Whether or not the good-natured, gentile 74-year-old will admit it, Gay Talese, like Tom Wolfe, is a founder of what many call "New Journalism." Rather than relaying the Five Ws (who, what, where, when, why) and rote facts, Talese's nonfiction utilizes narrative drive, lyrical descriptions and immersion reporting. Since his first job after graduating from the University of Alabama, working at The New York Times for nine years, Talese has solidified his reputation in both magazines (Esquire called his 1966 piece "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" the best story it ever published) and books, such as his infamous portrayal of a Mafia family, Honor Thy Father.
A Writer's Life, his first book in 14 years, chronicles his misses, failed attempts and relentless pursuit of his next big story. Talese—married to Nan A. Talese, an editor at Random House (whose own imprint oversaw James Frey's A Million Little Pieces)—spoke to WW about the many faces of fact and fiction in his suite at the Heathman Hotel, where he was staying before reading at Powell's earlier this month.
WW: How do you remain objective after you've spent so much time with people?
Gay Talese: I'm not a little marshmallow—I'm a person who has very strong opinions. It's not so much what you say, it's how you say it that matters most. If you use your judgment in terms of the language—and you find a way to say something that is fully understood by the reader, and also written with care, a flair, elegance, using the language with the high standards you're capable of—you can say things that would not, perhaps, be received as well by some blunt instrument that some tactless and insufficiently talented writer or critic would advance. In all my work, I always cared about that—about being subtle, not banging people over the head with your point of view, and certainly not chopping up people when it's not necessary, [and] gentility, artful use of language, understatement.
Even though your new book isn't strictly a memoir, many critics have said that you gloss over aspects of your own life.
People criticize, 'Oh, he didn't tell enough about himself in this book.' I don't want to tell you about things that I'm not at liberty to discuss.... I didn't interview them as you're interviewing me now. After you've been married for 20 years, and you know all you know not because of the ground rules of interviewing, writing about that is violating the ethics of the rules of the game!
Which would be....
When you're interviewing someone, it's understood. I'll pull out my little group of cards and take my pen out. I want to be sure that we know I'm writing. That's the ethical way to deal with people. Others might just talk to people, get the information and not let people know they're going to use it. Then suddenly, there it is, in public print. That's not dignified; that's not fair; and that's not the way I work.
I hate to ask you about James Frey, but I'll do it, anyway.
I hate to go on the road knocking him—but I will. James Frey is insignificant. So many other people—like Jayson Blair, the New York Times liar; this Harvard novelist [Kaavya Viswanathan] who plagiarized a book—there are always these short-cutters, liars, exaggerators. They've always been there, and they always will be. I'm just glad they got caught; so many don't get caught. My wife believed James Frey...maybe she should have been more disbelieving. But she believed that he was telling an honest story. People say, 'Those book publishers have to do a better job of checking before the public receives those lies!' The New York Times had a lot of editors, and Jayson Blair wrote 30 stories or more. How come all those editors didn't check it?
What do you think has been the biggest impact of the abundance of sources—like the Internet and TV—on journalism?
Deadlines, the desire to get the story out first. Everyone wants to break the news, but at what cost? Look at the story about the miners [in West Virginia, who were first reported to be alive, then confirmed dead hours later]—everyone got it wrong because they wanted to scoop the other sources. I am not interested in the ephemera—I am interested in writing things that will last.