"Eighty percent of the information I have collected from people ends up in the wastebasket." So declares Gay Talese, one of the pioneers (along with Tom Wolfe) of what became known as New Journalism. The man whose probing, detailed profiles of the likes of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio redefined magazine writing in the '60s, and whose books—including Honor Thy Father and Unto the Sons—revealed insight derived from total immersion in the subject matter now delivers a memoir that largely obsesses over the projects that got away.
A Writer's Life includes the admission, "Writing is often like driving a truck at night without headlights, losing your way along the road, and spending a decade in a ditch." With that, Talese frankly recounts his unsuccessful efforts to write about subjects as varied as Manhattan restaurants, female Chinese soccer player Liu Ying, an 80-year-old former warehouse building on East 63rd in New York City ("the Willy Loman of buildings") and the headline-making case of Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt. The latter was initially intended for the New Yorker, until editor Tina Brown pulled the plug. Talese ends the chapter by putting his notes and unsold 10,000-word article into a file.
In reopening his files, Talese reveals the angst, obsessions and procrastinations of a heralded man of letters. His journey has never been easy. The acclaimed Unto the Sons took more than a decade to complete (and the manuscript ran 700 pages). Work on Thy Neighbor's Wife, his 1980s opus about changing sexual mores, spanned nine years and 650 pages. Honor Thy Father required six years' research. (Though as Talese notes, he had a good excuse: His sources for the groundbreaking expose of the Bonnano crime family were being shot at.)
Known for his natty attire (he is, after all, the son of a tailor), Talese is a literary lion who is unafraid to reveal his insecurities. A memoir of the creative process, A Writer's Life will resonate with anyone who has ever sat in front of a blank computer screen. As Talese delves into his past influences (including family and heritage), as well as yellowed thoughts and research files, he delivers a creative tapestry that reminds us that often, it's what you don't read on the printed page that remains the most compelling.
A journalist and biographer, Los Angeles-based Pat H. Broeske writes about entertainment for many publications, including the New York Times.