Synopses & Reviews
The inner workings of a writer's life, the interplay between experience and writing, are brilliantly recounted by a master of the art. Gay Talese now focuses on his own life the zeal for the truth, the narrative edge, the sometimes startling precision, that won accolades for his journalism and best-sellerdom and acclaim for his revelatory books about The New York Times
(The Kingdom and the Power
), the Mafia (Honor Thy Father
), the sex industry (Thy Neighbor's Wife
), and, focusing on his own family, the American immigrant experience (Unto the Sons
How has Talese found his subjects? What has stimulated, blocked, or inspired his writing? Here are his amateur beginnings on his college newspaper; his professional climb at The New York Times; his desire to write on a larger canvas, which led him to magazine writing at Esquire and then to books. We see his involvement with issues of race from his student days in the Deep South to a recent interracial wedding in Selma, Alabama, where he once covered the fierce struggle for civil rights. Here are his reflections on the changing American sexual mores he has written about over the last fifty years, and a striking look at the lives and their meaning of Lorena and John Bobbitt. He takes us behind the scenes of his legendary profile of Frank Sinatra, his writings about Joe DiMaggio and heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, and his interview with the head of a Mafia family.
But he is at his most poignant in talking about the ordinary men and women whose stories led to his most memorable work. In remarkable fashion, he traces the history of a single restaurant location in New York, creating an ethnic mosaic of one restaurateurafter the other whose dreams were dashed while a successor's were born. And as he delves into the life of a young female Chinese soccer player, we see his consuming interest in the world in its latest manifestation.
In these and other recollections and stories, Talese gives us a fascinating picture of both the serendipity and meticulousness involved in getting a story. He makes clear that every one of us represents a good one, if a writer has the curiosity to know it, the diligence to pursue it, and the desire to get it right.
Candid, humorous, deeply impassioned a dazzling book about the nature of writing in one man's life, and of writing itself.
"According to Talese, 'Writing is often like driving a truck at night without headlights, losing your way along the road, and spending a decade in a ditch.' Reading his first substantially new publication since 1992's Unto the Sons is like being in the passenger seat of that truck while it's in motion. Talese begins with a World Cup women's match between China and the United States; the game gives him a story idea, which he then abandons for roughly 300 pages for elegant digressions on, among other things, the civil rights demonstrations in Selma, the Lorena Bobbitt controversy and a string of flopped restaurants in an Upper East Side building. Somehow, he also works in a memoir of his early life, including perfectly etched memories of the New York Times newsroom (without directly reflecting on his prominence as one of the first New Journalists). This sort of thing can drag for long stretches unless you're willing to simply follow along as Talese pursues his impulses wherever they lead him. No matter how frustrating it is as memoir, though, this is a near-perfect expression of Talese's inquisitive personality, an inquisitiveness that has led to some of the outstanding journalism of the past few decades. 150,000 first printing. (Apr. 25) " Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A Writer's Life will do nothing to diminish Talese's legacy, but this new book is harder to categorize than his previous work....Even with the passage of time these reported pieces in A Writer's Life remain fresh and compelling." Chicago Sun-Times
"Given the cultural significance of many of Talese's works...as examples of long-form nonfiction and of a particular kind of journalism, this memoir serves as an important addition to his writings." Library Journal
"Talese fans, language lovers, and anyone who takes pleasure in the company of an engaging conversationalist will be drawn to this work." Booklist
"Talese shows in an amiably digressive way that this writer's life has comprised not just celebrity and success, but many false starts, failures and frustrations." Kirkus Reviews
"In a memoir-obsessed moment like ours, when tell-all sometimes means exaggerated or condensed 'truth' that truly isn't, Talese's memoir is remarkable. Expect no groveling self-exposure and only limited, albeit explosive, self-analysis." Portland Oregonian
"Mr. Talese's life occupies only 80 pages or so of this 430-page book. The rest merely clears the files of four beloved projects that didn't turn out as he had hoped.... Had Mr. Talese's publisher succeeded in extracting an actual memo" Wall Street Journal
"Throughout his career, Talese has agonized over finding the best voice for telling the story....Talese eventually reached an uneasy peace with first person so that he could complete A Writer's Life. He is probably the better for it." Dallas-Ft. Worth Star Telegram
"Talese became a notable journalist for his ability to capture a person....Not surprisingly, the best writing in A Writer's Life is not about Talese himself, but rather the people around him, the fellow writers, editors and night owls, an occasional gangster, and a good many restaurateurs." Newsday
"A Writer's Life is only a failed book, not a failed life. One hopes that Talese has purged himself, and can start anew, with a fresh story he's passionate about telling honestly and clearly. And maybe stew a little less, and write a little faster." New York Times
"[A] work defined by Talese's elegant, erudite writing and marked by his lifelong (and often wayward) pursuit of disparate story threads....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." Erik Spanberg, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire Christian Science Monitor review
About the Author
Gay Talese was a reporter for The New York Times from 1956 to 1965. Since then he has written for the Times, Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and other national publications. He is the author of eleven books. He lives with his wife, Nan, in New York City.
Q: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
A: My dream was at first based on a practical possibility, which was not so much to be a “writer” but rather to become what seemed to be within reach for me as a teenager: I wanted to become, if I was lucky, a sportswriter; perhaps (if I was even luckier) a sports columnist! This dream was soon surpassed after I got my first job as a New York Times sportswriter in 1956. After a year or so, I didn’t want to be a sportswriter any more; I wanted to be a “general assignment” reporter, not just limited to sports subjects. Two years later, I wanted to be a magazine writer (more space, more time for each assignment). After five years on the Times’ general staff, I wanted to get out of journalism entirely, to write books—short books, at first, then (beginning in 1969) such long efforts as The Kingdom and the Power, which was about the men and women I knew when I was a young reporter at the Times. In 1969 I didn’t think I was young any longer; I was 35 in fact—ancient. Since then, from 1969 to the present, I’ve just wanted to write books. I’m 74. I’m still trying to make each new book better than the one before. I guess I’ll be trying to do this until I’m relocated to a new zip code in distant space.
Q: Tell us about how you write. Do you write longhand? Use a computer?
A: I write longhand, at first. I rewrite each sentence dozens of times, hoping with each rewrite to improve upon the rhythm, flow, and balance of the phrases, the exactness, the precision, the sense of ease in my efforts. It is never easy for me to write anything. I perhaps make it more difficult than I should; but I think that good things (good sentences, good chapters, good books) are not supposed to be easy attainments. I do not think that writers should necessarily enjoy the act of writing. It is okay to enjoy the completed work, the finished book; but when you’re actually producing a book, writing each page, day after day, year after year, I believe it should be torture. I think that bleeding over each page is normal, or should be considered normal. Writers are enslaved to their work. The reader should enjoy the act of reading a book—for the reader, it should be like eating a box of chocolates; for the writer, the act of writing should be a suffering experience, all consuming and dedicated to doing the very best work they’re capable of doing, and to achieve this “best” level is not, I repeat, akin to having fun. I just hate it when I hear athletes saying on television that their mission is to “just go out there and have fun.” These athletes (earning millions a year) are not supposed to be OUT THERE HAVING FUN! They’re supposed to be seeking perfection, fulfilling the highest expectations of the fans—and of the athletes themselves. I never heard Michael Jordan saying, “I’m having fun.” Jordan was an artist. DiMaggio (not a “fun” fellow) was an artist. Ted Williams was an artist (breaking bats against the water cooler when he struck out; spitting at the fans when they booed him)—yes, no barrel of laughs was Ted Williams. But he was a great artist, he was a Caravaggio (the latter having murdered somebody, leading him into exile in the southern Italian hill country). Hell of a painter, Caravaggio.
Do I use a computer? No, not much. I move my longhand writing to a typewriter, then, at the end, I do use a computer like a typewriter. The only thing I like about the computer is the ease with which I can correct typos. I never begin writing on a computer, however. I want to “feel” the words as I put them on paper with the pointed edge of a sharply pointed pencil.
Q: Where do you write? Describe the setting.
A: I write in a private basement, beneath my townhouse; I call this workspace the “bunker.” It is reachable through a private door. There is no doorbell, no windows. There is no telephone, either. I go down there to work seven days a week—from 8:30 a.m. until 1 p.m., usually—and then I take the afternoon off to waste time, go to the gym, stroll through the park, whatever. At 5 p.m. or so, I return to the “bunker” and work an hour or two more; then I go out to a restaurant, or dine at home, with my wife—beginning it all with a dry gin martini.
Q: What are the things on your desk or in your office that you couldn’t live without?
A: Pencils and paper (and ideas banging around in my head).
Q: What (if any) is the best advice anyone ever gave you about writing/becoming a writer?
A: I never received any useful advice. All the writers I spoke to, or vaguely knew, lied to me. They said writing can be “fun.” Or is “fun.” It is not fun, as I said—it is blood-letting.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
A: Realize, first of all, that there are probably more writers than readers in America, and that to be a writer is a risky profession. You may not find readers, a publisher, or even an agent. Writers must be determined people. Writers must believe that they are writing because nothing else in the world matters more to them than getting their ideas and vision of life on a printed page. In order to become a good writer I believe that it is necessary to read good writers, the best writers, and aspire to the standards set by the best writers. Although I myself dreamed of becoming a journalist, I was reading fine fiction writers all the time I was working as a young newsman. It was the literary works of the nation’s best writers (and such foreign writers as Camus, Tolstoy, and García Márquez) that drew me to the dream of becoming a writer someday.
Q: Any specific advice for getting over writer’s block?
A: Writer’s block, as I explained or suggested in A Writer’s Life, can be a positive quality in a writer. Again paraphrasing myself from my book, writer’s block can be a sign of good taste—a writer’s decision to NOT write may be preferable to writing and being published. Too much bad writing is being published, I do believe. Better that writers impose a blockade on their product—write less, write not at all, or write only what you think is your best work. All that does not measure up to one’s highest standard should be put aside, tossed into the trashcan.
Q: Who are some of the writers who have most influenced you?
A: Since I matriculated at the University of Alabama, it was Southern writers whom I first began to read. William Faulkner was probably the first, although while a freshman and sophomore at college, I was also reading the novels and short stories of John O’Hara, Irwin Shaw, John Cheever, and, of course (my favorite), F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Hemingway was never among my favorite writers.) During the 1960s, to be sure, I—along with most of my generation—fell in love with the work of J.D. Salinger.