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Monday, May 1, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Master of nonfiction shares the best story of all — his own

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Gay Talese will read from "A Writer's Life" at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Tickets are $5; sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

"A Writer's Life"
by Gay Talese
Knopf, 430 pp., $26

Great authors are inquisitive. The inquisitive nature of Gay Talese shows on almost every page of his hefty memoir, "A Writer's Life." He gathers information about his own past in the same manner that he gathers information about the pasts of his sources and subjects.

Talese, born in 1932 and raised above the New Jersey tailor shop of his immigrant parents, is a great writer of nonfiction — perhaps the best alive. Starting with The New York Times in 1956, he has composed unforgettable newspaper features, magazine stories and books for five decades.

Talese's 1966 feature about Frank Sinatra in Esquire won accolades from that magazine's editors as the best story they have ever published. His books — about The New York Times, changing sexual mores, what it's like to live inside an organized crime family, his Italian-American family — are contemporary classics.

So it's no surprise that Talese's long-awaited memoir is completely absorbing — especially for other professional writers, but for nonwriters also.

Yes, it meanders, as Talese violates chronology and dwells on certain topics — a particular building in New York City, the mutilation of her husband's penis by Lorena Bobbitt, a Chinese soccer player — that might cause some readers to skip ahead. Yes, in an ideal world Talese would have provided more information about some of the magazine features and books that have brought him fame — not to mention more about his wife, Nan Talese, the accomplished book editor closing her career with her own imprint at Doubleday.

Talese is exceedingly modest, even self-deprecating. It turns out that accomplished, famous writers sometimes feel unsure of themselves. Talese explores why, during 1999, he became fascinated by the saga of the female Chinese soccer player, even though he knew little about the sport and could not identify an obvious publication outlet.

Why did he find himself paying for an airline ticket to China? He shares his "misgivings" about his motives. "Did I seriously believe that this was a valid story worthy of my involvement? Or was I merely reaching out to Liu Yang as a kind of muse, an alluring figure in a mirage that would inspire my meanderings across the mainland of China while I avoided my main professional obligation at home, at my writer's desk, where I was struggling with my book? When there is a creative lapse in a writer's work, I reminded myself, a writer can be very creative in finding ways to escape it."

He shares some of his craft secrets. It turns out accomplished, famous writers sometimes reach dead ends during a work in progress. In-person interviews are deemed important by all knowledgeable authors, but can take a long time to set up, with no guarantee of a return on investment.

While working on what became the famous Sinatra profile, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," Talese never received cooperation from the volatile singer/actor, so relied on direct observation and discussions with hangers-on. While covering the civil-rights struggles in the American South, Talese tried to draw out sources and subjects whose views he found unpleasant, in addition to movement leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.

Talese includes memorable anecdotes from his interviews, such as the time he sat with an Alabama sheriff named James G. Clark Jr. Clark resented how journalists employed by Northern news outlets seemed to stand in judgment of Alabama whites who opposed integration. During an interview in Selma, Clark told Talese about his anger at being portrayed as a bully. He showed Talese a photograph of the sheriff wrestling an overweight black woman to the ground. "She hit me first," the sheriff told Talese. "Those damned newspaper fellows made it look like I was beating her. She's bigger than me ... I know this because after we arrested her, I had her weighed."

"Whatever valuable insights and facts are derived in this manner," Talese says, "often cost me considerable sums of money in transportation and hotel expenses, and the dining and wining of sources ... contribute nothing at all to the progress of the book. Were I paid at an hourly rate for my research efforts, I would be remunerated in pennies, not dollars. This is not meant as a complaint, for if earning a high hourly income was paramount, I would have long ago aspired to becoming a divorce lawyer ... or a Freudian analyst. Yet it is pertinent to acknowledge that ... I have invested heavily in the wasting of time ... Eighty percent of the information I have collected from people ends up in the wastebasket. Nonetheless, I could not have discovered the useful 20 percent without picking my way through the other 80 percent."

Throughout his career, Talese has agonized over finding the best voice for telling the story. Talese had been conditioned as a newspaper reporter to avoid first person. Sometimes, though, he believed the first-person voice might work best. "I had never given much thought to who I was. I had always defined myself through my work, which was always about other people. So when I confronted [the memoir], and sought a location in which to situate myself, I was hesitant ... I had been told that we in journalism were not part of the story. Where we were, who we were, and what we thought was not relevant to what we wrote."

Talese eventually reached an uneasy peace with first person so he could complete "A Writer's Life." He is probably the better for it. Those who care about his career certainly are the better for it.

Steve Weinberg, a resident of Columbia, Mo., is a director of the National Book Critics Circle.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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