Two Ques­tions With Gay Talese

The world’s most iconic jour­nal­ist dis­cusses not really car­ing about jour­nal­ism

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GAY TALESE, who has writ­ten about opera di­vas, brick­lay­ers, hook­ers and ballplay­ers, can prob­a­bly hold a riv­et­ing con­ver­sa­tion with any­one. The vet­eran writer says he learned the fine art of talk­ing from his mother, a dress­maker, who spoke softly and never in­ter­rupted. For over 50 years, Talese has been pa­tiently in­still­ing trust in his sub­jects, gen­tly nudg­ing them into re­veal­ing their most guarded se­crets (which, if Thy Neigh­bor’s Wife, his book about post-1950s sex­u­al­ity and adul­tery, is any in­di­ca­tion, are of­ten scan­dalous). Given this life­time of ex­pertly steer­ing con­ver­sa­tions, get­ting Talese to re­veal se­crets in a short in­ter­view is im­pos­si­ble. He deftly de­flects ques­tions he doesn’t want to an­swer with sto­ries that seem re­lated but leave his in­ter­roga­tor en­ter­tained yet thwarted.

It’s a skill that’s kept Talese’s mys­tique in­tact five decades af­ter “Frank Si­na­tra Has a Cold,” his revered pro­file-at-adis­tance, ran in Esquire. “Cold” was re­pub­lished in De­cem­ber as a Taschen cof­fee-ta­ble book for Si­na­tra’s cen­ten­nial, boast­ing Phil Stern pho­to­graphs and scans of Talese’s out­lines of the story, fa­mously scrawled on full-size shirt boards. It should give curious fans their fill of the writer—at least un­til April, when his lat­est book, about voyeurism, hits shelves.

How do you earn peo­ple’s trust? Es­pe­cially when they’re telling you some­thing as con­tro­ver­sial and per­sonal as, say, their ac­counts of adul­tery in your book Thy Neigh­bor’s Wife?

can’t go ahead with it. I can’t do it....”

You’d never know now, be­cause it’s 2015, but I’ll tell you, in the 1980s, what I was do­ing was con­sid­ered ut­terly dis­gust­ing in re­search­ing that book. [I was] go­ing to mas­sage par­lors, liv­ing as a nud­ist for six months in a swinger’s par­adise, and it was crazy. I was liv­ing what I was writ­ing about, and I was there, and it was un­der­stood that I was go­ing to write about what I saw and how I felt.

But I in­sisted on us­ing peo­ple’s names, so I man­aged to get them back on record. A lot of that comes from know­ing how to talk to peo­ple— how to make your­self be­liev­able—and then they trust you.... How do you write about them? Not do­ing a hatchet job. Very soft, care­ful lan­guage can sug­gest some­thing.

You’re a jour­nal­ist who has ex­pressed many mis­giv­ings about jour­nal­ism. You of­ten wax on the short story form in­stead. Why not just write fic­tion?

I’m much more in­ter­ested in fic­tion as sources of com­fort and sources of ed­u­ca­tion and sources of in­spi­ra­tion. Be­cause it’s all about writ­ing in fic­tion; non­fic­tion is driven by sub­ject. On the other hand, I don’t write fic­tion. I don’t as­pire to be an­other nov­el­ist. There are so many good short story writ­ers and novelists, who needs an­other one? So I want to steal the art of the fic­tion writer and the sto­ry­telling tech­nique and bring it to what I do.

Well, I had their trust at the time af­ter cul­ti­vat­ing them. Then they’d say, “Oh, I know I gave you per­mis­sion to go ahead with this, but I

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