A venerable witness of human life for more than four decades, Terry Gross (b. 1951), through her radio program Fresh Air, has engaged thousands of individuals for conversation, revelation, and insight on society’s inescapable issues.
On our daily broadcasts, we try to offer meaningful discussion of the most pressing issues of the moment.
Someone’s new novel or a movie or CD can seem trivial compared to the day’s headlines. But whereas ‘timely’ interviews can become dated very quickly, the pleasure we gain from the finest books and movies and music stays with us. So does our interest in the people who create them.
“True art,” wrote German economist E.F. Schumacher, “is the intermediary between man’s ordinary nature and his potentialities.” Gross’s close attention to both the person and their art enables her audience to better understand both as an inseparable entity.
All I Did Was Ask is a selection of artists, chosen by Gross, including John Updike, Mary Karr, Isabella Rossellini, Samuel L. Jackson, and Johnny Cash.
And its title is misleading. Enabling someone to expose unmentioned aspects of themselves rather than a rehearsed and approved script demands sensitivity, emotional intelligence, and patience.
I also violate decorum by asking questions of my guests that you usually don’t ask someone you’ve just met, for fear of seeming rude or intrusive. Within minutes of saying hello to a guest, I might inquire about his religious beliefs or sexual fantasies—but only if it’s relevant to the subject he’s come on the show to discuss.
Or at some point during the interview, I might ask a question about a physical flaw of the sort that we gallantly pretend not to notice in everyday life. When I do this, my purpose isn’t to embarrass my guest or to make him self-conscious. I’m trying to encourage introspection, hoping for a reply that might lead to a revelation about my guest’s life that might lead, in turn, to a revelation about his art.
The surprising gentleness of Johnny Cash, the presence of Samuel L. Jackson, and Conan O’Brien’s childhood pursuit of tap dancing. 1
And then there is the boorish Gene Simmons of the band Kiss. An interview, Gross concedes, that was one of the most distasteful she’d ever done.
Simmons: The first thing you need besides air—which so far is free and by the way, if you went scuba diving, you’re paying for air—is food. It’s what we need to survive. […] Although as a woman, of course, you have the ability to sell your body, then get the money, and then get food…
TG: You are weird.
Simmons: Really? How do you get food?
TG: Well, not by selling my body. But—
Simmons: That’s a choice you have that I don’t. But getting to the money part, money is the single most important thing on the planet, including the notion that love gives you everything.
TG: Well, let’s cut to the chase. How much money do you have?
Simmons: Gee, a lot more than NPR.
TG: Oh I know. You’re very defensive about money, aren’t you?
Simmons: No, I’m not. I’m actually just trying to show you that there’s a big world out there. And reading books is wonderful, I’ve certainly read—well, perhaps, as many as you have. But there’s a delusional kind of notion that runs rampant in—
TG: Wait, wait. Could we just get something straight?
Simmons: Of course.
TG: I’m not here to prove that I’m smart.
Simmons: Not you.
TG: And I’m not here to prove that you’re not smart, that you don’t read books or can’t make a lot of money.
Simmons: This is not about you. You’re being very defensive. Why are you doing that?
TG: It’s contagious.
I am particularly grateful Gross includes a few players from her favorite film, Taxi Driver, like Jodie Foster and writer Paul Schrader (a fellow native of my Michigan hometown).2
Gross’s 1997 interview with American novelist John Updike likewise demonstrates her great knowledge and sensitivity for artists. “His startling lucidity makes an interviewer look good. That’s one reason he’s been a frequent guest on Fresh Air; the other is my deep admiration for his writing.”
Gross smartly but gently asks Updike to reconcile his often sexualized writing with his personality as the artist.3
TG: You’ve described yourself as shy and priggish as a young man. Was it hard, being shy, to write sexually explicit material?
UPDIKE: No. It’s just what a shy and priggish person would do. Writing is an act of aggression. A person who is not aggressive in his normal, may I say, intercourse with humanity might well be an aggressive writer. I had the courage of my convictions, and the connection was that this was worth doing, and that after Freud no one needs to argue the importance of sex in our lives.
What Gross gives us in All I Did Was Ask is not only a robust collection of artists but also some glimpse into herself, a person who has spent her adult life cultivating this program.
I haven’t mentioned that most of my guests are not in the studio with me. Bringing them to Philadelphia would be too expensive for us and too time-consuming for them. […] When I tell people this, they often assume that my lack of eye contact with guests makes interviewing them much more difficult than it would otherwise be.
Truthfully, it often makes it easier. If you’re a bit of a coward, as I am, 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. Paradoxically, geographical distance sometimes encourages a greater degree of intimacy, especially for someone who’s inherently shy, like me.
They say those who can’t do, critique. I propose those who can’t do, interview. And that interviewing requires the same kind of care, passion, sensitivity, and creativity that creating does. Maybe in different doses.
“The production of a work of art throws a light upon the mystery of humanity,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson almost 200 years ago. An ageless observation that perfectly applies to Gross’s body of work on Fresh Air: enlightening the mystery of humanity one conversation at a time.