Nan A. Talese

Talese Reflects on a Long, Passionate Publishing Career

Nan A. Talese is flanked by A. E. Hotchner to her right and Anne C. Heller and BIO President Will Swift to her left.

Nan A. Talese is flanked by A. E. Hotchner to her right and Anne C. Heller and BIO President Will Swift to her left.

We learn by stories,” Nan A. Talese said, and when it comes to biography, “the story of the person’s life should be interesting and carry the reader along.” That was just one of the insights Talese imparted from a 50-year career in publishing, many of those years spent helping dozens of biographers bring their subjects’ stories to life.

Talese spoke just before accepting BIO’s third annual Editorial Excellence Award, which recognizes the contributions of outstanding editors—as nominated by BIO members—to the publishing of biographies.

The October 5 event at the New York Society Library began with an introduction by BIO member Anne C. Heller (who played the key role in organizing the evening and ensuring its success, in collaboration with members Kate Buford, Deirdre David, Gayle Feldman, and Will Swift). Talese worked with Heller on her biography Ayn Rand and the World She Made, and Heller noted that Talese’s books “are known both for their literary excellence and for their physical beauty.” She praised Talese for “the extraordinary judgment, taste, skill, dedication, and, in my case, patience, Nan has brought to her literary calling.”

A. E. Hotchner followed Heller and recounted working with Talese on Papa Hemingway, Hotchner’s account of the novelist’s life and Talese’s first major biography after coming to Random House from Vogue as a young editor. Hotchner described going into her tiny basement office—a broom closet that included a desk and two chairs—and her first words: “I think we should change the title.” She also advised him to put more of himself in the book, as Hotchner and Hemingway had been friends. As Talese later explained, she suggested edits while also drawing more out of Hotchner, and they ended up cutting 20 percent of the original manuscript and adding a new 20 percent. Papa Hemingway went on to become a perennial best seller.

Hotchner and Talese worked together on several other books, and Hotchner noted her eye for detail, sometimes questioning a single word choice, and her swift and careful attention to the manuscripts she receives. Most gratifying, he said, was hearing Talese describe a manuscript as “wonderful.” He said, “She says wonderful better than anybody else.”

Talese spoke next, offering her recollections of some of her experiences with Hotchner. At their first meeting, which included several other editors, she admitted, “He thought that I was going to bring them coffee or something; he certainly didn’t think that I was going to be his editor.”

Talese also discussed some of the other noteworthy books she has worked on, including Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List and the challenges she faced negotiating the finances of the book with Keneally’s lawyer. Talese wanted the book badly, and she said she became a “pest” as she worked to close the deal. Talese also recalled the difficulties she and Deirdre Bair had in securing rights to Saul Steinberg’s art for Bair’s biography of the cartoonist.

Talese and Bair worked together again on Bair’s new biography, Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, published last month, and Bair joined Talese to address what Bair called the “nuts and bolts” of editing and publishing biographies. Asked what she looks for in a book she publishes, Talese said she focuses on three questions: Does the writer use language well, is the writer a storyteller, and does the writer tell the subject’s story with such passion that people will want to read it.

When Bair brought up the popularity of celebrity biographies and wondered if there is still a place for deeply researched books on serious subjects, Talese said people do still want those “big” biographies. At times, though, such books are reviewed so well, “people think they’ve already read the book” after reading the reviews.

Reflecting on her career, Talese said she was not truly qualified to be an editor when she first came to Random House, and her first job was looking for typos. But she was grateful to be there, saying, “I couldn’t believe I was being paid to read….To this day I love it just as much.” With her job, “you live in another world, you learn of another world.”

Following the Q&A, BIO president Will Swift presented Talese with her award, noting the importance to biographers of skilled—and passionate—editors like herself, as they “help us become more than we dreamed we could be.”

Nan A. Talese Wins Editorial Excellence Award

BIO president Will Swift looks on after presenting Nan A. Talese with the Editorial Excellence Award.

BIO president Will Swift looks on after presenting Nan A. Talese with the Editorial Excellence Award.

Biographers International Organization gave Nan A. Talese its Editorial Excellence Award at the New York Society Library on October 5. Almost 100 people turned out to honor Talese, including several of the authors she has worked with over the years, such as Judy Collins, Anne Heller, and A. E. Hotchner. Other guests from the publishing world included Sonny Mehta, Louis Begley, Robert MacNeill, and Robert Caro, who called the event one of the great literary evenings in New York. Talese joins Robert Gottlieb and Jonathan Segal as winners of the Editorial Excellence Award.

BIO Honors Nan A. Talese

Biographers International Organization will present its third annual Editorial Excellence Award to the legendary editor Nan A. Talese, senior vice president of Doubleday and publisher and editorial director of her own imprint, Nan A. Talese Books at Doubleday, at an evening reception on October 5 in New York City.

talese2In the course of fifty years, Nan Talese has edited and published some of the most distinguished biographiess and nonfiction works of our time, including A. Alvarez’s enduring classic, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide; Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s List; Phyllis Rose’s Josephine Baker in Her Time; François Gilot’s Matisse and Picasso; Benita Eisler’s O’Keeffe and Stieglitz; Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette; many books by Peter Ackroyd, including The Life of Thomas More, Shakespeare, Chaucer, J. M. W. Turner, Newton, Poe, Chaplin, and London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets; and Deirdre Bair’s Saul Steinberg and the forthcoming Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend, among many others. We spoke with Nan briefly about the experience of editing biography and what she looks for when considering the acquisition of a book.

TBC: Can you provide us with a telling example of how working actively with an author improved one of the biographies you published?
Talese: The best example may be the first biography I edited, A. E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway (1966). The author and I sat together with the manuscript. I pointed out scenes that seemed less interesting than other scenes or that did not contribute to the reader’s understanding of the character of Hemingway. I asked him questions: “What is going on there? What do you want to convey?” and he answered and I would say, “Put that in!” We ended by cutting one fifth of the manuscript and adding another one fifth in.
TBC: What do you look for in a proposal or a manuscript?
Talese: The first thing I consider is whether the subject is well known and well respected, and what the crucial scenes were in his or her life. What caused a subject to change his mind or direction? Then I look for whether the author has a gift for storytelling and whether the writer’s voice transfers his or her passion to the reader and the page. I look for the ability to tell a powerful story while being very careful to stay within the facts.
TBC: What are editors looking for today?
Talese: Fortunately or unfortunately, there is a great deal of interest in pop stars and in celebrities of all kinds. This is cyclical, and—if fifty years of editing is any guide—this interest will go and come again.

If you will be in or near New York on October 5, do consider joining Nan and a number of the biographers she has published for an evening of lively conversation. The event takes place at the New York Society Library, 53 East 79th Street, at 6:30 p.m. and is open to the public.

Buy tickets here.