Studs Terkel on the art of interviewing
(From the May 2002 issue of The Writer)
Published: March 19, 2002
|For 50 years, Studs Terkel has created in books and on radio his rough draft of our times by talking mostly to ordinary people—at least 9,000 of them, to be exact. In 10 books of oral history, the voices he has recorded and condensed have told a tale of struggle in 20th-century America—of the things that divide and unite us, of war and peace and Depression, of the way the races get along and don't get along, of growing old, of the kinds of things we do all day at work.|
The latest book from Terkel, who turns 90 this month, is a compelling book about death and dying called Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a New Faith (New Press). The book is not as forbidding as it sounds, and, in fact, is every bit as absorbing as his strongest work, which includes the Pulitzer Prize-winner "The Good War": An Oral History of World War Two (1984) and Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974). As Terkel put it during an interview in Milwaukee, "Who wants to talk about death? Everybody. It's the most alive book I've ever done."
It is not hard to see why people might open up to Terkel. He comes across as the type of engaging, grandfatherly figure who is feisty and full of opinion, yet unthreatening and always ready to lend an ear. Before they know it, they find themselves having a genuine conversation with this diminutive man in the red socks and red-and-white-checked shirt, and sharing, in the case of the latest book, some of their most painful memories and privately held religious—or irreligious—thoughts.
|Being interviewed by Studs "is like having the intimacy of a therapist's office," says Sydney Lewis, who has transcribed the interviews for a number of Terkel's books and is herself the author of three oral histories. "You feel like you're cocooned by his interest. He listens really hard. He makes you feel wanted.|
"I have typed so many interviews of his and part of me is studying the process while I'm doing it," she adds. "I'll be typing along and all of a sudden there will be a moment when you can feel that the person has completely opened to him, and it's nothing Studs said. It's this gift he has. I think it comes from his immense respect for all human beings, and his incredible deep and genuine curiosity—a real hunger to know, a certain nonjudgmentalness. And there's just something gleeful about him that makes you give him what he's asking for."
Studs, a man who loves to talk, draws plenty of revealing talk out of his 60 subjects in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Among the voices are police officers and firefighters, paramedics, doctors and nurses, a former gang member, a woman who was in a coma for two years, a parent who lost his son to violence, people remembering their combat or near-death experiences, a few famous figures like bluegrass musician Doc Watson, who lost a son, and Kurt Vonnegut. While full of sad or harrowing tales, the book also offers life-affirming stories of healing and hope, and a variety of candid reflections on the afterlife and even reincarnation.
|Studs clearly knows how to put his subjects at ease. A physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory tells him, "I believe that there are things beyond science ... . My conclusion is, there are layers and layers and layers and layers of articulation and organization in this world that go far beyond anything that you and I can either perceive or understand." A retired Brooklyn firefighter remembers trapped colleagues in the basement of a burning grocery store crying for their mothers. A social worker describes living through the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima that killed her mother. A Chicago paramedic recalls: "About 48 hours before [my father] died we were at the hospital ... and something happened where emotionally I knew this was it: my dad was going to be dead in a day or two, and I'll never see him again. It just ate me up inside and I broke down and cried and cried for about a half-hour. It was a terror inside of me. It dawned on me that this is it, and the daddy I had when I was a little boy, the smells, the feel of his clothes—the smell of the T-shirt he wore, even with the nicotine on it—that's what I identified with him. All the memories."|
One of the most powerful interviews is with Mamie Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, the black Chicago youth who was murdered in 1955 while visiting relatives in Mississippi, because he supposedly whistled at a white woman. His death helped catalyze the civil rights movement. Mobley's de-scription of examining her 14-year-old son's battered body when it arrived back in Chicago is not soon forgotten. ("That was incredible, of course," Terkel says of the interview. "All you could do is listen and sit there.")
A poignant footnote to the book is that shortly after Terkel began working on it, his wife, Ida, his companion of 60 years, died after heart surgery. She was 87. (Her cardiologist is one of Terkel's interview subjects in the book.)
In our talk with this master interviewer, Terkel had some simple but important things to say about an essential task many readers of The Writer face in developing their own articles and books: talking to people.
|An interview so often involves two strangers talking to each other. How do you get past that strangeness?|
Well, first of all, you appear as yourself, not as someone from Mount Olympus, or it might be Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes or Dan Rather. No, you appear as yourself, as someone who's going to listen to them. This is not a celebrity, not a celebrity—this is an "average person." (I hate that phrase—"ordinary people" are capable of extraordinary things; I know that. Throughout all the books I've celebrated the ordinary person.)
And so I'm a guy, a stranger, but I want to know about this person—his experiences during the Great Depression, or the Great War, or how this black guy feels in the white society and the other way around. Or growing old—what it's about.
And so I sit down, and sometimes I have a tape recorder but I have trouble with the tape recorder. You see, I'm not good mechanically. I'm very inept, and sometimes I goof up on the tape recorder. And that person sees me as a flawed person, as someone who's no different than he is or she is, and the person [says]—"Look, your reel's not right [when it was reel-to-reel], it's not working." I say, "I pressed the wrong thing, I'm sorry." Immediately, that person feels pretty good to feel needed. Suddenly, he feels, "This guy needs me as much as I need him. He needs me." And so that helps a lot. People think I deliberately do it, you know. Mike Royko, the [late Chicago] columnist, said, "You bastard, you deliberately do that, don't you?" I said, "No, I'm inept, you know I am—I can't drive a car." So that's one thing.
The other is listening—listening is key. The person may suddenly do something strange—suddenly stop or go off the subject. Why'd that person stop? Come back to it.
Every now and then you hear a black guy laugh when recounting a moment of humiliation to himself. I had a friend named Big Bill Broonzy [a famous country-blues singer]. Big Bill, many older black guys, were grandsons of slaves, skilled craftsmen, jacks of all trades—could be a mason, an electrician, a carpenter. Could do all these things. Big Bill knew welding. He says, "I taught this white boy how to weld, and as soon as I did, they fired me." And he chuckles. Now why'd he chuckle? And you realize it's a safety valve.
There's a blues line, "laughing to keep from crying." (Or you could say, "laughing to keep from raging.") It's a safety valve. I once asked Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] about that. And I said, why is it, the laughter? He says, "It's essential. Without humor through adversity, we'd never make it."
But mostly, it's listening. And that's pretty much the key.
|When you first sit down at an interview, how do you start out?|
There's no one way. What is it I want to find out? Let's say it's a book about the Depression, right? Well, I gather that this person doesn't like bananas. Why don't you like bananas? "Because during the Depression my poor family, we'd get the rotten bananas tossed off the trucks. Ate rotten bananas—I can't stand them."
There's no one rule. There's no one way to open it.
With all your experience interviewing, do you run into people where it's hard to get them to open up?
Some people you have to give up on. People are not all the same ... I see this woman, she says, "You know who you should see, you should see Florence, the woman three houses away from me. See Florence." I say, "Why do you want me to see Florence?" "Well, you see Florence, you'll find out why. See Florence."
Now Florence is like she is. Both are working class. Both have little education. Both are the same religion. But Florence happens to have a certain kind of insight. A certain kind of articulateness. And she said what that woman feels but can't say.
There's no one way. I'm what I am—you know, this guy who goofs up. And they feel good about that. I have no written questions. I know [them] in my head. That then makes the conversation easier. And also, I've got to listen more, see?
[He remembers interviews from many years ago, before the tape recorder had become a common device.] These people had never been asked about their lives before. It's the first time they were talking. [There was] a woman in a housing project that was integrated, I can't remember if she was white or black. She was light-skinned, very pretty, skinny, and [had] bad teeth because [there was] no money for dentists. But she had three little kids running around, kids 4 or 5 years old. She's talking and the kid says, "I wanna hear mama, I wanna hear mama"—they saw the machine.
And I say, "You be quiet and I'll play it back." So I played back the voice, and the kids are hollering, "That's mommy's voice," and laughing. And she's listening to her voice. She puts her hand to her mouth—"Oh, my God." I say, "What is it?" She says, "I never knew I felt that way before."
Bingo! That's fantastic! That to me is the most exciting moment. I'm kind of a fellow traveler, and it's a trip we're taking.
What are you? A writer? "The world's most famous interviewer," as you were once called? Some-one who knows how to pick good storytellers? What do you think is your main talent?
You know what a whatnot is? Look it up. I'm a whatnot. A whatnot's a piece of furniture—you put everything in it. Checks, bills, love letters. I'm a whatnot. I was a disc jockey—it's true. Journalist? I never went to journalism school; I went to law school. But I write now and then, a thing here and there, an op-ed piece. I was an actor, a pioneer, you might say, in television. I don't have any talent; I'm a whatnot.
|Is it ever frustrating that you mainly do oral history, where you're transcribing and condensing and holding a mirror up to what people are saying, versus a writer, who is more of sculptor?|
Am I a writer? Yeah, I'm a writer. If you read some of those introductions to my books, you know that I can write. I did the introduction, for example, to the 50th anniversary issue of Grapes of Wrath, and [John] Steinbeck's widow wanted me to do it. She said Steinbeck didn't know me but if he did, he'd want me to do it. I wrote a long introduction. I did a book called Talking to Myself, which is basically writing. But talking is the thing. Even in writing, I'm talking.
How do you go about condensing your interviews?
I compare myself to a gold prospector—1849, gold discovered in California, here come the covered wagons, Oh My Darling Clementine. The guy finds a piece of soil, he puts his spike in it. That's my gold. Now comes the digging, and he digs up a ton of ore. Now comes the effort to transcribe—40 pages. He filters; I edit. He has a handful of gold dust; and I edit it down to about 10 pages.
Now, the editing is the key. How do you edit? Well, there you have to know, what does this person want to say? You make it almost like a soliloquy; you cut yourself out of it as much as you can. Now you're like a brain surgeon—you take pieces out and there it is. And so it's not simply the truth; it's highlighting the truth, almost like a playwright would do.
How do you cut people out? That's the worst part. You're like the director of a play—you've got two guys, and they're both good.
You try to make your interviews like a conversation.
That's it. Absolutely. Oh, conversation is what it's about. Now and then I say a few things—"Yeah, I know that." If I know it'll help the other person, I might say, "You know what happened to me?" It's conversation.
Now what about telephone interviews? There you're trying to get information, or to get people to tell a good story over the phone. What advice would you have for them?
There again. Did a couple telephone interviews with some New Deal guys in Hard Times. Same principle applies, pretty much. It's just a conversation you're having with a friend.
|Where do find your subjects?|
I don't know—just around. They're around. I hear a word here and there. This woman in the book Division Street America—great woman, she was wonderful. I didn't know her, but I did this radio show and there was a listener and she didn't like what I said—it was about race. It was early '60s, late '50s. "Awwww, you're so righteous. You're full of crap. You remind me of my mother." I said, "What's your mother's phone number?" And so I see her mother. Elizabeth Chapin is her name, and she's wonderful in the book. I would never have known about her if I didn't get bawled out by her daughter.
A better one—shows people are not quite that simple: This is Appalachian Chicago, an Appala-chian grocery store. Raining like hell. A cab pulls up, luckily enough, and I get in and I got this tape recorder, heavy one, around my shoulder. And the cab driver, young guy, says, "You a journalist or something?" I say, "Well, sort of," He says, "Did you see the movie Lord Jim?" About Joseph Conrad's novel. I said, "Yeah, with Peter O'Toole." He said, "Well, that movie is about me." What do you mean? "It's about a coward who finds courage." I said, "About you?" "Yeah, that's why I joined the John Birch Society" [the ultraconservative, anti-Communist organization]. I've gotta see this guy.
Next two, three days, we meet, and he tells me the story of his life. And it's not quite that simple, you see. John Birch Society—it's crazy, these guys will kill anybody they call red, and then they'll go to heaven—it's a reversal of Bin Laden, same thing, only American.
And so he says, "You know, the reason I joined was because I was a big shot. I could knock off anybody. But you know what, I was a jail guard for a while and I got fired." Well, how come you got fired? "I fraternized with the inmates, most of them black." I said, what do you mean? "Well, one day this inmate says, 'What time is it?' I say, 'Why, you in a hurry? You got a plane to catch or something?' " (He's in for the next 20 years.) "And suddenly I walk away, and say, 'Now why'd I do that? This guy's here for 20 years. Why was I being that cute?' I go back to apologize [in a roundabout way]. Next thing I know, I say, 'I'll tell you a secret, I'm John Birch but I would trust a black guy more than a white guy.' "
Next thing you know, I'm talking to [neighborhood activist] Florence Scala, the first woman interviewed in the first book, Division Street America, one of the heroines of Chicago—Florence Scala tried to save a community, where Jane Addams was. And Florence was fighting the syndicate, fighting the mayor, fighting the bankers, the aldermen. Guess who her stalwart was [her biggest campaigner when she ran for alderman]? This guy. And Florence says, "You know, Studs, these poor guys are so lost that there's something in them. They hear something horrendous, and they want to be part of that, you see. To be something."
So how did I wind up with him? Accidental—it was raining.
Did your latest book change you in any way?
No, I don't think it changed me. It gave me solace. That's the thing. I'm a skeptic, an agnostic. At the same time, I have an urn with my wife's ashes there and keep the flowers fresh—the daisies [her favorite]. So there you are. #
Ronald Kovach is senior editor of The Writer.
--Posted March 19, 2002
First photograph: Bill Burke, Archive. Courtesy: Esquire Magazine.
All other photography by Jim Forbes.