Talking With Terry Gross: Host of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” From the airwaves to the printed page

By Lise Funderburg

September 19, 2004

Accuse radio host Terry Gross of being famous – claiming as evidence that she has her own tote bag – and she’s quick to object. It’s really her interview show, “Fresh Air,” she explains, that’s featured on the canvas sack, a standard premium for National Public Radio fund-raising drives.

“If you have a show,” she says, “you gotta have a tote bag.”

As a radio personality, Gross, 53, is more likely to be recognized by voice than face. But she occasionally gives talks and records shows in front of audiences, so every once in a while people know her by sight. Usually, she notes, it’s when she’s lost in thought or picking up dry cleaning and neither primped nor polished. Fortunately, she says, “public radio listeners are just the nicest people.”

Gross is sitting in her small square office at WHYY-Philadelphia’s sleek new headquarters. The window in Gross’ office looks out across a seating area, through another window, then across the street to the northern edge of the recently constructed National Constitution Center.

It’s only sort of a view, in other words, and a telling example of what almost 30 years of heading up an award-winning show will get you in the nonprofit media world.

Shelves fill one wall, housing mostly political and pop culture reference books. Gross’ desk is full but not buried, piles of reading material dot the floor, and an empty corrugated mail bin serves as her footstool. On one end of her desk sit three cartons filled with copies of her new book. They have been promised to pledge drive participants as soon as Gross can squeeze in time to autograph each copy.

“All I Did Was Ask: Conversations With Writers, Actors, Musicians and Artists” (Hyperion, $24.95) is a collection of 40 interviews Gross picked out from the thousands she’s conducted since “Fresh Air” debuted in 1975 as a local, live show. In 1985, the show went national, and now it’s carried on more than 400 stations across the country, with nearly 4 million listeners tuning in each week.

The book includes among its subjects Hollywood director Paul Schrader, actor Dustin Hoffman, writer John Updike and the often otherworldly R&B musician George Clinton. With such a wealth of archives, the collection should have written itself. And yet, when an editor approached Gross with the notion of putting together a book several years ago, she was not exactly gung-ho.

“It would not be unfair to describe it as being dragged kicking and screaming to the project,” Gross says with characteristic frankness. As she notes in the book’s introduction, she wasn’t convinced that interviews constructed for the ear would hold up on the page. But once she and collaborator Margaret Pick started sifting through transcripts, the problem became what to keep out.

Gross is known for her extensive preparation, thoughtful questions and unflappability as she tries to make “connections between the person’s version of the truth of their life and the work they’ve chosen to do.” That makes her the queen of cramming – a weekend’s reading would fill several tote bags – but she’s determined to understand the language of each subject’s world. The more she knows, she believes, the more comfortable she can make the interviewee.

“I don’t think you trust the story of your life to just anybody,” Gross says. “The more that what you’re saying seems to register on the interviewer, the more likely you are to tell more. Because if the interviewer doesn’t get it, how can you trust them?” What readers won’t get to experience is Gross’ unusual style of speech, oddly casual considering the seriousness of some topics, especially social issues such as AIDS and famine and war. But at the same time, her smarts show through the occasional stammer, the ums and likes. Her fallibility may even put guests at ease, yet another explanation for why they are so consistently forthcoming.

In “All I Did Was Ask,” the writer Andre Dubus III tells a stunning, heartbreaking story about building his father’s coffin; DJ Grandmaster Flash reveals his inner techno-geek and KISS front man Gene Simmons- in what has probably been Gross’ most replayed interview- is as wincingly obnoxious in print as he was in audio.

Gross’ reluctance to take on “All I Did Was Ask” also had to do with the immensity of her daily workload, which involves conducting two interviews a day, four days a week, and writing and editing the segues and intros that connect the pieces of the show. She has to cancel dinners with friends all too often and she doesn’t have enough time to travel or read or listen to music for pleasure. She has managed, somehow, to find time for a full and happy life with her partner of 26 years (and husband for the last eight), Francis Davis, a music and cultural critic whose writing serves as the précis to several chapters. Gross also credits Davis with reading her own raw, unedited writing in the book, which she couldn’t have imagined releasing without his helpful edits.

“It would have been like walking outside without any clothing on. I mean, to send my writing in that kind of naked state out into the world – it wouldn’t have been out yet, I still would be thinking, ‘It’s not good enough to leave, it’s not good enough to leave the house.'”

Her anxiety turns out to be unwarranted: Her introductions provide context and back story without trying to upstage, and most of the interviews have been so well-edited that they’ll satisfy or provoke even readers who haven’t heard the on-air version.