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.
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