Wow, this blogger has been hittin' it for the past dozen years with nearly 4,700 post to show for it. NPR's Terry Gross has been doing her interview show for 40 years with 13,000 shows in the can. Mercifully, this blogger will be long gone before the 40-year threshold is crossed. And, as visitors far and wide thank the deity of their choice, We turn to the mastery of Terry Gross on "fresh Air." This may seem arrogant, but this blogger has this space at the beginning of each post. These are real moments that can be had without going on "Fresh Air" (as if Terry Gross would deign to interview this blogger). If this is (fair & balanced) self-revelation, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap 'Zine]
Terry Gross And The Art Of Opening Up
By Susan Burton
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
On a late-summer morning, Terry Gross sat before a computer in her office — a boxy, glass-fronted room at WHYY in Philadelphia — composing interview questions. Gross, who wore a leopard-print scarf knotted at her neck, was typing rapidly, occasionally pausing to refer to a memoir open beside her. She swiveled in her chair to face me. ‘‘It’s interesting that she never had an orgasm,’’ Gross began. ‘‘I mean, not never, but not until later. I’d like to ask her about that, but it’s tricky.’’
Gross often talks about sex on her NPR show, ‘‘Fresh Air.’’ She frames it politically and socially, but she also comes at the subject with disarming specificity, uncovering details that seem not raw but quotidian. When she asked Lena Dunham about what it was like for her sexual partners to see her children’s-book tattoos, she elicited an answer that was almost poetic — Dunham described the tattoos as ‘‘wearing a sleeve when you are naked.’’ The exchange was also, in its way, just as boundary-pushing as the sex on ‘‘Girls,’’ Dunham’s HBO show. It’s daring to talk about sex on public radio in the middle of the day, and ‘‘tricky’’ because Gross is mindful of the needs of more conservative stations. ‘‘Sometimes in social media people act like I must be this prude,” Gross said, ‘‘and they think it’s hilarious that I’ve used a certain word.’’ But Gross talks about sexuality on the air ‘‘not because I want to be prurient’’ but because there is value in speaking honestly about something that is both essential and hidden. She uses the very public space of the interview to access tenderly personal places.
This fall, Gross marks her 40th anniversary hosting ‘‘Fresh Air.’’ At 64, she is ‘‘the most effective and beautiful interviewer of people on the planet,’’ as Marc Maron said recently, while introducing an episode of his podcast, ‘‘WTF,’’ that featured a conversation with Gross. She’s deft on news and subtle on history, sixth-sensey in probing personal biography and expert at examining the intricacies of artistic process. She is acutely attuned to the twin pulls of disclosure and privacy. ‘‘You started writing memoirs before our culture got as confessional as it’s become, before the word ‘oversharing’ was coined,’’ Gross said to the writer Mary Karr last month. ‘‘So has that affected your standards of what is meant to be written about and what is meant to maintain silence about?’’ (‘‘That’s such a smart question,’’ Karr responded. ‘‘Damn it, now I’m going to have to think.’’) Gross says very little about her own life on the air. ‘‘I try not to make it about me,’’ Gross told me. ‘‘I try to use my experiences to help me understand my guests’ experiences, but not to take anything away from them.’’ Early in her career, she realized that remaining somewhat unknown allows ‘‘radio listeners to do what they like to do, which is to create you.’’ She added, ‘‘Whatever you need me to be, I’ll be that.’’
Over the years, Gross has done some 13,000 interviews, and the sheer range of people she has spoken to, coupled with her intelligence and empathy, has given her the status of national interviewer. Think of it as a symbolic role, like the poet laureate — someone whose job it is to ask the questions, with a degree of art and honor. Barbara Walters was once our national interviewer, in a flashier style defined by a desire for spectacle. Gross is an interviewer defined by a longing for intimacy. In a culture in which we are all talking about ourselves more than ever, Gross is not only listening intently; she’s asking just the right questions.
Just before 10, Gross filled a compostable cup with half room-temperature water and half steaming water from a hissing machine on her desk. She has short blond-gray hair and heavy-framed glasses. She wears fitted jackets and chunky black shoes, stud earrings and red lipstick. To movie theaters, she brings a bag of pillows; at 4 feet 11 inches tall, she has often described herself as ‘‘smaller than life.’’ In her, a fragility — fair skin, narrow bones — is fused with a powerful sense of self-containment. She feels a periodic need to take a walk around the block
This morning’s interview was with Sarah Hepola, the author of a memoir of alcoholism, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget (2015). I went into the control room to listen. ‘‘Terry will be with you in a second,’’ an engineer told Hepola, who was waiting in a studio in Dallas. As a practicality, Gross performs most of her interviews long distance.
The control room had an anticipatory backstage feel. Moments earlier, a director was gesturing like a conductor, asking an engineer to ‘‘Hit it!’’ with an audio clip. In high school, Gross wanted to be a lyricist; one of the things she loves about radio is that it has ‘‘just enough theater.’’ ‘‘Fresh Air’’ is intensely collaborative, and many staff members have been there for years, including the executive producer Danny Miller, who started as an intern in 1978.
‘‘Hello, is this Sarah? Hi, this is Terry Gross. I’ll be doing the interview with you today.’’ Gross’s voice is briskly warm, with a luster that conveys the pleasure she takes in it as an instrument. For years, she took singing lessons; she told her instructor that she wasn’t trying to become good at singing — ‘‘I just want to be inside a song, to the extent that I can be. To just have my body inside a song.’’ The goal was raptness in a form she loves.
‘‘If I ask you anything too personal — I know your book is personal, but say I cross a line, just tell me, and we’ll move on,’’ she said to Hepola. ‘‘And you can tell me anything on the record or off the record. O.K.? Swell.’’
I settled in to listen. Along a long panel of buttons in the front of the room was a white plastic square with a big red arrow under it and a label that said, TALK TO TERRY BUTTON.
‘‘My No. 1 fantasy of all time is to be interviewed by Terry Gross.’’
‘‘I have gone so far as to rehearse answers to specific questions....’’
‘‘Every single time I hear a Terry Gross interview, I wonder what it would be like for her to do some research on me and do an interview.’’
When I started doing ‘‘Terry Gross’’ Google searches, I was struck by how often this wish is expressed. Hepola told Gross, ‘‘This was just as wonderful as I’d dreamed it would be for 10 years,’’ and I wondered what her interview dream had been like.
‘‘I have this very specific memory of being in a coffee shop in the West Village and working on a section of my book about adolescence,’’ Hepola said to me on the phone. ‘‘And, bing! I heard Terry in my head. She was like: ‘This is amazing. No one has really ever talked about adolescence in the way that you’re talking about it right now.’ ’’ At that point, Hepola was early in her sobriety. Through Gross, who was often in her earbuds, she was finding her way back to the kind of close conversations she had once drunk her way to.
Matthew Weiner, the creator of ‘‘Mad Men,’’ has been among the most frequent guests on ‘‘Fresh Air.’’ He imagined being interviewed by Gross years before it first happened, and once it did, ‘‘you’re like: Oh, this is my fantasy of a conversation,’’ Weiner told me. ‘‘I’m not even talking about people hearing it. I’m talking about actually having the conversation.’’
‘‘Having the conversation’’ — that’s what’s compelling about the wish. It’s a wish not for recognition but for an experience. It’s a wish for Gross to locate your genius, even if that genius has not yet been expressed. It’s a wish to be seen as in a wish to be understood.
The interview wish is as old as the form itself. Journalistic interviews in the United States increasingly began to appear in the 1860s. Before that, when reporters talked to people, they typically didn’t quote them. Once interviewing started, it became a craze. It had its own practitioners, often women, who were thought to be better at drawing people out. Henry James’s journalists were almost all ‘‘interviewers,’’ and his characters, like Selah Tarrant in The Bostonians (1886, 1986), crave their scrutiny: ‘‘The wish of his soul was that he might be interviewed,’’ James wrote.
At first the interview was regarded as a particularly American phenomenon — pushy, but fair too, because it involved the cooperation of the interviewee, not just a sneaky reporter. The practice shifted radically after World War II. Television gained popularity — the age of the broadcast interviewer began. And psychoanalysis — that other great innovation in opening people up — was being practiced more widely.
Gross’s interviews have often been compared to therapy. That’s in part because of her seemingly neutral stance, but also because of the feeling of safety she gives her interviewees. Once in a while, a guest confesses to Gross that he’s confiding something for the very first time. ‘‘I don’t know that I’ve said that to anyone,’’ the ‘‘Project Runway’’ host Tim Gunn told Gross in 2014, of spending time in a psychiatric hospital as an adolescent. Gross’s response was as affecting as Gunn’s story. She handles confessions quietly, acknowledging the weight of what’s been said without drawing undue attention to it.
Gross herself started seeing a therapist several years ago. ‘‘When she asks me a question that gets exactly to the heart of what I’m trying to say, but maybe haven’t articulated clearly, it just feels so good,’’ Gross told me. ‘‘My ideal as an interviewer is to be the person who gets it. Like somebody can tell you something really personal,’’ she continued, and ‘‘you can ask them something that can help them comfortably move to the next place and go deeper.’’ She went on: ‘‘Hearing someone speak really personally, and having that affirm your experience as a sexual person, or as a sick person, or just as a person trying to get through daily life, is really valuable. And I think that’s why we turn to literature, I think that’s why we turn to film, beyond the entertainment it gives us.’
She loves interviewing artists, she told me, because they are ‘‘the people we designate to open up their lives for examination so we can understand better who we are.’’ They offer up their own stories as ‘‘what Updike called ‘specimen lives,’ ’’ she said. ‘‘Examples of what it’s like to be human.’’
Gross was born in 1951 in Brooklyn. She grew up in Sheepshead Bay, between Avenues X and Y. It was a new neighborhood, with postwar apartment buildings that went up on the site of an old racetrack. As a little girl, Gross loved realistic fiction (Beverly Cleary, the Betsy-Tacy series) and would retreat to the couch with a book when her family visited relatives.
Gross’s father helped run a family business selling materials to hatmakers. Her mother had worked as a secretary but quit after Gross’s older brother was born, and later Gross would seek the life outside the home that wasn’t available to her mother.
As a freshman at SUNY Buffalo, Gross wanted to write. But she was worried she wasn’t good enough to be great, and she struggled to find a subject. At the same time, she was shedding her ‘‘good girl’’ identity. She tried being a hippie — ‘‘I was too inhibited to be very convincing at it. And too Sheepshead Bay, probably’’ — and she tried drugs. One of the first times she dropped LSD, she determinedly brought along paper and pen: ‘‘I’m going to have a subject,’’ she recalls thinking. ‘‘All of my writerly inhibitions are going to open up, and my talent is going to be released!’’ LSD didn’t help her writing, but for Gross it was a beneficially ‘‘immersive experience.’’
In the first months after she graduated in 1972, Gross floundered. She had married, but would soon divorce; she was fired from a job teaching eighth grade after only six weeks (she couldn’t control the class). But then she discovered radio. One afternoon, about a year after she finished school, she was sitting in her house in Buffalo listening to ‘‘Womanpower,’’ a feminist program on WBFO, the university station. One of her roommates was a guest, and she came out as gay on the air. Gross was surprised by the revelation, but more so by the way her roommate had delivered it: sitting before a microphone in a radio studio.
Gross, who had wanted to do ‘‘something in media’’ but hadn’t known how to begin, was intrigued. Through her roommate, she learned there was an opening on ‘‘Womanpower,’’ and Gross started on the show as a volunteer. Just over a year later, she moved to a program called ‘‘This Is Radio.’’ The show’s superpower was a phone line that allowed the staff to call anywhere in New York State toll-free. Gross would scour the Village Voice classifieds for people who might be interesting — jazz musicians offering lessons, a tattoo artist — and call them up and interview them. During college Gross had shed some of her innate reserve, but ‘‘I still was just inhibitively shy,’’ she said. ‘‘With a microphone, I wasn’t shy.’’
In 1975, Gross moved to Philadelphia to take over ‘‘Fresh Air,’’ which was created by a former WBFO colleague (NPR began distributing it as a daily show in 1987). Gross says she was ‘‘always inquisitive,’’ and her curiosity vibrates on the surface of old tape. In a 1980 conversation that was rebroadcast in September, Gross, still in her 20s, called the horror-film maker Wes Craven. Craven was not yet famous — this was years before ‘‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’’ — but Gross had recently seen his slasher film ‘‘The Last House on the Left.’’ She was so disturbed by its sadism that she wanted to find out who made it. Craven told her he was bothered by a sense that America had become ‘‘immune to violence,’’ and he wanted to show the reality of it.
‘‘I really understand what you’re saying,’’ Gross told him, ‘‘and I know that the movies I grew up on, even, like, the World War II and World War I movies, people were killed without any blood ever coming out.’’ Her response indicated that she was not out to attack Craven but to explore his motivations.
‘‘You know, it went back to something that happened to me when I was a kid,’’ he ventured. ‘‘I don’t know whether you’d be interested in hearing it—’’
Of course she’d be interested in hearing it! We all would. What emerged was a textured and totally creepy story of a mail-order bow-and-arrow set and a rat that took too long to die.
Gross’s impulse to explore what provokes her — the impulse that drove her to pick up the landline and call Craven — underlies her 40 years of interviews. Ira Glass, who was my boss at ‘‘This American Life,’’ observes that Gross brings ‘‘real questions she personally has been wondering about’’ to the kind of interviews that tell us ‘‘what should we make of the latest news from Iraq or Syria’’ — as well as the good editorial sense of when to let an expert ‘‘march off in unplanned directions.’’ He adds: ‘‘There’ve been times when I’ve relistened, just to hear the order of the questions and to figure out what was planned and unplanned. Like a magician sitting in on another guy’s act for two nights so he can figure out the trick, to steal it.’’ Glass singles out Gross’s ‘‘great improviser’s performance chops. Not surprising that she loves jazz artists and stand-up comedians so much. She’s their journalist peer.’’
In June 2014, Gross interviewed Hillary Clinton, who was then promoting her memoir, Hard Choices (2014). Gross interviews very few politicians because it is difficult to get them to speak candidly. When she does, she moves into a register that is authoritative but no less authentic. Gross noted that as a senator Clinton didn’t support gay marriage, but as secretary of state she emerged as an advocate for L.G.B.T. rights. ‘‘She’s on the international stage, where gay people are still being executed in some countries, or certainly imprisoned, and she’s coming out not only for lesbian and gay rights but she’s adding the T,’’ Gross said to me. ‘‘I thought that was brave and remarkable. But I wanted her to bridge the gap.’’
Gross framed the question by asking if there were things Clinton believed in personally but couldn’t come out and support as a politician — like gay marriage? ‘‘And I think she totally misinterpreted it as me trying to say, ‘You’re such a hypocrite.’ ’’
The exchange became rivetingly uncomfortable, with Clinton growing increasingly defensive as Gross asked whether her views on gay marriage had evolved, or whether she was responding to changes in American public opinion. Clinton was stubbornly evasive: ‘‘I said I’m an American, so we all evolved.’’ The back and forth continued:
Gross: So, that’s one for ‘‘you changed your mind’’?
Clinton: You know, I really — I have to say, I think you are very persistent, but you are playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue.
When the interview ended, Gross and her producers asked themselves, ‘‘Are we going to keep that in the edit?’’ Yes, they decided: ‘‘Maybe there’s not a really satisfactory, conclusive answer,’’ but ‘‘it felt like a real moment.’’ Gross went on: ‘‘Even if the real moment isn’t somebody being really honest and forthcoming and introspective, a real moment of friction, a real moment of tension, is still a real moment.’’
Occasionally the ‘‘real moments’’ can be awkward for Gross. In July, in an interview with the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, Gross began laughing in response to a story he told about being yelled at by a teacher. ‘‘See, it sounds like you’re laughing because, like, it’s funny if you’ve never been in the environment,’’ Coates said. Some on social media pegged Gross as a clueless white lady. But the exchange was constructive. Gross was simply reacting, and then listening as Coates explained his perception of her reaction. In doing so, he illuminated an experience of growing up in a culture of fear and violence.
On ‘‘Fresh Air,’’ we listen to Gross grapple with the most complex questions of existence — racial prejudice, faith, family, illness, morality, betrayal, gratitude. In 2011, when Maurice Sendak was 83, Gross called him at his home in Connecticut. What was meant to be a short conversation about his new book, Bumble-Ardy (2011), became a meditation on his nearness to death. You feel Sendak looking over into it from his living room.
Sendak: Oh, God, there are so many beautiful things in this world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready. … You know, I have to tell you something.
Gross: Go ahead.
Sendak: You are the only person I have ever dealt with in terms of being interviewed or talking who brings this out in me. There’s something very unique and special in you, which I so trust. When I heard that you were going to interview me or that you wanted to, I was really, really pleased.
Sendak is scratchy and emotional, and Gross is gentle with him. ‘‘And almost certainly, I’ll go before you go,’’ he tells her. ‘‘So I won’t have to miss you.’’
When Gross was growing up, she and her mother would take the subway to the department stores in Downtown Brooklyn twice a year, ‘‘once for your fall wardrobe and once for your spring.’’ After they shopped, they would have two sandwiches at Junior’s for lunch — corned beef and shrimp salad — and ‘‘split them half and half.’’ Years later, when Gross’s mother was living in Florida and sick with lung cancer, ‘‘I took her shopping, and I helped her on and off with her clothes. It might not sound like a big deal to other people, but it made me so sad.’’ She continued: ‘‘It made me so sad, the way the roles flipped.’’
Eventually her mother’s mind started to go, in part because of the chemotherapy. ‘‘As she lost some of her cognitive abilities, I thought of myself as having duets with her. I’d have these conversations where I knew that she knew the answers to the questions. I knew we were on safe territory,’’ she told me. ‘‘I knew my part, she knew her part and we could converse that way.’’
Gross and I were alone in the studio, a large room with sage green walls. Sunlight was filtered by screens, and the soundproofing sealed us off from the world. It was as if we had zipped ourselves inside a tent. We were talking about the deaths of Gross’s parents, and I asked about Sendak, in relation to something I’d been wondering about — the interplay between an interview and her private life. ‘‘I didn’t think of this until later,’’ Gross said. ‘‘But the interview that I had with him was in a way the conversation I never had with my parents.’’
She went on: ‘‘I try not to confuse the two. I try not to equate the interview with real life. But at the same time, there’s an intimacy in the interview — like, I’m telling you things that people I work with probably don’t know, because it doesn’t come up. I would tell them if they asked, but it’s just not a part of what you talk about in day-to-day work life necessarily.’’
We had plans for dinner, and down the hall, in her office, Gross collected her things. She wheeled a crate-size cart of books and papers out to the parking lot, then transferred the contents to her trunk. The steering wheel was hot, and Gross put on puffy black winter gloves with leopard-print lining to protect her hands. Then she drove unexpectedly fast down Old City’s narrow streets.
On a typical day, Gross is at the office from 8:45 to 5:45. She and her husband, Francis Davis, who is a music critic, will go out for dinner (not fancy places: ‘‘We like diners and delis’’), and then Gross will continue working at home, preparing for the next day’s interview in the living room. She clarifies her thoughts first thing in the morning in the shower. That’s when she asks herself: What do I care about? What in all of this research is meaningful? It’s important to be away from her notes when she does this. She emerges from the shower with her ‘‘major destination points.’’ Then she goes to her office and refers back to her notes — sheafs of facts; dog-eared, marked-up books — for the details. Then she does the interview. And then she is inundated by the other daily tasks of running a radio show. The next day, she does it all again. ‘‘And that’s been my whole adult life,’’ she told me. It’s part grind and part devotion. As a young woman, Gross wanted to find ‘‘a passion that could become my work.’’ She decided not to have children. ‘‘I do feel like I was part of the first generation that actually had a choice. Where we would not be seen as either tragic or lacking in some way for not having children.’’
The last time I visited Gross at the station, it was a Friday. She was wearing a loose denim jacket, and we were sitting across a table from each other, talking about weekend plans. ‘‘Friday nights and Saturday nights Francis and I usually spend alone together because the weeks are just so crazy and so hectic and so noisy, like I have so many people in my head’’ — she cupped her hands next to her ears like headphones. ‘‘You know what I mean?’’
‘‘Like in your ears,’’ I said, nodding. Sometimes, doing radio, your head falls to the pillow with someone’s voice still collected there.
Gross and Davis met in 1976 at a record store near the station. ‘‘As I was falling in love with him, I also fell in love with his writing,’’ Gross told me on another day. Davis is also devoted to his work — in the pre-laptop era, he would lug a huge typewriter on vacations. The two always try to have dinner together. When Gross was younger, and working late nights, ‘‘I would call him, and we’d kind of have dinner together, because I’d talk to him the whole time I was eating dinner. So we’d be having dinner together whether we were in the same room or not.’’
That weekend Gross had plans to see a four-and-a-half-hour opera, Rossini’s ‘‘William Tell.’’ She discovered opera only recently, and wishes she had found it when she was still taking singing lessons with an instructor, who died a few years ago. From him she learned about head tones and chest tones and how, when you’re singing, your voice ‘‘should resonate in the bones of your face.’’ She added: ‘‘When I was taking singing lessons, I felt like, No one’s having more pleasure in singing than I am. I sound horrible, but that doesn’t matter. I’m enjoying it.’’
Outside the window, Philadelphia tourists were gliding by on Segways. Across from me, Gross was serene. ‘‘I don’t know if it’s a function of age or temperament,’’ she said, ‘‘but I’m no longer seeking those major exclamatory notes of pleasure. I want a life that has pleasure contained within it.’’
After Gross and I talked, we went for her usual walk around the block. It was a hot evening, and the sun was blazing as we passed the fortress of the Federal Reserve. And at that moment, the conversation got very personal, for me. I wound up telling Gross a secret. While I hadn’t planned to do this, afterward I wondered whether some subconscious part of me had orchestrated it — whether, in some pathetic way, I was enacting my own interview wish.
As I was about to make the confession, I said something like, ‘‘O.K., I’ll tell you, because you’re Terry Gross,’’ which I immediately regretted. It was as if I was talking to Terry Gross the national interviewer. And maybe I was. I’ve projected, the same as any listener. But we had spent time together, and she was no longer just a character to me. I wanted to confide in her because I wanted to be close to her, even as I was aware that this, too, could be as reflective of the roles we were playing as of ‘‘reality.’’
We were on a walk of predetermined length, undertaken for professional reasons. There were implicit boundaries. And on that sidewalk, I felt as if I was getting an answer to my question about whether, and how, the intimacy of such moments carried over into the world outside the studio, for both Gross and her subjects. Because while I was here with Gross as a function of my work, I was speaking to her from the heart of my life. It felt heightened, in the way that reporting does, but also scary, in the way that vulnerability does.
All the time we walked, Gross was asking questions, and offering advice, which is different from on the radio. When we finished the walk, and I was leaving, I became nervously formal. When I reached to shake her hand, she very simply took mine in both of hers.
I felt so awkward for days after the exchange had happened. Was it going to ruin the ongoing interaction? What did she think of me? It spoke to something important in the piece, but it was self-indulgent. Was it even worth including?
But then I thought — real moment. Leave it in. Ω
[Susan Burton is a writer and is working on a memoir, The Invention of the Teenage Girl, to be published by Random House. She is a former editor of Harper’s and a former producer for ‘‘This American Life.’’ Burton received a BA (English) from Yale University.]
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