The author's latest novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, is set at fictional Dupont University
SI: You pitched for Washington and Lee University (below). Give us a scouting report on Tom Wolfe the pitcher.
Wolfe: I went to a New York Giants tryout camp in 1952, but anybody could try out if you had a uniform. I didn't make the cut. The scout said, "You have a nice little sinker and not a bad curve. But we're just looking for one thing: A fastball that makes the catcher shudder. Once you got one of those, you come on back and we'll take another look at you." That was a pretty fair warning as to what my future was going to hold.
SI: Did your athletic career influence your writing?
Wolfe: I doubt it. But all through high school and college I was the sports editor of the newspaper. I was always conscious of the way sportswriters wrote. Sportswriters always had the best style because newspapers would not let anybody else cut loose. I used to follow an Associated Press writer named Sid Feder. I loved his leads. One involved a Thanksgiving matchup between Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Tech. The lead was, "The VMI cadets had Thanksgiving dinner yesterday, feathers and all, defeating the gobblers of Virginia Tech." To me, that was high-class.
SI: Your daughter went to Duke. Did you base the basketball team in I Am Charlotte Simmons on the Blue Devils?
Wolfe: Perhaps I got the idea of a powerful basketball game from Duke. But that's as much as I got. The personality of my coach is far removed from Mike Krzyzewski. Mike is a smooth operator. He's diplomatic. And my man is much more in the Bobby Knight mold.
SI: You spent a lot of time around college athletes while researching the book. Are they true student-athletes, or are they hired guns?
Wolfe: In big-time sports--like in the Southeastern Conference--they are hired mercenaries, let's face it. It's not necessarily true in Division III, but even there, there's a lot of bringing in ringers, if you will. It is a terrible charade to call them student-athletes.
SI: What colleges did you visit to do research for the book?
Wolfe: I wanted [the book's fictional school] to have big-time sports and a high academic standard. So I started off at Stanford because Stanford has both. Then I went to the University of Michigan and took some short trips to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Penn. And I went to North Carolina.
SI: Were the athletes willing to talk to you?
Wolfe: Some were, if I had a way to get to know them. I think they liked to talk about their lives. We all do.
SI: What did you hope to learn from the athletes?
Wolfe: I wanted to know what it was like to be on the court as sound builds up. One player told me the sound becomes static. It doesn't sound like a human sound. You don't hear the insults. You don't hear anybody cheering you on. You feel like you're in a shell that separates you from the rest of the world--and the world is watching. Another player told me he was never at peace unless he was on the court and the ball was in play, because he wasn't confident enough to deal with the ordinary world. That's why when my character Jojo Johanssen is outgunned in the first game of the season and loses his starting position, I tried to put the emphasis on how the horn sounding represented his world coming apart.
SI: Have you ever seen a basketball game at Duke?
Wolfe: I managed to see one game. You cannot imagine how hard it is to get a seat at a game at Duke. I sat in a folding chair. I found the Cameron Crazies fascinating. During the warmups, a tall player from Wake Forest went up for a routine layup or dunk and missed, and they immediately got on his case, yelling at him and telling him what an oaf he was. He comes around again and he's so rattled by all of this that he misses again. Then he comes around the third time, and he is so determined not to miss, he jams the hardest dunk you'll ever see in your life, and he does a swing on the rim that shatters the backboard. It was unbelievable. Immediately, the Cameron Crazies started a chant, "You break it, you pay it." They didn't say "you pay for it" because that doesn't scan. Immediately, they had the right meter and everything. I think Wake Forest lost by 40 points or so.
SI: Does the Red Sox' winning the World Series have a larger meaning beyond baseball?
Wolfe: Everybody loves the triumph of the underdog. Perhaps the Red Sox did catch fire emotionally and something marvelous happened to them. If so, it's worth having larger meaning. It's saying champions are not mercenaries. But these guys constantly move from team to team--and they certainly have the economic right to that--and it destroys the dream that this is a permanent group of champions for your city. And that illusion is shattered every year.
SI: Will the Yankees bounce back?
Wolfe: When I was young, for some reason unknown to me now, I was a follower of the Detroit Tigers. And so I really detested the Yankees. It was a long time before I overcame that and became a Yankees partisan. But nevertheless, thank God for this little inequity. It made things a little more interesting.
SI: Is there an athlete or a sport that fascinates you?
Wolfe: Baseball has always fascinated me because it was the sport I wanted to play. And I'm fascinated by players like Mickey Lolich who can only do one thing. He was utterly awkward at every other thing in life, but he was a beautiful pitcher with a great curve. It's guys like that I like. I'm fascinated by some of these short basketball players, like Spud Webb. I must have felt that I had limited athletic ability, and these guys had physical shortcomings of a major sort, too.
SI: Do you regret that you couldn't have gone further in baseball?
Wolfe: Here's something that's a saving grace in sports: As an athlete--and I was typical--you never think you are finished. There's always something you're going to do tomorrow that's going to revive your whole career. In the case of a pitcher, you're going to come up with a new pitch that's just going to baffle the world. Or you're somehow going to gain speed on your pitches. You keep fooling yourself, but that's good. You tend not to get discouraged, and most people who give up as I did don't say to themselves, "I failed." They say, "I'm kind of busy and I'm getting tied up with other things. I don't know if I can really devote this much time to sports." And God bless human nature for that.
JIM COOPER/AP (WOLFE)
COURTESY WASHINGTON & LEE GENERALS (WOLFE IN UNIFORM)
FOCUS ON SPORT/GETTY IMAGES (LOLICH)
¬† Wolfe is intrigued by Lolich (top left), Webb (top right) and the Cameron Crazies.
STEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES (WEBB)
[See caption above]
KEVIN SEIFERT (DUKE FANS)
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FARRAR, STRAUSS, GIROUX/AP (BOOK)