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.
Card: What is your writing style?
Gay Talese: Well, as I made reference to before, through my father’s craftsmanship, I write every sentence with a sense that it had better be the very best I’m capable of because I had an exalted sense of the lasting value of what I work. I mean my own work I believe is written in such a way that can be read 10 years after I write it or 20 years after I write it with the same sense of the presence I bring through prose to the subject I’m writing about. I never wanted to write ever, I mean even when I was young, I’m 76 now, when I was 26, 50 years ago, it was the same thing, I never wanted to write topically. I never wanted to write about something that was in the news today; therefore, that was why I was getting into print because I was writing about something current. I always stayed away or tried to stay away from anything that I thought wasn’t going to thanks to my careful chronicling or prose writing that wouldn’t be able to be read years hence with the same interest on the reader’s part as whatever the reader might bring to what I wrote immediately after it was published. So I didn’t want to be a journalist in that sense. In fact, I never was a very- I don’t think I was ever celebrated as a journalist; however, I’ve been celebrated-- reason I’m on this show. Whatever brings me to this show is not because I was a prize-winning journalist. I mean I wasn’t the kind of person that would win a Pulitzer ‘cause I wasn’t doing that kind of work. What I was trying to do when I was on a newspaper and continually throughout where I am today was trying to bring a sense of presence to what I’m writing to a reader who would otherwise not know about what I’m writing about. And therefore, I was trying to write in a way that was more identifiable with fiction writers or the great short story writers or the great novel writers or the great playwrights. I wanted to write stories. The only thing I wanted to bring to the kind of stories that I do and have always done is reality in the sense of the real name of the person and situations that are verifiably true. I believe that reality can be fantastic if you know people really well, if you can spend the time with people and get deeply into their character, into their sensibilities. You can write what seems to be fiction and it’s not. One of the reasons I take so long, I mean I’m hardly a prolific person when you consider I’ve been working, you know, for more than a half century and I have 11 books and 3 of them are rather short. But the reason it takes me so long is that I have to know the people very well. I have to establish a kind of relationship that goes beyond just professionalism, that becomes personal. Now, you know, I mean I’m not writing for the personal approval of the people I’m writing about. I’m not. I do maintain as a writer the prerogative of being fully in control of the manuscript. But on the other hand, I am so sensitive to the people I’m writing about and I know them so well and believe I can actually know how they think, not what they say as I’m speaking to you now, but I want to know and do think I do know how they think. And I bring that interior monologue into my prose. It isn’t direct quotation. It is how people think and when you have to spend that time knowing people, time passes. So much of my time is getting to know people long before I’m writing anything and even before I’m making notes. I mean the last book, A Writer’s Life took me about 10 years, the book before that Unto the Sons 10 years, Thy Neighbor’s Wife published in 1982, another 10 years. The book on the gangster family I hung out with published in 1972 called Honor Thy Father, that was also nine years. The book on The New York Times, I had a whole 10-year experience on the paper before I wrote about it. So I really do not write a lot, but what I do write, I know what I’m writing about. I know the people I’m writing about. So the books hold up so they’re being reissued as they are this next year. Two old books, Honor Thy Father and Thy Neighbor’s Wife published, as you said, 1982 and 1972, are being reissued without a word changed. Now, am I taking pride in that? Yes. Do I sound boastful? I hope not. But what I’m trying to do is give you an understanding of my value system as a writer, which is to write in a way that can hold up as my father when he made suits said, “Make sure the buttons don’t fall off.” The stitching has to be perfect hand-stitching, not done quickly or causally because it had to withstand time. And that’s what I took from my father.
Card: What drew you to writing?
Gay Talese: Well, the sense of wonderment about who I was in this rather alienated society that I described to you earlier. Who am I? And also I believe that while we were a most ordinary family in rather ordinary circumstances, the town is a small town, Ocean City, New Jersey, not known for very, very much. It was seashore resort catering mostly in the summertime to people from the Philadelphia area. I never saw people from New York down there. But what drew me to writing was that in the World War II period when I was just not even a teenager, I thought there was an international story just in our little address in that little tailor shop and dress shop and the apartment upstairs, which was where we lived. But during the World War II period, my father, having as I told you, Italian brothers fighting in the Italian Army against the US brought to this little location in Ocean City a sense of awareness about the international event, the World War II event, and how this tailor was every night connected through shortwave radio listening to the war news. And the war was being brought into our living room at 11 o’clock at night or midnight and I thought here is a story of people living a kind of double life or triple life. In the daytime, the tailor, my father and my mother, who ran the dress shop, talking to the American people, selling them clothes. My father would sometimes as a tailor not make suits ‘cause there was a shortage of material during World War II and what he’d do often is just alter the suits of soldiers or maybe sew on a chevron. Maybe a guy was promoted from corporal to sergeant and my father would sew on. And I’d see here are these American soldiers who are fighting Italy and here’s my father sewing on the chevron, you know, but what a connection to the international event, the tailor who comes from Italy and who has sentiments toward the safety of his brothers and maybe privately praying for the survival of his village as allied bombers and allied troops from the Americans, the British, the Canadians were moving right through his village and the kind of curious, complex situation of a tailor in a small town, a protestant town. I thought, “It’s interesting. Someday I should write about that.” Well, someday I did write about that. It was called, Unto the Sons and it’s gonna be on HBO. The director, writer- Stanley Tucci, the actor, is directing this and writing this now as I speak to you. Well, here is this story back in 1943 in the mind and eyes of a rather obscurely defined 11-year-old me and now in 2008 or 2009, there will be this HBO series inspired by the flawed and rather insecure mentality of a kid. And so there’s really again a reaffirmation of how things are perceived in one way at a certain time and later on are translated, a half a century later in this case, to what will be an HBO series.