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.
Gay Talese: Well, I think it was Tom Wolfe who credited me with being a forefather in that business. I never- while he was flattering to me or trying to be, I never fully accepted it. I don’t think it was new and I don’t think it was journalism. What it was, what I’d like to pretend to think it is and can always be is defining reality in a way that’s verifiable and that’s also a storytelling technique. The storytellers have through our literature been mostly fiction writers and the fiction writers, that means a novelist or a short story writer or playwright or a filmmaker, are people who are defining visually or maybe through prose are defining privacy. They are writing about private life which is meaningful, which we all can identify with because the lives of those they’re writing about, like the women in my mother’s stores back in the ‘40s, are representative of an atmosphere, of a time. And the fiction writers, whether we’re talking about Mr. Tolstoy or Mr. Hemmingway or we’re talking about Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth, they’re writing about their time, but they are incorporating into their writing new names or changing the place, but it is also not so much so that we can’t say that’s really real. Like you can read great fiction and you get a sense of being there. What I wanted to do, what I aspired to be well, even when I was 25 and 30 years old was to write short stories or to write a book that seemed like it’s made up like a novel, full length, but don’t change the names and get to know the characters so well I didn’t have to invent the characters. I could use real names and real situations I could get from knowing, from hanging around, hanging around, the art of hanging around so long, so comfortably part of another person’s ambiance and personality and expectations that I could capture that, put it on paper and be sure to the degree that anything can be true, this was a true representation of the people I wrote about. And that might be called new journalism, but it really wasn’t new journalism. It wasn’t journalism, it was storytelling. And the only thing that made it different from ordinary storytelling, which is the province of the fiction writer, is it was not fiction. Now there are writers that violate this all the time. I mean one of them like, you know, James Frey’s famous made-up memoir, exaggerated-- now he’s written a novel which is what he should be doing and hopefully will do again and again-- there are people that are great at writing- at making it up and we have to celebrate them, great writers. But there are people that can write very engagingly and descriptively and not make it up, but that takes a lot of time because in order to write knowingly about people, you have to spend time and you have to spend so much time that sometimes you feel you’ve lost your own sense of being a writer because you don’t publish. If you spent so much time on research, it could be three or four or five or six years in which you don’t even try to write, you’re getting to know your characters, you’re getting lost in the tribes of literary quest, and then you have to then think, “I’m not out there. I’m off the radar screen in terms of being known.” And that is a period that very much leads to depression sometimes. But I mean I am not saying that I’m not without depression. There are people- sometimes you think you will never get through this, you’ll never finish, you’ll never finish, you’ll never know enough, you’ll never be ready to write, and when you start writing, you’re never good enough, you’re not getting it right, this whole process. But I believe if you finally do get it done to the best of your ability, it is a worthy, worthy endeavor because you are getting a chunk of reality and you’re putting it in book form. And it could be read in 2008 or 2029 or, you know, whenever, 50 years from now. If it’s any good, it’s gonna hold up.