“This is Tom Wolfe,” said a friendly voice on the line.
I was a reporter on deadline at the Miami Herald when my phone rang and I heard those words.
I received that call more than a decade ago, and it proved a pivotal moment that changed my life.
After the initial shock wore off and I was convinced this wasn’t some prank, I listened as Tom explained that his new novel, "Back to Blood," required extensive research in Miami and he could use some help getting around the city.
About a week earlier, I had sent him a long, hand-written letter to his home address in Manhattan, offering my help.
To my amazement, he took me up on it.
And what ensued was an unlikely friendship with a man whose literature was one of the things that had inspired me to be a journalist. And because of him, I would eventually venture off from the newspaper to launch my own production company, changing my career.
Over a five-year period, Tom and his wife, Sheila, traveled to Miami more than a dozen times to research his novel. They usually stayed in hotels in Coconut Grove or Coral Gables, but also stayed in downtown on occasion.
At first, I acted as his fixer in Miami, driving him to different locations for interviews and places he wanted to see. Tom’s curiosity and stamina astonished me. He was almost 80 when he started the project. But in his mind he was still 25. He wanted to take in the whole city, learn its quirks and dive its depths. His unique style of reporting, so emblematically demonstrated in his dandy attire, was on full display in Miami.
“I want to go to the Columbus Day regatta,” he told me one day in 2008.
A few weeks later, we boarded a friend’s yacht and cruised to the mayhem brewing off Elliott Key, a floating party of thousands of flamboyant yachts and boats, scantily clad youth and revelers bobbing to the endless pulse of electronic dance music.
The debauchery made such an impression on him that he dedicated a whole chapter in his novel to it.
To get a better understanding of Miami’s yacht and boat culture, we went to the Boat Show in 2009. Tom’s custom-tailored suit seemed to scream, “Money!” because we soon found ourselves on a private tour of a luxury yacht, learning all about its GPS technology, helicopter landing pad and engine.
Interestingly, Tom later revealed that he hated boats, and would not ordinarily go near one.
Unless, of course, it was needed for research.
Tom had long ago established his own brand of journalism, adept at stretching the English language to illustrate — and ridicule —the oddities of American culture and society.
I first discovered Tom’s writing when I was in college. I picked up a copy of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and, well, if you haven’t read it and are even slightly curious about the counter-culture of the 1960s, read it and see for yourself. I had never read anything like it.
In the twilight of his career, under Miami’s unforgiving sun, I was glad to find this iconic literary figure had not lost his zeal.
Tom wanted to go everywhere, meet everyone, see everything. His energy was fueled by his inherent artistic ambition, and more importantly, Sheila. More than 20 years his junior, Sheila — who was the art director of Harper’s magazine when they wed in 1978 — was his right hand in all his creative matters. Tom affectionately referred to her as his “first assistant.”
Sheila understood him better than anyone. Their relationship was easy, and they shared a sense of humor that made them fun to be around.
One night at dinner with the violinist Federico Britos and his wife, Vivian, Tom and Sheila made light of an otherwise awkward situation. The Wolfes spoke no Spanish and Mr. Britos spoke no English. So my wife, Cecile, and I spent the night playing translators, and not always successfully. How do you translate Tom’s wit? A few bottles of red wine and lots of laughs definitely helped.
After a couple of trips to Miami, our comfort level grew and Tom gave me permission to bring a video camera around on his research trips to begin work on a possible documentary. As a print reporter and staff writer, I was just learning to shoot and edit video, and I thought it would be remarkable to capture Tom Wolfe at work.
With the newspaper industry struggling, and my new obsession with video in full bloom, I asked Tom what he thought about my quitting my job and becoming an independent director and filmmaker. He told me that in the years leading up to the publication of "The Right Stuff" in 1979, he had struggled financially as a freelancer. But "The Right Stuff" was a monumental success, and after that, he said he never questioned his decision to become independent.
Shortly after that conversation, I took a buyout at the Miami Herald, used the money to buy production equipment, and launched my company, Explica Media.
Then in 2012, on the same week "Back to Blood" was published, I released the documentary: "Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood " — which holds the distinction of being the only documentary ever made about him.
Over the years I kept in touch with Tom. The last time we spoke, around a year and a half ago, he had recently released what would be his last book, the non-fiction "Kingdom of Speech." He was speaking very softly at that point, making it difficult to hear.
I remember I asked him what his next project was.
“I have a big list,” he joked. “There’s just so much to write about.”
Oscar Corral is an Emmy-award winning documentary filmmaker, journalist and CEO of Explica Media. His documentary "Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood" can be seen on Amazon Prime Video.