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Q&A: Gay Talese

Posted: Thursday May 25, 2006 1:19PM; Updated: Thursday May 25, 2006 3:33PM

SI writer Richard Deitsch interviewed author Gay Talese (http://www.gaytalese.com/) for the magazine's Q&A this week. The 74-year-old Talese, who began his career as a sportswriter, has a new book, A Writer's Life. Here are additional excerpts from their conversation:

SI: Why is sports so attractive for writers?


Talese: Because you can see it. You can actually see the performing athlete. If you are a war correspondent or covering Washington or covering some country through the capital city, you are told what the news is or given some spin on what happened. But not so in the world of sports. You are ringside if you are at a fight. Or you are in the press box at a baseball game, and after the game, you can go in the locker room and talk to the person who only an hour or two before you saw in action. So you have a sense of immediacy. And then you have the added advantage of not only being a visual spectator, but you can interact with them verbally. Unless their name is Barry Bonds, and even he is available under the proper auspices and proper circumstances. There is no one who is not available, because performers are very much ambitious in achieving appreciation through those who watch them. Hemingway wrote about sports. John O'Hara wrote about sports. Irwin Shaw wrote about sports. Some of the better writers when I was a young man in the 1950s -- Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Bud Schulberg -- they were all interested and I was that way, too.

SI: Is the losing locker room more compelling than the winning one?

Talese: It's not that I'm only interested in failure, but people who can rise from the floor. That's why Floyd Patterson was an ideal subject. When I was just starting out as a sportswriter at The New York Times, Patterson was not only the champion but he was capable of speaking about it. He really was a soulful person. He was so astonishingly honest in moments of triumph and moments of defeat and those periods in between. And it is those periods in between when so many of us dwell, because no matter whether we are sportswriters or political figures or Broadway actors, there are times when we have our slips and when we fall from grace and when we have to pick ourselves up off the floor. Patterson got knocked down more than anybody in the history of boxing, but he got up more than anybody, and that is a real achievement. What I write about is perseverance more than anything else.

SI: You joined The New York Times in 1953 and worked in the sports department, and later you wrote magazine profiles of Patterson and Joe DiMaggio. What is your opinion of sports journalism today?

Talese: There is so much lying to the press and so much frustration on the part of the press in verifying the truth in political reporting and war reporting. So I often turn to the sports page first. It's the only part of the paper you can believe. It's the one truth section of the daily press. You can't believe what comes out of the White House, Iraq or Afghanistan; everything is so spun and neutered and falsified. But in sports, you are getting pretty much the truth. You may not get exactly what happened in a private meeting involving the commissioner of baseball, but I think it's the most honest section of a newspaper or in the periodicals.