On Writing… Words from the fashionable Gay Talese

In a previous post, I mentioned that Gay Talese dressed up each morning before he began his writing ritual. I decided to post an excerpt of his interview from the Paris Review that described his regiment. But first, here’s how Katie Rophie described him in her introduction to the article.

Each time we meet, in the early afternoon after he has come up from the bunker, Talese is always beautifully dressed. He is so beautifully dressed that strangers will talk to him in the street, that waiters and hostesses in restaurants will want to do things for him, like find a special place to put his hat. Talese’s father was a tailor, his mother ran a successful dress shop, and he says his first idea of how to be special was through clothing. His suits are made by a tailor in Paris, whose father trained his father. When Talese tells me that he sometimes goes to the gym in the afternoon I am tempted for a moment to ask what he wears, but I don’t want to blur or complicate the image of him—bespoke suit, vest, pocket square, colored shirt with a white collar, cuff links—that I have in my head.

INTERVIEWER

How does your writing day begin?

GAY TALESE

Usually I wake up in bed with my wife. I don’t want to have breakfast with anyone. So I go from the third floor, which is our bedroom, to the fourth floor, where I keep my clothes. I get dressed as if I’m going to an office. I wear a tie.

INTERVIEWER

Cuff links?

TALESE

Yes. I dress as if I’m going to an office in midtown or on Wall Street or at a law firm, even though what I am really doing is going downstairs to my bunker. In the bunker there’s a little refrigerator, and I have orange juice and muffins and coffee. Then I change my clothes.

INTERVIEWER

Again?

TALESE

That’s right. I have an ascot and sweaters. I have a scarf.

INTERVIEWER

Do you like that the bunker doesn’t have windows?

TALESE

Yes. There are no doors, no time. It used to be a wine cellar.

INTERVIEWER

How do you write?

TALESE

Longhand at first. Then I use the typewriter.

INTERVIEWER

You never write directly onto the computer?

TALESE

Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I want to be forced to work slowly because I don’t want to get too much on paper. By the end of the morning I might have a page, which I will pin up above my desk. After lunch, around five o’clock, I’ll go back to work for another hour or so.

INTERVIEWER

Surely there must be some days in the middle of a project, when you’re really going, that you write more than a single page.

TALESE

No, there aren’t.

INTERVIEWER

But your books are so long.

TALESE

I take a long time. I have published relatively little given how long I have been working. Over fifty-five years I’ve only written five long books, two short ones, and four collections. It’s not that many.

INTERVIEWER

Is that because you spend a lot of time editing?

TALESE

Not really. I type and I retype. When I think I’m getting close, that’s when I put it on the computer. Once it’s on the screen I make very few changes. It’s the reporting that takes so much time.

INTERVIEWER

Do you use notebooks when you are reporting?

TALESE

I don’t use notebooks. I use shirt boards.

INTERVIEWER

You mean the cardboard from dry-cleaned shirts?

TALESE

Exactly. I cut the shirt board into four parts and I cut the corners into round edges, so that they can fit in my pocket. I also use full shirt boards when I’m writing my outlines. I’ve been doing this since the fifties.

INTERVIEWER

So all day long you’re writing your observations on shirt boards?

TALESE

Yes, and at night I type out my notes. It is a kind of journal. But not only my notes—also my observations.

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