For a biography to be artful, perhaps it must be true to form. Something in its shape, voice, chronology, style must do justice to its subject.
That’s what Tom Folsom must wonder when he takes on a subject such as notorious gangster Crazy Joe Gallo or mercurial shape-shifter Dennis Hopper. With his latest effort – Hopper – Folsom immerses himself in his maniacal and at times brilliant subject’s head. Folsom did so for three years to produce this artful force of creative compassion.
Folsom authored the New York Times bestseller The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld. He is also a writer, director, and producer of documentaries, and his work has appeared at Sundance and on A&E and Showtime. He lives in New York City with his wife.
I had the pleasure to meet Tom when I introduced him at the Examined Lives panel at the Woodstock Writer’s Festival this year. I found him a generous reader of other people’s biographies and wide-eyed with good questions.
I wanted to know what books had shaped his own imagination, wit, and curiosity. In this Books That Matter feature, Tom shares his forecast for the future of publishing, the book he thinks you should read immediately, and which author is his current obsession.
Jeffrey: What one book most took off the top of your head (Dickinson on poetry) or was “the axe for the frozen sea within” you (Kafka) or otherwise just changed something profound within you? What did it do for you? Maybe a book that lit you up as a child or that turned you on as a young adult or last week that salved some pain or turned your thinking upside-down.
Tom: The Godfather by Mario Puzo. It’s a masterpiece of popular fiction with Puzo creating an entire world blending historical research with personal experience — Don Corelone being based on his mother. The actual mob started to mimic the rules and codes of Puzo’s fictional world, which for better or worse shows the power of books.
What one detail do you still recall from that book?
The Hollywood misadventures of Johnny Fontaine.
The book you imagine living inside of is what?
The character you imagine seeking counsel from is who? Why?
Barry Lyndon because he knew how to rise up in the world.
The one book you have most often re-read is what?
Hellfire, the biography of Jerry Lee Lewis by Nick Tosches, because it shows how the form of biography can be elevated to art.
What kinds of books most irritate you?
Books that should be Wikipedia entries.
You will read anything written by whom?
Jean Patrick Manchette. He’s my latest obsession, like book versions of those great French noir films from Jean Pierre Melville. The NYRB has only translated two of them so I’m chomping at the bit for a third.
In a sentence or two, what’s your forecast for the future of publishing?
We’ll always have books. We’ll always crave great stories no matter what the medium.
The little-known book you most relish and champion is what?
James Grissom’s Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog. Read it.
The one thing you hope readers of your book, Hopper: A Journey into the American Dream, come away with is what?
That his story is a Don Quixote for our age, with Dennis Hopper chasing the American Dream. Just because we’re stuck in the modern world doesn’t mean the classic narratives of literature remain stuck in the past.
TOM FOLSOM is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld and Hopper: A Journey into the American Dream, a biography charting the actor’s wide-ranging career and place in American popular culture in art, music, photography and film. Learn more about Tom at tomfolsom.com.