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Air apparent
For two decades, radio host Terry Gross has charmed guests and listeners on National Public Radioís Fresh Air. Now sheís taking her interviews to the page.
BY TAMARA WIEDER

SHEíS NEVER BEEN one to shy away from a heavy workload, but award-winning Fresh Air host Terry Gross wasnít exactly champing at the bit to write a book. "I basically feel like I was dragged kicking and screaming to do the book," Gross says of All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists (Hyperion). "I was concerned, like, how are these radio interviews going to read on the page? Is it going to be worth the time?"

Gross neednít have worried. On the page, her transcripts of interviews with such personalities as Nicolas Cage, Chris Rock, Mario Puzo, Jodie Foster, Johnny Cash, Conan OíBrien, Eric Clapton, and John Updike reveal ó even to Gross herself ó nuances not always gleaned from their original radio airings.

Still, though sheís conquered the book battle, Gross continues to grapple with another issue her own celebrity has raised: being the subject of an interview, rather than the one asking the questions. Notoriously uncomfortable with having the microphones turned, Gross nevertheless agreed to an interview to talk about her book, her radio program, and her lifelong struggle to overcome shyness.

Q: You wrote that itís often easier to interview people over the phone, which you usually do from your studio in Philadelphia, because it can be less difficult to ask a challenging question when youíre not looking someone in the face.

A: I do the interviews long-distance not out of desire, but because itís the only way to get them. But what I like about the long-distance interview is if youíre a bit of a coward, which I suspect I am, itís easier to ask the challenging question, the tough question, when youíre not watching the withering look on the intervieweeís face. Also, itís truer radio: anything I want to say to the guest, or the guest to me, has to be communicated through the voice. Thereís no visual language we can use. Which means thereís nothing in our exchange that the listener is left out of. Sure, we edit out stuff, but thereís no secret nudges and winks and nods. If they want to tell me something, they have to put it in their voice, and I think that makes for good radio. Maybe they have to work just a little harder, and maybe I have to work just a little harder to make sure that Iím conveying what I want to convey in my voice, as opposed to just smiling across the table.

Q: Has there been anyone youíve interviewed over the phone whom you really wished you could have sat down with in person?

A: Just about all of the musicians and writers and actors and directors and so on. So many of these people are people whose work I love, and Iíd be thrilled to meet them in person. On the other hand, when youíre sitting across the table from someone, and you really love their work, your ó or at least my ó instinct is to just gush on about how great they are, and Iíve learned the hard way that thatís really not a very productive thing to do. Particularly people who are famous want to feel that theyíre in the hands of a competent professional, not in the hands of their number-one fan, or worse yet, stalker. Sometimes if you just go on and on, gushing about your enthusiasm for their work, it can make them feel more uncomfortable than comfortable. And I feel like Iím more likely to do that in person.

Another thing I like about the long-distance interview is that sometimes when Iím actually sitting across the table, which does occasionally happen, from somebody whoís very famous, like a movie star, Iím so excited to be in their presence that their charisma, and the fun of watching what Iíve only seen on the large and small screen before, can almost give a false impression of how relatively interesting an interview is. When itís a long-distance interview, I can evaluate it as pure radio, as pure interview, and have a sense, like, is this line of questioning interesting, or do I need to try something else?

Q: Whoís made you most nervous in an interview, or before an interview?

A: Stephen Sondheim is one of my heroes, because I think heís just a brilliant composer and lyricist, and heís also a real stickler for words, and he hates being interviewed. So when you add that all together, itís a nerve-racking experience before I talk to him. And the last time I interviewed him, he parsed every sentence; heíd take it apart word by word and say, "What did you mean by this word? What did you mean by that word?" It really made me nervous. I felt like I wasnít communicating well. I felt my questions were just making him even more uncomfortable, and to make matters worse, heís one of my heroes.

Q: Do you ever kill an interview?

A: It absolutely happens. Our editorial policy is, if something is so boring that people at the steering wheel will be risking their lives by leaving the interview on, that theyíll be falling asleep at the wheel, then thereís no point in running it. And if an interview, instead of shedding light on a subject, just confuses you even more, then what is there to gain by putting it on the air?

Q: Has your approach to interviewing changed a lot over the last couple of decades?

A: I started interviewing around 1974. I was in my early 20s, I was no taller than I am today, which is five feet, so all of my guests were older, taller, and more worldly, I thought, than I was. So I looked up to all my guests. Iíve always been skeptical by nature, so I was skeptical even in my early 20s, but I think my interviews relied more on a confidence that these people knew what they were talking about, and I think my interviews relied a lot more on pure curiosity, whereas I think they rely more now on research and also on experience.

Q: You wrote in the book about how growing up in a really private family has made you uncomfortable with being interviewed. Are you uncomfortable right now?

A: No. Yes, in a sense that itís always easier for me to be the interviewer than the interviewee, but no, in the sense that Iím not worried that youíre going to ask me too personal a question, because I would do my best to answer it if you did. Iím always very self-conscious about what I ask of guests, what we demand of our guests. We demand that they be concise, funny, articulate, able to take really complex subjects and communicate them in easy, two-minute answers that are very listenable, that make you want to hear more. Itís a lot to ask of someone. And then I always ask myself, do I measure up to those standards? So Iím always very self-conscious when Iím interviewed, in that respect.

 

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Issue Date: October 15 - 21, 2004
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