In the NY Times review of Tom Wolfe's first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, the reviewer suggests that "Mr. Wolfe writes with another agenda, with a kind of malicious glee, and exaggerates in order to make fun of his characters, with whom, truth be told, he has not much sympathy." But Wolfe tells us that he didn't start writing with any targets in mind. "My attitude was more, God, look at what that one does! And look at that one! It was just wonder, really, at how people live in New York."

Tomorrow night, as part of a co-production between 92Y and the Forum on Law, Culture & Society for the 10th Annual FOLCS Film Festival, the 84-year-old author will sit down with U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara at 92Y to discuss the book's continued relevance. We spoke with Wolfe about race, class, and his favorite New York City mayor.

Bonfire of the Vanities is seen as a critique of the excesses of that era, especially of the “Masters of the Universe” on Wall Street. But in the original version of the novel that was published in Rolling Stone, the powerful bond trader, Sherman McCoy, was actually a writer. When did you decide to change him into a poster boy for Wall Street? I did that for Rolling Stone serially, and the problem with writing serially is that if you make a mistake there’s not much you can do about it, such as having a guy in the wrong occupation. I had him as a writer living on Park Avenue in the ‘70s, and that just doesn’t happen. [Laughs] I could see it was the wrong setting.

I had a meeting with some Wall Street people because of a friend of mine who was in the business, and it was just before the serial was about to begin, and I thought, hey these guys are interesting. I felt it was too late to change gears.

I can tell you that writing serially is a killer. I wrote three installments ahead of time so I’d have something to fall back on, but Jann Wenner ran all three in the first issue. I can remember nights, dead tired—this was out in Long Island—where I’d go to sleep at 10, and then I’d wake up when the clock struck 12, and that was the end of sleep for me. I finally got over that.

You can see Dickens spinning his wheels sometimes, he doesn’t know what the hell to write, so he drags out something that’s not very interesting. The best serial writer was [Émile] Zola, I think, but he would wait until he’d written probably 40 percent of the book, and if you’ve written that much, the real problems are all settled.

So you never looked at the junk bond kings and thought, this is something I really need to sink my teeth into?Bonfire of the Vanities, the very title, was based on Vanity Fair, and when I wrote it I didn’t think of this as any kind of indictment of the city, my attitude was more, God, look at what that one does! And look at that one! It was just wonder, really, at how people live in New York.

I think one advantage of writing a novel from a reporter’s point of view, is that you’re never gonna run out of material because anywhere you look—probably in the whole country, but certainly in New York—take a second look at almost anything and you can find things you never dreamed could conceivably happen, and so that’s always a nice payoff, whether you’re writing about district attorneys, or Wall Street people, or a hustler like Reverend Bacon in the book.

There’s a phrase that’s repeated in the novel by Reverend Bacon’s supporters and those who want the case against this Wall Street bond baron to proceed: “Is a black life worth less than a white life?” And now that phrase is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. What was the specific inspiration behind that phrase? You know, many people think that my figure Reverend Bacon was based on Al Sharpton, but it wasn’t. It was based on characters of the same sort that I had run into in various places on reporting assignments, and I was thinking well, this is a great kind of character.

At that time, Sharpton was well known, but he didn’t become a big figure until just about five months after the book came out. He was very differently dressed than now, he had a great big ponderous gut, and he wore a chain crucifix around his neck. Now you can’t pry him out of a double-breasted suit. He’s in that suit now.

But this fellow in the book was dressed very stylishly, and so were a lot of people—many of them were ministers who were really in the same business of saying a black life is worth as much as a white life. Tell me what you just mentioned about this group—what’s it called?

After Michael Brown was killed and especially in New York City after the officer who killed Eric Garner wasn't indicted, people started rallying behind the phrase Black Lives Matter. The question is essentially the same as the one the characters pose in your book: does society value black lives as much as white lives? The president has addressed it, and some of the major presidential candidates have had to address it. In sociology there’s more or less a theory that the more rights a minority gets, the more conscious the minority is that it should get more. Things have changed a lot on the racial front, but not everything. It’s always a sensitive problem, but right now there’s an attitude where, you tell us we have these rights but this and that happens—which was the first one of the recent killings by police? It wasn’t Brown, or Garner.

Trayvon Martin? The phrase in the book just struck me because I cover these demonstrations, and it gets to the heart of the protesters’ point, which is borne out in data and reality. How many of these demonstrations have you covered?

Maybe a dozen? Some are small, and others are tens of thousands of people. I don’t know if you saw in the news last year where people were marching across the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge, stopping traffic on the West Side Highway. Oh yeah—from a reporting point of view, I think it’s a great thing to do. You must pick up details that are priceless. Seeing what people actually say and what actually happens.

To that end, how much has New York City really changed since you wrote the book? There’s a palpable sense of nostalgia for the “Bad Old Days.” The argument goes that there was more crime, but that things were somehow more interesting, and artists and regular people could afford to live here. Do you ever miss the Bad Old Days? Do you think that they ever really existed? Or is this a kind of nostalgic yearning that people tend to have? I think it’s just something that people tend to have. Of course when I was actively out all the time, that seemed like the most dangerous thing ever—of course it wasn’t.

Frankly, not that I see much of the city, but I don’t see anything really different. It is interesting that de Blasio has a black wife, that would have given him no chance at all 50 years ago. But now it’s a plus. His life includes the whole city. He had a huge victory.

Do you have a favorite New York City mayor? Probably...[Pauses] Now I have to think back aways. Probably Bloomberg. And I think the reason is he just, he didn’t sound like a politician. He’s kind of like someone who just came out of a business meeting, and says, well, here’s the story. And I think the fact that he did not need money, didn’t have everybody looking for this or that conspiracy.

The other side of that coin is, how can someone worth $20 billion relate to his constituents, most of whom are either poor or working class? Well, we’re seeing an example right now in the presidential race, of the phenomenon of Donald Trump, who, if anything inflates his worth in billions. He talks like a guy down on the street. He doesn’t have any of the airs of a rich man, and I think that’s why he’s attracted the following he has. Of course now, the percentages they’re talking about, he has 26%, and who is next? Carson has 18 percent let’s say, that’s a very, very small percentage of the vote.

Trump is such a creature of the time that this book was written. What does it mean that this guy, who is seen as a relic of a more garish era, is at the top of the Republican polls? Oh as I recall, he ran once before or put his name in for it, then he said some rather silly things, but he is really so far pulling it off, and creates the impression that he’s telling it like it is. Not many politicians create that impression. But Bloomberg did, he always seemed to be calling it the way it was.

So I can headline this article, "Tom Wolfe Supports Donald Trump For President"? [Laughs] Well, I was just commenting on the current scene. I think it’s a big mistake for journalists to declare their allegiances, although plenty do.

So should a reporter betray no bias and be careful to give equal weight to both sides of an issue? Or is their job to dig deeper and take the reader by the hand as a skeptical guide, as if to say, "This is what I believe to be true"? I’ll go along with digging deeper, but I think reporters should write as if they’re really above it all. When I write something that tends to take one side less seriously, people assume I’m against that side—no I’m all for them, it’s just good material.

I think I’m—and probably nobody else will say this, but I think I’m pretty even handed as far as politics.

You’re going to be sitting onstage with U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara tomorrow night. He made his name prosecuting malfeasance on Wall Street, but more recently he has targeted the leaders of the State Assembly and the State Senate, and he’s currently investigating what happened with Governor Cuomo’s disbanded commission on corruption. Are the real crooks on Wall Street, or are they in Albany? Of course I don’t know the answer to that, but certainly there’s been a huge emphasis on corruption on Wall Street, and some of the issues I don’t even understand, the various ways of conducting insider trading and all of that. And there’s also a theme of unequal income.

There’s so little class animosity in this country, it’s very different from any European country, but I think the press would like for there to be rich against poor, to have a class struggle. It’s better copy. But it’s a fictitious issue so far. Who in America is upset that there’s some guy making $2 billion a year? I don’t think many people get upset over that, because there’s nothing to keep anybody from achieving that in this country.

Okay, but what about the people you called The Masters Of The Universe—they wrecked the economy in 2008, taxpayers bailed them out, and they seem to be doing great. Meanwhile, productivity has gone up in the last 40 years, wages have been stagnant. Americans may not like class struggle, but how do you think the middle class can claw back what’s theirs without a kind of class struggle? That may be a correct analysis but I don’t think anybody in this country, yet, believes that. If somebody’s making a huge yearly income, I think very few people in this country, begrudge that fact. That isn’t the way Americans respond. I think everybody’s doing what they can to create a class struggle. [Laughs] But it hasn’t happened yet.

For one thing, there are very few outward symbols of superiority in this country, and people with money don’t dare show it symbolically except in ways that aren’t really noticed. The greatest luxury today is a private airplane, but nobody sees you take off. Nobody sees you land. So people don’t get upset about it.

One of the things, I’m not very good as an economist, as soon as global trade started taking off what, 10, 15 years ago, I said to myself, this is gonna be great for corporations for about five years. At that time, the idea was, if you lost your job and the industry ended up being farmed out, the workers whose jobs were lost would be “retrained.” I remember that phrase. I haven’t seen anybody retrained, or I haven’t seen attempts to retrain anybody.

I wrote a book that included a little town in the mountains of North Carolina called Sparta. Sparta was a small town but it had four factories nearby, and in a very short time all of those “went global,” meaning they left the US. A Marine recruiter came by, I don’t know what exact year this was, in a station wagon mostly filled with recruitment material.

By the time the day was over he had to hire a bus—50 people who no longer had a job at the factories signed up. People were having to travel, in some cases, 200 miles round-trip every day, just to find a job. And I said to myself, this is not gonna work out, globalization. And it’s not working out. I don’t pretend to know how you reverse things like this.

Since we're talking about industries in decline—where do you see the newspaper business in 10, 15 years? How much of your reading diet is digital? I was born too early to really be comfortable reading the news online but I’ve noticed an interesting thing.

Back in 1968, Marshall McLuhan predicted all this but in a kind of wacky-sounding way. He said, this is the first generation of young people who have, from watching television, have turned tribal. Don’t ask me to explain this [Laughs].

He said, tribal people, if handed a piece of paper with writing on it, mistrust it immediately. They’re not gonna go for it. But the next thing somebody whispers in their ear, they’ll believe, because a fellow human being said it. That is what is happening with blogs.

It’s kind of wild west of information, which isn’t all bad. But there’s very little fact-checking. Whereas on a newspaper when you had beats, let’s say people in the education beat might not get but three stories in a week out of it, but they’re there, still, they’re covering education. The same is true with the police beat, although the police beat was always a little bit corrupt, but at least they’re there every day with cops, and there’s less chance of something being totally missed. The loss of the beats is not a good thing. I’ve noticed in sites like The Daily Beast and what’s the other big one?

Gawker? Yeah, they’ll come up with good stories and sometimes really hot stories, but it’s like cherry-picking. You’re not really trying to cover the city, or cover the state or whatever, it’s not even meant to be all-inclusive. Whereas newspapers think—they think at least, they’re trying to cover everything.

And this idea of people not getting out of their offices—I can’t imagine having been a reporter not getting out. That was really what it was all about. God knows what you might see. In terms of just simply getting the news, it’s a big problem. There’s probably much less news covered today than there was covered in 1925.

When I came to New York there were seven newspapers, then there was a three-month strike, which was one of the most ill-conceived strikes there ever was. That got me started writing for magazines. You had a choice of either marching in the picket line, and getting a little dole for your loyalty for the union, or you went out and made some money freelance. And that’s what I did. I can’t believe how old I was when I wrote my first freelance story—I was 33, I think, that’s waiting a little long.

When and why did you first come to New York? The moment I started working on newspapers which was in Springfield, Massachusetts, I wanted to come to New York, because this was the newspaper city. Particularly then, there was seven newspapers. I tried after that to get on a paper in New York and had to settle for the Washington Post, and finally after a couple years there I did make it to the New York Herald Tribune.

Hiring in those days was much different from today. If you came in to ask for a job as a reporter they looked around the room—oh, yes, so and so’s just quit, and if that was the case you had a job. I’m sure it’s much more complicated now. So that’s how I came here. That was back in 1962.

Why not stay home in Virginia and write for the Times Dispatch? Well, I didn’t think anything competed with New York if you wanted to work on a newspaper. It was simple as that.

Working on the Springfield Union, it was tough for people to be married and live on nothing a week, and many many reporters go into public relations just to have a steady job, and I didn’t want to do that.

I think now there are three publicists for every reporter. [Laughs] I bet you’re right. [Ed.: The actual figure is five to one]

This interview has been edited and condensed.