Continuing the Nieman Foundation narrative writing speaker series set up by Paige Williams, journalism legend Gay Talese appeared on campus two weeks ago in conversation with Esquire’s Chris Jones. The Harvard Writers at Work lecture series co-sponsored the standing-room-only event, where Talese and Jones were introduced by current Nieman fellow Adam Tanner of Reuters. What follows is a transcript of the talk, edited for clarity and length:
Adam Tanner: Gay Talese is an especially good choice for those seeking to study great writing. His 1966 story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” and other stories, are credited in helping create New Journalism: deeply researched literature of fact enlivened with vivid storytelling. He has published 11 books including the 1969 book “The Kingdom and the Power,” about the history of the New York Times, where he was a reporter from 1956 to 1965. Over his career Talese has written for the Times, Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and others, and remains an active writer. He has influenced countless writers and journalists, including quite a number in the hall today.
We’ve paired him with a fine younger narrative writer who has a cult following of his own, Chris Jones, writer at large at Esquire and the new back-page columnist for ESPN The Magazine. He has won two National Magazine Awards for his long-form features and he has traveled from Toronto today to join us.
All of this has come together today in partnership with the Harvard Writers at Work lecture series. The lecture series is co-sponsored by the Harvard College Writing Program, the Harvard Review, Harvard Extension School and the Program in General Education, which brings together distinguished writers throughout the year.
Jones: Thank you very much to the Nieman Foundation for Journalism for having us today. How many of you are either writers or aspiring writers? Wow, there we go. Nonfiction? Fiction? Look at those people. They are not to be trusted.[laughter]
Jones: We were just having coffee in the cafeteria, and Gay [was telling me he] is working on a piece for the New Yorker on Joe Girardi, the [Yankees’] manager. And I thought this might be an interesting way to talk about the process of writing and how you find stories. You spend so much time on a story. How do you know when an idea is good enough – is it good enough for a short piece, is it good enough for a long piece, is it good enough for a book?
Talese: I don’t think you know almost until the piece is published whether it’s publishable. I’ve been working on and off on this piece for six months for David Remnick of the New Yorker about, as you said, the manager of the Yankees, who by name is Joe Girardi. I think I know where I’m going, but what I do not know is how long I’ll be on the road. What I do now is what I did when I was your age or younger: I’m on the road a lot. I believe you have to be there. I don’t use the technology now any more than I did when I was a young reporter. When I went to the Times, beginning not as a reporter but as a copy boy back in 1953, a year after I got out of college at the University of Alabama, I was told by an old-time reporter who probably joined the paper in the 1920s, he said, Stay away from these telephones, stay away from these telephones, there are telephones all over the room. The telephone was the new technology, in this guy’s head. He said, You have to be there.
And I think that’s Step One in nonfiction reporting, whether it’s book length, magazine length, newspaper length, whatever. You have to be there. You have to see the people. Even if you don’t think you’re getting that much, you’re getting a lot more than you realize.
I had an assignment about a year and a half ago to write about an opera singer, and that involved traveling, being there, going to Moscow, going with this singer to Buenos Aries and Barcelona – Marina Poplavskaya is her name. So I had this woman, very active, very young and obviously very talented, and very difficult, and Remnick said, and [New Yorker articles editor] Susan Morrison said, What is it like to be on the road? Well I’m on the road all the time, and here was a writer talking about a singer on the road. What’s good about it is you get scenes.
I always liked being on the road. I always liked being out there. Parenthetically, I do not like the tape recorder and do not use it. The reason is, it brings you indoors. It promotes the idea of question and answer, question and answer, and it makes you sometimes subject to the easy availability of the spoken word verbatim. You tend to fall prey to the charm of that and the ease of that, the little plastic spinning wheels that give you everything but give you nothing really. Because what they give you is the first thing that comes into a person’s head in response to your questions. And the Q&A also takes away, I think, the largeness of the subject; it becomes narrowly defined by the Q&A, the little plastic thing on the desk or the coffee table. It’s convenient for a publisher who wants to cut costs because if you have a Q&A, a lot is achieved in terms of getting an article done in less time.
Jones: You mean writing [a piece] as a straight Q&A.
Talese: Yeah. The publisher is worried about cost, so you can’t go on the road. And what I do and what any person of my generation – [David] Halberstam and Tom Wolfe, all those people out of the ‘60s and ‘50s as I am – we’re on the road a lot. Of course it’s expensive, and you have to find ways to get people to allow you to go on the road. Back to Girardi. I had this idea. I actually had two ideas. One was easy, one is hard. The easy one, Tony Bennett. I was on the road with him. I went to Las Vegas, I went to Denver, and I went to watch him on the road, and then I came back and wrote a scene of him recording from an album with Lady Gaga of all things. That was not hard. And she’s really nice. I’m telling you, the woman you see photographed in these extravagant outfits that she concocts somehow with the help of some bizarre designer, she is really a very simple girl next door as Hefner would put it.[laughter]
Talese: But Girardi’s difficult. A man who’s in fear of saying something wrong.
Jones: Very stiff.
Talese: Very stiff. Controlled. I started with Girardi – really it started with the old timers’ game at Yankee Stadium in the middle of July. I went mainly to see some of my old heroes, people I remember as ball players who are my age. [Talese is 79.] But Girardi was there as the manager of the team, [a] man of 46, and as I said, very careful, polite to a fault, but not much in the way that you have an insight into who he is. What interested me, he was a ballplayer, wasn’t a great ballplayer but for 13 years had been a ballplayer, with four different teams: Chicago Cubs two times, New York Yankees, the Saint Louis Cardinals and the Colorado Rockies. Before he became a major league ball player, of course, he was a minor league player, and before that he was a college player. He graduated from Northwestern in engineering. Very few ball players are college graduates. It’s unlike football and basketball; college is not the minor league of the sport. In baseball they start usually after high school and maybe have one year of college. I thought, [Girardi] has an interesting experience because he’s educated to a degree, educated as a ball player, minor league to major league, and never was a star, and played with stars. And I love writing about people who were never stars. I mean I’ve written about stars but usually when I write about a star like Joe DiMaggio, it’s when his era [is] over.
People who teach courses in narrative nonfiction, they often will mention DiMaggio or Frank Sinatra – but that was in the era, they had already been famous or [were] now not so famous, or hoped to be famous again. People I like to write about are people who’ve had a history of ups and downs. And Girardi suited me, I thought, in that way.
But the deal is you have to hang around; the art of hanging out, is the way I phrase what I do. So I started hanging around with Joe Girardi the first time at old timers’ day. Then I started going to games. One of the perks of this profession is you get free tickets to the press box. But what’s in the press box? Fifty-five years ago I was in the press box – when I was 24, 23, 22, I was a sportswriter with the New York Times. That was my first job and I remember how we in the press box used to cover the game, and now I see a whole different world of covering the game. In fact now I see sportswriters not even looking at the game – they’re seeing the game on their laptop and their eyes are not on the field. They’re very focused. I remember when I was in the press box in the 1950s, we would not really see the game; we would see more than the game. The most impressive thing, I remember, being in the press box in the 1950s, was all the drinking that was going on in the press box – it was the era of alcoholism in journalism. You don’t see any drinking going on anymore. You don’t see any smoking. Fornication is out. Everything is out.
Jones: It’s definitely frowned on in the press box.
Talese: One game I saw, I followed the team, 12 games on the road, I remember one time I saw in the middle of the game, some relief pitcher came out of the bull pen, and as he came running out the left fielder of the Yankees, who knew him, they sort of waved. They had been teammates a couple of years before, and I thought, This familiarity, this little gesture – those little things you miss on television. The modern day [sportswriters] see the game on the screen in front of them and they push buttons and they have the histories of the players and everything they want, and they get a lot of information very quickly, but they get it from the narrow [confines] of the laptop screen. I’m off the subject already, but I do think one of the problems of journalism today and maybe the problem of the Nieman Fellows here in this room is how we are narrowing our focus and becoming indoors in terms of internalizing our reporting. The detail is what I think we’re missing. See, the idea is to see all you can see and hang around as much as you can with the people that interest you. Well how do you do that? How do you do that when sometimes people are not interested in you seeing what you want to see and what they don’t want to show?
Jones: Girardi is very difficult because he doesn’t reveal anything. He’s covered by hundreds of people every day –
Talese: He is. And he also has a director of publicity with him at all times.
Jones: – and yet you have somehow wrangled – is this a secret? Gay is going to Peoria to sit with Girardi while he visits his father, who has Alzheimer’s. So how are you the guy in that room when there’s 100 guys –
Talese: Well what it is you develop – from the time you enter into an eye-contact relationship you have to first of all make a pretty good impression, meaning, I always thought, the Italian expression bella figura, making a good impression, a good appearance. You have to sell yourself, and how you do that depends on your personality. I approached Girardi’s press agent first of all, and said I had an assignment from the New Yorker to do a profile and [that] Girardi had never been done anywhere, I don’t think, that I thought presented him as he is. What I wanted to do was answer the question How did Joe Girardi become Joe Girardi? Who is Joe Girardi? What is the inside of this man? What is it about him that made him at age 46 the manager of the Yankees? I said, Can I come to a few games? I said, I’d just like to have the privileges that a sportswriter has. I said, I won’t ask any questions of the players; I don’t want to talk to the players . The players aren’t gonna tell you anything anyway. I said at some time I’d like to talk to Joe Girardi when he has the time, but not now. So they gave me a press pass for every game I wanted to go to. After the game Girardi gave to all the reporters who covered the team about 15 minutes explaining what happened in the game, why he changed pitchers, this and that. I just sat through this. I never asked any questions, and after the game was over I went home to the hotel. Did this for about two months.
Finally when the season was over, the Yankees did not win the World Series. I asked if I could talk to him for an hour or so – he lives in a place called Purchase, about an hour or so outside Manhattan – he said, I come to Yankee Stadium once a week, I can talk to you for an hour maybe, on Mondays I usually come in. So I saw him for three Mondays in a row for one hour. I don’t take notes. I just wanted to ask him some questions. The press agent of the Yankees, who was very careful, says, We’re gonna tape it, is that okay with you? I say, Well sure, you can tape it; in fact why don’t you tape it and let me have a copy and anything he doesn’t want to have said or [wants to] say it better, it’s fine. So we had this tape recorder and I’m talking to Girardi for an hour, did that three times. And what I said, I said, I want to start with who are your parents and who are your grandparents. He didn’t know much about his grandparents. I said, Well is there anybody who knows about your grandparents? He says, I have an older brother, eight years older. I say, Okay fine, what’s his name, what’s his phone number? Lives in Chicago. Fine, I’ll look him up.
I start talking to Girardi the second time and third time about his young days in school and about the days before he went to Northwestern on a baseball scholarship. I finally said, You know, I’d like to see these places – you say you were born in Peoria and you went to Northwestern, but I’d like to see Peoria. He said, Well the only time I’m gonna see my father – he has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t know who I am but because he’s the most influential man of my life, I still like to go see him regularly, and I’m gonna do it Thanksgiving. I said, Well I can’t interfere with your Thanksgiving, but if I went out the day after Thanksgiving would you then show me where you born – the house is still there? He says, Yes it’s still there and the school is still there and he said my parents owned a little restaurant at one time and the building’s still there. I said, Great, I’d like to just see these places. He said, Well, come out to Peoria. I wanted to go out the Friday after Thanksgiving, [but] there’s only one flight and it arrives at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. It’ll be dark by then. So I have to go out on Thanksgiving. My wife wasn’t happy about that but she understands. I’ll be in Peoria Friday morning, so when he arrives, Joe Girardi, he’ll show me around.
Now why is it important? I just feel there might be something in his upbringing – particularly I’m anticipating a scene with his father, who cannot communicate with him. I might be able to find in, just being in that town and seeing places that Joe Girardi will describe, I might be able to have a scene of him driving through Peoria, 46-year-old manager of the Yankees, where he was once a sandlot player, grade school player, a man with a very active father, a father who he told me who used to be a bricklayer. I looked at Joe Girardi and said, Look at those massive arms –
Jones: Yeah he’s got giant hands.
Talese: Giant hands! And those arms. He said, I got them because I helped my father build bricks, lay bricks. So there’s a scene of brick building in the background. I love that.
Jones: That scene with the dad. Do you have an image of that, going into it?
Talese: I don’t want to anticipate too much because – sometimes when you anticipate it doesn’t happen. You just have to be there, and if it happens you see it, and if you see it, remember it. You don’t record it. I don’t take notes in front of people but I do carry shirt boards. The shirt board as you know is in the back of a shirt – I cut it up with a scissor and trim it like this, and I do write little notes on these. Never in front of the person. But I’ll go to this hospital or whatever it is, wherever Joe Girardi’s father is registered, and I might later on write something down. I might write just the order of things: I might say we went from high school to grade school and then we went to that restaurant and then we went to this old age home, whatever it is. Then I’ll go back after I’ve left Girardi, or whoever I’m with, there’s a private time when I’m back at my hotel and I’ll review the day and I’ll write it. If I have a typewriter I’ll type it out. I’ve always typed out my notes before I go to bed, every night, whatever I remember that day: the date, where I was, why I was there, what I saw, what I remember.
Granted, the direct quotes I can’t rely on my memory for that. But what I will do, if there’s something interesting I’ll return to the person the next day and say, for example, Joe, yesterday when we were talking about your father and how you remember helping him lay bricks or driving in the truck when he was listening to the Chicago Cubs and that’s how you became such a fan of Ron Santo or whatever – here’s what I heard you say, or I don’t know what you mean by this. Sometimes people enlarge upon what they said and you get a better quote than the one you missed.
I once interviewed a prizefighter, Floyd Patterson, and I asked him, What’s it like to be knocked out? What’s it really like? In comic strips you have stars over the head. He started telling me and I started writing it down. This was for the magazine Esquire. And I went over it again and again and again, and I’m writing it this time in front of him, and I said, Now Floyd, when you’re first knocked out you don’t feel anything but then you look around the room and the ring and you see people under the ropes and through the ropes – finally I had this long, long quote, and in a way it was something that was almost co-authored between us. I was writing and he became a partner. I think that’s something that is very honorable about nonfiction, where to a degree you affiliate with and you partner with the person you’re interviewing. Not that they ever have any view of what you write or editorship privileges, certainly not. However you can and should build a trusting relationship with the person, and to a point where your confidence in your relationship is so trustworthy and so open, you can actually write in front of them.
Jones: The best interviews are the ones where each person forgets who the other is.
Jones: That you’re no longer the reporter, and I’m no longer Floyd Patterson, we’re just guys talking about –
Talese: That’s true.
Jones: Is that the goal, though?
Talese: That is the goal. And as I said, every night I type up – in the case of Frank Sinatra, for example, I had 33 days on that story, 33 dates. And each day might have two or three typed pages representing the total experiences of that day for me: what I remember, what I felt, what Sinatra was doing, what he wasn’t doing. I was describing as an observer on the scene, somewhat distant but still on the scene. After I’ve amassed all this material I go over it day by day by day and I summarize everything. So I have 33 summaries of 33 sets of notes from 33 days of being on the road. With those summaries I’m also reviewing once more, and once more, and once more what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard. And out of this becomes a kind of connection between the whole 33-day experience, and I see scenes. We all see scenes. When you’re on the road there are things there that are really scenic, if you’re on the road, if you’re outdoors. Well, sometimes when you write them, when you begin to write them, those scenes take on a sharpness, a focus, a particular specificity.
Jones: You mean as a means to illustrate –
Talese: Yeah. Yeah. Even as a young reporter I would think, Why can’t I do what short-story writers do or as novelists do, which is write scenes? I was thinking scenically because the influence I had was from the great short-story writers that I read in college. When I first came to New York as a copy boy I’d never heard of The New Yorker, but when I came to New York I heard of it and I started reading. I’d read John Cheever and John O’Hara and Irwin Shaw – my favorite writer – I started reading F. Scott Fitzgerald stories, Hemingway stories, Carson McCullers stories, and I started thinking, Why can’t I write a magazine piece like a short story, without changing the names? The short story writer gave me scenes, and I thought, Why can’t I do this in a magazine article? It’s the same length, 4,000 words, 5,000 words. So I want to write short stories with real names. That’s what I want to do. So I’m already thinking, What’s the short story of Joe Girardi? Where do you begin? Well I haven’t gotten there yet, but it may well be this trip to Peoria. Maybe I have within my pile of typed notes back home in New York stuff that will be much more interesting when I review it than it was when I was actually there with it.
Jones: So in retrospect –
Talese: You see the whole picture. And what I like to do in this form of writing that we’ll call short stories with real names, I like to move back and forth in time, and if you do enough research you can go from the boyhood to a time when this guy, this Joe Girardi character, first day in the major leagues, which in this case was the Chicago Cubs, and then he was sent down the next year to the minor leagues, and the distinction between the major leagues and the minor leagues. He’s a perfect case of describing, among other things, perseverance. A sense of failure or demotion. Rising again to the major leagues, hoping you can stay there. All the stuff that all ball players but also all people in all lines of work go through. So these messages or these instances of success or demotion are very relevant to the life of anyone, including writers, who sometimes don’t get assignments or, like in the minors, rejection slips.
All my pieces do deal with the history of the upbringing of the person and how that influences the individual that’s the focus of your story. And after I’ve organized it I actually put on my little corkboard, the Styrofoam board that runs across my desk, I pin these little cards that give me a sense of direction. It’s a form of choreography. It’s step by step by step. The opening scene is this. The second scene is this. Third, fourth, fifth, all the way across. So I have that article gradually taking shape visually. It starts with digging up, excavating, then it’s organizing, then it’s doing the choreographic progress from beginning to middle to end. And then the writing, the opening scene, I rework the sentences and try to make it as clear –
Jones: You write in longhand, right?
Talese: Yeah. On yellow line pads, sometimes in pencil, then I go from yellow line pads to a typewriter. I have an old computer –
Jones: It’s like, this big, right?
Talese: Yeah it’s as big as a Volkswagen – the advantage is I can erase very easily. I’ve succumbed to the technology to that point. I don’t have to get my little crummy eraser that falls down into the typewriter and clogs up the roller. This is better.
Jones: A lot of your process seems to be designed to slow you down. The reporting is intensive, the writing it seems like you give yourself time to think, the longhand forces you to slow down. Do you think that’s important to how your stories come out?
Talese: I think it is. I think it’s necessary. Maybe every writer in this room or aspiring writer wishes we had been more productive, wishes we’d been more prolific. I say that and I’ve said that, but I don’t believe that. So you can’t believe what people say; that’s why the tape recorder’s no good.
Jones: I’m starting my career all over again.[laughter]
Talese: No, it’s just that we work as best we can. I want to do a couple of things. One, I want to do what the old gents who shaped me up for journalism at the New York Times told me you have to do, those old guys said, You’d better get it right. Get it right. Take the time, get it right. That hammered into me and it’s been there. I’m 79 and I hear it as I did when I was 21. Secondly, after you’ve gotten it right, then how [do] you go about communicating it to the reader? That’s where creativity takes its role in nonfiction: storytelling. We didn’t have terms like “narrative nonfiction” back then or “the New Journalism” or whatever Tom Wolfe called it – it isn’t that, but it is getting [it] right and then being a storyteller. And that means you have to have characters.
When I worked on the New York Times in the old days those guys that got it right weren’t necessarily lyrical figures in the world of literature – they were boring. They got it right but they were the paper-of-record people. And if you weren’t a dazzling stylist it didn’t make a bit of difference; in fact they suspected anything that might be called a stylist in those days. I would read the Herald Tribune in my free time and see the freedom they had – it was a sinking newspaper, I think it went out of business in the mid-‘60s, but Jimmy Breslin and Tom Wolfe and those other guys were really having a lot of fun. I wasn’t having a lot of fun at the Times because there was the pressure of the editors and the tradition of the paper to get it right, and anything that was of a style was suspect: You’re piping it, you’re faking it, you’re writing fiction. And I was accused of writing fiction. I never did write fiction, but I was accused by some people on the New York Times: the old-fashioned traditional guys that I respected but didn’t want to emulate in any way because they were so boring. But I wanted to be a reporter and a story writer like some of those great short stories that I used to read.
I go about it now as I did then, so I haven’t changed. You asked me when we had a cup of coffee, How about your physical bearing, does age, you asked something along the lines of, Does age matter? I don’t think I’ve learned anything in terms of technique; it’s as hard now as it was for me then. The only thing that would matter to me because of my age is if I couldn’t travel.
Jones: If you couldn’t be there.
Talese: If I couldn’t be there. Then I’d have to get a job teaching at the Nieman school or someplace. Will you have me?[laughter]
Jones: The part of the writing process that no one ever seems to talk about is the release of it. At some point you let it go to your editor and then to readers. A lot of writers – don’t take offense to this but you have received criticism sometimes for your work, even work that later became beloved – obviously you work so hard on something. How do you deal with criticism? I’m thinking with the Internet, it’s a bad time for self-esteem. Like, do you sort of say to yourself, Well I wrote “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” so you can suck it? What’s your defense mechanism?
Talese: I didn’t write for The New Yorker until recent years, but I knew the writers a long time ago. One of them was A.J. Liebling. When I was a sportswriter I’d go to prizefights and I’d meet A.J. Liebling of The New Yorker and I’d meet Norman Mailer and George Plimpton – all those persons that I met [were] not at the PEN Club but at the prizefights. And Irwin Shaw, I got to know him, too. They told me they were rejected often by The New Yorker. So Irwin Shaw would be turned down, and the story would wind up in another magazine. So you have to, as a writer, even if you have a certain stature or familiarity with the people who are your editors or bosses, they may turn you down. And I’ve had that. I’ve had that. That’s one thing you have to deal with.
And of course criticism is very hard, but on the other hand particularly we in journalism are so accustomed to being critical and not at all to being criticized. I mean journalists are too thin-skinned.
I don’t have an agent for magazine pieces because there’s no money in it. So I pitch ideas, and since I used to write for Esquire a lot back in the ‘60s and ‘70s – I had an idea about three or four years ago, when the new guy went in, the guy you work for, David Granger, and I called him up and I said I wanted to know if I could do a piece that I’d written in the 1960s. In the 1960s there was this great movie star, Peter O’Toole. I was sent to London and later to Ireland to follow him around – it was a great experience because he was one of the most intelligent persons I’ve ever met in my life. The most fun I’ve ever had was interviewing Peter O’Toole. I think it was published in ’63. Then around 2003 or ’4 or ’5 O’Toole had been in some minor role – any great actor later on does character roles as his or her time as a superstar as over – and I thought I’d like to go back and do another story on Peter O’Toole.
Here’s Gay Talese 50 years later, and I had saved all my notes. I save my notes for everything – I have them on file – so I could easily go back and get my notes. And I pitched the idea to the editor of Esquire. He wasn’t interested. I thought, That shit, he should’ve given me a chance. The point is, you are never so remote from rejection. And what do you do about it? Well I didn’t do anything about it. Because what can you do? It wasn’t a great idea, but it was a pretty good idea because any serious journalist, whether you’re a magazine writer or a book writer, should know the story never ends. You can always revisit your past work – enrich it, extend it. There might be something interesting to say about that subject, that person.
I’ve revisited many subjects, even the books. I once wrote a book about the building of the Verrazano Bridge. It was published in 1964. Took me three years to do it. I was still working for the Times. Did it in my spare time. Then in 2003 someone wanted to reprint the book, some small publishing company – it wasn’t a bestseller, it was a nice little book about this bridge construction. I said, I want to go back and interview some of the people who might still be alive, those hard-hat-wearing people working at high altitudes to build bridges, swinging from the cables, all that stuff. So I go back in 2003 and there are about 25 people still alive, and a few are still working in high-altitude construction. And a few of them told me, said, After we finished that bridge in ’64 we went and built the World Trade Center. I said, Well Jesus how did you feel when the thing went down in about two hours in 2001? And one guy said, I wasn’t surprised; it was a piece of junk we built. The World Trade Center was constructed, one guy told me in so many words, like a birdcage. What they did, they wanted maximum rentable space in those two buildings, and they didn’t care about solid construction. They said, When we built the bridge those terrorists bombs could hit the bridge and bounce off like butterflies. He said, Even the construction of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, those planes wouldn’t have gone crashing through the Empire State Building, they would’ve hit it but they wouldn’t go through it and knock the thing down. So they were saying. This was interesting. So I wrote about this in this new edition.
Every story you write, you can do that. There’s a new development and sometimes a learning experience as well.
Jones: Something instructive about your work is your touch with minor characters. They’re often the best sources in your material – the wisdom of the flunky or the insight that you get from the guy who just hangs around. Sometimes when you’re writing about someone famous in particular I imagine the best stuff is from the people –
Talese: That absolutely is true, absolutely is true. They’re minor in the sense of [not] being newsworthy – you can’t put them on the cover of a magazine, but they can be – I mean I think most of my work is about minor characters. It’s not about Sinatras but all those other people around them.
Jones: Like DiMaggio’s Lefty O’Doul.
Talese: Yeah Lefty O’Doul. And my whole book on the New York Times, there’s not a major character in that whole book. No such thing as a minor character. That’s what I learned from fiction. These fiction writers are really writing about people you never heard of, that’s what the magic –
Jones: Well because they’re invented, right? They have no history.
Talese: So if you get to know your characters well and introduce them with your writing well enough that the reader will identify with them, or at least have a sense of them through your skill as a writer and a reporter, you’ve achieved much of what a fiction writer does. You’re not creating or imagining anything but you’re getting so deep into the personality of the people you’re writing about that they take on the fictional characteristics, meaning they seem like the work of the imagination of the writer. If you’re a fair-minded journalist, [this] should not be part of anything except your efforts as a researcher and your skill with being descriptive without distorting anything.[Jones opens it up to questions.]
Q: Can you talk about establishing a level of trust with the people you cover? How do you handle the issue when you have material you know the person will not like?
Talese: If I learn things that might well be embarrassing … I discuss it.
Jones: You mean with the subject.
Talese: Yeah. When I spend so much time with people and this develops into a kind of friendship and they allow me to meet their family or go to their home or in this case go to Peoria with Girardi in mind, and if I learn from them that something in my judgment will bring discredit upon them – while I’m never writing with the endorsement of the people; I keep myself separate but I also know I’m not a separate person in the sense that I have a conscience about other people – I will tell them: This is what I heard. I’ll tell them, It might bring a lot of misunderstanding. So the question is, Did I understand you properly? And do you understand that if we use this there might be people who’ll want you to quit your job or will drive you out of office? I find that is a very good practice. Do I lose wonderful stuff? I don’t think I lose that much stuff. Because you know what you can do often? You can find another way of writing the same thing. And sometimes how well it’s written – whatever it is, however delicate, however potentially offensive it might be, if it’s written carefully, gracefully, that makes it clear without being bombastic, you can get away with it.
I’ll give you one example. When I was interviewing some of the New York Times people for the book “The Kingdom and the Power,” I remember I had an interview with an elderly man who used to be the publisher. His name was Arthur Hays Sulzberger. He is the grandfather of the guy that’s publisher now. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who was the publisher when I worked there, had a notorious reputation for being a womanizer. He was married to the boss’ daughter, Iphigene Ochs, who was the daughter of Adolf Ochs, who died in 1935 and left this daughter as the only heir, and she married Arthur Hays Sulzburger, who became the successor to the publisher of the New York Times. And even though he married well and owed his position to that marriage he also had one affair after another, and one was with a famous movie actress, Carole Lombard. Everybody knew it in the office. Well I’m interviewing him about a year before his death. He was in his home. His wife Iphigene wasn’t there, but there was a good-looking nurse that was catering to Mr. Sulzberger. Mr. Sulzberger was in a wheelchair and he had on this very wonderful silk robe, and he’s a handsome guy, looked like Fredric March, if you remember, the stylistic classic matinee idol grown older. And I’m talking to Mr. Sulzberger about the history of the paper and the nurse comes in with a pill. She carries this little tray and she gives him a glass of water and she’s got on a nice starched uniform, with beautiful – nice body, good hair, she’s slender, and young – and as he took the pill he’s looking at her all the way. I thought, That guy doesn’t give up. And I wanted to write that scene. The way I described it was, He had an eye for an ankle. That’s all you have to know. That’s all you need. So underwriting is always a good course to take if you want to do something like that, rather than insult an old letch, which he was.
Q: You mentioned earlier about Esquire in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. I’m curious about what you think of the evolution of Esquire.
Talese: I would like [Chris] to deal with that – I don’t mind talking about it, but I’m an outsider and I wouldn’t know – if you’re sincerely interested in the right answer, this is the better resource than me. What I think happened to magazines – much of society has become just smitten with celebrity, overwhelmingly obsessed with fame and celebrity. At newsstands you see lines of magazines and more than half of them have pictures of people you recognize because they’re all movie stars. So I think it must be very difficult for young people such as those here to write for magazines unless you’re writing about celebrity. I wouldn’t want to really write about these movie stars all the time, although some of them are probably interesting. My one experience was with Peter O’Toole but he was so special in terms of being intelligent, so it was a pleasure, dealing with him. I don’t know. Tell us if there’s any difference.
Jones: No, it’s hard. I wrote a story about Roger Ebert, which I worked really hard on, and we had a very dramatic portrait of Roger – he’d had cancer – I pushed really hard for [the portrait of his face] to be the cover. The hard truth is, if there isn’t a celebrity on the cover no one buys it. And that is just a fact of the business. But you do [celebrity profiles] so that you can do the 8,000-word piece on Roger Ebert. It’s like donuts and broccoli: You put the donuts at the front and the broccoli at the back, and the stuff that you’re really proud of is the stuff that’s at the back of the book. It’s a weird dance. Like Gay’s saying – if you put some of those great covers from the ‘60s, like the black Vietnam war cover or the Andy Warhol –
Jones: – or Muhammad Ali with arrows, no one’s picking up that magazine. It’s gotta have Lady Gaga on it.
Q: Good short stories with true names involve a lot of investment, and I wonder how you deal with that investment…
Talese: I just become not obsessed with it but very committed to doing all the research at whatever expense of time and travel. And sometimes it’s not worth it. I had an experience where I went to China once to write about a woman who was a soccer player, and I spent six months, and I couldn’t sell it to anybody. I tried sell it to Sports Illustrated because I knew the editor; I knew the owner. I couldn’t sell that story anywhere. I did put it in a book of mine. One thing about books, sometimes you can dump into a book that you couldn’t publish in a magazine. I wrote about that in “A Writer’s Life.”
Sometimes you can’t ever know what is worth what. In one way, years later [an unpublished story] will work out in a different way. I don’t think you’re ever wasting your time when you think you’re wasting your time. In one way I can say I waste a lot of time; it’s part of my occupation; I’m an occupational time waster because so much of what you do doesn’t immediately measure up. There’s a terrible expression: the bottom line. There’s no such thing. First of all you have to have belief that what you’re doing is important. And I thought that when I was a cub reporter. I really thought what I was doing was important. I thought, I am a reporter. And I worked for a very important institution, the New York Times. I’d be interviewing these people and some of them were powerful and famous and rich, and I never felt that what I was doing was inferior to what they were doing – in fact I felt what I was doing was superior because I thought, What I’m doing is trying to get the truth, and I’m talking to a bunch of liars. I mean these people are in professions that tolerate lies much more than journalism does. I’ve said this a dozen times but the pleasure and the honor and respect for the profession of journalism that I always had as a kid and have now even more so is because I was in the only occupation that tried not to lie. If you lie, you get kicked out. And the people who kick you out are your colleagues; it’s not somebody on high. You lie on any newspaper, I don’t care if it’s a great newspaper or a struggling newspaper, you’re probably gonna be thrown out. In the case of the Times when they had the super-liar Jayson Blair five or six years ago, not only does he get thrown out but they [also] threw out the top editors, both of them, and boy if that doesn’t bring pride to a journalist nothing will.
Jones: In journalism school you’re sometimes taught that objectivity is the goal. It’s horsecrap, because when you do the kind of work that Gay does or that I try to do, and you spend weeks or months with someone you’re going to form an opinion. What counts, I think, and I think Gay will agree with me, is not objectivity, it’s truth.
Talese: It’s truth.
Q: I was wondering how you go about determining the structure or organization of a piece, or if you wait till you start writing.
Talese: Sometimes it comes to you right away. For example, I mentioned the opera singer. When I went to Moscow in September of 2010, I think it was, when I went there I was going to see this opera singer so she could show me around her hometown. I had never been to Moscow. The news on the front page of all the newspapers at that particular time was that Moscow and much of Russia was not only experiencing a heat wave but there were [also] a lot of forest fires, and smog all through the city. The day before I was supposed to get on this plane to Moscow from New York the opera singer called and left a message and said, Don’t come, my throat hurts, I’m gonna get out of this town. I didn’t listen; I just went anyway. I wanted to go. When I got there, the plane was landing and I could smell from the altitude, I could smell the smoke. I landed and I had a cab drive me to the hotel, and I made a phone call telling her I’d arrived. She said, I’m sorry you came.
The next day she did come to the hotel and said, I have to get out of here because I’m suffering so much and I collapsed last night – so she started complaining and said she collapsed. And I thought, This is the story. Here it is, the opera singer who is choked by the smog and collapsed. I asked her to describe it and not only describe it, I said, Can I go to your house? So she took me to her mother’s apartment, and I had her go through the whole scene. And she said the night before she’d fallen on the floor and her mother tried to help her and there was no ice because the electricity had gone out in the apartment, and she said she had a chilled bottle of white wine that was still cool. And she said she put this chilled bottle of wine under her neck, and I thought, This is the opening scene, and it was the opening scene.
In the case of the opera singer it’s recreated, but I was at the place where she collapsed, in a bedroom in the central part of Moscow. In the Sinatra case he’s got a cold and is feeling bad and there’s a scene in the pool room where he’s in a confrontation. So getting the idea of how to begin – I’m sure [Chris] could give examples as well, but you’re just there. You have to see it. And you have to think in terms of scenes. It’s just like a film director – when you go to a movie there’s an opening scene and a second scene and a third scene. I once met Francis Coppola when he was doing a film called “Tucker,” about the maker of automobiles. I met Francis Coppola largely through my wife’s familiarity with his wife, Eleanor Coppola, and when I was in California we were guests at Coppola’s house and he was making “Tucker,” and he showed me how he was making this film, with 3-by-5 cards going across his big bulletin boards. And that’s the way I write magazine pieces. But these scenes are something that you have to recognize, as I recognized the pool scene with Sinatra or the collapsed opera singer in Moscow. Those must sometimes be researched – you have to do some work describing the place, describing the situation, asking for a recollection of what was said if you didn’t hear it yourself. I heard it in the case of Sinatra but in the case of Marina Poplavskaya I didn’t hear anything she said. She said she told her mother such and such and her mother said such and such, and she picked up the phone and called her boyfriend. I got it from Maria herself, and I went over it again and again.
Q: On the same note, you don’t outline.
Talese: Is he talking to you?
Jones: He’s talking to me.
Talese: Go ahead.
Jones: Do you want to have a fight?[laughter]
Talese: No, tell us how you do it. The question is, How do you outline? And you don’t outline. How come?
Jones: In the 70th anniversary of Esquire “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” was named the best story that was in the magazine, ever. Esquire published a little booklet that included the story and also included pictures of your shirt boards with your outline, and if you haven’t seen Gay’s outlines they’re like maps to Narnia – there’s arrows and lists and diagrams. And I remember looking at that and thinking, I’m doing it wrong. Because I don’t outline. I use my memory as my edit. If I remember it then it’s an important scene. And if I remember the details of that scene that’s what counts. I don’t think there’s any one way to do this. I hope there isn’t, because if so one of us is wrong. [But] it can be both ways, [right]?
Talese: It can be.
Jones: It’s whatever process works for you. I just have to ask, when was the first time you wrote on a shirt board?
Talese: When I was a reporter at the New York Times – shirt boards have been around longer than I have, people throw them away – they’re trash in most people’s estimation. When I first started there were no tape recorders and reporters carried rolled up copy paper, and I found the copy papers too floppy. And there were also notepads, but the notepads I didn’t like because they had wire and it would always get caught on the inside of my jacket. So shirt boards were perfect because it slips right out and they’re smaller than a pad, and no little wire to catch. Here [removes shirt boards from breast pocket of suit] I have enough for a magazine piece, at least for one day’s work.
Q: I’m a Nieman fellow, and a number of us in [Williams’ Narrative Writing] class [at the Nieman Foundation] – and I should say I’m a news reporter, so narrative is quite strange to me – we had a big discussion about the very ending of “Frank Sinatra” where you describe Sinatra stopping at a red light and he sees a girl in the sidewalk, and their eyes meet. We wondered how you did that because the whole story is about you looking at him from afar because he didn’t actually agree to be interviewed. So were you in the car with him or were you standing on the sidewalk or did you make it up?
Talese: No, I talked to the woman and she described what she saw. The piece on Joe DiMaggio was the same sort of thing – he looks through a window and sees a blonde outside a fisherman’s wharf. Well I did see that blonde. It was near the restaurant that DiMaggio at that time owned. He’s looking out the window and I saw him and I saw her, and I recreated that. It’s not hard to do.
Q: I was wondering how you decide how much of yourself to put into a story.
Talese: Sometimes I feel you have to put first person because you have to explain – sometimes you’re the only witness to what you’re writing about. The opera singer, I use first person in explaining to the reader how, since I was trying to write about an opera singer on the road and how difficult it is sometimes to get from place to place, going from opera to opera, having to book her own flight and pick up her luggage and get a taxi cab to go here and there, just the general process of being both a performer and a traveler, I felt I had to write about my experience because I was with her, and I was witnessing her growing angry at what was going on around her. She’s not a volatile person but a person who doesn’t suppress her disappointment, if not her anger; she can let you know if things aren’t going well. I had to say what I saw. I remember one time she was so angry at this hotel management that she decided to change hotels, and when the porter wouldn’t take her luggage on a trolley across the street she took the trolley and pushed that damn thing herself across the large boulevard, over the little train tracks. I watched that. I write about that. Other times I think you get in the way. The reader doesn’t want to read about you unless you’re central to the story.
Jones: You also use third person though, right? In DiMaggio you used “the man.”
Talese: That’s right! That’s interesting. DiMaggio threw me out of the restaurant. And I didn’t write “me” because if I had written in first person in the beginning of that article I’d almost be stuck with myself and then I had little [role] to play in that article except in the beginning. What the beginning was about, I had shown up uninvited at the DiMaggio restaurant. I thought I had his okay to talk to him. I wrote to him and I thought he said, Come out. And we had him being offended that I showed up without getting final clearance from him. He wanted me to leave, and I did leave, but I just said “some man from New York” [was asked to leave]. I wanted to be a diminished person. I wanted the eye of the reader, the camera, to be always on him. And I leave, as I’d been told I should. So I left. I go back to the parking lot. I had a rented car. I was going to go back to my hotel and think about what to do, because I’d lost the story. Then I was surprised that a car comes up and stops and the window goes down, and this man that turns out to be Joe DiMaggio, who’d just thrown me out, says, Do you have a car? I said yes. He says, Oh. I would’ve given you a ride. And he drives off. What a stupid comment, Oh yes I have a car; I should’ve said, No I don’t have a car. But that was the end of it. Sometimes the voice that you establish in a piece – and every piece has a voice, every writer has a voice, I have a voice – but sometimes it’s a bit muted and sometimes it’s a little bit bold and – it’s your choice what kind of color you use, what kind of shading you use. What about you?
Jones: I try not to be in stories. I once wrote a story about my dad and tried not to be in it, which is not possible. But I don’t like it as a – Granger sent us an email a couple months ago saying first person was killing narrative and he wanted us not to be in stories anymore. Because it was kind of default – I don’t know if it’s the blogging age or, especially with celebrity stories you think, Well the celebrity’s not interesting so let’s talk about me.
Q: Besides Chris, what other journalists do you get excited reading?
Talese: There’s a wonderful person named Jon Lee Anderson, he writes wonderfully for The New Yorker about foreign affairs.
Q: Are there any mistakes or inaccuracies in your stories that you’d be willing to admit to?
Talese: Let me think. You know, I’ve been lucky. If I made a mistake I caught it in time, or someone caught it for me. When I was working at the New York Times I just lived in fear of making a mistake because there would be a correction. I never had that dubious distinction of being mentioned in the correction column. As I told you, when I first joined the paper those old guys who were my high priests of journalism said, You’ve got to get it right. So what that meant, I was always worried I would get it wrong. I didn’t want to be in a correction column. Sometimes running scared is not a bad thing.
Q: How do you write about someone you just don’t like?
Talese: If you don’t like them or more important if you don’t respect them I don’t write about them. I remember one time I spent a year and a half with a person, Lee Iacocca. He had been fired by Ford and taken on by Chrysler, and was bringing that motor company back from almost bankruptcy – there was a lot of government bailouts back in the 1980s – and I hung out with him from 1981 to 1982. And you know, I just didn’t feel that I wanted after all that time I spent and all the money I spent on travel, I didn’t feel that I could do that job. Because I didn’t feel I could identify with him. I had written about notorious people I respected – I’d hung out with the mafia, killers – and I’d written about all these pornographers in “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” and I respected them on their own terms, and here’s a distinguished man of the business world, the automobile business, and it wasn’t that I disliked him – I admired him – but I felt the story wasn’t something I could get my heart into. And I just dropped out. He went on to write his own book and he made a fortune. Maybe as [Chris] said, maybe I like minor characters better. [Iacocca] was a very compelling and driven and successful person but for some reason there’s something about that character and that situation that I could not identify with.
Jones: If you don’t care about it, you’re not gonna do your best.
Talese: That’s right.
Jones: You have to put so much into it.
Talese: And so you do. It’s so hard.
Jones: You can’t fake heart. It’s either there or it’s not.
Talese: That’s right. That’s right.
Q: You have these extensive files – can you talk about this need that you have to [document] your life and stories?
Talese: The lady refers to how I document the notes from articles and books and all that stuff I saved. I not only save it but I’ve organized it in chronological order from 1945 through 2011, and, if I should live another year, 2012. When I say save, I mean I save everything. I save letters from everybody. I save rejection slips. My wife and I have been married 52 years and I have almost every note she’s every written – it might be Why didn’t you take out the dog earlier? He pooped all over the rug. And I date it, and I know the name of the dog, and I file it. I have a basement, what used to be an old wine cellar, and I have dozens and dozens and dozens of filing cabinets, and it’s all in order, day by day, month by month, year by year, and the years are big signs telling you what year you’re in. About four or five years ago I thought, There is a story. [People often ask],What’s your next book?, and sometimes I know and sometimes I don’t know, and sometimes I start a book like the Chrysler story and I don’t finish it, and now I’m working, and have for the last two or three years, on a book on a 50-year marriage, my own. I was married in 1959. And I have a written record of that. For example when my wife, [Nan], writes a letter of complaint – it might be the dog or something else or You were just awful last night to me and maybe we should stop going out – I not only save that but I answer that letter to myself. I write: This letter was written after we went out to Elaine’s restaurant and one of Nan’s authors was there and Nan will say, How could you have been so disrespectful, and I’ll say, I’m sick and tired of being the husband of this editor. I’m writing to myself but I’m giving background to the letter, and in my mind I’m thinking there’s history in minor characters, and I’m one of them, and my wife’s another one. And I’ve done this all my life. And so now I’m thinking, For half a century these two people have lived in the same building in the middle of Manhattan, and it’s a story. It’s a story of a building, number one, and it’s been the same building from 1959 to 2011, so far. And within this are two people, and these two people have an interaction, have an exchange of letters and exchange of ideas and an exchange of venom, at times, and fury, and yet they remain under the same roof, officially married and technically married and personally married and not always happy about it. This is the story of a marriage.
And it’s not only the story of those two people in that building, wife and husband, but also the people who’ve come in and out of that building, guests who’ve stayed sometimes. For example, much of the time we didn’t have enough money, so much of the time since we had this building that I rented floors in and later became an owner of – in 1972 I bought this building because I had a couple of dollars left over from the bestseller on the New York Times, and I bought the building. But prior to that I rented apartments. One time I rented for two years to William Styron. I had three apartments and I could only afford two, and I sublet to Styron. He’s dead now, you know, but in those days his wife and children lived in Roxbury, Connecticut, but he liked to get away for a couple of days and have a pied-à-terre. My wife worked at Random House, and Styron worked at Random House, and thus we rented the apartment. During that two-year period he was writing “Confessions of Nat Turner,” and at night he would come down and read to us, Nan and myself, and our children were still at the time in the house then. We’d have dinner and sometimes we’d go out. Sometimes [Styron] would give the key to other people. One time he gave the key to the separated wife of Philip Roth, and she had a cat. My dear friend David Halberstam, with whom I had a falling out for 10 years and then we got back to being great friends again, he’s a character. So this building is like a stage, like a theater. Walk-ons, walk-offs, periods, and the Vietnam war, protesting in New York – I remember Halberstam and my wife Nan and myself and our daughter Pamela would be marching on Fifth Avenue in the parade against the war, and I remember Halberstam was still on the Times – he’d yet to win the Pulitzer – I remember he took off his press card when he was in the parade, because he shouldn’t have been. A lot of other people could be in this. So what is it? It’s a chronology, it’s a chronicle, it’s a nonfiction novel, it’s a story. About a building and a marriage.
Jones: I don’t like to judge people, but your file system is strange I think.[laughter]
Talese: It is strange! But you know what it is? You have a sense of yourself and you have a sense of being someone looking at yourself. And I can’t quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I think he said something to the degree that as a writer he had a sense of where he was and a sense of seeing himself from afar, and seeing himself where he was, this kind of prismatic sense of self: you turn and get different lights, different angles. Maybe sometimes it helps, being a foreigner in a way. My father was a foreigner from Italy, and I was always feeling that I was a half of a foreigner because when I was born World War II was going on and Italy was the enemy. I always felt as if I was divided as a person, and that was the perfect attitude to have as a journalist because you had a sense of being something different than what you were, you weren’t sure who you were. And sometimes through the characters you write or the people you interview you’re always looking for, How am I different from that person? Am I different? There’s always that curiosity being indulged because the curiosity is propelled by being an outsider. If you’re an outsider you’re the perfect journalist. You can’t be an insider. You have to really be an outsider, should be an outsider.
*Thanks to The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin for her clever caption to a photo of Talese’s visit to Harvard.
For more, see our post of Chris Jones’ talk with this year’s Nieman fellows.
Photo of Gay Talese and Chris Jones by Jonathan Seitz.