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Nan Talese: More than we know

exclusive interview :: :: Senior Editor :: Nan A. Talese ::

Imprint: Nan A. Talese

Nan Talese

:: One of Nan Talese's publications, the intriguing novel Marie Antoinette, The Journey,
by Antonia Fraser (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2001),
is a recent film produced by Sofia Coppola.

With a career spanning more than 30 years at top publishing houses, Nan Talese’s roster of authors would be the envy of any publisher.

The list includes authors Margaret Atwood, A. Alvarez, A. E. Hotchner, Barry Unsworth, Peter Ackroyd, Pat Conroy, Antonia Fraser, Thomas Cahill, Thomas Keneally, Ian McEwan, Valerie Martin, and Marion Meade.

Random House, Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin, and Doubleday all appear on Talese’s resume. It came as no surprise, then, that the literary imprint Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, established in 1990, gave Talese the freedom and autonomy she likes.

Talese says it is essential the authors whom she works with be “good writers, good storytellers, and have a passion for their subject.”

A few years ago, Marion Meade’s Bobbed Hair & Bathtub Gin – Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, released by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday stood as an example of wit, passion, and good writing.

A biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, and Edna Ferber during a romanticized era, the book continues to provide a good read. These are unquiet women, in decades energized by women winning the right to vote, boozing nightly at speakeasies — despite prohibition — and writers who did not sleep, or who did. In New York, Paris, the French Riviera, and Hollywood.

“The book has a great musical rhythm to it, don’t you think?” Talese had commented during a telephone interview.

“Parker has a sharp wit, Zelda is a lively spirit with a dark side, Ferber is matronly, and Millay is the most sexually free of the group.”

Marion Meade’s book included the infamous quote, “I don’t read books, I just sell them,” by Frank Doubleday.

“That’s too bad,” Talese comments with some embarrassment for the publishing legend who seemed too concentrated on the bottom line.

When book publishing companies go public, she explains, “it can get dangerous” because “demands for higher profits” for shareholders are put in opposition to agents who “are reckless in their demands for author advances.”

Writing is a business, she acknowledges.

However, “Writing novels for a living is a privilege,” she adds, quoting a fiction writer who once admitted that it requires good business sense as much as talent to forge a career as a full-time novelist.

Her own business insight extends beyond book publishing. As a result of the conversion of many of the authors’ titles from print to screen, Talese stays involved in publishing’s distant-cousin industry.

Talese likes the film versions of many of the books she has edited. “I like The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, Houghton Mifflin/1988) and Prince of Tides (Pat Conroy, Houghton Mifflin/1986) very much,” she says. “Pat (Conroy) worked with Barbara Streisand on several rewrites of the screenplay.”

Even though the film version of Mary Reilly (Valerie Martin, Doubleday/1990) had a “fantastic group of actors (John Malkovich, Julia Roberts, Glenn Close) and a great director (Stephen Frears)—” she comments, “—it didn’t work.”

“When a book goes to film, there is no role for an editor,” Talese had commented in an online interview at Writes of Passage.

“However, if the editor is also the publisher, then the editor/publisher would be involved in the negotiation of taking the book to film.”

At the time when another of Pat Conroy’s novels, Beach Music (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1995), was optioned by CBS, he was asked to write the screenplay. Always protective of her authors, she suggested he “put a limit on the amount of rewrites in his contract,” a tip she says she learned from her husband, journalist and best-selling nonfiction author Gay Talese.

She mentions that another of her author’s novels, Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette, The Journey (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2001), is being made into a film by Sofia Coppola.

When asked if Fraser also wrote the screenplay, she remarked with a chuckle, “she’s too smart for that,” referring to the producers, writers, and directors who all have a hand in the screenwriting (or, more accurately, rewriting) process. Ideally, “a film is one person’s vision,” Talese adds.

One reason author Marti Leimbach’s novel, Dying Young (Doubleday/1989), did not make the smooth transition from fiction to film, she notes, is the change of location. In the novel, “it takes place in New England during winter; it is a major character in the story,” she explains. In the film, the setting was changed to San Francisco, altering the mood of the story significantly.

In 1972 she edited A. Alvarez’s The Savage God, A Guide to Suicide (Random House). Dying and suicide are topics that continue to fascinate Talese. She was taught at a young age that suicide “is the one unforgivable sin,” yet still believes “a person has the right to own his or her own life.”

Early in her career, Talese was working with A. E. Hotchner on his biography of Ernest Hemingway, and until that time, she notes, the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning writer’s death had been reported an accident, not suicide. Credit Photo:  Rhea Law

Hemingway’s widow (and fourth wife) Mary, now with Hemingway’s sons grown, originally had agreed that the truth surrounding the circumstances of her legendary husband’s death should finally be told in Hotchner’s book (Papa Hemingway, Random House/1983) but then had reconsidered and had tried to hold back its publication.

While visiting similar dark themes, Marion Meade revealed shadowy hearts in Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin when describing events in these four writers lives. Meade documents alcoholism, illegal abortions, unhappy marriages, divorces, suicides, and schizophrenia. Themes that purge notions most people may still hold about writers. Including the idea that writers’ lives are glamorous.

“That’s because they don’t live with them,” Talese quips. She is married to noted author Gay Talese. “I once suggested a speaking panel of writers’ spouses,” she says, which might shed new light on the topic. “Like Joan Didion and Gregory Dunne.”

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