Published: September 24th, 2014
Gay Talese is a best-selling author who has written eleven books and also contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Esquire. Talese is credited with pioneering the field of New Journalism, which puts the writer in the story and utilizes literary techniques.
Howl: In writing "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" what were some of the more memorable moments?
Talese: Memorable moments in the Sinatra piece? First of all, I did not want to do this piece. I was forced to do it by the editor of Esquire, Harold Hayes. In 1965, after a decade at The Times as a reporter, I knew I had to leave daily journalism. I was frustrated by the limited space I had, and the limited time I could devote to articles. So, in 1965, I resigned from The Times, and went to Esquire on a one-year-contract. I would make about the same amount of money I was making at The Times, and would have to do six pieces a year, three of which I could choose, and the other three were to be selected by Harold Hayes, the editor. My first piece under the 1966 one-year contract was my idea: the obituary writer of The Times, "Mr Bad News," which I think is one of my best pieces. The second piece I suggested a piece on The Times' managing editor, Clifton Daniel (I'd already thought of a book on The Times, a chance to interview my colleagues and former bosses at The Times; but Harold Hayes rejected the idea. Instead he proposed Sinatra. I argued that Sinatra had been over-done. There had been major pieces on Sinatra that year (l965/'66) in Life Magazine, in Look Magazine, and elsewhere; and essentially I said to Hayes: "Sinatra has been done to death – we have nothing to add, so why bother?" Hayes replied that he'd already talked to Sinatra's press agent, James Mahoney, and they'd agreed I could speak to Frank Sinatra the following week and that my piece was guaranteed as a cover story with a big display, many photos, etc. Reluctantly, having no choice, I flew out to LA. Two days later, Sinatra had a cold and would not talk to me, because he was feeling lousy. This cold went on for two weeks. He also had second thoughts about talking to me, fearing that I might want to probe into his alleged friendship with Mafia figures. As a result of his reluctance, and my hoping that Harold Hayes would give up on the idea (and let me write what I wanted to write: a profile on The Times' managing editor, Clifton Daniel) we became lodged in a stalemate. Sinatra's lawyer wanted me to give Sinatra approval of what I would write, a condition that would determine Sinatra's availability. I refused to give pre-pub approval, and so we just hit a brick wall, as I say, and I spent the rest of the time in LA (about four weeks) talking to lots of minor characters who had, at one time or another, worked with Sinatra…as bit players in films, or orchestra players, or pals and girlfriends, etc…The surprise came one night when, unexpectedly, I was having dinner at the Daisy supper club in Beverly Hills one night…and there, much to my astonishment, I saw Frank Sinatra sitting at the bar with two blondes…I never got up from my seat at the dinner table, where I was dining with friends; I just stayed where I was, but I observed Sinatra at the bar, very visible under the bar lights, and I described him. I also watched him later leave the bar to walk into the pool room. He did not notice me. I just quietly followed him into the pool room, being among a crowd of others, and soon things happened in the pool room, and I described the situation – him being snippy with a young pool player named Harlan Ellison, a screen writer...and this, as you know, Dylan, became material for my piece, entitled "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." What is important for young students of writing to know is this: Even if you do not get cooperation from the source of your article, even if you get no cooperation, it is still possible to complete the assignment if you just "observe," rather than have a question-and-answer interview. The opening scene of "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," and the scenes that followed, are all based on my observation, not my direct engagement with Sinatra. What I do in my work, and have always done is what I call "The Art of Hanging Out." That night in the Daisy, in LA, was me hanging out and seeing Sinatra, quite by surprise; and then remembering what I saw, like a director seeing a "scene" with his camera, and then describing it in my writing. What I wrote is what you read when you read "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold."
Howl: What do you believe (or hope) is your contribution to the field of journalism?
Talese: My contribution to journalism, to "literary journalism" or long-form nonfiction, is demonstrated in my capacity to write tellingly about people who do not cooperate with me…like Sinatra. Or, DiMaggio. Or, Mohammad Ali, if you remember my situation with him in the article called "Ali in Havana." The article "Ali in Havana" is a mate to "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." If you would read both articles carefully, you will see that they are essentially the same article. Both begin with scenes. Both are done without the cooperation of the main character – Sinatra in one case, Ali in another. Ali's disease – Parkinson's – meant he could not talk to me, or anybody. I didn't know this when I took the assignment to write about Ali. But when I realized I could not have a conversation with Ali, I relied entirely on writing scenes centered on Ali's movements (just add I wrote scenes about Sinatra in a pool room, and drinking in a bar with two blondes)...very descriptive writing, scene-setting, similar to a short story or novelist's approach, or a film director's approach: scene, scene, scene….The story reads as if it is fiction, but it is not: it is straight story-telling, scene-setting, a word picture of what appears before your eyes. My contribution: I think I show young writers what is possible even though you do not have access to your main characters. I demonstrate how you can get a story by describing what you see and hear, rather than what you get (or do not get) from the mouth of the main character.
Howl: What were some of the motivators that helped you on your writing path and some of the challenges you had to overcome?
Talese: My motivation: to show the reader in words what I have seen; to create word pictures in my work. Nearly everything I have published, books or articles, starts with scenes. Notice the opening scene of "Honor Thy Father," the opening scene of "Thy Neighbor's Wife," the opening scene of the articles on Floyd Patterson ("The Loser"), the pieces on stage director Joshua Logan, the profile on Joe DiMaggio, the profile on Joe Louis, the opening of "Looking for Hemingway" (piece about George Plimpton and the Paris Review crowd)…etc. etc…What you have to overcome? As I've said: you have to overcome the obstacles to your ambition. You have to be able to reject the proposal (posed by Sinatra's attorney) that, if order to get Frank Sinatra's cooperation, I must submit the article to his lawyer for review). There are always obstacles. There are always situations in which the people you're trying to see, and talk to, do not want to see you or talk to you. You must know how to persist; how, politely, to keep after these people. And, if they still resist you, then you go "around them" and talk to people who know them, or knew them years ago, and this is how I did Sinatra. Read that piece, and you see how so much of what I got by way of information that came from people who were on the margins of Sinatra's life. I spoke to the little lady who carried his toupees; I spoke to Sinatra's butler; I spoke to some ex-girlfriends of Sinatra; I spoke to other writers who tried to interview him in years previous to my own attempt; I spoke to Sinatra's tailor, his "double" – Johnny Delgato…etc. etc. But remember: I do not do hatchet jobs. Even if I go around people – write about people who do not cooperate – I am never vengeful in what I write. I am not angry with people who do not cooperate with me. I understand their reservations. What is important about my work is the "respect" I show to people I write about. Again, never a "hatchet" job. Why write about people you do not respect? I never do. I always respect people, I accept them on their own terms, I do my best to be fair and honest (as I've repeated often in this message); and finally, years later, when I reread what I wrote, I'm convinced I was fair, never motivated by ill-will.
Howl: What do you believe is the responsibility of the journalist to his/her readership?
Talese: The responsibility of a nonfiction writer is to get the facts right. People who specialize in "literary nonfiction," as I do, are story-tellers, are people who have adapted the techniques of fiction writers (scene-setting, dialogue, interior monologue, conflict of charters, etc)…but none of this is "made up," none of it is the product of the writer's imagination. If the writing seems like it was made up, it is important to refute this by printing factual accounts, verifiable accounts...nothing "fake," nothing conceited. The reader must not be fooled into thinking that the reporting is accurate when it is not. The reader of non-fiction was trust the non-fiction writer to never be tempted to write fiction.
Howl: In high school you wrote about the sports teams and players. As an adult you write about athletes and popular figures as well. What attracts you to the particular people or stories you write?
Talese: What attracts me about sports fixtures? In high school, in colleges, and in later life, I always was drawn to sports personalities – why? Because as a writer who observes the activities of athletes, you actually "see" what you are writing about. You witness a prize fight, a tennis match, a football game, baseball game. You are there. You are watching from the side lines, or the press box; and later you are in the locker room asking the athlete to explain what happened during the contest. You have, as a writer, a first-hand post of observation; and you yourself see what goes on. In war reporting, you do not see the battles. You get information from a spokesperson from the military. In political reporting, you get "leaks" or second-hand revisions of what happened. You are not seeing things with your own eyes. But in sports reporting, you are getting a first-hand, up-close view; and this is invaluable in that it allows you to be more descriptive, more precise and personal in what you write.
Howl: You said in "Gay Talese, The Art of Nonfiction No. 2" for The Paris Review:
"I didn't fit in at high school. I didn't look like the other students and I certainly didn't dress like them, in their mackinaw jackets. My father made my clothes, and I was overly well dressed. But the column ["High School Highlights" for the Sentinel-Ledger] gave me an excuse to talk to others. It was not unlike my mother talking with the wealthy women in her dress shop. Doing journalism made me feel that even if I wasn't part of their group, I had a right to be there."
My question is: After such a long and acclaimed career, do you feel like you are part of a group and what is the role of that – or your – niche?
Talese: As a child, I was not part of a group. And as an older person, a veteran writer, I am not part of a group. I have my own way of working, which has not changed in four or five decades. I insist on seeing (first-hand) what I am writing about. I show up. I travel great distances to be on hand to "hang out." Once I flew to China, and stayed five months, to observe and write about a Chinese woman soccer player. (See A Writer's Life.)I do not use a tape recorder. I do not want Q-and-A type interviews. I want to observe people in situations, situations that constitute their lives in a normal way; I want to observe people as they follow their daily routines, as they chat with people they know, as they perform their chores in their offices or on ball fields or theatre stages or recording studios…@/Repeat: I am not part of a group. I am a solitary chronicler. I bring to my work, to each and every assignment, a desire to tell a story. I want to tell an interesting story. I want to write it in a way that the reader can "see" what I'm writing about, as if I'm a film director who has posted a picture up on the screen. But, as said earlier, I want to guarantee (by my fidelity to the truth) that the reader is reading reality. I am a writer of reality. What I try to do is: The Art of Reality. It is writing about real people, real happenings, and telling the story with a strong adherence to carefully reporting truly (carefully, accurately) recounted.
Howl: You said in "Continuity from Particle Media" on Vimeo, referring to your experiences growing up with your father who was a tailor:
"My idea as a writer is to make the stitching last - the writing, the shape of the story, the seriousness with which it is approached, the sense of craftsmanship. I have all that, but it's out of tailoring. I essentially write like a tailor. It's very methodical. It's very careful. I have a sense of design before I even put a needle in any work."
What is your writing and editing process on a technical level? What does that tailor's eye seek out in your own work?
Talese: Yes, already said earlier: I care about accuracy, reliability, but I also care about readability….I want my stories to engage the reader. I want to be a story-teller. I am telling stories…writing stories about people using their real names, and telling the truth about them – a truth I can back up with my notes and can prove, if questioned, that I collected my information with care and can support what I wrote.
Howl: While in Rome, for Eni Video in July of 2013, you spoke about the sculpture – “The Boxer at Rest” – in the National Museum of Rome. You said of the beaten-down and inquisitively glancing statue:
"And so when we look at the boxer, we have to think of vulnerability. And this is the human condition with which we can identify because we are all in peril, we all die, and we all know what it's like to have the final round in our life ahead of us. So all of us have a sense of termination. So I guess when we look and ask questions to a man – to “The Boxer” – what happened? We can ask that question of our own life as we sit for our final hour – what happened? What happened? And we don't know."
When you consider your life, not just your career, for better or worse, how might you answer that question or perhaps, what do you think of that question: what happened?
Talese: What happened to me? As I am now 82, and have more than a half-century of published work, nothing happened that I did not want to have happen. I "did it my way," as Sinatra would sing it. As a high school reporter, I wanted to share with readers what I witnessed, and to describe it fully and descriptively – just as fiction writers fully describe what they imagine, except in my case I was recounting without imaging, without "faking," without exaggerating. In more than a half-century of published work, there is not one article, one paragraph that I am ashamed to have written. From a teenager, to the old guy I am today, I have taken seriously everything I have done, and on rereading things I have done decades and decades ago, I do not see anything that I wish I'd done differently. I always gave my best, no matter what the assignment was, and I always wrote with care and rewrote constantly to make it better. This is the reward I have gotten from my work…knowing I did it as well as I possibly could, and, to my everlasting satisfaction, I look back now at work published twenty years ago, thirty years ago, forty years ago, and still think it "holds up," that it was well-crafted and solidly-reported and that it brings me pleasure and satisfaction now in my very senior years.
Howl: Building off of and ending with the boxer analogy, what do you see as your next match in the ring and how are you preparing - both mentally and physically (after all, there is a lot of travel in your work)?
Talese: I am still actively engaged; even at 82, I travel constantly and work long hours with my research, organization, and writing. In the last two years I have written about a man who spent his life as a voyeur; he never got caught, but he observed people when they did not know he was watching them, and he also wrote about what he saw, kept a diary that is very fascinating and very true. Finally he agreed to let me use his name, and quote from his diary. It took me more than thirty years to convince him. (I met him initially in 1980; it was not until 2012 that he gave me permission to use his name and notes. I have written a short book about him; The New Yorker Magazine is now reviewing the book for a short excerpt. I am also writing a non-fiction book about my half-century marriage. Finally, I am releasing to the public next month a revival of my old book, The Bridge, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Verazzano-Narrows bridge (completed in 1964). As I read last week what I wrote fifty years ago, I am very pleased on discovering that I would not change a word. Fifty years have passed, but what I wrote back in 1964 still represents my best effort, or so it seems…