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Interviewing Terry Gross

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Host of NPR's "Fresh Air" on the Art of the Interview

There may be no better interviewer working today than Fresh Air host Terry Gross. Not even Errol Morris, who concentrates on a single subject, or Ira Glass, who most concerns himself with the unknown, can boast Gross's alacrity and insight. The list of people Gross has interviewed over her nearly 35 years as host of National Public Radio's standout show is as lengthy as it is illustrious, and includes everyone from Hollywood heavies to Nobel Prize-wining authors. But it is the low-key and inimitably graceful manner in which Gross interviews her subjects that puts her at the forefront of our nation's interrogators.

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Last week I had the great, good pleasure of interviewing the esteemed interviewer in the lobby of Miami Beach's Gansevoort Hotel as she was about to host a sold-out evening on behalf of South Florida's National Public Radio affiliate WLRN. This is what she had to say:

John Hood: I recently interviewed Chuck Klosterman who in his latest book Eating the Dinosaur writes about how he still finds it hard to believe that people answer questions at all. Of course there's the old "selling a product" aspect of an interview. But no one is really obligated to answer anything, yet they do, and for the most part they do so truthfully. What's your take?

Terry Gross: Well, I think it's usually a pleasure to think somebody cares enough to ask, and cares enough to listen. And I think there's something that kind of a privilege about sharing your life, or sharing your thoughts, or sharing your area of expertise with people who genuinely want to hear about it. Where I would agree with him is when the questions become really invasive, and are just designed for voyeuristic reasons. Do you know what I mean?

JH: Or to provoke...

Terry: Or to provoke. But people are just genuinely interested in why you write your books, or how you make your movies, or what happened in your life that led to this sensibility that created this art that we love. I think people are grateful for the chance to talk about it, unless they're so kind of besieged by the press and so sick and tired of being asked the same questions all the time. And also, there's a part of the personality press that's all about trying to reveal something embarrassing about the person being interviewed. In a situation like that of course your guard is up.

JH: Gotcha journalism.

Terry: Yeah, I mean who wants to answer that kind of question?

JH: Well, he went ahead and asked two really amazing people, he asked Ira Glass and Errol Morris, what they thought and how they got people to open up, and I'll tell you what they said in a moment. But first I'd like to know what you think makes for a good interview?

TG: Well, I don't like the idea of people being these locked boxes, and if you find the right combination you get them to open up. It's like you collapsed them open, like there's this secret or act of aggression where you've broken them.

JH: But surely, there's a key to making a good interview?

Terry: In the kind of interview I do - and I'm referring now to more like arts cultural kind of interviews, as opposed to the political interviews - I think it's just genuinely wanting to know, and also seriously caring because you've read their books, because you've seen their movies, because you've watched them act, because you love their music. And it's sincere. I love this therefore I want to know how you do it, why you do it, who are you. As opposed to, "You're #1 at the box office therefore I want to know who you had sex with last night."

JH: Well, they both Morris and Glass concurred, that listening was the key.

Terry: Right, if you listen and you care.

JH: Much ado has been made about the silences in your interviews. Was that natural, organic. I mean or do you say, "You know what. I'm just going to be quiet for a second"?

Terry: Usually if I'm quiet it's because I'm thinking. (laughing) You know, because suddenly it's your turn. If somebody just said something that you didn't expect them to say, you really have to think about, "Um. So, what exactly is my response?" Particularly, if it's something sensitive, or controversial, or provocative in some way. You have to figure out Where am I going with this? Then, our show is edited and we have debates about whether we tighten the silence or do we edit it out completely. So we try to reflect that silence or we might shorten it a little bit. If there was an awkward pause, we'll keep it in.

JH: How edited is the show?

Terry: I usually report about an hour of material, and we edit it down typically between 20 and 40 minutes. It can be shorter.

JH: Do you ever cut things out to not embarrass people?

Terry: Yes.

JH: Do they ask you sometimes?

Terry: Yes, sometimes they do. Our rule of thumb is - I mean we wouldn't do something to excuse a politician if they said, "Oh please edit that out." They can't edit the tapes. But, if someone calls up and says 'Something I said, it's going to hurt my mother's feelings so badly.'

JH: Why not take it out.

Terry: Why not take it out. It's not like Abu Ghraib or something where lives are going to be saved if you reveal this, and people are going to be spared torture. Our show doesn't need to have somebody's mother feel bad for the rest of her life because of something somebody said. That's not integrity or good journalism, necessarily.

We will deliberate [though]. We don't automatically take it out if somebody's asked it to be taken out.

JH: But if it's a harmless little thing, why not?

Terry: Exactly.

JH: How many interviews do you think you've done?

Terry: I really haven't counted but I've been doing interviews since 1973 or '74.

JH: Oh, I thought it was '75.

Terry: I started "Fresh Air" in '75, but I was hosting a couple of different shows in Buffalo before that.

JH: In '75, did you ever think you'd be doing this 35 years later?

Terry: Never never never.

JH: You must have a least favorite?

Terry: Ugh. I don't have...

JH: Besides Gene Simmons. (laughing)

Terry: Well, you know I feel like I owe Gene Simmons a favor. We got so much attention from that. I'm sure he thought he was ruining me.

JH: Is he still adamant about it not being aired in its entirety, or at least available in its entirety on the site.

Terry: We never got back to him. After the initial turndown, we never got back to him.

JH: It's still up everywhere.

Terry: You can just Google it so easily, I know.

JH: What about - I just go the fourth edition of the Paris Review Interviews. It comes in this nice little box set. Have you read them?

Terry: I've read a bunch of them but not in a long time.

JH: Are you a fan?

Terry: Yeah, when I read them, yes.

JH: Pen or pencil? You know that question at the end?

Terry: For me computer, yeah yeah.

JH: Do you have a one set question that you ask almost everybody?

Terry: No.

JH: Everybody's different? And do you really read a book a day?

Terry: Yeah, sometimes more than that. When I say read I put quotation marks around "read" because [sometimes] it's like skimming reading. You have to read it so quickly. I read really differently.

JH: I wanted to ask you about other interviews. Did you watch anyone in particular growing up? Have you watched anybody or have you followed anybody since?

Terry: I wasn't really very aware of interviews when I was growing up. I didn't pay a lot of attention to them. But people who have influenced me over the years include a couple people from the CBC, because I used to live in Buffalo and listened to it as I went to college there. Barbara Frum, who is actually David Frum's mother, and I think is very, very different from her son.

JH: She had a little show?

Terry: Not a little show, she had a big show. It's the show All Things Considered was kind of modeled after. It was called As It Happens and it was their evening news show. And it was fabulous, it was just fabulous.

JH: How long did that run?

Terry: A long time. It outlived her. She died very young. Then there's somebody called Peter Gzowski, had a morning show that was great. Dick Cavett's public television show really influenced me a lot. Because he just asked all these off the wall questions.

JH: But he had done his homework. He wasn't just flying by the seat of his pants.

Terry: No, he'd done his homework. But he would feel free to ask anything even something that sounded stupid. I thought it gave me permission to not worry about sounding stupid, or just asking a half-baked question sometimes. A lot of people on NPR: Ira [Glass], Scott Simon. I think Robert Siegal is a terrific news interviewer. He just knows his stuff in and out. Ted Koppel. MacNeil Lehrer when it was The MacNeil Lehrer Report and they would do their two-some thing.

Oh, I think Rachel Maddow is a terrific. I think she's very good at what she does.

JH: But you have no desire to start your own show - "Fresh Air Live on TV"?

Terry: I think it's better as a radio show. I'm glad I've been able to spend my career in radio and not have to worry all the time about how I look.

JH: But you look dynamite.

Terry: Oh, thanks. It's just really freeing to not have to think about that in addition to thinking about everything else.