Exit Interview: Gay Talese
In his latest book, A Writer’s Life, literary titan Gay Talese describes growing up in Ocean City — among many, many other things. And much like his books, a conversation with the 74-year-old is filled with unexpected diversions. Unlike Talese, Exit Interview has a strict word count, so some of his forays have been condensed. And unfortunately for Talese, since Exit Interview is doing the editing, his most cerebral points have been gutted, leaving more room for comparing Tom Wolfe to a pimp, giving Oprah a smackdown, dissing Google, and defending New Jersey’s honor.
Exit Interview: It’s a pleasure to speak with one of the forefathers of magazine journalism. Should I call you Mr. Talese? Gay? Daddy?
Gay Talese: No, call me Gay. It’s not a formal occasion.
EI: So what’s your excuse for taking 14 years to write one stinkin’ book?
GT: The reason is because I want to know the people very, very well. And I never write about one person. [Enumerates each of his previous books, including dates of publication] In this book, I’m writing about civil rights, homosexuality, a woman in China who plays soccer, chefs and waiters in restaurants. It’s a lot of work.
EI: You describe your childhood as rather unpleasant. Do you have any fond memories of growing up in the O.C. of the East?
GT: In the 1940s, Italians were a very low group in the social pecking order. They were like the Mexicans now — much vilified, don’t have working papers. [Launches a discourse on the slur “wop,” the ascent of Italians to the Supreme Court, Ocean City’s railroad laborers, and his book Unto the Sons]
EI: Have you been back to the Shore recently?
GT: I have a house there open year-round. I drive the bicycle all the time. I wear a Yankees baseball cap, tooting along. …
EI: A baseball cap?
GT: Well, I’m riding a bicycle along the windy Boardwalk. You can’t wear a fedora. It would blow off.
EI: I thought you slept with your fedora on.
GT: I don’t sleep with it on, but my father was always beautifully dressed, and he said, “A man who doesn’t wear a hat is not properly or fully dressed.”
EI: Any advice on staying cool in a three-piece suit?
GT: You know, the heat doesn’t really bother me so much. I always dress well. I’m not interested in making a casual appearance. When I was a young reporter, probably as young as you are — what are you, 25?
EI: I’m 31, actually.
GT: When I was 25, even when I was a sportswriter, I always dressed up for the story. Today, people work at home on their computers all the time. I don’t know how to use the Internet. I don’t even have e-mail.
EI: If you were on the Internet, that would explain what you were doing for at least seven of the past 14 years.
GT: You can’t Google the kind of stuff I do.
EI: Great line. So speaking of style, let’s turn to Tom Wolfe. Should he abandon the polar-bear pimp look?
GT: No. [Discusses an upcoming Vanity Fair story on great writers of the ’60s, the distinction between New York’s Four Seasons restaurant and the hotel of the same name, and a photo of him and Wolfe taken at the former] There’s Wolfe with his white suit and me with my oxford-gray three-piece suit. I like that he’s always dressed with distinction.
EI: What do you think of this new Atlantic City?
GT: I like it. I grew up with Atlantic City in its twilight period. It was this place that had nothing to recommend it. [Waxes on his faves — the defunct Venice restaurant, Doc’s Oyster House, the Knife & Fork] Atlantic City now is better. But I’m not a gambler. I don’t hang around the casinos.
EI: In your book, you say writer’s block can be a good thing.
GT: Sometimes writers write too many damn books! You know that. They don’t give you their best work. I don’t endorse that. They should give an award to some of these writers for not writing.
EI: Can you tell my editor that if a certain writer is four months late on a deadline, it’s for the best?
GT: [laughs] If you have a reputation, and let’s say you do, of being an extraordinary writer who needs more than the ordinary amount of time. It’s like my magazine pieces. [Draws parallels between The Gay Talese Reader, Arthur Miller and Donald Trump] Willy Loman is not a good salesman, but he’s a great character. I’d rather write about Willy Loman than Donald Trump.
EI: Trump should get one of your “please stop writing” awards. That brings us to James Frey. Your wife, Nan, edited his fraudulent memoir, and you publicly denounced what he did.
GT: I did. But the New York Times had a lot of editors, and they never caught this liar Jayson Blair. Could you catch James Frey in advance? I don’t know.
EI: I thought Oprah Winfrey missed an opportunity to push book publishers to install a rigorous fact-checking system.
GT: But the publisher has to trust the writer. If the writer lies, boy, you’re going to be found out. Look at all the lying at the White House! [Weaves a verbal tapestry connecting WMDs, Judy Miller, politburos, Lenny Bruce and Enron] My wife thought he was telling the truth. So did Oprah Winfrey. Then it went crashing down, and Oprah bailed herself out and banged up my wife on television. Frey was clobbered, but he deserved it. She didn’t.
EI: So what’s your next project?
GT: Oh, I don’t want to tell you. I want to come back on your show. I just don’t want to tip my hand.
EI: Perhaps a book on the Shore, tracing the evolution of the Big-Haired Girls and Boardwalk couture, like those shorts with slogans like “Hottie” written on the ass?
GT: But you can’t blame New Jersey. That’s all over the shopping malls of America. There’s a lack of standards and a general sloppiness.
EI: Someone finally said it — don’t blame New Jersey. Maybe that will carry some weight coming from you.
GT: Oh boy. Well, I hope so.