Hi, welcome back to WBYT radio. Our guest today is the host of NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross. Known for her ability to lead guests into revealing aspects of their life and work, Gross’ pacifying voice has become iconic to NPR programming.
Fresh Air often spotlights arts and entertainment personalities, though it also investigates niche interests and political characters. In well documented instances, Mrs. Gross has ruffled the feathers of Bill O’Reilly, Lynne Cheney, and KISS member Gene Simmons. Several other of her favorite, or at least provocative, interviews can be found in her collection All I Did Was Ask: Conversations With Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists.
Mrs. Gross will be at Strathmore this Friday, February 3rd to discuss her interviews and conduct a Q&A with the audience.
Brightest Young Things: Where are you right now?
Terry Gross: I’m at home. I got home really late because I was on Colbert last night. I took the day off basically.
BYT: How many interviews have you done where you’re the one being interviewed? What has being interviewed taught you about giving interviews?
TG: I’ve done a lot. I haven’t counted. It’s taught me that you have to listen to answers and comprehend what the person is trying to say. You have to appreciate it. For example, one of the first times I was being interviewed, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said, “a lyricist,”―and it was something I hadn’t told a lot of my friends, because it just seemed overly ambitious and ridiculous―and the interviewer said, ” No, no, tell me something interesting.” And if she couldn’t appreciate what I was telling her, how could I confide to her anything at all? You earn an interviewee’s trust by knowing about their work, appreciating what it is what they do, and comprehending what they say.
BYT: Speaking of being interviewed, has anyone ever come up with any analogies about interviewing and interviewer?
TG: I’m not sure. I don’t think so. Or, I’m not really sure what you mean.
BYT: Like: making a movie about Akira Kurosawa, doing a standup set for George Carlin, giving a lapdance to a stripper, staring with begging eyes at a dog while it eats from its bowl, asking Sigmund Freud about his mother, or reviewing a book of logic games using a cogent analogy?
TG: Those are good. But no, I’ve never thought about it that way.
BYT: You were on Stephen Colbert last night. Does he keep up his persona off stage?
TG: Offstage he was so nice. He warns you beforehand that he’s going to be in character, that he’s going to interrupt you. And you correct him, you tell him where he is wrong. Before the show he came back to the green room and said hello to members of my family and the producers of our show. He’s really just the most gracious person. I love him and I love his show. I was so proud to be on it.
BYT: Did he and his production staff let you know what you’d be discussing?
TG: They prepare you to be ready for the persona, but no, they don’t give you any clue what he’s going to be talking about.
BYT: Was there any anxiety to withstand or match his wit?
TG: The goal is for him to be funny and for you to not try and be funny, just be straight. He’s the comic, you’re the guest. He’s in persona, you’re just being yourself. You’re not supposed to top him or be funnier than him.
BYT: So after this appearance, you’ll be heading to Strathmore next. What are you looking to get out of his experience?
TG: I don’t really have a goal or anything like that. What’s nice about them for me is, basically, I work at home in a room, or in an office in a studio, and that’s where I spend most of my time each week. Maybe I get out to a deli every now and then. So it’s nice to be in a big room, seeing a lot of the listeners faces, hearing what they have to say in the Q&A. I don’t get out much. On weekends I might try and go see a movie or a concert. But still, that’s just me in a dark room [laughs], not a terribly social environment.
BYT:Is it cathartic in any way to express yourself, rather than drawing out the personality of someone else.
TG: It’s been helpful for me to do speaking engagements. In the late 80s or early 90s, an assistant said to me, now that it’s a national show, you have to get out there and do things to promote the show. So I thought, “Oh my God, I can’t imagine being on stage, because I’m a shy person.” So I was forced to make a speech, forced to go on stage. And I got the hang of it. I’m comfortable doing it. I’m finding it very useful to find out what it’s like to be on stage.
I’ve talked with so many people on the show who are actors―I’m not an actor―so I knew what it was like to be backstage at a theater, to have that stage anxiety. Then you’re fine once you’re up there. It’s helped me as a speaker, as an interviewer, to come up with cogent thoughts about what I do, how I do it, why I do it. Sometimes I only do things because I’m forced to [laughs], and speaking on stage was one of them. But I’m really grateful for it now.
BYT: I know you’ve been on The Simpsons before. Have you ever been approached to do any other sort of voicework?
TG: Yes, I turn down all the voicework. I’ve been asked to do documentaries, I’ve been asked to do commercials. I turn those down because I think of myself as a journalist, not a reporter. And I think my voice should be the voice of the show. And with The Simpsons, I played myself. I’d do anything for The Simpsons, it’s just so much fun. And also, I played myself in The Beaver, with Jodie Foster and Mel Gibson. And Mel was in this movie, trying to make his comeback, and then all that stuff happened with his now-ex-wife where he cussed her out on the phone.
I did a scene with him in the movie. He plays a toy manufacturer whose having a nervous breakdown. And he has a puppet that he can speak the truth through. And the hand puppet becomes a sensation. He goes on a media tour and I’m on his stop in the movie. So I got my own trailer, they put me in professional make up. Then I saw the movie and I could barely tell if I was in it, the scene went by so quickly.
Again, it helped me understand an actor’s life. You know, where they think this scene is going to be their big break, and then it winds up being a very brief experience or their scene gets cut in editing. And not that I saw this as my break, but it definitely a fun adventure. I learned about the actor’s experience. I had my own trailer! [laughs]. It was across from where The Today Show was shooting. Their guest that day was Justin Bieber. And this was a few years ago, and not many people had heard of him yet, unless you were a pre-teen. And a lot of chants for “Bieber! Bieber! Bieber! rang out. Everyone on the set of The Beaver thought that it was for them.
BYT: That’s funny. Speaking of Mel Gibson, early in his career, in his Australian films he had a distinct Australian accent. With you being from New York City and Buffalo, was there ever a point where you had an accent and widdled it down to a neutral tone?
TG: The funny thing is, when I was in New York, people would try and guess my accent, and they’d guess things like Texas or England. I don’t know why. My brother doesn’t have an accent either. When I was in Buffalo, I went to school there and got started in radio. For a while I picked up the Canadian ‘O.’ You know, instead of “let’s go out,” it’s “let’s go oot.”
BYT: Was there any point that you doubted that you had a good voice? I feel like people universally hate hearing their own voice.
TG: Count me in as one of those people. I never thought of myself as having a good voice. I believe that I’m a good interviewer, but never someone that had a great voice. When I got started I thought I had a radio career in spite of my voice. I got started in radio in ’74. There were only a few types of radio voices: the newscaster, [cheery] “the A.M. radio guy!!,” [with attitude] “the aggressive, FM guy,” and [low, sultry tone] “the sexy, late night, progressive lady.” That was kind of it. There were very few women on the radio, very few interviews. I think that NPR is actually one of the reasons that many people speak with their own voices on the radio. Largely on NPR, many people came as themselves, not some sort of type.
BYT: Do you have any vocal training? Can you sing well? I remember in one of your interviews with Uta Hagen, she recommends that her acting students take singing lessons even if they don’t intend to sing because it gives them a enhanced register of tones and emotional depth.
TG: I wish I sang well. In fact, if I had any wish, it would be to sing well. I actually took singing lessons for a while, just because I wanted to live inside a song. I did learn a lot about music, a lot about the human voice. It helped me in radio, as a speaker, so for that I’m grateful. And Uta was right. Singing lessons teach you to use notes you didn’t know you could achieve. It teaches you not to strain your voice and more about breathing. I’m not conscious of the take-away I got from singing while I do interviews, but I do think that I absorbed a lot of its benefits into my general method.
BYT: What’s it like when you come down with a cold or with strep throat? What’s your cut-off for not going on the radio?
TG: It’s funny, I never had gotten ill to the point that I couldn’t use my voice until I got into radio work. I’ve done interviews where I have a cold and by the end of the interview I can’t use my voice at all. I’ve had laryngitis. At that point I’m useless because I can’t use my voice and I have to stay home for 4 to 5 days. When that happens I’ve learned how to mime for my husband. I’ve been told not to whisper, because whispering is just as much a strain on your vocal cords as speaking normally is. It might actually be worse. I just eat a lot of chicken soup, really the best comfort food at that point.
BYT: Whenever you are sick and you have one of your alternates, a peer like Dave Davies, do you ever experience any sort of anxiety, jealousy, or any sort of mild resentful feelings? I imagine it might be like sitting in the passenger seat of your own, expensive car?
TG: It’s actually really valuable because I get to listen to the show as a listener, not hear it as me. You’re not judgmental of other people as much as you are of yourself, or at least I’m that way. I don’t really love listening to myself. I love listening to Dave, he’s terrific. And the better he is, the better our show is. Instead of jealousy, I want him to be great. When it is really good, I realize it’s fun, and I realize that I get to go back and have fun like that, so it’s refreshing and exciting. And also, Dave hosting the show has enabled me to have a life. Mentally it’s a relief because doing so many interviews can get to be too much. I have to work in high gear without a break for years and years and years and years.
BYT: You’ve done something like over 10,000 interviews over the years. After having done so many, are there any vocations or personality types that have made you jaded? Is it difficult to uncover the novelty or truth in instances that you’ve investigated too many times?
TG: [long pause] Okay, so there are many times when I’m like, okay, I know you’ve had a tough childhood, but I don’t really want to to talk about it today. [laughs] When memoirs became the most popular literary form, maybe in the late 80s, early 90s, when Tobias Wolff wrote This Boy’s Life, the memoirs were so fresh and revelatory, but then…
BYT: I think I see where you’re going. It just became a ticket for anyone with a mild problem to get a publishing deal. There are great memoirists like Mary Carr, whom you’ve interviewed on several occasions–
TG: Right, she was in the second wave. She was actually a student or friend of Tobias Wolff. So then everyone started writing memoirs about their terrible childhood, how they were emotionally or physically abused. And that’s not to say my heart has hardened. I’m just very selective now about which memoirs I talk about on air. They’re such a big part of the public conscience that they often no longer have the same power to us as a culture.
BYT: I’m in total agreement. You’re not trying to invalidate their emotions or experience, it’s just that there aren’t many great writers who can render universal kernels of truth relevant to human experience.
TG: When you do an interview like that, you not only want to talk about that person’s life, you want to the audience to empathize, but also to learn about themselves. The best writers, when they write a memoir, their writing is revelatory. It crystallizes experience. Other lesser writers fail to transcend those terrible things that happened to them in their storytelling. The ones that can’t pull it off come off as “pathography,” or, writing that’s purely about negative experiences or a history of depressive episodes that say nothing else.
BYT: Is there anyone left in the pool of potential guests that are unattainable? Who’s on your wish list to interview?
TG: You know, not really. We’ve pretty much gotten everyone we’ve wanted to, sometimes more than once. We often try to get people that are current and relevant, and two of our great modern actors, Michael Fassbender and Michael Shannon were on the show this year. I’m really proud of that. I couldn’t have told you two years ago that I would want them on the show. When someone on the scene emerges that’s when we ask them speak with us.
BYT: Are Fassbender and Shannon as intense in real life as they are in their movies?
TG: [laughs] No, they’re both intelligent and funny. They certainly can be intense, but they’re both down to earth. I think it would be hard to be that intense in real life.
BYT: You’re infamous for putting heavy research into your guests. How often do pre-scripted questions disappear the more and more you learn about that person’s life and work?
TG: Oh, all the time. You’ll think that you’ve really snagged on to an interesting subject but then you find that certain facts are public knowledge, so you have to keep researching deeper.
BYT: What’s your trick for unveiling a resonant question?
TG: Either through hard work, you know, learning as much as possible about that person, or letting it happen organically during conversation. The most essential thing is to be curious, to have the desire to learn everything about them and what they do. If it’s an actor, you watch their best scenes or if its a musician, you listen to their record over and over again until everything sinks in. And if an interview isn’t going well, you have to have the instinct to know you’re heading down a dead end, so you lead the interviewee down a new train of thought.
BYT: Are there any historical figures that you could interview?
TG: Yeah, if I could do a series of interviews based on people that are no longer here on earth, it would be a series on the great American songwriters sitting at their piano, talking to me about their lives, and pausing to sing some of their own songs. So, it would be: the Gershwin Brothers, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, and Billy Strayhorn.
BYT: Any literary figures?
TG: This might be an obvious answer, but Emily Dickinson. She had such an interesting, sequestered life. F. Scott Fitzgerald. I would definitely want to talk to him. [long pause] You know, I read so many newspapers and magazines, that I don’t have much time to go back and revisit much older literature. Oh! One more that I would do would be Vladimir Nabokov. He had such a good sense of humor in his writing.
BYT: How has the show changed throughout the years, both in its mechanics and its philosophy? How do you see Fresh Air going forward?
TG: When we started out in Philadelphia, it was regionally oriented. We had a three hour spot, and we’d play a lot more music―generally classical, jazz, the occasional punk song―in favor of speaking. When we moved up to the national chain we were able to reach a much, much wider audience, and that’s something that began funneling in big name guests. And then at some point we became more and more issue oriented. So these days it’s more arts, cultures, and issues.
Looking ahead, I think that 9/11 really changed things. We began looking at Al Qaeda, who they are and why they attacked us. It really dominated our discourse for weeks, even months. So now, with things like the financial crisis, we try and help people understand it because it affects their lives. We try and put it in non-jargon, layman’s terms. We’re becoming more issue oriented based on what’s happening in this country and the world around us. And then, we also like to steer audiences to parts of culture that the producers and I enjoy. If there’s a great movie out, we want to spotlight it.
BYT: What movies did you like from this year?
TG: I really liked The Descendants and The Artist, which are nominated. I really liked the movie Margaret, which many people haven’t heard of. It’s by the same guy [Kenneth Longeran] that did You Can Count On Me. I liked Shame very much.
BYT: Did you like Tree of Life?
TG: No. I thought it was beautifully shot. But the storytelling aspect of it didn’t work for me. The animated parts that showed creation seemed a little cartoonish to me. I didn’t feel the gravity that it was supposed to have.
BYT: [dies a little on the inside but moves on] I know you favor older music, like jazz and country standards and songwriters. What music are you into these days, be it popular or obscure?
TG: This may not sound new to you, but I just got done recording a concert with Catherine Russell, who used to be a backup singer for David Bowie, Steely Dan, and Paul Simon. She’s a soloist these days. Her father used to be Louis Armstrong’s music director, and her mother’s a singer, so she knows all these songs. I try to keep up with jazz singers, I try to keep up with Broadway musicals. I don’t go out to clubs, because it’s too late [laughs]. I’ve been really into this avant garde jazz drummer, Han Bennick. He’s going to be in our studio soon recording an interview.
BYT: Switching up gears, I read in a write up you did for the Atlantic Wire about the sorts of news media you read. You mention that you try and stay away from the computer when you can, particularly Twitter because of its overstimulation. Do you ever see Fresh Air as being a source of, throughout the years, having too many informational inputs?
TG: I think our show avoids that because it has a slow pace, and it lasts for a drawn out amount of time. It’s not edit-edit-edit, scene shift scene shift. It’s a genuine conversation. I think it’s the opposite of Twitter in that sense. But, preparing for the guests brings about a sense of too much information. We walk around feeling like we’ve been totally overloaded. The producers and I often joke about the stuff we’ve learned and the things we’ll never remember.
BYT: In the same write up, you mention the news you consume and you list the likes of CNN, MSNBC, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert―channels or people with liberal reputations. And like so many comment sections on the internet, the response to your choices was negative. In light of NPR’s struggle to get federal funding, how do you posture your values against the need to remain politically neutral?
TG: I try and remain politically objective on the air. If I am interviewing someone in politics on the air, I will challenge them if they say something hypocritical or contradictory to something they’ve said elsewhere. The truth is, I don’t interview many people that represent a position. Instead we’ll try and interview someone that’s an expert in a particular subject or a journalist with a specific focus. Instead of spin or point-of-view, we have someone that’s analyzed a situation.
BYT: How often do you get feedback from your moderator or ombudsman for veering from a point of neutrality?
TG: Those instances are few and far between. The two most recent ones would have been with Bill O’Reilly or with Lynne Cheney. Both of those happened when Jeffrey Dvorkin was our ombudsman. He disagreed with the way I dealt with Bill O’Reilly and Lynne. But that was years ago.
BYT: One last question. You’re coming to DC next week. Is there anywhere in town that you enjoy going to?
TG: Yeah, last time I was in town I went to the National Portrait Gallery and saw these thrones, made by a janitor [James Hampton] that was inspired by religious visions. They were absolutely amazing. I was just wondering, what was going on in this guy’s brain when he was making these?
BYT: Thank you so much for your time. We’ll see you next week at Strathmore.
TG: Thank you. It was nice talking with you.