Gay Talese: Writing tips from a master of observation
American author Gay Talese advises budding writers to pursue ideas that don't seem obvious.
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I replied that I had. I gripped the phone tighter and said, "I am a journalist for the Dinner Jacket, a Canadian online newspaper, and I would like to ask you a few questions regarding, as I see it, the lack of nonfiction profiles on immigrants."
After a short silence, I mentioned I wanted to write a book on cabdrivers. We settled on a date and I began to make preparations.
Gay Talese is perhaps best known for a 1966 Esquire piece, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." But he frequently wrote about ordinary working people in his many articles and books. He has profiled doormen, busboys, and cleaning ladies in skyscrapers. He once interviewed the man responsible for maintenance of the Times Square billboards. In his most recent book, "A Writer's Life," he described the perils of being a dishwasher at an unsuccessful restaurant.
Much of Talese's work is based on conversations with ordinary folks. I admire his stories; they had sparked my determination to make Talese my mentor, at least for one day.
Two weeks later I found myself staring up at Talese's home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. With one last tug at my black cocktail dress, which I deemed appropriate for the style-conscious sophisticate, I climbed the iron staircase to the front entrance and rang the buzzer, running my fingers over a gold-plated inscription bearing his last name. As an eruption of barking sounded from the third floor, I pushed a copy of his book, "Portraits & Encounters," deep into my purse. Within moments I was welcomed into his home.
There he stood, in a third-generation Christiani suit, red tie, and gold watch, looking as dapper as I had seen in photographs.
"Should I take off my shoes?" I asked. "No, that is fine," he replied. "Would you like a glass of water?" I thanked him as we proceeded through a long narrow hallway into the living room. I took a seat in a blue corduroy chair and gathered some notes as he disappeared into the kitchen.
We began with a disagreement. I mentioned the lack of nonfiction profiles in newspapers and magazines, to which he abruptly replied: "The New York Times does a great job writing about people, especially the Sunday Style and Metropolitan sections." Not convinced, I asked whether journalists feared immigrants. Or did they lack interest in ordinary people and regard them as not newsworthy enough?
"I don't think fear is involved," Talese assured me. "Generally, journalists are not afraid of anything. What they do not have is interest; sometimes journalists are guided by the front-page hard-news story. They tend to stay away from soft news – feature stories."