How to Become a Writer

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.

Recorded on September 22, 2009





Gay Talese explains how a childhood spent eavesdropping on conversations in a New Jersey dress-shop and a lingering sense of being an outsider prepared him for the writing life.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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