Advice from the Masters: Gay Talese

Jun 22, 2016 | Better Writing

Gay Talese is known to many people for his books. He’s famous to writers, at least to this writer, as the master of telling detail. You’ll find the detail in his books, like The Kingdom and the Power and Honor Thy Father. But if you want to see it on display, I recommend The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters. That’s where you’ll find gems like this:

“At 5 A.M. Manhattan is a town of tired trumpet players and homeward-bound bartenders. Pigeons control Park Avenue and strut unchallenged in the middle of the street.”

Or this …

“Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel- only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it not only affects his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a president of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.”

Talese crafts his pieces like his father crafted suits, carefully, artfully, and with attention to detail. And the result is like those suits, elegant without being flashy, holding your attention without showing off.

Writing like that starts with sharp observation. The observation is supported and filled out with research. Here’s a bit of wisdom about research from Gay Talese, taken from his Paris Review interview.

“Most of what I gather for my work doesn’t wind up in a book, but I don’t think one can do too much research. All my research is important because it gives me a foundation and a sense of proportion for my subject. And I discover things that might lead me to other stories.”

Want more? Check out the complete list of Advice from the Masters posts

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