You’ve been interviewing people for more than 40 years. What do you think that’s taught you about yourself?
That’s hard. I’m not exactly sure I can enumerate what I’ve learned. It’s like you’re slowly being changed every day by doing this job. I have learned, though, that everybody is insecure and everybody is troubled. Even incredibly talented people have deep insecurities. Maybe this is perverse, but I find that idea comforting. It helps me cope with my own stuff.
.. I’m probably just revealing my own neuroses here, but it sure seems that when people are presented with two pieces of information — one negative and one positive — the negative one almost always gets a lot more attention.
That’s exactly my problem.
So if somebody said to you, “Fresh Air is my favorite thing to listen to,” and then said, “Well, yesterday’s show wasn’t the best.”
Stop right there. I would totally dismiss the “favorite thing to listen to” part. I’d think that was just their way of cushioning the blow that yesterday’s show was terrible. They’d just come up with a false opening to be nice about how bad yesterday’s show was.
.. Do you have to be weird to be the kind of interviewer you are?
You don’t have to be weird. I think what you have to do is really believe, as I do, that the interview serves a function.
.. What’s the function?
.. John Updike on this. In his memoir, Self-Consciousness, which I really love, he said he wanted to use his life as “a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world.” That’s kind of how I see interviews. When you’re talking to an artist, you can get insight into the sensibility that created his or her art and into the life that shaped that sensibility. I love making those connections. I think we all feel very alone. I don’t mean that we don’t have friends or lovers but that deep at our core we all have loneliness.
.. And want connection.
Yeah, we want connection and sometimes when you’re talking to an interviewer who you trust, you can speak in a way that’s different than the way you talk to friends. You can reveal more. Not always, but sometimes.
.. But if I am aware of allegations, I can’t not ask about them. And in that circumstance, the guest is unlikely to tell me the truth and we’re all likely to be very uncomfortable and feel as if something is going unsaid. So rather than create that situation, I’d prefer to just not do the interview.
.. Along those lines, did you have any qualms about interviewing Woody Allen?
That interview was before the allegations that he’d abused his daughter. But I did ask him about Soon-Yi. .. I didn’t want to just say, “So, you married your daughter?” I kind of asked around it. I knew that he doesn’t talk about it or at least he didn’t at the time, so I just did this question about if he thinks it’s fair to judge somebody’s work based on their life. Needless to say, he didn’t think it was.
.. People think when you interview that you talk a lot. Actually, I listen a lot. I talk very little. Listening sounds like it should be easy, but it’s not, because while I’m listening, I’m also thinking ahead. I’m thinking, Is this an interesting answer? If I was editing this answer what would I be editing out and what would I be keeping in? Because if I’m going to ask a follow-up question, I need to know if the listeners have heard what I’m following up on. So I’m thinking all that, and I’m also thinking, Is this interesting enough to follow up? If so, what is the follow-up? Or is this something I should just say, “Time to move onto another subject.” I’m also thinking, What’s that word on the tip of my tongue? And then I’m thinking, Oh, my producer laughed. That’s good. Or, My producer looks bored, that’s not good.
.. I started doing interviews because I had initially wanted to be a writer and by the time I was in college, I gave up on that. Then there was this kind of creative void that I had no idea how to fill.
.. But as somebody who’s shy, radio gave me an opportunity to engage with people in a forthright way without it being about me. Once I had a microphone, “Why would you talk to me?” became “Now I have a reason to talk to you and you have a reason to talk to me. So let’s talk.”
.. maybe people who knew me could trust me to keep a confidence. And I do think people thought of me as somebody who played fair. The other thing that prepared me to be an interviewer was being an English major. When you’re reading fiction, you’re becoming the narrator of the story.
.. It’s an act of empathy.
Yeah, you’re imagining living that person’s life and that’s part of what you do when you interview somebody. Part of the preparation is thinking, What’s it like to be this person? And then when you’re talking to the person it’s like, Wow, that person lived through that? Let me make some calculations about what that could be like, and ask them questions based off of how I’d feel if that happened to me.
.. I think what changed their minds about my job — and made them realize it was an actual thing — was when I was still in Buffalo at WBFOIn the early ’70s, after a mercifully short stint as a public school teacher in Buffalo, Gross was able to land a job at the city’s WBFO station, where she produced programs on public and women’s affairs, as well as the arts. Chief among them was a three-hour daily magazine program, This Is Radio, and the feminist-focused Womanpower.. [NPR’s] All Things Considered .. was a new show back then, and it went on the road to develop stories that had a local angle — I did one of those stories when it came to Buffalo. Having a story that aired on a national show and that my parents could hear — that made them think, Oh, her work exists!
.. Once they realized I hosted a show and earned a genuine salary, they were thrilled but in terms of answering your question — I committed, you know? I wanted it so badly that I just devoted myself to it.
.. And you were determined to hold on to it.
You could criticize me, you could insult me, you could mock me — it was all right, just let me keep doing the job. Because I was an English major, I loved to read and dissect what was being said and why it was being said and think about the language being used. Interviewing fit so many of my needs.
.. when you interviewed Quentin Tarantino around the time of Django Unchained.
I really wanted to know his position on cinematic violence! When that movie came out, the Sandy Hook shooting had just happened, and Django Unchained was this incredibly violent movie — Quentin Tarantino’s stylized kind of violence .. It’s kind of glorying in the violence. And I wanted to know if that violence read differently after all those children were killed by a gun. [Tarantino] interpreted that, I think, as meaning, “It’s your fault, Quentin Tarantino.” Which I didn’t mean at all. It disappointed me that he got testy about it and took it as moral judgment of his movie, as opposed to an opportunity to reflect on an issue that was staring us in the face.
.. People are always projecting things. They’re hearing things that weren’t said or projecting meaning that was not intended and, perhaps, not even implied. I’ve gotten both insults and compliments for interviews I’ve never done. What can you do? There’s no way of controlling what people think. I do have a bullshit detector and it’s something I’ll use, but I do think I try and be empathetic to everyone I interview regardless of their politics.
.. Can empathy be learned?
I’m not so sure. I think you can learn to be a better listener and to focus better, but some people are just naturally not attuned to others. Even if they’re listening, they’re not picking up on the emotional meanings. I don’t know that you can teach emotional understanding.
.. I wish I could’ve asked my parents more about how they felt about dying. It’s the kind of question I ask guests, but my parents would wave me away if I tried to talk about that subject with them. I think they were trying to spare me, but also that maybe they didn’t have the language to talk about death. I don’t know. They were children of Eastern European immigrants who grew up without the language of psychology and philosophy. My father, I’m not sure he ever read a novel. There’s a certain kind of introspective language he might not have had access to.
.. How do you feel about dying?
I’m not afraid of it. What I’m afraid of is pain. I’m really afraid of suffering. I’m afraid of being trapped in a hospital incapacitated.
.. But the prospect of not existing isn’t scary to you.
No, it’s not. I also don’t believe in a literal heaven and hell. I don’t think that there’s going be an accounting and I’m going to be sent to a place where I’m burning in flames.
.. Unless it hurts.
Then I’d be very afraid.
.. one of the things I’ve learned how to do on the air is make people stop talking. Some people can go on for seven minutes without a breath. At some point, you have to interrupt them and explain, “This is radio. We need to take breaks. We have to have, say, two-minute answers, or else we’re only going to be able to ask about three questions.”
.. Are there any similar ways in which your job bleeds into your daily interactions?
Well, it’s made talking to people easier. I used to be really shy and now I feel like I can talk to anybody. I know I can ask questions that will help me find common ground. I can navigate to the place where me and another person can have a real conversation.
.. Sometimes I feel like people want the experience of being interviewed. But off the air, I like to be not the interviewer. I want to engage with the person I’m talking to on an equal level.
.. What I like is to have a genuine back-and-forth: Here’s how you feel, here’s how I feel. Here’s my reaction to you, here’s your reaction to me. That’s as opposed to just “tell me more about you.” In an interview, I like to hang back. It’s not about me. If I made the interviews about me, we’d be talking about the book I read that day, because that’s how I spend all my time — preparing for the show.
.. So I had to buy a car — this was the ’70s and or maybe the early ’80s — and I wanted to hear the car’s radio and make sure the speakers were good. So I was trying out a car and I tuned into WHYY, where Fresh Air was then a local show that I hosted, and the guy who’s selling me the car says, “Oh, I know that station. You know that lady in the afternoon? That really annoying lady?” And I said, “Oh, uh, that’s me.” And he smacked his head and went, “I’m never gonna be able to sell you the car now.”
.. I used to think of myself as nondescript. Outside of being short, I’m not the kind of person who is visually memorable. I don’t mean to disparage myself, but some people are striking because they’re so beautiful or they’re so tall and I’m short — it’s easy to not notice me. To be noticed when you don’t think of yourself as being noticeable is a little spooky.
.. You’ve said before, in various places, that all the prep time your job requires means you’re not the best at cultivating friendships. But I wonder if talking with people every day for Fresh Air satisfies some of the needs you might otherwise have for emotional connection.
.. Have you learned any reliable tricks over the years for how to salvage an interview that’s tanking?
Sometimes if somebody’s like a little too low-key, I find myself maybe talking faster to compensate, Like, Match me up here! Match me louder and faster!
.. Does that actually work?
[Laughs] No, I don’t think so. What I’m really trying to do is find the person’s comfort zone. Some people are great on craft — the process of writing, the process of making the film. Some people are great on anecdote. Some people are great on biography, their personal story. So I’ll just keep looking for that spot.
.. I can’t argue that every interview I do is interesting. Sometimes we don’t run interviews because they’re boring or confusing. You don’t want to hurt the interviewee’s feelings but your first responsibility is to offer something interesting to your audience.
.. my job has had a bad effect on me physically. I’m either reading, screening something, listening to something, or talking to someone. It’s a sedentary life. I’m proof that you can hurt yourself by sitting and reading. I have back issues. Sitting’s also probably not good for your heart. I don’t have heart problems but when people talk about, like, aerobic exercise, I just stare at them blankly: “I’m sorry, what?”
.. I don’t have children. I can’t say that was a sacrifice. I didn’t feel called to have children. I know I’ve missed out on something special but I couldn’t possibly have done my job and be a parent. The show is premised on me preparing at night for the next day’s interview. Doing that with children would’ve made me a terrible mother. When I was growing up it was unheard of to not have children and if you didn’t have children, it meant that there was something physically wrong with you. The women in my neighborhood were full-time mothers and that’s not the life I wanted. So I went completely in the opposite direction and I’m not sorry. I made a choice about what I wanted and I’m glad I did.