Gay Talese‘s piece on Frank Sinatra titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold“ is regarded by Esquire as one of the most influential magazine pieces ever written in the history of journalism and a pioneering example of what came to be called New Journalism. When I read that piece along with his other writings such as a story of New York Times obituary writer named Alden Whitman and the history of The Paris Review, I paused and pondered: All of his writings are non-fiction, dealing with heavy facts and real characters, but are written like short story. How did he even do that?
In conversation with Longform Podcast in front of a live audience at NYU, Talese answered my question. He generously shared his secrets of being who he is–one of the most well-respected journalists of our time. Although Talese’s counsel is aimed at aspiring journalists, it is replete with wisdom that applies as much to journalism as it does to any other intellectually and creatively ambitious endeavor.
The transcript is below (He starts sharing his advice at 00:38:20)
Interviewer: You graduated college in 1953. If you’re graduating from the University of Alabama today, you’re 21, how would you navigate this world today? How would you do your thing in 2013?
Mr. Talese: […] the way I worked then as a reporter is what I do now. I don’t think I have changed except get older. I don’t think I have changed a bit as a journalist. Doing your research more than you ever need, doing in person, looking at faces, never using a phone–if you can avoid it, and showing up. I am unannounced sometimes. Just show up. Just knock on the door.
Interviewer: You are still showing up?
Mr. Talese: Showing up is a part of it. [And] making good impressions […] And I tell you, I’m not selling clothes today, but I tell you, being well-dressed, it does not hurt when you knocking on the door try to appeal to strangers to give you their time and to ultimately let you inside their lives, so you can learn who they are and write knowingly about them. And write with respect about them as well. This is so important. We are not talking about journalism-put-down. We are not talking about snarky kind of stuff. We are talking about respectful reporting of people that might have been overlooked but have something to say, maybe has not been said or maybe it has not been said by these people in their own way of saying things. But it’s the way of quest for knowledge, expanding the table of interest to people who normally are not heard from, except statistically. Making people who are unknown people worth reading about and describe them in a way that a short story writer does. That’s all it is.
Interviewer: You get those people to reveal things about themselves […] How did you develop that kind of trust?
Mr. Talese: […] journalism is going on a date. You start with respect, reverence to know people. Gradually telling about yourself as you’re inquiring about them. Second date, a little more. Third date, a little more. Fourth date, more and more. And in my case, the first knock on the door, If I am allowed in, is telling them why I wanna talk to them. I have a reason on knocking on doors. I wanna see a certain people […] And I’m sincere.
Interviewer: […] you’re upfront with them about what you’re doing?
Mr. Talese: Yes, I have always been that way […] What I’m saying is being there. It’s pursuing your curiosity. Presenting yourself as a respectable person and a person that respects others and good manners […]
Here is the full interview with him:
Images: portrait of Talese via (Andrew Romano)