Ten random leftovers from Boston University’s Narrative Conference

I enjoyed covering the BU Narrative Conference for Nieman Storyboard this weekend: Got my picture taken with Gay Talese, whose talk I summarized here. Watched as Bill Keller turned peony pink when a woman gushed about him for a cringe-inducing five minutes. (Wrapped up Keller’s talk on the Storyboard here.)

Remembered again how fun it is to talk to strangers and then put their words down on a page (OK, pixels). Went back and reread Talese’s masterful “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and — bonus — found this ultra-cool outline for the story.

Talese takes notes on shirt boards that he cuts into 5-inch strips, rounding the edges so they fit in his shirt pocket. He uses an uncut shirt board for his outlines.

Here are some random nuggets from the lectures:

• Professor and Pultizer-winner Isabel Wilkerson’s declaration that it “takes about a year” before you can feel comfortable saying “Pulitzer” and your own name in the same sentence. Good to know!

• NYT editor Bill Keller on Romenesko: “Sometimes it gets people sort of spun up, reading comments about themselves. … I check it out because it’s the bulletin board of what’s going on in our business. … OK, I’ll say it proudly: I read Romenesko!”

• Biographer Larry Tye on the aftermath of a long newspaper series: “Instead of giving 100 talks on the issue, which is what I wanted to do, my editor wanted to know what I had for him tomorrow.”

• Boston Globe sports columnist and author Dan Shaughnessy said he could name only two good days during the entire process of publishing a book: “The day you get your money and the day the book comes out.”

• Magazine and book writer Adam Hochschild on plot: Homer invented the classic journey frame in “The Odyssey.” Shakespeare mastered the braiding of various story strands — the “Meanwhile, back at the ranch… .”

• While nonfiction writers Talese and Hochschild focused on what they learned from fiction writers, novelist Allegra Goodman said she often stole techniques from journalists: hounding cancer researchers to let her watch them dissect a mouse, for her novel “Intuition”; writing a scene set in a Home Depot for her new novel — while sitting on an actual ladder in the Watertown Home Depot.

• Talese resents it when fiction writers such as E.L. Doctorow place well-known people into fictional constructs. “I don’t want them to come into my little world of reality . . . and be in situations that aren’t verifiable or based on good reporting.”

• When the scandal over James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” broke, The New York Times called the Talese home, looking for his wife, Nan, who happened to be the publisher of Frey’s so-called memoir. Talese told the reporter he was appalled by Frey’s distortions and mistruths. “Then he called her [Nan] up and got a different point of view. And we didn’t talk for five days. That’s the story of marrying editors.”

• Novelist Ha Jin on Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s belief that the center of every novel should contain a profound insight: “The readers don’t have to get it, but your story has to have an inner message, something that gives it an aura. . . a depth and complexity.”

• Talese on what he’s working on now: “I’m a reporter writing about my 50-year-old marriage. I’ve kept records. I’ve saved every complaining note from my wife.”

Shameless autograph-hounding of Gay Talese. Photo by Janet Heard.

Leave a comment


  1. bethmacy

     /  April 27, 2010

    Thanks, Lindsey! Really appreciate the kind note. Cheers —

  2. Lindsey OConnor

     /  April 27, 2010

    Hi Beth. Great post on the conference. I’m so glad you covered it and because of the Storyboard, I found your blog. I look forward to reading more.

    Lindsey (a fellow Nieman Conference devotee)

  3. bethmacy

     /  April 26, 2010

    Hey Katelyn: The Nieman foundation published that book and also used to produce the narrative conference but stopped this year (just my luck, when I was finally going to be able to attend!), due to budgetary reasons, alas. Thanks for writing, and I’ll see you before too long.

  4. Katelyn

     /  April 26, 2010

    Awesome, Beth! Watching someone gushing over Bill Keller sounds priceless. He looks like he could be a Kennedy.

    Is the BU Narrative Conference the same group who published the book “Telling True Stories”? It has some affiliation with Nieman, and includes comments from a lot of the people you mentioned above.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Now Available

  • Tom Hanks on “Factory Man”:

    Factory Man is “Great summer reading. I give it 42 stars. No, I give it 142 stars. Yeah, it’s THAT good.”
  • Follow Beth on Facebook

  • Tweets

  • The New York Times on “Factory Man”:

    This is Ms. Macy’s first book, but it’s in a class with other runaway debuts like Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” and Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”: These nonfiction narratives are more stirring and dramatic than most novels. And Ms. Macy writes so vigorously that she hooks you instantly. You won’t be putting this book down. — Janet Maslin
  • Processing…
    Success! You're on the list.