Interviewing the Interviewers

All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists BY Terry Gross. Hyperion. Paperback, 384 pages. $14.
100 mots à  sauver BY Bernard Pivot. Hachette. Perfect Paperback, 120 pages. .
The Studs Terkel Reader: My American Century BY Studs Terkel. edited by Robert Coles, Calvin Trillin. New Press. Paperback, 560 pages. $16.

The cover of All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists The cover of 100 mots à  sauver The cover of The Studs Terkel Reader: My American Century


BOOKFORUM: How do you prepare for your interviews with writers?
TERRY GROSS: I completely mark up the books I read. I circle everything I think is important or intriguing. I earmark just about every other page. My notes become a memory bank. I return to them to reflect on the book, and hopefully a picture emerges, like developing film, to guide me in the interview.

BF: What do you focus on when you speak with fiction writers? How do you avoid emphasizing the plot and giving too much away?
TG: I try not to get too involved in the intricacies of a novel because it’s a world the listener isn’t privy to. Instead, I try to stand back and try to see the larger sensibility of the book. It might be the author’s sense of humor, the style of writing, observations the writer makes about the world. But then, sometimes, a fiction writer will say, “I don’t know. I just like telling stories.” Then you’re stuck.

BF: Is there a push and pull between your interest in the writing and your interest in the writer? How do you connect the two?
TG: I try to discern an autobiographical element. If, for example, a writer has written really well about coming of age, I might ask about the writer’s own experience and his or her feelings about it. I will ask a writer what happened in their life that made them create this particular character or setting. I might ask a novelist about how difficult it is to write about something as complex and as intimate as sexuality. And I like to talk about craft.

BF: What are your criteria for selecting writers for Fresh Air?
TG: I choose to speak with writers whose work I respond positively to, fiction that I want to talk about and encourage listeners to read. Choosing the writers I’ll speak with is a form of criticism. Then, what is most valuable for listeners is for me to talk positively about the writer’s work. I am an advocate for books.

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BOOKFORUM: What are your criteria for choosing guests to appear on your programs?
BERNARD PIVOT: First and foremost, the quality and originality of their books. After that, either the authors’ reputation or, conversely, their youth and the promise of their debuts. And last, my own pleasure in seeing them tackle certain themes, such as life in the country, the lives of lovers, humor, black humor, ridicule.

BF: Do you consider these exchanges to be interviews or conversations?
BP: The interviews have to give TV viewers the impression that they’re coming upon a private conversation.

BF: What do you hope to learn from these writers?
BP: What motivates them to write. How they think and write. Their relationship with words. Their connection to memory and the imagination. What they’ve written, and what they wanted to write.

BF: Have you sometimes been surprised by a gap, or some sort of inconsistency, between a writer and his or her work?
BP: I have often been surprised by the gap that exists between the writer’s spoken words and his writing. Sometimes there is a contradiction between them. The best kind of surprise, to me, is when there is a perfect match between what I’ve read, what I’ve grasped or understood, and the writer’s thinking as he shares it with the audience.

BF: What conversations stand out in memory? What is your most memorable interview?
BP: I remember some great moments of television with Solzhenitsyn, Georges Simenon, Henri Vincenot, William Styron, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Marguerite Duras. My most memorable conversation was with Vladimir Nabokov; it’s the only surviving recording of this great writer speaking French.

BF: Do we focus too much on authors’ personalities and not enough on their work?
BP: We never pay enough attention to books or narrative, to the thought, to the style, to the words.

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BOOKFORUM: Do you intend for your discussions with writers to be interviews or conversations?
STUDS TERKEL: What I aim for, what I hope for, is that we’ll talk about the book, absolutely, but more than that, we’ll talk about the writer’s outlook on life. How do they see the world? What are they curious about? What’s on their mind? These are improvised conversations to a great extent. The thing is to be flexible. You’ve got to be open to the conversation. You’ve got to know your stuff, and you’ve got to be willing to go where they go. Flexibility with substance. Style and substance are related, after all. Form follows function. I’m a Louis Sullivan man. Stone and life, you see. You need both the solid and the fluid. That’s how it’s done.

BF: How do you prepare for your exchanges with writers?
ST: I read the book, or, lots of times, all the writer’s books, thoroughly. I know them inside out. I mark them up. I’ve really gotten into it, you know.

BF: You’ve spoken with so many writers over the years. Whom do you remember most vividly?
ST: Jimmy Baldwin, when he first came back from his long self-exile from America. He had just come back from Switzerland, and Nobody Knows My Name was out. I thought, hell, I’ll lead off with some Bessie Smith, some blues, and that did it. He loved it. He was terrific. And it was very exciting to talk with Margaret Atwood. Another great conversationalist is Gore Vidal. Oh yes, he is very clear. There’s nothing wasted in what he says. He says so much, so naturally. That really stays with you. That’s impressive, that’s exciting. Tobias Wolff is like that, too. So much at the ready, you know. Of course, thinking about my hometown, I loved Nelson Algren. He could speak on any subject, which was a good thing, because he would wander away every time. You’d be talking about one topic, and then off he’d go, on to something else. You had to stay with it, and that was thrilling. I’ll never forget Nelson.

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BOOKFORUM: What was the impetus for Bookworm?
MICHAEL SILVERBLATT: I wanted to show people that talking about books has been a constant in our culture. A natural thing. Writers read, so when we talk about books, listeners hear the sounds of a shared culture.

BF: What are your criteria for selecting authors and books for Bookworm?
MS: I’m not interested in best sellers. Literary fiction is the entire content of the show, and I aim for a mix of established voices I respect and new voices. People open the papers, turn on the TV or radio, and never read or hear something they don’t understand. Given the complexity of the world and art, we are doing each other a disservice by rendering everything instantly comprehensible.

BF: How do you prepare for your interview?
MS: My personal belief is that it’s disrespectful to talk to a writer unless you know their complete oeuvre. So I spend the time necessary to read all of a writer’s work and books that have influenced that writer. My desire is to be talking from the core of the author’s work, so that the interview’s a real experience. A conversation with the real person, the person at the desk writing, not the person on tour. Interviewing writers has as much to do with psychoanalysis as it does with literature. You’re asking people to deliver themselves in a way that is extremely private, complex, elusive, dark.

BF: Clearly, you consider these exchanges to be more than straight-ahead interviews. Do you work from notes?
MS: If you just focus on prepared questions, you’re not listening to the answers. I might have a list of key words, but otherwise I work without notes. This approach makes for more fumbling for words, more improvising, but that means the listener hears the act of thinking aloud. The sound of thinking, which few Americans hear in the media. I want listeners to hear people searching for words, taken aback by a question, or realizing that a question opens up a whole new avenue. I want listeners to hear an author and to say, “I never thought of that.”

All interviews conducted by Donna Seaman. (Bérengère Casanova and Mary Mackay assisted with the translation of Bernard Pivot’s e-mail responses.)

Terry Gross is the host of Fresh Air, an interview program produced in Philadelphia at WHYY and broadcast by National Public Radio. Selected conversations with writers and other artists are collected in her book, All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists (Hyperion, 2004).

Bernard Pivot is a French journalist and host of the highly regarded literary television program Apostrophes, which ran from 1975 to 1990. Pivot has also created and hosted the television programs Bouillon de culture (Cultural Soup) and Double je.

Pulitzer Prize–winning author of a dozen seminal works of oral history, Studs Terkel interviewed some of the most influential writers, musicians, actors, filmmakers, and political figures of the second half of the twentieth century on Chicago radio station WFMT.

Michael Silverblatt is the host of Bookworm, a radio show he created for KCRW. His weekly in-depth discussions with writers have been broadcast for eighteen years.