Gay Talese needs little introduction. He’s a writer who is widely-credited with creating New Journalism, the style of magazine writing that brought scenes, characters, dialogue and the other literary elements typical of fiction, to the world of nonfiction, therefore changing the landscape of magazine writing and journalism forever.
His Esquire piece "Frank Sinatra has a Cold" is the gold standard of magazine profiles. I read it when I was just getting started writing long-form features and it was, and is, everything I aspire to as a writer. He’s since written numerous books and magazine pieces. I recently caught up with him in his writing bunker, a windowless room in the basement of his Upper East Side townhouse that has a command station of a desk, a few couches, a bar and boxes and boxes of his notes, which are all hand-decorated collage style by Talese himself. This is something he does, he admits, when he should be working.
Any interview with Gay Talese is a rolling conversation that covers a wide range of ideas and subjects. This is the first half of our discussion in which I went to ask him about the craft of writing. It turned into a broad journalism shop talk, which I didn't mind at all. Just after this half of our talk ended, I showed him the new New York Times Virtual Reality goggles. You can read that piece here.
The interview began when Talese decided to interview the interviewer.
Talese: I’m pretty busy this coming month. You know Taschen? They produce those big fat expensive books? Enormous books. I have one here on Muhammad Ali that you can’t even hold. They’re doing a book of that size with 1000 pictures on Frank Sinatra. Frank Sinatra has a Cold is now a Taschen book, with all my notes in there. All my notes are kind of a book in themselves.
H&E: I remember reading that early on in my career.
Were you out of college then?
H&E: I was in college.
Was it assigned to you?
H&E: No. A friend of mine, a writer, told me about it at bar one night, and he said you have to read it.
Was it Esquire?
H&E: Yeah, it was online, reprinted somewhere. I dug it up somewhere. The way he told me about it was basically, this is your blueprint for when you’re writing about someone and you get stiffed by them. You can still, if you gather enough string, you can still write a really amazing profile.
H&E And to this day I still think about it when I’m writing about people, when writing scenes. So, hence where I’m here.
Why I’m here too.
H&E: Are you writing every day? What’s your writing routine?
When you’re reporting you’re not writing at all. When you’re doing a book or even a long magazine piece, much of it is away from home. You have to be there. One of my fears - I shouldn’t worry about much at my age - but one of the things I fear is going to hurt reporters, and hurt reporting, is the technology, where you can use interviews through email. It brings everything indoors. I like to be out.
In Sinatra, I’m out. Everything I've done. In Peter O’Toole (Peter O'Toole on the Ould Sod), I’m on an airplane going to Ireland. In Floyd Patterson, The Loser, he’s out in the woods running at a training camp prior to a fight.
Scenes, you know? And you can’t do that unless you’re there. And sometimes it doesn’t even work out when you’re there. I went to China in 1999 to see this Chinese soccer player. She missed a penalty kick and loses the game for her team, and I became interested in writing about her. I went to China and looked her up, took me about five months, but I couldn’t sell it. John Bobbitt. I spent all this time for the New Yorker - the guy that got his pecker cut off. Terrific piece. But Tina Brown, it wasn’t enough about the woman, she had a lawyer who wanted to get paid. All that stuff...
Sometimes it’s very unremunerative.
H&E: That’s one thing I wanted to ask you about. Journalism today with technology and emails. I wanted to get your perspective how you perceive it? Blogs? All that stuff.
I believe number one journalists today are so far better educated than when I was starting off at the age of 22, 23. At the age of 23, I got a job as a reporter in the sports department. I worked as a reporter at a daily paper, The Times, for almost ten years. Most of the younger people, with me, as junior reporters were the first of our generation to go to college. We were Jews, or Italians like me, or Irish. And we were really the underclass in those days. Mid 1950’s. And we saw the world differently. We were seeing power, or beauty, or privilege and writing about it, not with any great sense of anger, but certainly with a sense that “we” are not “they”. They are they, and we are whoever we are.
We as a group, the young people, did not got to major colleges. I mean Alabama, but we did not go to Harvard. Some did, but I mean they weren’t good reporters. The guys who went to Harvard, there might have been two that I knew of, were not good reporters. The best educated were not good reporters.
H&E: You think they were too comfortable? Too embedded in that class?
I could simplify it and say yes. But what I can also say is, I’m now jumping fifty years to where we are now, it’s like three generations. They commonly go to Harvard, Princeton, Yale.
Columbia. Stanford. Or, elite schools in other states. And they’re going to the same schools, as the people in power. The people who are running the government, or Wall Street, or top corporations. When I was a young reporter, the stars on my paper were very unafraid of power. They were not enamored of it.
I could think of two people, the first one was a guy was my hero. Although I never wanted to be a foreign correspondent. Never, never, never. I wanted to write stories. Short stories. Fictional kind of stories, though factually laced with legwork. One name that should live, but doesn’t, in the annals of journalism, great journalism is Harrison Salisbury. He was from the Midwest. He became a foreign correspondent in Moscow when Stalin was in power, stayed there for five years writing under the worst conditions. In 1966, I think it was, he gets away and sneaks into Hanoi when no reporter was going to the Vietnam War, and gets in the capital of northern Vietnam, and reports the American bombings that are hitting hospitals and schools and being denied in Washington. He started writing these front page stories, and confronting the government and made a real impact on the war.
Another guy, my friend David Halberstam, was inside Saigon among a group of reporters. But Halberstam was really saying we’re losing the war, and boy he stuck his neck out. The New York Times publisher was getting a lot of shit from John Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson.
Jump ahead to Iraq 2003, we invade, there’s no Halberstam. In fact, the New York Times reporter was in bed with Chalabi, this Judith Miller. Moreover, reporters from the networks, as well as the Times, were embedded with troops, tanks, and armored personnel carriers - hanging around with these guys, protecting their lives. And nobody really challenged Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, or the neocons, that were running the foreign policy.
And also the spirit, and in the aftermath of 9/11, made patriotism, or jingoism, so acceptable that no reporter, nor did his newspaper or network, want to be anti-American. That took some of the sting out of it as well. Self-censorship, or self-limiting, not asking the tough questions. Believing what they told you, meaning the Defense Department. This weapons of mass destruction bullshit. All that.
So I’m answering, but I’m not answering. I believe the cronyism between people in power within journalism, or the ruling forces within areas of government - the State Department, the Defense Department, the White House - where people had an understanding of one another. They were, like, from the same class. There was no underclass! You know what I mean? They swim in the same pools, they belong to the same clubs. Their wives and everyone goes to the same fucking cocktail parties.
It was not true when I was young.
H&E: And there’s this idea that you’re not going to get a story if you’re critical. That you’re not going to get the handout story.
That’s right. And they eat these little handout stories. They're like little pigeons eating the shit sprayed on the sidewalk from the government. They want to be in good with their sources, but they don’t even name the sources!
So it’s really a conspiracy of corruption. Because you don’t know really how accurate it is. You’re getting somebody's agenda and it’s kind of readable for a day, and then two days later, it’s something different. I don’t know anything about what I want to know. What do I want to know? I want some reporter to penetrate the Taliban. Who in the fuck is the Taliban? You know? I’ve been reading “Taliban” for two years, more than that. No one has gotten to know a Taliban family. What does he eat? What does his girlfriend do? Who are the enemy? All we get is bashing of Putin, bashing of China.
It’s just not a noble profession. Journalist are not giving the American people enough information that is counter to what the government wants to shove down your throat. The only people that really should be credited are in self-exile. Julian Assange and Snowden. Snowden should be given the fucking prize for peace! And the journalists are not respecting him at all!
H&E: Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who worked with Snowden, he’s really amazing.
That’s the kind of people that Salisbury was!
H&E: The other thing I wanted to talk to you about is the structure of the journalism institutions. Now there’s this giant maw that needs to be fed. There are a lot of young reporters who go and work and spit out posts - ten a day - blogpost and stuff. There’s just the giant thing that needs to be fed every day. Did you guys feel like that when you were starting out? That you just needed to always feed the beast.
I didn’t. And Halberstam did not. And Salisbury didn’t. And the best people I knew when I was young, did not. We had a very firm attitude that we were important. I don’t think reporters feel that way anymore. They’re too replaceable. We thought we were important, because we were among the very few that had jobs who tried never to tell a lie, or to report a lie.
If you’re in Wall Street, you’re lying all the time. The government lies. They don’t get caught, until people like Snowden finally catch them, but usually they lie, and lie, and lie. And business lies. And advertising lies. And the clergy lies. All this stuff. This sounds like we were very elitist, which we weren't. But in a way we were prideful. I was very prideful. And being in a professional that tried very, very, hard not to lie.
H&E: Are you nostalgic for the past in general? Do you consider yourself nostalgic?
Not blinded by any sense of euphoria in the achievements of my youth, or the people around my time. No. I’m fairly...every journalist has a healthy skepticism of what he hears and sees I hope.
But to answer your question, I’m just aware that journalism today does not have the status and pride, and individualism, that characterized those of us of my youth, even though those of us of my youth were relatively poorly educated, but that was an advantage in a way. Journalists today are polished. The classical education they’re getting and the technology makes them somewhat remote from much of the readership.
What I think is more of a threat is the technology, because what the technology has done has allowed people to get a story that’s publishable without leaving their kitchen. They sit on the kitchen table with a laptop and cover the world. They get stories because of their skill using technology to circumvent the obligation to be there. They’re not there. I always believed you have to physically be there.
But technology today allows you to be in touch with a lot of sources and get a lot of slants on stories through a laptop that's not even as large as a pizza box.
H&E: Or you phone...
Or the phone!
H&E: Do you carry a cellphone?
G.T.: Never had a cellphone.
Part two of my interview with Gay Talese to come.