Gay Talese, one of the most influential nonfiction writers of his generation, gives us a book about the nature of writing. How has he found his subjects? How has he gotten them onto the page? What drives him to write? These are some of the questions at the heart of a narrative that combines memory, reflection, explanation, and a satisfying obsession.
Gay Talese (born February 7, 1932) is an Italian American author. He wrote for The New York Times in the early 1960s and helped to define literary journalism or "new nonfiction reportage", also known as New Journalism. His two most famous articles are about Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra.
Talese is currently on faculty at the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California.
Talese's 1966 Esquire Magazine article on Frank Sinatra, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," is one of the most influential American magazine articles of all time. With what some have called a brilliant structure and pacing, the article focused not just on Sinatra himself but also on Talese's pursuit of his subject.
Talese also published his celebrated Esquire Magazine piece about Joe DiMaggio in 1966. It is called "The Silent Season of a Hero" and is also a meditation on how transient is the limelight. When a number of Esquire pieces were collected into a book called Fame and Obscurity Talese paid tribute in its introduction to two writers he admired and mentioned "an aspiration on my part to somehow bring to reportage the tone that Irwin Shaw and John O'Hara had brought to the short story."
Gay Talese published his latest book, A Writer's Life in 2006.
Talese's cousin is Nicholas Pileggi, the author of Wise Guy, and the script that would be made into Goodfellas (1990). Talese gives an intimate recollection of his childhood inspiration, while cataloging America through the decades from an Italian American perspective. His preoccuptaion with sin is reminiscent of Scorsese as well.
Hi, I'm Elaine Petrocelli and on behalf of all of us at Book Passage I want to welcomeyou tonight to meet Gay Talese and hear him speak. Gay Talese is not one of thosewriters who has a formula and pumps out a book every twelve months. He is not a guythat you can count on having a book from every February. It takes years for him toresearch and craft each book and each book shows all of the care that goes into it. Hisbooks, such as The Kingdom and The Power: the Real Scoop on The New York Times,boy would I love to have him do an up-to-date version of that, Honor Thy Father, aboutthe mafia and the mobsters who came to California, Thy Neighbor's Wife, in which hisdedication to research was so intense that he found that he had to visit a nudist camp anddo some work in some massage parlors and Unto the Sons, the beautiful story of hisfamily and the immigration of the Talese family to America. He is considered one of theleaders of what used to be called The New Journalism and I think a lot of us stillremember the great the article "Frank Sinatra has a Cold" which my son was a student atColumbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and they studied that as one of theperfect articles, but this man has done so much. A Writer's Life is not a memoir, it is abook of true stories about some of the most important events of our time, such as theSelma March and some events you probably haven't thought a lot about at all, but youwill after tonight. Now I told Gay that one hundred percent of our customers are writing abook, and if I'm wrong you tell me which ones you are, but if you are interested in thecraft of writing or you know someone who is interested in the craft of writing, the book,one book that insist you read, and I have shelves of these books on how to write a novel,and how to do this and how to do that but the one book you have to read is the Art ofWriting by Gay Talese. Thank you, Mr. Talese, for being here tonight.Thank you so much. My famous wife, Nan Talese said that she does regret not being withme on this trip because she regrets not being here tonight. She's been in this store, shethinks this, and many agree with her in the book publishing business, this is the greatestbook store in the history of book selling (Do we need to raise the mic?) I can do it. Thankyou. I am glad to be here 'cause I have been here before and Elaine's introduction iswelcome, but what it is that I intended to do in this book, she said not a memoir, andthat's true, its not the traditional me, me, me narcissistic memoir, it is a book that verymuch reflects me however. It is enough about me, my background, why I became a writerbut its also about people that I feel connected to because everyone I write about has kindof an identity with me. I so choose to establish that identity. My whole beginning as awriter, however, did not have to do with courses that I might have taken in writing, itreally has to do with my origins as a very, very young person when I was ten and elevenand twelve in my mother's dress shop. I was born in Ocean City, New Jersey, its nearAtlantic City, it's a Methodist community founded by ministers in the 1880's,conservative then and now, can't get a drink there. It's a place where if you get a drinkand you want to get drunk you have to go over the bridge to a city called Atlantic City, itsnot far from Atlantic City, but um I was born there in 1932. My father came from Italy, atailor, prideful man, took weeks and weeks and weeks to make a suit, took such time andwas probably, he didn't over price, but the cost of his kind of work did not allow him tobe commercially successful. But he did take tremendous time in what he did and eachstitch, each shape of every shoulder was, in his mind, the greatest suit ever made and Ilearned something not about tailoring so much, as pride and craft from him. But it reallywas my mother who was the defining person in my boyhood and shaped me in a way thatmade me into the writer I am today, which is a writer of inordinate curiosity and awonderment about other people. She had this wonderment about other people and she'dindulge her curiosity as she was a proprietor of a dress shop the main and best one in thetown. The one that had the best dresses to sell and she was not a very aggressive salesperson, but she was as I said a very curious person who came to this town, which I wasborn in 1928, I was born in 1934. She came from Brooklyn and she married my fathersome years before, met him at a wedding in Brooklyn my, my cousin Nick Pellegi who'smarried to Nora Ephron, Nick Pileggi's a very good writer, but has been a screen writer,he did the screen writing with Scorsese and one film called "Good Fellas" and another called"Casino" featuring Las Vegas. And Nick is married to Nora who ya know has written andalso directs, directs. But Nick's mother and my mother were sisters of Calabrianparentage reared in Brooklyn and Nick's father and my father were first cousins andfrom, from a place called (unidentified) in the southern tip of Italy. When they settled inOcean City they really were assimilated and did to the point of not ignoring their past, butreally wanting to know something about the America that was surrounding them in asmall town, this island resort of Ocean City. So my mother was the sort of person whowould, would ask people questions about themselves and the people who were herclientÃƒÆ’Ã†â€™Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â¨le were mainly middle aged women who had a lot of time on their hands and not,and quite a bit of a sum of money to spend on dresses. They were people who did not goto the beach, it was a resort community, as I said, but they liked to talk about themselvesand my mother liked to listen and I was boy who had a job after school in the store offolding the boxes and then putting tissue paper in the boxes that would later on hold thedresses that my mother sold and also I would dust the counters and I would just dowhatever had to be done. Sometimes I was sent out to get tea or other soft drinks for thewomen who were her regular clientele and who came into the shop and sat there, afterbrowsing through the shelves would sit there and talk about themselves and my motherwould have these chats, it was like a talk show. But it was really revealing in that I as aneavesdropping boy would listen to the stories of the town. The women would be talkingabout their lives, talking about their concerns. It wasn't necessarily a worrisome group ofpeople, but there were people who were engaged with my mother as an interested partywould talk about themselves in ways, it seemed to me with a type of stories that were notreally important in the sense of news stories, they were not stories that would ever makepublic print, but they were stories that revealed a good deal about the town and the tenorof the town and the time of the town. And when I first used to listen it was World War IIand I'd hear these women talking about, you know about, maybe rationing was such animportant part of life, and they'd talk about their sons in the military and their daughtersworking in defense plants. They would talk about issues that we even talk about today;women's rights, subject of racism, immigration, the general conversations that might beheard on a talk show had there been talk shows. But I was learning as a boy, overhearingacross the counter what was being said, and I thought they're good stories and I learned alot about my little town and about the people who were the affluent element of my townthe people who bought dresses and talked about, sometimes joined by their husbands, andmy whole, my whole life was really shaped by that store, because when I was old enoughto go to college and write for a college newspaper I would write about students whowould sort of were the children of such women. I would later on, when I went to TheNew York Times and got a job there, I was writing feature stories, I did not want to writethe news. I was working for a newspaper but determinately did not want to write thenews. The reason is I wanted to evoke some of the spirit of small town America, even insuch a sophisticated super city such as New York, a towering city, I wanted to writeabout the people in the shadows or the ordinary people that were rather characteristic ofthe clientele of my mother's dress shop. It was very hard, when you worked for The NewYork Times, to write about what is considered not very significant by the definition ofnews or the judgment of those in authority on such a paper as the Times. But I managed,with at least some frequency; to write about ordinary life in a big city and my first bookwhich is called "NewYork: A Serendipiters Journey" was really and it was published byHarpers back in 1961, is a book about people I sort of saw in neighborhoods, overheardtalking about themselves in drugstores as I was an eavesdropper from the time of myadolescents I would listen in and then I'd sometimes get the chance to talk to people and Iwould write about them, and this book called Serendipiter is my first book and it is verymuch like this last book. I was twenty-four when I wrote "Serendipiters Journey", I'mseventy-four now and I'm the same curious kid behind the counter in the way I see theworld. I see the world as a place that is worthy of people who have something to sayabout history, but are the people our historians ignore. Throughout this store there are thecovers of books, there are many people that you would recognize immediately, they arethe Presidents, they are the powerful people in government, they are movie stars, they arepublic people, I wanted to write about private people or private thoughts about people, orthe incidental facts of their lives in ways that are indicative of the larger society we are allapart of if not always sought out as reflectors of. The second book I wrote afterSerendipiter, again reflects me. Its about bridge building. Bridge building means a lot tome. I was coming over here looking at the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, Golden,Golden Gate Bridge, and I, I remembered I watched a bridge being built called theVerrazano-Narrows Bridge and I wrote a book called "A Bridge" and like this bridgehere, that bridge is a suspension span and when I saw the Verrazano Bridge going up in1964 I spent days and days watching the riveters and the cables going up and thatbeautiful rainbow work of art that is a suspension bridge as you have here. I thought everman who has a job with a hardhat swinging from the cables doing rivets, doing little kindof needlework, not unlike my father, those, the cables remind me of thread and the wholestructure of a bridge is so precise, as his tailoring was, in yet it is so enduring greattailoring, great bridge, they last forever, but what is, what the people ignored in anythingsuch as a bridge in construction is the high aerial workers, and, and even, I mean I don'tknow if there is a book on the Golden Gate, but if there is I suggest it probably doesn'ttell you who those people are that the hundreds of people who did swing from high placespossibly perished in their work and those are the sort of people that I pay attention to andI recorded in this book called "The Bridge". The name, some of the histories of thepeople who built the bridge, where they come from, I wrote about the eighty-five year oldengineer Othmar Ammann who designed the Brook- the Verrazano, the uh, theVerrazano-Narrows Bridge, he also did the George Washington Bridge in New York,Bridge in new York others I was really ambitious in the sense that Iwanted to deal historically with people that the historians would ignore, its really therefrain of my work. After that, as Elaine mentioned, I wrote about The New York Times.I had left the Times in '65. I was writing some pieces as a freelancer while still at theTimes, Esquire, New York Magazine other places but in 1965 I left journalism, I wasthirty two and I had really wanted to write about the people I had worked with. I wantedto write about copy readers, and reporters, and copy boys and the elevator operators andall those people who work in that fourteen story building, The New York Times Building229 West 43rd, its still the home of the paper, and I wanted to write about this building,this building, this miracle building that everyday would turn our a paper that wassupposed to reflect events in the world far from New York, in New York, the capitols ofthe United States the whole national picture, and I took about four or five years and umthere was, I had a hard time finding a publisher because it was said that who cares, whowants to read about this? But I wanted to read about it and I wrote about it. Andremarkably the book became a number one best seller, astonishing to my publisher and tomyself as well. But it again, the sort of people I knew in the store were the same peoplethat worked in the building, the building was a store. I always locate the building, thebridge was like a, like a platform, like a stage and my people, it sort of like a setting, alocation. And within that location I then want to write about major character, minorcharacters and how, how they interact and create something whether it's a newspaper,whether it's a bridge, whether it's the backbone of a city. After the book on the Times, Iwanted to write and did write and I lived in Northern California much of the time wrote abook about a mafia family. This was in 1972 that I lived in San Jose for a while, and SanFrancisco, I was in and out of San Francisco and I was in and out of Tucson because thisMafia Family I chose to write about was called The Bonanno Family, Joseph Bonannowas the godfather. The son, the lieutenant of the family was my age and someone I couldspeak to because he was American born but his background, Bill Bonanno's background,with his father Sicilian born mafia, was the same age as my father and Calabria is very,just across the straight of Messina from Sicily. And I, being that I had a gangster of myage whose father was well known as a mafia leader because of the notoriety of theBonanno family, I though I can relate to this guy. Again, I'm identifying with the peopleno matter what they do, even if they're in organized crime. And that book was called"Honor Thy Father". I wrote a lot not about gangsters, I really was interested in thedomestic life and I wrote about the wives and I wrote about the children and now itsinteresting that on television the Sopranos is really the same approach that I took, youknow Carmella Soprano and the two kids, one is in college, one is in high school, thewailing of other wives of mafia people. Its really what I found in real life way back in theseventies when I wrote what would be called "Honor Thy Father". After that I was inSouthern California, Elaine made reference to my snappy, beautifully dressed fella, butthere was a time that I was a nudist in the interest of research of course and I lived invarious places in California. I lived at a place called Sandstone, its in southern Californiaand Topanga Canyon overlooking Malibu and I did run massage parlors as Elaine said.And I was very interested, really in the subject of sin. I was interested in the subject ofobscenity, I was interested in how, when I was a boy in my Ocean City town and I was analtar boy, on Sunday I was one of the altar boys, and I remember in the 1940's therailings of the priest. The priest would tell us on Sunday don't read this, dirty books, dirtyfilms, obscenity and the definition of obscenity or sin, sin was so different during thetime of my upbringing to what it would be that I wanted to write in the 19 mid 70's , afterI did "Honor Thy Father", I wanted to write about how America has changed in thegeneration, the time I knew when I was growing up, kid in a Jersey town in a small parishand how by the 1970's, 80's so much of what had been considered unseemly, languagethat had been considered disrespectful, pictures that are considered obscene were notobscene, films were not obscene that were obscene, books, places like this back in myyouth, Lady Chatterly's Lover was pornography. The Henry miller's book Tropic ofCancer, pornography. A book called, the book by Kathleen Windsor was pornographic,you know it was amazing how, what, I mean there were so many people, comedianswould go to jail for saying things that twenty years later you could almost hear in aneighborhood library. And I wrote about this trend, but again it was from the vantagepoint of some people who were considered obscene. I went to the Supreme Court anumber of times to watch the justices of the Supreme Court determine what is obsceneand that was the basis of the book that would be called "Thy Neighbors Wife". After thatI became interested in who I was, more or less, because I had parents that are gettingalong in age and I though before they are unable to communicate fully, I better get theirstory. And in getting their story I get mine. And I then, I interviewed my parents for along time, months and months, where they came from, what their grandmother was like,because they're old in Italy and after that a sort of internal quest for information, Idecided to go to Italy and I spent a better part of four years. I don't speak the language ofItaly, but I did have interpreters and I hired some person in Rome that spoke perfectItalian as well as perfect English and I went down to the villages, the hillside villages ofCalabria and I started interviewing my father's brothers and my father's aunts and mymother's relatives and I thought how strange it is, I'm able, I have to talk to an interpreterto my blood kin. What's interesting about them is my father's brothers, he was the onlyimmigrant who became an American citizen, whoever came over here, but my father'sbrothers had been in the Italian Army, they had been fighting the Americans during the1942, '43 period of the invasion and I really was getting a sense of myself as I waswriting about these other people. I was getting a sense of myself because I rememberwhen I was boy in the store, when I was helping my mother, I remember at night myfather at night would listen to the radio and he'd be listening to the war news and hewould be concerned about the ally invasion from North Africa, through Sicily up throughthe boot of Italy, right through his village and I thought this little store has in the floorbelow, the women talking about their lives and we lived above the store in an apartmentat night here's this tailor who tunes into the war news and is concerned about the war thatwas on the other side and I thought this little building has the ramifications of and theconnections with international events upstairs at night, downstairs the meanderings,conversations of women in the afternoon to my mother, the supreme seller of dresses.And I thought you know in a small space you can get the larger world, if you reach out,almost like, its almost like the bridges that have those wires that hang on and theyconnect parts of the world, parts of the land Brooklyn, Staten Island over here in this partof our nation with this great Golden Gate it is, it connects people, it allows people to goacross, back and forth, connect, the bridges connected, people become moreinterconnected because convenience is permitted through such things as bridges and thisglamorous way, and not a narrow way either, of seeing life through the smallerperspective with the connections that people bring to one another. And then after thatbook, having written about journalism and having written about the New York Times Iwanted to write about writing about a writer and the one I knew best was myself. Muchof it that's in this current book that Elaine introduced is my story. But much of it is mycuriosity and it draws the reader into other people's stories. It deals with the Civil Rightscuriosity and it draws the reader into other people's stories. It deals with the Civil Rightsmovement and how in the 1950's it started, how in the 1960's it culminated and CivilRights, Voting Rights Act after the Selma and what it is like today. I followed up on thatstory for forty years. What is the Deep South like with regard to what it was supposed tobe like when King was singing "We Shall Overcome" and "I Have a Dream". I writeabout restaurants in this book, not the front but the back of restaurants, I write aboutkitchens because kitchens of restaurants are the place you see the new immigrant oftenworking illegally with this whole question that concerns the nation now aboutimmigration and the rights of individuals and whether we want to have too many or notenough and all the conflicts between those working below wage who shouldn't be hereand those who are here but they are the backbone of the future because all of us haveimmigrants that shouldn't be here. I my, I had two uncles on my mother's side who werethrown out of the country in the 1930's, they were laborers, they were illegal, they werebounced back to Italy. And when I went to do the work on, in 1980 on "Unto the Sons"they were now close to eighty and I said, "Why did you get deported?", "well we weren'tsupposed to be there, but we loved New York" sounds like the slogan, "I love New York"and they were thrown out of New York, but I thought that story, the story today, I amapart of that too. The conflict, people that are here shouldn't be here, yet the country'snot while we're removed a generation or so of people who are marginal American's orwho are not even Americans and will never be Americans. "Writer's Life" is my storybut its about my sources, the people I choose to write about, and how I think they give ameaningful picture of the country that for me was, came in a consciousness in the midnineteen fifties when I was leaving my hometown to get a college education and thenfifty years later I sort of thought back what it is that I see, what did it mean, who were thepeople who can best reflect the story of the last half century, mid twentieth century to thenew century we are all now embarking on. I would like to thank you for listening and Iwould like to invite since Elaine said we could, she said we could have some questions. Iwould be very happy if you have something to talk about even if it wasn't anything I said.