Gay Talese: A writer and a gentleman
A master craftsman on how good manners and respect for your subjects can lead to deeper stories
Published: September 9, 2009
|Behind the magic of Gay Talese's creative nonfiction lies a master reporter who knows how to make his human subjects comfortable with him, and trusting. For Talese, that comfort and trust produce the keys to his literary kingdom: access (no small matter with celebrities or with people unused to journalistic scrutiny); the opportunity to observe a person closely over a long period of time; revealing insights and behaviors from his subjects; and a wealth of material to support his rich, narrative style of writing.|
Talese may be working in a modern form—literary nonfiction that uses the tools of fiction—but he approaches his work like an Old World gentleman and craftsman. Ask him in detail about his reporting and writing methods and you get some unexpected answers. Central to Talese's approach to his subjects, for example, is showing good manners and dressing well (in his case, extremely well). He has no use for tape recorders-good, old-fashioned paper and close listening and observation will do. He talks about respecting his subjects and maintaining their dignity; his approach, while hard-nosed in its own way, is as far away from a tabloid-style slash-and-burn attack as it is possible to be. Finally, it is a good, old-fashioned value that best describes how he produces such smooth, seamless prose: hard work, and lots of it.
|The Talese philosophy|
As we talked at his Manhattan townhouse and later on the phone, I pursued with Talese a basic question: How do you get your subjects to be so forthcoming? The issue seemed to reach a deeper part of Talese, for he laid out his philosophy passionately and at length. His answer once again took me back to that attentive boy growing up in Ocean City, N.J., whose father was a tailor from Italy and whose mother ran a dress store:
I don't do hatchet jobs. I've done a lot of pieces on a lot of people, and with all my years on The New York Times and Esquire and the books, no one ever refuses to see me after I write about them. I've never done a hatchet job in my life. There's not a person I can't call up after I've published something about them and see them again.
I never try to take advantage of people. I certainly win their confidence, but I don't betray it. Why? I think I learned that in the store. I was well mannered. Good manners are very much a part of what it is that I do. I'm somewhat formal. I'm never disrespectful. When you have a store environment, you learn good manners. ... Politeness. Appearances.
When you go to an interview, you dress up. Whether I'm off to interview bridge builders on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge or I'm talking to gangsters in Brooklyn or I'm talking to massage-parlor girls when I'm doing Thy Neighbor's Wife, I am dressed up. Because I think you dress up for your work; you don't dress up just to go to church. This is church-this is your religion, this is your whole spiritual calling: writing, research, getting to know people, getting to have people trust you, opening doors, getting the door open.
You can't betray your customer. You can't falsify. Directness, integrity, but also good manners to get the door open.
Once you're inside, good manners again. It's also important that once you get there, you know how to behave in getting full representation of their interior thoughts and their private attitudes and experiences, which may be shameful to them.
And once you're finished, good manners when it comes to writing the piece. You notice there are hardly any contractions in my writing; there's a formality about my style. There is a respect. Even if I'm writing about pornographers like Al Goldstein or killers like some of the Bonanno crime family in Honor Thy Father, I find a way to write about things which is both to get across what I want to get across, but to do so in a tone that is not degrading to the subject I am writing about, that is told in the finest English language I can summon.
I rewrite, and I bring dignity to the people by the dignity in language I bring to them. I elevate, to the best of my ability within the English language, a description of whatever it is I'm describing. I bring respect, therefore, to my work.
|Enlisting your subject's help|
Another interesting part of Talese's approach is how he makes his subjects a partner in helping him get his reporting right. For the type of writing Talese does, he believes the presence of a tape recorder keeps his subjects from being relaxed and trusting in his presence, and hence less candid. Besides, he has written, a tape-recorded interview encourages a superficial, "once-over lightly dialogue"-merely the "first-draft drift" of a mind, rather than deep probing.
Talese will use a notebook, but usually only after he and his subject have spent enough time together to be comfortable. He may jot down some general points on a piece of shirtboard, or use a notebook to capture a quote. Occasionally he'll make notes right after an interview. And later, in the evening, he'll type out pages of detailed notes and impressions of everything he's seen and heard that day.
One of the more memorable quotations Talese ever got is from boxer Floyd Patterson describing what it's like to get knocked out in the ring. Here is part of it:
You don't see angels or stars; you're on a pleasant cloud. After [Sonny] Liston hit me in Nevada, I felt, for about four or five seconds, that everybody in the arena was actually in the ring with me, circled around me like a family, and you feel warmth toward all the people in the arena after you're knocked out. You feel lovable to all the people. And you want to reach out and kiss everybody—men and women—and after the Liston fight somebody told me I actually blew a kiss to the crowd from the ring.
I asked Talese how he got the Patterson quote down. He described a way not only of enlisting your subject's help in getting it right, but of getting the subject to provide a richer answer in the process:
You know what I do? I make my sources a partner. When I know a person well enough, I not only have a notebook out, I have it in their face practically. Floyd's explaining, "Well, when you get knocked out, you sometimes think the people around the room like you," or something—"you know, they want to stand up and kiss you." I say, "Now wait a minute. Floyd, I have you saying 'people kiss you.' And that doesn't sound right to me. Let's go over this again; let me make sure I have this right." I'm getting him to say more. What it is: He is becoming almost a co-author of his quotes—a partner. And you show them as you're scribbling along.
And I'd say, "Floyd, let's go over this again. You know, you're the first person who ever described to me what it's like to be knocked out, and I never want to know this experience myself, and I don't think there's anybody articulate enough who's been in your world of professional prize-fighting to tell me, and here's a chance for people to understand what you've experienced."
So I'll go over it again and again and again. It may be going back over that same quotation four, five times before I've gotten it right. I don't use a tape recorder but I've gotten it better than a tape recorder because with the tape recorder, as I'm now talking to you on a tape recorder, I'm all over the place. But if you go slowly, you get the subject, Floyd Patterson in this case—who, after all, is not accustomed to articulating in any detail what his interior experiences are—[to open up].
His experience is with after-fight or before-fight press conferences—that's all so superficial. But here, this is personal stuff, this is good stuff. Therefore, I want to take full advantage of the intimacy of this kind of interview. We're not on television; we can go over it and get it right.
I make [my subjects] rewrite. In a sense they are going over it in their mind again and again, getting them to go deeper, deeper, and that's what I do in interviews. "Come on, there must be more to be said than this. What do you mean?"-and you draw people out. And you're writing in front of them. You make them partners. Then your notebook is not an ominous thing; they are partaking in the experience of describing themselves in a way that will fully represent themselves in print.
And maybe, as we are talking about it, new things occur to the person. Because as we're on a subject, and as the person is concentrating with you on the material, he or she rethinks. And also, other things that wouldn't have been thought of as possible material for discourse emerge.
|Talese on the rack|
When his reporting is done and it's time for Talese to start organizing and writing, the torment begins, as the following exchange illustrates. I ask him at one point, "Are you writing a finished draft as you go?"
"Absolutely," he says.
"It's clean as it goes?" I ask, unwittingly making the process sound too easy.
"It's not 'clean,' " he says sharply. "It's torture—it's the stations of the cross, for Christ's sake. There's nothing fun about this."
"Is it that torturous?" "Absolutely."
"Is it fun?" Sternly: "No. It's not fun. It is never fun. It's not supposed to be."
He elaborates. "You know, when I was in college you'd go to a fraternity party and guys would be around the piano player drinking beer and the piano player was having fun. Maybe he's playing Cole Porter. And he's there banging away and it all sounds good and you're drinking beer and you're singing along.
"But if you're a concert pianist or if you're Dave Brubeck or you're Ray Charles or Paderewski or Isaac Stern—if it's really difficult and you're mastering it as an art—it is work. It looks easy, it sounds easy. But it is effort and total dedication. You don't get it right the first time; you don't get it right the 10th time. There's no shortcut. It has to be worked over and rethought and done again and again, and finally it gets to look easy."
|Finding a structure|
Talese describes the job of organizing material as "choreography." Likening the task to Gene Kelly's great title sequence in Singin' in the Rain, which was shot dozens of times, he says, "It takes time to work on that. And it's the same thing with scenes in writing and organization. It's like you've inherited a hardware store: You've got 65 hammers, 65 million nails, all these types of lawn mowers. You have to know what to do with your inventory. How to arrange it, how to package it and put it into a kind of artistic line. You have to give it a shape."
In his genre, Talese must wear three hats: those of the reporter, the nonfiction writer, and the fiction writer doing scene-setting, imaginary work. "It is fiction," he explains, "in the sense that it's storytelling, it's visual and cinematic, it's expressing nuances, it's expressing language in a way that maybe is the labor of a poet, it's caring about sentences, language, the balance of sentences-a suggestion of effortlessness when in fact it's very, very plotted; it's choreographed, step by step by step."
So if writing at this level is torture for him, I ask Talese, wherein lies its pleasure? "The ultimate satisfaction," he says, "is as you look up and say, 'I didn't cheat. I gave it my best shot. I did everything possible within the covers of that book. I didn't shortcut, I didn't try to do anything that wasn't my best.' "
It is a matter, he says, of taking the job seriously and reaching high. "There has to be a respect for nonfiction writing that is accorded to poetry. What you do is who you are, and who you are is what you do. Your name is on it, and it has to be a trademark; it has to be the stamp of quality. Why do it otherwise?"
As The Writer's senior editor, Ronald Kovach has interviewed many authors. Part 1 of Gay Talese appeared in the January 2005 issue of The Writer.