Gay Talese on 'A Writer's Life' Many credit the articles Gay Talese wrote for Esquire magazine in the 1960s as the beginning of New Journalism. Talese talks about his new memoir, A Writer's Life.
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Gay Talese on 'A Writer's Life'

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Gay Talese on 'A Writer's Life'

Gay Talese on 'A Writer's Life'

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Gay Talese is one of the most influential writers of our time. Many credit his breakthrough articles written in the 1960s about Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio for Esquire magazine as the beginning of new journalism. That success led to a series of books about New York, the city where he lives, about the New York Times where he worked as a reporter, about the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, about a Mafia crime family, Americans' sex lives, about the history of his family, and the immigrant experience.

In the fall of 2003, Esquire magazine celebrated its 70th anniversary by republishing Gay Talese's piece Sinatra Has a Cold and declared it the best article in its history. At the age of 74, he has a new book out called Gay Talese: A Writer's Life. Later on in the program, the political infighting behind the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico, and Alan Schwarz joins us as baseball finally sells the Washington Nationals and decides not to celebrate when Barry Bonds passes Babe Ruth.

But first, a writer's life. If you have a question for Gay Talese about his work or the job of writing and reporting, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail address is talk@npr.org. The author joins us now from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle, Washington. Gay Talese, thanks very much for coming in to talk with us today.

Mr. TALESE: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Your professional writing life began as a sports writer. You wrote the, covered sports, you write in this book, in high school and in college and then also at the New York Times.

Mr. TALESE: When I graduated from the University of Alabama in 1953, I came to New York looking for a job as a reporter, but when I finally did get onto the staff, there was an opening in the sports department, and I took it eagerly and continued for two years to be in the sports department before transferring out in 1958 to the general staff, where I remained till 1965.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. TALESE: I was writing for magazines, however, in my free time, and the New York Times Magazine was the first magazine that I wrote a lot for. And I think even when I was on a daily paper, whether I was with the general assignment or the sports desk before, I was more interested in the people rather than in the news that they were making. I was looking, I was really wanting to write about the personality of the people, not so much was I interested then or ever since then in being into the news and covering what was very topical.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. TALESE: I was always, always hoping to write about people in a way that might have little to do with contemporary life, but rather would have something to do with the history as told through people that the historians ignored, and that's been a theme of mine from the early days you refer to, to the most recent book called A Writer's Life.

CONAN: As you're striving to do that, doing that on a daily deadline is awfully difficult.

Mr. TALESE: I always had great difficulty when I was on a daily newspaper. I only had the one job, the New York Times. It was nine years, and the reason I never felt that I was under this pressures of the deadline and the space, you had the space limitations...

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. TALESE: ...you know, 900 words, 1,200 words. I always thought there's much--I thought there's much more to say, much more to say than I was capable within the time limitations and the space allowance to say it. And I was really more gratified with my nonfiction writing when I was able to write books, or, before that, during that period I was writing for magazines that you referred to.

CONAN: Those long 14,000-word articles, things like that. But one of the curiosities about the newspaper business, not just in your generation, an earlier generation--writers like Haywood Broun and Westbrook Pegler who became, of course, major figures--started out writing sports, and one of the things they said was they developed their style writing sports because they were allowed to. You were allowed to have a style on the sports page, because the rest of the paper, well, you weren't allowed to write like that on serious subjects, but sports was okay.

Mr. TALESE: But, yes, Mr. Conan, but, you know, it was also the fact you could see what you were writing about. You could see the game. You were there. If you're covering politics or you're covering war, or, you know, dealing with other forms of news-making events, you're getting mostly secondhand information as doled out by maybe this White House foreign, the foreign, the reporter, the press secretary, I meant to say...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TALESE: ...or maybe the public information officer of a military invasion. But when you're in sports, you're seeing the field, the football field, the tennis court, the boxing ring, the baseball diamond, and later on you have access to the players in the locker room, and you can talk to them one-on-one. That was a very instructional and very vivid time in my life.

And when I started as a sportswriter, I saw a lot of novelists were interested in the same things. I'd go to prizefights, and I'm see Budd Schulberg, and I'd see Norman Mailer, and I'd see James Baldwin. I went to fights with him, and much--and you mentioned Gallico and some of the old-time sportswriters of the 1940s and ‘50s. It's--and Hemingway wrote about sports, you know, John O'Hara, Irwin Shaw, a wonderful novelist and short story writer who did a lot for a the New Yorker when I was young man in the 1950s.

It's a wide open field, and it's a wonderful way to understand human nature, because the athlete, no matter what the sport, knows what it's like to be a winner, knows what it's like to be a loser, knows what it's like to have to return day after day and to persevere. Then the great athletes, like the great people, have their setbacks, and then they persevere. Michael Jordan and Joe DiMaggio and the people of today, you know, it's really a wonderful introduction to the American realm of achievement and the will to endure even when things do not seem so rosy and when they're not hardly ever cheerful, either.

CONAN: And about celebrity, another subject you write about.

Mr. TALESE: I write somewhat about celebrity, and we're now, more than when I was a young man...

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. TALESE: ...consumed with celebrity, and I try to write almost the anti-celebrity piece. Or, in a book, I try to write about people that are not celebrities. This whole book I've done now, there is certainly nobody that is very celebrated, but I chose to write about them because I think they, too, have a voice and have a vantage point that is worthy of chronicling, and I have always chosen to do that.

It wasn't easy. When I was young reporter, I had to be guided by or influenced by or dictated to as to what was important. But what was important, it didn't seem to me was more than worth a day's attention, and it wasn't pure arrogance on my part, I assure you. But I really believed that if I could write about people who were not in the news, but who could be described as the fiction writers describe people.

I mean, the great novelists, the great playwrights, even the great screenwriters are writing about ordinary life, or life of people that we can identify with, and I wanted to do that in nonfiction. And that's been my ambition, for better or worse, through the 40-some years I've been published.

CONAN: We're talking today with Gay Talese. His new book, A Writer's Life. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Rhona(ph). Rhona's calling us from Marble Canyon in Arizona.

RHONA (Caller): Hi, Neal, hi.

NEAL: Hi.

RHONA: Mr. Talese, when you wrote the column about New York, it would have been in your early days, you wrote a column about doormen which included me, because I was New York's only lady doorman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TALESE: Oh, boy.

RHONA: And I'm looking at the clipping now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TALESE: Isn't that amazing? I have to believe you're referring to probably 1958 or…

RHONA: Exactly. There it is.

Mr. TALESE: '59. And that is very much a kind of person that I would write about, because, as I was telling Mr. Conan, the doorman sees so much and sometimes hears—overhears--he's an eavesdropper out there in the sidewalks, and his--I really wanted to write about what the doorman sees and hears and his--and her, in your case--what it is that was interesting about you, and I wrote a lot about doormen.

I wrote a book about the mafia called Honor Thy Father, but it begins with a doorman; and a doorman is out there when some gangster is kidnapped by another gangster and there's a shot and some noise. And the doorman chose not to be involved and so he pretended he didn't hear anything. And it's the way I begin that book, it's just the way of focusing your attention and then describing a situation that is not from the--what you would think would be the main character, but rather a character off on the sidelines or, in this case, the sidewalk, along the edge of a confrontation between two mobsters.

CONAN: Rhona, did he get it right? Did he describe you and your fellow doormen, if you will, correctly?

RHONA: Yes, he did. And I was--you probably got it too right. I thought what he said was kind of inane.

Mr. TALESE: Oh, well. But that was later reprinted in a book called The Serendipitous Journey, which is published in 1961 and it is--The Serendipitous Journey was about the unusual people or the people that were commonly overlooked, the obscure people, would be a way to put it, in this towering city of New York with the shadows of the high buildings putting an overcast on the people's whose consciousness wasn't necessarily paid attention to by other observers. But it…

RHONA: Well, I'd like to say I'm really looking forward to reading your new book, A Writer's Life.

Mr. TALESE: Well, it's the same book, I tell you. It's like the same look--I mean, the structure of this, A Writer's Life, is not unlike the structure of my first book, though, called A Serendipitous Journey, in which you are represented as a door--well, we wouldn't say doorwoman. Now, the language--doorperson? What is the language for door people? It used to be doormen, now it's door-what?

RHONA: Well, I don't know, but it was a problem then.

Mr. TALESE: Well, you survived it, I'm sure, in Arizona.

RHONA: I was fine. But I'm going to write my memoir. I'm 74 and I think--listening to you today, all the things you're saying, how you, you know, go under the surface and all the rest of it--I love the program, by the way.

CONAN: Thank you.

RHONA: I listen daily. And it's great to hear you talk deeply about your achievements. Your method and your achievements. I really appreciate it.

Mr. TALESE: Well, I'm really glad I could intersect with your life…

RHONA: Isn't that fun?

Mr. TALESE: …when you were on the threshold of youth as a door-person.

RHONA: Right.

Mr. TALESE: Thank you, Rhona.

RHONA: Thank you very much.

Mr. TALESE: You're welcome.

CONAN: And thanks very much for the call, Rhona. We appreciate it.

RHONA: Okay.

CONAN: We have to take a short break now and when we come back, more with Gay Talese about his new book, A Writer's Life.

Again, if you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Email, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan; back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Our guest today is Gay Talese. His new book is A Writer's Life. If you'd like to join our conversation, our number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org.

And, Gay Talese, it took 14 years to get this book together, and, reading it, a lot of it--it's as much about not writing as it is about writing.

Mr. TALESE: Yes, there's a lot of meandering of the mind in the writing profession. And there's a lot more work in it than I ever thought there would be when I was a novice in the newsroom of The New York Times.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TALESE: But it is not uncharacteristic of me to spend a lot of time. The last four books took me, on the average, 10, 11 years apiece. The book, today, is about 12, and I almost spent as much time doing the previous book called Unto The Sons and before that there was Thy Neighbor's Wife. You made reference to that, and that was about 10 years. And the book on The New York Times was a long one; and the book on the mafia.

And the reason is there's--I do a lot of research and I want to, when I finish a book, I want to have whatever satisfaction I can gain from telling myself with conviction, it is the very, very best I could do. And sometimes the best you can do isn't the first thing you do or the second thing you do or the third, I mean, your third attempt.

Sometimes you have to, I believe, deliberate, go over, rewrite and rewrite. I do tremendous amounts of rewriting because I want the reader not to have to reread. I want the reader to be, to have a pleasurable experience. It is my ambition. And to think that writing is easy.

Just like people who are film buffs, like myself, will watch Gene Kelly doing Singing in the Rain and it looks so easy to dance in the rain with an umbrella and keeping in time with the music. And I don't know anything about Gene Kelly or what that history of that making of that scene in that movie, but Singing in the Rain or some of the--you know, it looks so easy. And some of the great performers, be they athletic performers, ballet dancers, jugglers, whatever. It's so much practice--high wire walking.

And writing is like high wiring walking. You know, you have to really be--you have to have your balance. You have to have your sense of place. You have to know that you are--really, really know what you're doing before you get up there and take the chances that must be taken. And finally, you must do it with grace, style. And I try--I try to do that.

CONAN: You make it look easy, but, of course, it wasn't in the process. I think you wrote, and I suspect with tongue in cheek, that maybe awards should be given to writers for not writing because there's so much bad writing available today.

Mr. TALESE: It was--it was not entirely tongue in cheek. I was, you know, I was one day wondering, why does it take me so long? And I'm thinking, Well, so many writers write too much or write with speed. And you see certain writers, almost every two years they have a book out.

Not the writers I admire. I mean, the writers--I admire so many people, like--But the people--Tom Pynchon doesn't take--doesn't have a book a year. They're good writers. And I remember my--I used to know William Styron and he was one of my favorite writers and he took a long time, but he's known for his great work. You know, Sophie's Choice or The Confessions of Nat Turner. These are great work of fiction.

CONAN: Well, he also suffered from depression.

Mr. TALESE: I don't want to write fiction, but I love doing masterwork. Excuse me.

CONAN: That's okay. Anyway. Let's get some more listeners involved in the conversation. Natalie(ph). Natalie's with us from Davis, California.

NATALIE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

NATALIE: Mr. Talese, can we flesh out this--why is it you want to write about the everyday person? Do you--are you doing that for your readers to humanize the everyday person? Or do you do it because that's who you find interesting? Or do you do it to give them the 15 minutes of fame so they feel good?

Mr. TALESE: Well, I don't know that I give them 15 minutes of fame or any fame, but when you--when you read a novel or short stories or go to the movies, you are--or great theater.

Such as--let's take the great--the late Arthur Miller. And his most memorable play, that's played all over the world, is Death of a Salesman. And the main character is Willie Loman, a salesman that isn't all that successful, to say the very least. But it is a memorable character.

And I am not so pretentious as to put any of my ambitions on the level of the great, late Arthur Miller, but I do suggest that a character, such as Willie Loman, is a character, as in the play, attention must be paid. That's the line out of the wife of Willie Loman to one of her sons. Attention must be paid to this man.

And I've taken that as my credo to a degree. Attention must be paid to the Willie Lomans of my life or some of the people. Because they represent something of our society. They represent something of their own history and I do suggest that they tend to be ignored by the historians.

So it isn't with the ambition of bringing fame to anyone necessarily, but rather to be understanding to the larger reading population, to those people, that I believe, are--attention must be paid to.

And I've done that from the time I was a young kid working in the city room of The New York Times to the senior citizen I am today, who is essentially the same guy in the city room, with an ambition to do that, to try to tell the history of this country. To reflect the trends of this country, the successes and the setbacks of all of us. We all have them. And to try to reflect history of the civil rights movement, which I did in this book, through a rather obscure country lawyer, a black man down in Selma, Alabama. To talk about ambition in the restaurant business through the vantage point of some sous chef in a not very distinguished restaurant. To tell something of the life of ordinary people that is, not really, so ordinary. It's rather extraordinary, if you get to know them.

And some of the great novelists, you know, Philip Roth. I mentioned Styron. I mentioned Mailer or Joyce--they do it in fiction, but I want to be verifiably a nonfiction writer. I want to tell the story as truly as I can as factually, of course, as I can, and that's why I take a lot of time checking my facts before I write anything.

I want to do that. It's the singular ambition that I have. I'm sure it's shared by other writers. I don't mean to suggest it's that singular. But it's unalterably my ambition to do that and so that when I die, I've left a record behind of not me, me, me. I'm not a memoir writer. This is not a memoir. I'm not so vain as to think I'm worthy of that. But I'm a very, very qualified chronicler. And I'm a very patient observer. And I'm a very, very dogged researcher.

And I will travel. In this book, I travel to China once in 1999 and 2000 just to interview a little girl. Not a--of no great distinction, except she had the dubious distinction of missing a kick in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California in front of 90,000 witnesses in the stands when China was playing the U.S. And I--some months later, I couldn't--I couldn't satisfy my curiosity about her, so I had to go. I didn't have to, but I wanted to go-- and did go to China and spent five months getting to know her a little bit through an interpreter. And I went back three or four times to China after that. She's one of the characters that threads my book like the civil rights lawyer, like many other people that will be in the qualities of attention must be paid. The Willie Lomans. That's the (unintelligible) I really, I really--If I was ever a playwright, I would love to do something like that on the stage.

NATALIE: Well, it's a real service and hopefully you make other people pay attention, so thanks for the work you do.

Mr. TALESE: Well, thank you for saying that.

CONAN: Thanks, Natalie.

NATALIE: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to, this is Heidi(ph). Heidi with us from Appleton, Wisconsin.

HEIDI (Caller): Hi. Can you hear me? I'm on my cell phone.

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please, Heidi.

HEIDI: Great. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

HEIDI: I was excited. I just turned the radio on in my car and heard who was speaking, and it's my understanding that one of my relatives was in the book Honor Thy Father.

CONAN: Which one?

HEIDI: Salvatore Megna(ph).

Mr. TALESE: Oh, yes. I hope I--I hope you don't mind. I hope you don't mind. It was a tough thing to--it was a tough thing to get access, of course, to the Bonanno family and to those who are part of the organization. But it's

HEIDI: (Unintelligible)

Mr. TALESE: Excuse me, it's never easy. So it's always tough to get anywhere, anybody to talk with candor, especially when you're in organized crime.

CONAN: Yeah. I read that book many years ago. It seemed though, if memory serves, a lot less of--well, lurid than The Sopranos, for example.

HEIDI: Right, well, in my instance, just to set the record straight, that was my great uncle. And what we were told growing up, and when that appeared in the book, he had legitimate business dealings with Mr. Bonanno and, in fact, did not socialize with him so people wouldn't construe it as that type of relationship.

Mr. TALESE: Yeah. Well, Mr. Bonanno had a business in Wisconsin. He was in the cheese business. He had a major investment, as you know, from the book. But I do believe--my interest in that book was not so much on who was shooting who and the mayhem and murders that are part of that element, of course. But what I was interested in was the home life. I was interested in the wives and the children having the aura of notoriety as the result of being the children of or the wives of or the aunts and uncles of people whose headlines and whose identity in newspapers was attached with notoriety or anti-social behavior.

I might--I don't want to take bows in public, particular when I'm not sure, but I do believe that Honor Thy Father, which was published in 1972, was very much about women and children as well as the mobsters that they're related to, might have given some birth or at least inspiration to the big hit HBO The Sopranos which you've probably seen. But I might be just claiming credit for which is not my due. But I did do that book on families way back in '72, '73.

HEIDI (Caller): Sure and that might be where my uncle came in, because that probably would be an influence and I just was curious if you remembered. He had passed away before I was born, but, you know, it was just interesting.

CONAN: Ok, Heidi.

Mr. TALESE: Yeah.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate it.

HEIDI: Thank you.

Mr. TALESE: Thank you.

CONAN: Mr. Talese, at the rate at which you work, I wonder, do you fear that this might be your last book?

Mr. TALESE: No. I've already started on something that I would like to reserve discussing until I finish it and I'd love to come back to talk to you about that.

CONAN: You'd be most welcome.

Mr. TALESE: I assume you'll be around, won't you?

CONAN: I hope so.

Mr. TALESE: If I don't take too long.

CONAN: If you don't take too long.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TALESE: No, I never think that it's going to be as long as it is, I'll tell you. That is true.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. TALESE: But I just become so interested and all I care about is, you know, in the side of books and you--the little span of books--you have book writers on all the time…

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. TALESE: There's never under the title of the book or on the side of the book, you know, this book took three years, this book took six years. The only important thing is for the writer and for the readers, of course, as well, is that when they end the book they'll feel satisfaction and they will not feel, gee I wish this had been a better book or I wish this had been better researched or I wish this had been better written.

So, that's all that matters to me and whether it takes, you know, 10, 12 10, 8, it doesn't make any difference to me. I have the energy and the ambition to do it properly and that's all that matters. If a book is done as best it can be done. And that's all.

My father was a tailor and he used to make suits and that's what he always used to tell me. He would take forever sewing and he would take forever shaping, and if the suit didn't fit his ambition to be as good as he could be he'd rip it apart and do it again.

I learned, I mean, I'm like a tailor, I write like a tailor or at least I write in the way my father did, with care. And every stitch--and the buttons didn't fall off and the lining never fell apart. And I'm wearing suits--I'm on radio; I'm not on television; you can't see me. I'm out here in Seattle. But I'm wearing suits that my father and his mentors made 25 years ago and they look perfectly. They're well made.

And I like to do that. I like to have well made books, and whether or not that is the standards that meet with the population is sort of beside the point. I have that ambition and my father, as a tailor, had the same ambition.

CONAN: Gay Talese is our guest. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's talk now with Randy. Randy with us on the line from Pittsburgh.

RANDY (Caller): Yes, hi. Mr. Talese I wanted to ask a question about your feelings of the history and the future of the genre of creative nonfiction. Being a resident of Pittsburgh, I'm actually also acquainted with Lee Gutkind, who I'm sure you know.

Mr. TALESE: I certainly do know.

RANDY: Huh?

Mr. TALESE: I do know him. I admire him and he also excerpted part of this book.

RANDY: I know. (Unintelligible) latest anthology of the journal of Creative Nonfiction.

Mr. TALESE: I'm aware of that.

RANDY: I wanted to give Lee's journal a plug and ask you if you feel that you were sort of out front in writing pieces of creative nonfiction. Do you feel like the genre now is easier for others to enter?

Mr. TALESE: It perhaps is. I am a little reluctant to lay claim to something that's new when I think it might have been not identified as new long, long times ago. Storytelling is certainly not new. Nonfiction storytelling is not new.

I know that there came a time in the 1970s when my friend and colleague the distinguished, the famous Tom Wolfe wrote a book about new journalism and I was called the father of new journalism. I never took great pride in that because I wasn't sure it really was new.

The idea of trying to write stories and using the tools of fiction, this storytelling technique, the dialogue, the description, the interior monologue, it can be done and it also can be done factually. You use real names. You do not use composite characters. You have scenes. I write scenically. Lee Gutkind does that and many writers do that and, you know, there are people, good storytellers.

There are people that are historians that are wonderful storytellers. Bob Caro is a wonderful storyteller. David Halberstam is a wonderful storyteller. So it's not that I speak singularly to this mission. I'm just pleased to be part of nonfiction that is creative in the sense of organization and the writing is on the level of the fine fiction writers.

But it has the added advantage, I think, to the reader, the reader knows these are real people. These people did live this way. They were at this address. They did have these experiences. These are verifiable facts very carefully constructed. But the important thing is there has to be a distinction between fact and fiction. There has to be a distinction between nonfiction and fiction. Sometimes that's blurred.

Sometimes writers want to get the advantages of nonfiction, meaning reality, and they want to be fictional. They sloppy, they shortcut, and they do things that are disrespectful to the traditions of the literary nonfiction as you refer to it. Lee Gutkind in Pittsburgh refers to it that way. But there are differences, but it doesn't mean we can't be creative.

It means we just have to be creative within the realm of reality. We have to tell the truth about people and we have to get to know the people. And that takes a long time. Having this kind of writing is like having a relationship, having a real--just like you really have to know the people. And that's all I can say about it.

RANDY: Thank you.

CONAN: And thank you very much for the call Randy. We appreciate it.

Mr. TALESE: Thank you.

RANDY: Thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Gay Talese, we just have a couple of seconds left. Can you tell us what book you're reading right now?

Mr. TALESE: Yes I can. I just finished with great joy, a book called Everyman. It's funny that we should be talking about every man and Willy Loman. It's by the great Philip Roth. I think he's--really, he's about my age, he's a year younger, he's 73. And I so admire him and I loved this book. I love all his work.

But Everyman is the latest novel. I just finished that. And I know I'm not--but I recommend it. He's wonderful. Thank you so much for having me. I'm grateful to be here.

CONAN: Gay Talese, it's been our pleasure. Gay Talese's new book is A Writer's Life. He joined us today from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle, Washington. When we come back from the break the politics behind Puerto Rico's fiscal crisis and Major League Baseball conjures with two iconic numbers. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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