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She listens and gets the goods

All I Did Was Ask: Conversations With Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists, Terry Gross, Hyperion: 354 pp., $24.95

September 05, 2004|Barry Golson | Barry Golson, recently the editor of Yahoo Internet Life, supervised the Playboy interviews for 14 years.

In the land of the sound bite, the extended interview is king. As an antidote to "gotcha" journalism, to the lament that one's quotes were "taken out of context," a Q-and-A session, not too badly mauled by aggressive editors or impatient producers, can be a tonic. On television, we've cut our teeth on Mike Wallace's interrogations; blubbered along with Oprah Winfrey's and Barbara Walters' sob fests; witnessed Tim Russert's Sunday cross-examinations; and implored Charlie Rose to please, please get to the point of his question. In print, we've had Studs Terkel's classic "Working" and such magazine formats as George Plimpton's literary chats in the Paris Review, the long-running Playboy interviews and, later, those in Rolling Stone.

On radio, home of a million yammering talk nuts, an oasis of calm is Terry Gross, of National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." In her annotated collection, "All I Did Was Ask," she has gathered nearly 40 of her interview subjects from the arts and entertainment fields; those are the ones she says hold up best over time. So we encounter conversations with the likes of John Updike, Johnny Cash, Uta Hagen, Mickey Spillane, Mario Puzo, Paul Schrader, Albert Brooks, Larry Rivers, Dennis Hopper, Eric Clapton, Grandmaster Flash, Dustin Hoffman and James Baldwin. A fun bunch, for sure, but reading all of them at one sitting could probably cause showbiz whiplash. Presumably they all played well on air, so the question being asked here is, how do they read? (Disclosure: I once assigned Gross a print interview for a magazine I was editing. It didn't work out.)

For more than 25 years, Gross' gentle, civilized grilling of a wide assortment of notables has been a staple of the radio network's programming. Her style, which is to do a lot of homework, ask questions that actually follow up on the answers and keep things friendly, has become instantly recognizable to a generation of drivers seeking surcease from road rage or accidental exposure to Rush Limbaugh. You know Gross' voice when you hear it -- soft, curious and quick with a laugh that seems more often genuine amusement than polite response. She is generally not confrontational.

As she says in her introduction, she interviews most of her guests via satellite or phone lines, without ever seeing them. "If you're a bit of a coward, as I am," she writes, "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." Gross claims she gets greater intimacy by being geographically separated from them because she's shy and neither she nor her subject have to worry about "being self-conscious." OK, but being put off by scowls wouldn't take you far in TV or in print.

Nor, in theory, would her admission that she allows her nonpolitical guests to "set the rules on what's private and therefore off-limits." She also encourages people to take advantage of the interviews' being taped and edited for broadcast, so that they can rephrase answers or delete false starts. "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." OK, though it's true that publicity flacks' demands are the bane of TV and print journalists, and interviews are regularly sliced and spliced in the editing room, it's usually the journalist, not the subject, who decides what to cut. To Gross' credit, she spells out her procedures in full, and that's more than many journalists do.

So how are Gross' interviews, by the volume? Well, it depends on whom she talks to. With writers such as Updike, who speak in something like the prose they write, it can make for absorbing reading:

T.G.: While you were writing about the middle class, the middle class went crazy. People were doing drugs and drinking a lot. Marriages were breaking up.... Was this an interesting time to be writing about the middle class?

Updike: We were a little old for the revolution. By this time we were parents of small children, four in my case. I suppose there was a general wish to join in the fun. So we had our own little sexual revolution ... which took the unhappy form of divorce, often.... But yes, I wrote about couples. Trying to describe this generation, for which the various faiths, patriotic and religious, had faded, and for whom, unlike today, their professions offered no deep diversion.

Or Mario Puzo, in 1996:

T.G.: What do think it is about [the "Godfather" novel and movies] that make people connect with them in such a powerful way?

Puzo: Well, it's a story with warm personal family feeling, and I think it's everybody's wish to have somebody they could go to who would correct all their injustices without the problems of going to court, hiring a lawyer. You know, somebody fixing up your world for you.

T.G.: Of course, there is always a bloodbath.

Puzo: People are not perfect.

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