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Overcoming the Need to Be Truthful
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.
His groundbreaking article "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" was named the "best story Esquire ever published," and he was credited by Tom Wolfe with the creation of an inventive form of nonfiction writing called "The 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 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. His latest book is High Notes: Selected Writings of Gay Talese.
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.
Recorded on September 22, 2009
The constraints of reality, Gay Talese argues, have turned many great writers away from non-fiction. Yet, with the proper patience and engagement with one’s subject, those bound to the facts can write with the same freedom as any novelist.
Join the legend of non-fiction in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova.
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