Getting writing lessons from a master: Talese

The Philadelphia Inquirer
February 10, 1999

Gay Talese stands at the lectern, left hand curled, knuckles propped on hip, elbow sticking out like a flinty arrow. He ignores the semicircle of students, two dozen strong, seated around the room, and homes in on Emily Lizt, small with drifts of brown hair, reading a short piece she has written about an ordinary Sunday in an ordinary village in France. She finishes and looks up at the silvery haired, be-suited Talese, gazing down at her like an egret at pond's edge. "Emily," he says, now clasping his sienna spectacles, "when we spoke last week you made the point, from the year you spent in France, that Sundays there were in contrast to the Sundays we know. Give me a sense of Sunday in this piece. You give me so many names and no description. I don't know anyone here!" Talese folds his glasses and places his fingertips together. Emily tries to escape his gaze; her eyes dart down to the paper in her lap. She jots notes in the margins: Too many names. Throw out the children. Find Sunday!

Talese, all angles and worsted, continues. "I want to know about you," he says. "You could be a character here. Contrast your Sundays. Get a piece of paper and number it one to 10, and, for every number, put something special about Sunday." Another student mentions the absence, in the piece, of the savory smells of Sunday cooking. "I don't care about aroma!" he says. "I want to know what Sunday looks like!"

He turns softer. His voice warms. He coaxes. "Emily," he coos, "I remember Sundays as very special. You are there as an observer, telling us what Sundays are like." Emily curls her legs around each other and gathers herself in. "I thought I did that," she ventures, refusing to give ground. This is, after all, her piece of writing, even if it is her first offering to a master of reporting, a man with the gift of getting people to talk about all kinds of things they don't want to talk about, a man with the magical genius to weave it all together into unforgettable tales -- "stories with real names," he calls them.

Gay Talese, best-selling author, former New York Times reporter, chronicler of sex and crime and Sinatra, is now, for this semester, Gay Talese, professor, first Kelly Writers House Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, teacher of an undergraduate seminar devoted not to "new journalism," a label he scorns, but to "creative nonfiction," the art of bringing storytelling devices and details into the world of writing beyond fiction.

On this clear winter day, he was shed his tawny camel's hair Sir David's topcoat, his buttery felt fedora, and his mahogany velvet scarf, and he has tossed onto the floor copies of the outline for his famous Esquire article "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," featuring fastidiously printed notes in blue ink ("When F.S. has a cold...his whole world plunges in gloom"); bold notations in RED! (FEAR); snaky yellow insert arrows; great multi-hued section signs (Scene IV The Fight Las Vegas,"); small reminders ("Frank is Happy!" in red, and "I am not welcome. What will happen?" in black). The piles of outlines join piles of Carson McCullers' story "The Jockey" and copies of student work all strewn about the middle of the room, edged by jeaned and sneakered students and coiffed Talese.

Talese is measured and contained, like a conductor before his players, and he conveys an elegance that seems almost willfully old-fashioned and formal. There is a distance about him, perhaps born of shyness, that is present even as he preaches the intimacy of his work. Kerry Sherin, the director of the Writers House, says, "He's so New York. I really feel the difference between his culture and our's when he comes to Writers House. The way he dresses! He left the other day, and I complimented him on his clothes and his shoes! He had fabulous, 19th-century style shoes and spats. And I complimented him and he said, 'Well, I'm getting right off the train and having dinner with Tom Wolfe, so I want to look my best!'"

But Talese is, in fact, not New York. He is Ocean City, N.J., born and bred. An Italian American kid who grew up within an Irish American neighborhood in a town founded and dominated by Methodists. His mother, 91, still lives there, and her son, 66, uses his Philadelphia trips to visit her. Talese's father, who died six years ago, was a tailor, and the son inherited a tailor's sense of detail and proportion. That sense informs his haberdashery; it informs his writing. Talese wants to know as much as he can about his subjects. He gathers great bolts of information, conducts countless interviews, returns again and again to his "characters," as he calls them, until he feels he has explored every last inch of their experience. He wants his students to agonize over detail, over organization. He wants each piece of writing to flush its subject out of the thickets and into the open. Talese now turns his attention to Garrett Michael Micheals, who has written something called "Mr. Three Piece Suit." His subject? Talese! The piece, vivid and funny, has a reference to Talese spending inordinate amounts of time fumbling with his cuff links. This gives the subject the opportunity to talk about reporting. Ask questions, he tells Michaels. Talese places his glasses on the lectern and holds up one pinstriped arm, displaying his shirt cuffs. "I put the cuff links on and then I slide into the shirt," he confides. "I don't take the cuff links off. I'm a very precise person. This is, perhaps, because of my tailoring background." He pauses. There is a faint flicker, almost undetectable, that passes across his face. Perhaps its a smile. "I have a great collection of shoehorns," he says. "I'm lazy, so they're long shoehorns and I don't have to bend down. For someone writing a satirical piece about me, there is a lot there. You should know me, because if you know me, you will get more out of it. I don't hold anything back, and I don't hold anything back in my writing. It's all there.I don't know anymore.