Gay Talese and The Art of Nonfiction

Gay Talese changes twice each day before he writes and only writes a page a day. That’s one thing I learned from this interview with him on the art of nonfiction. Also, this is interesting (emphasis mine):

My first job was on the sports desk, but I didn’t want to write about sporting events. I wanted to write about people. I wrote about a losing boxer, a horse trainer, and the guy in the boxing ring who rang the bell between rounds. I was interested in fiction. I wanted to write like Fitzgerald. I collected his work—his short stories and journals. “Winter Dreams” is my favorite story of all time. The good nonfiction writers were writing about famous people, or topical people, or public people. No one was writing about unknown people. I knew I did not want to be on the front page. On the front page you’re stuck with the news. The news dominates you. I wanted to dominate the story. I wanted to pick subjects that were not the ordinary assignment editor’s idea of a story. My idea was to use some of the techniques of a fiction writer: scene setting, dialogue, and even interior monologue, if you knew your people well enough. I was writing short stories, and there were not many people on the Times who were doing that. Once, at an NYU baseball game, I overheard a conversation between a young couple who were having a lovers’ quarrel. I wrote the dialogue and I told the story of the game through what they were watching and what they were saying. At the St. Patrick’s Day parade, I wrote about the last person in the procession, a little guy who was carrying a tuba, and behind him came the sanitation trucks. I followed the parade from the vantage point of this tuba player.

And some good advice/perspective:

All the other reporters of my generation would come back from an assignment and be done with their piece in a half hour. For the rest of the afternoon they’d be reading books or playing cards or drinking coffee in the cafeteria, and I was always very much alone. I didn’t carry on conversations during those hours. I just wanted to make my article perfect, or as good as I could get it. So I rewrote and rewrote, feeling that I needed every minute of the working day to improve my work. I did this because I didn’t believe that it was just journalism, thrown away the next day with the trash. I always had a sense of tomorrow. I never turned in anything more than two minutes before deadline. It was never easy, I felt I had only one chance. I was working for the paper of record, and I believed that what I was doing was going to be part of a permanent history.

So, as I always say, read the whole thing. And then read Frank Sinatra Has A Cold because if you haven’t, you shouldn’t be allowed to talk to about nonfiction.

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