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So he had the story all along

Gay Talese's marathon quest for a new book led back to ... himself.

April 23, 2006|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

New York — AS he nursed his second gin martini of the night, minutes before dinner was served at Elaine's, Gay Talese gently grabbed a friend's arm and began outlining his idea for a new book: It would focus on working-class people behind the scenes, he said, the kind of people who aren't celebrities but live fascinating lives. "Sounds great," sportswriter Bill Madden answered. "So what's the hook?" Talese looked offended, as if someone had stolen his drink when he wasn't looking. "I don't need a hook," he said confidently. "I've never had to worry much about that."

It was early in the evening, hours before the literary hangout would fill up, and visitors had already begun straggling by Talese's table to greet him. The dapper, gray-haired man who looks younger than his 74 years was in his element -- shaking hands, trading wisecracks and flirting gallantly with the ladies on his right and left. When six large platters of grilled veal chops arrived -- Talese had ordered for all of his dining companions -- the friendly banter continued. And the drinks kept on coming.

With four consecutive bestsellers under his belt, the man whom David Halberstam once called "the most important nonfiction writer of his generation," has reason to feel cocky. He's just finished "A Writer's Life" (Alfred A. Knopf), a semiautobiographical work spanning the last 60 years, and early reviews have been generally good.

But underneath his genial bravado, Talese has been a man deeply in need of reassurance. His latest book, due in 1995, was delivered 10 years late. During the last 13 years, he grew despondent that his work had no focus, lacked a compelling voice. He fretted that he had faded from view and would be forgotten. Time after time, his ideas about how to write the book -- or parts of it -- were shot down by editors. He worried that the publisher would lose patience with his delays.

In memos to himself, Talese was unforgiving: "Where are we going? Just completed no progress for one month!" he said in one note. Despairing, he confessed: "I continue asking myself, as I have before, what am I doing here? Where's the story? What's the point? Does it matter?" Echoing a writer's worst fear in yet another memo, he asked himself: "When are you going to get back into print???"

"Gay was depressed for much of the time during the writing of this book," said his wife, publisher Nan Talese, during an interview in her office at Doubleday, where she has had her own share of problems in recent months as the publisher of James Frey's now discredited memoir "A Million Little Pieces." "I've never seen him so troubled, so worried that he might have lost his way," she added.

In the end, Talese found the narrative thread that had eluded him for years, offering in the bargain a revealing glimpse not only of his own life and times but of the wrenching self-doubts a writer sometimes endures.

As Talese has described it, "Writing is like driving in a tunnel with the lights out. You don't really know where you're going and it's never a straight path." Indeed, he has written a book about a book in search of itself -- and he was miserable for much of the journey. There are more visible lines of worry on his face than there were in 1992, when his last book, "Unto the Sons," appeared. But Talese -- who was named after his immigrant grandfather, Gaetano Talese, a stonemason -- looked remarkably fit and upbeat as he opened the door of his four-story Manhattan town house on a recent afternoon. He was nattily attired, as usual, wearing a rust-colored tweed sport coat and matching vest, gray slacks, white shirt, yellow tie and handkerchief. His Italian shoes were custom-made.

Talese peppered his guest with questions about family and work and seemed genuinely interested in the answers. The direction of the conversation was forever shifting, just like his book. In the first 23 pages of "A Writer's Life," the author recalls his immigrant Italian father, he talks of his years as a sportswriter and describes his discovery that nonfiction authors could be as creative as any novelist. Finally, he begins what seems to be an extended story line:

As he watched the 1999 women's World Cup soccer finale on television, a marathon that lasted several hours, Talese was struck by the plight of Liu Ying, the Chinese player who missed a crucial penalty kick, thus paving the way for an American victory over her team. Who was this obscure athlete, he wondered? And how would she handle the notoriety that would inevitably descend on her when she returned home?

"That was the real story," he said. "I thought of myself as a young sportswriter and how I would have run into that locker room and told the story through her eyes."

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