A Writer's Life
by Gay Talese
A Life Spent Chasing Stories
A review by Erik Spanberg
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
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
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
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.
News, Culture, and 21 FREE issues
The Christian Science
Monitor offers independent, thoughtful journalism, together with stimulating cultural criticism. This award-winning newspaper is hard to find at
newsstands. But you can get the entire paper weekdays in a convenient PDF, with a hyperlinked table of contents. The Monitor Treeless Edition costs only $8 a month, half the cost of a print subscription, and now you can try it free for one month.
Find out more about this special offer.