Tina Brown's words are affectionate but blunt: "Dear, dear Gay," she writes in a faxed letter. "I have come to feel that we should really kiss off this penile saga and have you do something more rewarding."
It is 1993 and Brown, then editor of the New Yorker, is rejecting a story from Gay Talese about John and Lorena Bobbitt. Talese persists, proposing new angles, until Brown finally cuts off the correspondence: "Hell, Gay, it's just too hard.... Let's try and dream up something else more worthy of your energies."
Talese's response? He stays in Virginia, where Lorena is facing charges for severing her husband's penis with a kitchen knife, interviewing sources and observing the trial. He eventually returns home to New York with nothing to show for the previous six months except two thick file folders full of notes and a 10,000-word story that no one wants to print.
The episode, and similar examples of Talese tenaciously stalking a story regardless of whether he can sell it, appear in A Writer's Life, which Knopf is publishing later this month. A Writer's Life marks the reemergence of an author who became one of the biggest literary celebrities of the late 20th century with such nonfiction bestsellers as The Kingdom andthe Power, Honor Thy Father and—scandalously—the exploration of American sexual habits, Thy Neighbor's Wife. As his new book reveals, his life hasn't been all bestsellers and high-profile magazine pieces. He has also labored many, many hours crafting work that was ultimately rejected.
"It's a book about not writing a book," he says, as we sit one recent evening in the elegant Upper East Side townhouse he shares with his wife of 47 years, Doubleday publisher Nan Talese. He is, as always, dressed impeccably. His jacket matches his vest, which coordinates with his tie, which matches the handkerchief in his pocket. At 74 he has gray hair, but is as lean as a teenager.
I ask him what it takes to invest so much in a piece of writing, knowing it may never make it into print. "What you have to do is believe that what you're doing is really important. Not that anyone else believes it," he says. "And this is what AWriter's Life is about. The odyssey of a writer."
It's a good answer, though a little too smooth, so I press. The word "obsessive" comes to mind, but I cop out with the more polite, "Does it take a kind of faith?"
He considers the word "faith" for a moment. "What it takes beyond faith is the willingness to be out of print and the willingness to be off the radar screen without any public acknowledgment that you are a writer," he says.
'Did I Get it Right?'
Off the radar is a pretty good description of where Talese has been lately. In November 2003, Walker & Company published The Gay Talese Reader, a collection of essays and profiles dating back to 1961. But having published no book of original material since his 1992 family history, the bestseller Unto the Sons (Knopf), Talese is unknown to many younger readers. Though he's still regarded as one of the finest living writers of narrative nonfiction and a pioneer of what became known as the New Journalism, in recent years he has not been published much even in magazines. The problem is, Talese isn't interested in writing about the ingenue-of-the-month or the superstar athlete. He is intrigued by obscurity, by failure, by decline. And you can guess how that plays at the glossies.
With his new book, he gets the last word, making use of material he has collected over the years on subjects like Selma after the civil rights era, a cursed restaurant location in New York and a Chinese soccer player. The book defies categorization. There are autobiographical elements as Talese reveals much about his parents and how he and Nan ended up getting married. But for pages at a time he hardly uses the word "I." And when he does aim the camera at himself, he's usually shown pursuing a story.
"It isn't a memoir, it isn't an autobiography, it isn't an easily definable book," Talese says. He adds, pointedly, "What I can tell you is that it's nonfiction."
It has been weeks since the scandal over James Frey's memoir broke—weeks since his own wife sat for her public flogging by Oprah for publishing and later defending Frey—but Talese still sounds angry on the subject, which he brings up with no prompting from me. His distress seems to have little to do with his wife's embarrassment and everything to do with Frey's sin—unpardonable in his thinking—of presenting fiction as fact.
"You try to get it 100% accurate. You keep going back and checking, go back again and again. 'Did I get it right?' " he says. "I'm sounding preachy, I know. But I have these principles or pretensions or whatever you want to call it."
Spelling It Out
Talese credits childhood experiences with making him a storyteller. Born in Ocean City, N.J., in 1932 to a tailor from Calabria and an Italian-American woman from Brooklyn, he spent much of his boyhood in his parents' dress shop. Talese would sit and listen while women who came in looking for dresses and a confidante talked with his mother or engaged in conversations with each other. This ordinary dialogue between unheralded women instilled in him an appreciation for the stories of people who usually go unnoticed.
That's not to say he has never written about celebrities. The 1965 profile "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" is perhaps his best-known magazine piece (and according to Esquire, the finest story it's ever published). But Talese never interviewed Sinatra for the story, telling it instead through the eyes of the not-famous people who surrounded the star.
And when he has interviewed well-known people, it has often been when they are past their prime—as in his piece, "Ali in Havana," written in 1996when the former heavyweight boxer was middle-aged and suffering from Parkinson's.
Decades earlier, fresh out the University of Alabama, Talese took his appreciation for the stories of ordinary people to the New YorkTimes, where he worked until quitting to freelance full time in 1965. "I did not want to write news. I wanted to write about people who only had a place in print because I wrote about them," he says.
Shortly after leaving the paper, he sold a profile of the Times's head obituary writer, Alden Whitman, to Esquire. As he tells me this, Talese spells out the name—A L D E N. He does that every time he drops a name he thinks I might not know. Another habit: often, when he mentions a number—an age, a year—he pauses, covers his eyes with his fingers and concentrates, searching his memory to make sure he hasn't accidentally misplaced an event, attributing it to, say, 1968 when it really happened in 1969. He wants to help me get it right.
Before he left his job at the newspaper, Talese began writing books, starting with New York: A Serendipiter's Journal (Harper, 1961). His first bestseller came a few years later, The Kingdom and the Power, about the Time's history and inner workings (World, 1969). His next bestseller, Honor Thy Father (World, 1971), was an up-close portrait of the Bonanno organized crime family. After immersing himself in the Mafia world to research Honor Thy Father, Talese took off for the frontlines of the American sexual revolution and came back with Thy Neighbor's Wife (Doubleday, 1980). The book was a huge success. Between the advance, the royalties and the sale of the movie rights, Talese made millions. But he paid for it in damage to his reputation. Talese did more than just observe the revolution, and he wasn't reticent about revealing it. Descriptions of his own public nudity and his open infidelities got him ridiculed and vilified.
It's strange now, sitting in the beautiful home in which he and his wife raised two daughters, to think of this opinionated but gracious man as a notorious symbol of sexual mores in turmoil. But then, contradictions may be the only way to understand an author who has made a successful career out of flaunting the rules of marketability.
It's almost 9 p.m., so we take a cab uptown to the legendary though somewhat faded literary hangout Elaine's, where Talese is a regular. Over dinner he asks me questions about myself, about my husband, my job, my hometown in Washington State and my parents. He listens closely and asks follow-up questions. It occurs to me that he might think I'm one of those ordinary people who could have an interesting story to tell. I'm flattered, but also a little worried about disappointing him. It's tempting to exaggerate or embellish. But, of course, that would be wrong.
Instead, I maneuver the conversation back to him, asking about expectations for his new book. Wouldn't it be nice to see his name on the bestseller list again? "I had four bestsellers in a row. I didn't get any satisfaction from that," Talese replies. "I believe if you do quality work some people are going to appreciate it. So I don't make it in Barnes & Noble and Borders, who cares? Knopf cares. But that's their problem."