Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gay Talese

The playboy and the playwright

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In 1948, the playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson spent four months teaching a legendary writing course at the University of Illinois. His lectures were published as The Human Nature of Playwriting, a book that until recently was remarkably difficult to find—I ended up photographing every page of it in the reading room of the Newberry Library. (A digital edition is now available for eight dollars on Kindle, which is a real bargain.) It’s as much about living a meaningful life as it is about becoming a good writer, and my favorite passage is Raphaelson’s praise of those who live by their wits:

I intend to gamble to my dying day on my capacity to provide bread and butter, a roof and an overcoat. That kind of gambling, where you pit yourself against the primary hazards of life, is something I believe in. Not merely for writers, but for everyone. I think security tends to make us timid. You do well at something, you know you can continue doing well at it, and you hesitate about trying anything else. Then you begin to put all your energies into protecting and reinforcing what you have. You become conservative and face all the dangers of conservatism in an age when revolutions, seen and unseen, are occurring every day.

One of the students in his class was the young Hugh Hefner, who was twenty-two years old. And the more I think about Hefner’s implausible career, which ended yesterday, the more I suspect that he listened intently to Raphaelson, even if his inner life was shaped less by the stage than by the movies. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese writes of Hefner’s teenage days working as an usher at the Rockne Theater in Chicago: “As he stood watching in the darkened theater, he often wished that the lights would never turn on, that the story on the screen would continue indefinitely.”

And Hefner’s improbable existence starts to make more sense if see him as at the star of a movie that he was furiously writing in real time. These impulses were central to his personality, as Talese notes:

Not content with merely presenting fantasy, [Hefner] wished to experience it, connect with it, to synthesize his strong visual sense with his physical drives, and to manufacture a mood, a love scene, that he could both feel and observe…He was, and had always been, visually aware of whatever he did as he did it. He was a voyeur of himself. He acted at times in order to watch. Once he allowed himself to be picked up by a homosexual in a bar, more to see than to enjoy sex with a man. During Hefner’s first extramarital affair, he made a film of himself making love to his girlfriend, a 16mm home movie that he keeps with cartons of other personal documents and mementos, photo albums, and notebooks that depict and describe his entire personal life.

Talese observes elsewhere that as Playboy grew in popularity, Hefner dressed the set with the obsessiveness of an experienced stage manager:

The reclusive Hefner was now beginning to reveal himself in his own pages…by inserting evidence of his existence in the backgrounds of nude photographs that were shot exclusively for Playboy. In a picture of a young woman taking a shower, Hefner’s shaving brush and comb appeared on the bathroom sink. His tie was hung near the mirror. Although Hefner was now presenting only the illusion of himself as the lover of the women in the pictures, he foresaw the day when, with the increasing power of his magazine, he would truly possess these women sexually and emotionally; he would be realizing his readers’ dreams, as well as his own, by touching, wooing, and finally penetrating the desirable Playmate of the Month.

“[Hefner] saw himself as a fantasy matchmaker between his male readers and the females who adorned his pages,” Talese writes, and the logical conclusion was to assume this role in reality, as a kind of Prospero composing encounters for real men and women. In The Human Nature of Playwriting, Raphaelson advises:

If you start writing and suddenly it isn’t going where you want it to go, what you expected to happen can’t happen, and you are within five pages of your second-act curtain and you’re stuck, there is a procedure which I have found invaluable. I make a list of my principal characters and check to see if each character has had a major scene with every other character, and by “major” I mean a scene in which they are in conflict and explore each other…I would say a good play, all other things being equal, should have thorough exploration of each other by all the major characters.

Hefner clearly conceived of the Playboy Mansion as a stage where such “thorough exploration” could take place, and its habitués included everyone from Gene Siskel to Shel Silverstein. The Playboy offices also attracted a curious number of science fiction writers, including Ray Russell and my hero, Robert Anton Wilson, who answered the letters in the Playboy Forum as an associate editor for five years. (Wilson writes in Cosmic Trigger: “You all want to know, of course, does Hef really fuck all the Playmates, and is he really homosexual…We have no real inside information—but our impression is that Hef has made love to a lot of the Playmates, though by no means all of them, and that he is not homosexual.”) On September 2, 1962, after participating in a symposium on the future, Robert A. Heinlein attended a party at the mansion, of which he recalled:

This fabulous house illustrated a couple of times in Playboy—and it really is fabulous, with a freeform swimming pool in the basement, a bar under that with a view window into the pool, and all sorts of weird and wonderful fancies…I saw my chum Shel Silverstein…I got into a long, drunken, solemn discussion with Hefner in the bar and stayed until 7:30am—much too late or early, both from health and from standpoint of proper behavior of a guest. I like Hefner very much—my kind of son of a bitch. No swank at all and enjoying his remarkable success.

But it can be dangerous when a man creates a dream, walks into it, and invites the rest of us to follow. Hefner sometimes reminds me of John Updike—another aspiring cartoonist who took the exploration of extramartial sex as his artistic territory—but he’s also uncomfortably reminiscent of another famous figure. Talese writes: “Although there were numerous men who were far wealthier than Hefner, the public was either unaware or unenvious of them since they rarely appeared on television and never called attention to the fact that they were enjoying themselves.” It’s hard to read these words now without thinking at once of Donald Trump, whose victory over Ted Cruz in the primaries Hefner hailed as “a sexual revolution in the Republican Party.” Like Trump, Hefner became a caricature of himself over time, perhaps failing to heed Raphaelson’s warning: “When you make money and are known as being a competent and well-heeled fellow, it’s natural to accept yourself at that value and to be horrified at the thought that you should ever again be broke—that is, that anyone should know of it.” And Talese’s description of Hefner in the sixties carries a new resonance today:

Hugh Hefner saw himself as the embodiment of the masculine dream, the creator of a corporate utopia, the focal point of a big-budget home movie that continuously enlarged upon its narcissistic theme month after month in his mind—a film of unfolding romance and drama in which he was simultaneously the producer, the director, the writer, the casting agent, the set designer, and the matinee idol and lover of each desirable new starlet who appeared on cue to enhance, but never upstage, his preferred position on the edge of satiation.

This sounds a lot like our current president. Trump had a long association with Playboy, and while we may never know how much of his personality was shaped in some way by Hefner, I suspect that it was just as profound as it was for countless other American males of his generation. It might seem a stretch to draw the line from Raphaelson to Hefner to Trump—but we’re all part of the play now. And the curtain hasn’t fallen yet.

The seductiveness of sources

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The Voyeur's Motel

If you’re intrigued by public literary implosions, you’ve probably heard about the storm swirling around the legendary journalist Gay Talese, who has disavowed his new book The Voyeur’s Motel after discrepancies in its version of events were raised by the Washington Post. The book, which was given an eye-catching excerpt back in April in The New Yorker, revolves around the seedy figure of Gerald Foos, a motel owner in Aurora, Colorado who spied on his guests for more than three decades using a voyeur’s platform installed in the ceiling. Foos kept a detailed journal of his observations that served as Talese’s primary source, along with interviews and personal meetings with his subject. (At one point, Talese joined him in the attic, where the two men observed a sexual encounter between a pair of guests.) Yet according to the Post, much of the material in Foos’s diary is contradicted by public records. Among other issues, Foos sold the hotel in 1980 and didn’t regain ownership of it for another eight years, a period in which he claims to have continued his voyeuristic activities. When Talese was told about this, his response was unequivocal: “I’m not going to promote this book. How dare I promote it when its credibility is down the toilet?” And no matter how you slice it, it’s an embarrassing episode for a journalist who has deservedly been acclaimed for most of his career as one of our leading writers of nonfiction.

Even in the earliest days of their relationship, Talese had reason to doubt his subject’s reliability. Foos had written Talese a letter on January 7, 1980, offering to contribute “important information” to Talese’s work on the sex lives of contemporary Americans. Talese wondered from the beginning if Foos might be “a simple fabulist,” and when they met, Foos seemed unusually eager to talk about his experiences: Talese says that he’d never met anyone who had unburdened himself so quickly, which certainly feels like a warning sign. After Talese began to read the journal itself, he became aware of possible inconsistencies: the first entries, for instance, are dated three years before Foos actually bought the hotel. As time went on, the diary grew more novelistic in tone, with Foos referring to himself in the third person as “the voyeur,” and some of the incidents that it recounts seem an awful lot like his fantasies of what he wished he could have been. Talese was unable to corroborate Foos’s startling claim that he had witnessed a murder committed by one of the guests, which had suspicious parallels to an unrelated killing that occurred elsewhere around the same time, and he admits: “If I had not seen the attic viewing platform with my own eyes, I would have found it hard to believe Foos’s account.” But he trusted him enough to build much of his book around excerpts from the journal, for which Foos was paid by the publisher, although Talese hedges: “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.”

Gay Talese

So why was he taken in for so long? That’s a question that only Talese can answer, but I have a hunch that it had something to do with the seductiveness of Foos’s journal, even more than with the man himself. Talese writes:

My interest in him was not dependent on having access to his attic. I was hoping to get his permission to read the hundreds of pages that he claimed to have written during the past fifteen years, with the result that he would one day allow me to write about him…I hoped that Foo’s manuscript, if I obtained permission to read it, would serve as a kind of sequel to [the Victorian erotic memoir] My Secret Life.

At their initial meeting, Foos pulled out a cardboard box containing the manuscript, which was four inches thick, written on ruled sheets from legal pads with “excellent” penmanship. Foos agreed to send the diary in installments, copying a few pages at a time at his local library to avoid attracting attention. Later, he sent a full typescript of three hundred pages that included material that Talese hadn’t seen before. And it seems likely that Talese was inclined to believe his source, despite all his doubts, because the material seemed so sensational—and it was all right there, in his hands, in a form that could easily be shaped into a compelling book. A manuscript can’t refuse to talk.

I understand this, because I know from experience how the mere existence of a valuable primary source can influence how a nonfiction book is constructed, or even the choice of a subject itself. It’s so hard to obtain enough of this kind of information that when a trove of it falls into your lap, you naturally want to make use of it. I don’t think I would have pitched my book Astounding if I hadn’t known that tens of thousands of pages of documentary material were available for my four subjects: I knew that it was a book that I could write if I just invested enough time and care into the project, which isn’t always the case. But it’s also necessary to balance that natural eagerness with an awareness of the limitations of the evidence. Even if outright fabrication isn’t involved, memories are imprecise, and even straightforward facts need to be verified. (Numerous sources, for example, say that John W. Campbell graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Duke University in 1932, but Campbell himself once said that it was 1933, and he’s listed as a member of the class of 1935. So which is it? According to official records at Duke, it’s none of the above: Campbell attended classes from September 1932 through May 1934, a seemingly small detail, but one that plays a key role in reconstructing the chronology of that period in his life.) All you can do is check your sources, note when you’re relying on subjective accounts, and do everything in your power to get it right. Talese didn’t do it here—which reminds us that even the best writers can find themselves seduced and abandoned. 

Written by nevalalee

July 1, 2016 at 9:00 am

A writer’s routine (mine)

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I believe it was Dean Koontz who said that there’s nothing more boring than reading about somebody else’s diet, unless it’s reading about a novelist’s writing routine. Still, since you’re going to be hearing a lot about my writing life over the next six months, as Midrash slowly inches its way toward completion, I thought it might be useful—and marginally interesting—to tell you something about my own schedule, at least as it works on an ideal day. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from reading about the routines of other writers—like the fact that Gay Talese keeps a thermos full of coffee on his desk. (Feel free to skip this post, of course, if you couldn’t care less. I’ve got some good movie stuff coming soon, I promise.)

I wake up most mornings at eight, just in time to have breakfast with my wife, who works as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. Breakfast consists of green tea, orange and pomegranate juice, and fresh fruit. (We’re trying to eat a little healthier these days.) Then, after she heads to work, I write up the day’s blog post—like this one!—and spend twenty minutes on the Wii Fit. After reviewing my notes for that day’s chapter, which I should probably read earlier in the morning, I shower, shave, put on my suit and tie (okay, not really, although I know that some novelists have done this) and start my morning’s work around 10:30, thermos of green tea at the ready.

Most days, when I’m actually writing—as opposed to outlining, doing research, or indulging in creative procrastination—I try to have at least a shitty first draft of the target chapter done by noon, which means typing nonstop for two hours or so. I don’t worry about elegance or structure, although I do try to be grammatically correct; all I care about is getting the basic elements of the chapter, which I’ve already outlined, into some kind of coherent form. Then I’ll go back and do a rough polish of the entire thing, with a short break for lunch (granola with blueberries, spirulina, and more green tea), generally finishing up around 3:00.

At that point comes my only real break of the day, during which I either run errands, read, or take a nap (which, as Mad Men knows, is an essential part of any writer’s routine). Then around 4:30 I start again, doing yet another polish—and a fourth if I have time—before my wife gets home around seven. Then I mail a Word file of the day’s work to myself, cross it off my outline, and try to relax for the rest of the evening, aside from writing a draft of the next day’s blog post before bedtime, which is usually around 11:30. The following morning, the whole process begins again. Repeat fifty or sixty times, not counting research, outlining, or revision—because every draft I write this way needs to be massively revised—and you’ve got a novel, or something like it.

Of course, this basic routine—which, incidentally, applies only to weekdays—can vary a lot. This week, for instance, my publisher is having the cover meeting for Kamera, which meant that I had to spend some time writing up my thoughts on cover art and filling out an author’s questionnaire. (I hope to talk more about cover art soon.) As much as I’d like to have evenings and weekends for myself, I’m not sure how often this will happen, given what has turned out to be a rather tight writing schedule. (In the old days, before I got married, I’d often take a longer break in the afternoon, then work until close to midnight.) So obviously there’s room for variation. But so far, this seems to be the routine that works best for me.

Written by nevalalee

March 9, 2011 at 8:59 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , ,

For the novelist who has everything

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Most writers, let’s face it, are less than wealthy. This profession has all kinds of rewards, but financial ones, unless the writer is especially lucky or the star of a reality television show, usually aren’t among them. This holiday season, then, you might want to treat the writer in your life to one of the following gifts, which will make his or her solitary existence a little more comfortable. (Full disclosure: I already own most of the following, but that doesn’t mean you still can’t get me this.)

1. Infusing Teapot from Hues ‘n Brews ($25). Most writers like to sip from a cup of something while they work. For me, it used to be coffee, and, in the evening, white wine—a bad habit that I’ve mostly given up. About a year ago, I switched to green tea, and it’s been great: with an infusing teapot, I can easily make tea from loose leaves, bought on the cheap from the Chinese supermarket, and steep them for two or more infusions, which is more than enough to keep me going throughout the day. After a factory fire this summer, Hues ‘n Brews teapots can be hard to find, so if you see one, grab it. And make sure you get a thermos, too—a tip that I learned from A Writer’s Life by Gay Talese—and a nice mug. (My own favorites are these sturdy little mugs from Pantone. Mine is Pantone 292, which fans of The Magnetic Fields will appreciate.)

2. Recycled hardcover journals from Ex Libris Anonymous ($13). These book journals—which are created from vintage hardcovers, with a few pages from the original book thoughtfully distributed throughout—are among the most beautiful and sensible gifts that a writer can receive. My first Ex Libris notebook, created from a copy of Thomas B. Costain’s Magnificent Century, has served me well for years now, and includes notes, mind maps, and miscellaneous scribbles for three novels, two screenplays, and a handful of short stories. Once the pages run out, I’ll be switching to a notebook made from Tatsuo Ishimoto’s Art of the Japanese Garden, which I’m hoping will last for just as long.

3. Messenger bag from Tumi ($150). Writers tend to carry a lot of stuff with them. (In addition to whatever book I’m currently reading, I’ll usually have pens, pencils, business cards for notes, Altoids, and often a larger notebook.) In cities like New York or Chicago, where the creative class tends to rely on public transportation, it’s essential to have a reliable bag. Women have this part covered, but men will probably need some kind of satchel. My favorite, from Tumi, is no longer available, but they seem to have some nice alternatives available online. I’m also fond of this one from STM, which is large enough to accommodate a laptop and some library books. (Just don’t call it a man purse.)

4. Symphony pillow from Tempur-Pedic ($99). Back pain is a chronic part of the writer’s life. I’ll be writing about this in greater detail in a future post, but suffice to say that right chair, a properly elevated workstation, and a good pillow all go a long way. If you’re in a generous mood, you might consider buying the Aeron chair mentioned above (I had to give mine up, sadly, after my move to Chicago). But, failing that, the Tempur-Pedic pillow will make your favorite writer’s neck and back a lot happier. (After six or more hours at a desk each day, that’s no laughing matter.)

5. The Writer’s Chapbook by The Paris Review ($10 or so). This wonderful book, edited by George Plimpton from the legendary author interviews conducted by The Paris Review, seems to be out of print, but it’s still widely available online. All things considered, it’s probably the single most useful and inspiring book a writer can own. (Many of my Quotes of the Day have this book as their ultimate source.) Other good books for a writer, aside from John Gardner’s essential Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist, include Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith (apparently out of print, but very useful), How Fiction Works by James Wood (infuriating, but invaluable), and How to Write Best-Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz (also out of print, but available online for a whopping $88).

Finally, if all else fails, there’s always another option. At best, writers tend to be rich in spirit and poor in cash. Most will happily accept donations toward the advancement of art.

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