Two Questions With Gay Talese
The world’s most iconic journalist discusses not really caring about journalism
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