I have no right to interview Tom Wolfe, though according to my schedule, this is what I am slated to do tonight. I am at the 10th annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards, and there are people here with original Esquire magazines from 1963, who in 1987 read each installment of "The Bonfire of the Vanities" in Rolling Stone like it was church on Sunday, for whom Wolfe is a guru, the subject of their thesis, the author lining their shelves, their very own man in white. I am a book editor with a few modest clips, and I'm also an aspiring author, unpublished outside the world of local literary journalism.
"Just pretend he's your peer," says my husband unhelpfully. I take comfort in the fact that even if I appear to be a donkey's ass, I will probably never see Wolfe again. I take my digital voice recorder in hand and stake out two chairs at our table.
We are immediately greeted by the gregarious and charming Jon Kukla, whom I have just interviewed regarding his new book "Mr. Jefferson's Women."
My husband is happy to accompany me tonight because he remembers the roast beef from 2005. I am here because I love books and I love authors and I can think of no better place to wear a dress and high heels than the library.
This night is like Cinderella's ball. Normal cardigan-wearing librarians have been transformed into slinky, sequin-wearing sphinxes. There is valet parking! The halls, usually echoing padded Hush Puppie footsteps or the groans of tired research students, are lined with tables topped with sushi, shrimp and lobster. There is a bar serving sweet potatoes topped with bacon bits and a steak and shiitake demi-glaze.
As I maneuver my chopsticks around a wasabi-laden California roll, Caroline Kettlewell, author of "Electric Dreams" and James River Writers' co-chair, informs me of a special presence in the room tonight: none other than Wallace Shawn. Most people know him as the criminal genius Vizzini in "The Princess Bride," but I fell in love with him during many late-night viewings of "My Dinner With Andre," the existential two-hour dinner conversation that actually took place right here in Richmond at the Jefferson Hotel.
The evening's hostess, Lee Smith -- demigoddess of the literary South, is a vision of grace and hospitality in a deep blue dress that matches her sparkling eyes. I have loved the creator of Ivy Rowe and "Fair and Tender Ladies" since high school and kept up as often as I could, most recently with "On Agate Hill." Smith's laughter is as authentic as her strong Virginia accent, and she manages to keep the evening rolling at such a well-paced clip that my husband doesn't get a chance to doodle on his program. In fact, he's taking notes.
And so the awards begin. I am disappointed that Josh Poteat, a friend of a friend, doesn't win the poetry award for "Ornithologies," but I am satisfied that Elizabeth Hadaway, author of "Fire Baton: Poems," wins because she seems funky and bodacious and later tells me that as a resident of Varina she reads Style every week. Scott Reynolds Nelson, author of "Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend," takes the prize for nonfiction and Deborah Eisenberg's "Twilight of the Superheroes" wins in the fiction category. Unfamiliar with these winners and hopelessly behind in contemporary fiction in general, I add "read even more" to my mental to-do list.
Next, when the People's Choice Award for fiction goes to Adriana Trigiani for her most recent novel, "Big Stone Gap," the applause, whistles, catcalls and hoots are so thunderous I assume that one-third of the audience consists of the extended Italian family she mentions in her acceptance speech. Trigiani's joy is loud and operatic, and soon everyone is laughing as uproariously as she is. William Kelso, next to win in nonfiction for "Jamestown: The Buried Truth," admits that he feels weird not being in a cave.
2007 marks the inaugural year of a new award for children's literature, given by Whitney Cordozo, the director of education at the Children's Museum, and her husband, Scott. Tad Hills, author and illustrator of "Duck and Goose," seems to have no Virginia affiliation until he tells the story of how his great-great-great-great-(how many?)grandfather met his future wife while he was in a Richmond jail after the capture of his ship during the Civil War. Oh yes, of course.
Next, poet Buffy Morgan, dressed all in white, introduces herself as Tom Wolfe before presenting 2007's Carole Weinstein poetry prize to Claudia Emerson. For a Pulitzer Prize winner, Claudia is supernaturally humble and as subtle as the poems in "Late Wife," so carefully constructed and lacking in the frying-pan-over-the-head effect I am accustomed to in my kind of poetry.
And then it is time for the Literary Lifetime Achievement Award. From amidst a table populated by three generations of Virginia governors, Tim Kaine rises to the stage. Without a cue card, the governor introduces Tom Wolfe in an impassioned speech worthy of "The O'Reilly Factor." The governor refers to specific themes and passages from "A Man in Full" and "I Am Charlotte Simmons," and while he does not pretend to agree with Wolfe's politics, he emphasizes the work's ability to provoke thought and discourse. All around there are whispers of surprise and approval: "A literary governor!"
And then Wolfe rises to accept his honor. I wonder, could this man be literature's version of Jesus? He wears all white and it seems as if he's been writing for 2,000 years. Isn't being the founder of the "New Journalism" sort of like writing the New Testament? He's hard to miss in a crowd and is worshipped by many. I'm just not sure that Jesus would have voted for George Bush.
At the podium, Wolfe announces that he was brought up on the greatest street in the greatest city in the greatest state in the greatest nation on earth, Gloucester Avenue on the North Side, because as a boy he could see the fireworks at Parker Field from his bedroom window. He speaks well of his education in grammar and rhetoric at Ginter Park Elementary School and later Saint Christopher's. He accepts his award graciously, perhaps as Jesus would, but does not take a bow.
The formal presentation concludes with a three-minute slide show of Virginia authors, including James Branch Cabell, George Garrett, Ellen Glasgow, Douglas Freeman and Edgar Allan Poe, but conspicuously missing a few of the authors in present company. Ah well, there's always next year.
As Lee Smith makes concluding remarks and invites us to revisit the "boo-fay," I make my move to ambush Wallace Shawn at his table. "I used to play drinking games to 'My Dinner With Andre,'" I shout. He is bemused by my confession; thankfully this does not stop him from autographing my program. It reads: "Hello! Wallace Shawn."
Next stop, Lee Smith. I can't help but think of her passionate, beautiful heroines as I watch her smile graciously at the man talking to her and, at the same time, wink at me over his shoulder. "I love you, Lee!" I gush as the man moves aside and I give Lee a huge hug. I'm not embarrassed. Ivy Rowe would have done the same.
And now, last but not least, it is time to interview the man. I attempt to part the sea as he steps off the stage swarmed by photographers and fans. I am wrong in my assumption that we will be granted a quiet place to talk. "OK, you might as well ask me something right now," he says as I fumble notebook, pen, book to be signed and recorder into a semblance of working order. I have time to ask a single question, while straining to distinguish his quiet voice over the buzz of the crowd. Then it is over as he turns to autograph the pile of books in the arms of the woman behind me.
Fast forward: It is the next day and I am at home wondering how quickly I can be rehired to waitress at The Tavern. Somehow, in the heat of the moment, face to face with Tom Wolfe, I failed to press "record" on my digital recorder. I read and reread the notes I took as he answered the one question I had the time to ask: What are you writing now?
Here are my notes: "Immigration, California, Vietnamese -- concentration of population, Mexican Christmas tree farmers, fiction, nonfiction -- maybe." And that is it.
Oh well. I had memorable evening. My husband loved the tenderloin. And I have a feeling that Tom Wolfe's next book will be forthcoming, whether I have managed to immortalize it or not.