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: Why did you write a book about your marriage?
Gay Talese: Well, sometimes we are writing about what we think are the one story we haven’t told that we think we should. When I finished my last book, which was A Writer’s Life, I had written about something of what we’re talking about, about how a writer works and sometimes doesn’t work. And before that book, I wrote, as I mentioned, Unto the Sons, which is about where I come from, describing my mother’s store and all that we’ve discussed. And after these two books were published by Knopf, I have another book I owe them, well then what is my other story? Well, my story that I have not written about and must also tell you I am committed to nonfiction. I don’t want to write a novel. That to me- I’m not saying it’s easy, but I have always believed that you can tell stories using real names, real situations and make them stories, readable stories, dramatic maybe without being exaggerated, scenic without using invention. I thought what’s my one story? Well, my one story it seemed to me is a 50-year history of a single relationship that takes place in one building which is the building that I have lived in with my wife since we got married in 1959 or before that, ’58. We got married in ’59, but we lived there in ’58. So it’s 50 years as I speak to you now. And during that 50-year period, always in New York City where the house is, we’ve had a history of two people, children being born, problems, as any relationship over a long period has many problems, reconciliations, different people entering and exiting in your lives, friendships, acquaintanceships, business partnerships, in my wife’s case, always a writer- I mean she’s always been an editor and I’ve always been a writer. And it’s a story of living in a big city in a single house. I kept records. You know, you can- I haven’t said this on your show, but you would imagine I’m a person that keeps records ‘cause I’m a chronicler. And I also didn’t say this, but I save letters and I date them and I file them. And from 19- well, since I met my wife, Nan, which was initially in 1957, I’ve always kept files of every letter, every note, every hardware bill from buying a hammer in 1950-- I probably saved the receipt-- and travel slips and all that material which at least puts dates and triggers your mind if you look at stuff. I’ve saved and I’m having it- I’ve gone over it again, so this 50 years, I have a record of every month of the 50 years. And now I’m finding storylines. What you do in the kind of work I do is first you gather material, you collect material. The next thing you have to do is organize it. And a lot of people collect material, but when it comes to what do you do with it, I mean it’s a whole warehouse of material. All this stuff is in storage. Then you have to get it out and do a kind of choreography. You have to kind of do a montage. You have to create something out of it. I mean there are great sculptors who can get all the spare parts of lawn mowers and leftover parts from a truck and make it into a great sculpture. Well, as a writer, you can do the same, or we hope you can do the same, I hope I can do the same, but that was the idea of getting from this mass material and all these personalities that are interacting with a married couple. And the married couple from the time they were young and a time they were not so young and a time they thought this marriage was all over and the history of the town and the nation going on during this 50-year period I thought would be a story, like a novel, like a generational novel, but not a novel because it’s a story about two real people. Sometimes you read letters between, you know, TS Elliot and somebody or HG Wells and his girlfriend, but these are always years after the person died and usually by a biographer who didn’t even know them. What about a chronicler who was one of the partners? And my wife, I’m having her being interviewed by a third partner and then she’ll be able to take her- now there is a tape recorder at work. Somebody comes in and talks to her and then she’ll get her third person, but I’m writing in first person as I have in the last book A Writer’s Life. So this book is for Knopf and this is what I’m doing.
Question: What makes a good marriage?
Gay Talese: Well, what makes a marriage last and what kills a marriage. The key word, it isn’t love, it isn’t sex, it isn’t romance, it’s respect. You either have it or you don’t. I mean if you don’t have respect for your partner, your spouse, nothing will save it. And that’s essential. That’s the most essential word is respect. Now I guess different people have a different interpretation of what that means. I can only tell you what it means to me and without it, nothing else would mean anything to me. So, you know, there are times when young people thinking of getting married or getting married, they think of it in terms of bliss or romance or being happy. Oh, they have to be happy. You don’t have to be happy. You don’t have to be happy. You have to have respect. But don’t expect happiness to be an ongoing, you know, god, if they don’t reach the happiness equation, a high level of happiness, then they get out and they cut their losses, goodbye, they move in. They say, “Oh, I’m moving on,” that awful term, moving on. I don’t think you should do that and don’t have to as long as you respect the person. Now in our relationship of this half century, it has had changes. Your life changes, your age changes you to a degree, your expectations are something different when you’re in your 70s as I am in and my wife is in than we were in our 20s just starting out. The history of experience that you’ve had together, the building together, what you’ve built, I don’t mean in a practical sense of owning a house or the children you’ve produced, though that’s important, but I mean all the stuff that happened to the two of you and the roles you played during these maybe they were crises or maybe they were perceived as crises and they really weren’t in the long view back of things, but all the things that were part of your existence together which you may interpret differently, but whatever it is that the interpretation might represent is still a shared experience. And with all these shared experiences and the maintenance of respect through the thick and thin I think is the strong center or fiber that can keep entwined this thing called a lasting relationship. Parenthetically, I’ve always had a wife who worked, I think that’s really important, had a career. It wasn’t that she’s stuck in some, you know, shopping mall with a job she hated. She’s always been interested in reading from the time she was a schoolgirl so she chose something that was connected to what she liked which was reading and became, you know, an editor, first a junior editor and then a senior editor and now she has her own imprint and she has fine, fine writers from the novelists, you know, and Ian McEwan or Margaret Atwood or a historian like Antonia Fraser or Pat Conroy, a great storytelling novelist. She has a variety of people that she edits and has always had close relationships with her authors and with her colleagues in the profession of book publishing. She’s had her own life. It hasn’t been my life. It hasn’t been, “Oh, she is the wife of Gay Talese.” Uh uh. And sometimes I think I am the wife of- the husband of Nan Talese. But I’ve had my life too. And as a researching writer, as you’ve heard already in great length, I go on the road and I meet new people and I have my own sense, my own world that I share with my wife and she shares, but we are not so intertwined that we can’t breathe. There’s not claustrophobia. So many relationships, they close in on one another. Now some of this has to do maybe with circumstances. It might be economic, you know? If you’re unable to get any space and you’re crowded and then the arrival of children and the necessity of babysitters, you become old before your time or you become less free. One thing about our relationship that’s been a real advantage is we’ve always had since we’ve always worked, both of us have worked, our combined income have allowed for live-in help when we had daughters. Oh, that was so important. Our first daughter was born in ’64 and we were then married three years. Our second daughter was born in ’67. We lived then in the same place we own now, although it’s been altered because of the circumstances of our daughters leaving home and getting married, but they live in the New York area, both of them. But we’ve always had- Nan and I have always had space. That’s really important. And we’ve always had someone living in there taking care of the children when the children were unable to take care of themselves before they were school age. And that meant that my wife and I could still go out if we wanted to, not that we always did, but we had the option. There was always somebody and we could always go out. And my wife has always had her sense of self in addition to being a mother or being a wife, being an editor, being many other things. So I think, you know, that’s pretty important. Now it’s not available to everyone and other people make their adjustments in ways that sometimes- you know that there’s Meryl Streep and her husband or the superstars, they have spouses and they do get along to a degree. Some of them don’t, but some people who work in a hardware store don’t get along either.