As a young boy, Gay Talese didn't peek from behind his mother's skirt, flashing flirty smiles at female patrons streaming through his parents' dress shop in New Jersey. Instead, he stayed behind the counter and listened, absorbing the daily crush of conversation.
Skills unwittingly picked up from his mother, who befriended her customers through confidence and trust, shaped Talese into a perpetual purveyor of the human experience. Criminal chicanery and political machinations are the undeniable and inevitable stories that fill newspapers. So obvious to the writer. So obvious to everyone.
Talese, however, snoops under the bed—sometimes in it—pursuing stories that often are overlooked.
The author in his latest work has turned his focus inward. He will speak about "A Writer's Life" at this year's Writers' Conference in Sun Valley, which takes place Aug. 18 through 21. It will be his second appearance.
"I had a terrific time," he said. "(At the workshop) you're in communication with a book-reading public. There aren't that many left."
Trained as a journalist at the New York Times, Talese grew frustrated by the word-count afforded reporters. Magazine writing allowed greater length. Better still when he turned to books.
"I wanted to do in non-fiction what fiction writers do," he said. "But I didn't want to falsify the facts. I wanted to bring to the story a sense of authenticity so readers can say, 'This is good stuff, but can I believe it?' Yes, it's verifiable."
Although Talese's books are often sweeping in nature and confront weighty subjects—the Italian-American experience, the media, the sexual revolution—he takes a microscope to small players on a world stage.
"The larger issues are not considered large by me," he said. "Most people I write about are not necessarily famous or even identifiable or news-worthy. Most people written about (in papers) are in the news because they did something terrible yesterday or because they did something significant. A newspaper presents itself as a daily record of yesterday's world, but you're trying to reflect it today. I think that world can be reflected by people who aren't necessarily news-worthy, but they can reflect a time and place."
His latest book deals with issues relevant in the last half of last century, not the least of which is the civil rights movement.
"Rosa Parks is a name. Jesse Jackson is a name," he said. "I want to write about the unknown, the underrepresented. People who are beyond the purview of the press. I take extraordinary events as seen through the eyes of ordinary people."
But a writer can't simply approach ordinary people and ask them to divulge their stories. They might not even be aware they have any worth sharing.
"Why does someone take 10, 12, 13 years to do a book?" Talese said. "It takes many years to get to know people. If you really know them...you can write about them from the inside out, rather than the outside in."
The outcome, then, will be a work that transcends a situation to reveal something about the human experience.
"I'm not a biographer. I'm not a historian. I'm not a journalist," he said. "I'm a storyteller."
Despite sharp words for media and the character trashing that can result from journalists' zeal to scoop the competition, Talese values the experience the job affords.
"Journalists working for a daily paper in (general assignment beats)...you're out there in the street; you can meet cops one day, tugboat captains the next," he said.
The variety of people a reporter encounters can serve as a basis for fiction writing later on.
"That's what realism is about in the hands of great writers," he said. "Hemingway started as a reporter. There's a strong sense of reportage in (his) writing. Hemingway was one of the great writers of fiction whose origins were daily newspaper work."
Though journalism can teach, aspiring writers must be willing to learn. And they must have within themselves patience and self-discipline for the task.
"I self-edit, refine, rework, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite," Talese said. "I'm very critical what it is I'm doing from the beginning. I don't settle for my second best. I'm being the critic as well as the writer."
"The writer should do all the work," he added. "The reader should have to do nothing but read with ease. Sentences should be crystal-clear...and the reader can just absorb it like a big box of chocolate."
And does Talese have in the making more delicacies for public consumption?
"I sure do," he said. "I'll talk to you about them next year."