The author and man-about-town on handling defeat, writing like a tailor, and facing each and every day with a dry martini.
What's the best advice you ever got?
It came from baseball. I was 12 years old, growing up in New Jersey in 1944, and the New York Yankees had spring training in Atlantic City. Instead of hanging around other kids my age, I had access to professional athletes, and I'd overhear them talk after striking out. There was one guy, Johnny Lindell, who played outfield. He was very nice to me. I asked him how he keeps his spirits up, and he said, "You have to stick with it, kid. You just have to stick with it."
What have you learned about losing?
My defeats started early: I couldn't get a date, I was unpopular in high school. But I'm doing the same thing at 84 that I was at 14, which is aspiring to do better than I did yesterday. When I did that famous Esquire piece on Sinatra ["Frank Sinatra Has a Cold"] in 1966, his valet told me that he sometimes hears Frank trying to get a date on a Saturday night and failing. I said, "You're kidding. Frank Sinatra can't get a date?" I've learned that we're all doomed to fail sometimes, but you've got to have faith in yourself.
How should a man handle aging?
Here's what works for me: I go out every goddamn night of the week. Every night. And I order a martini every goddamn night of the week. I never turned down opportunities to see new things or meet new people.
Why do you think people have such a strong distrust of the media today?
Journalism has lost its particular status because the journalists have become content with just being the first or the fastest. They're no longer concerned with quality writing and reporting, or having a fair-minded spirit — they're single-minded and out to get what they want. There is no seeing the story from the other side. They say as an excuse: "I don't have the time." Well, make the time, goddammit.
What did you learn about work from your father?
I'm the only son of a very prideful tailor. He didn't make a lot of money, but boy, he took pride in the suits he made. He once told me, "Son, when you look for a job, never ask what it pays." Instead, he said, master the job, because if you become really good at what you do, the money will come. Conventional wisdom will tell you differently: Hustle, get an agent, ask for a lot, and settle for less. I never did that. And although I wasn't a tailor, I wrote like one. I cared about every stitch and every button, and I wanted my work to hold up, fit well, and to last. Good work is never easily done. I believed my father, and you know something, he was absolutely right.
How should a man deal with competition?
You don't deal with it. You deal with your own self. I wrote as well as I could, and as long as I met my own standards, I didn't concern myself with anything else. And I've gotten bad reviews all my life. But so did Ernest Hemingway. So did F. Scott Fitzgerald. So did Philip Roth — and I think he's the best writer of my generation. You can only do the best you can do, and as long as you're doing that, there's no reason you have to feel that you've failed.
What's one of your biggest regrets?
I'm trying to think of one, but I can't. There's not a story I wrote that I wish I hadn't. There's not a way I treated a person where I wish I would have treated that person differently. I've had people I've loathed, and I let them know. I've had people I've loved, and I let them know, too. This is not to say that my life has been one of endless pleasantness and cordiality. But I've never regretted letting someone know how I feel.
Gay Talese is the author of 14 books. A new collection of his selected writings, High Notes, will be out on January 17.
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