Terry Gross first began interviewing celebrities in the arts world on National Public Radio station WHYY in Philadelphia in 1975. As the queen of research and often surprising personal questions, Gross interviews her guests with a candor and appreciation of their art that surpasses that of most hosts. She has hosted the hit NPR interview show "Fresh Air" for nearly 30 years.
Her stock in trade is to mine surprising insights from her guests. Often, the more well known the artist is, the more gracious he or she is in an interview. Gross is very sensitive to their feelings and asks them if there are subjects that are off-limits. Sometimes, however, a guest will push her buttons and she takes her gloves off. She includes a couple of interviews where the guest is so totally obnoxious that the verbal blows begin to fall. But these instances are rare indeed, and regular listeners to her show usually are entertained and charmed by the genuine camaraderie that prevails.
The broadcasts range from 1988 through 2004, with such notables as Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper, Dustin Hoffman, Jodie Foster and John Updike, to the late Divine, Mario Puzo, Johnny Cash, and James Baldwin. Gross opens each excerpt from the selected interviews in the book --- there are 39 in all --- with personal remarks about the occasion. She has grouped some interviews together, such as the various people involved in the making of the movie Taxi Driver.
Nick Cage describes eating a cockroach live in an early vampire movie called Vampire's Kiss, and then discusses his views on death and dying. Dustin Hoffman turns out to be a charming and introspective guest as he talks about his first splash into stardom with The Graduate, his childhood, and the rather surprising best advice he ever received from Mike Nichols, which he says is what has kept him on the marquee since that movie.
Jodie Foster discusses her TV appearance at age three in a Coppertone commercial. She went on to play the controversial role of a child prostitute in Taxi Driver and talks about the repercussions of the John Hinckley attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, since he was supposedly obsessed with that movie.
Dennis Hopper's interview is characteristically off the wall, but we learn some surprising insights into his early life. Can any of us who are familiar with his work imagine him rising at dawn on a Kansas farm to milk cows before going off to school?
Gross's unique ability to draw celebrities out has made her one of the broadcast media's most admired interviewers. ALL I DID WAS ASK is a colorful and interesting look behind the scenes at one of the longest running interview shows on radio.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on December 22, 2010
All I Did Was Ask: Conversations With Writers, Actors, Musicians And Artists