THE HIGHLY ACCLAIMED NON-FICTION WRITER AND HIS EDITOR WIFE NAN TOOK QUESTIONS FROM A COLUMBUS PUBLIC LIBRARY AUDIENCE
Gay Talese, the man who gave rise to “New Journalism” when he wrote his most famous article for Esquire, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” has a low opinion of the quality of magazine writing today. The only exception to that judgement is the New Yorker, whose writers do it the old-fashioned way: face to face contact with the source. Speaking to an audience at the Columbus Public Library today, he said magazines are all celebrity oriented.l They want to put a celebrity picture on the magazine cover. The story inside might be written by a writer who maybe spent ten minutes with the celebrity, tape recording an interview. He said you can’t really get a meaningful interview that way.
He and his wife Nan chatted a little about their marriage and careers – they have been married for 50 years – and then took questions from the audience. The first question was about his opinion about the blogosphere and the Internet.
“I don’t know anything about the blogosphere. I don’t use it,” he said. He went on to say that he believed in face to face conversations with sources, not contact with sources via the Internet, or using Google or anything like that. He believes in personal contact. He doesn’t even like or use tape recorders. For one thing, he says they inhibit sources. The person you are interviewing figures he or she has to get it right the first time. “They usually don’t.” When the person being interviewed is more relaxed and becomes comfortable with the interviewer, they come back to a question and give a more thoughtful answer.
When I pointed out that his most famous article, the one that gave rise to the term “new journalism,” the one he wrote for Esquire Magazine about Frank Sinatra, was one without a face-to-face interview, he admitted that was the case. Esquire had paid his expenses to go to Los Angeles to interview Sinatra, but when he got there, “His press agent said Sinatra could not do the interview because he had a cold.” Finally, the press agent told Talese that Sinatra was upset because he had heard that Walter Cronkite was working on a program for CBS on Sinatra’s connections with the Mafia.
Instead of giving up, Talese stayed on in Los Angeles and interviewed people who knew Sinatra, people who worked with him in movies and recording sessions. “Hundreds of people had worked with Sinatra over the years.” He believes that he probably got a truer picture of Sinatra than if he had actually interviewed him. But, he said, “I was in Los Angeles. I interviewed those people. I made contact with them.”
The “New Journalism” he is credited with starting with that article refers to the technique that he used in writing it. He dropped the old newspaper style of reporting and wrote it in the same way that you would write a novel. It was all true – his stint as a reporter for the New York Times had imbued him with the importance of accuracy – but, the style was novelistic. It worked big time. Esquire ran it as its cover story.
Talese was not happy with what the “New Journalism” became. His complaint is the same complaint he has with bloggers, the lack of accuracy. Too many writers now, he said, sacrifice accuracy. After their appearance in the library’s auditorium, I went up to him, introduced myself, shook hands, and told him I enjoyed their performance – that wasn’t smoke because I definitely did – and handed him a blog business card, telling him that I had a blog and was going to write about their talk. He took the card and thanked me.
Nan Talese, who is now Senior Vice President at Doubleday, was asked about some of the authors she has edited for the New York publishing firms where she has worked. It was an impressive list, people like James Michener, Pat Conroy and Rosalynn Carter.
She went to Plains to work with Rosalyn on her autobiography First Lady from Plains. She got to know Mrs. Carter well because they spent a lot of time together. She would have dinner with Rosalynn and President Carter. After dinner they would all watch the evening news on television. She said that was an interesting experience, citing one evening when President Carter became irritated with a report about an English public figure and shouted “jackass, jackass” at the TV.
Mrs. Talese said sometimes Jimmy would try to give Rosalynn some advice about how a passage should be written, which irritated Rosalynn, who finally told him, “Jimmy, you wrote your book, now let me write mine.” She said that the two could be competitive and that when Rosalyn’s book hit the number one slot on the New York Times list of best sellers Jimmy was perplexed because none of his books had done that. She added that they were a great couple and she enjoyed being with them.
Fans in line to get Talese books autographed, Columbus Public Library, Columbus, Georgia
I have never read any of Gay Talese’s books, but that is about to change. After today’s delightful presentation by the two of them, he went out into the library’s rotunda for a book signing. I bought A Writer’s Life, which he wrote in 2006, and the best seller about the Mafia, Honor Thy Father, which he wrote in 1971. I got him to autograph both books.
He was born and raised in New Jersey, but when he graduated from high school, he couldn’t get into any universities there or in neighboring states. He was accepted by the University of Alabama, where he majored in journalism. In “A Writer’s Life”, he reports that his journalism instructors weren’t thrilled when he strayed from the newspaper “who, what, where, when, why, and how” inverted-pyramid writing style. But, look what straying from that style did for him when he wrote the Sinatra story in 1966. It played a large role in his publishing success, and revolutionized journalistic style.