Former fellow shares heritage, writing history

Gay Talese returns to the Kelly Writers House for lecture

The Daily Pennsylvanian
April 3, 2007

Media Credit: Toby Hicks
Gay Talese speaks last night at the Kelly Writers House about his career as a journalist and author, as well as his Italian-American background. Talese was a visiting Fellow at the Writers House in 1999.

"They just don't make men like that anymore."

So said College senior Claire Stapleton after attending "dapper" author Gay Talese's lecture on his experiences as an Italian American and his writing career.

Talese, who was the first Kelly Writers House Fellow in 1999, returned to Penn for a lecture yesterday evening, speaking to a mixed crowd of about 75 students and adults.

Penn alumnus Kenneth Ciongoli introduced Talese on behalf of the National Italian American Foundation, which sponsored the lecture.

Ciongoli lauded the NIAF, saying, "We have a spectacular culture that is our duty to preserve."

Talese has written about a variety of topics, ranging from the American sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s to the history of a Mafia family.

Talese emphasized how his Italian roots influenced his life as a writer.

Growing up in the midst of World War II with family serving in the fascist Italian government, Talese recalled, "I felt that I was a bit of a second-hand American."

This feeling of isolation during his adolescence left an important mark on Talese's writing career.

"What came to me during this impressionable period was that every story has many sides," Talese said. "There's something valuable about a writer who doesn't exactly know where he belongs."

After graduating from the University of Alabama, Talese got a job working as a copy-boy at The New York Times. He eventually worked his way through the ranks to become a junior reporter, where he thrived on writing about unusual material.

"I always wanted to write for a newspaper but about people who were not necessarily newsworthy," Talese related. "Everyone has these stories, and I wanted to be their chronicler."

Talese's childhood - spent helping his mother in her dress shop, where he was exposed to the town's gossip - served him well as a journalist.

"Journalism is a place for eavesdroppers like myself," he joked.

When he was 32, Talese left the Times to write books.

His most recent book, A Writer's Life, was published in 2006. It deals with the inner workings and phases of a writer's practice.

"I didn't want to write a memoir," Talese said. "That was too self-indulgent."

Talese's current project is writing about his 50-year marriage with his wife.

"I don't know why this marriage has survived," an astounded Talese pointed out. "I think it's quite amazing."

Talese's talk was part of the seventh annual Gay Talese Lecture Series, which has featured other Italian-American writers in years past.