The son of Italian immigrants grew up in a house where there were virtually no books. In the small, World War II-era town of Ocean City, N.J., Gay Talese spent afternoons listening to plump ladies with deep pockets tell stories from across the counter of his mother’s dress shop.
They were talking about the war, their ailments, what they were fixing for dinner; telling stories about their soldier sons landing on the beaches of Salerno. They were minor characters, unimportant people who wouldn’t merit a news obit in their hometown rag.
But to the young man who would go on to become what Pulitzer-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson described at Boston University’s narrative conference as “the closest we get in our field to God,” the customers of his mother’s dress shop were a revelation.
“They gave voice to the community. . . and you were getting the echoings of the major events of the day. And I thought, ‘By God, these are stories!’ ”
Ordinary characters are the soul of the 78-year-old writer’s work. They were the lifeblood of his Esquire magazine piece, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” considered one of the greatest profiles of the 20th century. It was authored without the subject’s input and made all the better for it because Sinatra’s entourage offered up a more nuanced version of the singer’s truth.
Talese himself was anything but a minor character when he sauntered into the conference Friday to deliver the opening keynote of the university’s 2010 narrative writing powwow—clad in a lime-green tie and a slender khaki suit, handmade by members of his still-tailoring family. He began by pulling his version of a Reporter’s Notebook from his jacket pocket: several five-inch strips of cardboard, which he hand-cuts from recycled shirt boards, carefully rounding the ends.
It was one of the many trade tools he shared during his talk, which veered elegantly between nitty-gritty how-to tips and big-picture inspiration:
• On how to land a job at The New York Times at the age of 21: Talese presented himself to then-managing editor Turner Catledge unannounced, with the only the name of a distant cousin to recommend him. But he was polite and he wore a nice suit and, within weeks, he found himself fetching sandwiches and coffee for the editors as a copy boy. Three weeks later The Times published his first story—a profile of the man who wrote out the newspaper’s headlines in lights on the exterior of a Times Square tower.
The lesson being: “You have to show up in journalism—not by being impolite. . . but by being there rather than e-mailing or making phone calls or whatever the technology of the day is. You start by looking in people’s faces, whether you’re looking for a job, or a story, or [to learn] what’s inside them. No shortcuts.
“Stories are everywhere. All you need is curiosity, the ability to approach strangers and to sell yourself.”
• Being there, part II, which Talese refers to as the art of hanging out. Not unlike dating, the journalist-subject relationship is built on the development of mutual trust, respect and fairness—not exploitation or betrayal and never, ever by telling lies. All of which takes time, patience and a demeanor of sincere curiosity. “If you’re really interested in people, they look at your eyes and they can tell. You can’t fake that.”
• Leave the tape recorder at home. An honorable narrative journalist is looking for the truth of what the subject is trying to say, not the often-garbled, word-for-word replay. If a subject says something that startles him, he parrots it back by asking: What I’m hearing is this. Do you really mean this? “Sometimes I lose something juicy. But I don’t want something juicy; I want the closest I can get to the truth so the person is truly represented by my journalism.”
• On the power of empathy to navigate the fine line between journalistic intimacy and objectivity: For his 1971 book, Honor Thy Father, Talese spent seven years cultivating a relationship with a Mafioso who was desperate to talk to someone about the complicated role he inherited from his father.
“And here’s this Gay Talese who had a kind of sympathy for his situation. He didn’t know how to say no to his father, and yet he was comforted by his prestige. . . . So I had to be very careful.
“I never bludgeon people when I write about them; I don’t do hatchet jobs. There’s a way, with writing that is subtle and careful and thoughtful, to write about anything.”
• On those little shirt board cards: Talese uses them for note-taking, but he also literally draws scenes on them. “I try to think in scenes. Narrative journalism is really storytelling in pictures. So I think visually, and I want to start with a scene.”
He then writes his drafts in pencil, on a yellow-lined pad. “I rewrite a sentence four or fix, six times. . . until I think it’s the best sentence I can write. Then I write another sentence, then a paragraph. Five or six pages might take me a week.
“What I’m trying to do is, I want to achieve the greatest clarity with the minimum of words and the best scenes upon which I can project my prose style, which is understatement.”
One of his favorite stories, a piece about Muhammad Ali’s visit to Fidel Castro in Cuba, was done sans a single interview with Ali. Talese focused on the minor characters surrounding him instead, beginning with a scene featuring Ali’s close friend being hustled by a Yugoslav cigar-seller from the back of a Toyota, with a throng of winking prostitutes looking on.
“You’ve got capitalism in the back of a Toyota in communist Cuba. It’s about Ali, but it’s not.”
It all goes back to the plump ladies who frequented his mother’s store. “They gave me the belief that minor characters can be major, depending on what you do with them.”
Beth Macy is a 2010 Nieman Fellow for Journalism at Harvard. She blogs at intrepidpapergirl.com.