The Silent Season of a Hero: The SportsWriting of Gay Talese has just been issued by Walker &Company. The collection takes its title from one of the pieces it contains,Talese’s 1966 Esquire profile of JoeDiMaggio in retirement. “The Silent Season of a Hero,” like “FrankSinatra Has a Cold,” published the same year in the same magazine,elevated Talese into a class of his own as a nonfiction writer, where heremained throughout a career that soon turned to book-length work in The Kingdom and the Power (1969) and Honor Thy Father (1971), and continued with Thy Neighbor’s Wife (1981), Unto the Sons (1992), and A Writer’s Life (2006).
While theunforgettable portrait of DiMaggio has pride of place in the new collection, itis surrounded by writing that ranges over six decades—from a few of Talese’sdispatches as a high school reporter for the Ocean City Sentinel-Ledger to columns from his college days at theUniversity of Alabama, from early baseball stories he filed for the New York Times to searching, longer-formintelligence gathered on prizefighters, including “The Loser,” one ofseveral pieces in the book on two-time heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson; “JoeLouis: The King as a Middle-Aged Man”; and the remarkable “Ali inHavana,” detailing Muhammad Ali’s 1996 trip to Cuba and his audience, withentourage, with Fidel Castro—a piece rejected by ten magazines before appearingin Esquire and ultimately beingincluded in The Best American Essays1997.
In early August,I visited Talese, now 78, at his home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side for awide-ranging conversation on his sports writing and the rest of his career.Despite the fact the temperature was pushing 100 degrees, he was as dapper ashe’d always appeared in any photograph I’d seen, comfortably elegant in aperfectly knotted yellow silk tie and an impeccably tailored—four workingbuttons on each sleeve—cream-colored jacket. His alertness was palpable,dispensed with a combination of formality and geniality that made thisinterviewer feel both important and welcome. One understood in a flash that hissecret for getting close to his subjects lies in maintaining a measureddistance—a kind of cognitive, well, “tailoring” suggests itself, andnot just because of those buttonholes. Talese’s attention is clearly deft atjudging how things fit.
Before I knewit, he had embarked upon a lengthy interview of me, eliciting as concise an autobiographical tour of the landmarksof my life as any editor could fashion. We were seated in the corner of ahigh-ceilinged room; the opposite wall was covered with a covetable bookshelfthat ran wall-to-wall and—except for some cabinets at the bottom—from floor toceiling. Our conversation was interrupted now and again with phone callsconcerning a trip he was planning to make, in the next day or so, to Moscow, tosee firsthand the native haunts of an opera singer to whom he is currentlydevoting considerable reportorial energy: Vienna, Buenos Aires, and otherdestinations were on the itinerary he sketched out for me, but the tenor of thetelephone calls seemed to indicate that his plans might be coming undone.
We spent nearlythree hours talking, and Talese’s habits of mind were apparent from the start,not only in his querying of me but also in the ease in which he orderedanecdotes and recollections into a coherent narrative of his earliest career,as the long monologue at the start of the interview below attests. His memory,I would learn after we talked (when he took me outside the house and, through aseparate entrance, into the well-appointed “bunker” in which heworks), is abetted by meticulously maintained files that reach back to hisboyhood—which no doubt explains the astonishing chronological extent of thearchive that The Silent Season of a Hero:The Sports Writing of Gay Talese so winningly presents.
What follows, inthree sections, is an edited transcript of our conversation.
I. A JOURNALIST’S JOURNEY
James Mustich: Sports has been entwined with your lifeas a writer from the beginning—when you were in high school. Which came first,your interest in writing, or your interest in sports?
Gay Talese: Let me go back one step further. What ledme to newspapers was that I had a father who read them. He read the New York Times. When I was ten yearsold—in 1942— I was aware of the war, and I was particularly aware of it becausemy father, who was from Italy, had brothers who were in the Italian army. Theinvasion of Italy was underway when I was 11 and 12, and my father was veryconcerned about his village and his people—not only his brothers, who werefighting the Americans, but his widowed mother. His native village, Maida, wasin the path of the American army as it moved from Sicily up to Calabria. Iwrote about this in Unto the Sons.
So my fatherread the newspaper, and it wasn’t the Philadelphia newspaper, even though OceanCity, New Jersey, where I was born, is close to Philadelphia; it was the New York Times. I didn’t read the paperwith any interest, obviously, then, but I did read the sports page for thisreason: at the time the war was on, the Yankees moved to Atlantic City (thatwas in 1943 and 1944) for spring training, since because of the rationing teamsdidn’t go to Florida during World War II. And Atlantic City is only 11 milesfrom where I was born and grew up. This was the 1943 championship Yankee team.The manager was Joe McCarthy, who was the famous manager of the time ofDiMaggio. Granted, DiMaggio wasn’t playing—a lot of the top names in baseballwere in the army. Not all. But there weren’t many name ballplayers on theYankee team that I saw in 1943 and ’44.
I would get onthe trolley and I would go over there, and then I’d read the New York Times about spring training.That’s when I started reading the newspaper. My father was reading it for theinternational news, and I would look at the sports section. I’d see articlesabout what I’d seen myself. I’d see the exhibition games, and I’d getautographs. Because in spring training at that time, they didn’t play instadiums. Today spring training fields are like any other major leagueballpark—places like Tampa, for example, where the Yankees train. But in thosedays it was an old airport that had old bleachers—that’s where the Yankeesplayed baseball. It was a gravel field, with some grass; it was springtime; thegrass wasn’t growing yet.
Reading sportsin the Times, I got to know some ofthe names of the sportswriters who covered the Yankees. John Drebinger was anold baseball writer. He was a guy that was hard of hearing, but he certainlycould hear well enough to write beautifully about baseball. In those days, evenfor spring training, the sports section would give sometimes two columns—it’samazing, the amount of space they gave! Or to tennis. There was a man whosename was Allison Danzig who wrote about tennis, and in New York, at ForestHills, Dick Savitt would be playing in the quarter-finals against somebody, andthe New York Times‘s Danzig, thetennis specialist, would have two columns. That’s like three thousand fivehundred words for a tennis match. Amazing.
So I would readthis stuff when I was 12, 13, 14—about to go into high school. My father was atailor, as you know from what you read, and he had a customer who got a suitmade now and then, a man named Loren Anguvine. He was the editor of the weeklylocal newspaper. It was called the OceanCity Sentinel. My father told him, “Gay really likes sports,” andLoren Anguvine must have said, “Well, let me talk to him.” Anyway, Iwent to him.
The paper wasonly two blocks away from the store—my mother’s dress shop and my father’stailor shop were in the same building, and we lived upstairs. It was the mainstreet of the town, and two streets below was the newspaper office, and I wentover there. He said I could write sports and write high school news, both. Hepaid 10 cents an inch for what they printed. My father had tape measures formeasuring suits; I’d use them to measure the damn space. If I had a 12-inchpiece, it was $1.20, and maybe I had 4 or 5 stories in each edition. I’d get acheck every week, and the check would be five dollars or seven dollars or ninedollars—that was big. We’re talking about 1946 to ’48. I graduated from highschool in 1949.
I was writing highschool news, high school highlights, and sports. I’d cover the high schoolteams, all of them, intramural teams included—football, basketball, baseball,track. There were games that my father had to drive me to; I didn’t have adriver’s license. There were towns about 15 miles away. One town was calledPleasantville. That’s where the Red Sox trained—Pleasantville, New Jersey. It’sabout 15 miles away from Ocean City. There’s a place called Vineland. There’s aplace—what’s the difference? There are these teams in Cape May County, andthey’d play one another in football and basketball, too—away games. My fatherwould drive me, and sometimes we’d get back late.
The paper cameout on Friday, so I’d have a Thursday deadline. Sometimes I’d stay up all nightlong writing about the games on my little Remington typewriter, then I’d walkit in before I went to school. I’d leave it at Mr. Anguvine’s office, and afterschool he’d call me and said, “It was good,” or tell me that he’dchanged this or changed that. Then I’d see the paper on Friday and I’d measurehow much money I was going to make.
That went onuntil I graduated from high school. I couldn’t get into college because mygrades were so low. I mean, I was pretty good with Anguvine, but with thefaculty at the Ocean City High School I wasn’t very good at all. I had very badgrades, including in English. But there’s no association with writing andjournalism and English. You can be very good in English, and not be very goodmaybe in writing about a basketball game, or interviewing a football coach. Idon’t know. But I didn’t get good grades.
The problem alsowas that after the war, GIs were still crowding the colleges, even though thiswas 1949. You didn’t get into colleges just because you had a father that couldput you into college. You had to get grades, and the principal and the guidancecounselor of high school had to recommend you—and I couldn’t get recommended.
As a result, Iwasn’t going to go to college. It got to be August, the end of the summer, andmost of the kids in my school, at least half of them were going to college, andall the athletes I had written about were going because they had scholarships.A lot of people were going, and I would like to have been one of them.Fortunately, my father had another customer, a doctor named Aldrich Crowe, whowas from Alabama. He had come to Ocean City during the Depression and built theleading practice in the town—he also had suits made.
My life is verymuch affected by the customers of my father. My father didn’t have a thrivingbusiness, but there were certain distinguished people he knew, because they hadthings either made by him or altered by him. Dr. Crowe was one of them. When Icouldn’t get in anywhere, my father was lamenting this fact, and Dr. Crowesaid, “I could probably get him into the University of Alabama—I stillknow people on the faculty; I graduated from University of Alabama medicalschool as well.” So he makes a call, and I do get into Alabama, surelyjust on the power of Dr. Crowe’s personality. That’s 1949. I was the first inmy family, of course, to go to college.
So I go toAlabama on the train in September of 1949. And what am I going to take? Well,obviously, journalism, because that’s the only thing I can seem to do. They didn’thave a school of journalism; it was just a little department. And there was aschool weekly—it wasn’t a daily paper. I joined the staff as a freshman, and bysophomore year I was writing a lot of stories; by the third year I got to bethe sports editor. I also wrote a column as well as covering games. The columnwas called “Sports Gay-zing,” and some of the writing I did for thatcolumn is in this new book.
I was alsoworking as the college correspondent, the University of Alabama correspondent,for the Birmingham newspaper. The college is in Tuscaloosa, and Birmingham is40 miles away. It had two major daily newspapers. One of them was theScripps-Howard paper called theBirmingham Post-Herald. I was the Post-Heraldcorrespondent—not only sports, but general news. I’d write feature stories.Maybe there was a some story about some crime on the campus, or some studentbeing elected to something, or some event—maybe it was about music, or maybe itwas about academic life, or whatever the hell it was. So I was now working fora daily newspaper, while I was still a student.
In 1953, when Ihad graduated, it seemed to me that I should continue in sports, because that’swhat I’d been doing more than I’d been doing anything else, because I had hadmore opportunities to be published—because papers devoted space to sports everyday, and they didn’t devote space to anything else every day. The rest was justnews, and you had to have the big news, or else you didn’t get in. But therewas always news in sports.
I came to NewYork and didn’t know anybody. But I did have a third personal connection.Everything I got, I got from personal connections—not really on my own merit. Ijust knew somebody. This one came from a person I knew as a student at Alabama;he was named Jim Pinkston. He was from Mississippi. I met him in class andI—well, I get along with people. That’s one thing you don’t get graded for. ButI always got along with people. As a boy in the store—when you’re a boy in astore, when your parents run a store, you meet older people, because thecustomers are older people. But you also meet working people. In my father’sstore, there was another old tailor, and there were a couple of black guys onthe pressing machine—my father did a side business in dry cleaning. I met thesemen; I knew them. My mother had a dress department—the dress department was thebusiness; tailoring was a nothing business in terms of making money. But mymother had young girls, high school students, who helped her sell dresses orworked in the store. So I knew them, too.
When I got adriver’s license at 17 or whatever, I used to help. I would drive the truck todeliver some of the dry cleaning, and I met people who were the maids of thesummer people, or the people who had houses on the beach. I met all differentclasses of people. I was store-tutored, store-trained. And that’s close tojournalism—knowing how to get along with people. In the store, you learnmanners. Treat the customer properly, otherwise, you’re not going to make any sales.
So I met JimPinkston from Mississippi, and I got along with him. He said, “If you evergo to New York, you have to look up my cousin; he works at the New York Times.” “Ohyeah?” I said. “Yeah. He’s the managing editor, in fact. Go up thereand say you’re a friend of mine—he’s my cousin.” Turns out he was talkingabout Turner Catledge, who was the managing editor in the early ’50s. I comeright to New York and walk right into the Times Building, without anappointment. Just show up. Come out of the bus station, over to 43rdStreet, go up to the third floor, and asked to see Mr. Catledge. Now, as atailor’s son, I’m dressed well. Very well. I mean—even as a high school kid Iwas dressed well. I had to be; my father was a tailor. He didn’t make anymoney, but I wore his clothes, and they were well-made.
So I walk in.The receptionist says, “Do you have an appointment, young man?”
“Well, whyare you here?”
“I want tosee Mr. Catledge.”
“Why do youwant to see him?”
“I know hiscousin. His cousin told me if I’m in New York I could stop in and sayhello.” “Mr. Catledge is a very busy man.”
“How longare you in town?”
“I justarrived.” It’s like 11 o’clock in the morning.
“How longwill you be here?”
“I’ll waithere until I see Mr. Catledge.”
So he makes aphone call while I’m standing in the reception room. Out comes another man whowas the executive secretary of Turner Catledge. He says, “Mr. Catledge isa very busy man.”
“You knowhis cousin?”
He says,”Look, Mr. Catledge has a meeting at 4 o’clock every day. If you’ll comeat maybe 10 minutes to 4, I can maybe get you in to see him, and then you’llhave to leave before the meeting starts.”
I say,”That’s fine.”
So I spend fiveor six hours wandering around Times Square. I’d never been to Times Square. Ihadn’t been anywhere. I was in New Jersey, and then I went to Alabama, but Ihadn’t been to New York. No reason to be in New York.
I come back at10 of 4, and the same receptionist greets me, and calls the same guy out—Mr.Andre, his name was, Herb Andre, the executive secretary to Turner Catledge. Hetakes me into the City Room, and I see the City Room for the first time. It’sthis magnificent scene of noise, people smoking, the sound of typing, all sortsof noise, bells on typewriters—400 people were in that one room. A big room—awhole open area from 43rd Street to 44th Street. I followMr. Andre through the corridors, passing the journalists and the copywritersand the copyboys, and all the makeup people, all the characters. Go into a bigoffice, and there’s a guy in the back of the room with a pinstripe suit andruddy complexion. He’s leaning back in his chair, and he has one foot on hisdesk—a big black shined shoe on his desk.
He gets up whenhe sees me.
“Goodafternoon, young man. What brings you to New York?”
I say,”Well, Mr. Catledge, your cousin said I should stop in.”
“Oh, thankyou. Sit down.”
Then Mr. Andreleaves, and I’m now with Turner Catledge for my three minutes.
He says, “Youwent to Alabama. It’s a good school.”
“And youknow my cousin? Well, who is this cousin you met?”
I say, “JimPinkston from Mississippi.”
Catledge lookedat me, and he was blank. He didn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’tcatch it yet. Later on, I thought this guy really wasn’t a cousin, or thatTurner Catledge probably has 5,000 cousins. When you’re famous, you have allthese cousins.
Catledge says,”What would you like to do?”
“I’d liketo be a journalist some day, Mr. Catledge.”
“Oh, youhave to have a lot of experience to be here. You have to work for othernewspapers, and you work your way up.”
“Yes, sir,I know that’s true. Well, maybe some other job. Maybe I could get a job as acopyboy or something.”
“Well, Idon’t even know if we have any openings.”
But before hesays goodbye to me, he calls up the secretary. Herb Andre comes back in. Hesays, “Herb, do we have any jobs for copyboys?”
“Well, whydon’t you take this young man’s name and phone number. If we have something,we’ll call you.”
“Thank you,Mr. Catledge.”
I go outside,Andre gets my phone number—my mother’s dress shop is the phone. I get on thebus to go back to Ocean City.
About two weekslater, I get a call from Andre’s office. They tell me, “There’s an openinghere in late July; are you interested?”
“Well, whencan you come to New York?”
“I can cometo New York now.” This was like June the 5th.
“No, no,you come in July. There will be an opening then.”
So that’s what Idid. I got started as a copyboy in July of 1953.
I knew that Icouldn’t be sure how long I could stay, because I went to ROTC in Alabama, andknew they’d be calling me up in the army, but you never knew when. The KoreanWar was over, or pretty much over. But I did some pieces, even as a copyboy,that got in the paper.
GT: Yes. The first piece I got in the paper was on the editorialpage, about the Times Tower. There was an old building in the middle of 42ndStreet, a three-sided building, rather like the Flatiron Building; they used tocall it the Times Tower. Later, Allied Chemical took it over. It’s still there.They used to have an electric sign with bulbs. You remember that? I wrote aboutthe man who changed the bulbs. I discovered this guy as a copyboy wanderingaround. You have to be there. You ask questions. You see the guy with the weirdjob of putting lights on—that was a serendipitous discovery. That’s the kind ofstory I like to do.
When I went intothe army, I kept in touch with Catledge. I was writing pieces for the Times even in the army, just likeanybody could do. The Travel section. Anybody could do that. I did a magazinepiece when I was a copyboy, about a silent screen movie actress. That’s in The Gay Talese Reader,which George Gibson[publisher of Walker & Company] published. If you look in that book,there’s a piece called “Origins of a Non-Fiction Writer,” in which Italk about that article about the actress.
When I got outof the army, I got a job at the Times insports, and I wrote feature stories. I loved doing feature stories. One of thereasons I liked sports is you could see what you were writing about. If youwere a war correspondent, you never saw the war. If you were a politicalcorrespondent, you had sources, but you didn’t yourself see anything. You weretold stuff, but you didn’t see it. Yes, as a film critic, you see the movies,and as an opera critic, you see the operas. But in sports, you not only see it,but then you can talk to the people right after. You see the prizefighter beingknocked out, then you go the locker room and you talk to him. This is access.And you get close to the people. I mean, you’re physically close. Not in thepress box, but right there in the locker room. That’s what I like.
II: THE MIRRORS OF INHERITANCE
JM: You’ve written in several places about wanting to writepieces like Irwin Shaw’s stories, but with real names.
GT: That’s in the introduction to this new sports writingcollection.
JM: Yes. Did you feel that ambition was more easily met writingabout sports? I mean, the game or the fight provides its own setting. You’rethere. You have physical proximity to the players. It has a dramatic arc that’sbuilt into the contest. The architecture of a story is always present.
JM: But what’s interesting, even in the early pieces, is thatyou naturally seem to find an oblique angle to that dramatic arc, so thatyou’re interested not in the game and the drama of the winning and losing ofthe game, but in the private experience of the players, or, in the longerpieces on Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis, on titans after their careers have runtheir course, on the hero’s “silent season,” as the title of theDiMaggio piece names it.
That focus alsogives you access to an emotional store as rich as the one Shaw mined in thosewonderful early stories of his. If you’re writing about DiMaggio in hispost-baseball obscurity, shall we say—or Louis once he’s left the ring—there’sa deep well of feeling you’re able to tap in readers, because sports breeds akind of nostalgia that comes readily to people who might live at some distancefrom their own feelings otherwise. My Dad is a great sports fan. I suspect hemight never engage his own past with the kind of deep nostalgia he’d feelthinking about DiMaggio in his silent season. Sports makes emotions availableto people who normally don’t articulate them for themselves. [LAUGHS] Thisisn’t really a question. Just an observation of what I think you make happen inthose stories.
GT: Well, thank you. I think that’s right.
JM: In A Writer’s Life, you write about the apartment in OceanCity where you grew up, an apartment that was filled with mirrors. Let me readthat description:
Mirrorsare what I most remember about living in that spacious apartment,large—ten-by-twelve-foot—mirrors that covered the portable partitions thatconcealed the bedrooms in the rear area, which had once been occupied bylinotype machines, and smaller mirrors that had been mismeasured or otherwisefound inappropriate for the store below and were affixed to the walls upstairsin various places, reflecting every feature and piece of furniture existing inthat wide and high-ceilinged hundred-foot-long room we called home but couldhave been better utilized as a dance studio.
I can’t help butwonder if growing up among all those mirrors helped form the kind of obliqueperspective you take on many of the stories that you cover, and that gives yourmost famous pieces their distinctive brilliance: DiMaggio in retirement, FrankSinatra not singing because he has a cold, Muhammad Ali in Havana. Because thefocus is always perfectly clear, but there’s an angle built into it that,almost because it’s oblique, heightens our attention.
GT: [Pauses] You’re absolutely right. No one has said that, andI never articulated that, but boy, that’s really a good take on what I do. Youdid your homework.
JM: It was easy homework to do. [LAUGHS]
Somewhere, I’mnot sure exactly where, you’ve written, “Sports is about people who loseand lose and lose. They lose games; then they lose their jobs. It can be veryintriguing.”
GT: It’s true. I’m interested in how they take it. No one hasever written about being traded, what that means if you’re married and you havechildren, what it does to your family. We haven’t yet had a Joyce Carol Oatesor a Mary Morris or a Mary Gordon write about the father being traded. What afictional baby should do, about being a girl whose father is always traded andshe’s always changing schools, following baseball. It would be a great storyfor some woman writer—Selena Roberts, whoever writes sports.
But we’re offthe subject.
JM: You’ve written 37 or 38 pieces about Floyd Patterson;several are in this book.
GT: Yes, that’s right. It’s amazing—I never realized I did that.But Barbara Lounsberry, who’s a friend of mine—I co-authored a textbook withher about writing—she added them up: 37 pieces. But that’s how you get to knowpeople.
See, the worstthing about journalism is, you get to know people for about six hours, but youdon’t know them. Then you go back to your office and you write about them, andyou never see them again in your life—most of the time you don’t. I save mynotes, and I always want to see the people again. Patterson I saw over a40-year period. I didn’t write about him during all that time, I wrote abouthim only at a certain period, but I kept up with him.
I had two oldbooks revived recently by Daniel Halpern at HarperCollins. He did Thy Neighbor’s Wife and he did Honor Thy Father. Honor Thy Father is about a Mafia family. I published that bookback in 1972-73. I kept in touch with that family for the next forty-someyears, and then, in 2008 I guess it was, there’s this new edition. I did anupdate. But I had kept in touch with that gangster family, and the littlechildren that I wrote about in 1972 in HonorThy Father were 45 years old when I went back to see them again. But I’dkept in touch. It’s a wonderful thing; it’s journalism, but it has memory, ithas history.
You have to keepup with people. So talking 37 times to Patterson was not odd for me; I justhappened to write those stories. Most often, I talk and I don’t write anything,but I keep notes.
JM: There’s a short piece in here called The Fighter’s Son.
JM: About his father being a boxer. You say something at the endof that that’s very interesting to me, being Italian-American myself.
GT: You are?
JM: Yeah. Three of my grandparents were immigrants, the fourthwas born on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; my mother’s side is from Naples, and myfather’s side from Puglia.
GT: Mustich. That’s your name. Was it something else?
JM: No. My paternal grandfather’s family was from Puglia, andthere must have been an Istrian or Austrian soldier who settled there. [LAUGHS]
GT: Oh, boy. And there were a lot of them around.
JM: So that’s where the “i-c-h” comes from. Anyway,back to The Fighter’s Son. You writeabout Sinatra, “he was destined to live a life that would be as turbulentas it was triumphant, a headline-making existence that, over the course of halfa century, the rest of us (particularly we Americans of Italian heritage) wouldfind inspirational because it gave us the courage, finally, to fullyacknowledge and respect who we are.” I remember seeing you on televisionwhen Sinatra died, which was probably around the time this was written, and yousaid something very similar. You were the only person who said anything likethat.
GT: Is that right?
JM: It resonated with me because I know he meant something likethat to my parents, and the need for somebody to mean something like that tothat generation has always moved me.
JM: In A Writer’s Life,you talk about Ocean City. “The island was my parents’ point of departurefrom all traces of Ellis Island, a midway point before melding in….” Doyou feel that you’ve melded in with America? Or do you still feel that theItalian-American experience is …
GT: Isolating a little bit?
GT: Absolutely. I’m 78. You’d think I’d have gotten over it.Maybe because I’m so old that I remember very clearly World War II, which wasvery defining of my character, because of being an Italian raised amongAmericans. What I’m trying to say is, there’s always a feeling, even in the literarycommunity—I feel that as an Italian, I’m not part of this world. I don’t feelunloved in the literary world, but still, I don’t ever feel removed from beingItalian-American, in literature or journalism.
The Italiansalways think, well, we’re practical people, we’re not people of the word, we’renot literary people. So I’ve always felt like an outsider; I don’t feel thatI’m ever comfortable. Maybe that goes back to not being comfortable with who Iwas as a boy, in a flag-waving American town, and being Italian at a time whenwe were often called “wops” and “guineas.” That’s not trueany more. But that doesn’t mean things have to be verbally expressed.
III: A WRITER’S LIFE
JM: I’m fascinated with a lot of your work, but I have aparticular affection for this one, AWriter’s Life.
GT: Boy, I’m so glad to hear you say that, because that didn’tgo anywhere. Thank you.
JM: It strikes me that in this book, more than in the otherbooks conceived as volumes, you employ something like the same method you usein your famous shorter pieces—”Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” thePatterson piece, the DiMaggio piece—but apply it to yourself to create aportrait of a working reporter doggedly pursuing stories—the history of singlerestaurant space that’s always changing hands, the story of an unfortunateChinese soccer player, the saga of John and Lorena Bobbit—that never pan out.It’s about losing, if you will, in the same way as some of the sports pieces(I’m thinking of the Patterson ones especially) are about losing, about thetraining and the investment of time and the hope poured into efforts that comeup short. “… [I]t is pertinent to acknowledge,” you write at onepoint, “that during my forty-year career as a researching writer, I haveinvested heavily in the wasting of time.”
GT: That’s right.
JM: But because you’re a writer and can make a book of yourfailures, if you will, it’s triumphant, in a way. It’s almost like apicaresque. At the end, the hero comes whole, and says, “Here’s the book,which you’ve gotten to the end of, and I’m just starting to write.”
Many reviews ofthe book sort of said, “Well, he found a way to stitch together all thesethings he was working on and couldn’t get a book out of,” which seemed tome very shortsighted. They didn’t attend to the book as a whole, which createda picture of a writer from the same kind of angle from which you had oncestudied DiMaggio or Joe Louis. As I said, because you’re a writer you arrive atsomething of a happier conclusion by dint of the fact that you’ve made a book,while a middle-aged DiMaggio in the batting cage at the end of “The SilentSeason of a Hero” ends up with stinging hands. But it’s very much the samekind of approach you’re taking. It’s not about the triumphs of writing, it’sabout how a professional gets from day to day, doing what he’s doing in a notalways successful search for inspiration. I’m wondering if you were consciousof that while you were doing it, or is this something I’m projecting onto itfrom my reading of the rest of your work?
GT: I think you’re right. I’m not saying that I was conscious ofeverything that you’re saying, but I’m happy to hear it, because I don’t knowwho read this book, even though I thought it was a very good book. I thought itwas better than anything I’d done before. But that’s over now.
[Editor’s note: At this point, the phonerings, and Talese resumes a conversation he had begun earlier about possiblecancellation of a trip to Moscow he is intending to take in a couple of days,because the Russian opera singer he is writing about now has suddenly changedher plans: “So she’s leaving Moscow on the 11th?,” heasks, listening intently. “Well, Christ, if she’s there, I could go fortwo days. What the hell do I care? One day in Moscow, even; at least I’d seewhere she was born. Let me just think about this, OK? All right. You’ll bethere an hour from now? I’ll call you then.”]
GT: Well, there’s my trip. The heat in Russia is so bad thatshe, the singer, wants to get out of there. But… [SIGHS] I don’t know thatI’d want to do this piece if I don’t have Russia in there. I want to see whereshe comes from. But that’s another story, isn’t it? Have you got everything youneed?
–August 4, 2010
[Editor’s note, September 28, 2010: Before posting this interview, Icalled Gay Talese to find out if he had ever made it to Moscow. He had—leavingNew York on an Aeroflot flight 72 hours after our conversation. He spent a weekwith the opera singer in her homeland, then traveled with her for two weekseach in Buenos Aires and Barcelona, returning to Manhattan in mid-September.
“Wasit worthwhile?” I asked him.
“We’llsee. As you know, I don’t work especially fast.”
“Well,I’d love to read the piece.”
“I’dlove to read it, too,” Talese said. “I have to write it first.”]