Kicking Down the Door, Part 1

Hey, this is part of a series on writers who kicked down a metaphorical door with their writing. Like Marie Curie with science and Little Richard with music…

Tom Wolfe was a newspaper reporter with a hankering to liven up nonfiction writing, then considered the sober sibling to freewheeling fiction. In 1962, Wolfe got hired to write for Esquire on the hot rod culture in Southern California. He hung out in the milieu, did his usual expert reporting, but couldn’t find his way into writing the article.

The day before the deadline, the editor told Wolfe to just send his notes and he’d find someone to forge them into something usable. Wolfe stayed up all night, pouring out his notes, ignoring all conventions of journalistic writing. Like this:

Dick Dale, rigged out in Byronic silk shirt and blue cashmere V-neck sweater and wraparound sunglasses, singer’s mufti U.S.A., has one cord with a starter button, while a bouffant nymphet from Newport, named Sherma, Sherma of the Capri pants, has the other one.

The editor liked what he saw and published the piece pretty much as is, with the title: “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” Readers loved it. 

From there, Wolfe went hot-rodding through nonfiction, penning intensely researched nonfiction books and articles (“Radical Chic,” The Right Stuff, etc.) that leaped to life with high-octane prose that gave readers a wildly entertaining time. From The Right Stuff:

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot… coming over the intercom… with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!—it’s reassuring)… the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’…

Wolfe (and some cohorts) invented the so-called New Journalism, where nonfiction grabbed the license to use the literary pizazz of fiction, their work influencing such current nonfiction writers as Isabel Wilkerson and David Grann.

Wolfe dressed like a dandy, with white bespoke suits, and he loved poking sacred cows, as well as overusing exclamation marks!!!!!!!

In 1987, he topped his own derring-do by writing a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, that was like a piece of journalism turned into a rushing subway train rife with greed, vanity, racism, and the race for status in New York City. I remember riding the subway around that time and about a third of the people in any given car were reading the book—reading what was happening right around us.

It seemed Wolfe was having a grand time with his attire and writing, but he found them both exhausting. Kicking doors down isn’t easy. Nor should it be.

Tough Stuff

We writers need to write about the tough stuff, happening around and inside us. However, we also want to keep it so engrossing that our audience will stick with it.

Three classic examples:

All in the Family, created by Norman Lear…

Confronts racism and intolerance. It’s a TV sitcom that was #1 in the ratings for five years running in the 1970s. (The show’s creator, Norman Lear, recently passed at the age of 101.)

Archie Bunker, the central character, is an unapologetic bigot, a working-class white guy who “knows” he is superior to Blacks, Jews, gays, and pretty much anyone different than him.

Archie is more ignorant than hateful, and we can laugh at his ignorance, as with his malapropisms, like when he speaks of a priest sprinklin’ incest on the congregation. But he’s not a cartoon; he’s a real person that we feel we know. And we’re glad to see others challenging his odious views, especially his lefty son-in-law, whom he calls Meathead.

Matilda, by Roald Dahl…

Confronts the emotional and physical abuse of children. It’s an uproarious children’s book beloved by generations of kids.

Matilda is a five-year-old girl with a brilliant mind, whose parents have no interest in her. Her school is run by Miss Trunchbull, a towering woman who despises kids, calling them things like maggot and slug. And she roughs them up, like the time she grabs a child by her pigtails and sends her sailing through the air.

Most of the abuse is so over the top as to be humorous, without entirely losing its terror. And we stay with the story because Matilda quietly fights the abuse, gluing her dad’s hat to his head and working on a devious way (involving telekinesis and chalk) to send Trunchbull fleeing the school forever.

Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala…

Confronts the grief of losing loved ones. It’s a highly acclaimed, bestselling memoir that’s offered solace to its many readers.

It’s a true account of how Sonali lost her parents, husband, and two sons on the day an ungodly tsunami struck Sri Lanka. And how she tried to cope with the loss through alcohol, pills, self-harm, and thoughts of suicide.

We experience her unimaginable grief, but we want to keep going because it’s strong storytelling (will she survive her grief or not?) and it’s written with eloquent honesty, as seen here, when Sonali visits the site of the disaster six months later:

What I really wanted was to find Crazy Crow, the big glove puppet with unruly black feathers that we had given Malli for Christmas, the day before the wave. When he tore open the wrapping and saw it, how he’d lit up.

So much loss and love right there.

A writer’s magic trick: taking us through the tough stuff by telling a great tale.   

Alex Steele


Reality Calling

In Susan Breen’s mystery novel Maggie Dove, Maggie (a Sunday school teacher in a small town) discovers the dead body of her neighbor in her front yard late at night. Then…

Maggie took off her sweater and put it over his face, thinking to protect him. Then she ran into her house and called the police, except that in her nervousness she accidentally transposed the digits. She wound up with the pizza parlor instead.

“You can’t be wanting a pizza so late, Mrs. Dove,” Joe said. “What’s up?”

“Something terrible’s happened, Joe,” she whispered because it didn’t seem right to speak loudly. “Something’s wrong. Marcus Bender is dead on my lawn.”

This being a small town, Joe knows Maggie, and he calls an ambulance.

It reminds me of a moment in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Sherman McCoy (a financier in Manhattan) takes the dog out of for a walk because he wants to call his mistress out of earshot of Judy, his wife. This being the 1980’s, he calls from a payphone:

Three rings, and a woman’s voice: “Hello?”

But it was not Maria’s voice. He figured it must be her friend Germaine, the one she sublet the apartment from. So he said: “May I speak to Maria, please?”

The woman said: “Sherman? Is that you?”

Christ! It’s Judy! He’s dialed his own apartment! He’s aghast—paralyzed!


He hangs up. Oh Jesus. What can he do? He’ll bluff it out. When she asks him, he’ll say she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

I love both these moments not because I’m a fan of misplaced phone calls (interesting as they are), but because they’re the kind of accidental, absurd things that happen in real life. They’re so minor, you might not think to include them in your story, but you should, at least now and then.

These accidental, absurd things bring a smudge of reality to your story. They seem so randomly real that they must have truly happened. Why would someone invent something so silly?

It’s nice to bring reality-smudges to a story heavy on artifice—for example, a cozy mystery like Maggie Dove. And you’ll want life’s randomness to run rampant in a highly naturalistic story—for example, the current TV series The Bear.

Hey, try this: write a scene about a mistaken phone call.

And I’ll leave you with the opening of Raymond Carver’s short story “Whoever Was Using This Bed”:

The call comes in the middle of the night, three in the morning, and it nearly scares us to death.

“Answer it, answer it!” my wife cries. “My God, who is it? Answer it!”

Wrong number.

Alex Steele,

Gotham President