FW: Review-a-Day: A Writer's Life [by Gay Talese]
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Subject: Review-a-Day: A Writer's Life
Today's Review From
Christian Science Monitor
A Writer's Life
by Gay Talese
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A Life Spent Chasing Stories
A review by Erik Spanberg
In his memoir on life as a writer, Gay Talese includes several
memos he had written to himself while pursuing two long-dormant
potential book projects.
"More writers should be doing what you're doing -- NOT writing,"
Talese tells himself. "There's so much bad writing out there,
why add to it?"
This bit of scolding leaps out from A Writer's Life, a work defined
by Talese's elegant, erudite writing and marked by his lifelong
(and often wayward) pursuit of disparate story threads.
Early in the book, Talese acknowledges missing a slew of deadlines
while searching for his next book topic -- his last major work
was published in 1992 -- and a propensity for chasing several
story strands at the same time.
Through much of A Writer's Life, Talese meanders along. He offers
us an insider's look at the life of a nonpareil nonfiction writer:
days, weeks, months, and years of waiting, canvassing, traveling,
scribbling, working and reworking, writing and rewriting.
This makes for much less a memoir of Talese's life than a memoir
of his writing life, a fine but important distinction. The book
begins and ends with a surprising (for author and audience alike)
obsession: Talese hopes to find and interview the women's Chinese
soccer player whose errant overtime kick proved to be the decisive
play in the 1999 Women's World Cup championship match won by the
A self-described "nonfiction writer with a soft heart for secondary
characters," Talese (along with his wife, literary editor Nan
Talese) may represent the New York literary aristocracy, but he
still writes with relish about the odd, largely anonymous (or
noncelebrity, anyway) characters he encounters in his peregrinations.
A typical example: While researching a restaurant for a forever-doomed
book project, the author describes not only each kitchen-staff
member, but also relates the life stories of many of the staffers.
Talese describes one Russian waiter as "a tall and prematurely
balding man of twenty-seven with an oval face, brown eyes, a courteous
manner (his father and grandfather had both been Soviet diplomats,
serving, respectively, in Czechoslovakia and Austria), and a
muscular body that he maintained by working out in a gym for two
hours every afternoon...."
This penchant for thorough description can, at times, prove
as so many characters and lineages flow through these pages that
one occasionally winds up in need of a scorecard.
Throughout his career, however, these close observations have
stood Talese in good stead, whether penning what is regarded by
many as the finest magazine profile in American letters (his harrowing
portrait of Frank Sinatra, written for Esquire in 1966) or in
past books, including his legendary history of The New York Times,
The Kingdom and the Power.
Indeed, when Talese discusses those past glories, as well as
his assignments for the Times covering the Selma, Ala., civil
rights march in 1965 and a silver-anniversary reassessment in
1990, he proves no less enthralling.
Ample time in this memoir is dedicated to the familiar New York
writerly practices of bemoaning missed publishing deadlines; whiling
away endless hours at various overpriced restaurants; and interviewing
the waiters, bartenders, and owners catering to the literati (including
Elaine Kaufman, proprietress of New York's famed Elaine's).
Talese also tells of his ill-fated assignment covering the John
and Lorena Bobbitt mutilation trial in 1993 and 1994 for The New
Yorker. After spending six months covering the trial and its build-up,
and conducting exhaustive research, Talese's article is declined
by then-editor Tina Brown, who suggests it might instead make
a short book. (It didn't).
And that Chinese soccer player? Talese flew to China several times,
landed interviews, did extensive research and then watched her
Talese is fortunate in that he has the perfect mind-set for these
maddening pursuits. Rather than pursuing any particular goal,
Talese prefers to keep looking, waiting for the right moment.
In this case, even the wrong moments -- the dead-end leads and
interviews, the interminable waiting -- often end up making for
what Tom Wolfe, Talese's fellow New Journalism literary lion,
calls the Right Stuff.
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