He was wearing a three-piece, olive green, wool blend suit, and, casually placed atop a table, was his patterned silk scarf and hat. Gay Talese is not exactly a household name, but in the world of writers he is very well known. As I sat listening to the famed journalist in conversation with Max Linsky of Longform.org, at an October 10 event at NYU, I found myself scribbling as fast as the words came out of his mouth.
Without further scene setting, here are 10 things I learned that Mr. Talese noted would land me a job at The New York Times. (Mr. Talese, from your mouth to their ears.)
1. Pursue Your Curiosity.
In his essay, “Origins of a Nonfiction Writer,” Talese writes of his “eavesdropping youth” spent in his mother’s dress shop, which was “a kind of talk show that flowed around the engaging manner of my mother.” This notion of curiosity is seen in the minor characters –– the ordinary people –– he championed throughout his career, as in “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” where the entire interview is an amalgam of minor characters, from the lady who held Sinatra’s wigs to the press agent and the preening blondes on barstools. Talese didn’t want to write about Frank Sinatra for Esquire because, as he told us, everything had already been written about Sinatra. When he finally agreed to do the essay, he said, “It was almost better that Sinatra couldn’t talk to me.”
2. Be Well Dressed.
Or like Talese, never underestimate the value of a good first impression, or a three-piece suit.
3. Never Use the Phone.
I didn’t ask if phone translated to the Internet but, based on this list, and my impressions, my guess is he would tell writers not to use the Internet, unless it was to get someone’s home address. Of the inadequacy of the phone, Talese wrote: “I also believe people will reveal more of themselves to you if you are physically present.” Joan Didion also spoke of disliking the phone, not because it was a short cut, but rather because she didn’t like to talk.
4. Show Up at Your Source’s Front Door.
A helpful piece of advice, but as our world has become almost transparently public, so too has it become secretive and private. House visits, phone calls, and the personal touch have been replaced by emails, texting, and tweeting. Many of the scoops Talese wrote about he got because of his in-person doggedness: showing up at Nita Naldi’s hotel, talking to the headline operator in theater district, the groundskeeper at a pet cemetery.
5. Do More Research Than You Think Is Necessary.
In the recently annotated version of his essay “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” –– published by Nieman Storyboard –– Gay spoke of the inventive way he sourced a particular quote for use in the profile: “That quote was published. I lifted it out of a magazine article about Marilyn Monroe that was written by Maurice Zolotow. I just clipped it. I took it out and I stuck it in there, and it took on a meaningfulness, a dimension. Hell, I never interviewed Marilyn Monroe. So I sometimes incorporate what has gone obscure in other people’s work. It’s in another context that the quote becomes a gem.”
6. Talk to People at Length or Learn the Art of Hanging Out.
Another writer who speaks of this is Kurt Vonnegut, who said, “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”
7. Be Polite and Learn How to Ask Questions without Being Nosy.
Talese learned early how to fade into the background as he watched his mom talk to her dress shop customers, as they tried on clothes while “discussing their private lives and the happenings and misadventures of their friends and neighbors.” When asked how to develop that trust, Talese said, “Journalism is like going out on a date.”
8. Don’t Use A Tape Recorder.
This is a sticking point for me. How do you accurately capture quotes without a recording device? Talese told the audience, “Don’t use a tape recorder, because then you have their exact words. You are a partner in the quotation. The quote is polished in your prose.” When prodded further, Talese said he would ask the questions again and again so that he could refine and get at what they really meant. The final quote, he told the audience, needs to be in your voice, with your tone, not the black and white words. Later in the conversation, Talese expanded on this by saying that he would include in his notes: “What they say, what he [Talese] says, and what they think.” His use of interior monologue was a tool Tom Wolfe complimented him on in his discussion of The New Journalism.
9. Don’t Take Notes in Front of People.
From out of the front pocket of his elegant suit, Talese removed a small stack of cardboard scraps, explaining they were the collar stays from his button-down shirts. When he interviewed his subjects he would slip into a bathroom to jot down notes, and at night he would type them up, along with his recollections of the day.
10. Write with Respect, and Don’t Mistreat Anyone in Print.
Joan Didion writes in the preface to her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem that since she is “neither a camera eye nor much given to writing pieces which do not interest me, whatever I do write reflects, sometimes gratuitously, how I feel.” Talese writes of his subjects from a place of extreme interest, striving for a deep understanding in the “social and historical forces that contributed to their character –– or lack of character.”
As a writer’s writer, Talese delivered these tips from a somewhat mythical place where pieces in magazines were paid for handsomely, weren’t due in one day, and were allowed to run at considerable lengths. While the above list seems both obvious and difficult, as a writer who would love to write 15,000 words about an ordinary person, I’m willing to give it a try. If it doesn’t work, at least I’m ready with my backup, also recommended by Gay Talese: “Get a job in a restaurant, and in your downtime: write.”
Bonus Link: Gay Talese’s sports writing is destined to last.
Image Credit: Wikipedia