Terry Gross: engaged with subject and listeners

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Terry Gross is interviewing the actor Dustin Hoffman. He is about to launch what is probably a set piece about his work with Mike Nichols on The Graduate, an obligatory story in most of his interviews. She knows this, having set up the subject. She also knows it is a story the audience may have heard before. He explains that Nichols offered him three pieces of advice. The first was “Don’t act.”

Without hesitation she asks, “Do you suppose he meant get out of the profession?” and laughs. He laughs, too. His is one of surprise while hers is teasing, mischievous. His is clearly an acknowledgment that, in addition to her funny line, she probably knew what he was going to say. Good actor that he is, he soldiers on through the other Nichols suggestions: “When you have an idea in the middle of a scene, do the opposite,” and “Don’t pick your nose.”

This is all I remember about the Hoffman interview, but it sums up several Terry Gross characteristics that have made her series, Fresh Air, the most engaging and intelligent interview program on radio. For starters, she, like any successful interviewer, listens to her guests’ responses very carefully. She rarely suffers fools, to say nothing of stale stories, smugness and, especially, pretentiousness. She pushes her guests, through a variety of means, to answer her questions honestly.

One of these means is her own cleverness and sense of humor. This is entertaining, of course, but it also serves another practical purpose — jolting the guests out of a recital of well-known facts. She’s funny without the funny-business, no quirky-squirreliness. Most of her questions are straightforward, nearly simplistic. The intent seems to be achieving clarity and continuity. Studying her questions is like looking through a clear window and trying to analyze the glass.

Her careful research and a quick understanding of the connection between her guests’ personal lives and professional work in addition to enormous experience (about 10,000 interviews since she began this work in the mid-’70s) place her at a considerable advantage in talking with strangers. And then there’s her laughter, empathetic and without affectation. I can’t remember her ever laughing out of control (her editors see to that, I suppose), but it sounds possible. She packs a lot of variety into those expressions of amusement, but they don’t seem self-conscious. The variations contain a large number of what vintners call “notes” when describing a subtle wine.

On the radio, as in the rest of life, men generally use laughter aggressively, women defensively. Terry Gross is an exception. Her laughter seems to be a finely tuned extension of what she is thinking and feeling. She has, let’s face it, the most engaging and infectious laughter on radio, with Susan Stamberg’s a very close second.

Facing it is something her guests seldom do. She talks to most of them by phone. This has important logistical advantages for a weekday series featuring so many peripatetic personalities. But it places a heavy burden upon celebrity research to say nothing of the host’s sensitivity to nuances of speech. In a 1998 interview in the New York Times she explained airily that she reads “a book or two a day” for the program and that “my concentration is no longer great enough to watch TV [and read] at the same time, and I miss that.” She says she subscribes “at home” to The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, Time, Vanity Fair, Columbia Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, Pulse and Publishers Weekly.

That she knows what she’s talking about as well as to whom is evident. The day following her Hoffman interview she discussed geopolitics for nearly an hour with Tom Friedman, the New York Times foreign affairs columnist who had just published a book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization. After giving him plenty of time to describe his thesis, Gross led him around the world to interpret a wide variety of his book’s themes.

Following a lengthy example of Russian globalization there was a pause, a long silence, then her question, “Why?” This one-word inquiry is a standard feature of her interviewing style. It keeps the conversational ball rolling and reminds her guests that dialogues are generally more interesting than monologues. The world tour was followed by four incisive questions on Kosovo. This picked up the pace and encouraged Friedman to make his answers more concise. Experienced interviewers, like seasoned tennis players, can usually control the speed of the action.

So that the Friedman interview would not begin to sound like a World Affairs Institute seminar, she brought him back to his early days as a White House correspondent. He disliked the job and confessed that he was “awful” at it. Gross rewarded him with appreciative laughter.

A good interview must move a conversation along smartly even though it may contain some well-contrived silences to enhance expectations. More important, its content must not languish. Gross is a master of building a story through seemingly random questions. She is also capable of driving directly to the points she wishes to make (that is, have her guests make) in a just-short-of-obnoxious fashion. “Okay, Wilt Chamberlin,” she once told the famous basketball player, “it’s time to talk about sex.”

The day after the Friedman interview she talked with novelist Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses and more recently The Ground Beneath Her Feet. For creating the first of these books Iran threatened his life, and he is now slowly emerging from hiding, since that edict has been lifted. All this has made him both a well-known author and a celebrity. More than a few critics have suggested that his fame rests more upon his conflict with Islamic fundamentalism than his literary achievement.

Aware that her audience is probably more intrigued by how Rushdie himself feels about all of this, Gross seems anxious to bear down upon his high public profile as soon as possible — even at the risk of stretching a sequitur. Rushdie reads a passage from his new book and says it’s based upon the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Her response is to ask whether celebrity might not have a connection with myth and mythological figures. While some of us are saying, “How’s that again?” he agrees. “Why do we build them up, then tear them down?” she asks. And, “Did you ever worship celebrity?” (He admits to Elvis.) Now, approaching the heart of it, she ventures a question in the form of an assertion: “You became more famous when you went into hiding.” He replies, surely disingenuously, that he “never thought about it, but, yes,” and goes on to say he hopes the emphasis would be on his writing. “If you’re invisible, you don’t get so torn down,” she persists. “Well,” he responds gamely, “it is mitigated, but it’s still there.”

Not all of her guests are so compliant. During a 1998 interview with actress Uta Hagen, the conversation turned to theatrical technique, how she goes about creating a role. Hagen flatly refuses to answer, declaring that non-actors, those who are not artists, would not understand the answers. Mildly affronted, Hagen asks, “Would you ask a violinist about his bowing?” Unruffled, Gross replies that she certainly would question a violinist about his craft, and that she would do so because the answers would “deepen my appreciation of what artists do.” This response clearly impresses the actress, as much, I suspect, for its diplomatic assertiveness as its logic. And Hagen begins to talk about role-playing.

Eliciting informative and interesting answers is rarely easy. Nancy Reagan was obviously annoyed by questions that seemed to stray from the obvious. “Have you read my book?” she kept asking Gross insistently. Gross later remarked, “I wanted to ask her, Have you written the book?”

A few — Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, actress Faye Dunaway and Monica Lewinsky — have walked out. The abortive Lewinsky program was broadcast on April 24, 1999, soon after Monica’s Story was published. At the outset, Gross tells Lewinsky that she has some “ambivalence” about the interview: “Is there anything left to say?” Monica, we were told later, thought that if anything remained it would concern her recent European publicity tour for the new book. This is not, however, how things develop. She grows increasingly uneasy and displeased as Gross’s questions begin to move in other directions.

“Do you think you lied when you said you never had sex with the President?” Gross asks. (She says her answer was meant to be “misleading.”) There follows a series of queries that become more provocative, ranging from Monica’s flirtation with the President (eye contact, then thong-snapping, and finally being invited into the office) to “What’s so special about a man with so many affairs?” (She didn’t think he’d had “hundreds,” as was alleged.) At length, Gross asks her about having sex with the President while he was talking on the phone about Bosnia. And that does it. She says she’s not going to reenact the scene — for which many in the audience must have been grateful — and terminates the interview. In doing so, she answers Gross’s first question: there really was nothing left to say.

In retrospect it seems apparent that many interviews may not be either desirable or necessary. At least one listener was reminded that a first-class series like Fresh Air probably depends as much upon those who are not invited to appear as those who are.

Terry Gross, 48 this year, began her life in Brooklyn, the daughter of a mother who loved to read and a father in the millinery business. A precocious child who read Camus and Sartre at an early age, she took a degree in education at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1972, was hired as a teacher of eighth-graders in a tough inner-city school and left after three weeks. Following a short stint as a Kelly Girl temp, she joined WBFO, Buffalo, as host of a three-hour magazine program, This Is Radio. The local three-hour version of Fresh Air began in 1975 at WHYY, Philadelphia, where Gross found herself booking the show, hosting it, and hailing cabs for its guests. In 1985 Fresh Air‘s weekly edition began its national distribution. The present daily version — a lead-in to NPR’s All Things Considered — commenced on May 11, 1987. It is heard on 225 radio stations with a weekly audience of 2.5 million.

After a brief first marriage and many years of living with Francis Davis, a writer for the <I>Atlantic Monthly<I>, she and Davis were married in 1994. “He works very hard to figure out what he thinks and why he thinks it,” she recently told a reporter. “And because of that he usually ends up with ideas that are very original.”

It is perhaps not surprising to discover that Francis Davis is a music critic. Among the huge number of subjects Terry Gross discusses with her guests, music — especially contemporary music — is the one with which she seems most comfortable. Talking with Dave Brubeck, Ray Charles, Jessye Norman, Isaac Stern, Gunther Schuller and Itzhak Perlman with equal and obvious delight, her understanding of musical structure and comprehension of the nuances of its performance allows her to question musicians in a deceptively easy and sophisticated manner. In a special six-part series on American popular song, financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities, she is really in her element. Here she often reminds, corrects and prompts scholars and musicians alike. Talking with performer John Pizzarelli she remarks how much Harry Warren’s tune “You’ll Never Know” reminds her of “I Had the Craziest Dream.” In relaxed conversations with “Yip” Harberg’s son or Harry Warren’s granddaughter, you’d think she was a member of their families. When composer Steve Reisch tells her there are five lines on a staff because we have five fingers and that the figures on ancient Greek vases are not conducting but using hand signals to remind musicians what’s next, she’s really startled, blurting out, “Hey! I didn’t know that!” Reisch responds insouciantly, “Well, live and learn.”

She has said her favorite singers include Billie Holliday, Abbey Lincoln, Lee Wiley, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Adams. “The only thing I love more than a song,” she once told a reporter, “is a song in a stage or screen musical, performed in the context of a wonderful narrative so that you’ve got everything you could want, absolutely.”

Music and music criticism appear in the second half of many Fresh Air programs. The series has its resident commentators on rock, jazz, “world” and classical music as well as TV, films and books. In addition it is the only series on the air to retain a linguist who discusses such subjects as brand names and the meanings of the phrase “The Balkans.”

Paradoxically, Fresh Air‘s major flaw has everything and nothing to do with its content. If this were a conventional interview program, few would care about the frequency of its “breaks,” those egregious returns to the network and local stations for the news, funding credits, weather, traffic, public service announcements and the promotion of future programs. On run-of-the-mill talk programs these distractions would hardly be noticed, perhaps welcomed as a relief from tedium. Here, however, such intrusions contaminate a program that works hard for clarity and continuity. Like ill-mannered guests at a dinner party, Fresh Air‘s unwanted breaks interrupt just as the host or her guest is about to conclude a thought or make some useful point.

Writing these lines, I’m reminded of Hemingway’s criticism of The New Yorker: he once told Lillian Ross that he disliked the magazine because it was poorly stapled and fell apart in his hands. All the same, the fact is that commercial ads and noncommercial “breaks” are intrusive and, although a large part of the population has grown accustomed to their ubiquity, they remain an extraordinarily high price to pay for our American system of “free” broadcasting.

The chief off-setting virtue of Fresh Air is its emphasis upon the largely private dimension of lives led by exceptionally intelligent and talented people. Much skill, sharp intuition and a lot of practice are required to ask “personal” questions that will yield illuminating answers. Time is short and instant intimacy is difficult to achieve, especially in a phone conversation. Still, most of the time Gross brings it off without sloshing about in sentimentality or tabloid details. She asks Mercer Ellington how he felt about dividing his childhood between his divorced mother and father, and whether his father’s death “liberated” the son as a composer. She encourages Dave Brubeck to talk about not being able to read music and his struggle to be a rancher like his father and play piano like his mother. (Brubeck’s mother told him to rope only yearling cattle to protect his hands.) Stanley Donen, who saw his first Fred Astaire film when he was nine and directed his first Astaire movie at 25, is urged to tell a bittersweet story of how he tried, twice, to tell the famous dancer how much he admired him, failing both times. (“He just didn’t want to know,” says Donen.) Gross pressed ex-Sen. George Mitchell for details of moderating the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. But her greater concern was how his wife’s miscarriage and brother’s sudden death — both during the lowest point of the talks — influenced the discussions. (He told no one of his misfortunes, believing it would distract the negotiations from the job at hand.)

Then, of course, there’s the virtue of Terry Gross’s laughter … the sexiest, most attractive in the business.