Gay Talese is an American journalist and a nonfiction writer. He wrote for The New York Times in the 1960s after working for its copy and obituary sections. In the 1950s, he was one of the first writers to add minute details, use literary flairs, and begin articles in medias res. These techniques became the foundation of the revolutionary “New Journalism.”
He has written many non-fiction books, beginning with 1964’s The Bridge: The Building of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. His 2006 autobiography A Writer’s Life focuses on his trials and failures as a writer, such as having a profile piece rejected by The New Yorker, which ironically reviewed the book positively and said it had a “distinctly moving” quality.
Gay Talese was recently named the winner of a George Polk Award for career achievement. The awards, presented by Long Island University, are considered among the top prizes in U.S. journalism. Born in 1932, Talese graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in journalism.
Question: How did your mother influence your interview style?
Gay Talese: Well, she sincerely was curious. She wasn’t professionally curious. A lot of interviews, and I’m not including you, but a lot of interviewers have a job to do and they would have to interview somebody and it’s a movie star or some very successful political figure or whoever. And they have a job to do and they have their questions and they go about it. My mother was curious as any Mike Wallace or any, you know, Charlie Rose or anybody, curious, but her purpose wasn’t professional. Her purpose was to see how these more assimilated Americans were in body and spirit. And she wanted to learn about the larger life than was possible from her insular background as an Italian immigrant, as a woman of Italian background. And see the immigration to Italy brought with it people who didn’t speak the language. I told you this before. My mother’s mother and father couldn’t even speak English. They lived in Brooklyn, but they couldn’t even speak English their whole lives. My mother had to take Italian lessons to speak to her mother and father. And so this sense of being isolated, being different, being foreign, my mother in her dress shop was able to feel in the company of women whom she knew well because they were regular customers. They were not 26 years old; they were 56 years old. They were middle-aged women, rather portly. My mother specialized in large-sized dresses and large-sized suits for mature women and women who were very gently reared and had time on their hands and they would come in the middle of the afternoon and they would not only go through the clothing that was on the racks, but they would talk. And it was like a talk show in a way. And the women were just rhapsodizing or just commenting or recalling things about their daily lives or maybe about their families or maybe about something of the atmosphere of the town in this wartime period that my mother found very interesting and very instructive. And she was like going to school on these women. She was learning through a very interesting way of questioning. She was never aggressive and she never interrupted. People started talking and she wouldn’t change the subject. She would patiently listen. And out of this patience came the uninterrupted dialogues or the monologues I should say that were like the story, like a verbal essay out of these women’s mouths. And these women again were not people that were newsworthy; these women when they died probably got a little obituary, but not much. They were not what you would call today women of any achievement, but they were women who echoed the character of the town, they were the spine of them all, virtues of the town. They were maybe skeptical of certain trends at that time, they were maybe critical, but they gave voice to a whole sense of small town stability. And my mother just was very on the intake of these kind of women and so was I, who listened in the background. So this was a very great experience for me and later on useful to me when I too became an interviewer, granted a professional one, but I had a way of not interrupting and letting people tell their stories. And my mission I always thought was to give voice to other people by listening well and writing from their point of view, not mine, their point of view what it is that they represented.
Question: Who are the great interviewers of today?
Gay Talese: Well, if we were talking about what most of your audience would be familiar with, I guess Charlie Rose, you know, within the limitations of his time, but he is as good as you get on television. Granted every day, he’s talking to someone new and it’s within the limitations of maybe a half-hour or an hour, I’m not sure. He does interrupt a lot, as people who are critical of him- I’m not critical of him, I think he does a very good job. What I most like about him is he does allow people’s point of view, different than his own in many cases, to give full vent to it. He allows people to talk. And he also is a gentleman. That’s one of the things I think that journalists should be that are not. He is a gentleman. He’s well mannered. That’s why people go on his show because they feel they’re not being abused. In the old days of Mike Wallace, long before your lifetime, he was very abusive, tough. He was like a detective. He had a prosecutorial mentality, the old Mike Wallace on Night Beat and even to a degree 60 Minutes. I think Chris Matthews and people who are- he’s not an interviewer, he’s really more of a ranter, but he’s amusing. But I think in print media, I’ll tell you the truth, in the magazine business today and the newspaper business, there is not much that I find admirable. I think it’s not necessarily the fault of any particular group of individuals as journalists; space is not afforded to such people. The technology has ruined it. I mean I believe the invention of the tape recorder was one of the most disastrous inventions in terms of what I’m speaking about because I said to you before that it’s so important to let people say what they want to say and have a sense of who they are rather than what they say. I’m not looking for in my own work as a curious person the words out of people’s mouths; I want to feel I know the people and I can describe them. When the tape recorder came into prominence maybe in the 1960s first, I never had one. I still never have a tape recorder. I never used one in my life. But I think what’s wrong with the tape recorder, during the whole art of the interview, the hanging out, the art of hanging out which is the way I put it, it made it a question and answer, Q&A, Q&A. And sometimes you see even The New York Times Magazine and other magazines use the Q&A. And what that has done is give to the person who is being interviewed the verbatim control over the interview and the person that’s conducting the interview is really just not a reporter, but a recorder with a little tape going around. And it also brought the interview, which I always thought as a grand experience sometimes in the outdoors with a whole descriptive frame around the story and the person within the story, the persons within the story, it brought it into the interior world of a room. Most of these Q&A with a tape recorder are in a room so it brought the interviewer indoors and I think more narrowly confined than when I was a practicing writer of this form beginning in the 1960s after I left The New York Times and I started working a lot for Esquire. And it also now as I’m in my very, very, very senior years, I see the world even more defined narrowly by the excessive use of laptops. People are sitting all day indoors looking at a laptop. And to get information, they got to push some keyboard. Everybody has a keyboard now in their heads and when I was in my 20s, the only people who had keyboards were journalists like me and typists, women, usually typists. Now every guy, every fat kid and every little kid, they all- you know, and what are they doing? They’re Googling through their lives. They’re getting information from within this and they’re sitting there. No wonder they’re so fat. I mean the whole country’s fat. Part of the reason is the junk food; part of the reason is the laptop. And this society isn’t reaching out and this society has become so goal-oriented, so linear it is like they want information and they put it in the buttons and they can Google it and they get what they want to get. Well, they do get that. But what they miss is what they didn’t want to get but what they discovered. There isn’t any sense of serendipity. I used to wander around. I never knew exactly what I was looking for. I knew vaguely what I hoped to find or I had some rough idea, but I was in the exploratory mode all the time from the time I was young to the time I’m practically senile on the subject, but I always believed that you can’t be so goal-oriented. Just go out and discover and you’ll find by chance, by accident some terrific stories, some terrific people you never thought you would meet. This is what I don’t think is going on anymore because of the narrowly defined world of laptop people lapping it up on the laptop. Oh boy, I’m glad I’m getting out of here.