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All I Did Was Ask: Conversations With Writers, Actors, Musicians And Artists


I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air . . .

But this is a book, not a radio show. You may be wondering what the point is of reading interviews that were meant to be listened to. I've asked myself that. But in going through transcripts in preparation for this book, I was pleasantly surprised that so many of the interviews I remembered as having been good radio also made for enjoyable reading. In reading the ones gathered here-I probably shouldn't admit this-I've learned things from them that went right by me in the studio.

This book is different from the show in another way. It features only interviews with people in the arts. On our daily broadcasts, we try to offer meaningful discussion of the most pressing issues of the moment (too often of late, these have been issues relating to war and terrorism). Someone's new novel or movie or CD can seem trivial compared to the day's headlines. But whereas "timely" interviews can become dated very quickly, the pleasure we gain from the finest books and movies and music stays with us. So does our interest in the people who create them-which is why I'm hoping you'll enjoy reading this selection of interviews with writers, actors, directors, musicians, comics, and visual artists.

On the air, I make it a point to keep the focus on my guests. Here it seems fitting to share some of my thoughts about interviewing, and to give you an idea of what's involved in putting the show together. The interviews on Fresh Air sound conversational, or at least I hope they do. But they bear little resemblance to the conversations we have in daily life. Unlike an actual conversation, which requires only two people, a Fresh Air interview is a team effort. One of my producers finds and books the guest, a researcher locates the material I need to look at for background, an associate editor cuts the tape, and the executive producer decides on its final structure and length and whether it's worth putting on the air. The only people you're aware of when you listen to the interview, though, are me and my guest.

I violate many rules of polite conversation in my interviews, even when I'm making every effort to be respectful. You know what it's like when you're cornered by someone who can't stop talking? There's just no polite way of telling them to stop. If this were happening at a party, you could excuse yourself by pretending to spot someone else in the crowd you really needed to say hello to. Well, that kind of graceful getaway isn't an option for me in the studio-in addition to which, the problem isn't really that I'm bored, but that my listeners are going to be. Sometimes the guest is an expert on a given subject who's trying to provide more information than can be comfortably accommodated in a radio interview; he's so happy to be on public radio, where he doesn't have to answer in sound bites, that he can't stop himself from delivering a speech. But sometimes it's just a guest with what's facetiously called "the gift of gab," and there's no courteous way of telling him to cut to the chase. All I have with a guest is an hour tops, which means I have to make every minute count. So I do something I would never do off the air-I interrupt. I stop the interview to explain the peculiar demands of radio and suggest that shorter answers would be better. I risk momentarily embarrassing someone I regard highly enough to have on the show, because I trust that this little bit of advice will help him or her keep the attention of our listeners. Isn't that what we both want?

It doesn't always work. Sometimes a guest is just incapable of being concise, even though he knows better. A few years ago, for example, I taped an interview with Georgi Arbatov, once the Soviet Union's leading expert on the United States. His answers were so long that I found myself losing attention and felt confident our listeners would have the same problem. But he was impervious to my promptings for shorter answers. My final question to him was what advice he used to give Soviet leaders about making a good impression on American TV. "I've told Gorbachev more than once," he said emphatically and without missing a beat, "not to be so long-winded."

I also violate decorum by asking questions of my guests that you usually don't ask someone you've just met, for fear of seeming rude or intrusive. Within minutes of saying hello to a guest, I might inquire about his religious beliefs or sexual fantasies-but only if it's relevant to the subject he's come on the show to discuss. Or at some point during the interview, I might ask a question about a physical flaw of the sort that we gallantly pretend not to notice in everyday life. When I do this, my purpose isn't to embarrass my guest or to make him self-conscious. I'm trying to encourage introspection, hoping for a reply that might lead to a revelation about my guest's life that might lead, in turn, to a revelation about his art.

Sitting across the table from Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Nigerian-born star of Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things, I couldn't help but notice that the scar on his forehead appeared larger than it had on-screen. I guess I was surprised to see it at all-I'd assumed it was the work of the film's makeup artists, a clue to the audience that Ejiofor's character was hiding a mysterious and dangerous past. I felt on safe ground asking Ejiofor about the scar only because an actor's face is part of his equipment and leading men are expected to be unblemished. He explained that the scar was from a car accident-the same one he'd talked about earlier, in which his father was killed. The incident, in which Ejiofor himself was badly injured, was so traumatic that he wasn't comfortable revealing more than that-which I found perfectly understandable. But he did say that he thought the accident had led him to become an actor. In his roles, he could express "frustrations, and sometimes angers, that are simply inappropriate in everyday life."

I also often ask my guests about what they consider to be their invisible weaknesses and shortcomings. I do this because these are the characteristics that define us no less than our strengths. What we feel sets us apart from other people is often the thing that shapes us as individuals. This may be especially true of writers and actors, many of whom first started to develop their observational skills as a result of being sidelined from typical childhood or adolescent activities because of an infirmity or a feeling of not fitting in. Or so I've come to believe from talking to so many writers and actors over the years.

Everything I've said so far might lead you to think I believe that sitting in front of a microphone entitles me to ask practically anything. But I do respect my guests' privacy. I would never pressure anyone to reveal those thoughts and experiences he desires to keep private. The problem is you never know where someone is going to draw the line. A literary figure I interviewed a few years ago who was taken aback when I asked how his chronic illness affected his daily life was delighted by a question that gave him an opportunity to discuss how he developed his love of books by masturbating to pornographic ones as a child. I've learned the hard way not to make assumptions. That's why before beginning an interview, I tell the guest to let me know if I'm getting too personal, in which case we'll move on to something else (easy enough to do, because all Fresh Air interviews are prerecorded and edited).

Even this doesn't always prevent misunderstanding. "What is the use of this?" the actor Peter Boyle asked, moments before walking out in protest over my questions about his experiences as a member of the Christian Brothers monastic order before becoming an actor. "I made a movie, and you're asking me about all this stuff." Well, I had been hoping to find out if he ever drew on this experience for his roles. And I was fascinated by the paradox that this man who had once chosen the contemplative life wound up making his mark in the movies by playing a hard-hat killer in Joe. But you see the problem I sometimes face: A well-known actor or musician has been sent out on the road to promote his new movie or CD, and his idea of a good interview can be my idea of an infomercial.

Even so, I can understand Boyle's disinclination to talk to a perfect stranger (and to a national audience of strangers) about so meaningful a chapter in his life. "Being a celebrity can cause an accidental cheapening of the things one holds dear," Steve Martin once wrote in The New York Times. "A slip of the tongue in an interview and it's easy for me to feel I've sold out some private part of my life in exchange for publicity."

The other thing is that celebrities who believe interviewers are out to "get" them aren't just being paranoid. There is an entire industry devoted to digging up dirt on the private lives of celebrities, whether it's their drug habits or their sexual liaisons. Even at its most benign, celebrity journalism assumes that what appeals to us about our favorite performers is the power, wealth, and privilege they enjoy-not their work and the way it makes us feel that we have something in common with them.

All of which, I confess, sometimes leads me to question whether the autobiographical interview offers the potential for more than gossip or voyeurism. But only on my bad days. I try in my interviews to find the connections between my guests' lives and their work (the reason we care about them in the first place). I'd love to know how Chris Rock got to be so funny, how Dennis Hopper developed his screen presence, how John Updike became a great writer. Unfortunately, these kinds of questions are often unanswerable. Craft goes only so far in explaining how an artist uses his gift, and the gift itself is often inexplicable. Autobiography provides an alternate route-a seeming detour that may ultimately tell us something about an artist's sensibility and the experiences that shaped it. At the very least, the kind of interview I do offers me, and the show's listeners, an opportunity to learn more about someone whose work has moved and delighted us and perhaps, in some small way, altered our perceptions of ourselves and the world.

In his memoir Self-Consciousness, John Updike wrote that he was offering his as "a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world." Ideally, this is something I would like all my guests to do. But I understand if they feel that starring in a new movie hardly requires them to reflect out loud on their inner lives.

I understand because this is something I myself have occasionally been reluctant to do when I'm the one being interviewed. Although I want to be as forthcoming as I ask my guests to be, I was brought up by parents who guarded their privacy and passed this instinct on to me. We lived in an apartment building where privacy was hard to come by, and this may have had something to do with it; you had to strain not to overhear the arguments of the families next door and those above and below us. Privacy, I think, was also a self-protective instinct for Jews of my parents' generation, who lived through the era of the Holocaust and the postwar witch hunts. Even though our neighborhood was about 99 percent Jewish-I grew up thinking the Catholic family across the street belonged to an embattled minority-the adults acted as if we dared not let the goyim know our business, because whatever disagreements we had among ourselves could be used against us. A few years ago, on one of my visits to Florida to see my parents, I showed them a copy of a magazine article that described me as totally unforthcoming and a mystery even to the people I work with. My mother's reaction on reading it: "You told them too much!"

The first few times I was interviewed, I was almost pathologically unforthcoming. Hoping to get me to talk about my childhood, one reporter asked me what I had wanted to be when I grew up. The answer was something not even many of my colleagues and closest friends know about me, so I was a little hesitant to come right out with it. But I figured that as an interviewer myself, I had a responsibility to answer truthfully. I told the reporter I had wanted to be a lyricist. "No, no," he said. "Tell me something interesting." We might as well have ended the interview right there, because I was scared to trust him with anything personal after that. This experience and others like it have taught me that when an interviewee clams up, it's sometimes out of fear that the journalist he's speaking with won't fully comprehend what he's saying or simply won't care. This was an important lesson: It's one of the reasons I try to be well prepared for each interview, on the assumption that a guest is more likely to share his innermost thoughts with someone he senses has a good grasp of what he's all about.

In addition to allowing my guests to set the rules on what's private and therefore off-limits, I also encourage them to take advantage of the fact that the interview is being recorded and will be edited for broadcast. If someone is in the middle of an answer before he realizes what it was he wanted to say, he's welcome to go back and start again-we'll edit out the false start. I suspect that some of the journalists I look up to would take issue with me over this practice, but I'm doing radio-if an answer isn't clear, it's unusable. It's in everybody's best interest, including that of the show's listeners, if my guests are as clear, as concise, and as focused as possible.

When it comes to politicians and others in positions of authority, my rules are far less lenient. I don't elicit their help in drawing the line between public and private, nor do I allow them to start an answer over. Politicians are so skilled at manipulating the press-in staying on-message and evading any question that isn't to their liking-that it would be irresponsible on my part if I were to let them take back anything revealing that had just slipped out. The majority of my interviews are with people in entertainment and the arts, and with journalists and experts from every imaginable field we call on to analyze and explain important issues. It's my job to help these people, the experts as well as the artists, focus and present their thoughts. But this doesn't mean we shy away from controversy on Fresh Air. If we did, we would never have booked Bill O'Reilly.

We invited O'Reilly to be on the show because we wanted to be . . . well, fair and balanced. In September 2003, I had taped an interview with the liberal satirist Al Franken, who had devoted an entire chapter to O'Reilly in his best-selling book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. I had asked Franken a few questions pertaining to that chapter, and to a Fox News Channel lawsuit that accused Franken of violating its copyright with the book's subtitle "A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." (A judge had ruled this claim "wholly without merit.") Before broadcasting the Franken interview, we wanted to be able to tell our listeners that O'Reilly would be on a future broadcast to present his point of view. So we scheduled an interview with him for early October, to coincide with the publication of his new book, Who's Looking Out for You?

One of the issues I wanted to pursue with O'Reilly was whether he uses his Fox News program to settle scores with anybody who takes issue with him. I read aloud from comments he had made on The O'Reilly Factor about Janet Maslin, a book critic for The New York Times, after she published a largely positive review of Franken's book in which she cited a couple of examples of how Franken "makes a bull's-eye of O'Reilly," including "[his] erroneous claim that he won a Peabody Award [which] evolved into even bigger fibs once it was challenged." Accusing Maslin of doing her paper's bidding, O'Reilly had responded by telling his viewers that her "gleeful libel demonstrates the viciousness that has enveloped the Times. I knew that once I took on The New York Times, the paper's character assassins would take dead aim on me." When I asked O'Reilly if he thought his accusations against Maslin and her editors might be a little disproportionate to what she'd actually written, he insisted that "The New York Times has accused me of everything you could think of because I criticize their secular editorial position, which bleeds over into the news pages."

Later on in the interview, still pursuing the theme of score settling, I brought up a review of Who's Looking Out for You? that had appeared in People. Kyle Smith, the reviewer, wrote that after he reviewed O'Reilly's previous book unfavorably, O'Reilly had denounced him as a "pinhead" and named the review "The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day" (The O'Reilly Factor's regular closing feature). It was necessary for me to read from Smith's more recent review so that our listeners would know what we were talking about. But O'Reilly wouldn't let me finish reading the excerpt. Launching into a tirade, he accused me of throwing "every kind of defamation you can in my face," telling me I should be ashamed of myself for treating him differently than I had Franken and recommending that if this was my idea of journalism I should find another line of work. He then terminated the interview without having answered my question of whether he used his television show to get back at his critics. But that night, my interview with him was "The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day." He told his viewers that he'd "enjoyed telling that woman off" and continued to trash Fresh Air on several subsequent shows, repeatedly calling for an end to federal funding for public broadcasting. So maybe he answered the question after all.

Sometimes even what I figured would be a lighthearted conversation with someone from the world of show business can become confrontational. When I interviewed Gene Simmons, a cofounder of the comic-book-like heavy metal band Kiss, I expected we might share a laugh talking about what it was like for him to go on painting his face and strapping on a codpiece now that he was in his fifties. But neither of us wound up laughing, as you'll see when you read the interview. It's tough, not to say pointless, to pretend that you're conducting a typical interview when the guest says things like "if you want to welcome me with open arms I'm afraid you're also going to have to welcome me with open legs." I gave up trying. By the time the encounter was over, we sounded like two first-graders calling each other names, an indignity compounded by the fact that we're both middle-aged adults. Although the show's producers and I weren't even sure at first if the interview merited broadcasting, we eventually decided it made for gripping radio drama, even if it was unlikely to win any journalism awards. It ended up eliciting thousands of e-mails and drawing the attention of many newspapers and magazines. I guess this proves that controversy sells, and so does a good fight (or even a silly fight). But surely, some of this response was based on how totally out of character the whole thing was for National Public Radio. I suspect that if this had happened on commercial radio, the program director would have been in my office the next day encouraging me to fight with my guests all the time to boost our ratings. That's the sort of pressure that hosts on commercial radio and television come under. Thank goodness I'm not in that position.

I haven't yet mentioned that most of my guests are not in the studio with me. Bringing them to Philadelphia would be too expensive for us and too time-consuming for them. So instead we have them go to the studio of a public radio affiliate close to them and connect with me via satellite or digital lines. When I tell people this, they often assume that my lack of eye contact with guests makes interviewing them much more difficult than it would otherwise be. Truthfully, it often makes it easier. If you're a bit of a coward, as I am, it's easier to ask a challenging question when you're not looking someone in the eye-you can't be intimidated by a withering look. Paradoxically, geographical distance sometimes encourages a greater degree of intimacy, especially for someone who's inherently shy, like me. Neither I nor my guest has any reason to be self-conscious, as we might be if we were meeting face-to-face. We can go right to the heart of the matter. On the other hand, the long-distance interview might make it easier for a guest to behave obnoxiously or to storm out.

But I've already told you about Gene Simmons and Bill O'Reilly, haven't I? You're probably wondering when I'm going to stop stalling and tell you more about myself. "What does she look like?" I'm told that's the question most frequently asked about me. The book jacket ought to give you some idea, though it doesn't let you see how very, very short I am. I own a leather bomber jacket that I like to think makes me look reasonably hip. It's from Gap-Gap Kids, that is (the adult-size one was way too big for me). Inside, there's a label that reads: "This coat belongs to ________," in case some other kid has one just like it.

The second most frequently asked question about me is whether I'm straight or gay (this may be number one in San Francisco). Those people who swear I'm a lesbian offer two "clues." The first is my short haircut, which might be described as kind of cute or kind of butch. The second is that we've always featured a lot of openly gay guests on Fresh Air. In fact, this used to get us into a lot of trouble with some of the stations that carried us-mostly in smaller cities where angry listeners complained that it was wrong to let gay people flaunt their sexual practices on the air, even though my interviews with them were about their lives and art, not the ins and outs of gay sex. This used to infuriate me. Program directors would never cater to listeners who objected that we had too many Jews or African Americans on the show, so why should they legitimize homophobia? One night on The Simpsons, a gay friend of Homer's broke the news to him that Tennessee Williams was gay. "How did he survive in the cutthroat world of theater?" Homer wondered. His friend explained that everyone who's ever written, acted in, or even seen a play is gay. A comic exaggeration, sure-but it would be ridiculous for a show that specializes in arts and culture to set a quota on gay guests.

Back to me. Because I don't preface my questions to gay guests by pointing out that I'm asking as a straight woman (it sounds like too much of a disclaimer), many listeners assume I must be gay. I'm flattered by the assumption, because it means my questions demonstrate some understanding of the subject at hand. I'm just as flattered when someone hears me talking to a novelist or musician and mistakenly assumes that I write or play an instrument. The confusion about my sexual orientation has led to some pretty amusing scenarios. About ten years ago, when my husband, the writer Francis Davis, won an arts fellowship, I went with him to a reception honoring him and the other recipients. My mother-in-law came with us, and at one point I saw her laughing at something the wife of one of the other fellows had just said to her. She later explained that the woman had pointed at me and whispered, "Terry Gross is here. Did you know she's a lesbian?" That's one of the reasons I love working on radio: You might be a public figure but you're essentially just a voice, and this lets each person who listens form whatever image of you he or she wants-tall or short, fat or thin, sex bomb or schoolmarm, straight or gay. The invisibility of radio was something I took comfort in early in my career, when I felt so physically unassuming that I might as well have been invisible, and when I actually was-it felt right. All you are on radio is a mind and a disembodied voice, and for someone as physically self-conscious as I am, this can been liberating.

Of course my listeners are invisible, too-at least to me. I'm always amazed by the diversity of the show's listeners and the settings they listen in. One of my favorite fan letters was from a prison inmate who wrote to tell us he was grateful that his local station carried Fresh Air at 4:00 p.m.-"a convenient and quiet hour, because prisoners have to be counted at 4:30." You never know how the program fits into someone's day.

I've been hosting Fresh Air almost my entire adult life. In 1975, when I was twenty-four, I was hired by David Karpoff, the program director of WHYY-FM in Philadelphia (then called WUHY-FM) and the creator of Fresh Air, to replace Judy Blank, who was leaving her position as the program's host and producer. The program I inherited was a local show, broadcast from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. each weekday-the same time slot as This Is Radio, the program I had been cohosting at WBFO-FM in Buffalo, on the university campus. But not only did I have no cohost on Fresh Air, I had no staff. I was on my own until January 1978, when a student from Temple University showed up at the station and asked if he could work as an unpaid intern on Fresh Air. After bumming a cigarette, he told me that he was studying film at Temple; that he played piano in a salsa band and taught music therapy at a senior citizens center; that his record collection included albums by Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Lenny Bruce; and that he was a big fan of the movie Taxi Driver-an ideal résumé, as far as I was concerned.

Danny Miller is still with Fresh Air twenty-five years later and counting, only now he's our executive producer and it's impossible for any of us to imagine what the show would be like without him-or if there would even still be a show. Danny approves every piece of tape that goes on the air, determines its final length, and evaluates whether we're presenting an issue fairly. He also rules on which words are unacceptable for broadcast and need to be bleeped or edited out of interviews, readings, lyrics, and film clips. When he decides no bleep is necessary, he has the peculiar task of writing Sensitive Language Advisories to program directors, explaining why our broadcast is going to include such words or phrases as "wanker," "jerking off," "big dick," "floppy penis," "sanctimonious prick," "happy twitching in his shorts," "cunnilingus," "big jugs," "wipes his ass," "red-hot poker up his ass," or "for me to poop on." I often find these advisories quite entertaining, though I doubt program directors find them amusing.

But Danny's contributions to the show and to keeping our workday harmonious hardly end there. He oversees everything, and his office is the place to go when you have a problem-a dilemma with an interview, a budget question, or something personal. He always has a solution.

The best part of producing a daily show is knowing that many listeners come to consider you a regular companion. The worst part is hardly having a minute between one deadline and the next and doing everything in a hurry. I almost always wish I had more time to prepare for interviews, and more time to spend with each guest. The interviews presented here were conducted on the run and are by no means "definitive." But I hope you'll accept them in the spirit in which they're offered, as entertaining and thought-provoking conversations with people I believe are worthy of your time.

One last thing: Although this book represents the work of many people, I take full blame for all the questions you think I should have asked but didn't.

January 2004

All I Did Was Ask: Conversations With Writers, Actors, Musicians And Artists
by by Terry Gross

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • ISBN-10: 1401300103
  • ISBN-13: 9781401300104