Turning the tables on NPR’s Terry Gross
What do you ask a woman who interviews others for a living? A woman who has forged a lengthy and venerable career out of posing often tough questions to strangers, who have included the likes of Lynne Cheney, Tracy Morgan, Bill O’Reilly and Jay Z, to name just a varied few. Well, to start, you ask her what it feels like to have the tables turned. Does she feel compelled to lead the interview or direct the conversation? “No, no,” says Terry Gross, producer and host of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” “I let the interviewer do the driving.” You’re relieved because, frankly, you were a little worried that you were going to end being the interviewee in this scenario. Tables thusly leveled, you proceed.
(Terry Gross stops in Boston on Friday as part of the Celebrity Series for “Terry Gross: All I Did Was Ask.”)
You’ve been the host of ‘Fresh Air’ for some 30+ years. Does it ever become routine, interviewing people?
Well, you know, although I’ve been doing interviews for a very long time, the people I’m interviewing always change. So it never gets tired, it never gets old for me, in the way that having friends or talking to new people — it’s just like how people never get tired. There are always new people to talk to and the conversation is always changing, the subject matter is always changing. There are always new movies and TV shows and music and books that I’m exited about. There’s always important — and often terrifying — things happening in the news to talk about. It doesn’t get old.
How do you choose your subjects?
Well, we have several producers who work on the show and they spend their days just poring through things, looking for good ideas. They often call people up and talk to them just to see what they would be like as interviewees. We have these super long meetings on Fridays in which we go over all the potential guests we’ve been thinking of and narrow down the list.
Do you do a lot of the research yourself?
I don’t gather the research; the research materials are given to me. So I’m not, like, on the Internet looking for things that I should read, but I’m the one who does the reading. I watch the movies, I listen to the music. I think that if I don’t have a firsthand knowledge of the material myself that I can’t do it. I have to feel some commitment to the subject matter and to the person, and I have to know as much as I can about it.
Can you think of anyone you talked to recently that you were particularly excited about?
Okay, several! I interviewed Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men.” I love the series so it was a lot of fun to talk with him and talk about why things were happening to Don that are happening to Don. (laughs) I interviewed Matthew McConaughey and he is just really smart and interesting and funny, so that was a lot of fun.
He is? I always had the impression that he was sort of … a surface-level type of guy.
No, no, he’s really very interesting. And very funny. Oh, and I interviewed David Sedaris recently, that was a lot of fun. We had had a drink together a long time ago and then we went out to dinner afterwards. … Actually this is a long story, it’s too long to tell.
How about a bad interview, do you ever have one that’s failing horribly?
Yeah, we kill interviews sometimes. By that I mean we record them and then decide not to run them. Our interviews are prerecorded and edited, but if something is especially confusing, or boring, or we don’t trust the facts in it, we won’t run it. And then sometimes guests walk out on me. I mean Lou Reed, who I’m a big fan of, many years ago just walked out on the interview. I don’t think he really likes being interviewed in the first place, and then I was talking about some early recordings and he said he really hated talking about old music of his. And I think he was in a cranky mood.
Have you ever found yourself at odds with an interviewee or had the whole thing devolve into a fight?
I try not to argue with my guests. I try to let them have their say and ask them challenging questions when I think that’s appropriate. My interview with Gene Simmons is probably a good example of him saying kind of crude things to me and me accusing him of being obnoxious, and then it devolving from there.
How do you handle a bad interview like that?
I don’t take it personally. If someone is being crude, or obnoxious, or insulting to me, I don’t take it personally. Because usually when that happens it’s somebody who doesn’t know who I am, and they don’t know the show, and they’re just working with some stereotype in their heads, some stereotype of what NPR is or who I am. So I just hope that it’s going to sound like good radio. (laughs) Because sometimes when things are going really bad, it’s actually good theater.
Have you ever had to interview somebody whose philosophy or morals were just totally oppositional to your own? I ask because we recently ran an interview with a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, during which our reporter remained very calm and objective, and I’m not sure I, personally, could do that.
Well, you know, I’ve interviewed somebody from the Klan and I can’t remember whether I pointed out to them that I was Jewish or not, but they didn’t say anything anti-Semitic to me, to my face. I’ve interviewed people who I totally disagree with, and I’ll ask them totally challenging questions, but again I won’t take it personally. Even if they’re insulting me, I won’t take it personally.
I imagine you’ve had to develop a thick skin over the years. Did it take a long time?
Yes, yes. I think it took, I don’t know … Well, say Lou Reed had walked out on me early in my career? I think I would have just been heartbroken. And so upset.
What about the best interview you’ve ever had?
I kind of prevent myself from thinking that way because if I had a best interview I’d ever done, then I’d listen to it and I’d go, ‘Really? That’s the best interview you’ve ever done?’ So I don’t. Wait, I’m looking up Matthew McConaughey
I’m on IMDB now too. It’s not ‘Tropic Thunder’ is it?
‘Killer Joe,’ yes! That’s it. It’s a weird movie, kind of not to everybody’s tastes, kind of a perverted movie. (laughs) He plays a very perverted character, let’s put it that way, but he plays it quite well. It’s a side of him I had no idea was there.
Have you ever been really scared or anxious about interviewing somebody?
Yeah. An example I often use is Stephen Sondheim because I admire him so much and he’s very critical of the interviewers, I think. So it’s not a breezy, relaxed conversation. But I just love his work so much. But I always get a little edgy before interviewing him.
So did it end up being as scary as you thought it would be, the first time you interviewed him?
Well, I’ve interviewed him several times and sometimes I’ve thought it went very well and sometimes I’ve thought he’s been very unhappy with it. Or he’s moderately unhappy with it. There have been times he’s been more forthcoming than others.
I think the way interviews go just depends on people’s moods too.
Yeah, yeah. I think it does. And some people are more often in that mood than others.
Who are some people who you really admire, who do what you do?
I really love Jon Stewart’s interviews. I think he does terrific political interviews. And he manages to be kind of gracious and charming and funny and hold people’s feet to the fire at the same time. And he manages to have pretty big disagreements with guests but still do it in a very friendly, respectful way. I think he’s amazing. I think Ira Glass is a terrific interviewer. I mean he does more hosting, but I think when he does do an interview it’s fantastic. I think Scott Simon is a terrific interviewer.
What would you be doing right now, if you weren’t doing this? In a dream world.
If I could do anything else in the world? OK, I like what I’m doing, I feel so lucky to be doing what I’m doing. Because I wanted to fall in love with work. I wanted to find some form of work that I could love. And I was afraid that it wasn’t going to happen. You know how some people are afraid that they’ll never get married? I was afraid, like, I’m never going to find work I really care about, that’s meaningful to me. So when I found it, I developed a pretty monogamous relationship with it. But if I could make a fantasy come true? I’d be able to sing really well.
Do you ever find your work slipping into your social life, interviewing people at parties, that kind of thing?
Well, first of all, I don’t go to parties often. (laughs) Usually if I’m at a party, it’s like a benefit or a station event or something like that. I go to very few parties outside of official events. But when I’m at an event and I’m being introduced to people I’ve never met before, I feel really lucky that I know how to talk to people now, because I’ve talked to so many people and I know how to get a conversation going. Because I used to be really shy and would have been very uncomfortable doing that.
As a formerly shy person, what made you think that this was the career for you?
Well, actually, it’s a good position for a kind of shy or formerly shy person because the spotlight isn’t on you. It’s on somebody else. And, in fact, in radio, there isn’t even a spotlight. No one is seeing you and what you’re doing is asking questions. You’re not holding forth and you’re not the one who’s the storyteller. Mostly you’re listening and asking questions. So, eventually over time, people get to know who you are and people can read things into the questions you ask and intuit things about who you are, and what you may think, and so on. But when I started in radio I was still pretty shy, but it suited me just fine. And I was used to reading a lot and being curious about what I’d read and so on. And I was always interested in movies, books and television, so having a natural curiosity about that and then wanting to learn and read more, that came really easily. And now, I think, I think it would be wrong to describe myself as shy now — I’d say I was self-conscious describes me now. Because I’m used to making speeches and going to meet-and-greets and things like that, I’ve learned how to do all that and I’m comfortable doing all that. But it took me a while to learn. I’m still a very self-conscious person.
What’s one great interview question, if you were only ever allowed one?
There’s no generic one question to me. It would depend who the person is. I think one of the things about interviewing is that you don’t ask the same thing of everyone. The exceptions to that rule are things like the Proust questionnaire in Vanity Fair, which I really enjoy reading. It’s fun to see all the different answers that people you’re really interested in give to those same questions. But that’s different. It would really depend. Is that person a painter? Are they an avant-garde jazz musician? Are they a politician, a priest? Who are they? Do I want to know about life and death, do I want to know about the cure for cancer? Do I want to know about what they believe the afterlife is? It just really depends.
Who’s on your bucket list of dream interviews?
I kind of no longer have that list in my head because we’ve gotten a lot of the big “gets.” When we first became a national show we had our list of, you know, the 10 people we most wanted. And we’ve gotten them. And Lou Reed was one of those people. And he walked out on me. Robert DeNiro was one of those people. And he’s never been on the show, but I don’t think he’s a great interviewee from what I’ve seen. I think he’s hard to get because I don’t think that’s where he really shines. I think he’s a great actor — I don’t think he’s a great guest. So, at this point, a lot of what’s exciting is finding, you know, the actor that’s just emerging and becoming really wonderful. Or somebody who’s a character actor and you’re realizing how great they are. Or, like, Matthew McConaughey. During his romantic comedy period — I tend to not see a lot of those films — I wasn’t paying attention to him, but he’s gotten so interesting lately.
Well, what about if you could interview anybody, alive or dead, what would your dream interview look like then?
If I could bring back people from the dead, and do a series? Yes, the series I would do would be a series of songwriters, mostly people who did the American Popular Songbook. And they’d be at the piano while I interviewed them. So it would be like the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Harold Irwin, Duke Ellington would be there. You know, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein. I would be asking them about their lives and their songs and they’d be performing their songs as I talked to them. Don’t you think that would be fun?
My professor, on the very first day of journalism school, told us all that, well, you know you’re never going to make any money…
Was that the right thing to say? Well, it might be a way of discouraging people who aren’t really serious about it. You know, so many music teachers and acting teachers say that unless you really, really want this, don’t do it. It’s going to be too hard, it’s not going to pay well … unless you’re really super lucky and really super extraordinary.
And sometimes not even then.
Yeah, exactly. Talent is not always recognized.
Well, as you said, I guess you consider yourself lucky if you get to do something you enjoy every day.
Oh, I feel so lucky. So lucky.
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