Skip to content
Who's in the Video
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[…]

Big Think interviews the legendary journalist and author of, most recently, “A Writer’s Life.”

Big Think interviews Gay Talese

Gay Talese: Okay. My name is Gay Talese and I’m the author most recently of a book called “A Writers’ Life” which came out published in 2006.

Question: What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Gay Talese: I wasn’t given any advice. I wasn’t even aware of writers during most of my life until I came to New York at the age of twenty-one after college. What made me a writer is what made me curious, and what made me curious was being an American that wasn’t sure how American I was. I think this is true of a lot of people who have foreign parents, and my mother and father ran a store in the southern part of New Jersey where I was born. The town was called Ocean City. I was born in 1932. When I was ten years old, the war, WW II, was very much being enacted through the European theatre, and the part of Italy that my parents come from, which is the southern part, was being attacked by allied forces, Americans, Canadians and British, moving up through areas that were the centers of my ancestry. Though I was born in New Jersey as I said before, I was ten years, eleven years old, twelve years old during that 1942, ’43, ’44 period, and the only thing I remember that made me a writer, and the curiosity that is necessary I think for being the kind of writer I am, a nonfiction writer, was that as a boy in the store I would see my parents react during the daytime in one manner as they dealt with customers.

My mother spoke English very well. My father spoke English with an accent, and he worked in the back of the store. My mother worked in the front of the store selling dresses, and what started me thinking about other people was when I overheard conversations between my mother and her customers, and I became very curious about the women and their stories. 

The value of listening

Gay Talese: And so it was my listening to the stories as women on one end of the counter, who would talk across the counter to my mother on those leisurely afternoons while browsing through the clothing racks picking fabric or picking dresses to try on. They would be talking about things, and the thing that would be talking about weren’t necessarily of any significance in a social or historical sense, but they were revealing of personal moods, personal feelings, and during the war, there was references to the war, to the rationing of food, to the lack of gasoline during that period, to the fear of their sons or maybe daughters in the military service, or their uncles or fathers working in defense plants late at night in far away Philadelphia which is fifty miles away. And so as a boy, I was hearing references to the war while being remote from the war, and at the same time, I was intimately involved with the enemy in the war—the Italians—who of course were allied with the Germans because my father’s three brothers were in the Italian army.

Now you say what does that have to do with being a writer? What this has to do with being a writer is this; at a young age, I would eavesdrop in the store and hear stories of American women talking about their lives – the kind of material that might make for fiction writers; the essence of fiction, private life. At night I would hear in our apartment above the store – the stores close at 7:00, 6:30. I would hear my father who wasn’t very vocal during the day talking very much about his fear of his brother’s welfare and the village itself where his widowed mother lived, and I was getting at this young age a sense of story and how in this little building with the store on the first floor and the apartment on the second floor the emergence of characters and the changing personality between the day and the night; the father who was reticent during the day; no doubt internally very defensive and possibly insecure in a sense of being Pro-American and at night more outspoken because there weren’t any customers that he had to worry about being overheard what he was saying. I was just interested in a story here. Now what was the story? The story is no story in a way, but it’s a full story of character inquiry promoting my curiosity.

Question: What other characteristics are required of a writer?

Gay Talese: Patience. The most important thing as you perhaps in the beginning is definitely curiosity; the ability to be outside yourself, to see other people and wonder who are they; how are they different from me; how did they get through the day and night; what motivates them; where do they come from; where do their parents come from – all of this curiosity about people. Next thing is to get bridge the ignorance gap and get to talk to these people. I have that. That again comes out of the store. Anybody in your audience who had parents who had a store; kids who hang around stores because their parents are the proprietors or because the kids have a job in a store learn at an early age to deal with people of many different ages. As a kid, I would see older people coming into the store. I would hear them talk. I would watch the way that they moved; what they dressed; how they looked; how they comported themselves, so I’m dealing with difference ages groups. Also, in stores you have to have good manners. That’s another thing I picked up very quickly, and it helps in journalism I think – good manners, store manners. You always have to be respectful towards the customer. My parents certainly that was a mandate in their little business that I certainly followed. What you need as well as curiosity and being able to engage people and be polite and presentable and therefore make yourself acceptable to strangers in the beginning; you have to have patience.

Many journalists, many writers, many curious people are curious but not patient enough in taking in the time, properly the amount of time, not pushing it, to patiently, patiently court the people that the writer wants to know about; that I in this case would want to know about. I’m never in a rush. I take very long time in my research, and it never is it interrupted with note taking and tape recording. I never do any of that. What I do is try to introduce myself most differentially to people I’m curious about, and I tell them with sincerity that I’m interested in them and why, and I am sincerely interested in these people because they represent to me something I believe is an enlargement of my life. These people are different from me. I am interested in describing the difference. I’m also interested in bringing to the fore to the printed page their stories. Why, because I’m searching for material. The material I search is reality, real people, but of most particularly people who are not making the news; people who are not well known. I’ve always wanted to be writing about people that the reader perhaps heard about for the first time because I wrote about them.

The writer as outsider

Gay Talese: I was very different myself, and I think that a writer, many writers, whether you’re talking about the great fiction writers – Philip Roth or the late John Updike or the late William Steinen. I mean they very much present something of the – in the case of Roth particularly, the outsider, and I was in the world of nonfiction very much in the persona of the outsider from that boy in the store to the boy in Alabama, and I’d write little stories for the college newspaper as I’d written little stories I didn’t mention in the town weekly, my New Jersey town weekly. I would write school news. I’d write about my fellow students in grade school and high school and later was in college the same, and I wasn’t writing fiction. I wanted to write nonfiction because I thought that there wasn’t much different between fiction and nonfiction except in fiction you imagined stories and you change the names of living people that might have inspired the stories. In nonfiction, which I wanted to do and did do, and do do, I thought I want to write stories, but I don’t want to change the names.

That’s the big difference between what I do and a fiction writer does, and maybe a big difference between the nonfiction that I advocate and advance and personify from the nonfiction that is strictly journalism. It isn’t journalism what I’m doing. It is stories about real people and real names. I insist on real names. I never make up information. What I do is spend an inordinate amount of time with the people I write about, but my ambition is to try to describe realistically the life of people, particularly private people, ordinary people; the sort of people who went in my mother’s dress shop when I was a boy observing and eavesdropping. I was really motivated then as I still am now at the age of 77 to write about people that you might not have never heard of, but perhaps through my efforts as a writer, my descriptive efforts, my ambitions as a writer of scenes and visual writing, you will see them, and you will understand them. And you will get a sense of the people that it took me a long time to know, but now I want to communicate them to you, and that’s really what I do.


Question: Is investigative journalism in danger?

Gay Talese: It’s very difficult. Sometimes you know in my senior years a lot of work in print I’m asked to go to colleges to teach a class or speak before students – students of nonfiction writing, and they ask a lot of questions and how did you do this and how did you do that, and I tell them. But sometimes I think to myself how are these people gonna get a job, and while these people are very interested and eager and certainly attentive to what I am saying in these classroom sessions, I wonder how are they ever gonna do it because the life is changed, and the year 2009 it’s not at all like it was in 1959 when I started writing for magazines. And I kept writing for magazines through the 1960s into the ‘70s. That piece on Frank Sinatra was published in 1966, and when I did that piece, Esquire was the publisher. They sent me out to California. They put me in a very fine hotel – the Beverly Wilshire a Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. I was able to rent a car. I was able to have an expense account and take people to lunch to dinner, and I kept careful records of course; I have always of what I spend, because I’m to be reimbursed, and I want to be very accurate about it. And there was never even I was not getting the cooperation that it was expected I would, because it was expected I would get an interview, but I never got an interview, but I still stayed out there and talked to all these minor people that I mentioned earlier. And never did the editor say oh listen you better come home.

I actually volunteered when I was staying in the Beverly Wilshire – it was the third or fourth day. I was aware that maybe I should move to a cheaper hotel; find a place I was gonna spend a lot of time out there. Turns I out I spent about four weeks at Beverly Hills, just research, and I’d asked the editor if he wanted to me to try to look for a hotel room that wouldn’t be so expensive, and he said no stay where you are. Not that that wouldn’t happen now, but a lot of things have happened that make life hard for young writers who would like to do what I used to do, but it’s so changed that the technology I think has had a ruinous effect. It started with the tape recorder; that was number one the worst thing that ever happened to serious nonfiction writing was the tape recorder. What this did was allow reporters or magazine writers to use Q and A techniques – question and answer; take a tape recorder and then rather not much time at all to get a lot of verbatim quotes from well-known people. Magazines prefer to have well known people when they put them on the cover – usually they’re movie stars or well known people in aspects of political life, and the tape recorder allows the reporter to go to a hotel room for example and interview a movie star, and within a matter of about an hour, we’ll get enough for an article and then go back and write it using a lot of direct quotes. Some of these quotes I said earlier aren’t quotes that I would want to use because it doesn’t necessarily mean what people have in their heads. It’s rather what’s coming out of their mouths; extended sound bites is what they’re getting, and also I think in the process of having a tape recorder they brought the whole format of the magazine article indoors because the tape recorder is done indoors. Most of the pieces that I wrote and still would write if I was able to do what I want to do would be outdoors. I travel with people. My technique is hanging out with people.

When I wrote about Sinatra, I was never indoors with him. I was watching him in the studio, and I described him when he was recording. I watched him taking walks in Las Vegas as he went to casino to casino – the scenes of his gambling, going to a prizefight in Las Vegas. There were big scenes, and they were outdoors and they were very descriptive, and they told the reader what it was like to be there. It wasn’t this narrow question and answer, and the owners of magazines – the publisher or the editor, or the owner are very interested in cost cutting of course, and the tape recorder played right into that. Moreover, it would be to the advantage of the publisher of a magazine to have things directly on quote with the tape recorder to verify, so the lawyers would be able to fight off any challenge in terms of misquotation and libel suits. So that was another contribution to the cost cutting emphasis that was brought by editors upon the writing process. What you have now –a great magazine like “The New Yorker” is the exception—but what you have now is nothing of the kind of art of the magazine piece that I, and many others of my generation used to practice. We had expense accounts. Also, the tape recorder meant you didn’t have to send people out to the other side of the United States. You could wait for the movie star or the singing star or the rock star to come to New York, performing at Madison Square Garden and staying in the Pierre Hotel or the Plaza Hotel or wherever they’re staying, and you send somebody over there with a tape recorder for an hour, so they’ll get a lot of quotes. So the magazine piece is not a work of art anymore.


Question: What does it take to stay married for 50 years?

Gay Talese: I had no desire ever to marry. I feared marriage to tell you the truth. Ironically, the marriage that I knew best was my parents’ marriage which was a very healthy, wonderful marriage, sixty years, and I also but I thought the marriage – my parents being partners in the business, having a store I told you were very close day and night. It was almost claustrophobically close, and they had only two children. I was the first born. There was a daughter born four years after me, so the four of us were in this very tight family and these very tight quarters, but my parents were so compatible; almost to the expense of their children where they were – and I felt that the marriage that had was just too close and suffocatingly so. There’s no freedom there. They were under the gun. I mean my mother and father were rarely out of sight of one another, and my father never would make trips without my mother. They’re together all the time. This togetherness was obsessive at least I felt so, so I thought I never want to be so linked to another person. I wouldn’t have a sense of adventure, exploration, or the option I’m doing things on my own without necessarily announcing in advance what I wanted to do. My ambition as a young boy was to travel freely not to have an itinerary, not to be committed – that was one of the major things, to a person or to a situation, not to be dependent. I wanted freedom. Journalism afforded that. I mean of all the occupations, if I were a doctor I wouldn’t be free out of the, you know the confinement of the career of being a physician or anything. I wanted to be free. I wanted to write about other people to escape. A lot of escape is in my mentality with a desire to escape into other people’s stories. It’s all a matter of getting outside yourself.

Question: Is love important to a marriage?

Gay Talese: Love is not important. You know what’s really important that’s more important than love, respect. What keeps a marriage together is not love. What keeps a relationship together whether it’s marriage or relationship outside of marriage, a committed relationship; it’s respect. No one can define love. Sometimes people associate sex with love. You know boy I’m in love. You can be in love in a way that you can maybe convince yourself is a definition that subscribes that is particular to you, but it’s very vague. What is not very vague is respect. If you don’t have respect for a person especially a spouse, there’s no way that relationship can survive. You lose respect for a person it’s all over. They could be the sexiest person, the most beautiful person, the greatest sexual mate. They could perform you know all the acts of physical love in ways unmatched in the universe, but if there’s a limited respect or not great amounts of respect, it’s over.

Question: What about sex?

Gay Talese: No. Sex is not important to a good marriage. No. You want to know more ask me a better question, but it’s true; sex is not important. Sex is very temporarily important in the beginning because the quest for companionship and compatibility is certainly fostered by active and fulfilling sexual experience – absolutely true. Sex is in the beginning of the mating game very important. Sex is the lure – the allure of a woman who can through sexual appeal attract a man who’s attracted to her because she’s sexy because in bed she’s very, very fulfilling. But that’s okay for a while. That’s not gonna carry you through years. The only thing that’s gonna carry you through years is being compatible with a person, having a lot in common, shared values, and I keep repeating respect for one another; that is it. Without respect the game is over.

The importance of mutual independence

Gay Talese: I think what kept the marriage together during times of stress and there was certainly many times of stress as in any relationship and certainly in our kind of marriage there was because I was traveling a lot. In my research I would go all over the place sometimes to other countries – well beyond my Frank Sinatra experience. There were times when I’d go live in Italy for two or three years when I started writing long books. After my magazine career ended, I was writing books exclusively, and some of them would take five or six years to research. Four or five books that I wrote from the 1960s to the 2006 were books of seven or eight years of being on the road while staying married, but the reason it wasn’t so stressful for my wife Nan with whom I’ve been married now fifty years in 2009. We were married in 1959, and fifty years is this year. One of the reasons that it wasn’t so stressful is she always had a full-time career. She could no less than me fulfill herself in her work. Her work became as she became older and more skilled recognized. There are books now called Nan Talese books/Doubleday, and she’s got her own career. Her writers are among the best - there’s Margaret Atwood, there Ian McEwen, there’s Antonio Fraser, there’s Pat Conroy, there’s Barry Unsworth; there’s all kinds of distinguished literary writers that are published under her imprint, and so it isn’t like she’s ever lived through me. She was never just Gay Talese’s wife, never. I mean she wouldn’t mind – I don’t mean to suggest that she’s very publicity hungry or that she needs reassurance by having her name on the product, but she happens to have her name on the product, her books, so she’s had her independence. And it was so different from my mother and father who were people in the store and day and night within reach of one another and scrutiny of one another. I had a lot of freedom from the beginning and through the 50 years, and I think that’s kept this marriage together. 

Question: Are fiction writers afforded more respect than non-fiction writers?

Gay Talese: I think that from the time I was young to even now the idea that the novel is the big desirable beast, and Mailer used to call it the beast, the novelist. I think that the great writers more often than not are fiction writers because the fiction writer has the capacity to imagine, to make up things, and the nonfiction writer, the historian or the current events writer or the journalist, the essayist are restricted by having to be truthful and also verifiably truthful, but I believe that you can counter this and not be restrained by the form of nonfiction and the limitations of nonfiction and having to be truthful.

You can overcome this by spending a little more time. I’m not myself very, very prolific as a writer. In my seventy-seven years, I have written five long books. I’ve had two short books and four collections. Meaning, I’m not a lazy man. I’ve written a lot, but for the amount of time I spend writing and researching, there are people who have written three times as much as I have, but I take a lot of time ‘cause I want to have a lot of time with my characters because in all the time I spend I get to know my characters better. I get know them inside themselves because of the time I take in knowing them. It’s a kind of courtship you’ve mentioned. It’s a kind of relationship that’s very personal. I’m personally engaged in my work and the people I’m writing about, and as I result, I can write with the freedom since I know well what I’m writing about, who I’m writing about that borders very closely upon fiction writers who are making it up. I’m not making it up, but I sound like I’m making it up which is what I want to achieve the lack of believability initially on the part of the reader wondering how this guy knows this much; does he make it up. No, I didn’t make it up. I just knew it very, very well, and it took a lot of though and patience that word I use; again, curiosity and then patience, the capacity to hang out and to write about ordinary people as if they were in the imagination of the fiction writer, extraordinary.

Wily Loman is a great character, a minor character, but in the hands and the imagination of the great playwright Author Miller, Willy Loman is an international figure played on the stages of the world. “Death of A Salesman” is around the world in many languages performed every week – minor character but not minor when you get a great play and a great writer like Miller to write about.

Question: Has the state of the American libido changed since you published “Thy Neighbor’s Wife?

Gay Talese: That book dealt with a lot of things – censorship; what was immoral by the standards of that time meaning the 1970s and ‘80s. What is going on today in 2009 – anything goes; you just to have to know to look in a different place for it. When I was researching in the 1970s to do that book that was published in 1980, the aforementioned “Thy Neighbor’s Wife”, things were very visual on the streets. You could see massage parlors. If you walked up Lexington Avenue, Park Avenue even, all over the cities major cities of the United States – for example you would find massage parlor signs right open, and they’re newspapers such as the pornographic newspapers that advertise. Massage parlors were really little more than places of prostitution. I mean you would pay women to perform sexual acts upon yourself. It might be masturbation; it might oral sex; it might be intercourse, but what happened after that AIDS period now the Internet offers everything. If you know how to use the Internet, there’s nothing you can’t get – swingers, mate swapping as I said; the most hardcore pornography’s available. You see when I started to research that book some quarter century or more ago there was a kind of a moral squad of people who wanted to restrict the right of adults to have access to sexual dalliance. Right now you can’t control it because what’s happened through the technology of the Internet is it brought the merchandising of sex into the home, and people can just sit there on their lap top and order whatever they want. I mean it’s like it’s just as easy as takeout. I mean it’s like going to Kentucky Fried Chicken or having pizza sent in. You can get everything.

Question: Does the mass availability of sex make the act less important in marriage?

Gay Talese: No. You could always go and get sex anyway; that’s nothing new. There’s very little new about sex. It’s just different ways of merchandising it and different ways of obtaining it. If we’re talking about mercenary sexuality, that’s what you are talking about. Now let’s talk about marital sexuality. I said before and I repeat now marriages are not gonna be held together because of sexual performance. You see all these Viagra – God you can barely watch a football game without having 16 Viagra commercial interrupt between every exchange of football. That’s nice I mean it’s great that there is such a thing for impotent men as Viagra and all those other competing products, but again, marriages are not gonna be held together because of sexual performance, it’s not. I mean the beginning as I said the courtship period – okay, that’s a phase, but the sexiest woman alive is not gonna be a marital mate of any consequence if her mate doesn’t respect her or the other way around.

Question: Is there a connection between alcohol and creativity?

Gay Talese: No. When I was young, I do remember there were a lot of drinkers who were known to be good writers. A lot of the great writers when I was a kid the names like William Faulkner was a big drinker, and a F. Scott Fitzgerald who was one of my favorite writers when I was a young man and reading fiction for the first time was a notorious drinking and his wife. There was a celebration of alcoholism almost within the creative arts and also even in journalism. I remember my first time in the city, remember the New York Times.

I remember one job I had was working late on what they called the rewrite desk. That was where you’re in a rewrite bank of typewriters, and people call in information. Well, some of those rewrite men some of them were so drunk. One time I saw a man whose head fell on his typewriter. This was the center of the New York Times, and he was just out for the drinking. He had a bottle in his drawer. I remember when I was a sports writer. At one of the jobs I had in my early career was working in the sports department. One time I was sent out to Arizona to cover the New York Giants baseball team on the year it moved from New York to San Francisco to become the San Francisco Giants. They trained in Tucson or Phoenix, Arizona, and I remember I met sports writers from other newspapers, and there was a sports writer for the New York News and a sports writer for the New York Mirror which used to be a tabloid in New York, and these two guys who covered the New York Giants. And I was doing it for the New York Times – these two guys were pals, and one of them was a heavy drinker, a big drinker. He his name is Jim McCullough, and the guy his pal from The Mirror’s name is Kent Smith. Kent Smith because McCullough would always get drunk before the game was over would write both stories. He would write a story for the New York Mirror, and then he would write under the name Jim McCullough another story to cover up for his friend. His friend was never able – he was never sober enough to get into the game to write what happened. I mean this was incredible. I couldn’t believe this is journalism – the journalism that abounded in my time, and the presence of alcohol was part of it.

There’s nothing like that today. City Room in those days was full of smokers. The whole room was full of smoke and drinking. Now there’s a big series on television called “Mad Men” about the advertising agency – life of the 1960s and the ‘70s. Hell, the drinking that went on journalism was beyond that; drunken people all over. It’s a wonder the paper could ever get out. There were enough sober people at least for every issue to get a paper out, but another half of the staff was out of it. 

Question: What are you wearing today?

Gay Talese: Well, sometimes I wear clothes that are made for me by tailors. Sometimes, I go to special stores where I like the merchandise. Now this jacket I’m wearing is – I have a favorite store in Paris. I sometimes go to Paris once a year at least, and I always go to the store it’s called Francesco’s Smalto, and this is a Smalto jacket. I purchase often things from there. I like the cut, very continental cut, very distinguished. It’s the finest off the rack tailoring you can get I think. Now the tailoring I usually wear are clothes that are made for me by relatives of mine who are also in Paris – my cousins Christiani and Francis Christiani, Antonio Christiani. Their father was the owner Antonio was a mentor to my father. They’re Italians who went to Paris in the case of the Old Christiani in 1911, and they had a shop for 50 years on the Route De Lape, and they made all my clothes, and I have tailor made clothes from other people.

Question: And the tie?

Gay Talese: The tie is certainly not made for me. I go to special places to have the ties. I have a tailor that I know, and I live on the east side of Manhattan, and there’s a shop that sells ties that I go to and have shirts also made. The shirt maker is called “Addison on Madison”, but they’re not Madison; they used to be. They’ve now moved to a private place. The store is no longer on the street. They have a little back business, but I get all my shirts made for me.

Question: Are there any issues today that keep you up at night?

Gay Talese: No. What keeps me up late at night are watching a baseball game when the Yankees are on the west coast; that’s about it

Recorded on September 22, 2009