A life spent chasing stories

Gay Talese on the glories and frustrations of his own career.

In his memoir on life as a writer, Gay Talese includes several memos he had written to himself while pursuing two long-dormant potential book projects.

"More writers should be doing what you're doing - NOT writing," Talese tells himself. "There's so much bad writing out there, why add to it?"

This bit of scolding leaps out from A Writer's Life, a work defined by Talese's elegant, erudite writing and marked by his lifelong (and often wayward) pursuit of disparate story threads.

Early in the book, Talese acknowledges missing a slew of deadlines while searching for his next book topic - his last major work was published in 1992 - and a propensity for chasing several story strands at the same time.

Through much of "A Writer's Life," Talese meanders along. He offers us an insider's look at the life of a nonpareil nonfiction writer: days, weeks, months, and years of waiting, canvassing, traveling, scribbling, working and reworking, writing and rewriting.

This makes for much less a memoir of Talese's life than a memoir of his writing life, a fine but important distinction. The book begins and ends with a surprising (for author and audience alike) obsession: Talese hopes to find and interview the women's Chinese soccer player whose errant overtime kick proved to be the decisive play in the 1999 Women's World Cup championship match won by the USA.

A self-described "nonfiction writer with a soft heart for secondary characters," Talese (along with his wife, literary editor Nan Talese) may represent the New York literary aristocracy, but he still writes with relish about the odd, largely anonymous (or noncelebrity, anyway) characters he encounters in his peregrinations.

A typical example: While researching a restaurant for a forever-doomed book project, the author describes not only each kitchen-staff member, but also relates the life stories of many of the staffers. Talese describes one Russian waiter as "a tall and prematurely balding man of twenty-seven with an oval face, brown eyes, a courteous manner (his father and grandfather had both been Soviet diplomats, serving, respectively, in Czechoslovakia and Austria), and a well-defined muscular body that he maintained by working out in a gym for two hours every afternoon...."

This penchant for thorough description can, at times, prove overwhelming, as so many characters and lineages flow through these pages that one occasionally winds up in need of a scorecard.

Throughout his career, however, these close observations have stood Talese in good stead, whether penning what is regarded by many as the finest magazine profile in American letters (his harrowing portrait of Frank Sinatra, written for Esquire in 1966) or in past books, including his legendary history of The New York Times, "The Kingdom and the Power."

Indeed, when Talese discusses those past glories, as well as his assignments for the Times covering the Selma, Ala., civil rights march in 1965 and a silver-anniversary reassessment in 1990, he proves no less enthralling.

Ample time in this memoir is dedicated to the familiar New York writerly practices of bemoaning missed publishing deadlines; whiling away endless hours at various overpriced restaurants; and interviewing the waiters, bartenders, and owners catering to the literati (including Elaine Kaufman, proprietress of New York's famed Elaine's).

Talese also tells of his ill-fated assignment covering the John and Lorena Bobbitt mutilation trial in 1993 and 1994 for The New Yorker. After spending six months covering the trial and its build-up, and conducting exhaustive research, Talese's article is declined by then-editor Tina Brown, who suggests it might instead make a short book. (It didn't).

And that Chinese soccer player? Talese flew to China several times, landed interviews, did extensive research and then watched her career disintegrate.

Talese is fortunate in that he has the perfect mind-set for these maddening pursuits. Rather than pursuing any particular goal, Talese prefers to keep looking, waiting for the right moment. In this case, even the wrong moments - the dead-end leads and interviews, the interminable waiting - often end up making for what Tom Wolfe, Talese's fellow New Journalism literary lion, calls the Right Stuff.

A conversation with Gay Talese

Gay Talese reigns as one of the most astute and eclectic nonfiction writers working today. Though he deplores the label, Talese is considered one of the founding fathers behind the 1960s New Journalism movement, a writing style combining the reporting and verifiable facts of nonfiction with the artistry and techniques employed by novelists. Talese began his career at The New York Times during the 1950s, graduated to a series of lengthy, legendary profiles for Esquire in the 1960s, and, for the past three decades, has produced a string of bestselling books exploring everything from Mob families to American sexual mores. During a recent telephone interview from his New York home, Talese offered his thoughts on a wide range of subjects. Following are excerpts:

On the theme of his new book:

"I wanted to write a story about writing and my life. I thought, my life is a story of obsession or, at least, of boundless curiosity and, moreover, a desire and an energy both to know about people and to travel long distances to find these people. And finding these people isn't necessarily goal-oriented. The goal to me isn't necessarily to have a goal, but to experience along the way the richness of the pursuit, the richness of getting to know yourself as you try to know other people.

On whether his approach has changed during his career:

"My first book was written when I was 29 or 30. That's the same book I wrote when I was 74 years old. Essentially, it is the same approach to writing...."

"You meet a lot people. It's not only a disparate group, of a Chinese soccer maiden or a butchered marine named John Bobbitt or a wayward restaurateur named Nicola Spagnola or a tailor named Joseph Talese, it is also about characters that make brief appearances.

"So I wanted to describe a writer as a character that threads the book. This is about the private life of a writer.

On his famous magazine pieces:

"Magazine writing is very difficult now, much more difficult than when I was writing for Esquire in the 1960s. Magazines wouldn't publish that stuff now. They would publish (articles about) someone with an Academy Award instead. The kind of people I used to write about as long as 14,000 words would be harder to get in print now.

"The art of hanging out takes a lot of time. And it takes travel. That means a lot of money. You have to be able to afford it. I couldn't, but Esquire put me on an expense account. That meant I could go to California for four or five weeks, hanging out, waiting for Frank Sinatra not to see me. And I wasn't sure I would get the story. Which turned out to be the story: not getting the interview."

On covering the civil rights movement:

"The out-of-state press was very hypocritical about the South. When I went as a boy of 17 [to attend] the University of Alabama, I had a sense of distance and a perspective of looking at things from a distance. My father was an immigrant [and] I had a sense that the United States had a hypocritical sense of its own morality.

On writing and its relation to his family lineage:

"My paternal grandfather was a stonecutter, hacking away at things, you know. I feel like my male forebears: the stonecutter and my father, who was a tailor, ripping it up, sewing it again, that's the way I write. I chisel paragraphs and words, my grandfather chiseled stone. I do feel that sense."

On religion's influence in his work:

"What I carry from my Catholic past is a belief in a life hereafter. I believe that. And in my work I've always thought, well, does it have a life after you're gone? Do you think you've written some things that are going to outlive you? And I think the reason I've put so much effort into the writing of a sentence or a page or a book is because I believe it's going to live a little bit beyond me.

On his wife Nan Talese, and her role as publisher of the bestselling James Frey memoir recently discovered to contain untrue passages:

"There are allowances for differences in this family (laughs). My wife doesn't come out of the strictures of journalism as I do. She's not out of Mr. Adolph Ochs's paper of record and the old tradition. I was shaped by the 1950s policies of the old New York Times; I'm not into the new fashion New York Times, but the old-fashioned values. When I came to the Times as a copyboy, I thought that building was the Vatican. You do not take liberties. You live in fear of making mistakes. Because if I made a mistake, I would bring disgrace upon the paper."

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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