Gay Talese’s Basement
Later, when I questioned Nan Talese about the controversy, she seemed more willing to talk about it than her husband. In her elegant mid-Atlantic accent, she admitted that she and Gay do not agree on the standards that should be applied to nonfiction works such as memoirs; she doesn’t think there is an absolute truth and he very much believes there is. Gay Talese is renowned for his scrupulous reporting and insistence on getting every fact right. His editor at Knopf, Jonathan Segal, said that Talese sometimes drives him mad with his obsessive fact checking.
Talese ended our first interview abruptly, saying that he had things to do. He pulled out a calendar and asked when I would be back from India. We scheduled an interview for the morning after my return.
During the next two weeks in India (on planes, trains, buses, boats and rickshaws), I read his 430-page manuscript and “The Gay Talese Reader,” a collection of some of his most remarkable writing. After reading his deeply personal profiles of various cultural icons, I came away with a greater understanding of who those men were. To my disappointment, “A Writer’s Life,” which the Random House catalog labels as autobiography, did not reveal Gay Talese as intimately as he had revealed others.
The book is about finding interesting stories. It’s about the pursuit of four of them (to China for one), and persisting long after the stories have been rejected by the editors who assigned them. It’s about the tedious process of writing and the even more agonizing experience of not writing. And it’s a little bit about Gay Talese.
The book begins with Liu Ying, the Chinese soccer player who missed the penalty kick in the 1999 Women’s World Cup and cost her team the victory over the United States. Then Talese moves to civil rights movement-era Selma, Ala. He also writes extensively about Lorena Bobbitt, who chopped off her husband’s penis after he allegedly raped her. Finally, he writes about a succession of restaurants that failed at 206 East 63rd Street, a structure Talese nicknamed “the Willy Loman building.”
Besides learning that Talese is fascinated by losers, racism, penises and restaurants, I can’t say that reading “A Writer’s Life” brought me much closer to understanding its author. “Gay was writing as much an autobiography as he could,” Nan Talese said. “He doesn’t like to talk about himself directly. His feelings come in between the lines.” Nan, who was surprisingly talkative, confirmed what I had suspected: that he was terribly uncomfortable being the focus of anyone’s writing, including his own. He much preferred being the one conducting the interview, asking the questions, eliciting intimate details.
When I asked Talese a question about his relationship with Nan during our second interview, he suddenly turned the tables on me.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Are you married?”
“How many sexual encounters have you had?”
“What do you mean by sexual encounters?” I asked, taken aback. “How many times I’ve had sex?”
“How many lovers have you had?”
I felt strangely compelled to answer.
“Have you ever had two lovers at the same time?” he continued.
I could feel my face getting warm and I prayed that it was not turning as red as I feared it was. I answered the question.
“How about in the same week?”
Where was he going with this? I didn’t ask if he was using me as research for a sequel to “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” his highly controversial 1981 book about sex in America.
Talese explained that if he were writing about me, surely I would be offended if he exposed such personal information to the public. Asking what it is like being married to someone in the same industry hardly seemed as personal as asking someone how many men she had slept with. Perhaps to Gay Talese, the two inquiries were equally invasive.
During the course of the two-hour interview, Talese did not divulge anything as deeply personal as I had, at least not verbally. (I still wonder how he managed to manipulate me so easily.) He was slightly more amiable this time and seemed less anxious to get the interview over with. He led me down into the basement and showed me where he had spent the past 13 years agonizing over his latest book. Pinned above his desk were 31 typed pages charting the progress of “A Writer’s Life.” He began to read from them. Then he offered to make photocopies for me to take home. I was stunned at his willingness to share such revealing documents.
“This memoir-history-nonfiction novel … can be terrific … if you’d get down to it!” he writes to himself at the beginning of the writing process in 1997 after years of research. He adds at the bottom of the first page, “When are you going to get back into print!????” Throughout his notes, he asks himself, “Where am I going???” In 2002, he worries that he’s writing too much about Alabama. “Who will care about all of this?” he wonders. In February of 2003, he agonizes over his lack of progress: “All of January … could not write a word … what is going wrong?” Two years later, he is still bogged down: “Every day is a struggle with every sentence. Slow, slow worker am I. Every day I put in my hours, squeezing the grapes, trying to make the wine … but only a slow drop at a time comes forth….” The final page, dated Aug. 26, 2005, declares, in large type, “Book finished!” Talese also includes a note about his mother, who died on Aug. 18. Her last words were, “Have you finished the book?” He told her, “Yes.”
Encouraged by this sudden increase in accessibility, I inquired if he would mind my interviewing people around him, such as his wife, daughters and editor. He didn’t mind. In fact, while I was in his work room photocopying his book notes, he was upstairs typing up a list of their phone numbers and calling them for me. His daughter, Pamela, was leaving for Egypt on Friday, he said, so I should try her first.
I asked Talese how he persuaded people to let him into their lives. Instead of disclosing his trade secrets, he once again turned the spotlight on me.
“I’ll tell you why I let you interview me,” he said. “You were persistent.” He said that he didn’t really mind that I was going to India. He was just playing a game. I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but I didn’t want to interrupt his train of thought. “You’re a pushy broad,” he continued. “I didn’t dislike that. You need to be pushy sometimes, but I can tell you’re not easy to live with.” He noted that I was well-mannered and polite during our first interview, which meant a great deal to him and was perhaps the biggest reason he agreed to a second interview.
Although Talese was talking about me, he was actually revealing himself. By listening to the messages between his words and reading between the lines of his book, I managed to learn a little about who Gay Talese is. He is an old-fashioned guy who values good manners and persistence. He is shy and self-absorbed. He is endlessly fascinated by ordinary people like the owners of failing restaurants but feels that his own life is not interesting enough to fill an entire book. He thinks marriages can be suffocating because he grew up with parents who rarely spent a minute apart. As a result, he enjoys spending months at a time away from his wife, as he did while researching Liu Ying in China. On the other hand, he is a romantic (he and Nan faxed letters to each other nearly every day while he was in China) and he is quite pleased that his marriage has lasted this long.
Talese knows he’s a gifted writer. He has also worried throughout the past few years that his career was over and that the only successful Talese in the publishing industry would be his wife. He hates having to market himself, but that may be the only reason he agreed to an interview with me in the first place.
Whether it was Nan urging him to be more pleasant, his editor reminding him that good press would help his book sales or my subtle charm, Talese seemed to have warmed up to me. Days after I turned in my first draft, he called to invite me to dinner. Imagine that! Gay Talese, who groaned and growled when I first approached him for an interview, was now graciously inviting me to join him, his wife and an old friend for an intimate dinner. I was astonished and flattered, but unfortunately I had to decline the offer. I had other plans.
This article would be vastly different if Talese had reacted amiably and extended that dinner invitation in our first phone conversation. But I suspect it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting.
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