By Susan Miron.
For me, “This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross,” has always held the promise of a first-rate hour-long interview. The tables were turned, a bit, when Gross appeared on Friday (May 10) at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, MA, as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston. Sanders Theater was packed with Gross/ NPR fans, a few of the four and a half million people who hear her daily show on 500 radio stations.
Gross talked about her professional life, from graduating as an English major and her failed three month stint as an inner city junior high school teacher who was shorter (under five feet) than most of her students to the birth of her radio career. One of her early post-college roommates came out (to the surprise of her roommates) as the host of the radio show Woman Power. She then moved to another show. Gross got the gig. She played an excerpt: “Don’t I sound like a feminist MiniMouse? . . . Radio was magic to me.” In 1975 her award-winning show Fresh Air began in Philadelphia. It has been distributed nationally since 1987.
“It’s such a gift when people share what they’re feeling,” she mused. She explained that her interviews are generally conducted via satellite because it provides the best sound, though her favorite interview occurred over the phone. The late Maurice Sendak, who adored her, was 83, housebound, and ill; she thought they would have a short call (five minutes or so) because he couldn’t get to a studio. But when Sendak began to talk, he suddenly opened up, confessing how he missed his dead friends and his beloved brother. “Live your life, live your life, live your life,” he implored. “Don’t die first or I’ll have to miss you, too.”
Gross admits she’s a bit of a coward if her guests sit across from her—it is easier to question them when they are miles away. “How much you reveal to an interviewer depends on how much you trust them,” she observes. Gross does her own research, which means “I need to know the material first-hand. My memory bank writes questions in narrative order.” She claims that she is influenced by Jon Stewart, Ira Glass, and Scott Simon. And yes, occasionally interviews are guiltily “killed” when more confusion arises from the conversation than clarity or if “we really don’t trust the person’s facts. And if they want to turn the interview into a commercial, no thank you.”
“Celebrities,” Gross adds, “often arrive with their defenses up.” She likes to make connections “between the life they’ve led and their sensibilities—that gift that the artists have shaped.” She retells the stories about her infamous interviews with obnoxious guests—Bill O’Reilly, Gene Simmons (“I thought he had the edge in that interview because he is used to being obnoxious and I’m not”), and Larry Flynt. They are good yarns, but it felt as if she’d told them too many times. Everything Gross talked about during the lecture segment of the evening was carefully calibrated—hardly the spontaneous stuff that happens during her best interviews.
The questions part of the evening didn’t offer anything more revelatory. I like Gross best on her show, although I guess people love seeing someone they’ve only heard and admired, some on a daily basis for decades (that would describe this writer).
So, what has she learned after all these years of probing famous people’s psyches? “We are all mortal. Life is short, and for some life is full of pain.”