovered what the resolution was in the act of writing it. And the - I wasn't looking back on anything. So the gap between, you know, the description of experience and the experience closed, and the gap between the author and the alter ego closed. I was discovering what Patrick was discovering in real time by writing it. So that up chapter is important to me, and I think it really just has to be read (laughing).

GROSS: Mm-hmm. What's an example of a book that you read when you were young that was really important to you?

ST. AUBYN: There was a book which I was given as a prize at the Lycee Francais, the French school in London, which I went to only for a year. And everyone got a prize, by the way, so it wasn't very distinguished. But there was one on your chair when you went to the prize (unintelligible). And I was very young at the time. It's about a goat who longs to escape into the hills because he can see the rot of alpine flowers that he longs to run around in. But his owner locks him in a woodshed because he knows there's a wolf up in the mountains. But he escapes from the woodshed and has an ecstatic day playing and rising in the high grass.

And then at the end of the day, he sees the shadow of the wolf on the ground, and he knows that he's going to die. But he turns towards the wolf and charges and decides to fight him with this phrase, which in French is (speaking French), but - as long as I last until the dawn. And that book just made me burst into tears every evening for a year or two of my life. So books always had this very powerful effect on me because of some communication, somebody seeming, even in a very symbolic or displaced way, to understand what I was feeling. And I think that's the miracle of literature - is this private communication between one intelligence and another.

GROSS: Edward St. Aubyn, thank you so much for talking with us.

ST. AUBYN: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Edward St. Aubyn, author of "The Patrick Melrose Novels," speaking to Terry Gross in 2014. The second episode of the "Patrick Melrose" miniseries premieres tomorrow night on Showtime. Coming up, I review HBO's new TV movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This Saturday, HBO presents a new made-for-TV version of "Fahrenheit 451," the novel by science-fiction author Ray Bradbury about a repressive government that burns books and manipulates facts. Bradbury wrote "Fahrenheit 451" in 1953 at the height of the McCarthy era.

At that point in the '50s, Republican Senator Joe McCarthy was accusing people of communist activities without any actual proof but destroying careers and lives just by the power of his nationally televised accusations. Bradbury's book, like George Orwell's "1984," imagined a world in which the government creates its own facts, suppresses unwelcome thoughts and opinions and attacks unapproved ideas. Book burning in Bradbury's story was the central metaphor for a disdain for both knowledge and art.

The title "Fahrenheit 451" refers to the flashpoint temperature at which paper catches on fire. The last time "Fahrenheit 451" was made into a movie, as the first English-language film by French new wave director Francois Truffaut, was in 1966. The divisive politics and culture of those times gave Bradbury's message a new resonance then, and so do the political and social conflicts of 2018. I was really looking forward to HBO's new adaptation of "Fahrenheit 451" and how it might position and present Bradbury's classic narrative to a new generation. And then I saw it.

This new version stars Michael B. Jordan, from TV's "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood" and from the movie "Black Panther," as futuristic fireman Guy Montag. His boss, Beatty, is played by Michael Shannon from "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Shape Of Water." And their characters don't fight fires. They start them whenever their investigations turn up one of those increasingly rare artifacts of unrestricted ideas, printed books.

Montag begins the drama as an enthusiastic book-burner but comes to see the light. Beatty, however, remains on the dark side, even though he reads many of the books before burning them and quotes from them afterward. He does so in a heavy-handed fashion, but that matches everything else in this new "Fahrenheit 451" movie.

Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, this adaptation hits every point and every scene with the subtlety of a firehose. Here are Beatty and Montag, for example, leading a sort of pep rally for youngsters. They're indoctrinating them in the dangers of the printed word. In so doing, they employ other words, like eels, which is short for illegals, and the Nine, which is this future's version of the Internet. Oh, and graffiti, which is any non-approved form of writing. You get the idea. And even after you do, this TV movie will keep hammering it home.


MICHAEL SHANNON: (As Beatty) Eels are bad. They're dangerous. And they want chaos in your hearts and your minds. They want to make you unhappy. Eels try to upload graffiti to the dark Nine before we can burn it. What should these young natives do, Master Trooper?

MICHAEL B. JORDAN: (As Guy Montag) Stay vivid on the Nine. If you see something, say something.

SHANNON: (As Beatty) Eels say we limit information. Lies. Master Trooper Montag, can you read any book you want on the Nine?

JORDAN: (As Guy Montag) Sir, any book, sir.

SHANNON: (As Beatty) Yuxie, show us some classics. The Bible. "To The Lighthouse." And "Moby Dick." This is all you need to know. Anything else will make you sick, crazy. And that's why we're here, to protect you and to keep you safe and happy. Understood?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yes, sir.

JORDAN: (As Guy Montag) Please rise.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Happiness is truth. Freedom is choice. Self is strength.

BIANCULLI: Bahrani as both writer and director here loves to belabor the obvious. He loves fire, not just as a metaphor, but as a reliably flashy visual. His characters are either good or bad. And in keeping the story set in some sort of authoritarian near-future, he injects his equivalents of social media, YouTube, Alexa and other recognizable modern technologies. It's as though he wants his version of "Fahrenheit 451" to pass as an episode of the tech-savvy sci fi anthology "Black Mirror," but it doesn't work at all. Bahrani even changes the ending of the novel in a way that both dilutes and deflates it.

What's missing from this movie most of all is the poetry of Ray Bradbury's original vision, as well as the poetry of his prose. HBO's "Fahrenheit 451" is so disappointing an adaptation that ironically it ends up encouraging exactly the sort of activity and inspiring the type of passion that Ray Bradbury was after in his novel. He wanted you and encouraged you to go back and read books. After enduring HBO's "Fahrenheit 451," I encourage you to skip the movie and go back and read Bradbury's book. It'll be time much better spent.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon has a new collection of essays called "Pops: Fatherhood In Pieces." It features a story about taking his 13-year-old son to Paris Fashion Week, which became a viral sensation online, and meditations on the complicated relationships between fathers and children. Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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