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MPW @ USC interview with Irwin R. Lewis

July 21, 2005

Q: First, (pulling out my tape recorder and turning it on), how do you feel about tape recorders?

Gay Talese: They have a use for many people--I find them inhibiting. I believe they make people cautious, and rightly so, because what you say on that machine, you're going to have to live with. The tape recorder can actually be very inaccurate. It can be very misrepresentative of your meaning, of your deeper feelings, because the recording only gets the words that are first draft in your mind. It is as if I was to be held accountable for the first draft that comes out of my typewriter.

As a non-fiction writer, I like to move beyond the words and get into the actions of people. I like to be outdoors and moving from place to place with people, and I think the tape recorder tends to draw people indoors and causes them to communicate verbally, over a table, as we're doing now. I like not to rely on the spoken words so much. I like to come to know people by watching them as they go through, in a rather ordinary way, what is their daily life, what is their daily routine. I like to become part of someone's life and then that reflects in how I write about those people.

Q: Tape recorders are used by people who don't have that kind of time or are too lazy to spend that kind of time.

GT: The tape recorder is used now mainly by magazine writers as a question and answer vehicle, and they are usually talking to a famous person. Many magazines now publish movie star articles, and the person who does the interviewing for the magazine is not given a lot of money, partly because magazine articles can now be quickly produced with the help of the tape recorder.

Michelle Pfeiffer is on the cover of Vanity Fair, so someone interviews Michelle Pfeiffer in the plaza of the hotel Pierre in New York while she's in town to promote a picture. The reporter with his tape recorder goes to the hotel suite and talks to Michelle Pfeiffer for about an hour--with the press agent listening--and that becomes the interview. Question and answer. Question and answer. But for a magazine, that is enough to get a cover story. They're using the pictures of Michelle Pfeiffer or Jack Nicholson or whoever has a movie that is being promoted that month, and that's what gets into the magazines.

Now what's that mean to the reporter? That means, that the reporter is only spending a day interviewing, gets two-thousand words of transcript, and out of that comes an article. Not a lot of money is paid for that article because a lot of people can do that kind of interview.

When I was doing celebrity pieces back in the nineteen sixties, I didn't use a tape recorder, but I'd be on the road for two, three, four weeks--following Frank Sinatra, for example. I did many pieces in that same manner, and it took a lot of time, and it was costly because I was running up an expense account, and I was traveling. I wasn't sitting around in a hotel room. I was moving around--with Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas, with Frank Sinatra in Beverly Hills, at the Burbank studio as he was recording an hour television special. And all of this meant that I was living in hotels, and I was driving a rental car, and I was taking people to dinner. Now, I'm talking about the mid nineteen sixties, and I think my expense account for that month doing the Sinatra piece was something like seven thousand dollars. That was an enormous amount of money then. That would be like twenty-five thousand, today. And the magazine paid that. But I don't think magazine people would pay much in the way of expenses now, mainly because they don't have to.

People aren't making much more today then what I was being paid for writing magazine articles twenty-five years ago. The price of magazine writing has not gone up appreciably. Sure, big name writers can get big fees. But the person who makes a living writing for magazines does not get today what was available for the freelance writer in the 1960s and 1970s, and I suggest one of the reasons is the tape recorder. It's changed the whole form of magazine writing.

Q: How do you pick your subject matter?

GT: I'll tell you what I'm doing now, and why I choose what I'm doing now. One of the things I'm looking into is the restaurant. And the reason I'm interested in restaurants is I go to restaurants, but not only because I go, but because a lot more people go to restaurants then ever before because women have become part of the work force and more and more people are going out because there's no cook at home anymore. And because we have had a flourishing economy for a number of years, this has given impetus to the restaurant business. So you have women and men going out a lot more than they ever did. They have the money to do it, and they don't have the time to cook at home.

So the restaurant has become an extension of peoples' homes. But what am I interested in? I'm interested in restaurants as a social enterprise that brings to one place people of diverse cultures. In the kitchen, it's like Ellis Island. The kitchen of a restaurant draws to it many people from foreign lands, some of them here illegally, who are looking for a toe-hold in the American market place. They are dishwashers; they are salad makers; they are sue{?} chefs; they are line cooks. Some of them rise to be chefs. The whole hierarchy in the back of the restaurant is a place of great opportunity. Those people who can speak the language reasonably well, or very well, can get out of the kitchen and sometimes get into the dinning room, where they work as busboys, and then they sometimes become waiters. And if they become waiters, they come to the larger and primary purpose of a restaurant, which is to feed people who can afford to be fed.

So the waiter or the bus boy comes to see the people who are the diners, to overhear the diners, to see how they dress, to get a sense of how they order wine. There is a whole other culture they come to know as a result of having graduated, if that's the word, from the kitchen to the dining room. And people who are very ambitious can rise even further, because the restaurant business is a very democratic business. You can be a dishwasher one year and fifteen years later own the place.

Wolfgang Puck in Los Angeles came up from the bottom. In New York, David Builay(?). David Burns. Sirio Macchioni, who's the owner of Lacarque 2000, which is the most celebrated restaurant in New York with the possible exception of the Twenty-One Club. These are people who started from the bottom. Sirio Macchioni was a bottle washer, and he used to work on luxury ships in the kitchen and then on land he worked his way up to be a bus boy and then a waiter and then a head waiter, and finally with some backing from the rich people he met--and many restaurant people meet rich people who become their backers supporters, patrons--he finally became a very rich man.

And his story is not uncommon, there are many people who can start at the bottom and work their way up and get their names in lights, they become celebrities their names on the restaurants, their names on the windows, on the menus. So it's an interesting story about assimilation, about immigration, and elevation. The restaurant business is an American story. It's not really about food.

I think the reason restaurants thrive is because they cater to many people who feel in the evening hours very insecure and very unconnected. A restaurant dinning room is a place where people connect with one another, and connect with the staff of the restaurant that caters to them. The "hello's" the matradees gives to the regular customers coming in; knowing the regular customer's drinks; knowing what they don't like to eat, giving them a lot of attention. That makes people feel a sense of elevated importance.

So restaurants cater to the insecurities of people. Even people who are very powerful within their city, in the evening hours, when they're not connected to their offices, when they don't have secretaries and assistants catering to them--during the hours between 8 and midnight, those are the hours when a lot of very powerful people feel powerless and uncertain, people between marriages, or people not sure about themselves and their careers, maybe their about to be bought out--who knows--but the genius of some of the matradees in restaurants is they make these people feel better about themselves, so there is something therapeutic about restaurants. This is a big factor.

I don't think very many people really believe that food alone makes a great restaurant. The greatest food in the world doesn't keep the door of a restaurant open. It's the personality of the people who open the door. It's a personality business, and in order to succeed in the restaurant business, it is a total commitment. A person who runs a restaurant has no nightlife, has hardly a life at all. It is a total commitment to serving and schmoozing. You have to like people to be a restaurateur. You have to like people and you have to like them every night of the week. And year after year. And that's tough. Because the endurance--you're talking about the marathon mentality that has to go with a restaurant owner--is not something that everybody has. To be with these people night after night, crowds of people, saying the right thing, doing the right thing. It's something very few people can do. And those who do it well are rewarded, and they become very wealthy people.

Q: Once you've picked the subject, how do you get started on the actual work, the research?

GT: Again, let me take the restaurant. I work in the kitchen. What do I do? I get to know the owners. I ask them if I can hang around. That's what I do, the art of hanging around. Everything I do is hanging around. I hung around bridge builders 35 years ago when I wrote one of my first books. It's the same thing. I hang around restaurants.

I go in at two in the afternoon. I go in at nine o'clock in the morning and hang around the kitchen--what do I do? I watch the deliveries of food. Somebody comes in with a wheelbarrow full of fish and they bring it in and the executive chef is there when the trucks arrive, and he's counting everything, six halibut, five flounder, a ton of shrimp, whatever it is. Now who is this guy in the delivery truck? What time did he get up to buy all this stuff from the fish market? Who is this guy who gets up at three in the morning to buy stuff at the fish market? And where were those fish caught? Who caught those fish? They were caught in Novischosha(?). They were thrown on a little fishing boat, thrown on ice. Now how did they get from there to New York? Well, they were flown in by plane. The plane goes to La Guardia(?)--but how did they get from the plane? A truck drove them to the fish market to the guy who picks the fish up and them takes them to the restaurant. Think about it. Somebody puts a piece of fish in their mouth--now reverse the camera, go back from that diner to the waiter, back to the kitchen, to the cook, back from there to downstairs in the preparatory kitchen, to the guy who made the delivery, to the market, to the plane, etc., and it finally gets back to the sea.

What a miracle that is. "What's the fresh fish tonight?" asks the customer to the waiter. Well the waiter says, "We have this, we have this." Just think of the people who caught the fish, sometimes they're people who are half way across the world. They're off the coast of Russia; they're off the coast of Japan. And those people catching those fish are connected by that fish to some diner half-way across the world.

Or I hang out at the bar. I watch the bartender--how much does he steal? A bartender can steal a lot. The bartender is pouring free drinks for people. He's being watched, but he thinks he can get away with this, and he's going to get a big tip. I hang out in the dining room. Waiters are padding the check. People are stealing the saltshakers. You see a guy putting the make on a girl. All the deals that are being made, all the lies, the mafia runabouts. A restaurant has many purposes. And all in one little place.

So I've taken one little restaurant, an ordinary side street restaurant, and I've hung out there. And there's a story here. But you have to have characters. And I'm looking for characters. The story has to be told through people, so it becomes a drama, a daily drama.

Q: What do you think about the term The New Journalism?

GT: I don't like it very much. It was used by Tom Wolfe, made very popular by him. And I think he meant it to very kindly toward me, very complimentary, but I think complimentary toward the things that I don't really hold in very high esteem. I don't know what is new about the kind of journalism I do. I believe that what I practice is old journalism. It's foot work; it's leg work; it's hanging around. It's nothing new or novel. It's getting to know people and spending time with people and observing with some care, a lot of care--and then what? It's about writing in a way that fully tells the story.

Sometimes journalism only tells part of the story. It's very limited in it's scope. It's very narrowly defined. I wanted to bring to non-fiction writing some of the sense of story that you find in fiction writing. Some of the sense of completion that you find in fiction writing. Characters change. What I wanted to do in non-fiction writing was to be around so long in the character's life that I could see changes in their lives. And that's why sometimes I'll go away from a person for a long time and then come back. To see how things have changed, to see the resolution.

If you do magazine reporting, and you spend two weeks with a person, that's considered a lot for a reporter. But you're only getting a couple of weeks, in a lot of cases a couple days, sometimes a couple hours out of a person's life. And that's very narrow. Your pin-pointing a part of their life, but what does that really have to say about that person as a living person, as a growing person, as a changing person. So that's why I want more of a time zone, stretching for months and years. What I do, often is plant my flag in a person's backyard, so to speak, and then go back a year later and keep doing that. And that produces a book in time, or if it doesn't it produces a lot of interesting memories, which might not go anywhere. You never know what's going to happen at the outset.

Q: That seems "new." At least to non-fiction. Using fictional techniques, including the most powerful technique of characterization in fiction, internal monologue.

GT: I believe you can do that if you know the person really well. If say you're married, and you're living with a person, and you know a lot about your spouse. You know a lot the first year you're married. You don't know everything, because that's a changing person. You're a changing couple. Your whole lives together are changing, and changing separately as well. But I do think that these relationships with subject matter are like romances, like affairs, they're some type of partnership. And partners in a relationship can have different roles. One can be the inside and one can be the outside in a partnership. In this case, you're the recorder and the other person is the doer. Your role here is to capture the energy, activity, dreams, or failures of people. It is a story about perseverance and failure and redemption and failure. Every person's life is an on going up and down ride. And what you are doing is going along for that ride, becoming a co-pilot on their particular vessel, and you are there to keep the records.

So there is something dramatic about this, theatrical, perhaps. If the person if a very active, risk taking person--it depends. But you are there for a long ride, and you are getting reality and producing it in a creative way, in a way that seems very creative; that seems fictional sometimes, because it is told in a story form with the emphasis on a person. A person. Not just the facts. Not facts isolated from feeling. You write from the inside out. You get inside the person to a degree that you are able, and you write with a kind of familiarity, and a knowledge and an intimacy. On the other hand, you don't lose your own writer's voice. You are separate in that it is your tone, your voice. And that's constant through the piece.

That's again the problem with the tape recorder. The tape recorder takes away your voice in favor of the quotations that that person responding to your question gives you and gets on to this plastic wheel here.

(I turned off my tape recorder).

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