... conversations with People at the Leading Edgesm

"attention must be paid"

Life’s side streets, not its Main Street, intrigue Gay Talese. And beware of Main Street says this preeminent reporter, an outsider to the way "the news" focuses on events, the famous, infamous or mere celebrities. However you get your "news," it is deeply subjective, he reminds us. The people preparing and presenting it, whoever they are, do as much negating by what they delete as by what they include.

What Gay Talese has done, he says, started long before he started writing. He listened. He takes his credo from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: "Attention must be paid!" Willy Loman's wife says of him. Gay Talese pays attention to much which is not fully heeded by the general public.

America is a nation of many choices, he reminds us, with many many positions that can be reflected prismatically on any given issue. Writing -- especially reporting -- is a way of seeing. Read your daily paper or weekly magazine or the internet and what you're seeing isn't necessarily what’s there, it's what someone said is there, what someone believes is relevant, what someone thinks will sell newspapers or sell a program.

Mr. Talese presents an alternative view of history with stories of alternative people -- people you've never heard of, at the edges of events, around and behind and supporting the "news" and those who make it. You won't know the people in his stories, Mr. Talese says. But he's confident you will recognize the situations because we all share them -- the stories of love, fear, strength, failure and hope that add up to life.

Because his subjects are reflective of history, Mr. Talese has to do extensive legwork and do it in person, not sit as "ephemerous" reporters do, glued to a computer. No records are kept on or about these people, so no Google for him. His stories are grounded and have a center that provides a theatre. In fact, Mr. Talese looks for locations for his books. Then he gets to know the characters. With time and research, his individuals become transformed, almost like fictional characters, but not. Real names, verified history.

And like great fiction, Mr. Talese believes this approach can offer a sense of truth that can be superimposed upon what is created by historians limited to the vantage point of what is recorded about important people and noteworthy events.

Even in his remarkable memoir, we meet Gay Talese through stories. Decades considering America through the lenses of Selma, AL, and Ocean City, NJ. Ties that bind the Italy of his forebearers to new realities in China. The notorious Bobbitts. America struggling with racism, sports figures winning and losing. Stories of others from a man who recuses himself in his own memoir. Here is a son who put his father's immaculate craftsmanship as a tailor together with his mother's gifts of curiosity, perseverance and patience. The result is a master storyteller to whom we do well to listen.

[This Program was recorded May 24, 2006, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]




Gay Talese  

    ... journalist. Among America’s premier reporters, Mr. Talese is a “fastidious exponent of nonfiction.” His remarkably inventive memoir, A Writer’s Life, brings his books to almost a dozen covering much of the American experience, including Honor Thy Father, Thy Neighbor’s Wife and The Kingdom and the Power about the New York Times for which Mr. Talese wrote for a decade. He describes himself as a storyteller, declining the “new journalism” role attributed to him by others. Mr. Talese has also written for Esquire, the New Yorker, Harper’s and other national magazines. He lives in New York with his wife Nan.


Conversation 1


Gay Talese summarizes his lifetime as a storyteller.


Conversation 2


Before he started to write, he started to listen, Mr. Talese says with vivid illustrations from his mother’s dress shop, her long life and her great curiosity which he says he inherited. He reconstructs being a youngster fascinated by stories which were not “newsworthy” but did reflect the spirit of the time. He expands, with a variety of striking examples of how these seemingly inconsequential experiences reflected the world and issues with which America continues to struggle.



Conversation 3


With skills required of both tailor and storyteller, Mr. Talese shows how the ordinary can be extraordinary if you know it well enough or you listen. He remembers being a young reporter in the sports department, uninterested in sports events and captivated by sports performers, then telling newsmakers’ stories by focusing on those around them for “Esquire”. He prefers life’s side streets to its main street, he says, then insists people about whom he writes may be unfamiliar but their situations are not. He compares white racists in the American South with Ku Klux Klan members in his New Jersey hometown, then starts his story of Selma, Alabama as it began on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965.


Conversation 4


With his characteristic curiosity and persistence, Mr. Talese tells how he followed the Selma story for decades. He was simultaneously watching his hometown of Orange, New Jersey, and his adopted City of New York he says, both of which are intertwined in his memoir. He compares his approach to historians Taylor Branch and Robert Caro, adding that great fiction can also deliver a sense of truth about history that can be superimposed on the work of traditional historians. The people about whom he writes, Mr. Talese says, are reflective of history but because no records are kept of them, reporting on them requires leg work and personal contact. He recounts the emergence of his larger story linking his father’s Italy, Selma, and China.



Conversation 5


"Ephemorons" -- disengaged reporters -- are contrasted with Mr. Talese’s art of hanging out, which he says requires great patience and physical presence. He describes his continuing relationship with his New Jersey hometown and with Selma, AL, both ways he looks at the “Bush Era” part of America. Sometimes, Mr. Talese says, the story isn't what you think the story is. His example is his coverage of Selma 25 years after “Bloody Sunday”, the refusal of the “New York Times” to use photographs of the black/white marriage he had reported, and how badly this reflects on today’s news in general.


Conversation 6


Chronicling life from the viewpoint of those who are not obvious choices is his approach, Mr. Talese summarizes. He describes America as a nation of many choices which can be reflected prismatically on any given issue. Writing, reporting and editing are ways of seeing and of negating, he reminds us, pointing out how deeply subjective all news sources are. With a bow to Arthur Miller in “Death of a Salesman”, Mr. Talese reveals his credo: “Attention must be paid!”



Related Links:

A Writer’s Life is a Borzoi Book published by Knopf.

Memoirs occupy a special place in literature. Memoirists (loosely defined) whose works and conversations we've enjoyed include Alexandra Fuller, Judy Collins, Francine du Plessix Gray, Aminatta Forna, John Lewis, Hugh Masekela, Andrew Solomon, Beck Weathers, and Greg Mortenson.
James Frey's first two books were presented as memoirs. We still think both are very good; we just wish he hadn't lied about them.

And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.



As we were creating this program series in 1995, Gay Talese was on our short-list of People at the Leading Edge from whom we believed we all could learn. We were confident Mr. Talese would remind us all of the critical role that reporters play in a democracy – both as an example of how to get it right and as a contrast to so much that is wrong in today’s reporting. He exceeded our very high expectations. We thank him, both personally and professionally.


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